Arata Ui could tell the difference between the rumble of ocean against sea wall and the buzz of an approaching aircraft when he was awake and alert. Four hours into his second shift, when cursing Ryo for contracting the flu had lost its distracting fire, it became a uniform hum of white noise. His fingers stiffened on the searchlight. Across the dugout, the battery team shared a cigarette, black outlines of huddled bulk nagged by an orange ember.
“Tetsuya! Shin!” Arata hissed, hoping the Gocho wasn’t making his round. “Someone cover me while I go to the latrine.”
The debate was held in susurrus even Arata’s trained ear couldn’t make out. “Fine,” they said at last. After a moment, Shin tapped him on the shoulder.
“Make it fast. I’m only doing this because you’re pulling a double.”
“Thanks,” Arata said, his breath spun in gloomy vapors swallowed by the fog. Six months on Adak and there had yet to be a day without clouds and fog. “I’ll hurry.”
The airstrip angled from the sharp eastern bend around the cove to the northeast, hangars flanking its western edge. In between were the latrines, well away from the barracks and mess hall at the foot of the rolling hills beyond the hangar array. Arata made his way by memory rather than risk an inspection for using his torch.
His uniform trousers rustled as he prepared to relieve his bladder. In the heartbeat’s worth of silence and stillness between preparing to urinate and the rushing slap of liquid in standing filth, the sound was clear. Approaching aircraft. “Kuso!” The cries from the lookout wall were painfully slow in coming. The anti-aircraft batteries thundered the ground, locking Arata’s urethra in a painful spasm. Moments later, the short whistle of bombs erupted into the gorgeous roar of explosions. Arata clutched at his belt and ran the other direction, away from the fearsome snarl.
Adrenalized pilots raced toward the hangars, panicked awake and acting on delirious trained response. The fires from the bunker line lit the runway in a raw red light. Arata checked shoulders with half a dozen partially dressed soldiers racing like jisatsu. A Gekko pushed its way out to the runway with the help of a small team of wild-eyed operators. Sneering American fighters phased through the ballooning smoke and drapes of fog, low and loud. The Gekko crumpled in their wake, concrete and steel inferno reaching toward the overcast black. Sparks stood in for the hidden stars. Several of the crew not liquefied by the impact shrieked, effigies unleashed from rational decision, hurtling toward anything wet or cold or sharp to cease the agony of consuming flame.
Arata staggered from the quake underfoot and kept running. Three years earlier, before the American forces had been routed, this island was their base of operations for failed attacks on the Imperial-held western Aleutians. They had constructed a squat building of wood at the bottom of the foothills, a sagging, lazy thing Imperial officers had declared unfit for re-use. The door hid behind a single sheet of plywood. A mezashi whine crescendoed and Arata began a frantic thrash of his foot against the heavy pane of glass at the end of the creaking front porch. The glass shattered and he felt a distant sting in his thigh as his boot found the dusty darkness beyond. He wrenched the drab woolen curtains out, ignoring the clatter of rod and hooks, spinning it over his fist and bashing the pane clear of shards with the wound fabric. Pips of machine gun fire and dirt geysers chased him through the yawning, empty window in a blind dive. He rolled into the corner, sticky cobwebs hugging his face and smearing the tears of panic he hadn’t realized were falling.
He huddled against the walls in the dark, clutching his knees, eyes pinched shut, willing himself to block out the screams of dying men.
Arata Ui slept. He rose stiffly, bracing himself against the termite-weakened paneling, and no light came through the broken window. There was silence. Was this still the night of the attack? Or had he slept through the daylight? He crept to the sill and leaned out as far as he dared. All the fires were out, the moon still held the quilt of clouds and fog over its face. The wind was stronger, sharp and cold, and Arata blinked against it, listening for sounds of foreign soldiers or friendly survivors carried in its whipping howl. With a shudder, Arata turned back to the house and a new bomb fell on his shoulders, forged of grief and fear and guilt.
He left his post. He ran away. He hid and dishonored himself. If the Americans’ attack had been successful, they now held Adak and would soon sweep the island and find him. His honor might be restored if he could sneak into their camp and take some of their officers, perhaps sabotage the hangars. Maybe if he could locate a radio and let command know what had happened. But the wind had teeth and the fog was black beyond the safe walls of the building. A thick-throated swallow suppressed a sob and Arata moved to the door, testing the handle with trembling fingers. Boarded and locked. He nodded to himself and the wind sighed a hollow note against the open window.
Specters of tekihei loomed in Arata’s mind, closing in on the decrepit structure, his woeful fortification naked to the sweeping advance of hungry GI like hounds. They smelled his sweat and fear and the reek of his soiled uniform. He backed into the center of the room, searching for something to block the exposed wound of the window. He had his torch, but he dared not light it, the beam would be a beacon and his undoing.
Betrayal came from his own mind. Stories returned, grotesqueries told around rationed food on trestle tables. Why was this building left standing, abandoned? Ryo’s pinched, nasal voice approached from the marching shadows: “When we took the island, karera retreated the ranking soldiers and intelligence personnel to that building. Among their number, eight in all, one had codes for genbaku—the bombs we intercepted a year ago. None knew which was the code-handler, and the VIP was under strict orders not to reveal himself. They debated as our forward companies fought their way south from the landing point. They would not convince the handler to volunteer to step forward. They would all face the Gomon-sha. So they made a pact.
“They stood in a circle and each drew his sidearm, placing it against the head of the man to his right. The commanding officer counted backward slowly from ten. Each man committed one act of murder and one act of suicide. Now the code-handler would never have to break his oath, and the secrets in that room would be safe.”
It was absurd. Even if it were true, no one—Ryo least of all—could know the details. According to the story itself, no one who knew was left to reveal such a pact, unless the dead could talk.
The darkness clawed at Arata. What had possessed him to think such a thing? Of course the dead couldn’t talk. The dead were dead. Wind caressed his face and he spun away from it, sucking back a cry of alarm. He stared into the void of the room. From outside, the building had seemed no more than five or six meters square. Standing inside with the inky dark all around and the seethe of cold air biting at the back of his neck, it felt limitless. How would the commanders have handled a circle of dead tekihei? A mass grave on the cliff overlooking the frigid gray water? A great funeral pyre fueled by stacked bodies like cordwood? They wouldn’t leave them in the house and just board up the door.
No one would leave eight dead bodies rotting in an abandoned house.
Arata shuffled back a few more steps and his foot hit something soft but heavy. He became a statue, his jaw a rictus of competing desires. To scream and unhinge his body in face-rending collapse. To remain as still as the dead body at his heel and make no sound alerting the approaching soldiers of his position. He took one step forward, possessed by violent tremors. He had less control than during the initial capture of Adak, when the breeze stank of ice and shit and fire and bile. Arata fumbled for his torch, not caring anymore. He couldn’t look back, he just needed to see something real.
His body slumped in the corner, the bright beam of light turning his flesh blue on black of the pooled blood beneath his outstretched leg.
The wind carried no sound, and there was no one alive to hear the nothing.
Another one of the Flash Fiction Challenges from Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog. “Subgenre Frankenstein” he called it, giving twenty subgenres and randomly selecting two to mash together and come up with a 1,500 word story.
My two subgenres were “Haunted House” and “Alternate WWII History” so before anyone goes sideways complaining that the dates and details of the war don’t add up, I know. It’s supposed to be that way. That being said, the research on this one is woefully incomplete. I enjoy doing these challenges and I want them to be good, but it feels a bit like overkill to devote a dozen hours to deep research on a one-week exercise. Consider this my apology to any WWII veterans, historians, natives, of Japan or Japanese speakers for the inevitable goofs. I tried not to make all my limited research a Wikipedia-fest, but I’m not sure you can trust random authoritative-sounding information found on other sites, either without a lot of corroboration. I think it’s in that secondary sourcing that the research really fell apart.
I’m kind of happy with how this turned out, and thankful Chuck upped the word count by 50% for this one or I don’t know how I would have fit it all in. There’s a slight concern that the ending is maybe to ambiguous, and I know it’s not terribly original, but at low word counts I think having any kind of ending is better than cutting away and making it into a vignette.
Let me know what you think?