With the collapse of the cliff tunnel behind them, Major Blaine and his Spartan 300 face asphyxiation.
It is not the worst way to die, but the Spartans would rather skip it, thank you very much.
MARCH OF PERSERVERANCE
“If all difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all.”
Of course, Stew Taylor had another question. “Ah, Major, are we going to run out of oxygen?”
“Doc” Tennyson chuckled,
“Asphyxiation is not so bad a way to die. Shortness of breath, quick breathing to get the oxygen that isn’t there, dizziness, and then loss of consciousness. As dying goes: a piece of cake.”
Reese snorted, “Doc, your bedside manner stinks.”
“Wh-What he said,” gulped Porkins.
Sgt. Savalas snapped, “None of us is suffocating to death.”
‘Are we?’ I mind-asked Sentient.
No answer. Long heartbeats of silence. Merde. We were on our own it seemed. Why was I not surprised?
Lt. Stein, sounding worried, asked, “Are we, Rick?”
“Sentient didn’t lead us here to die. We march until we get to the end of this tunnel.”
Floyd asked, “Is that a guarantee, Major?”
Sgt. Savalas huffed, “You know better than to ask for guarantees during a battle. The only guarantee in war is death.”
“How long will the march … OW!” yelped Taylor.
Eric Evans growled, “So help me, you ask one more dumb question, and you won’t have to worry about suffocating. I’ll strangle you myself.”
“Here, here,” laughed Johnny Knight.
“And I’ll sell the tickets for the show,” added “Kit” Carson.
André Friedman leaned in close to me and whispered, “This is the oddest unit I have ever marched with. You are not the typical officer to allow this bickering.”
Lt. Stein, directly behind me, whispered, “Rick isn’t a typical anything. But he got all of us back alive from Sicily.”
I didn’t say anything to that. There was nothing to say. It was Sentient who had gotten them and me home alive. And Sentient was elsewhere for the moment.
But I had gotten myself through St. Marok’s alive by myself. I would just have to do it again … and bring the Spartans alive with me.
And my next miracle would be establishing world peace.
To face the question of what makes us who we are with courage, lucidity, and fulness of feeling is to face, with all the restlessness and helplessness this stirs in our meaning-hungry soul, the elemental fact that in giving us free will, the Father couldn’t stay true to His Word and still send plays in from the sidelines.
For all intents and purposes, we were in the scrimmage of life alone … mostly.
But I wasn’t above praying for a miracle right about then.
Yet, prayer was a dangerous endeavor.
When you pray, your soul goes out to the utmost rim of life … thought … existence. Who knew if your soul would make it back or stay within the endless wonders of the Gateless Realm?
Amos whispered at my back. “These shadows are getting denser. Gehenna, you never feel safe when you have to navigate shadows which are completely directionless.”
On nautical charts you see the symbol for shoals and beside it the letters “P.D.” The initials stand for “Position Doubtful.”
In my mind, I placed “P.D.” beside all of us on this march into darkness.
As always, when shadows intensify in my life, I thought of Mr. Morton.
Nobody can fall so low unless he has a great depth. That depth corresponded to a former height, his utter darkness to a lost light.
And as always when I thought of Mr. Morton, things got worse.
It felt as if I walked into an invisible wall of gelatin. I rocked back on my heels and stumbled, regaining my balance with an effort.
André hissed low, “What is this?”
I whispered back, “I only look like I know everything, mister.”
Apparently, it was more of a wave than a wall as cries of alarm and surprise swept down along the ranks of my Spartans.
Taylor’s voice was muffled by a hand as Evans snapped, “Don’t you dare! If the Major knows what this is, I’m sure he’s about to explain. Right, Major? Right?”
Sentient thankfully chose that moment to slide back into my mind, bringing answers I knew would not lighten the hearts of anyone … me included.
I was right.
Merde. How was I going to explain this without lying to them?
I gave them the bad news first as I, myself, always wanted to hear about surprises.
“It’s going to get worse.”
There was an explosion of protests that was cut short by Sgt. Savalas’s curt, “Quiet! Let the Major finish.”
I continued trying to sound like the officer I wasn’t, “This is war, gentlemen. Accept the fact that nothing is certain, and no hour is guaranteed.”
I drew a deep breath, wondering how politicians weaved a basket of truth out of the unpleasant threads dumped into their laps.
Maybe they didn’t, but I would try.
“In a world filled with chaos, uncertainty, and change, we must cultivate the ability to be adaptable, resilient, and in harmony with the ever-changing currents of life.”
“Just spit out the bad news, Major,” groaned Reese. “We’re big boys. We can take it.”
I hoped so and said, “There was a Nazi Wunderkind scientist, Reinhardt König.”
“Was?” quavered Taylor who grunted as Evans popped him on the side of the head.
“Yes, was. As the quaint village of Oradour-sur-Glane is past tense. Both it and he are victims of his hubris and experimenting in areas even demons are intelligent enough not to touch.”
“A francba,” muttered André.
“One among other things König wanted to do was alter the human body so as to make Hitler’s Master Race a reality.”
“Doc” Tennyson frowned, “Surely, he did not do it?”
“He came close, but he was impatient and eager to prove his theories true to the older, established scientists of the SS.”
I sighed, “Too eager. He cut corners in logic and advanced mathematics, rushing ahead when a cooler, more sane head would have run double-checks.”
Lt. Stein narrowed his eyes. “What does this have to do with this invisible force pushing back against us?”
“Not a force … but another dimension all together, generated by the circuitry, devices, and mechanisms – all of König’s design – lining the walls of this tunnel. Fortunately, Sentient has aligned them properly.”
The Spartans all exploded in cries of alarm. Not all. Nurse Reynolds remained icy calm as if she suspected what I would say all along.
She pulled off her diminutive Spartan helmet in a fluid jerk and snapped at the immobile men around her.
“Did you not hear the machinery has been fixed? Would you show some measure of composure? Theo has told me how repeatedly Major Blaine has led you out of one death trap after another in Sicily.”
She stamped her tiny boot. “Do you think he left his ingenuity and cleverness back there across the ocean? Do you?”
She turned to me royally like a Spartan Queen. “What do you suggest we do, Major?”
“You follow me as we march straight ahead, enduring the pain, lightheadedness, and discomfort until you can bear it no more. Then, take off your packs, use them as pillows and sleep until I awaken you.”
André said, “I have no pack.”
“You’ll use mine.”
Theo eyed me narrowly. “What will you be doing all that time, Rick?”
“I’ll be standing watch. Remember we are deep in enemy territory.”
Theo said, “We’ll take turns.”
I shook my head.
“Sentient has … fortified me when she gave me these artificial hands. By the time, all of you have drained yourselves, I will still be able to stand guard while none of you will be in the shape to do so.”
They grumbled, but I hushed them. Actually, I think it was Nurse Reynolds' glare that did it.
And so began our long trek into hell.
My eyes watered; my legs trembled, and my breath was a fire in my lungs as the very shadows seemed to be cooking me alive.
On and on and on our feet trudged.
My hands began to feel as if I had dipped them into bubbling lava.
‘Sentient, what is wrong with them?’
‘Within your hands and fingers are devices, mechanisms, and components which can monitor fluctuations in ionic activity, magnetic fields, and biometric flux.’
Taylor groaned, “Major, I can’t go no more.”
I heard the smack of flesh against flesh as Theo rasped, “You hear a sound out of Rachel? Do you?”
Rachel snapped, “Spartans you dare to call yourselves? Look at your Major’s hands. They are trembling with agony.”
She rushed to my side. “Come, Richard. Lean on me. Let me do what your Helen would do for you. It’s what she would want me to do. You know that.”
I looked down at her and felt shame. Perspiration beaded like liquid pain and exhaustion under her hollow eyes and upper lip.
She was the true Spartan among us.
I wished Helen might somehow get to know her … maybe even become friends with her. Helen had been so alone in New Orleans.
I also desperately wished to let Rachel support me if only for a minute, but I merely lightly kissed the top of her Spartan helmet and stepped away on legs I no longer felt.
“I also know that if I did that Helen would give me a good swift kick in the … rump when next we met.”
I staggered away from her.
“Gentlemen, it is time we act like gentlemen and let our valiant nurse rest. And you might as well take the load off your tired feet yourselves.”
Rachel drew herself up in her best Head Nurse outrage. “You can barely stand. What kind of watch will you give your men?”
I stiffened as Sentient murmured to my mind, and I sighed, “My Dark Passenger agrees with you. So, I am called elsewhere.”
Theo and Amos both turned to me, alarm plain on their exhausted faces.
Theo managed to get out. “You’re not dying on us, are you?”
“No. Ah, though I might just get shot where Sentient is sending me.”
Cloverfield frowned, “And where would that be?”
“To doctor President Roosevelt’s martini.”