Category Archives: short fiction

ASPECTS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG HUMANS, as seen from the Kitharan Compact, 3468 AB

ASPECTS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG HUMANS

Compiled by the Xeno-ethnology Department of the Compact of Kithar Institute of Advanced Studies, Tikiria Prime, 3468 AB.

Note: this list has been compiled in the hopes that our first contact with the dangerous and violent human species, which is impending, will be peaceful and not result in any Kitharans getting eaten, enslaved, or turned into sexual playthings.  Unless, of course, they are into that sort of thing.   

  1. On Earth, humans regularly battle giant reptiles, giant apes, giant birds, giant turtles, giant insects, giant this and that, which explains why they are so hardened and violent.  Several of these giants have returned again and again, especially ‘gohdzyllla’ and ‘kingghong’, thus demonstrating the implacable assault humans have to live with.   
  2. Humans also battle one another, sometimes small-scale with swords before cheering crowds, and sometimes with vast tribes battling one another over huge portions of the planet.  Some scholars think the two kinds of fighting are both preparations for interstellar war. The fact that human contenders often turn from fighting one another to make common cause against an alien foe is seen as supporting this view.   
  3. Earth has been invaded over and over again by extraterrestrial species.  As a consequence, humans have destroyed any number of alien races. The fact that no one in the galaxy recognizes any of these races is taken to mean that the humans destroyed them before they could make contact with the greater galactic community.
  4. Earth appears to have been the victim of several dark ages, short-term ice ages and nuclear holocausts, including some collapses in which disease makes the afflicted look like dead people.
  5. Humanity engages in all manner of ritualized combat, including ‘bassbohl’, in which participants use various skills to avoid being killed or maimed by a small, white projectile, and ‘golph’, in which players wield vicious, skull-cleaving clubs while engaged in a cross-country death march.
  6. Another ritual combat is called ‘fudbohl’.  The rules of this combat are obscure– such is its vicious nature that some scholars believe it is chiefly a means of culling weaker individuals from the gene pool.
  7. Humanity chooses its leaders by having candidates spin a wheel and try to spell out words.  Those who fail these tests are executed, chiefly by hanging.
  8. Human women often must fight for mates, in arenas, observed by the whole planet.  These women are called ‘mohckingjahys’. The reference is obscure.   
  9. Humans execute traitors with creatures called ‘draagons’, which breathe fire– doubtless an indication of humanity’s advanced genetic engineering capabilities.
  10. Humans have enslaved both sentient and non-sentient species, including ‘dogghs’, ‘caats’, ‘whalsss’, ‘moskuitoes’, ‘farh-annts’, ‘draagons’ and ‘monsteer truuks’.  The last are particularly used to further cull the genetic pool in another form of ritualized combat, known alternately as ‘road rage’ or ‘the daily commute’.       
  11. Humanity has a supreme leader who appears all in black, and whose hissing breath chokes the life out of people. 
  12. Many races fear humanity possesses a giant, planet-destroying ray.  
  13. Humans have a disintegrating/reintegrating machine, which transports (hence its name, ‘transporter’) people from their home planet and reconstitutes them as slaves with no will of their own.  This is particularly effective in securing mates in reference to item number 14.
  14. Humans are horny.  They will do it any time, anywhere, with any number of partners of different genders or species, as evidenced by such instructional videos as Debbie Does Deimos and Naughty Nymphets of Neptune, Number 347.  This is seen by scholars as desperate attempts to repopulate their planet after all the monsters, disasters, societal collapses and alien invasions.

It is hoped that this brief description will aid anyone who comes into contact with this dangerous species.  Rumors of the advance of humans toward Kitharan space have been rampant in the last several felenhara, and it is only a matter of time before they make their presence known.  We beseech the gods to protect the Kitharan people, and ask that anyone who might be contacted by humans to remain peaceful and calm, and keep this list handy.  As well as a good supply of condoms.     

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The Cavalry– Flash Fiction for Sunday, May 5, 2019

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for May 5, 2019— two hundred words related to this image–

192-02-february-19th-2017
© A Mixed Bag

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“That’s silly,” Pamela said.

“It’s what Gran told us.”  At ten I was stubborn.

“Gran was a little off,” Pamela said.  “Remember when she thought the vacuum cleaner was Cousin Frank?”

“Well,” I told her, “there is a family resemblance.”

“Har, har.  You’re so funny.”

“Look,” I told my sister, “kidding aside, we need help.  They’re going to break through soon.  You can hear them, Pam.  Aren’t you willing to even try?”

“We need something more practical than rattling some old toy and mumbling some words.  Like the 82nd Airborne.”

“Well, they’re not here,” I said.

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Gran said the eldest of the family has to do it.  That’s you, I’m sorry to say.”

“Watch your mouth, kid,” Pamela said.  Sighing, she seized the horizontal stick and manipulated the little toy up and down three times, so that its wooden wings flapped.

“Drake, fire and claw,” she said, “drake, fire and claw.  To your own in need now return.  Drake, fire and claw.”

She let go of the toy, made a face at me.  “See?  Nothi….”

Her words were interrupted by a massive roar, and the sound of a great, armored body landing on our roof.

FLASH FICTION– “A MATTER OF DISCRETION”

My response to a flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, to write 1500 words of space opera in honor of May the Fourth.  It so happens I love space opera, although I’ve seen very few good examples of the genre lately (I have been dodging The Last Jedi like a healthy man dodges plague victims).  My little piece below is based on an (as yet) unpublished space opera universe I’ve had rolling around in my head for decades.  If I ever get the Divine Lotus series finished (and that is a long, sad tale) I might just turn to the universe of the Consortium, Shareholders, and the Perimeter.

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel

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“Damn Shareholder,” Rong muttered.  He leaned against a tree trunk and wiped sweat from his face.  

“Shut your mouth,” Teal told him.  He was drenched in sweat, as well; this world reminded him strongly of Novo Brasil.  “He hired us, he gets to set the agenda.”

“Indeed, Citizen Xiang,” the Shareholder said, from twenty meters away.  He spoke without turning around or looking up from the ruined wall he was examining with a sensordoc.  “I beg your patience—this will not take long.”

Teal gave Rong a sidelong glance.  “Enhanced genetics, tooler. Don’t forget it.”  Rong glowered, but clamped his lips tight.

Maria appeared over the rise beyond the wall, pushing aside vines and creepers.  “Shareholder Mann, there’s more ruins on the other side.”

“No matter,” Mann said.  He snapped the sensordoc shut.  “I’m picking up no ipinsotic traces at all.  Nothing. This location’s a waste of time.”

Teal resisted the urge to calculate the cost of the fuel they had burned getting here.  “Your orders, sir?”

“We go on to Mackason IV,” Mann said at once, with asperity.  “The reports can’t all be wrong.”  He seemed as if he were about to say more, but he stopped himself.  “I want to lift as quickly as possible.”

“We’ll be in the air five minutes after we close the hatches, Shareholder,” Teal said.

 

It wasn’t until they were well on trajectory for the jump radius that Mann sought Teal out.  They were alone in the Pleasant Virgin’s cockpit, with holographic readouts flickering around them.  Mann settled himself into the chair at the astrogator’s station and regarded Teal.  “All in order, Captain Xiang?” he said.

“We’re fifteen hours to jump,” Teal said, “and the ship is operating normally.”

“Good,” Mann said.  His regard of Teal sharpened.  “But not all of your crew appear to be happy.”

“Well, Shareholder,” Teal said, “with all due respect, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about human nature.  We’ve hit eighteen worlds in fifteen systems in the last month, and so far every one of them has been a dry hole.  For whatever it is you’re looking for. Frustration’s bound to show itself in this sort of situation.”

Mann said nothing for a moment.  “You knew that the exact nature of this mission would remain confidential, captain.”

“Indeed, Shareholder, it was made very clear to me,” Teal said.

“And we Purcells hired you and your crew precisely because you have a reputation for keeping secrets.”

“It’s a point of pride with us,” Teal said.

“Well, then, captain, I would appreciate it if you had a word with your people,” Mann said.  “The House of Purcell needs your discretion, and your very fast ship, to complete a task of some urgency.  To help us complete that task, we are paying you a handsome sum. Surely enough to quell any ennui you and your people may feel.”

“Yes, Shareholder,” Teal said.  “I will speak to them.”

 

“Pilkin’ bastard,” Maria said, running a hand over Teal’s bare chest.  “Never was a Shareholder worth the skin holding ‘em together.”

“That may be,” Teal said.  He enjoyed her touch; their lovemaking always put him into drowsy contentment.  “But he is paying the bills, and without this job we might be scratching for a commission.  Things are hard at the moment.”

“In this quadrant,” Maria said.  “T’other side of the Volume, there’s plenty of opportunities.”

“I’ve heard it all already, pretty puss,” Teal said.  “And maybe once our coffers are full, we’ll head that way.  But we have to finish this job first.”

Maria raised herself up on her hands, looked down on Teal.  “D’you have any idea what he’s looking for?”

“No,” Teal said, fim, “and I don’t want to know.  It is not our business. We were hired to haul him about and keep our mouths shut.  As long as I’m captain, that’s what we’ll do.”

Maria stared at him, solemn.  “So be it, then,” she said.  

 

Mackason IV, from a descent trajectory, looked much like many another Earth-type world—ocean blues overlayed with white clouds, green-brown landmasses here and there.  A cyclonic storm occupied a quadrant of the main ocean, but it was too far away to affect their chosen landing site. Teal took the Virgin in fast, not caring if they left a prominent re-entry trail.

They landed on a rocky plain, in a level area between jagged hills.  Even coming in they could see the ruins that covered the land between the high ground; as they landed Teal saw broad roads and the bases of broken towers.  Mann, leaning over his shoulder to stare at the displays, gave off a palpable air of excitement. “This is more extensive than anything I have ever seen before,” he said, transfixed.

They all hit dirt, Rong, Maria, Chris, Mann and Teal.  Mann had his sensordoc out at once. Even from several feet away, Teal could tell the readout was exploding with data.  

“This is incredible!” Mann exclaimed.  “The readings are off the scale! This is what we’ve been looking for!”

“Rong, Maria, fetch the containment vessel,” Teal said.  The two of them hurried back into the ship.

Mann led Chris and Teal through a broken archway, and down a flight of steps.  At the bottom was a sort of small amphitheater; scattered in the dust that coated the amphitheater’s floor were scattered lumps and shapes, most of which were hard to make out.

At the foot of one pillar, however, something glowed ochre.  Mann approached it; it glowed more brightly, while the sensordoc’s readout became even more fevered.

“There!” Mann cried, pointing.  “An active device! It’s what I’ve been looking for.”

“Doesn’t seem much,” Chris said.  The femman knelt down, extend a hand.

“Don’t!” Mann yelled.  

The warning came too late.  Chris touch the device. There was a flash of light, and then a scream.  Teal, squinting past a hand raised against the light, glimpsed Chris afire, screaming.  In the next instant, the femman was simply gone.

“The fool!” Mann cried.  “The utter fool!”   

 

They got the device in the containment vessel using hand-grav tools.  They sealed the vessel; then, with a smug Mann leading the way, they secured it in the Virgin’s front cargo bay.  “We are all rich now,” Mann told them.

They lifted ship at once, with Mann in the crew mess preparing a report to his superiors.  Teal was happy to retreat to the cockpit to put the Virgin on a trajectory for the jump radius.  He still didn’t know what they had found, and he wanted to know even less than before.   

He had just finished setting the jump coordinates when he heard a muffled thump.  The sound was strange to him.  Then the security display popped up a flashing alert, weapon discharge- crew mess.

“What the hell?” Teal said.  He climbed over the seats and slid down the ladder to the crew level.

He burst into the mess and was confronted by a scene of blood.  Mann lay on his back on the middle deck, his eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead.  Rong stood over him, a slug-thrower in his hand.

“Had to do it!” he yelled at Teal.  “The Sheffields– they’re offering a million!  A whole million! The Purcells are nothing compared to the Sheffields.”

Teal yelled in rage and threw himself at Rong.  The man had no time to bring his weapon to bear on Teal before the captain was on him.  He fired another shot, but it missed Teal and caroomed off one of the bulkheads.

Old training kicked in for Teal; without thinking he batted the gun out of Rong’s hand, then drove punches into the man that first stole his wind, and then his life.  Rong’s body fell over Mann’s and lay still.

Teal, panting, sensed rather than saw Maria in the mess’ open hatch.  “He’s ruined us!” he said, his hands clenched in unspent fury. “Ruined us!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria said, “it probably depends on your point of view.”

Something slammed into Teal.  It threw him into the bulkhead.  He slid down, slumped against the compartment wall.  He couldn’t move; the stink of burnt flesh rose up into his nostrils.

“What…?” he gasped.

Maria came amd loomed over him, the quantifier in her hands crackling with residual heat.  “The Sheffields– what a joke. The Voronovs will pay far more. And it will all be mine.” Maria lifted the quantifier.

 

Maria reset the jump destination.  It would take a week to reach the Voronov base where she was to meet her contact– a long ride in an empty ship.  To top it off, she found she was actually sorry that Teal would not have understood why she had to do this. It would have been better with the two of them.

However, three million Consortiums bought a lot of consolation.  

Maria sat back in the command chair, contemplating her future.  She smiled. It was indeed time to examine opportunities on the far side of the Volume.   

SUNDAY PHOTO FICTION – September 3rd, 2017- A WRONG TURN

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for September 3rd, 2017— two hundred words based on this image–

210-09-september-3rd-2017

Copyright 2017 Douglas A. Daniel

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“Let me see the map.”

“Darling, I told you, we should have turned left, not right.  We’re supposed to be on Dover Five, not Dover Six.”

“Oh, crap, how did we manage that?”

“Well, I told you we should have brought the Sherman.  You go to the trouble of installing a GPS system and then you don’t use it….”

“And what did I say?  We needed better mileage for this trip, and the Sherman just burns gas like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Sweetie, you’re supposed to be a mechanical genius, can’t you do something about that?”

“Oh, yeah, in my ample spare time, sure.  Could you lay off me, please?”

“I’m not making any judgments, I’m just saying…..”

“Okay, never mind, let’s just get turned around….”

“KRAKEN!”

“I see it!  Get in the gunner’s seat!”

“Traversing!”

“It’s a big one!”

“On target!”

“Loading…you’re up!”

“Firing!”

“You got it, honey!  Look at it go!”

“I would too, with everybody in the harbour shooting at me.”

“It’s gone.”

“Thank God.”

“I love you, honey.”

“I love you, dear.”

“Okay, let’s get turned around.  With luck the ferry will be delayed pending the all-clear.”

“….we still should have brought the Sherman….”

Sunday Photo Fiction – August 13th 2017- Memento

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction flash challenge for August 13th 2017– 200 words based on this image–

208-08-august-13th-2017

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“He needs to grow up,” Jason’s step-father said, finishing off his eggs.

“It’s only been six months, William,” Jason’s mother said.

“And he keeps carrying that stupid toy around, Amanda,” William said.

“His father gave it to him,” Amanda said.

“Still, sooner or later he needs to man-up.”  William said.  He stood, draped his suit jacket over his arm and picked up his briefcase.  “Shareholder briefing today, don’t wait dinner for me.”

“All right.”

Jason heard the front-door close behind William.  Neither of them had seen him.  He was getting good at not being seen.

He went upstairs.  September sunshine shone in his room—school would start soon.  He lay down on his bed.

He opened his hand and stared at the little blue TARDIS in his palm.  He remembered—a crisply cold winter’s night, the Milky Way an arch of diamonds stretching across the sky above them.

“There, son, there’s Pleiades, and next to it is Taurus the Bull—see the two horns?—and there, see those three stars in a row?  That’s the belt of Orion the Hunter.  Find Orion’s belt and you can find your way around the whole sky.”

Jason closed his hand on the TARDIS.

Sunday Photo Fiction – July 30th 2017- Talking Heads

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for July 30th 2017– two hundred words based on this image–

207-07-july-30th-2017
© A Mixed Bag 2009

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It is poorly preserved,” Dr. Angg said.  “The slackness of the jaw, the orange tinge of the skin— you’d think even a hundred years ago the curators could have done better.”

I said nothing.  Angg was the Imperium’s leading expert in xenobiology and off-world artifacts.  We had found the alien head in among old displays in the museum’s archive.  There were many relics of humanity’s early, freebooting days in interstellar space in the vaults.  There were alien weapons, and strange religious artifacts, and more than a few trophies of the vicious wars of that era.  Angg and I had already examined a collection of Te’measkini scalps, gathered by the members of the Fifth Punitive Expedition.  It was gruesome stuff, and offensive to modern sensibilities.  Inclusion of multitudinous species was now Imperial policy, and we had been charged with cleaning out the collection.

“How do you think it died?” I asked Angg.

“Probably a victim of the Rilhalan War,” Angg said.  “The species looks correct.  Huge beings, they were—doubtless the head was taken as a trophy, and the body left to rot.”

“A lot you know, buddy,” the head said, as it sprouted spidery legs and scuttled off.

Sunday Photo Fiction – March 12th 2017- The Suit

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for March 12th 2017— 200 words inspired by this image–

spacesuit
© A Mixed Bag 2012

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It’s all old junk,” Clark said.  “The museum stores it here.”

I saw shapes in the darkness— a LEM mockup, dead animatronic dinosaurs, empty helium cylinders, a spacesuit.

“They have to keep the exhibits fresh,” Clark said.  “Kids like flash and bang.  Their parents want to see something new, or they won’t spring for a membership.”

“That’s a real spacesuit,” I said.

Clark looked.  “Yeah– we got a couple of those surplus.  Time for lunch.”

“Can I stay for a second?” I asked.

“Okay– just don’t mess with anything.”

He left.  I stepped closer to the suit.  Now or never.

The suit was on a standing rack.  I unzipped the main closure.  I wriggled my feet and butt inside, then angled my head into the helmet.  I slipped my arms into the sleeves.  I closed the zipper.

The inside of the suit smelled like a locker-room in need of disinfectant.  No matter.

I waited.  For a moment I thought I had miscalculated.

My stomach lurched.  I floated in blackness. I spun; stars and then Saturn came into view.  I looked down on the rings from about nine hundred thousand kilometers.

“Agent Fifteen-Q-zed,” I called.  “Ready for retrieval.”

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: RANDOM PHOTO EXERCISE — Memories by fire and moon

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words based on a random photo from Flickr.  After spinning through a considerable number of pictures, I found this one, by leogln7

Sea snake skeleton

It took me far, far away….

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“The dragons,” the guide said, “were foolish.  As powerful as they were, there were too few of them to rule humanity.  The last battle was fought here.”  He pointed at the vast skeleton, lying in the shallows of the placid lake.  “That’s old Thoronongrom, the king of the dragons.  He fell here with a thousand arrows in him, shredded by cannon, but it still took him three days to die.  The corpse was a generation decaying.”

“How horrible!” gasped the Marchioness of Tre.  She held her scented fan to her face.  “I can almost smell the rotting flesh!”

The dandy at her elbow laughed.  “Come, dearest, it’s been two centuries.”  His fingers fondled the hilt of the jeweled sword at his hip.  “These bones are bleached clean.”

“Roderick, must you spoil everything?” the Marchioness pouted.

The group stood on the lake shore, gawping at the skeleton, as the guide went on about the battle and its great slaughter.  The lords and ladies, with jewels and fine silks, had thought it diverting to come down to the shore for a while, before the evening’s feast and fireworks to celebrate the anniversary of the victory.  They whispered and laughed among themselves as the fellow went on.

“Probably expects tips in direct proportion to how loquacious he can be,” Jason, Baron of Rogen, whispered in Clara’s ear.  Clara wished he wouldn’t do that—she was trying to listen.

“In the end,” the guide said, “although not all the dragons fell here, their power was broken.  The Battle of Silent Lake ended their rule over humanity, and since we have ruled ourselves, to our own greater glory.”

“Hear, hear,” said Duke Coram, and the crowd applauded.

Clara did not join in.  Glory—she found it an ironic word.  Of course, this fellow, making a living off showing fancy folk the bones of legends, wasn’t going to suggest to any of them that their ‘glory’ came at a high price.

The crowd went back up to the mansion overlooking the lake, as the sun set.  There were aperitifs before the meal, and the high-born enjoyed them as they watched the sunset.  Then, by the light of huge lanterns the nobles danced to swiftly-played music, before sitting down to the meal, which was served by silent servants.

Clara, relegated to the outer tables, got up as the fireworks began.  Great balls of crimson and green fire burst high in the air, reflecting in the face of the lake, but she ignored them as she went down the steps to the lower terrace.  Her path was one she would follow to obey a call of nature.  Before she could reach the porticos, however, Jason intercepted her.  “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“My dear baron,” Clara said, “even ladies of the first rank have to relieve themselves from time-to-time, not to mention the daughters of country squires.”

Jason smiled and leaned against a balustrade.  “You are such a queer little thing.  You were really intent on what that fellow had to say this afternoon.”

“Why not?” Clara said.  “Have you no interest in history, my lord?”

“I’ve told you before, call me Jason.”

“I don’t wish to imply an intimacy to which I have no right,” Clara said.  Not yet—and, with any luck, never.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Jason said.  “But, to answer your question, not particularly.  It’s all dead and gone.  Particularly the dragons.  Ancient business that has no meaning now.”

“No?” Clara said.  “I think we are the children of history, and everything in the past lives in us.”  She hesitated.  “My lord, do you believe the tales that not all the dragons died?  That some took human form and that their descendants live among us?”

Jason’s insouciant smile faded.  “That’s not legend, little Clara,” he said.  “That’s dangerous.  The sort of loose talk that puts one in the company of the secret police.”

“Forgive me, then, my lord,” Clara said.  “I spoke out of turn, and foolishly.  Now, please excuse me—I do not wish to have an accident.”

He let her go.  She went through the porticos, but instead of going to the privies she went down to the beach again.  The fireworks continued, even as the Bone Moon rose above them.

She walked out into the water, careless of her shoes and gown, until she stood right under and within the skeleton of Thoronongrom.  She stood there and found it hard to catch her breath, as she tried to imagine what it had been like, on that day, when the old realm had been thrown down, and the new—a regime that needed secret police—was born.  She laid a hand on the giant, weathered rib beside her, and tried to imagine what Thoronongrom had been like, alive, and dealing out death and justice.

I have seen you in my dreams.

She waded to the skull.  The great jaws were agape, as they were in that final moment of death, two centuries before.  Clara tried to picture what sort of agony it was for this great creature to spend three days a-dying, and found she could not.  Her eyes filled with tears.

Music echoed from the terrace above, as the fireworks went on.  Clara was sure she could hear laughter.  The revelries would now move into their terminal, drunken phase, she supposed.

She reached up, to touch one of the great fangs in the upper jaw.  Almost without intending to, she broke off its tip.  It was easier than she thought—the skeleton was so weathered it was well on its way to becoming chalk.

She stared at the tip in her hand.  She closed her fist about it.  She gripped it hard, until the point bit into her palm, until blood flowed.

When the blood struck the water, it sizzled.

She looked up at the mansion, and knew that fire danced in the depths of her eyes.

Rest well, Grandfather, she thought.  They will pay yet.

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: TEN MORE TITLES – Ring of Bullets

A response to Chuck Wendig’s most recent flash fiction challenge, to write a story to fit one of the following randomly generated titles–

The Incubus’ Tale

The Manor Above

The Dancer And The Shattered Shell

The Hero Will Not Be Automatic

Ring of Bullets

The Music Box of Manhattan

These Damned Insects

Tiger, Burning

A Cold Opportunity Without The Kingdom

The Apocalypse Ticket

I picked Ring of Bullets, but fudged the 1000 word limit Chuck requested.  I am shameless.

This piece is set in the same universe as my Divine Lotus series of novels, just further south and later in time.

Note: this piece depicts combat and military violence, so be warned.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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Ring of Bullets

“Hold them!,” Haass screamed.  “Hold the bastards!”

His order barely cut above the din of firing and the howls of the Temishi.  The enemy swordsmen surged against the barricade, screaming in bloodlust, or in agony as a Union bullet found them.  The troopers behind the barricade of logs and barrels fired directly into enemy faces, or stabbed with bayonets.  As Haass watched one, then two of the soldiers fell, taking sword-thrusts, even as other soldiers shot the men who stabbed them.

“Captain!  Captain!”  It was Subaltern Skal.  The youth practically tumbled down the hill toward Haass.  “The Temishi are over the south wall!  They’ve broken into the lower barracks!”

Haass stared at him for one instant.  Then he grabbed the whistle on its lanyard, put it to his lips, and blew three sharp blasts.  “Fall back!” he shouted.  “Fall back to the hold-fast!”

The men obeyed, raggedly, in twos and threes.  They had go backward, fighting as they went.  Those who turned their backs to the Temishi were cut down at once.  The barbarians, shrieking, came over the barricade in a living wave.  Haass fired once, twice with his revolver, dropping tattooed swordsmen as they clambered over the logs.  Then he went back, with his men, up the hill.

Five or six troopers coalesced around him and Skal, and together they laid down enough fire to hold off the Temishi as they retreated.  The soldiers furiously worked the bolts of their rifles, firing, loading, firing.  Haass empty his revolver, hastily reloaded with a speed-loader from his ammo pouch, and shot a charging Temishi in the face.

They went up the hill, and now the eastern barricade they had quit was smothered in Temishi.  The watchtower on the east side of the cantonment, Haass now saw, was ablaze.  One of the troopers beside him took a steel-tipped arrow through his chest.  He crumpled slowly to the hillside, as if reluctant to admit he was dead.

They went back, and reached the lower door of the hold-fast.  “Get in!” Haass cried.  The soldiers piled in through the portal.  Haass fired again and again, holding back the Temishi, then flung himself inside.  Someone slammed the heavy door shut, and bars dropped into place.

Haass picked himself up.  The lower floor of the hold-fast was a wide room, stone-floored, with firing apertures around its perimeter.  Weak sunshine shone through the northern slits, as the sun approached noon.  A stone staircase led up to the roof.

Fifteen or twenty troopers gasped and cursed in the lower room.  Some were wounded.  Haass said, “Cover the firing loops!  Keep the bastards away from the walls.”

Men moved to obey.  Haass forced his legs to move, and he ascended the stairs.

He came out on the roof, and the sound of the Temishi horde rang in his ears.  He kept low, taking cover behind the crenellated top-wall, and peeking out as he reloaded his pistol.

From here he could see the whole breadth of the pass, from the northern hill to the southern.  The knoll on which the hold-fast stood was lodged right in the mouth of the pass– to the west, across the shallow, frigid river whose name he could not remember, the country opened up into what passed for fertile lands in this cold, southern extremity.

Not only was the watch-tower burning, but also the northern and southern blockhouses, flanking the knoll.  Haass gritted his teeth; they had not had the time to build a wall to enclose the hold-fast, the tower and the blockhouses.  They had been told the Temishi were five or six days march away, on the other side of the mountains, and that there was time.  Instead the Temishi had appeared suddenly, not an hour before.

Now the barbarians surged about the hill in their thousands.  The lower barracks, the cookhouse and the ammunition hut were all burning, too, the ammo store crackling continuously with exploding ammunition.  Temishi danced around the the fires, celebrating the destruction.  The only signs of the bulk of Haass’ command were bodies in khaki lying scattered around the post.  Here and there Temishi hacked at the corpses, out of spite, or to collect trophies.

At the moment, the Temishi were keeping back from the hold-fast, finishing the destruction of the rest of the post.  As Haass watched, other groups of Temishi peeled away from the post, toward the river, with its bridge the Unionists had been unable to destroy.  Haass grimaced; the Temishi would be on the division’s rear areas in half a day.

Someone was there with him on the roof– Sergeant Tem.  The older man had blood on his face, but seemed otherwise unhurt.  He peered out.  “Bad enough, ain’t it, Captain.”

“Bad enough,” Haass said, unable to improve on the sergeant’s assessment.

“We should never have come to this forsaken place,” Tem said.

“Not our decision, sergeant,” Haass said.  “We’re soldiers, we go where we’re sent.”  Despite his words, Haass knew resentment– the Union had no business in this land, except the High Chief’s ambition for an empire.  At the moment it seemed a poor excuse to let savages hack good soldiers to pieces.

“We just have to hold them off,” Haass said.  “If our riders got through, the brigade could be here by tomorrow morning.”

An arrow skipped off a crenellation close by.  Haass and Tem crossed to the other side of the roof, looking out toward the river.  The soldiers below now fired at the crowd outside.  Even so, despite the firing, Temishi were cautiously making their way up the slope on all sides.  They’ll rush us soon.

A commotion among the enemy on the river-side of the post; men parted to let a small group of Temishi carrying long spears through.  Two of the spears carried something on their tips, pales lumps.  Their passage elicited much cheering among the Temishi.

The spear-carriers came closer, and Haass saw why the Temishi rejoiced.  “Pons and Dro,” he muttered.  The riders had not made it out.

“So,” Tem said, sounding resigned.  “It’s the ring of bullets, after all.”

The pledge.  “We’re not there, yet, sergeant,” Haass said.  “If we can just….”

There was a roar; the roof shook beneath them, and a cloud of dust and smoke shot up on the other side of the holdfast.  “They’ve blown the wall in!” Tem shouted.  He raced for the stairs, and Haass followed.

In the room below was swirling smoke, screams and rifles going off in the enclosed space.  Temishi poured through a wide gap in the eastern wall.  Troopers shot them, struggled with them hand-to-hand, but there were too many of them.  Now, however, the Temishi did not strike to kill; they seized soldiers with their bare hands and with nooses, looking to capture.

Ring of bullets…ring of bullets– the pledge, that no Union soldier would let another fall into barbarian hands, to be tortured and slowly flayed in Temishi temples.  So, standing midway down the stairs, Haass lifted his pistol and shot Tem in the back of the head.  He shot Skal, as the boy crouched weeping against the far wall.  He fired and fired, and as he did Haass wept, too, for his men, for the waste, for himself.  He would never marry or father children.  He would never again see another sunset, or the forests of his home.

Temishi pushed up the stairs toward him.  Haass put the muzzle of his pistol to his own temple, but the hammer clicked on a spent cartridge.  He flailed with the empty pistol, cracking a skull, laying open a face, but strong hands seized him and bore him down.

A Christmas Story

“You will be watched,” the inquisitor said.

“I understand,” Ren said. His back and arms ached from being shackled.

“If you do not refrain from incorrect thinking,” the inquisitor said, “you will be detained again. If you persist, you will be removed, so that you do not contaminate productive citizens.”

“I understand,” Ren said.

The inquisitor held out a familiar packet of papers. “Take this– they have been updated with your latest offenses.”

Ren reached to take the papers. But as he did the inquisitor held on to them. Their eyes met.

“You infect your mind with false beliefs,” the inquisitor said. “The only truth is power, and who holds it. The sooner you accept that axiom, the sooner you will find your place in the order of things.” He let go of the papers, waved a hand. “You are dismissed.”

Ren left the police station, walking out the front gate past the fortified pillboxes on either hand. Even though he was leaving, the machine-gun muzzles protruding from the pillbox firing slits tracked him until he reached the street.

He had no money, and no tokens; he could not ride the rattling trams. One shuddered past him, shedding sparks from its pole, as he turned toward home along the sidewalk. The tram was packed with people– men, women, a few pale children, all silent, each as alone as if they were the only ones in the car.

He walked down along the littered sidewalk, past the offices of the local ministries– Internal Security, Propaganda, Corrections– all unadorned edifices of stone as grim as skulls. The guards at the entrance of each watched him, gun-muzzles followed him, but he just kept walking.

Beyond the Ministry district there were more people on the sidewalk, shabby, exhausted-looking men and women who each looked as if they were hurrying somewhere they didn’t want to go. Their breath steamed in the cold air. No one met his eyes. In general, it was safer that way.

Up ahead, there was a commotion on the sidewalk– helmeted Security men were clearing the space in front of one of the fortified townhouses that lined the street here. “Make way, make way!” the guards shouted. They pushed pedestrians out of the way and threatened others with shock-batons to open up a path from the townhouse’s gate to a huge car that idled at the curb. Ren stopped some yards short of the cordon, but still close enough to see the well-fed, well-dressed man who stepped through the gate toward the car. He was followed by a younger woman, expensively-dressed in her own way. Even the weak winter sun flashed on the diamonds about her throat. Both man and woman stepped into the car; doors were closed and the vehicle sped away from the curb.

Ren went on. Crossing the Way of Victory, he reached the checkpoint on the northeastern side of the intersection. “Papers,” the lead sergeant said.

Ren handed them over. The guard surveyed them, and his eyebrows went up. “So! Fresh from a stint with the District Inquisitor, eh? Hope you learned you lesson, citizen.”

“I know I did, sir,” Ren said.

The sergeant gave him a hard look, as if trying to detect sarcasm. “Make sure of that,” the guard growled. “You don’t want to stay on the inquisitor’s radar. Unhealthy.”

“Yes, sir,” Ren said.

Just at that moment, there was a shout. Across the Way, a guard at the checkpoint on the northwestern side grabbed the coat of a man, then shoved him to the ground. The man fell heavily, striking his head on the concrete. The guard hit the man with his shock-baton; Ren could hear the crackle of electricity. The fallen man shouted in pain. The guard hit him again, and then another joined him. The fallen man writhed on the sidewalk.

“Fah,” the sergeant said. He handed Ren his papers back. “Get out of here.”

Ren obeyed. He walked away, the cries of the fallen man echoing in his ears.

Ren turned a corner and went down the Avenue of Purity. Some distance along he began to pass a queue of people. They were lined up and waiting patiently for one of the ration stores, slowly shuffling forward, carrying cloth bags. Ren’s stomach rumbled, but he had about as many food vouchers as he had tram tokens. He walked on.

After three blocks he reached the head of the queue, which disappeared into the entrance of the store. A few yards ahead on the sidewalk was the exit. People emerged with their bags a little more full than when they entered the store. They hurried off into the fading evening light, most of them clutching their bag close.

As Ren approached, a woman emerged from the store. She was small and thin. As she stepped out on to the sidewalk ahead of Ren, a youth darted across the street. He bore down on the woman. “Give me the bag, bitch!” the young man yelled.

The woman, looking terrified, back away, but she only fetched up against the rough stone of the building behind her. She clutched her bag to her chest. The young man, thin himself but still much larger than the woman, grabbed at the bag and got a hold on its fabric. “Let go!” he shouted in the woman’s face, jerking at the bag.

Ren dashed forward. “Leave her alone!” he shouted.

The youth turned, startled to be attacked in turn. He tried one more time to tear the bag away from the woman. The bag’s fabric ripped; out spilled a bunch of shriveled carrots, a loaf of bread, a plastic bag of rice, several potatoes. The potatoes bounced and rolled along the sidewalk. The youth let go of the bag, reaching for the bread. But Ren was upon him, and instead the youngster grabbed a potato at his feet, turned and ran.

The woman was already kneeling down, frantically grabbing the potatoes. Ren hesitated, long enough to make sure the youth was not going to come back; then he turned and knelt as well, rescuing a stray potato and the bag of rice.

“Don’t take my food!” the woman cried. She looked up at him with frightened, pleading eyes.

“I won’t,” Ren said. He handed her the potato and the rice.

The woman looked at him with disbelief, then snatched the food out of his hands. “I have children,” she said.

“I understand,” Ren said. “It’s all right.”

The woman stuffed the rescued food back into her bag. She tied the bag’s strings together and held the rent closed with her hand. “I…” she began to say, and then stopped. Ren had a feeling she didn’t know what to say.

“Do you live far away?” he asked. “It’s probably best if you don’t go alone. I’ll accompany you, if you wish.”

“I…I supposed so,” the woman said, every word packed with uncertainty.

Ren walked with her two blocks north, and then five west. The whole way the woman clutched the bag to her chest, while darting sideways glances at him, as if expecting him to turn on her at any moment.

After several minutes they reached the doorway of a tenement on the Street of Hope. Ren sensed the woman relax even as she touched the gate. “I’ll be all right now,” she told Ren as she pushed it open.

“Good,” Ren said. “Good night, then.” He turned away.

“Wait,” the woman said. Ren faced her. She looked puzzled, as if he were some inexplicable physical phenomenon. “Why?” she asked.

Ren smiled. “Merry Christmas.” He turned away, toward home.