By the Dawn’s Early Light
by Bruce Boston

2,395 words

(First published in LC-39)

The conditions delineated by Markusis in his last treatise on peace do not apply to the current situation as perceived by heads of state. Popular commentators stand divided. The houses of legislature engage in furious and deadening debate without resolution. War lives in the hearts of red-blooded men and women everywhere, or at least an image of war as fostered by media that pay court to powers unknown.

         

Of course you have an opinion.

         

Only it is not an opinion based on information you can trust.

         

It is an opinion that rushes blindly back and forth like a commuter express through the quicksilver chaos of your mind.

 

Most of all it is an opinion that no one cares to hear except yourself.

 

Conscription has been instituted for some time and you wait with dread and resignation for your number to be drawn. On the one hand, you harbor thoughts of fleeing to some neutral domain where peace still prevails. On the other, you nurse visions of the glory that could be yours piloting a sleek dreadnought beyond the speed of light as you decimate entire planetary systems with weapons you have never imagined in your foulest dreams. The idea that these are real planets peopled by living beings remains a more elusive concept.

         

Thoughts of your own possible death rise unbidden to plague your sleepless nights. Your body exploding in the vacuum of interstellar space. Your body infested with gruesome parasites as you stagger through the nightmare of some alien jungle-swamp. Your body racked with pain as you babble all of your secrets and sins to vile extraterrestrial inquisitors who have chosen you and you alone to test the limits of human endurance.

 

The months entail in their steady way and by April the city streets become a backdrop for a moving guerrilla theater that is theater no more. Violent demonstrations are an everyday occurrence, though exactly what is being demanded by these wild-eyed protesters — an end to the war, improved living conditions, free museums, decreased reliance on petroleum products—remains a mystery.

         

You have joined such demonstrations, adding your own cries of indefinable rage to the unintelligible throng, tossing bottles and bricks at the advancing armor-clad units. You have linked arms in temporary camaraderie with strangers on the lines. You have felt the relief that comes from the sudden release of anger long suppressed. You have known the adrenaline rush that follows danger narrowly escaped. Still you are none the wiser.

         

By summer burning barricades spring up at random throughout the city. Blocking traffic on main thoroughfares and bringing everyday commerce to a halt. Erupting in staid middle-class neighborhoods, causing respectable middle-class families to cower behind their shiny middle-class shutters. Columns of smoke plume into the sky, imparting a sickening burnt smell to the already polluted air, depositing layers of gray ash on the already gray city. Groups of righteous demonstrators degenerate into gangs of self-seeking looters, their purpose now clear.

 

Soon the streets are deserted more and more often, as if much of the population has departed for a long holiday or a long war . . . as no doubt much of it has. Even the piercing parlors have closed their doors from lack of a clientele. The studio of dreams is open by appointment only. The few restaurants and bars that remain in business are for the most part empty as sane men and women leave their homes only for urgent errands or on trips to and from work.

         

For yes, the workaday world must continue.

         

In the sky towers that dominate the city center, in office upon office, cubicle upon cubicle, pixels still dance and terminals still flicker as the data banks that maintain essential commerce and city services continue to chew and spit endless streams of numbers. You know this far too well, for this is where you must go five times each week to earn your daily bread.

         

And as you make your dreary commute through the deserted streets by dawn’s early light, the architecture of the city—stripped of its inhabitants, its sheer rectilinear vistas exposed—makes you feel even smaller than when these same streets were thronged with pedestrians and traffic. As the wind whistles down these empty corridors it takes on a demented quality that seems to echo strains of music, a jabber of clipped conversations, the cumulative electric whine of passing streetcars, the chambered roar of internal combustion, as if the city were trying to conjure its own past from scraps of aural memory.

 

You have never actually seen an alien. Not in the living-breathing flesh. And the images on the holo remain disconcertingly vague. They are always shown from a distance or shot at a camera angle that leaves their bodies foreshortened or out of focus. Their sartorial excesses—plumed cowls, scarves, plated armor and voluminous robes—do not lend themselves to seeing much of anything. At times they appear insectile. At others they are more reptilian. In either case, they are strange enough to be dubbed monstrous in form and intent.

         

You have never seen an alien. Not in any true detail. Yet you somehow sense that this is the way it should be. For when the rays catch them and they ignite in a swirl of flame and smoke, their blurred and foreshortened images incinerate like hollow studio props. They disappear with an instantaneous flash that leaves no time for screams.

         

You have never seen an alien. Not its eyes. Not its mind. Neither at work nor at play. Not as a sentient creature as confused and complex and wondering as yourself. Or their deaths would seem real.

 

Suddenly your work changes completely . . . without really changing at all.

         

Your entire department is co-opted for the war effort. To your own amazement you somehow manage to pass the background checks required to maintain your position. You are given an intensive crash course in security. From now on all of your tasks must remain top secret . . . though in fact they will be no more secret than before. It has always been such dull and tedious work that you have never talked about it to anyone. And it remains as dull and tedious as ever. You still sit hunched before a flickering screen. You still process meaningless numbers all day long . . . numbers with dollar signs for eyes, numbers that dance only to their own actuarial rhythms, numbers that never weep . . . though in one significant way these numbers have changed. They are now military numbers. They wear full metal jackets that leave them rigid and unbending. Rivulets of binary sweat stream from their sides and smudge their deadly digits.

         

You have now become a contributing member of a vital defense industry. You are no longer subject to conscription. There is no need to flee to some neutral domain, no need to pilot a sleek dreadnought beyond the speed of light. You might claim a full night’s sleep if it were not for the sirens and the sporadic gun fire. If it were not for the couple beyond your bedroom wall who make love—or is it only sex?—with staccato bursts of passion until the dawn’s early light.

 

The years transpire as is their due. Conditions do not change except perhaps for the worse. Power outages become more common. Candles and kerosene lamps are at a premium. There are inexplicable shortages of certain goods that would seem to have little or nothing to do with the war: stuffed animals, board games, dental floss, pomegranates, men’s cologne.

         

And then the dogs begin to appear, prowling the virtually empty blocks both singly and in packs.

         

Dobermans, German shepherds, English mastiffs, Russian wolfhounds.

         

These dogs do not look or act like pets. They are larger and more feral than their domesticated counterparts. They remain at a distance, unapproachable, watching you as warily as you watch them. You have seen a semblance of your own dog—who disappeared months ago from your locked apartment—running with the others. And although the markings on its fur are recognizable, it is hard to believe that this huge slavering beast once curled upon your hearth and nuzzled you palm.

         

Dead bodies have been discovered by the dawn’s early light, savaged and ripped to shreds, partially consumed. Although the dog packs are the logical culprits, rumor has it that the gangs of looters have developed an insatiable blood lust. Some even go so far as to attribute these atrocities to the cadres of armor-clad government troops. It is said that they have taken authority into their own thickly gloved hands and established a curfew that they enforce in their own absolute fashion.

 

Friendships formed during these years have a sad fatality about them, an interim quality that speaks to the present but never the future. Love affairs are fleeting and without promise.

         

You meet a woman or a man in a cafe and you go to his/her apartment.

         

It is an apartment nearly identical to your own, only the floor plan is reversed, a mirror image of your own diminutive prison. The same off-white walls growing more off-white as they gather the city’s grime. The same scarred bureau with the same detritus of personal debris scattered across its surface. The same holoset down to make and model . . . and many of the same discs.

         

You are determined to rival the marathon performance of the couple who roots beyond your bedroom wall. Only you are far too anxious. Your passion is spent in a matter of minutes.

          

Then she/he begins to talk . . . about death of all things . . . what else?

         

“How many have you seen die?”

         

You shrug. Not wanting to respond but responding as a matter of course. “I’ve known some who have been drafted and never returned. I’ve known a few who have disappeared without a trace. I’ve seen both men and women injured in the demonstrations. Some may have died afterward, but I can’t be sure. But no actual deaths. Not for certain.”

         

“Not even on the holo?”

         

It is a ridiculous question and you have to keep yourself from laughing out loud. Whatever made you go home with this strange man or woman anyway? “Of course on the holo. But who can believe the holo? On the holo death is our daily bread.”

         

There is nothing else to say. Nothing to really talk about in the first place. You dress hurriedly and return to the deserted streets.

         

The lift in your building is broken again. When you try to climb the front stairs you are assailed by an overpowering odor that forces you to retreat. You take the back stairs for the first time ever . . . only to realize as you reach your floor that there is no other bedroom beyond the wall of your bedroom. There is only this stairwell.

         

Yet you hear them again that night.

It must be an echo, you conclude, from somewhere else in the building, somewhere else on the block. A strange acoustic irregularity that sends sound leapfrogging where it does not belong.

         

You bang upon the wall. You shout at them for silence. But there is no response of any kind beyond their ongoing ardor.

         

The strange acoustic trick is apparently a one-way street.

 

Another decade—one more for the reaper—draws to a close, as they always must. The conditions delineated by Markusis in his last treatise on peace, revised by Stanley and the Long War Commission, are applied with restraint to the current situation. Popular commentators stand divided. The houses of legislature engage in flamboyant and deadening debate without resolution. The desire for peace lives in the hearts of red-blooded men and women everywhere, or at least a dream of peace as fostered by media that pay court to powers unknown.

 

Naturally you have your own opinion.

 

Only it is an opinion based on information you cannot trust.

It is an opinion that dwells on quicksilver and lime in the mercurial chaos of your mind.

Most of all it is an opinion that no one other than yourself cares to hear.

 

A temporary cease-fire is established. A tentative truce is declared. Provisional treaties are drafted and signed. Unspecified reparations will be paid by and to unspecified parties. Certain territories light-years from home will be annexed and surrendered. New boundaries will be drawn on four-dimensional grids that pretend to comprehend and portray the relativistic gymnastics of the space-time continuum.

         

Domestic dislocations have also had their effect. It is clear that the ruling bodies will change drastically in name and function, though many of their members will remain in place. The specifics of these changes and what impact they will have upon everyday life remain unclear.

         

Still you will go to and from work. Those who do not, those who are not willing or able to work, will beg or steal to survive. Until the need for another conflagration arises, a savage and dull peace will reign in the guise of charity for one and all, in the guise of good will among men and women and aliens alike. As if such an illusion could ever prevail.

         

You have seen the city naked, the squashed horizons of its chill rectilinear vistas. You have watched the war dogs watching. You have processed numbers in full metal jackets. Still you are none the wiser. Or if this is wisdom, it is not a kind that can be applied in any meaningful way to the circumstances that abound.

 

You come home from work one evening to find your dog curled before the fireless hearth. It has returned to your locked apartment as mysteriously as it departed. It pads to your side and nuzzles your palm, its feral eyes once more reduced to adoration.

         

Later that night as you are drifting off to sleep it climbs into bed beside you, a habit you have discouraged for years to no avail. As the first of a thousand dream landscapes you will have lost by morning claims your consciousness, you smell the blood upon its paws.

 

You awaken by the dawn’s early light.

 

Before coffee and a smoke, before you can rise to race the day, the impossible couple that lives beyond your bedroom wall starts in again.

Bruce Boston’s fiction has received a Pushcart Prize and twice been a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award (novel, short story). His stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Amazing Stories, Daily Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Twilight Zone Magazine, and other magazines and anthologies. His latest fiction collection, Gallimaufry (Plum White Press, 2021) is available online from Amazon and other corporate culprits.