What you notice is the twilight. There isn’t any over there. Over there, it’s light, then the sun sort of blazes over the horizon, and then it’s dark.
So that’s a shock, when you first get over there. And then it’s a shock when you come back. Especially here, where the lake reflects the light and the twilight lingers for even longer. I used to like that. I used to like sitting on the verandah, watching the lake, and the twilight. I used to.
We did a lot of tramping when we first got over there. Most of it at the encampment. They used to call it square-bashing in the old days. It was what they gave soldiers to do when there was nothing else to do, to relieve the boredom and keep them in the habit of mindlessly obeying orders. I’m not criticising. When your life depends on obeying an order instantly, you can’t have a bunch of individuals debating whether or not they’re going to do it. The encampment was quite small so we tramped round it several times each day. I knew every grain of sand and every stone after a week.
There was a village, about two miles away, a collection of little concrete houses each built round their own tiny courtyards, with no glass in the windows, just newly fixed metal shutters, to protect against whatever we might bring. The brass declared it off limits except for patrols. To protect us and to protect them.
I heard those little houses are all empty now. The metal shutters were no protection against what came to the village.
So we did what soldiers always do and made our own entertainment, and some of it was harmless fun and some of it wasn’t. To stop the stuff that wasn’t, the brass brought in some distractions. Comfort troops. The joy division. Their official title was Campaign Ancillaries. Men and women brought over specially. The brass didn’t want to use the locals. Bad for hearts and minds.
We patrolled round the village twice daily. I don’t know if the brass really thought there was any hostile activity, or whether it was a form of extended square bashing. But the patrol duty tramped out of the encampment at first light every morning, and tramped back in again a few hours later. In the early evening, when the heat of the day had died down a bit, the second patrol tramped off, and a few hours later tramped back, and that was it really. Occasionally we did a surprise one half way through the day, but we never found anything. It wasn’t worth the several of us who always came back with sunstroke after several hours tramping in the full heat.
After about a month of that things sharpened up when we heard that there had been a proper engagement about fifty or sixty miles to the east of us. That was near the coast, on the way to one of the strategic ports. The news was sketchy. The brass, the older ones, were always going on about the old days when communications were so much better and you knew pretty much instantaneously what had happened almost anywhere on the globe. In those days they used drones for reconnaissance, and even for bombing, even though the armies were two or three times the size of now, which makes you wonder how much square-bashing the soldiers in those days had to do just to keep themselves occupied.
So we didn’t know if we would have to up sticks and start tramping east, or stay put for whatever might be headed towards us. It didn’t really matter much one way or the other, but it was strangely unsettling. Tempers got frayed more easily, the Ancillaries got more use and more abuse, and there was talk of what must be going on behind those metal shutters in the village, what must be going on in between patrols, how we should stop fannying around and go in there and stave in a few doors and a few heads.
After a couple of weeks nothing had changed, and the rumours multiplied and got more and more elaborate. Everything, from there had never been an engagement, to the rest of the army had pulled out and forgotten about us.
The brass upped the patrols to four a day, sunstroke or not, and some took this as a sign that there was something going on, and we weren’t being told the half of it, and we needed to know.
Then different kinds of rumours started. The air, especially at night, was very still, and even small sounds carried a long way. One night we heard this commotion coming from the village, cries and shouts, and a squealing of animals. I was one of the perimeter guard and the Sergeant came up and told us to keep alert, whatever it was it wasn’t like anything we’d heard from there before.
The commotion went on for about half an hour and then it was all completely still. We heard nothing else. It was a bloody long night and I was never so glad to see the sunrise. The brass increased the numbers on the early morning patrol and there was a new crispness to their step as they tramped out of the gate. Something was happening.
About half a mile from the village they were met by the equivalent of the mayor, and told they could not enter that day.
The first thing I thought when I heard was, what the hell was it had scared the mayor more than standing in front of a troop patrol and telling them they couldn’t proceed?
There was an altercation. According to the rules we weren’t an army of occupation and the mayor had every right to stop us going into the village. In practice, we needed to know why. According to the rules, there would be hell to pay if any of us laid a finger on anyone from the village. In practice, we were a long way from anything and anyone.
Eventually the mayor said it was for our own protection. He was not stopping us from going in, but if we did, he could not guarantee our safety and we would be responsible for the consequences. When I heard, I thought it was a funny word to use. Not injuries, or casualties. Consequences. Like injuries and casualties were not the only things to worry about.
The officer in charge turned the patrol around. She wasn’t going to be responsible for taking them into an ambush.
The brass summoned the mayor to the encampment to ‘discuss’ what had happened, and the mayor refused to come. Again he said it was for our own protection. I heard he told the brass they should close down the encampment and move us as far away as possible but, like I said, there were rumours all over the place.
Things went on like this for a couple of days and what we noticed about the nights now was that there was no sound at all. No dogs barking, no occasional sound of music drifting in on the air. One night on perimeter guard I was standing listening to complete silence and I was racking my brains to understand what was really odd about it, what was the thing I really didn’t understand. And then I realised. Even the crickets were silent.
The atmosphere in the encampment was tight as a drum. We hadn’t patrolled the village for the better part of a week, just the endless tramping round inside our own perimeter, counting stones and grains of sand. It had to come out somehow, and every day I saw Ancillaries going to the hospital hut with bruises and cuts and on one occasion a broken leg. I heard that the Officer in charge of the Ancillaries had a stand up row with one of the brass because of it, and the brass told him to remember what the Ancillaries were there for, and the Officer said there’d be fucking hell to pay when we got back, and the brass just laughed and said, when do you imagine that will be?
On the fourth evening after the mayor had stopped the patrol, the brass called a parade and told us that next morning we would go back to the village, and we were going in, in the interests of our security and the furtherance of the wider action. A cheer went up, but it was dutiful rather than enthusiastic. We shared looks between ourselves. We were scared.
The minute we were dismissed I went straight over to the Ancillaries’ huts. There was a Welsh boy I liked. He was good looking in an ordinary, friendly sort of way and he had a barrelling, infectious laugh that made everyone around him grin. I always hoped I would be able to get him, but he was popular; sometimes I just let it be and stayed in the bunk room rather than spend my time with one of the sad-eyed alternatives.
He looked amused to see me standing there at the front of the queue. ‘Bloody hell soldier, I haven’t even had my rations yet.’
‘Fuck your rations,’ I said roughly. I needed to forget about being scared. I needed not to want to cry and shit myself. I needed to be in control of something, even if it wasn’t me.
He looked at me. ‘All right soldier. In you come.’
He was sweet when I cried. And when my tears dried he was gently teasing, encouraging and reassuring And then we got down to the business, and something happened. I remember roaring at him, screaming at him, pummelling him with my fists, and him roaring back and hitting back and me thinking this was the most glorious thing I had ever known, the most fucking wonderful thing there could ever be, and his eyes, his eyes glowed with fire, and his teeth were bared, and when he roared his spume and his blood spattered all over me like fucking rain from heaven.
When they finally broke the door down he was half dead and I was naked on my knees in front of him, pounding his face with my fist. I broke every tooth in his mouth. I was sobbing and telling him I loved him. They took him to one part of the hospital huts and me to another.
When I first got back here I asked one of the doctors if that was the beginning of it, for him and for me. I asked if what I did triggered him, or if we were both already along the way. The doctor told me it was nothing to do with the Corruption. It was not a symptom, or a sign of Change. It was just what happened in the Ancillaries’ huts when soldiers got scared and the Ancillaries caught the fear.
I’ve never been scared of Change, my own or someone else’s, in the way other people are. I’ve seen worse, and I’ve felt worse, and it’s been nothing to do with Change. There are different kinds of corruption.
I had been due to go out with the patrol the next morning but, obviously, I was on a charge, and anyway they kept me in the hospital. I wasn’t badly hurt – bruises, a black eye, a cut mouth, a fractured little finger. I was a trained soldier and he wasn’t. He would have been dead within another ten minutes if they hadn’t broken down the door.
I lay in the hospital bed and I couldn’t stop crying, so in the end they gave me sedation which kept me asleep or just hovering on the edge. I remember vaguely hearing a commotion outside, lots of shouting and heavy footsteps, and wondering what it was, and when I woke up properly several more of the beds in the hut had been taken and a couple of the doctors were standing by the entrance to the hut talking in low voices, and they looked scared. The doctors never looked scared.
Later, I heard that the patrol got to about half a mile from the village and the mayor came out again and asked them to go back. Pleaded with them to go back. The officer in command had her orders and she told him to step aside. Then the mayor started shouting to the patrol itself, against all the rules. Most of them couldn’t understand what he was saying, but the ones who could said he was telling to them to run and save their souls. Not their lives, their souls. The officer in command pointed her weapon at the mayor and told him to shut up and move aside. Then she saw someone on the road behind him, a woman, a couple of hundred yards or so away. The mayor saw she was looking at something behind him so he looked too, and then he started to wail, people said it was an unearthly sound, like an animal in terror and pain. And then he shouted at the woman, but she just kept walking towards them.
And then the mayor grabbed the officer’s weapon, put the muzzle in his mouth, and shot himself.
And the woman kept walking.
The officer took her weapon from the mayor’s destroyed head and pointed it at the woman and ordered the patrol to ready weapons, and they all stood there, the entire patrol, pointing their weapons at this woman who just kept walking. Some people said she was a middle aged woman, and some said she was older than that, or younger, and some said she was dressed in the traditional skirt and blouse and leggings, and some said she was in jeans and a tunic top. She stopped about fifty yards away from the patrol and the officer shouted at her to turn around and walk away. She just stood there. She closed her eyes and her lips started to move. No-one could hear what she was saying.
And then soldiers started to murmur, and then to shout, and then to scream. The officer looked back and the air was rippling, like waves, and the bodies of some of the soldiers were rippling too, and fading in and out of sight. They weren’t the ones screaming. They were silent. And then one by one the rippling bodies dissolved. They disappeared. There were gaps were they had been.
The patrol started to run, and after a few seconds the officer followed them.
Some of the soldiers threw up when they got back to the encampment, and they took the ones in worst shock to the hospital huts, and the brass were shouting at the officer in command of the patrol, asking her to talk fucking sense. And it wasn’t until they had spoken to every remaining member of the patrol that the brass went into HQ hut and shut the door and didn’t come out for hours.
So the first thing we saw was someone who could Wish, and that was a weird thing, because people who can Wish are rare. Invalids who Change are more and more common and that’s what most people see of the Corruption. I heard that most doctors and even a lot of judges have never seen someone who can Wish. And if you ask me what’s worse, what’s the thing that scares more shit out of you, it’s that. Someone who can alter the very air around you. Someone who can destroy you with a whisper.
I didn’t hear it called the Corruption until I got back, and they put me in the Centre before she, who is my aunt, came and brought me here, to the house on the lake. Our brains, the brains of people who Wish and people who Change, are corrupted by something. Maybe something we breathed, or something we drank, or something we absorbed through the pores of our skin. But that’s a weird thing too, because people who were never out there, who were never in any of the places we were, are corrupted too. Now they outnumber us..
She, who is my aunt, sometimes stands, and looks at me, and I see her lips move. She scares the shit out of me. I have to keep my eyes open, I have to keep watching her, I have to keep staring, to see if she’s starting, to see if her lips are forming words I can’t hear. She’s standing behind me now, in the doorway behind the verandah, and I can’t turn round in the restraints, and I want to cry, but instead I just keep watching the lake, and the hills beyond, and wondering if their fading lines are just an effect of the twilight.