The Collective

As inhospitable as the desert can be the parched, arid lands are ideal for preserving the ancient cities built in the early days of civilization. These mostly abandoned settlements were scattered across the landscape quietly being buried in the sand.
Still, there were some cities, archaic remnants of ancient kingdoms that had long since vanished, but life went on even as the old dynasties crumbled back into the enteral sand and the people settled around the ancient walls for hundreds of generations went about existence much the same as their vanquished ancestors. These places although mostly forgotten these forerunners of civilization existed alongside the electrified concrete and steel megalopolis that had come into existence in the final terminal stages of human-settled life.
Just as in previous epochs this seemingly worthless place was where empires fought life and death struggles.  Just like the innumerable men of arms who were sent here to pacify these lands over they millenniums Corporal Keller of the US Marines couldn’t comprehend exactly what it was that kept drawing the armies of the world back to this same desolate place.
Keller and his unit had spent the last few days watching drones and bombers, the latest and greatest in hi-tech siege weaponry blast the prehistoric city to rubble. Now it was time for the grunts to go in and blow away anyone that survived the barrage.
The helicopters hovering overhead stirred up the sand into a storm. The air was saturated with the grainy particles that stung at the eyes and skin, but it was at least a mild morning. The desert dew still gleamed in the morning sun and a place white moon lingered in the bright morning sky. The Marines moved cautiously but kept up the pace. Today it was Corporal Keller's turn to be the point man, which meant first one inside, first one to take any fire.
The young soldier and his company had surrounded a courtyard. He was hugging the corner wall at the entrance when the signal was given. Flash grenades were tossed into the open space, and the soldiers quickly moved in. They only ran into each other though. The courtyard was empty.
“Clear,” Keller radioed in.
Keller felt something tap on his shoulder. There was a spot of blood soaking into his uniform.
“What the fuck?”
He looked up corpses were hanging from hastily constructed rafters above their heads in various stages of decay and dismemberment. The helicopters had scared away the scavenging birds, but it was easy to see on the soft decomposing flesh where they opportunistic animals had been feeding.
Keller felt queasy he called it in. “We got bodies hanging here.”
There was the sound of something stirring behind the walls and the jolted Marines raised their weapons. Keller looked at the west and could see two deep red circles. He moved closer and brushed away the sand. It was a drawing of a woman with a plump body and what looked like iron wings. She wore some kind of ceremonial headdress, and her bird-like feet had large sharp talons.
“What the fuck is this?” Keller muttered.
“RPG!” Startled Keller looked up and saw a rocket flying down from the top of the wall, then an abrupted impenetrable blackness.
James jolted awake in his chair. A layer of sweat covered his waxy skin, and he had to catch his breath. “Holy shit,” he cracked as he reached for a nearby glass of water.
The foundation of a collective unconscious is the transcription of memory into the biomolecular structure of the human being. Evolution is by and large a process of trial and error the psyche is where the experiences of our predecessors echo across the gulf of time adding to the notional sum of existence. One of the ways it manifests is through instinct, an innate reaction a sentient being has to a situation it may have never encountered. The enigmatic process is one that straddles the line between the rational and the mystic. It was a painstaking process limited by the crawling pace of evolution.
Legions of faceless specialists directed by an institutionalized disdain for the natural order were activated to construct a more valuable and efficient model for the collective unconvinced. Their nanotech monster was decentralized and of course, data-driven. The microscopic machine was a synthetic virus that transformed sentient human beings into data banks of human memories. The natural incubator for this emergent intelligence was the military, where of course psychological programming is a paramount concern. Unwitting soldiers were merged into a micro-collective conscience. Their experiences of war could now be shared through a real-time data stream. Miniature machines bound their minds together and turned their most horrific memories of war into shared experiences.
Retired Major James Fullerton had no inkling of this grand design or his place in its growing web of consciousness. Neither did the doctor who pointed to the small innocuous shadow on the translucent gray and white image of his brain.
“We don’t know if it’s a tumor, but it’s not operable. I’m sorry, but all we can do is wait and see.” The doctor informed him in his professional but compassionate manner.
Daniel Princip, a friend from his unit, was given a similar prognosis barely six months ago and now he was dead. Granted it was a bullet from his service pistol that released him from his mortal coil and not any sort of cancer or degenerative neural disease, but James knew, and Daniel must have been somewhat aware that the mysterious blemish on his neural tissue was an omen of doom.
James and Daniel were both combat veterans who became friends while witnessing some of the darkest and most blood-soaked excesses of modern war. When they heard the sanitized euphemism for a massacre, their minds conjured up scenes of crushed and mangled bodies. They had both seen mothers carrying the dismembered remains of their children after a “surgical strike” or families wallowing over bloated fly-covered corpses of fathers and sons killed in “counter-insurgency” raids. Despite this, they managed to integrate back into society and keep isolated the contagion of violence that infected their souls.
James was divorced, but amicably so. He had two daughters in college and had enjoyed years of success as a financial consultant. Daniel hadn’t fared so poorly either. He was a lawyer and confirmed lifetime bachelor. The experience of war instilled in him a sense of just how indifferent the universe is and the inevitability of tragedy and undercut any desire or incentive for him to have a family.
Whatever was consuming Daniel from within worked quickly. His body withered away from his bones, and his colorless eyes sank into his gaunt face. He endured every test and consulted every specialist, but there was no conclusive answer. When he told them about the dreams, they suspected his ailment was purely psychological. He was just another soldier being ravaged by the malignant trauma that had been planted in his brain like a ticking time bomb from his service days.
“I keep having these like flashbacks only it doesn't feel like their mine. It feels like I'm in someone else's body watching what they’re watching,” James said with a faraway look in his eyes.
James was intimately familiar with the terror the twin specters of regret and shame could unleash upon their victims gave a sympathetic and understanding nod.
“It’s like watching a movie, and I know something terrible is about to happen but no matter what I can’t stop it. It’s like being a voice screaming inside that kid’s head, but he couldn’t hear me.”
“Boy?” James repeated.
Daniel nodded. “Yeah, his name was Lance Corporal Thomas Johnson that’s who I am a lot of times,” Daniel said before taking a sip of coffee. “At least that’s what the other guys call me. Poor kid, he’s on his second deployment, and his mom’s just been diagnosed with cancer,” Daniel said matter of factly.
When Daniel gave those strangely specific details, Jame’s felt his stomach tie into knots and swell up into his throat. “Huh, that’s kinda weird,” he replied casually.
These visions always a rare occurrence were now steadily commandeering his subconscious. His sleep was now drowning out from the incursions of these living nightmares just like what happened to Daniel. He wasn’t sure how but James knew it was this smudge on the MRI that was the source of these aberrations of war.
The sleep-deprived James was retracted back in his recliner dulling his senses in the ultraviolet lite of the tv mounted on the wall. He absently cycled through the televisions line up, which at this time of night was mostly infomercials. He finally gave up the futile search for entertainment and settled on one of the many twenty four hour news networks.
The screen was bifurcated between an attractive blonde news anchor and repeating B-roll footage of a middle eastern battlezone, by now a familiar television backdrop.
The blonde was listening attentively, indicated by the occasional nod to the static voice of field reporter who was summing up all the action that had apparently just happened a few hours ago.
“Around 8:15 this morning the Marines declared the city liberated,” the faceless voice explained while footage of marines putting in a battering ram through and a tank firing a round into a building played in the background.
“The city has been liberated,” the anchor confirmed “but we’re being told combat operations are still ongoing. Why is that?”
There was a short delay between the question and answer while a new loop of battlefield footage started to play.
“Yes, that’s true. Marine units are still engaged in mop-op operations in and around the city. While the military is in control of all municipal and administrative buildings, there are still some terrorist strongholds scattered around, but the military spokesman we talked to says they’ll be clear before the day is out.”
The talking heads on the screen started to sound further and further away until their banter became obscure mumbling. James passively watched the medley of battle and sank deeper into his chair. Whether he wanted it or not he was slowly slipping back into sleep. His eyes fluttered, and his jaw slacked. His head gradually fell back, and the room started to fade away. He was on the edge of sleep when a scene on TV jolted him awake.
It was the courtyard from his dream. The dangling bodies had been taken down and the gangrenous limbs removed but James still recognized the scenery even after it had been thoroughly satisfied. On the west wall was the same etching of the plumb winged woman with crimson eyes.
The ringing doorbell startled James.
“Who the hell could that be?” he muttered. Deciding to ignore the door James picked back up the remote and started flipping around again but whoever had come calling was persistent. The doorbell rang another three times in quick succession.
“Jesus fuckin christ alright,” James snarled.
The ringing continued as he made his way to the door. “Alright alright!” James Hollard.
He looked through the peephole and saw a man probably in his mid to late twenties in rain-soaked clothes with shaggy hair and a beard. James kept the chain lock on the door.
“Can I help you?” He asked visibly irritated.
“Are you Major James Fullerton?” The man asked.
“Yeah, that’s me who are you?” James replied.
The stranger on his stoop pulled out a gun at hip level and pointed it through the space between the door and the frame.
“I really need to talk to you,” he said calmly.
“Oh shit,” James mumbled.
The armed intruder followed behind James with his gun pointed at his back.
“Where’s a place we can sit down and talk?” he asked with a raspy voice.
“Look, man, I won’t give you any trouble. Just take what you want and get going,” James said.
“It’s nothing like that. My name’s Lieutenant Phillip Speers second airborne.”
“I retired from the military eight years ago if you have any gripes with them I really can’t help you,” explained James.
Phillip didn’t reply. When they got to the den, he directed James back to his recliner while he sat down on the couch. James paused for a second when he saw Phillip’s left arm was a robotic prosthetic.
“I’m sorry I have to do this, but I considered all the options, and this was the only way,” Phillip explained.
“What’s this all about?” James asked calmly.
Phillip leaned forward. “I got out of the service three years ago, and about a year and a half ago I started having all these fucked up dreams. Now I know what you’re thinking,” Phillip sighed “PTSD right? Well, that would have made sense but these dreams I was having weren’t mine. In fact, I don’t even think they were dreams. It was like seeing through someone else's eyes. Night after night I was back in the desert doing recon missions in a place I’ve never even been before, and for some reason, the guys on the mission all called me James, James Fullerton. I lived through your time in the Sub Saharan,” said Phillip. “I know about Daniel, and I know about that boy in the Michael Jordan jersey.”
James was speechless. He’d never told anyone about that kid, but James had spent years and years begging his ghost for forgiveness, or at least what his mind thought his spirit might be like. It was James’s unit that called in the drone strike that incinerated him. Even though he left behind no mortal remains his face was forever seared into James’s memory. He never could forgive himself for sacrificing the child to the cold mechanical hunter
Phillip saw that he had touched a nerve and decided to press his questioning further. “Have you ever met or heard of a marine captain Peter Harding?” he asked.
James shook his head.
“He came to be about a year and a half ago and told me about the same thing I’m telling you now. He knew every dirty detail of my deployment. He knew about friends I lost people I wasted I mean everything. He even knew how I got this,” Phillip said holding up his robotic arm.
“Have you heard of Corporal Keller?” James asked.
“Have you seen the picture on the wall too?” Phillip asked with wide eyes.
James nodded “yeah the woman with the wings and the ruby eyes.”
“Christ,” muttered Phillip “Yeah that one really fucked with me.”
“So what do we do about it?” James asked.
Phillip set the gun down and vigorously rubbed his eyes. “Look, man, I have no idea what they did to us. The VA never told me anything. It wasn’t until I went to a private doctor I found out about the thing in my head.”
“Yeah, the shadow. I have it too.” Said, James.
Phillip sat back. “Well they’re not going to help us with this thing that much is clear, and the doctors tell me they can’t cut it out. So really there’s only one thing to do only one way we can disconnect ourselves.”
“Yeah?” James shrugged.

Without a word, Phillip picked up the pistol, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. A cloud of red mist saturated with pink particles blasted into the air and sprayed the wall behind him.

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