This article is part of the That Insidious Beast series.
"Eyes," Fatso wheezes.
The hoplite's cyclopean green eye continues to bathe us both in light. My heart hammers against my ribs so fast I feel woozy. Cooling fans whir within the armored shell.
The green beams sweep back across the truck's interior and converge in a brilliant emerald cone that illuminates Fatso's eye.
"Ahh!" he complains.
The hoplite stands away from the truck. The gate opens with an automated clank. The stout machine turns to follow us as we pass. There. The white stylized skull of its unit is painted on its shoulder guard.
The indomitable machine is split open, cracked, burning from within. The pilot hangs roasted in his harness. His cooked juices spit and sizzle down into the trench. I can hear the voices of mighty and terrible things exulting victory beyond the horizon.
We are through the gate and into Ashland City. The Hoplite disappears from view.
It begins to rain almost immediately. Raindrops drum on the hood and splash across the windshield. The water blurs our view of the world captured in the beams of the truck's headlights. Fatso curses and turns on the wipers.
"Not far now," Fatso assures me.
The world inside the Ashland City enclave is as wretched as the world its walls were erected to keep out. The original buildings are covered in graffiti and bizarre religious slogans. A work of art three stories tall stands on the lawn of the courthouse. The rusting totem resembles crucifix and broadcast tower. Guy wires are bolted into the sidewalk.
The soldiers I see are dark-eyed and pale. They appear in the headlights like ghosts and flinch from the beams. Their eyes are sunken and their skin is drawn tight over their bones. They huddle together in doorways to escape the rain. They watch with cold hatred as we pass.
I glance in the rear view mirror and realize I look nearly the same. We're all headed there, some faster than others.
The traffic from other checkpoints is routed onto a single widened street. Everyone has the same destination here. All vehicles are bound for the grim concrete edifice of the Fourth Army HQ. I don't know why Fatso is taking me there. Protocol? Interrogation?
I glimpse things I wish I hadn't down alleyways and behind buildings. Things not quite picked out by the headlights.
Soldiers swing bludgeons at someone or something on the ground. There is a mannequin's head sitting on a doorstep. Someone has covered it in candle wax and scrawled obscenities in paint or blood on the wall of the nearby house. There are suggestions of rape and murder. Bloody marks and smoldering cars. Reprisal killings. Bodies lashed upright to chain link fences.
Fourth Army is going feral. It's caged here and turning on itself, dissolving into a primitive tribal parody of military order. Is it the tone making them do this? The presence of the angels? That sickening glow in the sky? Or is this what any army - any civilization - does when facing total destruction?
I don't know, but God help those sorry crowds of refugees outside Ashland City when this pot boils over.
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