Hollister had seen the men of his company literally blown to pieces before his eyes, men with whom he had trained in America and with whom he had crossed the Atlantic in ships crowded full with horses and other soldiers. He had seen them reduced from men to mere targets for machine guns, artillery shells, tanks, and aeroplanes. He had seen Thatcher's face sheared off whole in a piece within a storm of razor-steel shrapnel. He had watched through the mica prisms of his gas-mask as Wilkins and Thomas choked to death on chlorine gas, and he had been helpless to do more than scream muffled into its filtering chamber. He had seen Larkin become a living torso, a freak born of unnatural forces, whose silent rictus distorted his once-human features while he wriggled worm-like through the foetid mud and feces at a trench bottom while raw plumes of intestine unwound behind him into the filth. Hollister had watched whole cordons of living men shredded into so much meat by the unholy chattering of machine guns. He had seen men fall burning from the sky as their tissue paper and wooden machines burned alongside them, twin corkscrews of smoke following each to the ground. He had seen squadrons of tanks plunge across the No-Man's-Land spitting red death while churning the bodies of both living and dead, both friend and foe to sanguineous pulp beneath their grinding treads.
Hollister had seen enough and wished to see no more. Many was the evening he'd sit on the firing-step outside his shelter with his revolver in his hand, its lanyard like some umbilical that attached this small machine of death to not only his belt and his body but somehow to his very heart and what was left of his soul. He had reached out to point with this small machine and men fell. He had done it and he had seen it happen and knew they were his bullets fired from his hand that dropped men wounded or dead to lie upon the blasphemed earth. And, at that time, in the blood heat of battle or the frenzied chaos of ambush, Hollister rejoiced in those deaths and celebrated them for not being his own.
Perhaps that was what Hollister hated most. He had found that part of himself rejoiced in death and he had looked at it and that part of himself had looked back at him with sickening recognition.
“I know you,” his killer self had told him. “I know you ever so well.”
Hollister saw himself blinded to all but survival amid a killing lust, his own eager willingness to murder and continue murdering and to keep on murdering until everyone and everything in that entire wasted land was dead except himself. And then perhaps, he thought, he would kill himself and the world would end in a bloody pile of corpses with the victor of this insane conflict the final corpse at the top of the insane heap.
Such were the thoughts that turned through Hollister's mind as another summer approached another winter, a winter he could not bring himself to believe he would ever actually suffer. Above him, the top of the trench opened to the sky and clouds skimmed red and orange with sunset glow. Hollister smoked his pipe and held his revolver, the cord from its base drooping down into the muddy sludge, the odiferous compound of rotten food scraps, vermin, and human waste in which he lived, ate his daily meals, and slept. He hadn't spoken aloud since before the midday meal and Hollister's acting subaltern, Corporal Skinner, was concerned.
"Coffee, sir?" he called from within the shelter he maintained for his lieutenant. There was a pause in the clatter while Skinner awaited a reply and, when none was forthcoming, the clatter resumed. Skinner soon emerged from the shelter's sandbagged doorway with a chipped china mug of steaming coffee.
"Lovely evening, sir?" Skinner asked as he waited for Hollister to take the mug from his hand. The metallic babble of sporadic machine-gun fire and the answering thump of grenades came floating down from somewhere farther up the line. He repeated, "It’s a lovely evening, sir."
Hollister turned to look at Skinner.
"If you like lovely evenings, I suppose it is," Hollister replied, returned the weapon to the sheath of its holster, and reached for the coffee.
Long after that day’s darkness fell, Hollister smeared lampblack across his face and looked around the circle of men doing the same. He had not known a one of them for more than two weeks and some not even two days. Numbering twelve all together, they were to be the patrol he would lead out beyond their wire that night to slip through the corrugated nightmare of the No-Man's-Land to reconnoiter German lines. Rumors of another push were circulating as they always circulated and brass wanted to know what the enemy was planning. Hollister and his men were ordered then to observe and, if possible, return with prisoners.
As he looked from face to face to face, Hollister could only marvel at their youth and innocence and naiveté. His exponentially growing cynicism compelled him to wonder how many of these fresh faces he would leave pale and wan in the mud under a moonless sky. He wondered if this were to be the patrol from which he would not return. At age 23, Hollister felt old and evil.
Checking and rechecking his men's equipment to make sure no stray rattles or clanks could give away their position, Hollister tried to remember each man's name and face.
"All right then…ah…Jacobs," he said when needlessly adjusting the soldier's Sam Browne belt.
"Very well. Jenkins, then," Hollister said and passed down the line. "How about you…ah…?"
"All right, Williams then. How about you? Are you ready to give the Krauts a shiny black eye tonight?"
"I reckon so, sir."
"Oh, you reckon so. Well, I suppose that will have to do," the lieutenant muttered as he checked the next man and the next and the next.
An hour later found the squad belly down in the foul muck and muddy filth lying between the two great armies. Broken equipment and shattered machinery, bodies of animals and bodies of men, the smoldering remains of a tank with its charcoaled crew draped from its shattered turret, fragments of fragments of bones, and honed shards of shrapnel all littered the pock-marked landscape. Each shell-hole had a foot of stagnant, putrid, blood-polluted water at its bottom.
The squad moved slowly, inching its way across the dangerous ground at perhaps the rate of a few terrifying yards an hour. As they approached the enemy trenches, the men grew more excited and, strangely, calmer as they moved their bodies with deliberate care, as they began to feel themselves nearing combat. Hollister slipped over the edge of a deep crater and slid down to the cesspool at its bottom. A headless corpse, from which army he could not tell, waited for him. Belly-down in the water, it was swollen and bloated with gas.
"Pardon me, chum," he whispered to it and set it bobbing to the other side of the pool.
With a shielded flashlight, Hollister checked his map as the rest of his men followed him silently into the slimy water. Shutting off the light, Hollister directed his men with gesture, the silent language of scouts, into the formation they would take to enter the enemy's lair. Men to the left, men to the right, and all slightly behind the center from where Hollister would lead them as they attempted to slide under the German barbed wire and into his fortifications without arousing alarm.
As they moved under the dark sky, pressing themselves deeper into the blood-sponged earth, Hollister could feel himself thrill to the danger in which they were moving. Alert to the sound of a sentry's challenge, a shot, the pop and arching whoosh of a flare, Hollister’s nerves screamed as he carefully inched his way through the debris fronting the German wire. Each calculated movement was in direct opposition against welling impulses to stand, to scream, to run toward his enemy, and to plunge his knife into his enemy's flesh. Yet still, Hollister picked his way carefully, setting the pace and the tone of the attack for his men, keeping their fear and excitement in check by checking his own.
As he approached the first line of tangled barbs, Hollister held up his arm for the squad to stop and wait. He then signaled for a soldier with wire cutters to crawl forward and clip through the wire. With pistol drawn and a grenade in his left hand, Hollister laid watch as the man, a man named Smithson, worked. He winced at each metallic ping when the wire parted, and he expected to hear gunfire and screaming at any moment. The youth named Smithson worked forward, clearing a tunnel through the wire and Hollister directed the men to follow. When all were through and awaiting him on the other side of the tangle, Hollister took one last look around neutral territory and plunged into what had by brute force become Germany.
Just ten feet from the lip of the enemy's trench, Hollister's patrol was arrayed in a long line, all thirteen armed with grenade and pistol or bayonet and pistol or hatchet and grenade or knives in both hands; all held some combination of lethality and savage slaughter. Their belts dripped with death and their hands were eager to loose and guide those weapons they carried. Hollister gave the signal and all thirteen moved forward like some dark and terrible wave moves to engulf some dark and terrible shore.
As the squad reached the edge of the first line of entrenchment, each man tried to slip over the brink silently while looking simultaneously in opposite directions. Some were more successful than others were but all ended crouched at the bottom. They were alone. No enemy sentries cried alarm, no enemy soldiers surged forward to engage nor did they scuttle to the rear for reinforcements. The line was deserted.
"Where are they?" Hollister whispered. "We need prisoners."
"Left side clear, sir," a corporal named Wiseman softly reported, careful to lisp as he had been trained to insure the sibilance of his speech would not carry to enemy ears.
"Right side clear, sir," a private named Petersen likewise whispered.
Hollister was perplexed. The trench should have been filled with soldiers or at least posted with sentries in anticipation of just such an infiltration. It should certainly not be abandoned, as it now appeared to be. He moved down the line of his men looking for a lateral communication trench, a way back toward German second and third line of trenches and, when he found one, he motioned for them to follow.
As the patrol moved through line after line of trenches, each as empty as the first, Hollister grew more and more nervous. The wrongness of the empty trenches was frightening and strange and more menacing than any trench filled of crack German storm troopers. Had the war ended and the Germans gone home overnight? Had he led his men into some kind of horrible trap? Would the ground rise beneath them when hidden explosives detonated? Had he been killed without knowing it and stumbled his way into some kind of Hell at the head of a troop of similarly lost souls? Hollister had learned that anything was possible in this nightmare landscape, anything except the expected. To find a vacuum where he'd expected to find enemy soldiers preparing for attack was more than disconcerting though.
The lieutenant felt his sense of reality slip sideways and he struggled to keep it within his grip while the empty trenches and shelters threatened to become part of some surreal new existence into which he'd entered without plan or reason.
His men were likewise affected and Hollister could hear their growing muttering and whisper. They looked about them, weapons at the ready, wide-eyed and lip-licking with fingers pressed softly against triggers and hilts and handles. Hollister called the squad to a halt and passed the word that they could drink from their canteens. Calling the corporals to his side, he made a new plan.
"We keep together and move as far back as we can," he told them. "Be ready to fight, be ready to run, but we are going to find some Germans. I don't care if he is dead or alive, but I want to see at least one German soldier before we head back to our own lines."
The corporals made silent acknowledgement and went to spread word among the men. There was some soft rustling as they shifted their equipment, rechecked their weapons, and recalculated their chances of seeing the next day’s sun rise. The squad began to move, Hollister at its head, down and back deeper into German territory.
At each junction of trenches, the line stopped so Hollister and the corporals could move up and out searching for enemy soldiers or traps. They encountered none. One hundred, two hundred, five hundred yards from where they first slipped into the Kaiser's trenches, nearly a half-mile behind enemy lines and no sign of any enemy alive or wounded or dying or dead. It was if the trenches had been sanitized of every remnant left by the men who once excavated them. Hollister felt his own and his men's sense of eerie unease increase, the increasingly supernatural feel of the deserted fortifications becoming near to unbearable and he didn't know who would snap first, he or one of his men.
It was one of the men. A tall and gangly youth from Ohio named Freter or Fryer or Frazier stood up to empty the clip of his 1911 Colt automatic into what turned out to be a gas mask stuffed inside a trench-wall niche. The staccato fusillade set off a near panic in the men and Hollister could barely keep them from unleashing their combined firepower with no real enemy in sight.
“Steady, men,” the lieutenant whisper-screamed to his jittering command. “Steady now.”
Hollister stepped to the trembling Freter or Fryer or Frazier and snatched the handgun from his fingers. Releasing the empty clip, Hollister reached and plucked a full clip from the youth's belt, slammed it home into the pistol butt, chambered a fresh round, and gave it back to the boy.
"Next time, try to hit something," Hollister told Freter or Fryer or Frazier and the men close by nearly smiled.
Hollister had to keep the men moving or these kinds of outbursts would become uncontrollable and infectious. He nearly started firing himself when Freter’s or Fryer’s or Frazier’s first rounds went off. And, if there were any Germans about, they certainly knew an enemy patrol was in their midst. The Americans had to move quickly and far.
Hollister ordered the corporals to get the men moving again, this time down a trench line parallel to the one they occupied. Perhaps this section of front was vacant but they might find enemy troops to the left or right. By then, hours had passed and Hollister kept checking his watch to make sure the squad would have enough time to return to its own lines before dawn. Only few more minutes of motion were left before they would have to retreat, their mission a failure.
But, all questions were answered as the lieutenant turned the next double-blind corner. Expecting to see more deserted trench or, perhaps, more trenches but not deserted ones, instead Hollister’s eyes were filled with the sight of an enormous crater, a crater larger than any he had ever seen except amid geological formations. It was far too large; it could not conceivably have been a shell-hole or created by an explosion except one of such enormous proportions that its secret existence was a sheer impossibility. One side or the other would have clamored to claim such devastation. Yet explosions were what invariably caused such large pits in war zone landscapes and, if it were a bomb that dug this hole, it was the largest bomb in creation and then, perhaps, it was responsible for the death of all the German troops within the radius of its desolation. But why Hollister had not heard of its use and how it might have made German bodies completely disappear had not yet occurred to him. For a moment he merely gazed at the pit. Some 300 yards across and at least that deep, it carried the usual accumulation of water only, rather than a mere puddle or pool or a pond, the crater held a small lake.
Hollister could feel his men gather around and behind him, each in turn stunned by the sight before them. A kind of gas or vapor or mist or smoke swirled across the surface of the water at the bottom of the pit but at such a remove from their position that they had yet to fear it. The soldiers could have been witness to some primordial scene of volcanic wasteland long before the simplest life graced this planet's basaltic shores or grew strong enough to blast it back to its origins. They could have been explorers of some alien-scape on some distant planet where life had never and would never thrive. Perhaps they shared the vision of the horrifying future awaiting after endless years of this horrifying war. They stood there, Hollister and his men, transfixed by the vast, dead nothingness before them and tried to imagine how it figured into their mission and how they would report it to their superiors and what it all might mean. And then the waters stirred.
Something, some thing, came uncoiled and uncoiling from the foul water at the bottom of the enormous basin. It was something long, long and black, and it glistened with metallic striation like some horrible organic machine and it reached up and out from the bottom of the pit. The smell of it was nauseating and, before they could turn to run, many of the men began to vomit and vomited still as they finally turned running, voiding bowel and bladder both in a mindless terror beyond the mindless terror of their war.
Behind them came the unspooling thing and then the reaching. Hollister tried to move his men quickly and with some order toward some point of safety as yet to be determined but they finally and completely panicked, dropped their weapons, scrambled and clawed at one another to return to the trench line and run and run and run for their lives and for their souls.
The soldiers pushed their lieutenant aside in their rush and trampled him beneath their feet and it saved his life. As the slick, venomous ropes of animate slime pursued them into the false safety of the German emplacements, those glittering tentacles overpassed Hollister. Attracted by the American soldiers' movements, their heat, the ragged emanations of their raging emotion, and their noise, the protoplasmic proto-tentacles plucked them, man by man, to strip each of his flesh and absorb their juices both chemical and psychic. The massive members were rowed with cups and within each cup was a mouth and within each mouth was a toothed tongue that licked away the men’s blood and muscle, their hormones and their fear and, when sated with by twelve, each retreated back into dark waters and again bypassed the thirteenth there in the mud to leave him wide-eyed and broken, barely conscious, but alive—insanely and against all rationale or reason ecstatic to be just alive.
“How very odd,” Hollister thought before he surprised himself by guiltlessly welcoming the rusty anesthesia of insensibility.
Hollister never returned to the American lines. His captain and his colonel and his general wondered briefly at the loss of the thirteen before resuming their business of slaughter. His status as “missing in action; presumed dead” was duly noted and the telegram was duly sent back to the United States where his mournful family duly received it.
When a German patrol eventually did find Hollister approximately nine days after leading his squadron to their damnation, the lieutenant was both naked and gibbering. The Germans were scouting the old section of trench-work their brass decided needed to be reoccupied without proffering explanation as to why they had been abandoned in the first place.
"Typischerweise," the Germans complained to each other about the seemingly arbitrary orders that propelled them on their seemingly arbitrary mission. And then they found the American, naked and shivering in the six inches of muck and mud flooring the abandoned shelter carved into the abandoned trench’s wall. Streaked with his own waste, unshaven, clutching his genitals in his ragged-nailed hands, the American babbled words they could not understand nor had the inclination to understand. The man before them was clearly mad, a weakling, and a coward suffering from the new mental disease dies Kriegsneurose.
"Rous, schwine," they shouted at Hollister, prodding him with their bayoneted rifles. They made rude comments about his nakedness and his smell as well. Hollister seemed not to see them and, instead, curled into a trembling ball. They had to drag him from the shelter into the relative light of the trench.
Hollister screamed like a woman and clawed at his eyes. He scrambled along the base of the trench wall like a rat, pissing himself and screeching. The Germans laughed in disgust and growing nervousness even as they kicked him and brought the butts of their rifles down upon him. The extremity of his breakdown was too close to their own teetering sanities and they did not appreciate things like that for very long.
"Wass is das 'R'leyh'?" they asked each other after they shot him and left his corpse to rot there in the bottom of that trench.
Though formed thought had long since fled him, Hollister’s last real sensation was simple gratitude toward his killers.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)