The pile of bodies was fresh, I knew that much from the lack of stench, and the blood was wet. There was still gun smoke in the air, drifting off through the courtyard and I could hear the chattering of the soldiers as they moved away down the adjacent street, casual and unconcerned, mildly upbeat, now the workday was over.
The men, women and children, about twenty in number, had recently been dragged into the middle of the yard and arranged in a mound, a dark totem to death. It was a ritual to make life easier for the truck crew who would drive by later to pick up the bodies for mass burial. It felt like an industrial process, like a courtesy for the bin men.
What always struck me in these moments was these people, the dead, they had woken up that morning and thrown some clothes on, because it was just another day. I took the black, stretchy memory cap from its padded satchel and crouching low, I scuttled over to be next to the corpses. It was an odd piece of tech to look at, like a swimming cap with sensors and circuits. It was my tool, more powerful than a camera, more authentic and accurate than a report.
The next bit was fiddly and felt disrespectful but I knew this is what the murdered would have wanted, a witness, a record, a trail back to the barbaric act. ‘Shame the devil’, that always came to mind when I set about the memory retrievals.
I had to hurriedly pull the cap around each head in turn. It would take a little while, as with every recording it was about a minute to complete the process. I hoped the soldiers would not return. It had happened before, only the once but I never forgot the shock. I had already unclasped the holster strap of my pistol as a precaution. I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot if cornered.
I chose the kids first, to get the crude act out of the way. I rolled them off the pile onto the earth. I put the gear on each of their little heads in turn, their hair still feeling alive but their skin cold, and I would dial the sequence on the small flexi-screen on the cap, so it activated for a two minute memory retrieval from point of death backwards. The closer to the time of death, the clearer the visual images, the sounds, the memory markers in the rapidly fading minds. There was always a residual buzz in the dendrites of the brain, a ghost network of images, unless the head was clean off of course. Once I tried, with much awkward fumbling, to find memories in a spinal stem, but it was useless. It only worked on the hippocampus, the neo-cortex and the amygdala.
It was those explicit memories, those horror moments that burned before death, a few seconds of realisation that ‘this was really it’. Time slowed down for me on these retrieval runs. It was hard to concentrate. I had to stop and look into the dead eyes of each victim. I had seen so many dead eyes. I imagined them as shells, with echoes that I was trying to capture. Light is a recording device. Light travels, gets trapped, pools and stays in places – like brains, light was evidence, was real.
My earpiece relayed information from the stealth drone high in the clouds above me.
“Hurry, Gene, there’s a jeep coming your way from the south with a motorcycle escort, looks like it’s following the road straight to your location. I estimate two minutes. I’d abandon this one.”
I worked faster, no longer worrying about rolling the bodies off. Just one more memory retrieval. It was always worth more memories, as it amassed the evidence and impact of the massacre in an international court.
I chose what I presumed to be a mother, as that would carry weight and horror if she witnessed her young ones killed. I wanted to see the faces and the badge numbers of the killers, I wanted them hunted and convicted by united forces in the months or years to come.
When I could hear the tyres on the dirt beyond the yard’s wall, that’s when I knew I had to move and fast. I bundled up the cap and shoved it back into the satchel, staggering back to the cover that I had emerged from, a stack of wooden pallets, tucked next to the local schoolhouse, that had recently transformed into a grim venue for execution.
The jeep swung in at speed, but I was safely hidden just in time. I had a knack for timing, it came with the job. They called us testament collectors, we would cross frontlines and borders in darkness, sometimes tagging along with friendly army units or humanitarian aid missions. Once inside the warzone, we had drone support, clearance for rapid response evacuation, and information on resources nearby, but that was it. On the ground, we were on our own and it was a job that usually ended lives short. You had to want to do this, and I did. Civilian slaughter, mass killings and genocides, it could all be swept away by time and apathy without proof, without witnesses, without testimony and evidence. I could not bear such injustice. When soldiering changed to this, it was a darkness that needed exposing. They had lost their compass on values, presuming immunity from judgement. It was up to people like me to remind them and chase them down with the evidence. Put a mirror to reality and the reflection travels forever.
Whilst the men in the jeep jumped out to inspect the bodies, I hooked up the chip on the cap to a tiny hard drive with a transmitter. It would send the retrieved memories direct to the high altitude drone above and then into cyber space in a secure file. If they captured me, it might allow me a small degree of leverage if they knew I had transmitted already. I could always barter the recordings for my skin.
I dared to peek through a slat in a pallet that revealed the dusty courtyard scene. A short man in a dirty green uniform, sporting an unfashionable black moustache was staring down at the bodies I had rolled off the pile. The man in charge, the squad leader. His air of arrogance told me that instantly. He was clearly suspicious and began flitting his eyes about the walls and buildings near him. I ducked down. Shit. I could be in trouble. The big, spluttering motorcycles were now circling the compound slowly, the riders checking out the corners and crevices through their dark aviator sunglasses. I pulled a tarp over my head as they swung closer to where I squatted.
“I know you’re here!” shouted the little man, with aggression in his tone.“You think this is a problem for me, your gadgets and films. No. That will be some entertainment for me to watch on the news channels, when your head is on a spike outside my house. I like the idea of being famous, I like it!”
I reached down my thigh and slowly removed the pistol from the holster. Under the tarp I couldn’t see anything but I could hear their noise nearby, drawing in, within a few feet of my hiding place. And then… Well, the lights went out. It was a sharp blow, and an instant concussion.
What must have been a minute or two later, I shook myself back into consciousness with a sore head, muttering randomly, my brain bouncing back from the strike with the disconnected nonsense of neural confusion. By the time I could focus again, it was clear I was kneeling, my satchel in the dust, with the cap wrapped around my own skull. To my right, a soldier was pointing a machine gun directly at my ear. ‘The little man’ as I had labeled him, stood straight and proud before me but he was not amused. He was grinding his teeth.
“You rats with your technology. You’re nothing but YouTubers. You think that scares me? I’m going to let you upload your own death, how about that?!”
The cap felt artificial and odd, tight and constricting. I had worn one before to test it, but this was different, the context was different. I had to adjust to the concept I was about to die and record my passing. Not an easy moment. I always knew being captured and shot was a strong possibility but when faced with it for real, it’s tough, I can tell you. It was time to try the leverage.
“I’ve transmitted already, that murder pile there, I have retrieved eight witness memories. They’ll hang your men, and hang you, just for that – let alone what you’re doing to that town out there. We can still trade you know – I’d prefer to live.”
His anger turned to amusement for a couple of seconds. He spun around to the audience of his men and laughed loudly, before turning back to me and slow clapping my effort, mockingly.
“I really don’t care. I mean that…”
He turned to the soldier next to me with the gun and raised his arm sharply, as if to prepare the trooper to take the shot.
In that precise moment, someone in the pile of bodies moaned. Someone underneath, someone who had not been checked properly for vital signs.
The little man wavered for a second and then with irate irritation, he marched to the pile, roughly digging into it with his hands, like a mole tearing into soil. After rolling out four bodies, he located the source of the noise. A father, crumpled and still bleeding from gunshots, somehow alive.
“My men are getting lazy!” he snapped, shaking his head, but as he reached for his handgun he noticed the wounded man stretch out an arm. Clutched defiantly within his bloodied fingers there was a circular grenade pin.
The burst of the explosion ripped through the pile of bodies, blowing chunks of meat skyward to rain back down in the yard in a shower of splattering. With it, the little man’s arms and legs ripped from his torso and spiralled in all directions, along with the body pieces of two of his soldiers that had been too close. The rest of us were blown clean off the ground with the shockwave, with the sharp ringing of overloaded eardrums screaming inside our brains.
This time, the armed guard next to me was rendered unconscious but thankfully, not me. I scrambled out of the courtyard, using the dust cloud and chaos as cover. By the time I was on the street I was sprinting, and an emergency evac was triggered. I could see the auto-copter swooping low over the debris of the streets – making a beeline toward a close-by position, a clearing of sorts next to what looked like a tower and a broken building with a crucifix fallen beside it.
Through the sharp harmonic ringing sound of my stunned hearing, I could just make out the words in my earpiece, “Evac at the church to your right, the church to your right, go to the graveyard! There’s a crater in the gravestones where it can land.”
As I ran, I grabbed the cap off my head, fixing into it the hard drive, trying not to drop anything as I scrambled. I needed to transmit the footage I had recorded of the incident. It would show the squad leaders here didn’t care at all about international law, or even being caught. It would be another scrap against them, another valuable weapon of truth, more evidence when the dust settled for justice, when decisions were to be made by the international forces to retake this place.
The auto-copter was a crude metal beast, not more than a man-sized drone with two huge slabs of batteries either side. It had enough room in its carry cage to collect me and fly me the hell out of here, to transport me to a safe zone with friendly militia. I felt no fear, I felt no remorse, just a powerful, unrelenting sense of duty. I was a testament collector and I had done my job that day.