Dead Army

The battle continued, but not for Edric. He lay on the ground while light and sound both faded in and out. He struggled to breathe, knowing he was dying but unwilling to give up.

After a slow eternity, Edric noticed that the pain had gone. It was dark. Not pitch-black, but like a cloudy night. He turned his head and saw the full moon, half-hidden behind the clouds. The sounds of fighting had faded away to nothingness.

There was a loud, echoing noise. He convulsed as a sharp pain flowed from his ears to the rest of his body. Then there was a grating voice speaking words that he couldn’t understand, although the meaning was clear.

“Rise”

The command came into his ears, but bypassed his brain and went directly to his muscles. He rose and saw that many of the other bodies were standing as well, with varying amounts of success. Some were pushing themselves up with the stumps of severed arms, and others stood on uneven legs. Some failed to rise at all, only twitching.

“Rise”

The command repeated, and more of the struggling bodies steadied themselves. Others that were barely standing lost the last of their balance and collapsed.

“Come. Assemble.”

Edric felt himself being pulled forward to a clearing outside the field of corpses. He felt like he was walking through mud, and his steps were shambling. Other bodies joined him until an army had assembled.

A man stood in the clearing. He pointed at a spot in the clearing. The shambling corpses, Edric included, gathered there.

“It is not yet time for your eternal rest. Your battles will continue. From now on, you will fight for me.”

Edric tried to protest, tell the man that he wouldn’t fight alongside the enemy, but he couldn’t.

The man pointed off in the distance, and Edric found himself marching home defeated.

Image Credits: Anne Wipf.

Dreamcatcher

Tamaya ran through the woods. She didn’t dare look away from her feet to find the source of the howls steadily approaching from behind. She focused her entire concentration on finding a safe path.

A moment of inattention. That’s all it took, and something snared her foot. She sprawled on the ground. The howls took on a triumphant tone. Her heart pounded in terror. Her ankle was in agony. She rolled over so she could at least watch her killer.

[ Section Divider ]

Tamaya’s vision faded, and the Guardian’s vision reasserted itself. It convulsed in pain as another nightmare flowed into its mind.

With a ragged breath, the Guardian focused its empty eye sockets on the Receiver. It hung, as always, from a chain piercing the front of its skull. A pool of blood was beneath it, too close and yet too far. The Guardian knew that the original blood had come from its body, long ago when it was a mortal. The rest was a slowly ticking clock counting down to the end of its torment.

As always when it woke up, the Guardian tried to look up towards its feet, bound far above on the ceiling. It failed, as usual. It knew the hopelessness of the attempt, but there was very little for it to do during its few moments of alertness.

Soon, the Guardian lost the fight with wakefulness and fell again into a pained sleep.

[ Section Divider ]

Exhaustion turned Tyler’s muscles to water. The smokey air choked him. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had last heard his sister’s dying scream, but he knew that he was not far behind. He should have found the door long ago, but the room’s layout seemed to have changed. He reached out his hand again, felt the foot of his bed. Had he turned around in the choking darkness?

Tyler’s mouth was dry, and sweat evaporated almost immediately after forming on his body. He turned again, to face towards where the bedroom’s window should have been. Was the smoke a little clearer in that direction? He crawled towards it.

There was an echoing CRACK and a sudden pain across Tyler’s back. A burning beam had landed on him, pinning him to the ground. All he knew was agony as the flames spread to his clothing.

[ Section Divider ]

Tyler’s agony flowed into the Guardian’s consciousness. How had it ever doubted the power of a Dreamcatcher? The Guardian absorbed the nightmare’s pain, while a few drops of blood dripped into the pool below. The punishment had long since lost its effectiveness. The Guardian could barely remember why it had been condemned to take in all the world’s nightmares.

There was a new trembling sensation coming from the Guardian’s feet. It tried, as usual, to turn up to see them, only to find that it could actually move. It looked quickly down at the blood level. Had it finally reached the Receiver? The angle made it difficult for the Guardian to see the height of the Receiver. Did it actually touch the blood? Was the punishment finally over?

Another tremble, and the Guardian’s feet were released from their bindings. After an eternity of being bound, it had no real control over its limbs. It fell face-first into the blood pool. Blood seeped into the gaps between its bones, slowly forming into the body it had lost so long ago.

Soon, the Guardian had control of its body and felt the need to breathe for the first time it could remember. The breaths came swift and deep, making up for generations without air. A heart beat in its chest, absorbing more of the blood from the pool. The level lowered, and the Guardian could see the ancient path that had once been used to take it to this prison. It got up on four limbs and started crawling along the path.

The blood level continued to lower, and the Guardian made an attempt to stand and walk on two feet. It saw a light in the distance, hurting eyes that had only now started to form in the sockets. The Receiver’s chain dropped from the Guardian’s face. The Receiver itself shattered when it hit the stone of the path.

The Guardian moved towards the light, stumbling with its newborn clumsiness. After what seemed like hours, the Guardian reached the light. It was a cave opening, and the scent of fresh air reached the Guardian’s nose.

The Guardian climbed out into the light and found that the opening was too small for it to go through. It tried to squeeze through and found itself stuck. The constriction put fresh pain onto new-formed lungs, causing a burning sensation. The more it struggled, the more it seemed to be trapped. Stone scraped its flesh raw, and blood started to flow back into the cave. The Guardian screamed, and found that it couldn’t fill its lungs afterwards.

[ Section Divider ]

The Guardian woke in agony, terror, and despair. It hung from the ceiling with the Receiver dangling from its face. The blood level was far below the level of the Receiver.

The Guardian tried to scream, but it had no lungs, no tongue, no real body. Just infinite pain and an eternal imprisonment.

Image Credits: Sekares.

The Bus Stop

It was the last night of leave, which was always somewhat depressing. John caught a glimpse of his reflection in a window. Although he’d shaved every morning, he had let his hair grow out since he came home. He definitely needed to see the barber before he saw the Sergeant-Major.

He looked up and realised that his wandering had brought him into a bad area. Graffiti covered every surface, including other graffiti. Few windows were intact, and boards covered many more. He noticed a bus stop up ahead, and decided that it was a good time to head home.

He sat on the bus stop bench, trying to ignore the indescribable odours that assaulted him. It was obvious that someone hadn’t bothered to look for a washroom before taking care of business. It wasn’t the worst scent he’d ever smelled, though.

He heard a scream. Rational thought fled. He found himself reaching for a weapon that he wasn’t carrying, looking around for the source of the scream. His heart raced, his muscles tensed for flight or fight. Then, he saw her.

She was sitting on the bench, looking at him with calm black eyes. She was tiny and pale. No, not pale. Pure white. Her skin, her clothes, all pure white. Except for her hair and shoes, which were black as the grave, and her eyes, which were even darker. Then, he noticed blood dripping from the roof of the shelter. It landed on her, and she didn’t flinch. He would have said that she didn’t notice it, except that she smiled with every drip.

John leapt to his feet. As he did, he felt strands of…something touching him. He looked and saw a nearly skeletal figure, kneeling on the ceiling of the shelter as if it was the floor. This creature was as white as the girl but naked. Its eyes glowed, a counterpoint to the girl’s deep black orbs. John jumped back out of the shelter and saw the bodies on top of it.

He gasped as he recognised some of the bodies. People he had seen die. People he had killed. He realised that the girl, too, was one of the many casualties of war. John heard another scream, and only barely recognised it as his own.

Someone was speaking to him, in the calm way you do with someone who could be dangerous. He heard the soothing tone in the voice, then saw that a bus was there. The driver was talking to him, asking if he was OK.

John looked at the bus stop. There were no bodies, no creature, no blood. Not even a little girl. He boarded the bus to return to base and the promise of new horrors to come.

Image Credits: David Sladek.

Failed Execution

Cold sweat runs down my body as I’m strapped to the bed. I thought I’d be able to face this with dignity, but fear has an undeniable grip over me now. The guard says something about it being over soon, but my brain isn’t in the right place to understand his words. The only thing that matters is that IV line, sitting on a surgical steel table. I feel my last meal coming up, but force it back down. Pride. Honour. I need to die with dignity.

Now I see the doctor, standing in my line of sight, blocking my view of the IV. A priest is blessing me, but his voice is just a droning buzz in the background. The doctor, a betrayer of Hippocrates, has his hands on the poison, preparing to break his sacred oath to do no harm. Fuck him.

I feel a sharp pinch as the needle slides into my arm to find a vein. I struggle against it, but the straps are too tight – these guards know their job. Now, everyone leaves my line of sight, leaving me to see my reflection reveal itself in the one-way glass as the curtain opens. I know they’re out there – my false accusers gloating in their victory. My lawyer and family are probably there too unless they’re trying to get me a last-second reprieve. I glance at the telephone, defiantly silent.

The warden asks me for a final statement. “I know that you know who killed her. My family knows it wasn’t me, and so do you. I’ll see you join me in this room.”

The curtain closes so the audience won’t be disturbed by my death spasms, even though I know some of them have seen it before. I hear a click of a button being pressed, then the sound of the pump pushing poison into my arm. I expect to feel the cold of death coming to me.

It doesn’t happen.

There’s a pressure in my arm, the same as every time I’ve received a shot. A little more pressure as more fluid is pumped in. Then, nothing. The doctor comes in, and I look up at him. He quickly leaves the room. He returns with the warden and the priest. They confer in the corner, but I don’t hear their words. One of them – the doctor? – gestures at the curtain, but the other two firmly shake their heads.

After a few minutes of conference, the warden goes to the phone and dials it. Again, I can’t hear the words he’s using, but I can imagine the tone of his conversation. By now, I notice that the curtain is open. What do they think outside?

Finally, the priest comes over to me. “My son, the courts of man have found you guilty of murder, but it appears that the courts of Heaven have granted you clemency.”

The door opens, and two guards come in. They start unstrapping me, but they cuff and shackle me for transportation. I’m helped to my feet – it’s amazing how weak my legs are, almost like they’d given up on the idea of ever walking again. Then I’m marched back to the death-watch cell.


I’ve sat on death row now for two years since my first execution. They tried again, of course, on the theory that something was wrong with the drugs. Then they tried a double execution. The other guy died as normal – I watched his death while they pumped me full of the same drugs. I’ve become a bit of a celebrity since then. Doctors have taken so many samples of me that I’m surprised there’s anything left. Nobody knows why I’m still around.

My lawyers have tried to argue that I should be released since it’s obvious that Someone doesn’t want me dead yet. The judge told him that since I haven’t been miracled out of jail, it’s obvious that I’m meant to be here. Further appeals got nowhere.

I later heard that the investigation into the murders hasn’t restarted, despite my requests. The state has determined that there’s a guilty party – me – and they don’t feel inclined to prove themselves wrong. Well, I guess that I’m just going to rot here in this prison.

I look at the noose that I made from my bedsheets. Hopefully, I’ll die this time.

Reaching for Salvation

The Light brushed her fingertips, close enough to touch but not close enough to grasp. She knew that it held the fading memories of all that was good and happy.

Cassiel looked down at the trap that held her. Her mission had been a simple one – gather intelligence on a Black Mass. She had done it so many times throughout the millennia that she had lost count. She could not remember having ever considered going beyond her orders before.

She stretched up towards the Light again. She touched the edge of it, felt a small amount of His love, but it was fleeting. She knew that He was watching, and always testing her, as He always watched and tested everyone.

The air around her became cold, as the Light shrank away from her. She reflected on the decisions she had made throughout her existence. Which step had brought her away from Salvation? The corpses around her, were these the ones that she had created today? Or were the culmination of her choices?

Over the millennia she had seen too much. She didn’t know what had caused her to snap this time, but she had done it. She had failed her Test, going beyond her assigned intelligence-gathering, to retribution.

Cassiel – could she even use that name anymore? – knelt down among the carnage around her and wept. She had Fallen away from God’s Grace. She had damned herself.

And the worst part was, given the same circumstances, she would have changed nothing.

Image Credits: Nicole Jimenez.

The Game

Arthur woke once again in his hospital bed. The steady beeping of the monitor was a familiar background noise. After so long in this bed – he wasn’t exactly sure how long – the rhythm was a comfort that he would miss if it wasn’t there. Of course, if it wasn’t there, he wouldn’t be in a condition to miss it.

There was a rustling sound and the sudden smell of cigarette smoke. Arthur opened his eyes. There were two shadowy shapes moving around the room. Each one had a chair, and he saw that they were two strangers in robes. One was an extremely thin man in black robes, and was the source of the cigarette scent. The other was a bearded elderly man in white robes.

The two men set up their chairs on either side of Arthur’s bed. The dark-robed one on his left leaned something against the wall. Arthur could dimly see a pole with a blade on the end. Then, with sudden clarity, he saw that it wasn’t a man, but a robed skeleton with a scythe. It was time, then. The Reaper had come.

Arthur struggled to turn his head over to see the other man. He wasn’t illuminated by the room’s lights. Instead, a glowing halo floated inches above his head. Two feathery wings sprouted from the man’s back. An angel, then. This should be an interesting night.

The Reaper pulled a deck of cards from somewhere within his robes. He nodded to the angel, then both sat. The Reaper shuffled, then passed the deck to the angel to cut. Then, he dealt the cards onto Arthur’s blankets, ignoring the man under them.

Arthur watched the game down his body. He frowned as he saw the Reaper’s pile of chips grow. He felt his life fading with each hand. Then, the angel rose and pointed at the Reaper’s seat.

“What are those under you?” he asked. The voice echoed in the small room. “You are cheating!”

The reaper slid over to hide the cards. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice was deep, almost beyond the edge of hearing. Arthur felt the vibrations almost as much as he heard the voice. “Count the deck, you will find all fifty-two cards.”

“We have two jokers! There should be fifty-four cards! No wonder your pile is growing! This man’s life is leaning in the balance, and you have the temerity…”

Arthur raised his hand, knocking the chips over. Both spirits were immediately silent.

“It’s OK,” he rasped. “I know that my time has come. Please, let it come easily.”

The angel touched Arthur’s hand. “Are you sure? There is still a chance.”

“I am,” he replied. “The doctor told me that I can live, but I’ll be stuck in this bed for the rest of my life. Let it end now.”

The angel nodded. The Reaper rose and took up his scythe. He swiped it through Arthur’s body. There was a brief moment where time stood still. Then, Arthur’s spirit rose from the body.

The angel took the spirit’s hand. The Reaper started to protest, then fell silent.

All three left the room.

Image Credits: Hu Zheng.

An Unexpected Visit

Zug, Tarv, and Eki sat around the fire. Eki was tending the flames, giving the meat an occasional poke with her stick. Zug and Tarv, as usual, were describing the hunt to her, their claims more and more outrageous as they went on. She ignored them as she usually did once they got too crazy. She looked at the back of the cave, to where she stored the berries. They weren’t fermented yet, so she knew that they weren’t drunk. They were just trying to impress her.

Eki looked up sharply as she heard a noise by the cave entrance. It was a high-pitched humming, something she had never heard before. A moment later, the other two looked up too. They always were a little slow at picking up the small clues. Yet, there was no missing the bright light that soon shone in from above.

Zug grabbed his spear and jumped in front of the fire. It was too late to hide the flickering light from outside, so Zug moved to block whatever invader was coming to take their food and shelter. At almost the same time, Tarv pushed Eki towards the back of the cave, taking up his spear to defend her.

Two shadows in the bright light grew closer until they could be recognized as tall, thin creatures. They stood on two feet, unlike the animals that Zug and Tarv hunted, but they were not the same as the cave-dwellers. Their clothing was strange and didn’t look like the hide of any animal the dwellers had ever seen. Something clear and round covered their entire heads.

Zug pointed his spear at them. “You are in our home, strangers. Leave in peace.”

The creatures looked Zug, making strange noises. Then one raised his hands, palm forward, in front of itself. It was obviously trying to speak to Zug, but the sounds made no sense.

Zug, seeing that the creatures were ignoring him, advanced with his spear forward. Then, he shouted a challenge and threw the spear.

There was a bright green flash. The second being, the one that had not been talking to Zug, had pointed a strange object at the spear. The flash had been the spear disappearing as if it had never been. Zug held up his hands, signaling for another weapon. Tarv came forward with two spears, giving one to Zug. They each pointed a spear at one of the invaders.

The invaders spoke again in their strange voices, then slowly backed out towards the light. Soon, their shadows had disappeared into the bright light. The light dimmed and focused until Zug and Tarv could see several lights on a large disc on the ground. They watched as it rose into the sky, then flew off towards the direction of sunrise.

Image Credits: Chris Rallis.

Shoemaker, Skytrain

Shoemaker-1, Skytrain. You have been cleared to proceed to bay number three. Opening barn door. Over.”

Another routine flight is almost done. I look along Skytrain’s port side and see the odd numbers lined up, 1 to 15. Even number 13, second from the end. Under the number 3, a door is outlined in red lights, which change to green as the transmission ends.

Skytrain, Shoemaker, roger. Proceeding to bay 3. Switching to RCS now. Over.”

I switch on my RCS thrusters to fine-tune my approach. Almost automatically, I go through my bay-landing checklist. I look out the cockpit windows to check my wing clearance and to verify that my fuel-oxygen engines are off.

I press the button for internal communications.

“Attention passengers, this is the pilot speaking. We are beginning our final run for docking in Skytrain. As rotational gravity will be present, please take care as you move about the cabin. Take extra precautions if this is your first time off-planet.”

I key over to the radio again.

Skytrain, Shoemaker, I am transmitting number in 3…2…1.”

I press the “transmit” button on my computer’s modulator. I am treated – if you can call it that – to a squeal and a burst of static as my cargo and passenger manifests are sent over. After it’s done, I key again. “Over”.

Suddenly, the lights around bay 3 turn red.

Shoemaker-1, this is Skytrain. Wave off. Wave off. Turn nine-zero port to co-align with Skytrain’s course. Do not engage your main engines. Escorts are being dispatched now. Out.”

I quickly reverse my RCS thrust to bring Shoemaker to a stop, then pivot as fighter craft come out from the unmarked bays along Skytrain’s length.

Looks like today’s flight won’t be as routine as I had thought.

Image Credits: Andree Wallin.

A Rude Awakening

I woke up to the sound of the general alarm. The first thing I noticed was the difficulty I had moving. Apparently, they’d killed the gravity generator for this drill. The mess deck was lit by dim red lights, but I had adjusted to those long ago. As I floated out of my rack space, my half-engaged brain heard the PA announce “Emergency stations! Emergency stations!” No reason given – must be a general exercise.

The alarm repeated as I grabbed my uniform, fought to get into it without gravity’s aid. Next was my emergency respirator. A quick glance at the gauge showed me a green indicator, confirming two hours of oxygen.

I got out into the flats and noticed flickering lights. This was new. It’s then that I noticed the odd pitch of the engines. While I’m not an engineer, I’d lived aboard Slipdagger that I know what she should sound like. That wasn’t my partship though – someone else needed to worry about that.

I got to my station with the Emergency Repair Team. Someone was on the headset already. His respirator mask made it impossible to see his face, and I couldn’t see his name badge. I gave him the thumbs-up; and watched him mark me down on the roster. I suited up the rest of the way and started checking the toolkits while the rest of the team filtered in.

“Five minutes,” called the PA. “Ship is at emergency stations.”

I looked at the rest of the ERT, floating around the shop. A few had managed to get footholds near the edges of the room, but there were too many of us. Of course, the latecomers always got the best seats.

“D’you hear there, this is the Captain.” We all looked up at the PA speaker. “During the transition out of hyperspace, we had a power surge on the main generator. Fires were put out by rapid response and damage is being assessed. Damage control priorities are the restoration of power and navigation. This is not a drill.”

From the back of the room, I heard the comms guy. I recognized Mike’s voice. “Dispatch a team to forward navigation. Complete loss of systems.” Immediately I grabbed my tools. I waved to the command section, making sure they saw me. The supervisor gave me a thumbs up, then indicated an apprentice to join me. We headed out of the shop and forward towards the navigation space.

As we headed out, I took stock of my companion. He was new – this was his first cruise. The white stripe on his rank flash showed that he hadn’t even completed his ship’s orientation.

“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked the rookie.

“More or less. I’ve gotten a basic tour of our spaces, but that’s about it. I’m afraid I won’t be much use to you for troubleshooting.”

Great. I was saddled with a rank amateur. I hoped that the problems would be simple.

When we got to forward nav, my hopes were dashed. The door was vacuum-sealed. I grabbed the phone beside the door and dialed the net-access code. I heard the tone brief tone indicating that I had joined the ERT party-line, then someone speaking.

“…ilizers and gyros are bent. I’m getting some stock numbers. Hopefully, the binrats have some parts for us.”

“This is After ERT, roger. HQ did you copy?”

“HQ copies.”

“Forward copies.”

I took advantage of the silence to announce myself.

“Forward nav on net. Reporting.”

“Forward ERT, go ahead nav.”

“This is forward nav, we are unable to enter the gyro space. It indicates vacuum-sealed, and I can’t see the equipment status.”

“Forward roger, we have just received reports that forward nav is non-responsive because it has been blown out. Do not attempt to breach the seal, that room has been lost to space. Return to ERT.”


Damage reports continued to come in, but they were pretty disheartening. We didn’t have the parts to repair the after nav system, and the salvage team didn’t get much out of forward. The captain stood down emergency stations since there was no purpose in us staying on high alert. In fact, he ordered a stand-down of all personnel not required to get us back on track. Unfortunately, as one of Slipdagger’s navigation system experts, I had a few long days ahead of me.

Eventually, we got some equipment together. The result is shoddy-looking. It’s held together with duct tape and prayers, but we hope it will do something. The captain and the ship’s navigator have had a look at it, and they agree that they can work with the limitations of what we have. Basic stabilizers to keep us level, but no computer guidance. They retreated to their cabins to pull out pencils, papers, and calculators.

Tomorrow, we will find out if my repairs worked.

Image Credits: Siddharth Tailor.

The Wrong Afterlife

Prehistoric hunters take down a mammoth

The last thing I remember was lying on the ground in the rain, hearing the sounds fade away as I got colder and colder. Then, I saw the light. I went towards it.

I was expecting to find myself in front of St Peter, or at least some other judge of my soul. I was disappointed when, instead, I found myself in the middle of a jungle. I caught occasional glimpses of others around me, but nobody solid. Other ghosts passing through here, maybe?

I decided there was no use in staying here, so I start to walk in a random direction. I got lost several times going around the trees.  Since I didn’t know where I started, there didn’t seem to be much different. I heard a roar like I’ve never heard before. It wasn’t a big roar; in fact, just the opposite. But as small as it was, I could feel it go through me, along with a primal terror. I ran, then found myself running into the only solid person here.

He was a big man. Not a tall man or a fat man, but a big one. Solid muscle, covered in hair. He wore only a simple strip of woven material over his shoulder.  It seemed to be more utility than modesty, as it held spears to his back but covered nothing.

He looked at me and grunted. Then he shook his head and turned toward the roaring sound. That’s when I saw it. It looked like an elephant but was much smaller and hairier. Almost like…a miniature mammoth?

I looked around and realized the truth. Heaven wasn’t created by modern man, it was created by the first men.

I’ve lost track of how long I’ve spent here, hoping to find my way into a more modern heaven. I’m sick of mammoth steak (even if it cooks itself as soon as it’s killed), and I’m not much closer to having a conversation with Gronk. I can’t even kill myself to move on to a different heaven. Believe me. I’ve tried.

Image Credits: Sedeslav.