The landing craft bobbed clumsily on the waves. The damned things were so unstable when they didn’t have a full accompaniment of men to act as ballast. Captain James Clelland’s six-man team was no substitute. The ride back would be better. The boat would be full.
They were half a mile out and Clelland could see the carnage on the beach. He didn’t want to look at it or think about it. There would be plenty of time for that when they arrived. There would be sights and sounds that would eat through his soul for a lifetime. He leaned on the side of the boat and stared into the sky, ignoring the flotilla of boats approaching the beach in a fan formation.
Puffy white clouds passed gracefully across the sky. He was astounded by how similar the clouds were to those back in England. Somehow he expected them to be different, at least exotic. Clouds from the North Pacific should have been different. He didn’t know how or why, but they should have been. Floating on the wrong side of the sky maybe, he thought. He could have watched the clouds all day but the stink was invading his nose. The beach was close.
“Right, kit-up everyone,” Clelland ordered.
“Make way for the Lord Mayor’s Bucket Boys,” Sergeant Williams announced in a pompous, officious voice.
Clelland hated the term that had attached itself to his men like a limpet mine. It had started in the mess hall after their second or third mission. The problem was the phrase was too apt. The real Lord Mayor’s Bucket Boys picked up horseshit after the annual procession. His Bucket Boys picked up something different after the battles were waged. The stench of what they handled was no less disgusting, and most couldn’t stomach the work. Turnover was high. His men always had a choice, of sorts. He didn’t. He was Oracle’s right-hand man. He was the only man perfect for the job.
Clelland tied a handkerchief around his head, over his nose and mouth. Others did likewise. The Lord Mayor’s latest Bucket Boy pulled on a gas mask. After a couple of trips, the mask wouldn’t be necessary. The stench would offend, but not disgust. A handkerchief, scented maybe, was all that was needed for a Bucket Boy.
Clelland tapped the private with the gas mask on the shoulder. “Take off the mask,” he told him.
Confused eyes stared back from behind the mask.
“Take off the mask, soldier. That’s an order.”
The private did as he was told. “Sir, the stink?”
“Harris, it’s in your best interests to keep the mask off. You’ll throw up.”
“But if I have the mask…”
Clelland raised a hand to silence the lad. Hysteria was creeping into the private’s voice. “You’ll vomit. If the stench doesn’t do it, the sight will. So, it’s better to vomit with the mask off than on. Then you won’t have to breathe in the stench of your own spew. So, keep the mask off.”
Williams, not wise-cracking for once, nodded. The Australian knew better than most. He’d been with Clelland since the discovery. “Puke now. Mask later.”
Clelland pulled out a scented rag and pressed it into the private’s hand. “Use it when you’re done.”
Harris couldn’t speak. Fear, anguish, whatever it was Clelland saw in those innocent eyes strangled the private’s vocal chords. In a month’s time, those eyes would be hollow and darkness would be the only thing lurking behind them. Nothing would ever disturb the private again. Clelland knew. He stared into those same eyes in the mirror every time he shaved.
The sapphire blue ocean changed to blood red. Pink caps that should have been white rode the tops of the red waves as they crashed onto the decimated bodies of fallen soldiers.
“Brace yourselves boys,” the helmsman warned.
Clelland’s team grasped handholds and waited for impact. The boat ground to a halt on the beach. The bow door dropped, digging into bloodstained sand and crushing dead bodies. No one rushed off the boat, ready for action. There were no Japs to take on. No one left to kill. Clelland’s men took their shovels and trudged onto the beach ignoring what they trod on. As Clelland disembarked, he patted the vomiting Harris on the back.
The place was different but the story was the same. The Japs had won at the expense of the British. They’d been particularly ruthless on this occasion. Besides the bullet-riddled and grenade-ravaged corpses, he recognized the hallmarks of ritual decapitation and disembowelment. The battle over, they’d set about the wounded with their samurai swords.
Blood from hundreds saturated the beach. Clelland hadn’t realized until he became a Bucket Boy that blood had an odor. It wasn’t unpleasant, just overpowering, suffocating, like being trapped in a room filled with stale air.
The soldiers had been dead some time. Twelve to fourteen hours, by Clelland’s estimates. The blazing sun had had a chance to cook the flesh. What should have been pink had blanched and turned beige. Instead of just the usual stench of shit and rotting flesh, a human barbecue was in progress.
Clelland blew his whistle. Soldiers disembarking the four other landing crafts turned to their commanding officer. All of them were close enough to shout to. “Right, gentlemen. The routine is the same as it always is. Take the dog tags, leave the weapons, no souvenirs and…” Clelland’s voice faltered, losing power. “Let’s get these boys back on the boat.”
“Poor bastards,” Williams said.
“I doubt they envy us, sergeant,” Clelland remarked. “They don’t have to do this.”
The Australian mulled the thought over and nodded. “I reckon we’re gonna have to come back for a second go.”
“Then we’ll come back, sergeant.” Clelland was sharp with Williams. He knew he was wrong to snap at the Australian. The man was only making small talk. And God knew they needed something to take their minds off their jobs. He’d make it up to him, a beer in the mess hall tonight. Another to go along with all the others he owed. “Are you finished there, Harris?”
The private ran a hand across his mouth. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, let’s get stuck in.”
Clelland didn’t have to get stuck in. He had rank. He could have overseen the operation without getting his feet wet like a good officer. But he was compelled to be involved. No man should have to do this and setting himself apart from his men didn’t sit well in his stomach. Better he got in the thick of it. His complicitus actions had caused this. If he’d been half the man he should have been, then maybe they wouldn’t be here.
They snagged dog tags, placing the ID plates in the satchels over their shoulders. They shoveled up chunks of men and dropped the pieces into wheelbarrows, then emptied the barrows into the landing crafts.
They were about half an hour in when Williams let loose with the jokes–right on time. He had a never-ending stream of them. Mainly bawdy stuff Clelland had heard in the not-so-classy music halls. He couldn’t remember how many ops they’d been on together but he knew he’d never heard a joke repeated. His gags weren’t just blue. He launched into scathing attacks on the crew and the British in general. It was all taken in good jest. The men forgot they were shoveling human slops as they attacked Williams and Australia. After the bullets, personal attacks strafed the battlefield.
“Alright there, Harris?” Williams called out.
The masked private nodded, his filter hose flapping.
“Harris, you look like a fucking monkey with that thing on,” Williams said.
“Yeah, one wiv an elephant’s trunk,” another soldier chipped in.
“You’re right, mate. A fucking monkey with an elephant’s trunk.” Williams started a chorus of laughter. “You want to lose that thing, Harris.”
Clelland knew it was the wrong time to pick on the private. Williams’ ribbing would have consequences. But some situations were best resolved between the men and not their senior officer.
Harris blew. He tore off his gas mask and threw it. It struck the side of a landing craft and splashed in the surf. A wave carried it back to shore. The private stared daggers at Williams.
The Australian and the men froze, waiting for Harris’ next move. He breathed heavily, as if he was building enough oxygen in his lungs to give Williams the tongue lashing of his life.
But he didn’t.
Harris possessed an astounding choral voice. He sang a hymn. Clelland didn’t know which one, not being much of a church man. But it was beautiful.
The men remained silent. Williams nodded his approval to the private and got back to work. The other men followed his lead.
Harris’ voice soared and could be heard across the beach. The men joined in with the private when he came to a hymn they all knew, adding to the heartwarming sound.
Clelland was amazed at man’s ability to cope. He couldn’t believe that beauty could exist in such a place. Why was it when man was at his absolute worst, it inspired others to create their absolute best? Clelland didn’t know the answer to his question. He wasn’t one of those men whose enlightenment raised them above the situation.
As soon as Harris sang, Clelland knew the private would survive his time on the HMS Vulture. Some hadn’t, but he would. He had his singing, like Williams had his corrosive humor. All his men had their outlet, something to put between them and the horror.
Except him. He had an officer’s burden that came with command. He could never distance himself from the job. Oracle made sure of that. He was just a cog in the machine; integral to the monstrous acts committed in the name of war. If he was granted an outlet, it would be to take Oracle’s life.
Williams was right. They had needed more boats. The landing crafts made two runs each to clear the beach. By the time his men returned to the landing crafts not a scrap of soldier remained. But they couldn’t do anything with the tainted sand. Clelland didn’t like to think how long it would be before the crimson tide washed the crimson beach clean.
His men looked like savages, ancient warriors returning from a successful raid. Their khaki uniforms were as red as the gore that doused the inside of the boat. It was as if they’d bathed in blood. Clelland knew his soul had. It was drenched with the stuff.
Reaching the HMS Vulture, Clelland’s men stripped off, tossing their clothes overboard. No one wanted to bring their part of the mission back to the ship with them. Hoisted aboard, they turned hoses on themselves and let the day’s toil run into the bilge.
HMS Vulture was a converted salvage ship, kitted out with armor plating and 50mm cannons. The last of the landing crafts filled with Britain’s fallen was raised into the air. It swayed above the open cargo hatch that was large enough to hold what fifty landing crafts had to offer. The bow was tilted and the landing craft’s contents spilled into the hold. The suspended boat was rocked to make sure nothing remained.
Lieutenant Rodgers threw Clelland a towel. The young officer was Navy and ran the ship with a small detachment of sailors. But the Army had authority. It was their operation.
“Is that the last one?” Clelland asked, nodding at the dangling boat.
“Yes, sir. The other boats are moored on the starboard side.”
Damned mariner-speak, Clelland thought. He had to remind himself which side was starboard. No more port left was the mnemonic. So, port was left, which made starboard right.
“We’ll slop out the boats in the morning,” Rodgers continued.
Clelland shook his head. “I want those boats slopped out tonight. I don’t want their stench to contend with in the morning.”
“Very well, sir. I’ll make arrangements.” Rodgers turned to leave, then stopped. “Will you be talking to Oracle tonight?”
Williams, Harris and several others waited for Clelland’s answer.
“Yes. Is Oracle eating?”
Clelland didn’t need to ask. He knew Oracle was eating, because the son of a bitch wasn’t screaming his name. The bastard didn’t complain as long as it was fed. Some aide to Allied forces.
“I’ll speak to our guest after I’ve had a drink. I think these men deserve one.”
“At least one,” Williams chipped in. “Today’s been a bastard.”
The Vulture’s chugging engine reverberated off the hull, sounding like a beating heart. The ship was on a new course with another rendezvous with synchronized slaughter the day after tomorrow. Would Oracle have anything for him that might save some lives?
Entering the cargo hold, it was as dark as the night sky on deck. Feeble lighting came from a daisy chain of bulbs suspended by their own wiring. Oracle preferred the dark and Clelland was more than happy not to see his guest.
British forces had pulled off a few coups during the war. One had been the capture of the German’s cipher generator, Enigma. The other had been Clelland’s battalion discovering Oracle in Papua New Guinea. No one knew about Oracle, not even the Yanks. Oracle’s information was shared with the Allies but the source was unknown. Oracle was too significant to share.
Clelland had been a corporal when they found Oracle a year ago, but because he was the only one who understood what Oracle said, he was elevated to captain and given the unholy task of working with it.
The hold stank. Oracle stank. Even though they slopped out the hold on a regular basis. The creature’s filth clung to the ship and its natural odor didn’t help either. Its perfume was rancid at best. It wasn’t the best way to make friends and influence people, but luckily for Oracle, its talents lay elsewhere. People were willing forgive a lot of things if you had something to offer.
Oracle sensed Clelland’s presence before he opened the cargo hold door. Clelland felt it traipsing through his mind in spiked boots. After tonight’s encounter, he would have a headache that would last their journey to the next island.
“Clelland, are you there? Have you come to see me?”
Oracle’s unspoken words sloshed through Clelland’s skull. He winced, closing his eyes, and massaged his sinuses. It was always like this, at first. But the jarring pain would pass. The first time the creature had tried to communicate, he thought his brain had been cleaved in two. But he had learned how to tune Oracle to the right volume and frequency so its thoughts would come through at a steady throb.
“You know I have,” Clelland answered.
“A lot of casualties today, Captain.”
“Yes. Let’s hope you can help minimize the chances of more.”
“I’ll do my utmost. As long as our arrangement continues.”
“You have my word. As always.” Clelland’s words tasted metallic on his tongue. He kept his bargain, at the cost of others. “I need to know the locations of the Japanese fuel dumps for it’s Pacific fleet. And…”
“Don’t hang back Clelland, come closer.”
Clelland edged forward and his foot brushed against pulsating flab. He blocked out his disgust. He had learnt to suppress his feelings in front of Oracle. He couldn’t show his revulsion. It would hear his thoughts and be offended. Clelland retracted his foot.
Oracle was getting bigger, a side effect of living off others. Clelland glanced up at the hold’s bay door. Oracle could only have been ten feet from the top. Soon they would have to find a bigger ship. The creature wasn’t the twenty-five ton mass they had found in a dormant volcano crater.
Christ knew what it was. Oracle had tried to explain, but either it couldn’t articulate itself or Clelland couldn’t comprehend it. Not that it mattered. It was of use to the Allied cause. Beyond that, Britain had no further interest.
It was a creature though. The professor who examined Oracle at the discovery site, had said that it was alive and pronounced it as such.
“A creature is defined as an organism that possesses a mouth and an anus.”
Physically, that was all Oracle was–a gelatinous hillock of shit-brown flab with the ability to process food. It possessed no eyes to see, or ears to hear and was incapable of movement. But that wasn’t important. What raised Oracle from biological curiosity was that it had intelligence. It could communicate.
The downside was that Clelland was the only one who could understand. The creature was to be shipped off to the British Museum, until Clelland realized that Oracle possessed the power to read men’s minds. Distance wasn’t a problem. Oracle could tune in anyone on the planet like a radio and listen to their thoughts. Its gift made up for all its physical shortcomings and the creature became a military deity and Clelland, its interpreter.
“You were saying, Captain?” Oracle prompted with its sickly sweet voice.
“I need to know the location of the fuel dumps and the movements of the Japanese fleet in the Philippine Sea.”
Clelland didn’t know why he did it. He always spoke to the spout at Oracle’s peak, the opening that consumed food. Oracle didn’t have a face. Clelland was astounded at his reliance on convention. He relied on the visual, the creature on the mental. He needed a face to talk to, but there wasn’t one, so he spoke to the next best thing, its mouth. He wondered if Oracle could sense his presence. The hairs as thick as straw and just as rasping that covered Oracle’s mass might have been able to detect rudimentary shapes. His theory was further reinforced by the heavy concentration around its mouth.
“Let me see what I can find out,” Oracle said.
Oracle scanned. The creature breathed in and out, much more deeply than when it communicated with Clelland. It inflated, pushing Clelland back, then deflated. The creature expanded by at least ten percent when in deep thought. Its mouth opened and closed in time with its swelling and contracting bulk.
After several minutes, Oracle responded. “I have the information you need.”
“Good.” Clelland wasn’t overjoyed. He didn’t much care for the information. The price was too high.
Oracle relayed the information and Clelland made shorthand notes for his superiors.
“Will London be pleased?” Oracle asked.
“I’m their best agent, aren’t I?”
“Yes. Yes, you are, Oracle.”
“My information has the best mission success rate in the Allied forces, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. Eighty percent.”
Always eighty percent.” Oracle exhaled and its spout opened then closed. “I wish it could be more.”
Clelland was shaking. Oracle was tearing him apart. It was hard to hold back the tears. He insisted on showing Oracle was a brave front every time it teased him. It was a futile gesture. Oracle knew exactly how Clelland felt. How much it all hurt. How much he hated himself for being the one who had to deal with the informant. Clelland covered his nose and mouth with his hand, holding in a cry.
“When do we arrive at Wotje Atoll?”
“Thirty-six hours.” Clelland wiped away a tear and sniffed.
“Wasn’t Wotje Atoll one of my bad predictions?”
Clelland nodded to a creature that couldn’t see.
“Have they fought yet?”
“No. Oh-five-hundred hours.”
“Do you think many will be killed?”
“You know it will be slaughter.” Clelland’s words crawled out on barbed wire. He fought the urge to scream.
“Do you blame me?”
“Does it matter?”
“Because London is happy with my successes and not to bothered by my failures? Because nobody’s perfect? Because no one can be right all of the time?”
Clelland was already walking away. He had what he came for. He didn’t have to listen to Oracle. He wasn’t the creature’s friend or nursemaid. He was just the message boy.
“I’ll relay your information to London.”
“I’ve given you five missions there. One has to fail, to maintain my eighty percent success rate. I’ll let you choose which one.”
“Bastard,” Clelland hissed under his breath. He didn’t care that Oracle heard his thought before the word was out.
“Remember, Clelland. We have a bargain.”
Clelland slammed the cargo hatch. The resulting clang rebounded off the hull and bulkheads.
How could he forget? The bargain came after a string of successes at the expense of Oracle’s health. In the Vulture’s hold, the creature had been dying. London told him to keep Oracle alive at any cost…any cost. The problem was its diet. The food they fed it, the cows, pigs and sheep, were killing it. It needed what it had always needed, what it had survived on in the volcano’s crater and what it needed to thrive to read the enemy’s minds–people.
London wasn’t about to sacrifice people to the creature, but they did have plenty of dead. Clelland fed Oracle the carcasses of soldiers that fell in battle. The families of the dead didn’t need to know the final sacrifice their loved ones had to make for King and country.
Nobody was perfect, except Oracle. But the creature had to be wrong, or it would never eat. The flow of dead was drying up. London had told Clelland to do whatever it took to keep the information coming. Oracle and Clelland made a deal. Every fifth mission, Clelland sent London the wrong time, location or position. Thousands of soldiers died unnecessarily, just so Oracle could eat.
He never shared their secret. Who could he tell? The Lord Mayor’s Bucket Boys would have hacked him and Oracle to pieces. London would have turned a blind eye, uninterested. The cost was small compared to the ten of thousands that lived. Acceptable losses, as they liked to say.
“Our bargain, captain,” Oracle reminded Clelland, as the officer headed for the radio room.
Not that its reminder mattered. Oracle was finished. The Pacific theater was at an end. The Yanks had the bomb and intended using it. And Clelland had his transfer papers. He was an artilleryman again. His destination was number three on Oracle’s list. He circled it as the mission to fail.