Category Archives: short fiction

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–

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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….”

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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–

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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–

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© 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.

Story Fragment – The Golem

I get story ideas from just about everywhere– my fiction reading, movies, history, news. However, only some of these ideas are fully formed. Many are just images, characters, scenes and snatches of dialogue. There is, in that confused and untidy place known as my mind, a space in which these bits and pieces float, unattached to a narrative. Sometimes these fragments bump into each other and combine in new ways, but others just drift around. Some of them have been there for decades.

Here’s a scene that’s been stuck in my head for a while. It’s more-or-less in the same universe as my novelette Diggers, and represents a different take on an incident from that story. I’m not sure if this is a story fragment, an incomplete short story, or the opening for a longer tale. It’s just a scene that has come back to me over and over again, and writing it out and giving it some form seemed to be a good idea.

Warning: this piece contains graphic military violence and bloodshed.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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“They’re coming,” the lieutenant said. Rain beaded on the lenses of his binoculars as he studied the enemy attack. I wondered how he could see anything.

I had the gun’s targeting scope. Through the misting rain I could see the Elha Death Brigades pushing forward through the scrub and shell-holes between the lines. They were coming in battalion, maybe regimental, strength. Fire teams of black-clad infantry moved from cover to cover ahead of the main units.

There’s too many.

“Load shrapnel,” the lieutenant said. “Set the fuse to a half-second.”

The loader slammed a round into the gun’s breach. “Wait for the order, you stupid bastard,” Sergeant Hode said.

That was addressed to me. Being the only half-blood in the battery usually left no question who Sergeant Hode was talking to. Half-breed, bastard, green-eye— no one else fit the description. By now I was used to it.

It bothered me far more how those pale faces out there, which I could just pick out in the scope, reminded me of my mother.

The big artillery, the ones firing from ten miles back, started talking. Shells whistled overhead. Out there in the killing ground they began to land, bursting with flame and smoke, throwing up fountains of earth.

Too long. The shells were bursting half a mile away, almost at the enemy trench-line. They were nowhere near the battalions already in the open.

“Damn it,” the lieutenant said. He took the binoculars down from his eyes, revealing the worried look on his face. Without the glasses, I was struck by how young he looked. Younger than me….

“Another cock-up,” Sergeant Hode said, bitter, and wholly un-surprised.

The machine-guns in the main line below us opened up. I saw Elha go down, dozens of them, but there were still too many.

The lieutenant lifted his binoculars again. “Range– eight hundred yards– standby– fire!

I pulled the trigger. The gun barked and bucked with the recoil. I heard the breech open and the empty casing tumble out with a metallic clang, but I was watching the enemy. Half a breath, and the shell burst over the lead enemy battalion, fifty feet up. The brush and muddy ground around the Elha were lashed by thousands of steel flechettes, as if a giant had thrown down double-handfuls of gravel. The shrapnel ripped into the lead Elha. Some went down as if flattened by an unseen hand; other were shredded in mid-step, disintegrated in clouds of blood and torn flesh. I saw others, less lucky, lying in the mud, screaming screams I could not hear.

“Reload shrapnel!” the lieutenant yelled. “Quarter-second!”

The loader slammed another round in. The breech-block clanged shut.

“Fire!”

The gun bucked; I pulled the trigger before the word was fully out of the lieutenant’s mouth. I watched as the shell exploded above the Elha, right over the main body. More enemy fell or disappeared.

More shrapnel shells burst over the enemy– the other guns in the battery talking. I wondered if they had been silent all this time. I couldn’t remember if any of them had fired before.

Still watching through the view-finder, I saw the Elha out there waver. It was a strange sight, almost a physical wave of hesitation that passed through the enemy groups– and then they were falling back, scrambling through the brush, some running, some limping, some crawling.

There came the sound of cheering from the main line below us. “Hold your fire!” the lieutenant said, even though the loader hadn’t loaded another shell.

“I can’t believe we pushed them back,” Sergeant Hode said.

“We didn’t,” the lieutenant said. He was looking through his binoculars again. “They’re going to ground in that stretch of defilade midway. Something’s afoot.” He lowered the glasses. “Sergeant Hode, load HE– we’ll try to drop a few rounds into them and keep them off-balance.”

“Sir!” Hode said. “You maggots heard him– load HE.”

The loader obeyed. I put my eye back to the gun’s target scope. I saw the Elha disappearing into the cover of the dead ground. The range-card said the defilade was nine hundred yards away; I set my sights to that range, and a gnat’s hair. We would adjust as needed….

“GOLEM!”

The shriek came right up to us from the main line. I cranked the scope up. The shape emerged from the mist of rain, still behind the enemy’s trench line, but already huge. It came on with lumbering steps, slow but eating yards with each stride.

The lieutenant said, “Tior and Dena!” Someone– Sergeant Hode or the loader– made an inarticulate noise. “Target the golem!”

I increased elevation and zeroed in on the construct. It was becoming clearer and clearer with each step. I targeted the thing’s blank face. “Ready!”

“Fire!”

I pulled the trigger. The gun cracked. I actually saw the shell cut through the mist, leaving a trail of cleared air.

The shell detonated square on the golem’s face. I would been proud of that shot on any firing range on a clear day; on a day of rain and mist, with my heart pounding so hard my hands rested unsteady on the gun’s controls, it was nearly a miracle.

The shell exploded, and the golem did not miss a step. As far as I could tell its skin was wholly unmarred by the detonation.

“An iron golem,” the lieutenant said, his dismay open.

Other shells exploded on the golem, the other guns of the battery firing, but all of them together did not make a scratch on it. It lumbered on, clearing the enemy line and advancing into the no-man’s land.

“Sergeant Hode,” the lieutenant said, “get back to the ammo train. Tell them we need etheric shells, now!”

“Sir!” Sergeant Hode scrambled up out of the gun-pit, dashed for the rear.

“Give it another HE,” the lieutenant said.

We did. The shell hit square in the thing’s midriff, and it had as much effect as my first shot. The machine-guns in the main line opened up on the golem. A complete act of futility– I could see bullet strikes all over the golem’s body, but it was obvious there were no penetrations. The construct was close enough now for me to see its details– its rivets, the size of my head, the seams of its body. The huge feet, coming down on the soaked earth, sank a yard deep with each step, but that didn’t slow it down.

It reached the midway defilade. Golems were sometimes known not to discriminate too carefully between friendlies and hostiles, but this one stepped right over the low ground and kept coming. The Elha emerged from cover and followed it, shouting.

Sergeant Hode slid down into the gun-pit. In his arms he carried a cardboard cylinder. “One shell?” the lieutenant said, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“It’s all they had, sir,” Hode said. “And it’s not even a proper HE or AP shell– it’s a translator.”

The lieutenant grimaced. “It’ll have to….”

A shriek from the sky– an unholy crack that I felt rather than heard– the gun-shield in front of me rang as if hit by a hammer.

Suddenly the lieutenant had no head. His body stood for a moment, with blood fountaining out his neck; then it collapsed in the mud.

Sergeant Hode screamed; not at the sight of the lieutenant’s corpse, but because his own face was gone. He dropped the shell into the muck underfoot and clasped his hands to the ruin. Blood streamed from between his fingers.

The loader, unhurt, stared in horror at both of them. Crabbing backwards, he clawed out of the gun-pit and ran.

“Come back!” I shouted, but as I turned hot fire seared my left arm. My sleeve was torn and blood ran down my arm. A piece of shrapnel had pierced the gun-shield and hit me. The hole in the metal seemed to wink at me.

I managed to lever myself out of the gunner’s seat. I stumbled over to where Hode lay dying and picked the shell container up out of the mud. My left arm still worked, but every movement shot agony through it. Somehow I got the top of the container off, slid the shell out into my hands.

HE shells were painted black; armor-piercing, red. This shell was a brilliant orange. A blue timing ring encircled the base of the projectile.

I clawed the arming wench from its mount-point on the gun’s train. I glanced up as I did; the golem was closer than ever, still four hundred yards away, but looming higher and higher with each step.

Too close.

I attached the arming wrench to the timing ring. The moment I did a sharp keee! that was not a sound ran through my head. It hurt but was over in a moment.

Out in no-man’s land the golem stopped. It seemed to hesitate, even as machine-gun bullets continued to spark all over it. Then, with a metallic creak and groan, it turned and resumed its advance. The difference was, now it was headed straight toward me.

On my first attempt with the wrench I missed the timing mark; I had to turn the ring in a full circle and try again. “Come on, come on.” I wasn’t sure if I was talking to myself or the shell.

I hit the mark on the second try. I dropped the wrench in the mud. Normally it took two hands to manually open the gun’s breach; I managed it with one, with the shell cradled in the other arm. The pain was blinding; I screamed as the breech-block locked open. I screamed again as I shoved the shell in to the breech one-handed.

The ground vibrated– the golem’s footsteps. Rain water shivered in the pit’s low spots.

I refused myself permission to faint. I clambered back into the gunner’s seat. I didn’t need the targeting scope to aim the gun. The golem was still coming for me, drawn by the energy in the translator shell. Two hundred yards, less…but I would have to let it get closer.

All at once there were men all around the gun-pit, soldiers, running for the rear. The main-line had broken. Some of the men carried their weapons, but others simply ran in blind panic, throwing away their gear, slipping in the mud, colliding with one another. “Hey, gunner,” one of them yelled at me as he ran past the pit, “run for it, if you don’t want to be a stain in the mud!”

I ignored him. I wasn’t sure I could have run if I wanted to. I cranked the gun up to maximum elevation, which allowed me to target the golem’s midsection. It loomed over me, so close. “Come on,” I said again, my breath short with pain and terror– but this time I was, of a surety, talking to the golem. Closer. I had only one chance to get this right.

The thing was fifty yards in front of me, a tower of animate metal. One more step, two– bullets spanged off the gun-shield– the Elha were close behind the golem.

But not as close as me.

I fired. I’d set the shell for muzzle-action; there was no perceptible gap between the crack of the gun and the eruption of blue fire around the golem. The thing froze in mid-step as the fire crawled all over it. The energy discharge was bright, and grew brighter. I heard cries of dismay from the Elha. The fire became a sphere of light, expanding outward. I held up a hand to shield my eyes as it swept over me.

There was a concussion I felt in my gut, but which was utterly soundless. The gun tilted sideways and I tumbled out of the seat– down into tall, dry grass. I landed on my arm. I screamed.

I turned on my back, sick with pain. The golem still stood in front of the toppled gun, but something was wrong. The thing teetered, its metal groaning.

With a crash of rending iron, the golem shivered and fell apart. Head, torso, arms, legs, all came unhinged and crashed to the ground in a cacophonous rain of metal. I had heard that individual parts of broken golems would still move, still try to carry out their last imperative. These sections, though, lay inert, mere pieces of iron. The etheric core of the golem was gone.

Panting, weeping with pain, I looked around. Before it had been mid-day, although gloomy and rain-filled. Now it was dry; the sky was clear, and it was night. A warm breeze stirred the leaves of trees that stood where our main-line should have been.

In the distance lights glowed– towers and spires of light. They looked like nothing I had ever seen.

Beyond the trees a single, huge moon rose. It’s mottled surface was strange to me.

It worked. I hoped the brigade would rally. But I would never know for sure. I lay back in the tall grass and contemplated the alien stars overhead.

The first day of Senior Year

In honor of a certain young lady’s milestone…

*******************************************
“You’re going to be late,” the father said.

His daughter rolled her eyes. “We’ve got plenty of time, Daddy.” She put the finishing touches on her mascara.

“You should drive to school,” the mother said.

“Mooom,” the daughter said, wilting. “I’m going to be fixing my hair.”

“I’ll drive,” the father said. “If we ever get going….”

The daughter growled as she applied lipstick.

The son came up from the basement with his backpack. “So, Ms. T-Rex is a senior,” he snided. “The only good thing is that you’ll be gone by the time I’m a freshman.”

“Lucky for you, you little genetic deviation,” the daughter said.

“I pity the kids who do have to suffer under your reign of terror,” the son said. He headed for the door. “Try not to let the power go to your head.”

The traffic was heavy around the high school. “Take the back way, Daddy,” the daughter said, as she ratcheted her hair taut.

The father maneuvered around the curve of the passenger loading lane, stopped. “I’m going over to Bethany’s after school,” the daughter announced, as she opened her door.

The father handed her her backpack, but held on to it for a second as she tried to take it. “Just remember,” he said, when she gave him a questioning look. “With great power come great responsibility.”

“Daaaddy,” the daughter said, rolling her eyes again. She took the backpack and slammed the door.

He watched her walk away. Seventeen years before he had carried a tiny baby up to the neonatal unit, frightened in a way he had never been frightened before. He wished he could tell his younger self how well everything had worked out. But then, that would have spoiled the surprise.

The lady in the SUV behind him blared her horn.

Mondays Finish the Story – August 3rd, 2015– The Interrogation

Mondays Finish the Story flash fiction challenge for August 3rd, 2015– 150 words based on this image–

Copyright 2015 Barbara W. Beacham
Copyright 2015 Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“The team employed the use of Nightshade to get the information they wanted from their captive.”

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel.

********************************************

The team employed nightshade to get the information they wanted from their captive.

They listened, stone-faced, to his pleas for mercy.

“I can’t take it!” he cried. “It burns!”

“Tell us,” the male interrogator said.

“I can’t! Please, give me something!”

“Not until you tell us.”

“I’m dying!”

“No, you’re not dying,” the woman interrogator said coolly. “You won’t be that fortunate. Your torment will go on and on– unless you tell us what we want to know.”

“All right! The final exam will have three sections– a multiple choice on kinship patterns, true-and-false on theory, and three choices for a final essay. Please!”

“Here,” the male interrogator said. He handed the teaching assistant a mug of beer across the dinner table. The assistant took it and guzzled greedily, splashing beer on his half-eaten burritos.

“Habaneros,” the male interrogator told the woman. “Works every time.”