Chapter 10 -Deto de Dios
Chuck wandered back to the base across rubble where he remembered a cardboard and tarpaper city the day before. He really didn't know what he was doing anymore, or where he was headed. He simply followed his toes down the hill. As he stumbled along what remained of the dirt road to the base, his higher brain functions were turned off. Instinct and emotion guided the shattered soldier back to his comrades.
Near the edge of the cratered wasteland, a shabby child rushed up to Chuck and tugged as his sleeve.
"Senor, senor, mi madre es malo." The little brown-eyed girl couldn't have been more than nine years old. She was powdered in a light ash.
"Your mother isn't evil, kid...I'm evil."
"No, senor, mi madre es en fermo...seeds.. Ayuda...help, por favor."
"Hey, I'm not a doctor, kid, I'm an army cop. No ayuda... comprende ?"
"Please senor, ella es proximo. She...is...near." The mist in her tiny eyes melted Chuck's heart. She started to sniffle, and he caved in like a cheap lawn chair.
"Oh, hell, what have I got to lose? Donde es su madre?"
The girl grabbed his hand and led him around a nearby boulder. The form of a young woman lay on a charred blanket that was carefully spread over a patch of rubble. She looked like a badly overtoasted marshmallow that had somehow fallen off its stick.
Chuck leaned over the woman to check for a pulse in her clammy neck. When he couldn't find it, he put his head to her breast and listened for a heartbeat that wasn't there. The poor woman had obviously been dead for several hours.
"Muchaca, su madre es muerte. I'm sorry, I can't help her-nobody can help her anymore," Chuck said softly.
"No senor, ella es enferma. Help mama."
He couldn't say no to those pleading eyes. Besides, maybe he was wrong. Maybe she was in shock and he could help her. Sure, he could treat her for shock. He was a top notch first aid instructor and he could treat this little girl's mother until real doctors came. Chuck assured himself that real doctors would be along shortly to try to rectify this horrible accidental bombing. Chuck had lost it.
He was about to tilt the woman's head back to listen for breath when he stopped. Of course she was breathing, he thought, what was the point of trying to help her if she wasn't breathing? As he checked her for broken bones, he saw blood in her mouth. That was no good, she could choke to death; so he gently rolled her to one side. A small pool of blood soon gathered on the blackened blanket beneath her face.
As he turned her, he again realized how cold her flesh felt to his touch. Well of course she felt cold, he rationalized, she was in shock; undoubtedly from the massive bums that covered most of her body. Since he had no clean dressings, he had to leave her charcoal clothing stuck to the huge lesions that covered most of what remained of her skin.
He manually bargained with a small rock until it agreed to stay under his patient's feet. The little girl helped him adjust the burned blanket until it loosely covered her mother. The ashy white and black bums looked like they went all the way to the woman's fragile skeleton. They looked like third degree burns, but he thought it strange that these bums weren't watery. He assured himself that the doctors would know what had made them dry up.
He also knew that he had to find some way to prevent infection, but there was no disinfectant. Anything useful had burned in the all night inferno. The bombs must have been mixed with incendiary chemicals. There was no other way for the soldier to explain how nearly everything he could see in any direction was burned.
"I've done all I can to help your mother, kid. Stay with her until the doctors come. Uhh, espere aqui para los doctors...right here. Adios."
He left quickly and avoided eye contact with the little girl. He was heartsick that he had no medical supplies to help the poor woman. Even if she was dead, it didn't matter to Chuck. No matter what their condition, he could only help people if he had proper first aid equipment. Fortunately, he knew where there was plenty; in his supply closet, back on the base.
"Hey, Jackson, you look like shit. Where the hell you been all day?"
Nightstick Brown was sweating behind his desk, too busy to get up and harass Chuck eye to eye. "I'm as busy as a one balled race horse on a stud ranch, and you come in here looking like you've been dragged ten miles behind a jeep. What do you want me to tell the brass if they show their faces down here?"
Chuck ignored his friend and got into the supply closet. He searched the shelves for the biggest backpack he could find. A survival kit beckoned to him. It had plenty of surplus room for first aid supplies, so he didn't even bother to empty it. He stuffed it with pack after pack of emergency medical supplies, not stopping until the seams begged for mercy.
Brown knew his friend well enough to stay away from him when he was in one of his moods. He didn't know him well enough to realize that this wasn't one of his moods, this was something much more dangerous. He watched silently as Chuck struggled out the office door under his medical burden.
Chuck quickly put distance between his back and the base. He walked in the exact opposite direction of the remains of Benita's home and family, into the richer part of town. The unwieldy load of mercy weighed heavily on his back. The pack's overloaded straps chewed through the padding and into his shoulders. It hurt good.
The setting sunlight showed the road undamaged. No signs of carpet bombing, although the occasional burned out hulk of a home haunted the highway. The solid lines of tarpaper shacks started to be broken by wood houses scattered in their midst.
Chuck stopped an old man along the road and asked him "Where are...your...wounded. I will help...your...wounded. Ayuder...los...mal."
"Senor, you are doing to my language what your army has done to my country. Talk to me in English if you wish to talk."
"I can help. I have supplies now. I can fix them until doctors get there."
"We got enough help from armies today," the oldster stated sarcastically.
"I have first aid. I will help your wounded. Take me," Chuck continued robotically.
"Sergeant, I do not think my neighbors will believe an army man wants to help them. It will be dark soon, and I do not think you will be safe here among us."
"I am sorry about my army. I want to make it better. Show me wounded and I will help." His tone was flat, but his guilt was sharp. Even through his shock, he knew he had to help the civilian victims of this war.
"Sergeant, you stay here until I come back for you. It will not be easy, but our need is strong."
"I will help your neighbors. I am trained in first aid." Chuck sat motionless as dusk disappeared into itself. The night started to get cool, and so did Chuck. He began to rock gently on his heels to stay warm. His rhythm was broken by an occasional thirsty insect that didn't care what blood type was stamped on Chuck's dog tags. He'd just slapped another mosquito into a bloody pulp when the old voice hissed from behind.
"Sergeant, my friends want you to come. Follow me now, it may not be good out here soon."
The old man grabbed Chuck's arm and dragged him into the darkness like a sightless child. Each man stumbled occasionally, but neither fell. They eventually crashed into a village of wooden homes built around a nondescript concrete meeting hall.
A clearing marked the edge of town. As Chuck stepped from beneath the trees, he felt the wind pick up. It seemed to come from all directions and from above. A faint mechanical noise whooshed past toward the center of town.
A thread of red light flashed into life in the sky. Chuck followed its line to a form that suddenly exploded on the ground. He braced himself for a fireball, but nothing marked the event except a hideous scream as the red light winked out.
Despite the onerous mass of the backpack, Chuck galloped toward the explosion site. As he moved, he saw a silhouetted figure ready a rifle and aim it in his direction. A hummingbird might have sneezed in the time it took for the silvery-white finger to lick across the ground and illuminate the stranger and his rifle. The gun metal glowed white-hot, then flowed around and through the menacing marksman faster than Chuck could blink in amazement. A grotesque flesh and metal sculpture flopped to the ground, replacing Chuck's phantom enemy.
He was too shocked to be sick or afraid. He dimly reasoned that it had been done by helicopter-borne lasers. The darkness hid them, and they had somehow been made silent. The only clue they gave was the winds from above. Panic grabbed his legs and bounced him up the pathway to the nearby concrete building. The door opened and he was inside before he stopped running.
Behind him, a new ribbon of light found the building. A chunk of concrete exploded out of the wall next to the door. His guide slammed the door behind him, but it didn't make him feel any safer.
Since his eyes were already accustomed to the darkness, Chuck could see that he was surrounded by people in the dim, candle lit building. Families huddled together as young men strutted around, trying to look military despite their total lack of training. Ragged blankets borrowed from the homes of congregation members were hung over all four windows. They were there to keep light from spilling out and to keep broken glass from pouring in.
His gaze revealed that he was in a church, where dozens of eyes played over him suspiciously. The hall didn't have enough statuary and specialized furniture to belong to the Catholics. In fact, it was one of the new Protestant churches. Despite the common wisdom, the new Protestantism was chasing five hundred years of Catholicism out of parts of Latin America. This was partly because of relatively liberal Protestant birth control options, as well as their somewhat less medieval political leanings.
The old guide had managed to keep track of Chuck through the confusion; a small trick compared to getting his attention. "Sergeant, the wounded are here in the church with their families. I will lead you." There was no response, so he grabbed Chuck's arm and walked him toward the huddled strangers clumped throughout the assembly hall.
"What was that light? Have you seen that before?"
"Yes Sergeant, this is how it started last night. Many people were hit by beams of light from heaven. Some call it Deto de Dios, Finger of God; whatever it points at dies. Some say it is the judgement day, but I myself believe it is an American weapon. Please Sergeant, you are an American; can you tell us why we are punished this way?"
Most of the old man's words didn't register in Chuck's overloaded brain. It can't be American weapons, he reasoned, these people are our friends. But nobody else could build airborne lasers. It hurt him to think anymore, so he stopped, and just let himself react automatically. "Show me the wounded, I will help."
As Chuck made his rounds, he was able to patch the few occasional bullet wounds from internecine sniping. But then he saw injuries he'd never been exposed to in fifteen years of army life. People of all ages who were shy one or more extremities. Hands, feet, arms, legs, even ears and a nose were gone.
"Finger of God?" he quizzed the old man.
"Si Sergeant, all of them last night. But there will be more tonight. You saw it start when you came in."
Chuck became silent and worked his way through about a dozen damaged humans. No matter where the injury was, it was similar to the others. The body part had been burned off, leaving an exposed area of burned skin, seared muscle and charred bone as a marker. The wounds of the victims in the church had been cauterized by the laser, so they had very little bleeding. However, the bones that protruded from two of the wounds were prime candidates for infection. Anybody who had hemorrhaged was already dead. The work sickened him, but he completed it with single-minded efficiency.
"I've cleaned, disinfected and bandaged everybody old man, but the worst is yet to come for most of them."
"I do not understand, Sergeant. What else can you do for them that you are not doing?"
"Nothing," Chuck replied lifelessly. "In a couple of days, when their bums start to heal, these people are going to scream their heads off from the pain. I've seen it before, but the doctors would always take care of it with pain killers."
"Will doctors come and bring us the pain killers?"
"They have to. This is some kind of terrible mistake and the army will fix it. I just don't know how soon. If I was you, I'd get your local drug dealers to make a mercy mission into this place with the good stuff." "I have heard your advice, Sergeant, and I thank you for your help. We will wait for the doctors, but our village has no use for the drug dealers. We will pray for God's help and guidance."
"Are you the minister here then?"
"No sergeant, Pastor Hechizar was the first to die last night. El Deto found him on his way to services." The old man crossed himself, then looked slightly embarrassed by his reflexive ritual.
A frantic pounding drew their attention to the front door. Chuck didn't understand most of the high speed Spanish. As he bounded to the door, he figured out that the agitated man at the door had a family that was only seconds behind him. As Chuck unlocked the door, a smallish man exploded through it, frantically gesturing to a tiny band of runners behind him.
A short, terrified woman dashed in with a screaming infant against her breast. She stopped at the door and shouted encouragement to someone behind her.
A pretty little girl ran across the empty church yard screaming "Mama, Papa." She was less than twenty feet from the door when a ribbon of red light cut across her path. Her tiny left foot exploded as the beam found it. The child fell on her face in the yard, unable to balance herself on only one leg.
Chuck dashed into the night, swept the girl up in his arms, then rushed her inside the church. He believed her to be six years old, but then he gazed into her mysterious black eyes. They were those of a child with too many adult experiences. He laid her tenderly onto a table to take a look at her wound. She whimpered mournfully, but quietly, as her father reassuringly stroked her long, beautiful raven hair.
"Shhhh, bonita, shhhh," Chuck soothed as he studied her injury. It was like the rest. Her foot and ankle were simply gone, her leg ending in a smooth stump. The stump was covered with a white powder that turned out to be the ash of her incinerated ankle.
Something in his brain snapped right then. Chuck automatically cleansed the injury, applied disinfectant, then bandaged the remains of her leg. The little girl was bravely quiet as he worked. The laser had seared the stump's nerve endings so quickly and completely that she wouldn't feel much pain for quite awhile.
His ministrations complete, Chuck kissed her forehead and smiled vacantly. Then he reached into his backpack and carefully emptied all of his first aid supplies onto the floor. He repacked his survival rations into the kit and stood up stiffly with it in his hand.
"Sergeant, what are you doing?" queried the old man. "What if there are injured outside the church? Leave your medicines in the bag so you can go out and help them."
The words went unheeded as Chuck slipped the pack onto his back and headed for the door. His face could have been a mask, for all the emotion it showed.
"Sergeant, you cannot go out there. It is dangerous. The Finger of God is out there."
The sergeant marched robotically into the churchyard and ran right into the wrought iron fence that surrounded the property. He turned like a toy robot and walked in a different direction. Again he hit the fence and turned. This time, by accident, he managed to find his way through the wide front gate.
"Sergeant, nobody will guide you tonight," the old man shouted. "You will become lost in the dark."
The words trailed off behind Chuck, but he never heard them anyway. He didn't think, he didn't hesitate; he just wandered off into the darkness. He was completely oblivious to the occasional wretched scream that ripped into the night behind him. If a man could be on autopilot, it was Chuck leaving that victimized village.
Somewhere in the darkness, the terrorized voices stopped. The helicopters ended their invisible attacks sometime during the hour when the night sneaked off at the insistence of a new day.
He had no orders and no mission, but the solitary soldier kept his nose pointed west. There were dead volcanic mountains on his right, and the lowlands and Pacific Ocean on his left. He feigned and parried across the highway. As much as he wanted to avoid it, the main road was his only route through many places.
He was well away from the highway by the time the sun was low enough to shine into his eyes. Through the glare, he could make out a small town that had been devastated by bombers. He felt the rumble of heavy equipment as he avoided the familiar remains of gutted and flattened homes.
An olive drab bulldozer circled a huge pit that was surrounded by American soldiers. The soldiers sported respiratory masks and gloves. They busily dumped bag after black plastic bag into the hole. As he neared, Chuck saw another group of soldiers unload the huge black bags from an army truck parked near the pit.
"Garbage detail," he absently noted to himself. But as he walked a little further, he saw more masked soldiers with empty black plastic bags. Small groups of them would jump from a truck and drag a charred or mangled human corpse into one of the bags, then seal the open end. The bag was then tossed into the truck, which rumbled along to the next victim.
Before night fell, several hundred garbage bags had been tossed into the pit. American bombs had brought death so quickly and massively that the grieving families had no chance to make burial arrangements for their dead. Those who tried were stopped by soldiers sent there to keep word of the hundreds of deaths away from the world press. There were no funerals and no headstones. The victims were simply dumped into an anonymous mass grave, their remains and their existences buried by heavy equipment.
The bulldozer wasn't out of his sight when he almost tripped over a dead Panamanian soldier. His uniform appeared to be regular army, but his injury did not. There was a single small bullet hole near the soldier's left temple where blood had tried to escape. It didn't look like any head wound Chuck had ever seen before.
As he bent closer, it became obvious that the entire head was strangely misshapen. Instead of the normal curves and ridges, the dead man's head was almost rounded. He tenuously reached down to touch it. The entire head was mushy like a giant, ripe tomato. He could find no solid bone structure anywhere above the corpse's neck.
There had been stories making the rounds, but this was his first look at the damage a mercury bullet could do. Lead is soft, but solid. Mercury, being a liquid metal, offers new properties. It can enter the body through a small hole. Once inside the fleshy mass, the liquid metal splatters at a velocity of hundreds of feet per second. Rather than pass through its victim, it stays inside the body, ricocheting through flesh like the blades of a food processor. At least that's the theory. From the look of the corpse, the theory was correct.
Chuck's mind was already too horrified to process the scene. He resumed his comfortable glassy stare and kept walking west across Panama. He gradually moved to a more northerly course as he crossed into Costa Rica.
He'd stop for food irregularly. Sometimes it came from his survival rations, and sometimes he managed to catch a small out a small town that had been devastated by bombers. He felt the rumble of heavy equipment as he avoided the familiar remains of gutted and flattened homes.
The bulldozer wasn't out of his sight when he almost tripped over an animal. Occasionally his catch was wild; often it was domestic. Even if a chicken or rabbit's rightful owner spotted Chuck poaching one of their animals, none dared challenge him. If they'd known he was only armed with his pocket knife, his luck would have been thinner.
The insect repellent in his survival kit eventually ran out, which meant more than twice as many mosquitoes dared to taste the AWOL soldier's blood. He got used to it. Nothing as petty as bug bites really bothered him anyway. He'd withdrawn into a fugue state. His conscious mind only poked out long enough to help him hitch a ride when he could, or to get food every day or two.
It wasn't until he'd managed to sneak into Mexico that Chuck dimly realized he was headed for the United States. He knew he was running away from Panama, but he'd never given any thought to his destination. His instincts kept him alive and on the move day after day, walking, riding or stumbling.
He rolled into Mexicali on the back of a pickup truck. He could have made the entire journey from Panama on foot in about two months. Thanks to a few rides, it only took five weeks. He was filthy and exhausted, and sported a full beard. He needed a haircut, and his mouth tasted and smelled like the Hudson river. His gums hurt from weeks without the refreshing touch of a toothbrush.
This could be part of the reason the U.S. border guard gave Chuck a seriously hard time when he crossed into California at Calexico. After they checked through his empty backpack and clothing, agents searched him on a much more personal level. Try as they might, they didn't find any proscribed substances on his person.
When they ran his ID through the computer, nothing negative came up. Fortunately for Chuck, Nightstick had juggled army reports to make it look as though his friend was merely on furlough, and was not an army deserter.
The border patrol challenged their brains. They couldn't think of a single reason to deny him entry to his nation of birth. After a short summit, they waved him through with a warning to never again try to do whatever it was that he was doing.
He was thirsty, starved, overheated and totally out of his head most of the time. Nonetheless, he made the remaining 250 miles to downtown Los Angeles in less than two days.
When he dragged into Skid Row, a mission took him in long enough to feed him and get him out of the sun. In return, he had to pray hard every day, which qualified him for more of their charity.
They might have saved his life, but they couldn't save his soul. After a few days he was asked to leave.
He told people downtown he was a solder who was temporarily down on his luck. That got him enough change for bus fare. Chuck stuffed himself onto the Sherman Oaks bus and hopped off at Vine Street. Sleeping on a Hollywood sidewalk wasn't much, but at least he got to see the stars at night, and he didn't have to spend the day praying to a god that had betrayed him.
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