Category Archives: short story

Shadows at Sunset

A few words in advance.

I don’t usually do Halloween stories, but I wrote this piece as a challenge in a writer’s group, and then didn’t get the chance to present it when work prevented me from attending the meeting.  There was a 2500 word limit, so some of the story I should have written got compressed and summarized, probably not in the best way.

This story creeps me out, partly as it is loosely based on a story my Grandmother told me when I was a child.  More than that, though, it touches on a couple of themes that disturb me at my core, including graphic violence against a teenage girl, of which I give everyone fair warning beforehand.  They say you’re supposed to write what frightens or disturbs you, but I couldn’t do this on a regular basis.  I don’t like horror, and I don’t like violence against children, and I don’t particularly like Halloween, but here’s the story, and you can let me know if it’s gratuitous or if it works.  Comments are welcome.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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They used to say that, on certain winter days when the sky was so clear and cold that breathing is like a knife in the lungs, and when the setting sun was in its last moment before it let the night in with its mystery and fear, and painted everything of this Earth crimson, travelers who passed by the old Kincaid place would see things that should not have been.  Sometimes it was a shape seen out of the corner of one eye, but gone when you looked with both; sometimes it was lights where there was nothing to shine; but, most often, they said you could see shadows on the side of the Kincaid’s old, tumbledown barn, where there was nothing to cast a shadow.  Sometimes the shadows looked like spattered clots of blood, and sometimes like some sort of blade that fell with horrible swiftness; but sometimes, they looked like a woman, on her knees, pleading for her life.

I never knew my Aunt Amanda; she was a teenage girl when my mother was born, and when my mother was about seven or so, Amanda vanished.  Some say she ran off with a drummer— in those days, a traveling salesman, and not some long-haired musician.  Some say she ran off to Kansas City, or even Chicago, looking to escape the weary life of a Kansas farm, for people said that she was a bright, mischievous girl who could never have been happy for long in a podunk town.  I think my mother always preferred that story, because it held out the hope that someday, maybe, Amanda would return and there would be a great joyous reunion.  She had adored her older sister, and never quite got over her disappearance.

Some other folk, though, whispered that something else had happened, and that Amanda was not the only girl gone missing in the county, although no one could ever put the flesh of proof on the bones of suspicion.  The sheriff never saw a pattern, although much escaped Old Sheriff Nichols and his posse of deputies.  They were mostly interested in writing parking tickets, and, when Prohibition came in, in making sure they got their cut of the bootleg trade.  It was a sad day for them when liquor was made legal again, when I was about four.

It was on a certain summer’s day eleven years later that I rode one of my family’s plow-horses into the yard of the old Kincaid farm.  What with the war and gas rationing, no one would have driven me here.  A horse, even an old roan named Betty Boop, was far more reliable transportation.  It was a moot question, in any event—this was a journey, and a day, I had to face on my own.

My hands sweated on the reins as I guided Betty into the yard.  I was old enough to admit to myself that I was scared.  I was scared of what I thought was going to happen; I was scared that I would be proven wrong and made to look a young fool; I was scared that it might all just mean that I was losing my mind.

The dreams had driven me here.  Three years of them, and the last so precise and vivid that it had led to this noon-time, here in the long-abandoned farm that everyone in Russell County avoided because of the stories about it.  As I got down off the horse, I knew the next few minutes would prove the truth of them, one way or the other.

The barn loomed in front of me.  Just looking at it caused me to shudder.  It was worn and weathered and canted slightly to one side.  It should have been just an old barn, no different from a thousand other old barns scattered across Kansas, but it seemed somehow to breathe out horror.  I hoped—prayed—it was my imagination.

I heard a car.  Around the far bend in the road came Ashton Lamar’s Buick.  As mayor of Russell, he, of course, had a gas allowance, and he could often be seen on the county’s roads, going about the people’s business.  There was talk of running him for state Senate—maybe even for governor.  At the moment, though, seeing that car merely made me go ice-cold inside.

This was happening.  This was really happening.

The car pulled into the graveled drive, and then quickly off into the short grass beside it.  Not into the sandy yard itself.  So as to not leave tracks, I thought, and the cold grew worse.

Lamar got out.  For a man of fifty-five, he was still considerably more than just good looking, and the smile he gave me should have warmed me through-and-through.  He was dressed in a shirt and tie, tweed pants and polished shoes, just how you would expect a man of public responsibilities to dress on a warm July day.  He held out his hands, as if to welcome me.

“Julia,” he said, and he seemed to caress my name with his tongue.  “I’m glad you came.  This is going to be so special.”

The hardest thing I had ever done in my life was to give him back that smile, or at least the smile a middle-aged man might expect from a young girl on the verge of becoming a woman—excited, flattered, expectant.  Three months of enticing this man now came down to this.  “I really want to do this, Mr. Lamar,” I said, and it was the most profound lie I ever uttered.

His smile got wider.  “Call me Ash, sweet girl,” he said.  “Tie up your horse, darling.  There’s something I want to show you.”  He gestured toward the barn.

I hitched Betty to a still-standing section of picket fence in front of the house.  Lamar waited for me follow, and then led me toward the open doors of the barn.  I tried to keep from stumbling in fear.

He stopped just inside the barn, and I caught up with him.  Standing beside him, I could smell his cologne.  The barn, though, was what captured my attention.  A cavernous space that smelled of long-ago manure and hay, it was dark inside, except where fallen boards let in solitary shafts of light.  Dust lay thick on its floor.  A pigeon, disturbed by our presence, fluttered out of its nest in the hay-loft with a rustle of wings.

“Look up there, Julia,” Lamar said, pointing upward toward that loft, and his words were so smooth that, despite the danger, I looked up.

The blow caught me by surprise, even though I had been expecting it.  Lamar’s fist crashed into back of my head, and I pitched forward into the dust.  I think his intention was to render me unconscious, but we Coopers are notoriously thick-headed, and all it did was momentarily stun me, and make fiery sparks dance before my eyes.  I tasted the dust of the barn-floor and struggled to make my limbs move.

He was on me the next instant.  He grabbed the back of my shirt—I had dressed in a flannel shirt and blue-jeans, the better to ride in—and dragged me bodily into the shadowed interior. I was genuinely too stunned to struggle very much.  In the very back, past the stalls, where hay bales might have once stood, with harness hung on the walls, he flipped me over so he could look me in the eyes, his fist clutching my shirt-front.  His smile was now that of a hungry animal, about to taste flesh.

“You stupid little slut,” he said.  “You’re all stupid sluts, every one of you.”

“What?” I said, not really having to act the part of a surprised child.  “What are you doing?”

“Ridding the world of another dumb bitch,” Lamar said.  “It’s my mission, you see—a little fun, and then off you go, with the world a better place for your leaving it.”

“You can’t,” I said.

“Oh, I have,” Lamar said.  “Over and over again, right here.”

He slapped me, hard, once, twice, three times.  I tasted my own blood.  I thought my nose was broken, and my lips were cut by my own teeth.

He grabbed my hair, and twisted my head around.  “Take a look, sweetie,” he said, his words now a parody of affection.

I was forced to look at the ground on which I lay.  I didn’t understand at first, but then, I began to see it.  Beneath a thin layer of soil, and here and there, with no soil at all to cover them, were bones.

Just as in my dream.

“Nobody comes out here,” Lamar said.  “It’s my special place.  Where I put my trophies.  All the dumb little whores who ever followed me.  I started with your aunt, you know, long ago.  She thought I loved her.  Stupid bitch.”

He let go of me, to step over to a stall.  He reached between the boards and pulled out a long blade.  Leaning back on my elbows, resisting the urge to run, with my head still ringing, I somehow had enough sense to wonder, however irrelevantly, where he had gotten a machete in Kansas.

He pinned me to the ground with a foot on my chest, then bent down to stroke the side of my face with the machete’s edge.  The blade was rusty, and where it was not rusty it was crusted with ancient stains.  It stank.

“First,” Lamar said, and now there was nothing human left in his eyes, “what we came here for, just not as sweet and meaningful as you might have wanted.  Then the pieces start coming off.  Then you die.  First, though, the little whore’s clothes….”

He flipped me over again.  I was face-down in the dust, looking at the bones, as he tugged at my clothing.  My nose throbbed and blood ran from it.  Droplets fell from my upper lip into the dust.

One drop.  Two.  Three.

Just as in my dream.

“You’re going to die alone,” Lamar said.

“No,” I said, with the certainty of a returning faith, “and I’m not alone.”

There was something like a chuff of wind, as if someone had opened a door to a hurricane.  Lamar let go of me.  I twisted around to look.

He had also turned around, to stare into the void that was growing, above and behind him.  Darkness swelled, lit by lights that pulsed and flashed.  As I gazed into it, past Lamar’s shoulder, the vortex seemed to point into a blackness beyond hope, beyond thought, beyond time.

“What?” Lamar said, sounding utterly shocked, “what?”  The machete fell from his hand and buried itself, point first, in the ground by my booted foot.

Out of the vortex came shining forms, shrieking, howling, and the sound of them shook my soul.  The walls of the barn swayed and rattled.  The shining ones swarmed about Lamar.

He howled, as if in fear or agony, or both.  The shining ones swarmed around him, circling him like a tornado of light.  He screamed again.

In the next moment, Lamar came off his feet.  The shining ones tore at him.  His blood flew.  He howled, a sound compounded of disbelief, horror and pain.  “No, no!” he pleaded.

There was no answer.  Instead the shining ones bore him away, toward the infinite darkness.  He tumbled, helpless, shrieking, blubbering, to dwindle away into the depths of the black.

In an instant, the vortex was gone.  Perhaps an echo of its roar lingered for a moment, or perhaps it was simply the ringing in my ears.  Otherwise, there was only the dark interior of an old barn.  Dust swirled, and the machete quivered ever so slightly, and that was all.

And then, there was light, growing around me, from some other place.  I got to my feet, shaking.  My shirt was torn and blood still dribbled down my chin, but I hardly noticed, as someone stepped toward me, out of the light.

She was young, and dressed in the shirt-waisted fashion of a generation before.  She had the same auburn hair as my mother, and myself.  She was slim and unhurt.

“Aunt Amanda?” I whispered.

She smiled at me.  She raised her hands to her face, kissed her fingertips, and swept her hands as if sending the kiss to me.  I understood—there was no crossing the chasm between the living and the dead.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Aunt Amanda shook her head, still smiling.  Then she turned, and walked back into the light.  In the next moment, she was gone, and the light with her.

 

I staggered back to Betty, and somehow got myself on her.  My cover story was already in place; Betty shying at a snake, and me caught unawares and falling off.  Somehow I hoped to elide the fact that Betty was the most phlegmatic horse in the Great Plains, and hadn’t even been startled when the lightning bolt had struck right behind her the year before.

It had been as in my dream.  The blood of a kinswoman—somehow, in this place, at this moment, it was able to exact a measure of extraordinary justice, something beyond the natural order.  I didn’t understand it.  All I knew was that I wasn’t insane, but had been a player on the fringes of something great and mysterious.

The question that troubled me all the way home, however, and ever since, is why meWhy then?  Out of the millions of times in human history a man killed a woman, either out of some ordinary spite or rage, or the sort of deep sociopathy that possessed Lamar, and this once, in a county in Kansas, the natural order was put aside to remove the disease?  Why?  For what purpose?  It has been a question I have not been able to answer all these years later.  It has come back to me with full force, however, as now I have a granddaughter.

And she has begun to dream dreams.

Nowadays they say that, on certain winter days when the breath from your nostrils seems to hang in the air forever, and when the setting sun is in its last moment before it lets the night in with its mystery and fear, and has painted everything of this Earth crimson, travelers who pass by the old Kincaid place see things that should not be.  Sometimes it is a shape seen out of the corner of one eye, but gone when you looked with both; sometimes it is lights where there is nothing to shine; but, most often, they say you can see shadows on the side of the Kincaid’s old, tumbledown barn, where there is nothing to cast a shadow.  Sometimes the shadows look like spattered clots of blood, and sometimes like some sort of blade that falls with horrible swiftness; but sometimes, they look like a man, on his knees, pleading for his life.

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Recovered Tales– The Black Tooth Gang

Today I was examining some old 3.5″ floppy drives, with an eye to recovering old writing files, when I came across this story.  I wrote it in 1994, which corresponds to the Jurassic period of my writing (I have Permian and Devonian periods, as well, about which the less said, the better).  It’s kinda silly and maudlin, and was part of that great mass of scribbling I produced decades ago that never saw daylight.  But it has some moments, and I thought I’d fling it out here just for fun.

I’ve previously posted old abandoned writing fragments, but I may just start posting a few more complete stories I find in my archives, assuming they’re not too embarrassing.

Copyright 1994 (whew, I feel old) Douglas Daniel

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“Keep your goddamn hands where I can see them,” the fairy said.

I did as I was told. The little creep had me dead to rights. The piece he leveled at me was a flechette-gun; tiny, like all fairy weapons, but also very high velocity and high rate of fire. It wouldn’t penetrate deep, but enough sustained hits could be unpleasant. And more of the little jamokes, hundreds of them, all armed and in a bad mood, were pouring out of the rafters of the old warehouse at the guard-fairy’s shout. They were an ill-favored crew– black leather, tattoos, and earrings. It looked like a fairy remake of The Wild One.

“What’cha got, Kekero, what’cha got?” they were all saying at once. Their voices were less like rainwater tinkling into forest pools than fingernails on a blackboard. The whole squadron circled me, exuding far more menace than fairy-dust.

“Got us a meat-mountain snooping around,” said the guard-fairy. “Gweezle, you and Slow-fizz search him. The rest of you joes, watch him.”

I kept very still while two of the fairies peeled off and started to search me. I’d been frisked by fairies before, but I had never gotten used it. Every search by fairies is a skin search.

The one called Gweezle came out the bottom of my trouser leg. “He’s clean, Kekero. Not even a pocketknife.” He looked up at me. “You should more talc, fella.”

The other one pulled out my wallet, opened it with the assistance of three others. Their wings hummed with the effort to keep the weight of the billfold aloft. “Hey, this guy’s a private dick.”

The guard-fairy buzzed closer to my face. He jammed the muzzle of the flechette-gun up my right nostril. “What are you doing here, human? You should know your kind ain’t welcome on this part of the waterfront.”

“I’m here to see your boss,” I said.

“You got an appointment?” Gweezle said. The whole, swirling, dancing bunch laughed; and if you’ve never heard gang-fairies laugh, count yourself lucky.

“What makes you think the big boss will want to see you, meat-mountain?” asked Kekero. The barrel of the flechette-gun went a little further up my nose.

“I have a message for him.” I stared the little punk down. “From the Seattle High Fairy Council.”

That persuaded them. Kekero put a heavy guard on the door I came in, and led me back into the depths of the warehouse. It was dusty, broken-down place; a lot of the freight that passed through Seattle had gone from ship to zeppelin-carried years before, and the surface trade wasn’t enough to keep all of Harbor Island busy. Large sections of the waterfront had gone to seed, and had been taken over by squatters, human, fairy, and otherwise. This warehouse was fairly typical. Broken crates littered the floor. Several shipping containers, rusting and empty, were scattered like some giant child’s forgotten toys. The place was built in the shape of a T– main storage area here, work space and loading docks in the back, through an archway large enough to squeeze three Russian dragons through. Sunlight shone dimly through the dirty encrusted window that penetrated the walls, high up close to the ceiling.

The fairies led me up a creaking flight of stairs that threatened to collapse under my weight at any moment. The dust lay thick on the steps. Kicking it up made me sneeze, which gave the tiny creeps something to laugh at.

Their headquarters was in one of the old warehouse offices, in a half-floor over the work-space. The only human piece of furniture left was an ancient mahogany desk. The rest of the office done up in Fairy Provincial. The floor was littered with bones, rat and other kinds I didn’t want to think about, an old, worn-out Playboy, and dust-balls.

I saw at once why these low-lives called their leader `the big boss’– he was eight inches tall and as burly as a fairy got. Uko the Pummeler, chief of the Black Tooth Gang, reclined on a throne carved from a single hunk of redwood, covered with the pelts of cats and festooned with the skulls of past enemies, set in the middle of that mahogany desk. Nymph-fairies dawdled about his booted feet. He smiled confidently as his boys brought me in. His golden eyes were touched with sardonic humor. Definitely too much Frazetta, I decided.

“My good fairies tell me you have a message from our worthy adversaries,” he said. For such a little guy, his voice sure carried. “Concerning what, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I think we both know, oh mighty Uko.” I went into the pitch, just as I had practiced over and over. I found I had to work to stay focused. Uko had something I hadn’t counted on– charisma. Buckets more than most of the humans I knew.  In one of the Faerie Folk that sort of thing can be overwhelming, even when the package reads “individual serving”. I had to bite my cheek to stay on task.

“The High Fairy Council of Seattle wishes to inform you that it is ready to bargain for the release of your hostage. They are anxious to get her back.”

“I’m sure they are,” said Uko, smiling. Around the office his gang laughed, sending shivers racing down my spine and back. Several of the little thugs buzzed about my head, chortling, poking my hair with the muzzles of their weapons.  “Although it took them long enough to respond to our summons.”  He peered more closely at me.  “How did the High Council settle on a human to do its dirty work?”

I shrugged. “I’m a disinterested party. I get a commission however this turns out.”

Uko lounged back in his throne, stretched languidly. “So tell me– what inducements am I offered to surrender the best hostage we Black Tooths have had a couple of centuries?” he asked. “We won her fair and square, by the rules of feud that have governed the Faerie Folk since before you humans were knocking each other on the head with rocks. Holding the Queen means I hold the whole West Coast Fiefdom by their tiny, luminescent balls.” He leaned forward. “And I haven’t even begun to squeeze yet.”

“Let me be plain, sir.” I paused, waiting, then lifted my hand as if to emphasize a point. One of the little jamokes harassing me, making about his fifth orbit, smacked hard into the back of my hand. He moaned and spiraled to the littered floor. His compatriots, far from taking offense, thought it a great joke; there was much twittering and tittering. “I am very sorry. As I was about to say, I must be honest with you. It is true, that in the short run, you can cause a great deal of trouble. It is also true, sir, that a prolonged hostage situation will only exacerbate the feud between you and the Fiefdom, a heightened state of conflict which– I have to be honest with you– you cannot win.”

Uko cocked his head at me. “Can’t win? Did I hear you right? Did you hear what he said, boys?” The gang laughed, and if I shivered before, this group guffaw practically put icicles on my privates.

Uko stood. He rose up on wings a foot long each, until he was eye-level with me. “Do you think those pansy West Coast simps are any match for us, meat-mountain?”

At the moment I rather doubted it, but I merely shrugged my shoulders. “It’s not my place to judge such issues. My comment was prompted only the obvious fact that the Fiefdom outnumbers you considerably.”

He snorted with contempt. “Let’ em all come. We’ll kick their asses, like we always have. Right, boys?” The fairies cheered and brandished their weapons. It was like listening to a horde of combat-ready chipmunks. “We even got other hideouts. You found us here once, meat-mountain, but you won’t on a return visit.”

“Yet no hiding place is secure forever,” I said. It was hard, playing the voice of cool reason, with these little punks buzzing about and yelling. And the script wasn’t going quite to plan. “In the end you will be brought to battle.”

“Then we’ll cut her throat,” said the chief. “Tell the almighty Fiefdom that.”

I held up a hand again. Three of the bastards did evasive maneuvers. This was not going well. “Before I return to the Council, I must give you the whole message which they charged me to deliver. For the safe return of their Queen, they are prepared to offer the sum of one hundred thousand.”

Uko sneered. “Dollars? You’ve got to be joking.”

I shook my head. “Not Federal greenbacks. Damarzi scrip.”

The whole crowd fell silent, except for some character who let go a long whistle. The Dwarvish scrip was legal tender only in their stores and Caverns, but it traded as one scrip note to ten U.S. dollars on the black market. Uko stared at me, a gleam of calculation in his eye. No one said anything for a long moment.

Then a grin grew over Uko’s face. “Hell, if she’s worth that much now, she’ll be worth even more later. Sure, the High Council can give us the money. As a down payment!” He laughed, and the whole crew laughed with him. My heart shrank to a burnt nubbin. “You go tell the Council that, meat-mountain. You tell them send money, and keep it coming. And you tell them that if they try anything funny, we’ll kill their precious Queen and throw her stinking corpse into Elliot Bay.”

I kept control of myself. Everything we had been working for, the weeks of planning, was going down the toilet. The Fiefdom had been in an uproar for a month and more since the Black Tooths snatched their queen. This would go over like a lit match in a powder magazine.

“I’ll tell them, but…” was as far as I got.

The explosion shook the whole warehouse. I nearly lost my footing; the floor bucked and heaved like a carnival ride. The fairies around me wailed in fear and rage. Glass broke somewhere. There were shouts and gunfire.

“You double-dealing bastard!” Uko yelled. “You tricked us. Kill him!”

I didn’t try to reason with the little jerk. Even as he yelled I moved.

Two long steps, a leap up on the desk. One of the gang didn’t get out of the way fast enough; he squashed with a satisfying pop! under my shoe. The back wall of the old office was glass, dim with dirt and cobwebs. I covered my eyes and jumped.

Glass crashed around me as I landed in the corridor beyond, fetching up hard against the far wall. I scrambled up, ignoring the assorted new cuts and bruises I’d acquired. I jerked the heel off my right shoe, and flung it under the shattered window. In the room the beyond the gang was still milling in bright confusion. One of the punks got off a burst that splintered the wall over my head as the shoe-heel began to smoke. Blood agent, specific to fairies– most it would give me was the runs. Anybody who goes into a gang-fairy hideout completely unarmed deserves what they get.

Two of the jamokes tried to fly through the rapidly spreading cloud to get at me. They screamed and dropped to the floor, convulsing. I could hear Uko ordering a retreat. The sounds of gunfire downstairs swelled; another explosion rocked the walls.

I jerked the heel off my other shoe. It was now a low-yield grenade, would explode on contact once I threw it. I took off down the hall.

The corridor was lined with office doors. I checked each one, kicking down doors where I had to. I cursed the whole way. Someone had jumped the gun. The strike team was supposed to lie low and wait for me to come out. If the Black Tooths accepted the ransom, everything was on track to pay it and bring the Queen out. In any event, the Fiefdom forces were supposed to wait for me to come out. Some junior commander had gotten overeager.

All we had now was Plan B, which stood for bungle, and probably bollix and blunder, as well.  The real problem with Plan B, though, was who had the starring role.  Myself, of course, meat-mountain or sacrificial lamb, depending on your point of view.

I forced myself to focus.  The Queen was somewhere in this dump; that much we were certain of. I had to find her before Uko got to her first. I’d lied to him about one detail– if the Queen died as a result of this operation, I’d get no commission.

I kicked doors, shattered glass, and found nothing but dust and broken furniture. The sounds of fighting were louder. A thin layer of smoke permeated the corridor, making my eyes sting. I could hear shouted orders, those of the strike team amplified and resonating through the warehouse.

A burst of fire chewed the wood of the wall next to me. Three Black Tooths were buzzing at the head of the far stairs from the warehouse floor. They fired again. I felt pain rip through my left cheek and arm. Grunting with the hurt, I tossed the heel and dropped.

The explosion shattered all the remaining glass in the hallway. The shock wave crushed me against the floor and was gone. I looked up. Smoke rolled thick through the corridor, but no one was shooting at me.

I staggered up, wiped blood from my upper lip, and groped my way through the smoke. The remaining doors were all sprung from the blast; at the second one I heard, “In here!”

I battered the door aside and went in. High up, hanging from a hook in the ceiling, was an old bird-cage. Its bars were freshly painted gold. Those Black Tooths were some very sick customers.

As carefully as my wounds allowed, I stretched up and took down the bird-cage. Within– how do you describe beauty beyond the understanding of men? The Queen of the Western Fairies danced a dance of joy within the confines of her prison. Her wings shed light about the smoky, dirty room like a blessing; she was bright and glorious, exquisitely beautiful, golden and delicate. For a moment, I regretted being born a lumpish human– I could have wished to have been a fairy, if just to follow this wonderful creature.

“Thank you for coming for me,” she sang. It was like sweet chimes rung at midnight. “But hurry! You’re in grave danger.”

“That’s for damn sure.”

Uko hovered in the doorway, as his bully-boys, chortling and smirking, filtered into the space around him on buzzing wings, weapons ready. “You almost pulled it off, meat-mountain. Almost. Too bad we don’t give out prizes for second place.”

I wrapped my arms around the bird-cage and charged. If I could get through the cloud of creeps and make it to the stairs, I might be able to reach a Fiefdom strike team. I bellowed and ran.

Fairies squalled and tried to get out of my way. I ran two or three down– they crunched like bugs against the floor. Others battered into me as I ran, like moths against a windshield. Some of them tried to fire, but by then I was in the middle of them, and mostly they hit each other. Fairy screams rang in my ears. But the volume of fire was such that I took hits all over, including a burst that stitched me along the curve of my right butt-cheek.

Angry, contorted fairy-faces flashed before me and I was in the hall. All I had to do was turn right, go a few feet, down the stairs, and I’d be home free. Behind me the Black Tooths were yelling for my blood.

That’s when one of those coincidences happened that convince me that, not only is there a God, but He has an incredible sense of timing. As I turned, another explosion ripped through the warehouse. Maybe my hand-grenade had weakened the floor, maybe not; in any case, under this new insult the floorboards gave way with groaning shriek and collapsed.

I fell. It was twenty or so feet to the floor of the warehouse and I fell hard. I bounced off a pile of rotten burlap sacking, which probably saved my life, rolled and hit the concrete floor.

It knocked the wind out of me. I lay flat on my back for a long time, trying to re-establish comm links between brain and lungs, while all around me the battle raged. It didn’t help when I realized I had lost my grip on the bird-cage sometime during my misadventure. I glimpsed flame, smoke, and flitting forms; both Black Tooth and Fiefdom troops were zipping about, engaged in a flying firefight that surged back and forth. Flechettes sang through the air, chipping concrete and slicing tiny bodies.

My lungs caught with a wheeze. Breathing hard, I sat up. Nothing seemed to be broken, but I was sure going to have one hellacious bruise.

I glanced around. The bird-cage lay on its side ten or so feet away, rocking gently on the concrete. Gasping with pain, I crawled toward it.

The buzz of wings stopped me. Black Tooths swarmed down from the busted ceiling, like a cloud of well-armed hornets, and settled between me and the cage. Most of the itty-bitty bastards covered me, while others lifted the cage. The Queen was still alive, apparently unhurt– she gave a cry of distress that stabbed me.

Behind his gang came Uko. He hovered above me and smiled. “It’s just not your day, is it, meat-mountain? Look on the bright side; you won’t have to worry about how to spend that commission.” He nodded to his flunkies. “Kill him.”

Uko turned in mid-air. The back loading dock doors had been burst inward by explosions; October sunlight poured through. He headed for the open sky, followed by a gaggle of Black Tooths, who between them managed to get the cage airborne.

The fairies covering me closed in, charging their weapons. This time they couldn’t miss. I backed up, trying to see a weak spot in the crowd. There was none. I wouldn’t be running out of this spot. What I needed was a shotgun with birdshot, or a flamethrower.

As if in answer to a prayer I hadn’t spoken, a jet of flame shot from my left and washed over the Black Tooths. Screams reverberated. The flame was so close I had to shield my face. Tiny corpses, crispy black, rained out of the air, pattering on the concrete. The flame cut off; none of the Black Tooths had escaped.

A winged form the size of a horse came around the pile of burlap. Wicked claws scratched the cement; leather wings arched ten feet.

“That,” said the dragon, “will teach you to pick on somebody your own size.”

“Roscoe!” I said, overjoyed. “You scaly son-of-a-bitch! You saved my hide.”

“As usual, boss.” My junior partner examined the toasted evidence of his handiwork. “Looks like it’s a good thing I didn’t dawdle.”

“No argument here. Wait.” The joy went leaking out. I struggled to my feet. “They’re getting away.” Roscoe helped me up, a gentle, taloned claw pulling me to my feet. I hobbled to one of the loading dock doors. The steel doors had been blasted aside.

High over the rooftops of Harbor Island, I glimpsed a flash of gold in the sunshine.

“There! They’ve got the Queen. Lift me, Roscoe. We got to get after them.”

Roscoe looked mournful. “Boss, I ain’t wholly recovered from the hernia I got the last time.”

“Just do it!”

Roscoe moaned as he lifted me over the warehouses and docks and turned in pursuit of the Black Tooths. They were headed southwest, toward West Seattle, rather than north over the Sound as I expected. “Faster!” I said.

“I’m about to split a gut now!” Roscoe yelled back. But his wingbeats increased in frequency.

Fairies, at their fastest, hardly outpace the common housefly. Even loaded with me Roscoe could do twenty to thirty miles an hour. We steadily whittled away at the Black Tooths’ lead. The Duwamish Waterway passed underneath, with straggly trees and old houses behind the port terminals along its banks. We were close behind the bastards when they suddenly spiraled down toward a landing on the municipal golf course.

“Land, land!”

“I don’t like it, Boss.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion; just do it!”

Roscoe obeyed. He set me down a few yards from the Black Tooths, close by the ninth green. A party of golfers stared open-mouthed at the interruption, then betook themselves rapidly elsewhere.

I swayed to my feet as Uko screamed, “Get them!” His remaining gangsters charged us, wings whirring.

“Boss!” Roscoe tossed something to me; I recognized it in mid-air, caught it fair, and blessed the dragon. It was a revolver, one of my specials. Where Roscoe had had it hidden on him, I couldn’t tell, and at the moment I didn’t care.

The Black Tooths charged, firing; flechettes tore up the ground around us. Roscoe flamed three or four. I pointed at a cloud of the twerps and fired. The round burst in front of the barrel; a clouds of pellets scythed through the Black Tooths. It was a shaped-charge, set for muzzle-action and propelling a clouds of tiny balls– a miniature, airborne claymore round. I fire once, twice more, and there were no more Black Tooths flying.

I advanced on Uko. He had the Queen out of the cage; he was holding a knife, fairy-sized, but quite sharp, to her throat. “Stop right there!”

I did. There was maybe twenty feet between us. I calculated distance, speeds and trajectories and didn’t like the answer. “Let her go, Uko,” I called. “It’s over.”

“Bullshit!” The guy held the knife tighter against her throat. Even at this distance I could make out the Queen’s eyes. They were calm and ready, full of meaning. “I can still hurt this piece of baggage. So you and your pet iguana better back off.”

Iguana!?” Roscoe said. “You little…”

“Watch your language!” said Uko. “Nasty words can hurt.” He stared us down.

“Back away, Roscoe,” I said, waving a hand. Roscoe muttered but did as he was told.

“You, too,” said Uko.

I shook my head. “Not before I tell you something.”

He stared at me with suspicion in his golden eyes. He hesitated, but finally said, “What?”

“I just wanted to tell you that I lied. I’m not a disinterested party.” I said the words slowly, clearly, thinking them up as I went, hoping I had read this guy right, hoping I understood what the Queen was trying to silently tell me. “I took this job because I wanted the chance to kill fairies.”

“What?” said Uko.

“I like killing fairies. I like it when they go crunch and pop.” I sounded like some Humanity First street thug; it was their kind of rhetoric, and part of the reason gangs like the Black Tooths existed. “They squeal so nice. I think I killed several today. I’ll be glad when they’re all wiped out.”

“You shit meat-mountain!” yelled Uko. He glared at me, and his attention on his prisoner wavered. The pressure of his knife on her throat lessened.

The Queen writhed about in his grip and bit him on the face. Fairy teeth are sharp, even to other fairies. She bit hard, and Uko screamed and let go of her.

She dropped to the ground and huddled in a ball as I raised the revolver and fired. I aimed high, so most of the pellet-cloud would miss. Even so, three or four struck the chief. He toppled end-for-end, spraying blood on the green grass.

 

They drove the aid car right up on the green to tend to me, while a whole crowd of golfers stood by and complained about the interruption in their game. The Fiefdom troops came and hustled the Queen away under heavy guard; I hardly had a chance to say goodbye before she was a fading dot in the sky.

The paramedic checked me over. “You’re going to need to go to the hospital to get those fragments removed. Still, looks like you were pretty lucky. Nothing vital got hit. Sit quiet while we get ready.”

So I sat on the bumper of the aid car and just worked on catching my breath. Roscoe came and sat by me. He said nothing. He didn’t have to.

So it was he was around when General Hekuro, High Commander of the Fiefdom’s forces, came by with his retinue. He hovered, incandescent in the sun, and cleared his throat. “I wanted to thank you, Mr. Parker,” he said in formal tones, “for your efforts today. If not for you, we might have had more difficulty recovering the Queen safely.”

I glared at the pompous little pimple. “You wouldn’t have had any trouble if one of your boys hadn’t jumped the gun. Which one was it? I’ve got some very choice words for him.”  Not to mention a nice thump on the noggin.

The General cleared his throat again. “No one, as you put it, `jumped the gun’. I ordered the assault.”

I guess I gaped. “You? You’re the butter-brained twit who nearly got me scragged?”

“We had to move. We had a high-gain mike on you, Mr. Parker, and heard most of your…ur, interview with Uko. We determined that her Highness was in grave danger, and that we had to move immediately.”

“You almost got her killed anyway,” I pointed out. I sighed and leaned back against the aid-car. My side and butt were singing harmony to the counterpoint of the most of the rest of my body. “All right, General, I don’t need your thanks. Just make sure my payment gets deposited as agreed.”

The General coughed discretely. “Well, yes, we need to speak about that. When I made those commitments, Mr. Parker, I did it in advance of formal approval from the Fiefdom’s Budget Oversight Committee. I’m afraid the matter will have to go to them first. I have to tell you that they may not authorize the full amount.”

I growled– an actual growl, from deep in my throat. “Oh, no, you little stuffed shirt. You’re going to pay me the money you promised or I’ll put you in a bird cage.”

Hekuro drew himself up. “You have no right to speak to me so. I’m the Queen’s first adviser, I’m General-in-Chief, I’m…”

His recitation was interrupted by a small burst of flame. Not much, by dragon standards– about the equivalent of a human sneeze. But it was enough to set the General’s golden hair smoking. He bounced around the sky for some seconds, yelping and yoodling, while his aides tried to pat his tonsure out.

“Sorry,” Roscoe said, wiping his snout.

I sat back against the aid-car’s door, feeling content. “Thanks, Roz. That’s another one I owe you.”

He waved a dismissive paw. “All in a day’s work, boss.  All in a day’s work.”

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.

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.

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
*****************************************
“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 – Screams

Mondays Finish the Story flash fiction challenge, 150 words based on this image–

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

and this initial sentence–

“He thought he found the perfect hiding spot.”

This came out way, way darker than is my wont. There is also a deal of language. The reader is warned.

On top of that, I once more totally blew off the word limit. I am wholly without shame.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
************************************************

He thought he found the perfect hiding spot.

It was the screams and the pleading that drove him there. The three strange men laughed at the pleading. For a moment fear overcame everything else, and he hid.

When the screams stopped and the stench of blood was everywhere, the cat stayed where he was, as the strangers ransacked the house. It was then one of them entered the bedroom and brushed against the curtain.

“What the fuck?”

A powerful hand grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, lifted him up. He spat and yowled, but he could not bite the hand that held him.

“What the hell, Pete, it’s just a damn cat.”

“Good thing he can’t talk, huh, Lee?”

“Quit fucking around– Sammy says we gotta finish and get out of here.”

The stranger held the cat up closer to his face. “I think I’ll cut his head off.”

It was a mistake; the cat lashed out with his claws, faster than thought. The man yowled himself, in pain, his face scoured. He dropped the cat. Hitting the floor, the cat shot between the stranger’s legs, out the door and down the back stairs to the pantry, to the cubby-hole behind the cabinet.

He lay still, hearing the men arguing, the stranger he’d wounded rampaging about in rage. “Where’s that little shit, I’ll gut him, the fucker.”

“It’s your own damn fault,” the third man said. “You always gotta screw around.”

They argued more. Then the cat heard them leave. He lay still for a long time.

Finally, the cat crept out. The house was silent.

The bodies lay scattered in the family room. The blood was drying. The cat came in and hunkered down beside the little girl. Her blue eyes stared and saw nothing. This was the child the cat had seen brought home as an infant, who had learned, after some trial-and-error, to pet him, with whom he had sat in sunlit rooms while she played at being the grown woman she would never be. The cat sat and grieved as only cats can grieve.

In the grieving, something died in him– the pet, the tame little animal content with caresses and eating out of a bowl. In its place came, in-welling, something older, and powerful– something that knew on its own of blood and the hunt.

The cat cleaned from his claws the blood of the man he had scratched, and so came to know him, and, through him, the other two, forever.

In all the universe, there is nothing so cold as a cat’s vengeance.

Mondays Finish the Story – July 13th, 2015– Climbing

Flash fiction challenge for July 13th, 2015– 150 words around this image–

© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“Delphine always wanted to pilot her father’s plane and when he forgot his keys on her tenth birthday, she knew that taking off would be easy.”

This is an utter bit of fluff….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel

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

Delphine always wanted to pilot her father’s plane, and when he forgot his keys on her tenth birthday, she knew that taking off would be easy.

Nobody told her landing an airplane is the hard part.

“Landing is the hard part, honey,” her father told her over the radio.

“Now you tell me!” Delphine said, as the plane climbed.

“You’ll exceed the plane’s ceiling soon if you keep climbing,” Traffic Control said.

“What happens then?” Delphine said.

“The plane will stall and crash,” Traffic Control said.

“Oh,” Delphine said.

“Honey, you have to push the control column forward to level out,” her father said.

Delphine, who was always directionally challenged, pulled the column back. The plane climbed higher.

“Goodbye, Daddy,” she cried.

On the ground they saw the plane dwindling in the heights. Then the giant alien spaceship zoomed into view. A beam enveloped the plane.

“Such a brave child– what an intrepid climb,” the aliens said over the radio. “Come, join us.”

And that is how Delphine Eloise Novotny became humanity’s first interstellar ambassador.

Let Father do it

“Daddy!” his daughter cried, emerging from the bathroom. “There’s a spider in the bathtub!”

“Oh, go kill it,” his wife told him, not missing a step of her aerobics routine.

“What, me?” the father said.

“Well, I’m not going to do it,” his wife said.

His son came up from the basement. “Son, how about you do your father a favor?” the father said.

“Not a chance, Geezer Prime,” said his son, hefting his backpack. “I have a rendezvous with education.”

“Stop stalling,” his wife said. “All you’re doing is playing that stupid computer game.”

“Pater facere,” the father muttered, and got up.

Going into the bathroom, he pulled back the shower curtain and cautiously peered into the tub. “General Jackson and all the archangels!” he said, retreating in haste. “Honey, we need to call Animal Control.” He thought about it. “Or maybe the Third Armored Division.”

“Oh, stop being such a wuss,” his wife said, as she performed a set of high kicks.

“There are very few poisonous spiders in Western Washington, you know,” he said. “It’s definitely not a black widow, and I doubt it’s a yellow sac….”

“Man up and just take care of it, will you?” his wife said.

Growling, he went into the kitchen and pulled paper towels off the roll. His wife eyed them as he went by her. “Why three whole paper towels?” she asked.

“Because I don’t have a flame-thrower,” he muttered.

He looked down into the tub, aimed, fired. The spider crunched beneath the towels. He grimaced and looked. A brown stain, and legs; before, alien and menacing, but now merely broken, twitching, pathetic. Revulsion mingled with guilt. He shoved his victim and its paper shroud into the garbage and washed his hands.

“Now I’m scarred for life,” he told his wife.

“Oh, grow up,” his wife said.

Muttering, he sat down again at the computer. He might still have time to complete this level before he had to buckle down to work. He un-paused the game to resume his battle against the Skoglag Imperium.

From the other side of the house his daughter yelled, “Daddy!”

Monday’s Finish the Story Challenge – Promenade at Sunset

I am a bum. Here’s a piece in response to Monday’s Finish the Story Challenge for May 25th, which is supposed to be 150 words based on this image–

© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“The only residents remaining in the small town of Miners Hill are spirits.”

Well, I modified the initial sentence and went over the limit, so I deserve derision. Feel free.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
******************************************
“The only residents remaining in the town of Miner’s Hill are spirits,” said the tour guide.

“What a joke!” the loud tourist exclaimed. “You hear this guy, honey?”

“Yes, Howard,” the wife said wearily.

The tour guide smiled. He led us through the streets, telling the history of the old buildings– the Mercantile Bank, where the Gerrity gang shot it out with townsfolk in ’89, the Silver Nugget Lounge, the worst den of sin west of Dodge City, and the jail, out of which Madman Hancock blasted his way in ’73.

“They say that, on moonlit nights, the old townsfolk come out and promenade around, just like in the old days,” the guide said.

“That’s a fine story, mister,” the loud tourist said.

At sundown the guide took us back to the parking lot. The other tourists bundled themselves into their cars; but I lingered, looking back. The guide had disappeared. As the sun went down behind Scorpion Ridge, and the moon rose in the east, I thought I saw men in broad-brimmed hats, and ladies in long dresses, walking arm-in-arm along the dusty streets.