Like the brand on each palm, so should the Doctrine sear itself into your being. These rules have built a foundation for all Finishers to stand upon. Let it be known that no man is deemed worthy to command until they have lived the Doctrine so thoroughly that they may recite it to perfection.
To those who accept the challenge of the Finishers, and leave no beast breathing, your contract awaits.
The Man Who Can’t Be Killed
Jake’s hands sunk into the mud with each pushup. The filth climbed up his forearms as Soot continued to count. Finisher and Dust alike formed rows across the lot. He and his men had accepted the fatigues provided. By the time Soot counted to thirty, all were dirt—nameless and crumbling.
Many had collapsed. Jake scanned the field at the peak of his push for any Finishers still going. He found a dot of flame in the distance above the bodies. The fire calmed and reddened at the tip of Grit’s cigar. He let the smoke billow from his nostrils as his men stood close with umbrellas in hand.
“I said down, Reto!”
Soot buried the heel of her boot into Jake’s spine. He held steady, listening to a cacophony of wretches and wheezes. He watched the rain carry their vomit below him.
“It looks like Jake is the only Finisher still standing,” said Soot. “That brings his streak to ten. Look at him shake while not a single soldier has broken a sweat…”
Jake tuned her out and focused on Grit. Someone had joined the commander. The poncho hid Terry well. He looked like any other soldier sharing a smoke with Nann. Too good for the mud? thought Jake.
One by one, the Dust succumbed to exhaustion. Soot said nothing to them. She placed all her attention on Jake, waiting for his inevitable breakdown. Soon his body gave way and crashed into the muck. He rested there until he heard Soot whisper in his ear.
“Now run until you’re clean.”
His path took him deep past the mine entrance and barracks to the outer lot where the Finishers had built a makeshift base camp. The jog was not altogether unpleasant. It was a reprieve from Soot’s surveillance for a few hours. Despite all their time together, Jake still knew little about the lieutenant. For all her cruelty, she still updated him daily on the wellbeing of his family. She has the power to really hurt me, but she doesn’t. Is she afraid of what I’ll do?
When he arrived at the base camp, Jake spotted other Finishers licking their wounds out the backs of vans and pickup trucks. He felt their eyes on him. What do they blame me for today? Jessup, Eustace, or Grit?
As he left them behind he heard footsteps gaining speed behind him. He deviated from his usual route to circle back to the base camp; the footsteps followed. Jake rested to the side to let them pass; instead they struck the back of his leg with a baton.
What the fuck!? Jake fell to one knee as the Dust surrounded him.
“You got off way too easy,” said private Hucks as he pointed the baton at Jake. His neck was still riddled with bruises and marks from the cord Jake used to sedate him.
Jake looked over at his men nearby. They averted their gaze as if nothing happened.
“You don’t want this,” said Jake.
“Your men certainly don’t. I was hoping for a more sporting fight, so I’ll cut you a break. Lick the mud off my boots and I’ll call this off.”
Jake stood. “Leave before I kill you.”
Hucks nodded, and Jake heard a baton extend behind him. He waited for the swing to come at his leg again, and brought his boot down on the attacker’s wrist. He wailed as Jake wrenched the baton from his broken hand and cracked it across his face. The next soldier charged from behind, opting to strike high. Jake met his weapon with a clash and lost his baton in the exchange. He hunkered down to pull his knife from his boot and stabbed it into the soldier’s calf.
Two more soldiers rushed him. Jake hurled his knife, imbedding it handle-deep into one soldier’s thigh. The other caught Jake with a hook to his jaw. The soldier repeated jabs to Jake’s face until Jake lowered his body and broke the soldier’s hand off his forehead.
The soldier with the knife in his leg removed it and slashed at Jake’s neck. His arms were slit open by the barrage as he tried to protect himself. Jake rotated his body to close the distance and snatched his attacker’s forearm. He kicked him in groin, and then dug his fingers into the soldier’s eye and nostril. Jake yanked him backwards, knocking him on his back.
The soldier with the broken fist returned with his sidearm drawn. Jake grabbed the barrel of the gun with his left hand and struck the attacker in the temple with his right. The soldier fell lifeless as Jake ripped the gun from his hand. He found Hucks running back toward the barracks. Jake took aim and fired a bullet into the private’s hamstring.
With the gun still drawn, Jake felt a hand slither from his shoulder down across his jaw. Pressure filled around his throat as the assailant flexed their silver bicep. Jake struggled to escape the hold, but the grip was too secure.
“Say goodbye to the sun!” said Soot.
The world went dark as the sun peeked out from the east.
Jake found himself in a medical tent erected next to the Finisher barracks. A lantern rested on a small table against the head of his cot. He sat upright, watching the light dance across the tarp like a solemn ballet. His shirt lay on the floor in a bloody ball of shreds. Monty kicked it aside before passing a bandage roll around Jake’s torso.
“What were you thinking?” said Monty. “Those men are half your age. You can’t be taking risks like that—not now.”
“Thank you for treating me,” said Jake.
“Thank you for passing out above ground,” said Monty. “I won’t go down that hell hole again.”
“As soon as we’re done here, we’ll never have to see this place.”
“Is that right? I’ve heard rumblings that Terry’s grown fond of our dusty new pals. They’ve already got a few jobs lined up for us.”
“Terry doesn’t have the authority to take any on, not while I’m still interim commander.”
“You’ve probably seen him around—not three steps away from Grit.”
So I’m not the only one that’s noticed. How long before he stains his skin silver? “Terry’s just trying to get information out of the bastard. I won’t be in charge for long, but I’ll use my time to get us as far away from these people as possible.”
“Lower your arms slowly,” said Monty. He began to dab gel on the open cuts across Jake’s face, neck, and shoulders. “You keep talking about this ‘interim’ status. May I ask why you haven’t just taken the vow and made it official? You already know the Doctrine forwards and backwards.”
The gel felt cool along the crevasses of Jake’s ruptured skin. Some had overlapped with the scars left by Judith. “I made a decision recently—Dan Bully will be my last.”
Monty cackled as he tightened the lid to his ointment. “Then what?”
“Obscurity—leave the dirty work to the men half my age.”
“No one says you need to be as hands-on as Jessup. Truth be told, the men would actually prefer it that way.” Monty wiped his hands against his pants. “The world’s changing, Jake. Recruitment has dwindled, but the name ‘Jake Reto’ still carries weight—“
“No Finisher came to help me,” said Jake. “The men despise me, and I’ve grown to hate them as well. Is that the kind of leader you want?”
“Do you hate me for not fighting?” Monty cocked his head to the side. The left half of his face looked as if it would slide off onto the floor.
“I wasn’t talking about you—“
“Look at me.” Monty tapped his gut. “I’m not built for that anymore. I’m supporting you the only way I can nowadays. And we’re not the only ones feeling our age.”
“How many of them still see me as the man who killed their kin?”
“Sure you have detractors, but that’s only because they aren’t really one of us. Your belief in the Doctrine and its ability to dispense justice scares them.” Monty looked about the tent. He poked his head out the entry flap before returning with a whisper. “You had many chances to kill Euwie, but you didn’t. Instead you embraced him as your brother. You’re proof that our way can and will be done. And now, after all these years, the Doctrine will once again bring balance. I shed a tear for Euwie’s boy earlier this month, but I shed one for little Sammy too. She’ll finally have peace as long as you continue to let the Lord work through ‘the man who can’t be killed.’”
“Is he ready to go down?” said Soot from the tent flap.
Jake stood up from the cot as Monty handed him a fresh shirt.
“Goodluck, Commander,” said Monty.
Jake followed Soot out of the tent. He turned around to find Monty with his head down, pinching the bridge of his nose.
The elevator ride offered little pleasantry. Jake saw an opportunity to fill the silence.
“Did you receive yesterday’s report?” said Jake.
“She’s becoming more incensed, but that was to be expected,” said Soot. “Tara wasn’t feeling well so the agents brought in a pediatrician. It’s just a hay fever; she‘ll be fine in a few days. Nicole filed a formal request to replace two agents. The chance of which seems unlikely.”
“When will I be able to speak to her?”
“I figured you’d be more concerned about what will happen to you when we reach the bottom.”
“I defended myself.”
“You shot a soldier in the back.”
“I shot him in the leg—“
“While he was running away from you. I don’t think you fully understand what’s happened.”
“I’m in the right. Grit will see that.”
“Well, I will say, you handled yourself nicely. Five against one—and that was after a morning of conditioning. You should thank private Hucks when you get the chance. I considered you largely unimpressive before the ambush.”
Jake was ushered into Research and Development, and was eventually led to a small room deep beyond the corridor. Grit waited patiently by the chair Jake saw the first time he came down here. It was a vicious piece. A series of steel clasps were mounted along the arm and leg rests. It’s metal frame had become rusted and brittle from use. The drain in the middle of the room had a permanent black stain curving from the base of the chair.
“Have a seat,” said Grit.
“I’ll stand,” said Jake.
“Do you know what that is?”
“It looks like something from a nightmare.”
“I call it my answer chair—one of my early designs for wolf interrogations. The perp is strapped in with those manacles. The posts move independently from each other by using this remote control. I can twist a man inside out and break every bone in their body with the click of a button. Unlike my other inventions, this will not be shared with the US government. Certain statutes have made devices such as this illegal for use on infected persons. It does, however, still have its uses, like in the case of Private Hucks and the boys this morning.”
“I imagine a lot happens down here that never gets out.”
“Like screaming underwater. That seat is reserved for anyone that thinks they know how to run this place better than I. Isn’t that right, my dear?”
Soot stood by the door with her arms crossed.
“Will you please leave us for a moment, Lieutenant. I want to speak with Mr. Reto privately.”
When Soot left the door was sealed behind her.
“Allred sent a message last night,” said Grit. “Fettel gave his men the slip.”
“Fettel was the only person listed for capture. If we do go in, we’ll have the freedom to be more aggressive.”
“There’s a chance we won’t go in?”
“Allred lowered his price when he found out. It’s on me to decide if we go forward. That decision falls largely on what you’ll say next.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I want you to go in and kill who you want to kill and film that footage for my investors, but if a handful of Bedlamites should escape during the chaos, maybe let them run. ‘Live to fight another day,’ as it were.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You want us to let the infection spread? What good can possibly come from that?”
“We don’t pledge allegiance to a flag or ideal, we pledge to our glorious demise. In that, we hope to die alongside our enemy on the battlefield. A life well-lived that ends soon after it’s no longer worth living. That day approaches for me and all my boys, and I’ve been thinking I may not yet be ready for such a close. What do you think you people will be when the wolves are finally wiped out?”
“We’ll go back to our normal lives full time.”
“It’s too late for that. Men like us are vessels adrift in blood and madness. Do you have an anchor, Mr. Reto?”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“I’m sure you’ve fantasized about my death more than a few times during your time here. You know exactly how you’d do it. It would be so simple—maybe turn me out of my chair and over the elevator railing. You’ve gotten a taste for murder, and it won’t let you be. I’m not here to judge you, but what will happen when you can no longer do what you love?”
“I don’t love it. I do what I do to keep the God-fearing safe—my family safe.”
“So you do have an anchor. Care to guess what mine is?”
“Soot’s really that important to you?”
“If anything should happen to her, my discretion would cease.”
“Am I here to kill wolves or watch your woman?”
“Both. It’s a lesson few vigilantes learn properly—no man left behind.”
“We’ve been doing your job longer than you have. Quite frankly, I’m more concerned about your men’s rust getting the Finishers killed.”
“Then let’s kill everyone—your men against mine out in the mud until one side is obliterated. Will that please you? Will that protect your family? War is not about eradication, but domination. You gain nothing if all your enemies are dead. You learn from the survivors. You grow, you build, you subjugate, and you preserve. I’m not asking you to let them flourish, but there needs to be a balance. Allow them to live side by side with people while still giving men like us a purpose—the Dust as well as the Finishers.”
“There’s more to my life than death,” said Jake.
“I tell myself that every morning. Perhaps one day I’ll believe it. You are dismissed. Please do not share this conversation with anyone topside. I’d hate to meet you back down here.”
Jake returned to the surface with Grit’s words repeating over and over. Letting infected people go free was in direct opposition to what the Finishers stood for. Jake needed to consult with Terry. He entered Terry’s private quarters, but he was nowhere to be found. All that was left were his headphones strewn across the bed along with his Walkman. Not like him to leave this lying around. I wonder what he listens to all day. Jake placed them over his ears and pressed play. All that ran was the Doctrine recited by Jessup, playing on an endless loop.