Tuesday Fiction: “Battleflag” by Bojan Ratković
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Bojan Ratković. Bojan is an aspiring writer from Serbia, currently living and working in Ontario, Canada. He has a Master’s degree in political science from Brock University in Ontario, Canada and he is currently pursuing a PhD degree in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.
“Battleflag” was inspired by Bojan’s own personal experiences during the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia. This is its first publication.
They rang out all night, the bombs and the missiles. They do most nights. The world shook and trembled and the ground swelled with falling rubble. Older folks say the sound reminds them of fireworks. They had fireworks in the former times — they would shoot up and light up the skies with bursts of color and everyone would look up, and their eyes would glimmer. No one looks at the skies anymore — the sound of fireworks is the sound of death.
Older folks still talk about the former times, but those are just stories… fairy tales. The bombs are real, the sewers are real, the death and the putrid smell are real, and the rest are fairy tales. This world — their world — is their tomb.
Mornings are a time for weeping, weary faces, and empty silence.
A time for cleanup.
Blasts from the night before tore the roof into pieces and the main bunker was in a shambles. A metal pipe snapped off the wall and killed an older woman in her bed. Everyone worked on cleanup that day. Two boys carried the corpse into the sewer tunnels. The sewers are where all of them end up, eventually.
A tomb within a tomb.
The boys wiggled their way into a narrow corridor and forced the stretcher in behind them. “Which smells better, Wynn? The sewers, or last night’s dinner?” One of the boys grinned, his parted lips revealing chipped, rotting teeth. The dead woman was hoisted up on a stretcher, her cold face covered with a sheet.
“This ain’t the time for jokes, Donny,” Wynn Caden said without turning around. He was a tall, lanky boy of nineteen and he towered over his shorter companion. “But if I really had to guess, I’d say your breath tops it all.” He pressed on, holding up the stretcher from the front and marching forward, knee-deep in muck and waste. Donny tried to keep up, pushing the stretcher from the back and staggering through the filth — thick in smell and texture. The air of the sewers made his throat convulse.
“How’s your li’l sis, Wynn? She okay?” Donny asked as they squirmed their way through a bend in the pipes.
“She’s holding up,” Wynn said and hawked a big slab of spit into the waste below. The yellowish-green slime floated up in the dark water, and Wynn could see a hint of blood in the mixture. “I don’t know how she does it, but she’s holding up.”
“How old is she now?” Donny pressed forward as the flicker of fluorescent tubes grew dimmer, and the darkness thickened.
“Turning ten next month,” Wynn said. A strong desire to barf clawed at him from deep inside the gut, but he clenched his teeth and swallowed down on the sickness.
Donny smiled as muck splashed against his beaten clothes. “Ten already? She’s growin’ up quick. How old was she when your parents died?”
“Not yet two.”
“Whoa… it’s been a long time.”
“It’s been forever. How’s your pop doin’?” Wynn took a big step forward, careful not to slip and tumble into the liquid dung below. The stench was now worse — at first it scarred the nostrils, and then, after a while, it numbed them completely.
“Not too good, pal. I know he’ll end up down here too, like old Mrs. Dorin.” Donny glanced sympathetically at the woman’s corpse, frowned, and turned away. “Sometime soon.”
“Don’t think that way, Donny. You can’t.”
Donny shrugged. “I ain’t got much of a choice, pal. It is what it is, and I guess that’s how it’s gotta be.”
Wynn stopped and turned around. He searched for Donny’s face in the darkness. “Hey, you already know what I’m gonna say, don’t ya? Either we stand and fight our way out of this goddamned pit or we give up, lie down and wait for the rats to eat us. I’d rather fight. You should, too.”
“Sure, Wynn. If you say so.” Donny looked away, eyes swelling.
“Don’t lose faith, Donny. It’s the only thing they couldn’t take from us — it’s all we’ve got left.” Wynn whispered, and then they walked in silence, listening to the splatter of the water and the scurrying of rodents.
Just ahead, deep in the darkness, there was a hole in the pipes. The boys walked carefully to the edge and lowered the corpse. On the count of three, they swung the stretcher and dropped the dead woman into the blackness below. The body tumbled down the pit, and then there was a single deep splash. “Goodbye, Mrs. Dorin,” Wynn said, and Donny mouthed a prayer. They turned and headed back.
* * *
They made their way back through the sewers, slowly climbing to the bunker’s main floor. Suddenly, Donny jerked his head upward. He heard something beyond the buzzing and twitching of florescent lights — it was a steady, rattling sound.
“Something’s up,” Donny said.
They moved closer. They could hear a commotion coming from up ahead. Not the usual kind of commotion: the terror, the screaming, the panic. This was different… this was something else.
Donny dropped his end of the stretcher and rushed forward. Wynn pushed the contraption aside and followed. As they emerged from the sewer pipes, they saw that a large crowd had gathered on the main floor. They were talking loudly, and some were even laughing.
“Someone’s here, Wynn! Someone’s here from up top. Let’s go see.” Donny took off, and Wynn leapt after him. They squirmed through the mass of people and hurried to the front of the crowd.
“They’re coming, Wynn! My dear boy, they’re coming to save us!” A tiny, pale woman with burn marks on her face grabbed Wynn by the shirtsleeve, her voice cracking.
Wynn’s eyes widened. “Who’s coming, Betty? Who’s coming to save us?”
“Battleflag! Our boys from Battleflag are coming! They’re gonna free the city. They sent word. Thank the good Lord, Wynn! Thank the good Lord!”
“But who… Who’s here from up top?” Wynn pushed himself up by his toes, fighting to see. There was some movement ahead of him, and then he felt the push of a dozen bodies.
The residents of the bunker swarmed forward until they had formed a tight circle around one thin, ailing man who used a walking stick to keep from falling over. His skin was dirty and scarred; his hair wild and greasy. From his darkened face hung a patchy, rugged beard covered in dirt. He wore the gray uniform of the surface rebels.
“My friends, listen up! Listen up, friends! Everyone, please, listen here!” A thick man with a harsh voice screamed, his arms flailing through the air. He made his way to the front, then stood beside the stranger and gestured for calm. The crowd settled around him and slowly the noise subsided. The man was Commander Marcus, the bunker chief.
Wynn was shoved and he shoved back, determined to keep his place at the front of the crowd. Donny was there too, his eyes gleaming. Lieutenant Marcus took a deep breath, his chest growing, and then continued:
“My friends and fellow residents of Bunker 13-A, the man standing before us is Captain Rom Ashe of Battleflag. He comes to us with an important message from his headquarters in the north. He has asked me to deliver this message to you, the good people of Bunker 13-A.”
The stranger nodded and tilted his body to the side, briefly revealing the black and gold insignia of the Battleflag rebel group sewn to the side of his jacket. There was a collective gasp from the crowd. Moments later, all were silent.
Lieutenant Marcus wiped the sweat from his wrinkled brow, then unfolded a large piece of paper and began to read:
“The High Command of the Battleflag Resistance Corps wishes to inform the people of the Red Zone, and particularly the residents of Bunker 13-A — the largest civilian shelter for the Red Zone — that major operations intended to liberate them and the entire region from the brutal tyranny of the Forefathers are now under way. Battleflag has committed all of its resources to the Red Zone Offensive, which will put an end to the death and destruction brought on by the Forefathers and their inhuman regime. The brunt of the offensive is set to begin within the next twenty-four hours. We advise you, the residents of the Red Zone, to stay put and await further instructions.”
Lieutenant Marcus finished reading, cleared his throat, and folded up the paper. After a brief, stunned silence a mighty cheer rang up from the crowd and echoed through the bunker like a blast wave. The residents cheered, clapped their hands, and some giggled like schoolchildren on Christmas morning. For the first time in a long time, Wynn felt hopeful. He smiled and his eyes sparkled with uncried tears.
“They’re coming, Wynn! It’s true!” Donny embraced his friend.
“Battleflag…” Wynn, still dazed, returned the hug. A single tear trickled down his cheek.
* * *
In a matter of minutes, the entire bunker was animated and many were drinking. One man held a crude, handmade guitar and he tugged at the strings softly. A crowd had gathered around him, laughing and singing and dancing.
All were overcome with emotion. All, that is, but one man — the man in uniform, the stranger. He just stood there, quietly leaning against the wall and propping himself up with the walking stick. Every once in a while the residents would walk up to him and offer their hands — he gave each a single firm pump, and sent them on their way. He smiled once or twice, but it was a distant, empty smile.
“Donny,” Wynn snapped. “I have to find my sister. I have to find Nellie.” He shook his friend by the shoulders.
Donnie laughed and nodded. “I saw her playin’ with the other kids, outside the gen-room. You go get her, Wynn. Go tell her!”
* * *
A few yards from the closed doors of the generator room, some of the bunker children busied themselves with their usual pastimes. The boys kicked rocks and fallen debris around and chucked them at the walls playfully. The girls played hopscotch at a safe distance from the boys. Wynn ran past the smaller groups of people that had formed around the edges of the larger crowd, and leapt across the main level of the shelter until he reached the grayish-white walls of the gen-room. There, he saw his sister.
“Nellie, get over here!” Wynn shouted and waved.
The small girl turned. “Winnie!” she screamed, and threw herself into her brother’s arms.
“I told you not to call me that,” Wynn said and held her close, the girl’s long black hair tickling his face.
“Tough luck, Winnie,” she whispered, then giggled.
“I love you, sis.”
She pulled away and looked up at him, her hair draped over her shoulders. “Love you too, bro.” She smiled. “Did you hear? The other kids said that the rebels are coming to save us. Do you think it’s true?”
“I hope so, Nellie. I really do.”
“Me too!” She jumped back into his arms and squeezed tighter. He squeezed back.
* * *
By the afternoon things had settled down and many of the drinkers had drunk themselves to sleep. Donny was slouched over a garbage can, half-conscious, his insides revolting against the oily bunker gin. Once his stomach settled, Donny would sleep it off as he always did. For Wynn, drinking bunker gin was like drinking turpentine, and he couldn’t stand the stuff.
The stranger was now sitting on a small wooden chair not far from where he had been standing. The walking stick was resting on the ground by his feet. He stared blankly into nothing, taking quick, rhythmic puffs of a dwindling cigarette. The bunker folks had left him to his thoughts.
Wynn saw his chance. He approached the man and held out his hand. “Captain, thank you for coming, sir,” he said and smiled.
The man in uniform tilted his head, nodded, and shook the boy’s hand.
“My name’s Wynn, sir, and I really appreciate it. I know you risked your life to get here.”
“Wynn…” the Captain said softly.
“Wynn Caden, sir.”
“Wynn Caden,” the Captain took another puff of the cigarette and calmly rubbed his chin. “Pull up a chair.”
“I’m Rom. Pleased to meet you, young man.” The man took another puff and blew a thick ring of smoke into the air. It floated upward and dissolved quickly, the residue flowing into the air vents.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“You’re the computer kid, right?”
Wynn’s pale face lit up. “Yes, sir. I’ve been helping the rebels for two years now.”
“Yes, of course. You took down the Oakridge Power Station last Fall.”
“I had a lot of help,” Wynn muttered.
“Of course, of course. Good work, son.” He flicked the cigarette away. It died a slow death on the bunker floor.
“Thank you, sir,” Wynn said.
“So Wynn, do you have any family here?” the man asked, his eyes staring off into the distance.
“Only a sister. She’s turning ten next month”
“You takin’ care of her?”
“Yes, sir.” Wynn nodded.
“Good, good. You been alone a long time?”
“More than eight years now. Our parents died in the first uprising.”
The man sighed. “I’m very sorry.”
“There was a raid in our neighborhood, and we were caught in the crossfire.” Wynn paused and took a deep breath. “They died protecting us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The man shook his head and leaned over slightly in his chair.
“Yeah. It’s been a long time, you know? Some rebels found me and my sister hiding in a ditch and brought us here, to the bunker. We’ve been here ever since. That’s about it.” The boy’s voice was dry and it cracked as he spoke.
The Captain placed his hand on Wynn’s shoulder. “It’s a tragic story, but a story I hear all too often.”
Wynn bit down on his lip and held back the tears. It took effort. “Have you eaten, Captain?”
The man shook his head, disinterested.
“I’ll bring you some lunch,” Wynn said and flew off his chair before the man could protest. Moments later, the boy returned with canned beans and cracker bread for two. They popped the cans open and scarfed the food down.
“Thanks very much, son,” the man said after he was finished. “So, how’s your sister doing? She’s only ten, you said?”
“Yes. She’s holding up. Some of the women here volunteer to watch the children during the day. Nellie’s with them now.”
“That’s real good.”
“Yeah,” Wynn said and laughed. “I promised I’d read to her later. I do most nights.”
The man nodded and forced a smile, but there was a profound sadness in his eyes. “Wynn…” he whispered after a lengthy pause. “Do you think it’ll ever end?”
“The war, sir? I don’t know.” Wynn lowered his head.
“Do you still hope?” the man asked, his eyes swelling.
“And what about those other days?”
“Those days are hell.” Wynn said and frowned.
There was a long, heavy silence.
“Let me ask you something, Wynn,” the man said finally, raising his head. “If you could help turn the tide of it all, would you?”
“Of course I would, sir. In a heartbeat.”
The man nodded. “And would you give your life for the cause knowing that your sacrifice would give others a fighting chance?”
Wynn thought of his sister. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Then listen closely, son,” the man said and the corner of his mouth ticked up. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
For the first time since he arrived, the man seemed lively and alert. He leaned forward in his chair and the boy sensed a sudden change in the Captain’s demeanor. Wynn saw the man’s ancient face transform, betraying a slight glimpse of youth.
“As you know, this whole mess started with the Augustine Wars some thirty years ago. I’m in my fifties now, though I look a lot older than that, but I was around your age when the damned thing first got going. Everything before that we call the former times.
“By the time the war was over, the fate of many nations rested in the hands of weak leaders and weaker governments. Twelve of this country’s most powerful generals decided to take matters into their own hands, and their armies marched on our cities.
“The twelve generals dubbed themselves The Forefathers, prophets of a new era — the age of discipline and hard work. In reality, it was the age of slavery. As people starved to death on the streets of our cities, the tyrants poured everything worth a lick into the source of their power — the army. We had no running water and no electricity while the army spent our wages on newer and deadlier weapons — weapons they would then turn back on us. The army became judge, jury, and executioner. The Forefathers became gods.”
Wynn nodded but didn’t speak.
“Then came the first uprising.” The Captain slapped his bad leg with the palm of his hand. “It was a long fight, a good fight, but in the end the tyrants proved too strong and the whole thing went to hell.” He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his sleeve. “We’re four years into the second uprising now. So many are dead, so many are suffering…”
“But the Red Zone Offensive is coming — that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? We’re gonna turn the tide now, I know it.” Wynn flung his arms in the air and gestured toward the whole of the bunker. “We’ll fight our way out of here soon, I… I just know it.”
The Captain breathed a heavy sigh and lowered his head, shaking. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this… maybe I feel you have the right to know, or maybe I just need to get it off my chest.”
Wynn studied the man’s smirk.
“There are spies here, Wynn,” the Captain mumbled, his face downcast and his eyes fixed on the floor. “There are spies in Bunker 13-A.”
“Spies?” Wynn snapped, stunned.
“Yes, informants for the tyrants.”
The boy shook his head. “No way! That… that’s not true.”
“It is,” the Captain whispered, not looking up.
“That’s impossible,” the boy protested. “I know everyone in here, and there are no spies. All of us are…”
“The spies are here, Wynn,” the man interrupted. “We’ve confirmed it.”
“But… but…” Wynn struggled with his words. “But you told all these people about the Red Zone Offensive. You told them that Battleflag is coming to save us, didn’t you? Why? Why did you say it in front of the spies? Why would you do that?” The boy’s cheeks turned hot and his voice cracked painfully.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “I asked you before if you would give your life for the cause knowing it could help turn the tide. You told me that you wouldn’t hesitate.”
The boy made no reply.
“You said that when the day came to make the sacrifice, you wouldn’t think twice about laying down your life so that others may live. Isn’t that right, Wynn?”
The boy leapt from his chair. “Of course I said it, and I meant it. I would do anything for the cause! You don’t believe me?”
“No, that’s not it,” the man said, smiling a sickly smile. “What I mean to say is that the day for sacrifice has arrived. Today is that day.”
* * *
Wynn stood there for a moment, frozen. He felt a grueling chill creep up his spine. A single drop of cold sweat shot down the nape of his neck and dripped over his back. “What are you talking about, Captain?” he said finally.
The man was perfectly calm. He looked up at Wynn, their eyes meeting for the first time in what seemed like forever. “Battleflag has the nuke. Did you know that?”
“I’ve heard rumors, sure.”
“Yes,” the man nodded with pride. “We snatched up a few warheads last summer, from the Stadt Air Force Base.”
Wynn’s mouth flew open. “So it’s true, then?”
“Yes, it’s true. The tyrants don’t believe that we have the capability to deploy them. But Wynn my boy, they’re wrong.”
“So then we’ll nuke them, right?”
The man shrugged again. “This war has gone on for far too long. You weren’t here for all of it, but you can see the horror, can’t you? So many are suffering — dying — every single day.”
“Yeah, but what are you getting at?” Wynn’s teeth rattled as he spoke. The man was starting to bug him now — bug him profoundly — and he clenched his fists almost instinctively.
“They think we’re attacking the Red Zone at dawn,” the Captain said, grinning. “They’ve sent everything they’ve got to defend it. They think they’re really gonna get us this time, Wynn, but they’re wrong.”
Wynn opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t.
The man wobbled his head back and forth, his arms shaking. “You asked me if we’ll nuke them. We will. We’ll hit them where it’ll do the most damage—we’ll nuke the Red Zone.”
“WHAT?” Wynn erupted, his eyes burning red. “You’re gonna nuke here? You’re gonna nuke us?”
“We have no choice,” the man said, still shaking. “This is our chance to save millions — our last chance. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket — they’ve sent everything they’ve got right here. This is our chance to take them out in one fell swoop — our chance to end the war!”
Wynn took a quick step forward. “So what then, you’re just gonna kill us? You’re gonna kill all of these people?” He swung his outstretched arms across the bunker. “You can’t!”
Instantly, the Captain jumped from his chair and seized Wynn by the collar. “Keep it down, son,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “You’ll start a panic in here. Do you really think there’s another way — any other way at all? I’m in the Red Zone too, Wynn, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m here because I know the sacrifice I have to make — the sacrifice that all of us have to make — here today in this bunker.”
Wynn stepped back, trembling. “You’re a liar, you hear? A dirty liar. You… you…”
“Keep it down,” the Captain said and tightened his hold on the boy. “You told me you were prepared to sacrifice your life for the cause, didn’t you? You told me you would gladly die so that others may live, didn’t you? That’s exactly what you’re going to do — what we’re all going to do.”
“But what about these people, these innocent people? They deserve to live, don’t they? Who’s gonna fight for them?” Wynn paused, holding back tears. “Who’s gonna fight for my sister?”
“We’re fighting for all the sisters and mothers and daughters. We’re fighting for all the sons and fathers and brothers, too,” the man pressed, the aging muscles in his face twitching. “We’re fighting for the future of this world!”
Wynn laughed maniacally. “You’ve lost your mind, pal. You really have!” He turned to the vast expanse of the bunker. “Dear God, I’ve got to tell these people who — what — you really are!”
The man cocked his head to the side, his eyes scanning the length of the bunker. “You can tell them if you’d like, but it’s too late. It’s been too late since before I got here. Listen…” He pressed his ear to the wall. “Do you hear it? Do you hear the roar of their armies? An endless parade of tanks, batteries, harvesters, and infantry transports is thundering above our heads at this very moment. They’ve sent everything they’ve got at us. Tonight is the last night of their tyranny, the last night of the war. ”
Wynn began to cough. It was a wet, whooping cough and when he was done, he could taste blood in his mouth. “I… I have to tell them. I have to tell these people. We have to do something!”
“There’s nothing we can do, son.” The man frowned and turned away, releasing the boy from his grip. “Our sacrifice will end this war, and that’s the way it has to be. If you ask me, these people are right to celebrate.”
“Celebrate their deaths? How can you do this? You call yourselves rebels? You’re nothing but murderers!” The boy’s voice was now a desperate screech.
“We didn’t have a choice, Wynn. Can’t you see that? They’ve got spies everywhere. They’ve known about our plans to launch an offensive in the Red Zone for months. What do you think would happen if we went through with it? They would have slaughtered us.”
“So don’t go through with it. You don’t have to kill these people!” Wynn cried, his palms cold and sweating.
“And what do you think will happen to all of you if we call it off? Face it, Wynn, the location of this bunker is no secret. Not anymore. The tyrants know exactly where you are and how to get to you. If we call it off now, they’ll storm in here and butcher every single one of you. Can you imagine what they’d do to you — what they’d do to your sister?” He sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, son, I really am, but it’s the only way.”
Wynn’s face twitched and the lower half of his body felt numb, distant. “The only way? Death is the only way?” His lips trembled as he spoke.
The man nodded. “It’ll all be over in an instant. There will be no pain, no suffering. Not anymore. When it happens, you won’t feel a thing.”
“We never had a chance… Dear God, we never had a chance!” Wynn dropped to his knees, the world crumbling before his eyes. He fought against the woozy darkness that clawed at the back of his eyes.
“Don’t pass out, son,” the man said and shook the boy by the shoulders. “Look at this place. Take a good freakin’ look. We’re in hell already — this is hell — so how much worse can death be?”
Wynn was silent. Tears ran down his cheeks in steady streams, oozing past his chin and dripping on the cement below.
“You’re really gonna kill us, aren’t you?” Wynn sobbed, his voice now only a whimper. “We’re all gonna die here tonight.”
“No, son,” the Captain smiled, his face scarred by a lifetime of pain. “Tyranny dies tonight! As for us, tonight we’re free — free forever.”
Wynn stopped listening. “I promised my sister… I promised I’d read to her.”
“Now’s as good a time as any,” the Captain said and sat back down in his chair.
Wynn turned away. He stumbled back through the concrete frame of the bunker and toward the filth of the sewers. He felt lightheaded and weak, his knees nearly folding under the pressure of his steps. To the folks of the bunker, Wynn Caden looked like another kid with too much gin in his system. They ignored the tortured expression on his face, and the bloody terror in his eyes. Once in the sewers and out of sight, Wynn felt his insides bubble up and he puked, half-digested beans and blood jetting from his aching gut. Then he wept.
* * *
It was well past nightfall by the time Wynn pulled himself together. He staggered slowly toward Nellie’s sleeping quarters — one step at a time, one foot after the other. He passed Donny on the way, keeled over on his side and hugging the garbage can. At that moment, Wynn envied him.
Nellie was already in bed and waiting for her brother. Wynn embraced her and held her close, hiding his sorrow behind a smile. He grabbed an old story book from beneath the mattress and flipped through it until he came upon a tale they both loved. He was reading about Peter Pan and the land where children never grow old when it hit.
They didn’t feel a thing.
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