Prologue: The Madness of Herbert West
Madness is a terrible thing, and an even worse thing to be accused of, particularly if one knows for a certainty that one is truly not mad. I suppose it is the nature of madness to deny being mad, but this was the situation in which my colleague Herbert West found himself. I did what I could to defend him, but the military tribunal would hear none of it, and threatened me with arrest as well, suggesting that I may have not been a simple bystander, but rather a co-conspirator in the rampage that left one of our colleagues dead.
While there was a logical, albeit fantastical, explanation for West’s rampage, there were other activities, the existence of which we intended to keep secret from the authorities. It would not help our cause if our true motive in serving the Allied cause were discovered. Back in the United States, our studies in the field of the reanimation of the dead had drawn the attention of the authorities on several occasions. Back before I began my relationship with him, West had been questioned in the disappearances of both a professor and a student, though he was never detained I suspected he knew more than he let on. Our life after the university had been equally rife with the danger of discovery. We took what steps we could to protect our illicit research, though by its very nature there were risks. After eight years in Bolton, I am sure we had raised the suspicions of various members of the community. West would suggest that our decision to join the war effort was driven by his desire to gain easy access to fresh corpses on which to experiment, but I would suggest that self-preservation was also a motive.
One would think that our experiments on the battlefield, even amongst the carnage of war, would have been noticed. However, our commanding officers seemed disinclined to investigate even the most outrageous of events. One might ignore the treatment of prisoners of war, and even the events at the St. Bru Orphanage, but to ignore the death of our friend and colleague Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee seemed beyond the pale. West called it luck, but I grew to suspect it has more to do with the scarcity of doctors willing to serve in such conditions. As long as we tended to the wounded, there may have been something of a willingness to overlook our extracurricular activities.
At least until what happened in the trenches at Hulluch – the mysterious plague and what followed. I will not dispute the fact that a good man died as a result of West’s actions, but those actions likely saved the lives of dozens if not hundreds of others.
I still cannot say with total certainty that I would not have defied West and told the tribunal what had really happened. It perhaps would have revealed our illicit experiments but that was a chance I was willing to consider, and so I set it down here for the first time.
Part One: The Plague Doctors
It was the sixteenth of April, the third day since the Germans had stopped shelling, and even then the lingering stench of moldy hay still lingered. It was a telltale sign that the enemy had used White Star, shells containing not only chlorine but phosgene as well. It was a deadly and sinister combination, for the victims of phosgene poisoning can show no signs or symptoms for up to twenty-four hours. Thus, the soldiers around us began succumbing first to shortness of breath, then a rapid drop in blood pressure coupled with violent coughing, and the production of a pink-tinged fluid. Death is by heart failure. West and I assumed that the cause was the lingering aftereffects of exposure to the gas. There were however some symptoms that were not consistent with that diagnosis. These included low fever, accompanied by large nodules in the armpits, and violent hallucinations that always ended in unintelligible screams. The trenches are a cesspit of filth and disease, and it is not uncommon for soldiers to be ravaged by various illnesses and infections, but the fact that all of our patients were exhibiting these queer symptoms was puzzling.
But not puzzling enough for us to cease our experiments, indeed if anything we found our exercises revitalized. Perhaps it was a sense of responsibility, a desire to save those we could that drove us to experiment on those that had succumbed to this wasting plague, but I doubt it. If anything, it was simply the opportunity. There were so many freshly dead that it would have been a waste not to take advantage of the opportunity. It was after all why we had come to this foul and dreaded place.
The process of reanimation is not without certain risks, and we had over the years developed a process by which to evaluate our potential subjects. Key to this was a measure of their suitability – their potential for responding to our reagent in a favorable manner. Part of this was the manner in which the subject had died. Those who had suffered a transitory interruption of the functions that sustain life were the most responsive. These included individuals who had suffered electrical shocks, suffocation, or drowning. Those who had suffered chemical interruptions including poisonings also tended to respond well. Those who had suffered physical damage were not always so fortunate. Relatively minor injuries, particularly those that could be readily repaired, also tended to respond well, but only if the resulting blood loss was ameliorated. Those suffering from disease were not always the best choices, particularly if the disease was accompanied by a fever that led to organ damage, particularly to the brain.
It was for this reason that West and I decided to autopsy one of our casualties and determine how the strange malady progressed through the body, before we decided to subject any of them to our reanimation process. We carried out the procedure in the wee hours of the morning, in an isolated spur of the trenches that we had carved out as our own. We had hidden the entrance behind a muddy tarp that for all but the keenest of observers would appear as simply another piece of the trench wall. Behind this, we had a rather well-stocked makeshift laboratory, complete with electric lights powered by a secreted line we had run from the command bunker.
We did the easy work first, the lower abdomen and the organs within. We removed the liver, pancreas, and kidneys and even sectioned the bowel. None of these showed any signs of significant damage, and West cursed as we moved on to cracking open the ribcage. Here we examined the heart and lungs. The heart, that thick and heavy ball of cardiac muscle seemed entirely unaffected. In contrast, the lungs seemed to have suffered a minor serious trauma. They were full of the same pink fluid that the patient had been coughing up. The source of this was sloughing off of dead cells –those killed by contact with the phosgene gas – mingled with blood from the underlining capillaries. The likely cause of death was seemingly drowning in a mixture of blood, mucus, and their own dying lungs.
Despite this obvious diagnosis, we were ever the professionals, and therefore continued our investigations of the rest of the body. Herbert biopsied the enlarged and blackened lymph nodes and studied them under the microscope, while I cracked the skull and examined the brain. I expected to find a swelling, the result of a brain fever, or perhaps an aneurysm brought about by the physical stress of fighting off the disease, but there was nothing. The brain was perfectly intact, in fact, it was one of the healthiest human brains I had ever handled.
West on the other hand had had more success. Under the magnifying lenses of the microscope, the black tissues of the lymph glands had revealed a malignancy that both he and I were quite familiar with. It was a kind of lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. It was in the early stages of development, but it was clearly cancer.
“It is not possible,” suggested West.
“Why?” I countered, “We’ve seen cancer in young men before, it is unusual, but not impossible.”
“In one man, yes, but we have a dozen patients showing these same symptoms. Cancer isn’t contagious.”
“A side effect of exposure to the gas perhaps.”
West nodded, “Possibly, but this is an advanced growth. Cancer at this stage, in all of these men – men who weren’t even here, who didn’t even know each other three weeks ago, how is that possible? The odds of that are . . .”
“Astronomical?” I suggested
“Astronomical,” West agreed. “But it changes nothing. There is nothing here that would stop us from experimenting.”
“So the next patient who expires . . .”
West pushed his glasses back on his nose and ran his clean hand through his pale hair. “Prepare the reagent.” He paused, “and double check the restraints. I don’t want a repeat of last time.”
We didn’t have to wait long. Corporal del Col of Etobicoke, Ontario expired less than an hour later, ten minutes after that West and I had him in our secret surgery prepping him for the procedure. This consisted of me strapping the body down while I made various observations on its condition, and West made notes. Detailed notes were essential to the scientific process. Even now, I can still remember the details of that night.
“Subject is twenty-three years old, male, Caucasian.” I placed the left hand in a leather restraint and buckled it tight. Approximately five feet and eight inches tall, one hundred and seventy pounds.” I repeated the process on the other side. His hands were already cold. “No evidence of physical malformation or trauma.” I strapped the head down and to the side, exposing the base of the skull. “Cause of death appears to be phosgene gas poisoning, with complications from an unknown pathogen with swollen lymph nodes in the armpit.”
“I’m recommending fifty grains of the reagent 16C in solution,” opined West.
I mulled the calculations over in my head, considering weight, time, and cause of death. “I concur.”
West handed me the syringe; he hadn’t even waited for me to check his numbers. I didn’t bother to check to see that he had prepared the mixture correctly. I simply cleaned the base of the skull with a bit of alcohol and inserted the needle making sure to penetrate into the brainstem. There was resistance at first, as there always is, but then the tip of the needle penetrated into the soft nerve tissue with a satisfying and reassuring pop. After that, I carefully pushed on the plunger releasing the semi-phosphorescent green reagent into the brain of our subject. After that, it was up to the DMSO, the solvent carrier we used, to spread the reagent through the brain, the peripheral nervous system, and the rest of the body.
This was the period when we were most anxious.
“Fifteen seconds, no reaction.”
When we counted the seconds and held our breath.
“Thirty seconds, no reaction.”
Waiting and watching.
I checked the eyes.
“Forty-five seconds, pupils are fixed.”
Hoping against hope.
“Sixty seconds, no reaction.”
Hoping against reason.
“Seventy-five seconds, no reaction.”
That something, anything would happen.
“Ninety seconds, no reaction.”
But there was a reaction, a horrible reaction. The body began to shake and then violently convulse. The eyes opened wide and the pupils dilated fully creating what can only be thought of as black pits of wide-eyed terror. The lips pulled back in a snarling rictus of agony, and from that, straining veined throat issued forth the most bone-chilling scream.
“Sedative.” Ordered West.
I grabbed the second syringe off the tray, but I was too slow. The muscles flexed and strained and then the rivets on both restraints popped and Corporal del Col was free. Still, I managed to jab the needle into his leg and push the plunger halfway before he flung himself away and out of the makeshift entryway.
We followed our side arms out of their holsters and at our sides. We found del col kneeling in the mud weeping and raving madly.
“They’re everywhere,” he gasped. “I thought there was just the one, just the one that came to me, that tortured me, but I see the truth now. They’re everywhere.”
West lowered his pistol. “Corporal del Col,” his voice was calm and rational, “you need to listen to me. I’m a doctor, Doctor Herbert West, you’ve been sick, very sick, but we found a cure, we’ve made you well again.”
Del Col looked up from the mud, his eyes held nothing but fear. “You can’t see them can you? Why can’t you see them?”
“See who?” asked West.
Corporal del Col gestured about wildly. “They are all around us! Watching us, waiting for an opportunity. Infecting us, tending to us, feeding off of us.”
“Reanimation paranoia,” I casually diagnosed. It was a common reaction. West hushed me with a wave of his hand.
“There’s no one else here Corporal, no one but you and me and my colleague. No one is going to hurt you.”
“That’s not true,” del Col roared. I can see them. I can see their soft pale bodies glistening in the moonlight like a slug. I can hear their legs so much like a spider’s, how could anything make like that move so quietly? And those anterior tentacles, the ones with the spines dripping black fluid from their tips.” He looked down at the syringe still embedded within his leg, and then looked at me. “You! You did this to me. You’re one of them, a Medico Della Peste!”
It was then that he stood up and ran, not down the trench but straight at the nearest wall. Before either of us could do anything, he was up and over the fortification and out of our sight. West made to follow, but I grabbed him and pulled him back down. There was shouting from our lookouts, and then the same from the other side. I like to think that he made it some distance before the machine gunfire erupted and cut him down. I like to think that our return fire did some damage to the Germans on the far side of the no-man’s land that stretched between us. But I doubt it.
“What was that he said before he ran?”
I looked at my colleague and remembered that he had no love of the humanities, and even less for history, even if it was the history of medicine. “Medico Della Peste. It’s Italian, from the Renaissance, and it means Plague Doctor.”
Herbert West nodded, acknowledging that he had heard me and then wandered back to our makeshift laboratory. I waited for a moment, and then realizing I had nothing better to do, followed my colleague into the darkness.
Part Two: The Natural Order
By the next day, the number of patients exhibiting symptoms had more than doubled. In response, we set up a makeshift ward and began isolating the infected in an attempt to create some kind of quarantine. Of course, the ward was adjacent to the area we used for our experiments, facilitating transport from one to the other when the need arose.
And the need arose often, and we readily took advantage of it.
Not to say that we didn’t try to save our fellow troops. We did our best. Over the course of three days, we lost four more men, all in the same manner. All followed the same progression that Corporal del Col had followed. First, there was a slight fever. Then came the aching joints. Within a few hours, the fever was up to over one hundred and two degrees. Six hours in the lumps in the armpits appeared. After this came shortness of breath and the coughing up of pink-tinged fluid. After this came the hallucinations, and the screaming.
After our experience with del Col, we began to listen to what our other patients were saying as they descended into the fever dream of madness. They weren’t exactly the same, but the things they described were strikingly similar. All described something larger than a man that was slug-like, but not a slug. It had legs like a spider or a crab, and out of its back grew sinewy appendages. No one else used the term “Medico Della Peste” or “plague doctor”.
Despite it all, we still had a greater goal in mind, and the ends justified the means. We had already proven that the victims of the unknown plague could be reanimated and were even somewhat rational afterward. All we needed to do was adjust the dosage and administer the sedative before they could escape and do any harm. And so, Sergeant Hoade made his way onto our table as our latest subject.
I will not bore you with the details. Not all reanimations are successes, and some are more unstable than others. Sergeant Hoade was successfully reanimated for ten seconds, during which he wept uncontrollably and recited lines from the Book of Revelations
I looked and beheld a pale horse
And he who sat on it was called Death
And Hell followed after him.
This, he said before he smashed his own head in by pounding it against the table, even after he was given a sedative.
After we disposed of the body West, and I sat exhausted and frustrated. We pondered the possible source of the madness that had plagued our patients. I suggested that it might be a kind of folie à plusieurs an infectious madness, passed from one victim to another. But West was skeptical; surely not all those infected by the disease would succumb to the same madness. I countered that the fever might have made them susceptible – made their minds suggestible to the germ of the concept, like a kind of mass hypnosis or hysteria. This might explain the subtle cultural variations in the phrasing. Why one called them plague doctors and the other described them as one of the harbingers of the Apocalypse? And then there was cancer. How could we possibly explain that?
We talked back and forth on this subject for several hours, through most of a flask of bourbon West had confiscated from one of our patients earlier in the day. By that time whatever we were saying was making little sense. We were at best slightly intoxicated and at worse staggering drunk. A situation that was reckless given our responsibilities and position, but we had left our ward in safe hands and needed some way to relax.
As I rose to bid my friend goodnight, I told him I was going to “Hay the hit.” I immediately apologized and corrected myself. “I meant to say, ‘Hit the hay, I’m putting the cart before the horse.”
West smirked and waved me away, but before I took two steps, he called out to me. “What was that you said?”
“I’m going to hit the hay. Sleep, I’m off to get some, and so should you.”
“No, no. About the cart and horse.”
Oh, that. Putting the cart before the horse. It means doing things in the wrong order. You see I had a slip of the tongue and said, ‘Hay the hit’ originally.”
West was suddenly very excited. He stood up and rushed over to me. “The cart before the horse.” He turned around and then seemed almost jubilant. “That is exactly what we’ve done here. With this whole plague doctors thing.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“We’ve been trying to find a way to explain these symptoms and how they lead to a common delusion, the plague doctors – for want of a better term. But what if the truth were much more frightening than a simple new plague? What if the hallucinations weren’t caused by the disease at all, but the other way round?”
“The hallucinations cause the disease?” Now it was my turn to be skeptical.
“What if they weren’t hallucinations?” West’s eyes were growing wild. “What if the thing our patients are seeing is real? What if there is some kind of invisible organism that was making them sick, infecting them with an accelerated form of cancer for some reason, so that they grow sick and die? What if only when the neurochemistry of the brain is in a particular state – say that achieved prior to death, or after reanimation – only then can these things be seen.”
I admit, my intoxicated state made all this sound very plausible, but someone had to be the voice of reason. “Invisible monsters handing out cancer, for what reason?”
West stared at me. “What reason does a germ need to infect a host? Or a fungus? What debate do lice have before they infest a child’s hair?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “They don’t need a reason; it is simply the natural order of things.”
It was all too much for me to take in. I felt my head grow light and then dizzy. The world was spinning. I remember my knees giving way beneath me and then falling to the moist ground. After that, there was nothing but the welcoming bliss of unconsciousness.
Part Three: The Pestilent Daimones
I awoke the next morning in the corner of one of the trenches, a blanket wrapped around me, and a small stove keeping me warm. My head ached from the previous night’s revelry, and I suspected that the liquor we had imbibed might not have been made by a reputable distillery. I even considered that it might not have been made by a distillery at all. I stumbled through the man-made labyrinth of earth, following my nose for what passed for coffee and food in the living Hell we called home. All around me I saw the ravages of war, and the toll it took on the men who had been commissioned by their governments to fight it. Most were little more than walking wounded, and if we had been at home, I would have prescribed a regiment of sulfa drugs to battle various infections, and a week of bed rest. But here, under these conditions, infected wounds were the norm, exhaustion was the standard, and hunger was a constant. Proper hygiene and sanitation were nearly impossible, and cases of the trots were endemic throughout our population. Only through vigorous standards of personal care did West and I and our colleagues avoid infection. This was a necessity. It would do no one any good if we doctors were to fall ill. The consequences might be catastrophic.
I arrived in our makeshift ward to find that the number of patients had doubled overnight. Our colleague, Doctor Giuseppe Ciano was directing several orderlies in the construction of a makeshift bedding system that used scraps of lumber and blankets to elevate the men off the cold and damp earth, and then pipe warm air underneath them. It was an ingenuous concept that also served to keep our feet dry and warm as we tended to the sick. Ciano was in every way the opposite of West. Where West was tall and pale, Ciano was dark and squat. West was for the most part calm and quiet, while Ciano was always boisterous and loud. West drew his practical knowledge from years of study, Ciano from experience. West had volunteered to serve to further his own purposes, while Ciano had defied his nation’s neutrality and volunteered out of a sense of duty to his fellow man. West was a formal medical doctor, and Ciano for better or worse was a veterinarian, specifically for large livestock. But I swear, when it came to pure skill, he was a better doctor than either West or myself, and he brought to the table a skill set that formally trained physicians lacked, the ability to improvise and make do with the equipment at hand, even under the most abhorrent of conditions. And of course, he had been serving this regiment as their physician for much longer than West and I had. For all intents and purposes, he was in charge, and we were just qualified visitors, of this there was no doubt.
As I walked in, I caught his attention, and that of West, who to me looked worse than I felt. I raised my hand up, showed them the small pot of coffee I had absconded with from the Mess, and waved them over. They nodded in acknowledgment and within a few minutes, both joined me around the small stove that we used to heat the area. I produced some bread rolls from my pockets, and we set about having a rather poor breakfast.
“West has told me of your idea, my friend,” commented Ciano as he slurped his coffee. “It is not –how do you say – original.”
“My idea?” I glowered at West who was picking at his roll. He really had overdone the drink last night.
Ciano’s head bounced up and down in excitement. “The island where I come from, there are still temples there, to the old Roman Gods, and some families that still keep the old traditions.” He took a bite of the roll. “When we have festivals some of the old believers – benandanti – a kind of good witch, would tell us stories about the gods and monsters that haunted the world.”
West’s eyes caught mine. He looked so tired.
“Anyway, there was one legend, about the Pestilent Daimones, that mirrors your idea of invisible monsters causing disease. They talked of five invisible monsters that served the god Phoebus Apollo. They included Morbus who brought fevers, Pestis who brought the black pestilence, Lues who brought the red pestilence, Macies who cursed men with waste, and Tabes who brought corruption. Of course, we know now that given the description of symptoms Petis was bubonic plague, Lues was smallpox, and Macies is consumption, or Tuberculosis. Tabes was the infection personified – gangrene and the like.”
“And what disease did Morbus personify?” Asked West, but his voice was weak.
“More difficult to identify, but perhaps Cholera or maybe Malaria. There is some thought that she might have been venereal syphilis, but that particular malady was unknown in ancient Europe, having originated in the Americas, like tomatoes and the potato.”
I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “What did these evil gods of disease look like?”
“To men, they appeared as emaciated old women, very pale, and carrying scythes. It is I suspect the source of the image of the Grim Reaper. But to the other Gods, they were beauty personified, the myths say that Apollo would take them as his lovers.” He took another bite of his roll and continued. “But make no mistake, they were not considered evil. They were part of the divine order of things, like the Furies who meted out punishment for sin, so did these beings carry out the will of the gods. Would you call the Angels that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah evil? No, they may act in a manner that we find frightening, but they are divine in nature, at least that is what the legends say.”
“Angels of Pestilence,” whispered West. I was about to respond but then he suddenly fell from his seat, his tin cup clattering against the side of the stove.
Ciano got to him first and looked back at me with eyes full of worry. “His pulse is weak, he’s barely conscious.”
I looked about the purgatorial plague ward from which none of our patients had recovered, the only way out of the repugnant place had been through death, and now I had no choice but to confine Herbert West, my friend, and colleague as well, to wait through the hours of suffering as the disease plied its course towards his inevitable death.
Part Four: The Anastasis of Herbert West
When I could, I sat with my friend and tried to talk with him. He would not have it. He found the whole situation embarrassing and denigrated my bedside manner, and the whole concept of a bedside manner. There was no point in mollycoddling patients he raged, it was better that they knew what to expect so that they could plan appropriately. He demanded that I leave him be, with some paper and a pencil. I complied with his orders, who was I to deny what would likely be his last request?
Ciano caught me as I walked amongst the beds. “So how long has he been addicted?”
I was confused. “What are you talking about?”
He nodded toward West. “I’ve seen it before, very common amongst medical men, particularly in the military.” His statement didn’t register. I still didn’t understand. So he may it clear. “Morphine I think, or maybe heroin.”
I looked back at West and sighed. Ciano was right. How had I missed it I wondered, and how long had it been going on? More importantly, I realized that I had completely misdiagnosed my friend. He wasn’t a victim of the unknown epidemic. He might be in for a rough time as he went through withdrawal, but he was going to live. The same couldn’t be said for his patients that would now have to go without while he recovered. I felt a pang of outrage rising up in my gullet, and decided to stay away, and let Ciano deal with the inevitable.
In the next few hours, I lost five more soldiers. Five more good men died from a disease I had no clue how to cure. Five more subjects that without West I was in no position to experiment on. Which, in all fairness was not entirely an unwelcome situation. I had over the years expressed some reservations concerning West’s studies and had on several occasions considered abandoning both my friend and the work. Was the opportunity finally presenting itself? I fell asleep – conflicted by the choices I might have to make, but exhausted by the workload that never ceased. Death was all around me and slumber was the only respite available.
It was all too brief. It was just before midnight when Ciano came for me. West had taken a turn and had wanted to see me. I cursed the man and stumbled to my feet and followed Ciano back to the Ward. The April air was cold, but the night sky was clear. If it wasn’t for the thousands of troops just a few hundred yards away, it might almost be peaceful.
We found West sprawled out in his cot, his blue eyes open and lifeless, and a needle in his arm. I ran to him, but it was already too late, at least for any normal intervention.
“Help me get him up,” I told Ciano.
“Just help me, damn it.”
As we lifted him his hand dropped and from it, a piece of paper fluttered to the ground. Ciano bent down to pick it up. “Do the names Galvani and Prévost mean anything to you?”
I grabbed the paper from his hand and looked it over. “Yes, yes they do.” I took a quick look at West’s arm. A trickle of blood ran down from the latest needle mark. There were two more marks, healed but no more than a day. “West you madman, come on Ciano we haven’t a moment to lose!”
We dragged him down the trench and I exposed our laboratory to my sudden partner in crime.
“What is this place?” He asked.
“Our lab, get him on the table, strap him down. This isn’t going to be pretty.”
He did what I told him, but still had questions. “What are you going to do?”
I lit the oil lamp and stripped the light cord from the wall. “Luigi Galvani was one of your countrymen, he discovered that electricity was the energy behind the muscular movement” I dragged the wires over to where West lay. “Jean-Louis Prévost is a neurologist at the University of Zurich, he demonstrated that the hearts of dogs could be restarted with another more powerful shock.” I ripped the line out of the lamp. “West wasn’t an addict, he purposefully overdosed, and then gave us the method for bringing him back.” I made sure the two wires weren’t touching. “I suggest you stay well clear; this is going to be dangerous.” Then I flipped the switch.
It all happened so fast. West’s body convulsed and then his back arched, with only the leather straps holding him in place. I watched the electric arc from the body and into the metal table. I was standing on a piece of wood, so I suppose that insulated me, but Ciano was standing in a puddle of water. I watched as blue traces of lightning traveled up his legs and created a kind of a crown around his head. He was paralyzed and in agony, but I couldn’t stop. I had to let it go just a few more seconds, just a few more.
Then I turned the switch off. Ciano moaned and crumpled to the ground, but I paid him no mind, I was more interested in West and whether or not we had done the impossible. My question was quickly answered as I heard a sudden gasping of breath, and he turned his head to the side and then opened his eyes.
“West can you hear me!” I shouted gripping his head and looking into his eyes.
Those eyes focused on mine, blinked once and then he spoke, “Yes, I think even the Germans can hear you.”
I left out a whoop of joy. “He’s alive!” I said looking over at Ciano as he clambered to his feet.
The Italian looked at his watch. “Of course, he’s alive, it’s after midnight.”
I was puzzled. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Ciano shook his head. “You and West, and all the other Americans I’ve met, even lapsed Catholics know what day it is. It’s Easter, Our Lord has risen.”
I looked over at West, “Indeed he has.”
Part Five: Seven Shots in the Dark
He hadn’t been resuscitated for more than two minutes before West put his hand on my shoulder, “Give me your gun would you?”
I didn’t even think about it. I unbuckled my holster and handed it to him forthwith.
West took the Colt 1911, checked the cartridge, and then looked me straight in the eye. “We were right. I can see one of them. It’s about eight feet in length and four feet thick in the center. I can see why del Col described it as a slug, but I think it looks more like a lobster that has been cooked, the meat is drawn out covered in butter, and then placed back in the shell. The shell is black. There are six pairs of legs, also not unlike those of a lobster. In the front, there is a single pair of manipulating appendages with crude three-fingered claws. Toward the front, there are two tentacles ending in three eyes each. I can’t see a mouth or any other sensory organs. Across the back, there is a single row of fleshy tentacles, each of which is tipped with a needle of black chitinous material. It isn’t moving, but it is looking right at me.”
He raised the gun slightly, surreptitiously. “I think it knows that I can see it.” He pulled the trigger.
I expected the wall beyond where he was pointing to explode into fragments, but instead something green and wet splattered against the earth. I could see fragments of a strange kind of flesh dripping down. I turned to West, but he took off out of the entryway.
“It’s wounded,” he called back to us, and then a moment later, “I think it’s heading toward the ward! Damn, it’s fast, it scuttles up the walk like a damned cockroach!” There was another shot.
As soon as we could Ciano and I were out of the lab and chasing after our enraged colleague. We found him just around the corner kneeling before something I couldn’t see, but there was something there. Something had sunken into the mud, torn into the wall of the trench. The mud was caked over something, something very large, a thing that shuddered when West kicked it. Then he stamped down hard with the heel of his boot, and I heard something crack and then something soft squish.
West pulled his foot back. “With any luck, the others won’t have been alerted.” Then began deliberately stalking down the trench, gun held upright.
We followed behind him, just a few paces. We couldn’t see what he could see, so it made no sense for us to be up in front of him. Even so, Ciano had drawn his own gun and was holding it with both hands, pointing it toward the ground.
When West rounded the corner, he immediately stepped back and put his back to the wall. “There are three more in the ward.”
I looked at West. “We need a plan.”
West shook his head. “You can’t see them, I can.” And then he turned the corner and opened fire.
I followed of course, but I didn’t see much of what happened. My Colt 1911 has seven shots, West had already used two on his first monster. He used two more before I made it into the ward and fired two more as I watched. The patients, the ones who could move rolled to the ground. West stalked through the place like he was invincible, the gun held out before him like it was leading the way.
“Stand still you monstrous thing.” The gun arced around at the end of his hand following something no one else could see. He fired once but when he pulled the trigger the second time there was nothing but a click. He dropped the gun and reached down to tack another from one of the cowering soldiers.
Ciano fell to the ground. Someone, an officer, passed beside me, and then rushed toward West. As he came up with the pistol the butt of a rifle came down on his head. West tumbled to the ground with Major Collins standing over him.
A moment later some soldiers hauled him up and dragged him away. He was in what passed for the brig when I tended to his wound and made sure that they hadn’t done any permanent damage.
West looked at me in confusion. He knew where he was, and he knew that he had been arrested but for what charge he didn’t know. I had to tell him what had happened, that in his rush to kill the monsters he had fired wildly and hit Ciano, hit him in the left eye, killing him instantly.
West looked up at me with confusion in his eyes. “What are you talking about? What monsters?”
Epilogue: The Bliss of Human Memory
That was a week ago. Just twenty-four hours after West’s assault on the invisible creatures all of those afflicted showed remarkable improvement and were fully recovered by the next day. I made no note of any possible curative that may have been responsible. A day after that, just hours before we were to go before the tribunal the shelling began in earnest. We should have expected it. The Hun had not launched an attack in weeks. All the armaments that had not been used in those intervening days suddenly rained down upon us in what seemed an endless barrage of shrapnel and poison gas. Whether or not the tribunal survived I cannot say but in the fog of war, West and I managed to escape and make our way away from the war-torn front.
It is I think, the Thirtieth of April, in the year Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen, and we are near Croisilles. We have taken refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, portions of it are blasted away, but it offers us some semblance of shelter, a few scraps of food, and one or two bottles of wine. West has spoken little since we fled. I suspect that he is suffering from what Doctor Charles Myers has recently diagnosed as shell shock. I hope with time and proper care he will fully recover his faculties and once again be the man I knew, the man I have been proud to work with all these years.
As for West’s memory, of the plague that ravaged our battalion, of the monsters that he discovered, and of the steps he took to confront them, he still recalls nothing. I am careful not to probe too forcibly or bring up details that might upset him. West is not the noblest of personages, but I think for once he may have acted in a truly valiant manner. It would be terrible if he were to learn how heroic he had been and yet have no memory of it. Perhaps it is best that no one ever learns of his actions that day: That no account of the curious Angels of Pestilence ever is presented, not to our medical colleagues, not to a military tribunal, and particularly not to Doctor Herbert West.
Pete Rawlik is a writer living in Florida where he collects Lovecraftian fiction and works on environmental issues surrounding the Everglades and related ecosystems. His research for a pseudo-history of the Miskatonic River Valley laid the groundwork for what would eventually become Reanimators (2013), The Weird Company (2014), Reanimatrix (2016), The Peaslee Papers (2017), The Miskatonic University Spiritualism Club (2021) and The Eldritch Equations (2022). His short story collection, The Strange Company and Others, was released in 2019. He has edited two anthologies one with Brian Sammons, Legacy of the Reanimator (2015), and The Chromatic Court (2019) a collection of Lovecraftian stories inspired by the King in Yellow. He is a regular member of the Lovecraft Ezine Podcast and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Science Fiction.