26 February 2009

Playing The Fiddle(action figure story)

The noon sun shone high above the grassy plain along which the party of about a dozen or so figures were moving northwards on the cold, early March day of 2009.

At its head was the Lieutenant, a beaten-up,vintage blond Eagle-Eyed Action Man,who wore an ill-matched assortment of military and civilian figure and doll clothes of various makes,marks and vintages, and strode along with a determined,if weary,air.

About half a foot or so behind him on his right were the members of his squad,an assorted mix of action figures of various types, Modern GI Joes, Modern Action Men, 21st Century SSAMS and one or two off-brand figures, all dressed, like the Lieutenant, in bits and bobs of military and civilian kit with mis-matching accessories, and carrying a variety of firearms, ranging from old GI Joe M-1 Garands with the barrel tips broken off to knock-off versions of GI Joe and other brand name M-16s, and even a vintage Ken doll or Big Jim shot-gun or two.

At the same distance directly behind the Lieutenant, trudged a line of half-a-dozen figures of various sorts,all tightly bound together with string tied around their wrists. They were prisoners, the last survivors of the Commune of Harmonia, a small village republic of farmers,artisans and scholars that had been one of the many settlements that had once flourished in the northwestern corner of Dystopia, or, as it had been known before the two major parts of the world's largest action figure and doll collection,Centralia and Pacifica, split apart in April, 2002, Occidentalia.

From that time on,Occidentalia,along with its eastern neighbour,Orientalia,fell into semi-organised chaos,with action figure communities of various sizes going at each other over resources, territory, ideology, religion and racial, ethnic and brand-name bigotries.

Some,like the People's Republic of Oceania, patterned after its counter-part in Orwell's 1984, rose to greatness before the April, 2007,Centralian-Pacifican War, during which the Oceanians fought alongside the Centralians and lost.

Most Dystopian territories, like Harmonia, and the Bailiwick of New Wessex,in whose army of three dozen figures the Lieutenant was an officer,were small,even tiny,village states of no more than a few dozen inhabitants at most,and had,since the Great Dissolution,as the Centralian-Pacifican split of 2002 was known,alternately traded and fought with each other as relations between them warranted.

For most of that time, the wars between them,and their other neighbours,had been characterised by a low level of violence because of their small populations,and the corresponding horror of casualties that even beings like action figures,capable of being revived a week or so after death, had.

But, after the Centralian-Pacifican War of '07, all that changed, as mercenaries, fugitives, criminals, fortune-seekers and refugees, mainly Centralians, whose government dissolved in the wake of defeat, but Pacificans,too, poured into both halves of Dystopia, bringing with them new beliefs, manners and ways, including a ruthlessness in waging war that most Dystopians hadn't before experienced. Combined with increased anxiety and competition over territory and resources, it was enough to break all of the previous restraints on violence,and so they were.

Villages were now routinely pillaged and burnt to the ground,with all living things in them either killed or enslaved, and a new slang term, “Playing the Fiddle”, meaning cutting the throats of unfortunate captives, usually after a raid or battle,came into use in the various local languages.

It was that very task to which the Lieutenant and his squad were leading their captives,as they would have been led, had their respective fortunes been reversed.

The Lieutenant squinted hard into the immediate distance to find the right spot for the execution ground, while protecting his eyes against the harsh late winter sunlight and wind.

He fumbled in his upper right-hand jacket pocket, pulled out a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth.,next reaching into his right-hand trouser pocket and producing a lighter from it. The Lieutenant stopped for several seconds,cupping his hands to protect its tiny flame from the wind whipping around him,as both soldiers and prisoners behind him simultaneously and wordlessly halted .

He drew hard on the cigarette,sucking the smoke into his chest cavity, then started walking forward again,looking for just the perfect spot to finish the job assigned him and his men.

The Lieutenant took another puff, while thinking of nothing at all,a state he found becoming more and more common with him as he aged. There were times when, in a state of repose, he would think back to when he was first de-boxed, “Was it thirty or thirty-one years ago???,” the Lieutenant would wonder, and then he would ask himself, as he always did,“Where did the time go???!!!”.

Gone, the time and the events in his life had, going first from one collection to another, ending up in a charity shop, being bought by a collector, who, after a while, had sold him on Ebay to an American acting as a buyer for the organics of whose collection which he was now a part, and ending up in New Wessex just a little before the Great Dissolution.

From there, it had been one struggle after another to keep going, with one,or was it two?, wives, both dead now, a girl-friend or two after that, and all the while,working in his small shoe shop, when not out on operations in the field.

All of that had been chopped and mashed up,blended, and fused in his head long ago,and there were days when he found himself unsure of where he was,when it was,and even what his own name was. That, and the Lieutenant found himself increasingly tired, it seemed to him,of everything and everyone, even himself.

He felt his joints and elastic loosening every day, two of the fingers on his right gripping hand were already gone, and a third looked about ready to go as well, his fuzzy hair was patchily spaced on his head, and it seemed about the right time for him to finally lie down one sunny afternoon, go to sleep and not wake up ever again. At least, not as the same figure .

So, a bit of mental napping every so often relieved him, just so long as the Lieutenant could be mentally sharp and focused when he needed to be.

It was while engulfed in that mental fog,eagle eyes moving back and forth, right and left,that the Lieutenant found the perfect killing ground,a flat semi-grass-covered patch of a ground about a foot or so away from him on his left.

He wordlessly looked over in the direction where his sergeant, a 21st Century Soviet Spetsnaz sniper named Dzerzhinsky was heading the squad file, called out, “Sarn't” to the latter, and pointed at the patch.

Dzerzhinsky nodded affirmatively at the Lieutenant, called the squad to turn left, and, leading the right half of the crescent-shaped formation that body took to herd the prisoners to their destination, briskly strode over to where the Lieutenant stood.

Practically nothing was said by anyone,aside from some commands from the sergeant to the prisoners to turn and hurry up, as the group went along.

The Lieutenant simply stood and watched as Dzerzhinsky and two soldiers led and herded the prisoners into a line not more than half a foot in front of him and the squad, the remainder of which formed into a file directly across from where the prisoners stood.

No thoughts, or at least any conscious ones, passed through his head, as he watched the process unfold. He took another drag from his cigarette, inhaling, then, a few seconds later, exhaling its smoke, before extinguishing it and replacing it in his right trouser pocket, as the sergeant finished up his work and began walking over to his superior. Every bit of the process went just like clockwork,, just as it had many times before,and probably would if,or more likely when, their own time to be taken and shot came, the Lieutenant mused to himself.

Dzerzhinsky approached him and said, “Ready when you are, Sir,” and stood ready to receive his officer's reply.

The Lieutenant coughed, telling himself he'd have to give up smoking very soon, and told his junior, “Right. Take your place, Sergeant.”

Dzerzhinsky's reply was a terse “Sir”, then he headed over to where the squad was, and took his place on its extreme right, awaiting, like the rest of his mates, the Lieutenant's next order.

The Lieutenant turned his head in the prisoners' direction, looking them over, which he'd not done before, and scanned their faces from left to right. The expressions he saw on the first three were, or at least seemed to be, blank,though, he thought,one could never really tell what was going on in anyone's mind just by reading what was on his face, and the expression on the fourth prisoner's face was one of resignation, as if he was simply wanting them to get on with the whole dreary procedure.

The last two prisoners' faces, however, interested him most.

The fifth prisoner, a Sideshow Toys Get Smart Chief, seemed to be wavering between his figure type's typical sardonic weariness, disbelief at the situation he was in, a possible urge to beg for his life, and stoical acceptance of what was coming, more or less simultaneously. Most amazing, the Lieutenant thought.

The last prisoner, a blonde Fashion Fever Barbie who was the only woman in either group, was in angry, defiant shock, and hurled a stream of bitter invective at her executioners, describing them, their makers, and their parents in a blend of obscenity and blasphemy that would have done credit to a drunken Dutch sailor on a Saturday-night spree who just been nabbed by the cops.

The Lieutenant listened to her outpourings for what was probably 10 or 15 seconds, but which must have seemed much longer to everyone present, admiring her courage and spirit, if not her sense, before looking away from her and her companions, and tuning out her insults.

After all, he thought, best to get the job done and over with, especially as the wind was getting colder and was biting right through his clothes.

The Lieutenant placed his hand in his left trouser pocket, fumbling around for the sheet of paper with the ritual statement that was read to the condemned on such occasions, then decided to dispense with it entirely and finish this before he and his squad all turned into blocks of ice.

He turned his head toward the squad, and called it to attention. It did so,waiting for the order to make itself ready to come out of his mouth. That followed directly, accompanied by the sound of gun safeties clicking off.

Next, came the order for the squad to aim its weapons at the prisoners, which was carried out as soon as the squad heard it.

The only sounds that could be heard as the squad aimed its weapons were the wind starting to blow gustily across the plain and the woman's insults, nothing more, so it seemed to the Lieutenant.

Finally, after about a second or two's delay, he gave the order to fire, and the wind and the woman's voice, along with any other sounds there might have been, were drowned out by the rifle pops combined with the blasts from the squad's two shot-guns, that made up a short-lived, communal roar of weaponry.

The prisoners were hurled backwards by the impact of the squad's bullets, hit the ground in a variety of awkward positions, and stayed where they fell, the string binding their wrists being the only thing keeping them together in death, as it had in the last minutes of their lives.

Now, the only sound remaining was the wind, blowing hard, followed by a cigarette cough from the Lieutenant.

He'd been looking off into the distance during the execution, regarding neither his squad nor the prisoners. But, since the main part of the show was finished, the Lieutenant again gazed in the latter's direction, looking for breathing or any other signs of life coming from any of them. There wasn't, as far as he could tell, but standard procedure called for a head shot for each victim to make absolutely sure, and he wasn't about to deviate from it this time, just as he hadn't in the past.

So, the Lieutenant strolled over to where the prisoners lay, carefully inspecting them for life signs yet again as he did so, saw none, while pulling his .45 calibre self-loading pistol from the holster on his web belt's right side, taking its safety off, and pulling back its hammer, cocking it to fire.

He first walked over to where the woman lay on her back, face-up, her final expression one of fear and anger now giving way to dead nothingness, aimed his pistol and fired a shot directly into her forehead.

After that, he made his way down the row of prisoners, some of whom, like the woman, were laying face-upwards, while others were either face-down or had their heads turned to one side or another, and fired a single shot each into their heads.
When he finished with his part of the execution, the Lieutenant gave an unthinking sigh, replaced his pistol into its holster, and turned away for the last time from his victims. There was nothing more that he could either say or do about them or their condition, anyway.

He called out to Dzerzhinsky to have two men come up and untie the prisoners' wrists, which was quickly carried out, while the Lieutenant made his way to the squad.

Lives were cheap and plentiful in this part of the world, but not string.

Ordinarily, there would have been a vehicle, or at least a horse or donkey or two, which would have carried the prisoners' corpses back to New Wessex for cleaning, and, perhaps, either revival or sale to one of the various wandering body dealers, colloquially known as “Scavengers”, “Vultures” or “Buzzards”, who traded in such items, as well as weapons, clothing and other accessories left behind after battles, all over Dystopia.

But, there had been too many of their own people killed and wounded while taking Harmonia, and none could be spared to transport the bodies of slain prisoners.

So, they would be left where they fell, and if someone picked them, fine. If not, they would be left to the mercies of the weather and whatever animals, figure or organic, that came upon them, and that was that, the Lieutenant thought as he passed down the squad's line after complimenting them on their work.

He walked over to the squad's far left, taking the head of the line it would make as it headed for the ruins of Harmonia, where they would meet up with whatever remaining members of their army stationed there after the looting and transport of whatever was taken, along with their dead and wounded, finished.

The Lieutenant heard, then saw Dzerzhinsky as he came up and told him that everyone was back in line and ready to go. He replied, “Good,” to that statement, and told the sergeant to order the squad to move out, staring straight ahead towards the wisps of black smoke going up into the sky that marked Harmonia's ruins and their penultimate destination before shoving off home.

Dzerzhinsky thanked him, saluted, looked back at the waiting soldiers, called out, “Left face,” then gave the order to “Forward, march,” while making his way to the squad's rear, where he took up his place.

The Lieutenant took two steps forward, with the rest of the squad following behind, and the long walk home for them began, leaving behind the prisoners who would most likely never take such a walk ever again.

There was no singing, chatter or any other sort of noise coming from the squad as it marched, only he steps of the men as they walked away, and the sound of the March wind blowing as it had for millions of years before.

Two weeks after the execution, New Wessex, like Harmonia, was taken, sacked and burnt, and its inhabitants, the Lieutenant and Dzerzhinsky included, either killed in battle or killed afterwards.

By the time a Centralian peacekeeping force, heading east to central Occidentalia to help the unfortunate survivors of a massive uprising and war that had devastated that part of the Dystopian
lands, passed through the region where Harmonia, New Wessex and their neighbours had been at the end of March, 2009, there were only ruins and a very few frightened and starving survivors, who fled from the very sight of the force's vehicles, to be found.

Everyone and everything else were either dead or long since gone, leaving only ruins, ghosts, the grass and the wind.