The air we are born into is full of eternal sin.
The virus of a thousand years.
That waited outside the walls of Eden.
Without the mask we breathe it in and
Contaminate our precious souls.
We must ever wear the mask.
From the first breath to the last,
The priest finishes his incantation and holds out his forearms to intercept a small head poking forth from a convulsing uterus. His hands shake as he poises ready with a tiny elastic black mask stretched between his thumbs.
He is poised there almost motionless for the next hour of relentless contractions. At the very moment the baby’s head emerges, he forces the mask over the newborn’s face as it opens its mouth to take its first breath.
The priest breathes a sigh of relief. Once, when he was new, he missed his timing, and the baby had to be discarded as Unclean. He knew he would be demoted if that ever happened again.
The newborn’s screams are muffled now beneath the fabric it must wear for the rest of its life. The umbilical cord is snipped and soon the mother is squeezing dabs of colostrum onto the black fabric to be sucked up bit by bit by hungry infant lips.
He congratulates the mother but the priest cannot pause long for there is battle not far away. He hasn’t slept in two days, he rushes from the hospital now to the battle front not two miles away. Adult soldiers with steel masks fused to their faces long ago greet him in the trenches as the perpetual rain of shells arcs over head, with the waspish buzz of bullets zipping about just inches above ground level.
“Father,” cries one of them. “Lead us now in our charge.”
“Gladly,” says the priest, “I just gave life with these hands. Now we will take their lives.”
The men murmur with appreciation.
“Boy or girl? One of them asks.”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Now! Let’s go!” An officer screams through a mask with a megaphone built into it.
Within seconds, the Maskite forces have gone over the top and begin to charge across a muddy hellscape churned about by explosive plows drawn by devils for the last year.
Hundreds fall as bullets streak back and forth but the swarms of the Masked are unperturbed as they always have been. The sacrifice of one is a small thing next to the perfect safety of the rest. Despite horrendous losses, they reach the enemy position and fling themselves screaming as best they can through their identical facemasks.
As they overwhelm lines of trenches one by one, enemy soldiers wave their arms in surrender, always the youngest ones. Anyone with experience knows better. Convulsing with glee, the soldiers call upon the priest who carries with him a supply of complementary masks. Masks of metal in the shape of an emotionless human face.
Everyone looks in disgust at the prisoners with their faces uncovered, their lips, mouths, and tongues waving about like exposed sexual organs.
The priest strides forth, metal mask in one hand, drill in the other. He begins to chant.
Those who dwell apart from Righteousness
Must also wear the mask
Against the never-ending virus that tries every soul.
Where in life they deny the true teachings.
May their end set them aright in the fiery eyes of Absolute Purity.
The priest sets to his sacred work as prisoners are held down screaming. He notes again the particular sound and feeling a bladed screw makes as it sinks into wet flesh and fastens into bone with a hollow thud.
In the light of dawn, a mass of revenants is sent back to the enemy lines groaning in pain and despair.
A horde of teenage conscripts who did not know to either flee or kill themselves reaches out for the mercy of their comrades, their masked metal faces impassive as they groan in agony and despair. Streaks of dried blood trail down the edges of their permanent masks from wherever a screw was driven into their faces.
Looking on, their comrades can only imagine one thing. Their officer gives the order and they raise their rifles. Though many are blinded by tears, there is only one more thing they can do.
“God damn! God dammit all! I told them if they did it again that would be it!” yells the General. “I have tried to reach a measured peace with these savages and still they insist on the most brutal torture. I must relay to the Emperor that every so often there is a culture that must perish from the universe for the good of all….This…this is their last planet and they still cannot behave as humans. Commence orbital bombardment. I refuse to waste more young men trying to quell them through measured means.”
Hundreds of thousands of Maskites cheer together across miles of front as their enemies begin to withdraw, soon they emerge from their defenses and begin to traverse miles of unguarded ground, waving rifles over their heads and firing wildly into the sky.
“This is a day of deliverance!” Yells the priest with arms outflung, his voice amplified by speakers in his mask. As the last dropship disappears into the atmosphere, the sky lights up with a thousand glorious comets. The armies of the Righteous cheer until incandescent flashes make everyone shrink away.
As the blinding light resolves, tremendous mushroom clouds are visible in the direction of every town and city. Shockwaves are on the way and the priest wishes that is the last thing he ever knew. As ashes settle, he crawls about for another day or two vomiting inside his mask, he barely opens the emergency drainage slat on time to avoid drowning, then left trapped next to the ammonia stench of his own crusted puke. Thirsty beyond thirst, no amount of canteens pilfered from the dead amend his ferociously peeling skin. The priest screams at the grey sky one last time as he thinks of the newborn he just inducted into life already dead by now, his whole civilization and culture extinct with his passing, all his own life a waste.