Reality Reimagined

Reads: 15012  | Likes: 1  | Shelves: 17  | Comments: 14

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Flash Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Reality Reimagined is a collection of short stories of several genres including Fiction, Science Fiction, Alternative History, and Horror.

Reality Reimagined 2 will be coming out on Kindle on December 20, 2016 for $1! Be sure to check it out if you enjoyed this book!

Submitted: August 14, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 14, 2016

A A A

A A A












 

Reality

Reimagined










 

A Collection of Short Stories

By

Matt Habeck









 

Short Fiction:

1. A Warrior’s Death. 2 Pages. 1,008 words.

2. A Mother’s Love. 2 Pages. 808 words.

3. Terms and Conditions. 2 Pages. 850 words.

4. The Other Side. 13 Pages. 5,360 words.

5. Blue With White Stripes. 3 Pages. 1,554 words.

6. Breaking Free. 3 Pages. 1,322 words.

7. Mad Town. 16 Pages. 5,552 words.

8. Not Worth The Risk. 5 Pages. 1,583 words.

9. Nature’s Kindness. 3 Pages. 933 words.

10. Farewell’s Odyssey. 8 Pages. 3,824 words.

11. Method of Existence. 4 Pages. 1,759 words.

12. The Greatest Skipping Stone. 3 Pages. 754 words.

13. Purgatory Online. 4 Pages. 1,997 words.

14. The One True Way. 17 Pages. 8,390 words.

 

Short Plays:

15. Hero. 4 Pages. 1,114 words.

16. The Man In Red. 8 Pages. 1,827 words.

17. Murphy is Dead. 3 Pages. 446 words.


 

Special Thanks:

I’d like to thank everyone who encouraged me to pursue my dream of writing. Your assistance, feedback, and moral support means the world to me.

My parents

Chris “Buckeye” W.

Mike E

Mike D

Allen D

Cara R






 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

A Warrior’s Death

 

Working at the gas station never satisfied me. I was very active in High School, I even played on the varsity football team. It was fun being famous for my war cry, height, and thick red beard. They used to call me the “bearded warrior” every time I made a tackle. Now it's just “nice beard” as I ring up their pack of smokes.

Today was nothing different. Woke up a tad late, seven minutes in the shower, threw on a white T-shirt, gas station uniform, some jeans, and tennis shoes. I groggily hopped in the car to catch the highway to work.

The gas station was in the middle of nowhere leeching off an old highway in the middle of nowhere. Small-town USA in every respect.

Walked through the doors, waved to a couple regular customers enjoying coffee. As I head to the back room to clock in, the boss flagged me down.

“Eric, take this box cutter. We have our delivery coming in an hour or so. Open the boxes and put all the inventory away in the cooler.”

“You got it chief.” I replied unenthusiastically.

I pocketed the box cutter, punched in, counted my drawer, and spent the next hour ringing up people’s drinks, cigarettes, and whatever other minor conveniences they wished to purchase.

Delivery came on time, which was unusual. The driver just kind of plopped all the boxes helter-skelter in the cooler, which made the whole process more annoying. I had to cut open each box, scan the product, and either restock the cooler shelves or place it back room for storage. This meant I was going to be in the cooler for a few hours, but the cold never really bothered me.

After working diligently only four boxes remained. Pre-emptive relief washed over me, after I was done I could just sit behind the register for the rest of my shift.

Some shouting caught my attention as I was cutting one of the last boxes. I crouched down, and peeked between the sugary drinks on the shelf. Two men with ski-masks were directing customers into the chip aisle. I noticed that both men were armed with handguns. After taking the cash in the registers, one of them turned to my boss.

“OPEN THE SAFE!”

“Anything you want! Just don’t hurt anyone!” my boss whimpered.

He followed my boss into the office. The other one stayed with everyone in the chip aisle, repeatedly reminding them to either get on the ground or shut up.

One of the regulars, an older man, Vietnam veteran (always came in for conversation, coffee, and cigarettes), was doing his best to calm everyone down. The robber didn’t like how much he was talking.

“Shut the fuck up! Do you want to die?”

“You think this is the first time someone has pointed a gun at me?” he scoffed.

Other customers were encouraged by his defiance. The robber leveled his gun in the veteran’s direction. I looked away, hearing only a gunshot and the screaming of the customers.

My blood boiled, I couldn’t sit in the damn cooler and let this happen. I clicked the box cutter blade out, kicked open the cooler door and let out a roar that shook the foundations of the building.

The masked criminal jumped. Rushing recklessly at the robber his first two shots fired at me went wide. His third shot struck true, but in my frenzied state I only felt the warmth of the wound and the terror in his eyes. With the box cutter outstretched, I rammed it into his side and body checked him to the ground. He landed hard, with a distinct crack of his skull hitting the cement floor. As I looked up from the fallen criminal, I saw that the veteran was unharmed, a customer next to him had been shot. The veteran looked at me in surprise.

“Take his gun!” I demanded, voice full of command and emotion. The veteran complied immediately.

“What the hell is going on?” exclaimed the other gunman, leaving the office with his gun drawn.

I released a wounded, almost primal howl this time, and with my stained box cutter ran straight at him. The fear and surprise of my assault stopped him only for a moment. He aimed carefully, and took three well placed shots that struck me in the chest. Before I crumpled and fell to the ground another gun opened up, fatally striking the remaining gun man. The veteran had taken up a position on the criminal’s flank, and my distraction allowed a clear shot.

It was now that I realized how serious my wounds were. Breathing was difficult, and I was coughing up some kind of red froth. I was fading in and out consciousness, hearing police sirens for a moment, then silence. I felt my body stiffen. I wheezed heavily, closed my eyes, and could not open them again.

I heard gentle waves crashing against the boat, the air was cool and tasted of ocean salt. My eyes eased open. I’m laying on my back, arms crossed over my gas station uniform, in a small wooden boat, which had just kissed the sandy shore. I noticed I was unharmed and exited the boat. Checking my pockets, I had the box cutter, my wallet, and name tag. I had no idea where I was, or how the hell I got here. All that could be seen was thick cedar forests on the shore, and dense fog over the water. The sun was up, but cloud cover made the sky appear grey.

A small host of viking warriors rushed out of the forest, and encircled me before I could retreat to the boat. The tallest among them, his armor worn from use, braided red beard extending to his chest, stood forward and spoke.

“With a mighty beard like yours, I’d bet you are one of my kin! We haven’t had a newcomer to Valhalla in ages! Tell us, oh warrior, of your final battle!”

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

A Mother’s Love

 

“Daniel! It’s time to wake up, you are going to be late!” A voice called from the hall.

A moment passed as the voice waited for a response.

“This is your last warning, you need to quit stalling!” it shouted.

“Okay! Alright, I get it mom!” Daniel yelled in protest.

Yelling drained the limited energy he had this morning, head remaining buried in his pillow.Subconsciously he accepted thathe didn’t want to wake up yet, but had to regardless. Raising his hands to rub his eyes, he turned over, uncovering himself.

“I didn’t think I drank that much last night, to have a headache like this... ” Daniel moaned.

“Haven’t had a hangover this bad since my 21st birthday...”

Sluggishlymaking his way to the edge of the bed, he placed his bare feet on the carpet. Yawning, he leaned forward, lifting himself out of resting position.

The world spun. He had to quickly catch himself. He suddenly felt exhausted, legs barely able to support his weight. It became hard to breathe.

Daniel panicked, frantically wondered what was going on and what to do. His survival instincts quickly provided an answer.

Get fresh air immediately!

Using the walls to support him, he shambled his way to the front door.  He leaned on the wall for the entire journey down the hall. Every step was harder to take than the last. Each breath was shallow, unable to refresh his lungs.

After a laborious trek, he reached his first objective. The firm wood of the front door felt like victory. He rested his head against it briefly, summoning all the strength he still possessed.

His hands shook, and fumbled to turn the handle. Movement required such focus that he could hardly stay conscious. Three attempts later he succeeded. Hearing the sound of the door’s creaking hinges, he slowly pushed it open. With a single step outside Daniel could feel the fresh air rush past him.  It came with a sense of accomplishment, stumbling forward he could feel the worry and pain leaving his body. First from his chest, out along his shoulders, and through the rest of his body.

He did not feel the impact of his body falling to the sidewalk. His world simply turned on its side, and went black.

He lingered in the void for some time, but was drawn to something... something familiar. He could feel a warmth that he missed, and his eyes started watering. He could hear someone speaking to him.

He opened his eyes, choosing to depart the void and reached for the beacon that called to him in the darkness.

“Thank God you are awake!” The figure exclaimed.

Daniel’s eyes followed the voice to a man sitting at his bedside. He looked disheveled, but the tears of joy in his eyes verified his sincerity.

“Where am I?” Daniel managed.

“You are safe, and that's all that matters!” the man exclaimed.

“I was in danger?”

“You neighbors brought you to the hospital after seeing you fall. You are really lucky... and so am I. I couldn’t stand to lose you too...”

“Lose me too?”

Emotion overcame Daniel as the man’s identity revealed itself.

“Dad?” He whimpered.

The tear stricken man smiled warmly.

“Dad, where have you been? I miss her so much...” He tried to say more but words wouldn’t come. He reached for his father, and sobbed into his supportive embrace.

“Thank God you got out of that house Daniel... The doctors say if you stayed in there much longer, you wouldn’t have woken up.”

His father shuddered, then continued.

“There was a gas leak, and the batteries in the your carbon monoxide detector must have been old… I know it’s been hard with your mother passing away, and having to plan the funeral alone... But I want you to know that I do care about you.”

“I’m glad to hear that, dad. I worry about you too. You disappeared after quitting your rehab program. I would have visited... but I couldn’t find you… It’s been so stressful since she passed.”

“I know, Daniel, I’m sorry. Please just take care of yourself, and be careful about how much you drink. It caused me to fail my son and chase off the only woman in the world who gave a damn about me.”

His father paused for a moment, reliving in a somber memory before finishing.

“Just please, don’t let it consume you.”

He smiled and shook his head.

“What am I saying, I know you won’t... She raised you right, and I’m so proud of you... She is too.”

He sighed and smiled at Daniel.

“Your mother is up in heaven now, but I’m sure she’s watching over you and protecting you like she always has.”

Daniel’s tears began anew, and he hugged his father.

“I know.”

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Matt Habeck

Terms and Conditions

 

Robert shifted uncomfortably in his chair, though he was the only one in the office. He sat at a large circular table that occupied majority of the the room. There were only two seats, his, and across from him, what appeared to be a marble bench. He clenched and unclenched his fists. Visibly nervous, he wiped the sweat from his brow.

When he was offered the lead position in the new branch of the UN, he thought his years of diligent diplomacy had payed off. He had settled trade disputes, calmed border skirmishes, negotiated with pirates and kings. But no one had ever done what he was asked to do today.

‘United Nations Extraterrestrial Ambassador Robert Price’ his name tag displayed proudly. They said the alien would be here soon. Robert had been waiting in the conference room for over an hour. Did they still want to talk?

The door opened. A looming figure bent down to enter the human sized door frame. The high ceiling of the conference room allowed it to stand. As he first laid eyes on the creature, Robert’s mouth was agape. The alien stood about 13 feet tall, with grey skin stretched tightly over its thin muscular frame. Its eyes were small, and burning yellow. It's black clothing was made of interlocking metal hexagons, which made a robe of sorts, that clinked quietly as it walked over to the marble bench.

It sat down and bridged it's long, thin, human like hands.

“Greetings Ambassador Price. We have much to discuss.” Its voice was deep, but calming and monotone. Robert quickly collected himself to respond.

“We certainly do. My people are very curious about your intentions. No other intelligent life form has, shall we say, revealed their existence to us.”

It was difficult to politely inquire about their intentions. The world was extremely worried when twenty hexagons the size of Alaska appeared near the moon.

“Provided you have the benefit of your people in mind, I believe you have no cause for alarm. We are here to end your suffering and self inflicted damage. Your hungry will be fed. Your diseases cured. Electricity will become an infinite resource. Your air will be filtered. Your oceans will be dredged for debris. Your wars, ended. Earth can become a magnificent gem in the crown of our empire.”

Robert’s mouth became dry.

“And what would you ask in return for such a gift?”

“Humans mature at an astoundingly fast rate. To reach adequate fighting ability requires only 15 years, plus training and nourishment of course.”

“Adequate fighting ability? You intend to build an army of humans?”

“On a scale you cannot fathom to fight an enemy you cannot imagine.”

“Would this enemy be a threat to humanity if we did not make this agreement?”

“In time, yes. Alone humanity would be extinguished with little effort. I offer you the chance to free yourselves of all known limitations and defend yourselves from an otherwise unstoppable enemy.”

“What can you tell me about this enemy?”

“We are not here to discuss the enemy. We are here to discuss the fate of your race.”

The alien’s tone remained calm. During the tense conversation it sat unmoving, maintaining constant eye contact with Robert. As if it had done this talk one hundred times before…

“Do you have other allies in your fight?”

“We do, but none as cunning and brutal as the human race. We have been monitoring your operations for hundreds of years. In war humans have been resourceful and dauntless. It is very impressive, Ambassador Price.”

“I suppose I will accept that compliment...”

“I am not here to flatter you. In exchange for all I have offered your planet, my empire demands 5 billion humans over the age of 15. You will have twenty years to deliver the amount of humans we require.”

“Five billion? Our entire population is only 7.3 billion!”

“I am prepared to discuss this proposal with your various world leaders. I am meeting with you mainly as a formality, since the Earth is not a unified planet. Keep in mind, that we can create mighty warriors from even your elderly and sickly.”

“May I ask how?”

The alien produced a tan sphere the size of a thumbnail from a pocket in his robe.

“This symbiote has been created to bring any insufficient humans up to usable levels of combat viability. Once ingested, the symbiote will alter the human significantly over the course of a month. Receiving proper nourishment during this period is crucial.

With this biotechnology limbs can be regrown, bones strengthened, mental deficiencies corrected, elderly rejuvenated, and any sickness cured. There will however be visible alterations to the human’s appearance, as we will not waste resources to further develop the symbiote for anything aside from functional benefits.”

“If you have spent the time and effort developing such a miraculous creation, you anticipate us accepting your proposal.” Robert replied hesitantly.

The alien smiled eerily, revealing its flat grey teeth.

“To state it politely, you are not in a position to refuse.”

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Matt Habeck

The Other Side

 

The Empire of Iron

 

The grand council chamber buzzed with excited chatter. As the Emperor raised his hand, the room silenced.

The messenger bowed, and approached the Emperor.

“Just as you have commanded my Lord, your army has been assembled. As you decreed in your infinite wisdom, measures were taken to assure that each town and trade route still has appropriate soldiers for policing duties and deterring bandits. Fresh legions have been created based on the new laws you have put into action. You have the people’s hearts, and their unconditional support, my Lord.”

“Allowing women active roles in the government and military increased public support and productivity, just as I predicted.”

The Emperor’s calm, but powerful voice resonated in the council chamber.

“Did the conscript and volunteer numbers match our estimates?” the Emperor asked.

“Greatly exceeded them, my Lord. This army is the largest our empire has ever assembled, nearly ten million strong. However, preparing for the invasion and supporting an army of this size has taken a significant amount of the empire’s treasury...”

“Of course, but as you all know, I will not make the same errors as my forefathers. They looked to the Red and Green planets simply as an unclaimed resource. When the other gates were discovered, our empire desperately needed the raw materials and slave labor to keep itself strong. But in my short reign of forty years, I have made great strides for human rights and prosperity. With proper crop rotation and land management, famine is a worry of the past.

I have outlawed slavery and given every citizen in the empire free education. I have made obtaining Imperial citizenship much simpler, and allowed the people of the Red and Green planets to apply for citizenship. I have punished the greedy landowners hoarding their wealth and abusing my people. Trade routes are now safe on all three worlds after I increased the number patrols and sentries. I strive to create a safe and wonderous world for our children to thrive in. Not only this, but I wish to share our mighty civilization with all of humankind. These things I have done to ensure our victory and continued pursuit of progress.”

“No one could ask for a better man to lead our magnificent empire, my Lord.”

“Then let us discuss the third gate. I have changed many facets of our empire to ensure victory in its invasion. To accommodate this change, I needed the absolute support of the citizenry. By ensuring a happy, healthy, prosperous life for my people; I have created a willing pool of skilled and satisfied laborers and soldiers to assist me in accomplishing anything I desire.

This is the most important thing I have done in my reign, because this allows my invasion to be perfectly executed. Ready to conquer any foe...

A mining operation right here on our homeworld uncovered a gate that is unlike any other. It is more splendid than the gates to the Red or Green planets, which were little more than rock formations. We may have found a planet of gods.”

The councilmen whispered amongst themselves until the Emperor raised his hand once more.

“This third gate, made of flawless marble with gold embellishments, is of immaculate construction. The finest craftsmen of our empire would struggle to replicate its beauty and elegance.

When my grandfather, the first Emperor, took our army through the first gate to the Red planet, we subjugated the locals in two short decades. There we uncovered the second gate, to the Green planet. My father quickly brought that world under our control as well. Our empire spans three worlds, with a population beyond counting.

What has always given our empire the advantage is the iron in our homeworld's soil. With it, our tools, weapons, and armor have been vastly superior to the stone wielding savages that we have encountered on the other planets.

After destroying a few cities, the despots and cave kings quickly realize our innate superiority. The wise ones joined us willingly, the foolish are battered into servitude. No one we have encountered can endure our wrath. Through force we have unified humanity and brought peace, prosperity, and success in our wake. ”

A councilman raised his hand hesitantly.

The Emperor noticed him, saying “You are all assembled here to advise me. Strictly enforcing fair regional government elections has put many new faces in my council chamber, but do not be afraid to speak your minds. Through you I communicate with the people of my Empire.”

“Thank you my Lord” the councilman cleared his throat. “You have indeed created the mightiest army our empire has ever seen. Are you sure this new gate will require such an army? If so, how many casualties do you anticipate?”

“What we are about to undertake may have a greater human cost than the other invasions combined. If we encounter gods, we will lose many men learning ways to defeat them. However, if we encounter men…”

The Emperor smiled menacingly.

“We will subjugate and populate the planet in record time. I know not how these gods or men will respond to my demands. I do know that one day, they too shall serve the Empire of Iron.”

The councilmen murmured in agreement. Not only did they have the utmost faith in their Emperor, but once this new planet was under Imperial rule they would receive vast amounts of land to govern. His grandfather acquired the Red planet, his father acquired the Green planet, it was only natural that he take this opportunity. If this truly was a gate to the realm of gods, it could bring the empire into a new Golden Age. The tools and medicine they could gain from gods would be worth more than the cost of some Imperial blood.

“Our preparations have been costly. Three years worth of tools, foodstuffs, weapons, and pack animals have been set aside in storehouses for this invasion. A temporary city has been erected around the gate housing smiths, healers, and soldiers. We have the best minds and wealthiest investors working on these projects. Supply lines have been established and will go into use as soon as we have our foothold on the new world. Planetary invasion is no small task, but we are more prepared now than previously thought possible.

Due to the unforeseeable conditions of the new world, I have just this year put a new policy in place you may have heard about. Every jail has been purged of inmates. I have conscripted all brigands, thieves, and those deeply in debt. Those we could not convince to fight have been executed. The ones who survive the conflict will be free from their debt or charge. Of course, they will be placed in the most dangerous areas of battle. This gives us two advantages, a large expendable military force to add to our mercenary and volunteer soldiers, and jails will no longer be a burden on Imperial resources. Every crime that results in jail time instead results in immediate conscription.

I am ready to pay any price, in gold or blood to expand our empire. I have raised an army so large that casualties will simply be an unimportant byproduct of our victory. All preparations are made, and the invasion begins tomorrow.”

The council chamber erupted in applause. They whistled and cheered. Tomorrow, they were going to make history.

 

The United States of America

 

“President Clinton! Area 51 has been taken over! A medieval army appeared out of thin air and destroyed the facility! After that they moved south and sacked the town of Helendale California… they are making a massive fortress between the two places. They killed everyone who resisted, not many could get away. Everything happened so suddenly…” the secretary trailed off.

“So it was a portal…” President Clinton muttered under his breath.

“Set up an emergency defence meeting. Inform the National Guard that they are to establish a perimeter, do not engage the enemy yet.”

The secretary nodded and hustled off. Minutes later, Clinton entered the meeting room. The decorated military officials hurried to their seats. Clinton addressed the room.

“As many of you have heard, Area 51 and the town of Helendale have been lost to a foreign enemy. What we appear to be to be facing is a massive medieval army.”

“Knights, archers, and such? How is this possible?” A general asked in disbelief.

“The reason for the existence of the Area 51 facility was the careful and undisturbed research of a structure, hereafter referred to as a portal. The portal is of impeccable craftsmanship, made of white marble with gold trim, and scientists have determined it existed before men on Earth. It is roughly fifty feet wide, and thirty feet tall. We did not know its purpose until today. Whether the portal is some sort of time machine or transportation device is still unknown. What we do know is that these medieval humans have used the portal to wage war against the United States.”

The room was silent.

“It is likely that some prisoners have been taken by the enemy force. I will not stand for civilian casualties, and I refuse to bomb American soil. We will stick to precision air strikes and ground war. Mobilize all available forces in the southwestern United States. Once we have the enemy force contained we will try to handle the situation diplomatically. If this fails, we will destroy them, taking plenty of prisoners to learn everything we can about the portal. Today, February third 1997, shall be another date that will live on in infamy.”

A secretary burst in the room.

“Aerial surveillance reports that more enemies continue to come through the gate! Estimates put their number around three million!”

“Good lord…” Clinton gasped, losing his composure for a moment.

“I will address the public. Assemble our armed forces and contain the foreign army. Godspeed everyone.”

 

The Empire of Iron

 

“This realm’s inhabitants are human. Not only that, but they are cowardly. They have set up a perimeter around us, but it is out of even catapult range. They clearly do not want to engage us. Our scouts have seen them set up trenches, and their soldiers appear to have the same bizarre weapons we encountered when we sacked the two towns. With less than two hundred casualties from our first two days on this new planet, I am very confident in our victory.

Camp has been set up, we have assembled a rampart of wood and soil, and it is massive. Its walls encompass all of the land we have taken thus far.

Everyone is eager, and following our directions. Roughly seven million men are through the gate, and we are putting them to work immediately. The labor bosses say that in a week’s time you will have a mighty fortress, but for now the trenches have been dug and the walls are up. Your preparations for this invasion are nothing short of excellence my Lord.”

After speaking, Lord Commander Marcus, Primary General of the Imperial Planetary Invasion Force returned to his seat in the council chamber. The Emperor rose to speak.

“Forethought is one of the luxuries of an enlightened society. Through our hard work we shall spread our culture to these unknown people. Anything else to report?”

“The enemy does appear to have a standing army, and organization. They have uniforms, made of metal and cloth. The only thing that troubles me, my Lord, are the thunderbirds seen flying overhead.”

“Thunderbirds? Explain.”

“They are quite large, and their roars make the troops a little nervous. We’ve never seen birds that size. We do not know if their appearance is a common occurrence on this planet or if they assist our enemy.

The enemy also has strange box like wagons that move without horses. They might be used for transportation, or perhaps armored supply stores that move with their troops.”

“What about the people we have captured?”

“The captives have all been moved to jails on our planet. Linguists and intellectuals are studying them at all times.

The people of this realm seem to lead easy lives, most are not in healthy physical condition because of inactivity. But they live to old age, even by our standards. They prefer colorful clothing, and their food is quite good. Perhaps it is a realm of healers, artists, and cooks? I have nothing further to report my Lord.”

 

The United States of America

 

President Clinton cleared his throat, and the cameraman gave him the countdown to live broadcast.

“My fellow Americans, it is true that we have been attacked by an unknown enemy on American soil. It is true that because the attack was so rapid, unprovoked, and unforeseen that the town of Helendale California and the Area 51 military facility could not be protected in time.

Let me assure you, this deliberate attack will not be taken lying down. We quickly mobilized the might of the United States Military, and have the foreign army contained. They are many in number, but they are human, and their technology is primitive.

I do not know why or how they came here. But if our attempts to reason with them fail, they will be defeated in short order by the men and women of the armed forces.

Evacuations have gone smoothly, and our armies are ready to battle these unexpected foes. The UN has been briefed on the situation, and will assist us should we deem it necessary.

My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones in the recent attacks. Mark my words, through diplomacy or might, justice will be done.”

 

The Empire of Iron

 

“We have displayed our superior grasp of logistics and industry, it is time for them to feel the wrath of the Imperial Army. Send forth the mercenaries and criminals. We will test our enemy’s strength.”

“Right away Lord Commander, we also have many volunteers that want to participate in the first real battle on this planet, shall we allow them to join the attack?” the captain asked.

“No, the enemy could be more formidable than they appear. Assemble the first assault group from the criminals and sell swords only.”

“By your will, Lord Commander.”

The mercenary captains marshalled out from behind the Imperial ramparts, quickly forming precise rectangles of spearmen thousands wide and hundreds deep.

Overseers cracked their whips, and droves of scared, hesitant men armed with various tools and hand weapons poured out from the fort. The waves of unorganized men parted around the professional troops like water flowing around rocks. The criminals were herded to the front, forming several smaller blobs of men in in front of each perfect rectangle of soldiers. Archers came out last, forming thin lines behind the blocks of spearmen, and atop the rampart walls.

 

The United States of America

 

“They are assembling in battle formations… we may not get a second chance at this.” the US ambassador said grimly.

“Our vehicle is ready, the linguists and diplomats are prepared. We need to stop them, the enemy has no idea the destruction our armies are capable of.” said the driver, a 2nd Lieutenant.

The two got into the specially prepared white humvee. The other three passengers waited inside, terrified. The driver addressed the group.

“I am Lieutenant James Mkvenner of the 422nd Signal Battalion of the Nevada National Guard. Like all of you, I volunteered for this task, in the hope of preventing bloodshed on a biblical scale. We want to stop these people from killing themselves fighting an opponent they can’t hope to defeat. We need to do our damndest to show them that we can be reasonable, merciful, and helpful.

I am starting the car. I would admire your courage for joining me on this mission, but I would think no less of you if you got out of the car before we depart. Please take a moment to decide for yourselves before we leave.”

The diplomats and linguists exchanged worried, but determined looks.

“We are coming with you!” a young diplomat proclaimed.

“Very well. God bless you all.”

The Lieutenant started the humvee, and drove it slowly towards the massive army before them.

 

The Empire of Iron

 

“Lord Commander, a lone white wagon approaches. Perhaps they wish to surrender before we attack?”

“Watchman, inform the men they are not to attack this wagon. Let it through unmolested.”

No sooner had the order left the Lord Commander’s lips, when rocks began to pelt the white vehicle.

“Command those criminal scum to stop at once!” Marcus bellowed.

The white vehicle slowed, and stopped. The windshield was heavily cracked. The driver got out, a man in white uniform. He raised his hands above his head to show he was unarmed.

A rock struck him in the face, and he collapsed to the ground. Blood stained his uniform.

The mercenaries laughed uproariously, taunting and jeering. The group of criminals closest to the wagon broke formation to attack.

They descended upon the helpless vehicle, breaking the windows, pulling the horrified passengers out and killing them savagely. The vehicle was flipped by the mob, and the final screams of its occupants were drowned out by the laughter and shouting of the Imperial troops.

Lord Commander Marcus sighed.

“There is no turning back now, order the men to attack.”

A horn sounded. Then several. Then hundreds. Loud drums pounded out marching rhythms as the massive army advanced towards the entrenched guardians of the realm.

 

The United States of America

 

The US soldiers looked on in fury as the diplomat’s white humvee was destroyed and its passengers killed. The enemy army went from a march to a sprint.

“KILL THOSE BASTARDS, OPEN FIRE!”

General Corinth’s order held almost as much malice as the opening volley. 105mm rounds fired from M1 Abrams tanks cascaded into the enemy’s densely packed formations. Fifty caliber machine gun and M4 carbine fire from the Army, National Guard, and Marines viciously tore into the enemy. Their bullets ignored all forms of armor and shields, and their rage ignored all screams from the wounded. The US troops lashed out in cruel revenge.

In less than thirty minutes, 600,000 enemy dead littered the field. Not a single arrow had hit a US position. Not a single spearman had entered close combat. Not a single man was left standing.

 

The Empire of Iron

 

“This… is unthinkable…” Lord Commander Marcus mumbled quietly.

The camp was silent.

“Could we really be this out matched? How… How is this possible?” he put his head in his hands. “Tell all captains to keep their men inside the fort at all costs. Hold your positions and wait for my return… I must inform the Emperor…” he rose, and walked broken hearted past his advisors and captains.

“You heard the Lord Commander, carry out your duties.” a captain said bitterly, breaking the deafening silence. The men nodded despondently and went about their assigned tasks.

Marcus rode his horse swiftly for the gate, but caught many forlorn looks from captains and soldiers on his way. He overheard many worried conversations.

“Can we even win? They have sorcery and catapults!”

“I was dragged off my farm to die in a foreign realm?”

“I don’t even want to be here!”

“Did you see how quickly they died? It's hopeless!”

Hours later, Marcus arrived at the Imperial Palace, exhausted.

“Lord Commander Marcus, what is the meaning of this intrusion?” said the Emperor as Marcus entered the council chamber.

“What happened? Why aren’t you-”

“I need to speak with you, privately.” Marcus interrupted.

The councilmen gasped. The Emperor’s face twisted in rage.

“Say what is of such importance, but the council will remain present.” the Emperor snapped.

Marcus let out a defeated sigh.

“We cannot win, my Lord. Nearly eighty legions of mercenaries and many of the criminal conscripts were cut down in minutes. Minutes… my Lord. Nearly 600,00 men dead in minutes…” as he finished, Marcus shuddered..

“How many enemies were slain?” a councilwoman asked.

“The enemy sent one white wagon with five passengers, presumably negotiators, before we began our attack. Before I could stop them, the conscripts accosted the wagon and killed its passengers. Brutally, and in front of the enemy army. Seeing that diplomacy was no longer an option, I ordered the men to charge…” Marcus hesitated.

“Then what happened!?” The Emperor demanded.

“Bolts of red and green light cut into our men. The large box like wagons are devastating mobile catapults… everything erupted in explosions and thunder… We did not inflict a single casualty on the enemy. We killed their messengers, and they responded in the manor of furious gods…”

“Preposterous!” a councilman shouted.

“Liar!”

“Coward!”

“Incompetent!”

“ENOUGH!” yelled the Emperor.

The room silenced, but the agitated councilmen glared at Marcus. With tears in his eyes, Marcus looked up at the Emperor pleadingly.

“We cannot win my Lord. Beg them for peace, save the empire from ruin!”

The Emperor looked at Marcus in disgust.

“You are hereby stripped of all power and station. You will return to the invasion camp and join the ranks of the conscripts. I will lead the Imperial Invasion Force myself.”

Marcus kneeled, and accepted his fate. The Emperor’s guards swiftly dragged him out of the room. The Emperor looked sternly at his advisors.

“Ready my armor. Send messengers to the invasion force, tell them to prepare for the single largest attack in history!”

 

The United States of America

 

“The enemy appears to be massing for an all out attack. Alert the Air Force, we are going to need their firepower.” General Corinth barked into his radio.

“The A10 Warthogs will be ready sir.”

The US soldiers stared angrily down their gun sights, the ground around them littered with shell casings. The stench of the dead in the Nevada sun would have been overpowering, but most of the troops ignored it. What they found even more disgusting was their enemy.

They were furious with their invaders. Why did they come here and kill innocent civilians, and reasonable negotiators? Just appearing on Earth with no intention other than wanton bloodshed.

Evil, heartless, primitive, savages… It was difficult to even view them as human.

 

The Empire of Iron

 

“Everyone is gathered, my Lord.” whispered a captain.

Even though the Emperor stood amongst the throng of soldiers, there was total silence. The only sound was the clink of the Emperor’s resplendent golden armor, as he paced through the camp scanning his troops. The Emperor spoke, addressing the masses.

“The last time an Emperor fought at the front of the Imperial Army, a world was conquered. The time before that, when the first Emperor took up his sword and rallied his men, a destiny was forged!

It is fate that brings us here, to this place on this day. Fate that we must bear the burden of civilization!

When we conquered the Red and Green planets, we sowed the seeds of prosperity, of enlightenment. We shared our ideals with them, our strengths with them, our dreams with them.

At first they did not accept these gifts. Our method of existence was so alien to them, they could not understand it. Some would fight against it. Some would die opposing it. But they were the blind!

To fight us is to fight against progress! To fight against reason! To fight against humanity!

No stronger, larger army has EVER been assembled in our entire empire’s glorious history! And when I ride out of those rampart gates today, I will lead our legendary Imperial Army to battle the fiercest foe the empire has ever encountered! I do it gladly, and without fear!

We are an unstoppable force of good in the universe, a true army of the righteous!

Let us go out there, and show them what it means to be Men of Iron!” the Emperor howled.

The roar from the crowd was explosive. Palpable confidence glowed in the faces of the Imperial troops as they beat their chests and stopped their feet.

The many gatehouses of the rampart’s eastern wall opened, and an ocean of spearmen engulfed the field. The wave of soldiers quickly became formations, all while moving at a dead sprint. Lanes formed between the giant rectangles, and columns of mounted troops raced past. Laborers, cooks, and tradesmen empowered by the Emperor’s words armed themselves and ran as a rabble behind the formations.

In the middle of the lead mounted column, the Emperor charged, armor shining gloriously in the alien sun. His battle cry echoed in the lungs of ten million Imperial men and women.

 

The United States of America

 

“FIRE! FIRE! Give them everything we’ve got!” General Corinth hollered.

Tanks, machine guns, mortars, and rifles sprang to life, like drops of water culminating in a destructive flood.

The enemy died in droves, cut down by the hail of gunfire or vaporised by explosions. Blood and bodies covered the ground, but the medieval army pressed ever forward. They charged through shell craters and stomped the fallen into dust, roaring in defiance.

Forty-five A10 Warthogs lined up their strafing run, the medieval formations stretching for miles before them. Approaching their target in three V formations, the A10s slowed down to ensure maximum weapon effectiveness.

Each A10 is equipped with ten Maverick air to surface missiles, and a 30mm cannon. It was put into US service in the 1970’s, and is largely considered the most impressive ground attack aircraft on Earth.

450 Maverick missiles blasted 450 holes into the hordes of charging spearmen. Limbs and molten armor pieces flew into the air in violent displays of fire and smoke.

The 30mm cannons carved distinct trails through the enemy troops, bullets impacting with such catastrophic force than multiple men were liquefied with each shot.

In under a minute the warthogs had expended their entire payload, and were returning to base to be re-equipped. While their effect on the enemy was nothing short of devastation, the pilots knew that it wouldn’t be enough to halt their advance. Though millions had already died, the swarm was rapidly approaching US positions.

“General Corinth, the enemy is 200 yards away from our position and closing in fast! We are going to be overrun!” warned the radio operator.

“Contact the Air Force, let them know our position in sector 13 has been compromised. Get the rapid response teams to get here and contain the breach… Then prepare yourself to fight.”

General Corinth, a fifty-three year old Marine, instinctively checked his Colt 45 sidearm. He briefly reviewed his life, having few regrets. His face hardened in determination.

He stepped out of the command tent, and saw that his enemy was almost upon them.

“Rally to me! Fix your bayonets, steel your resolve! If we hold this position long enough, the rapid response teams will arrive! Stand your ground, fight for your lives, fight for America!”

Corinth took up a rifle and added its firepower to the desperate defence. The trenches would be lost soon.

“50 yards!”

“Keep firing!”

“25 yards!”

“Throw grenades and brace for impact!”

Spearmen came crashing into the trench. The barbed wire and grenades had done little to slow down the frenzied warriors.

In close combat, the primitive spearmen held all the advantages. Outnumbering the US soldiers over ten to one, their resistance, fierce as it was, was defeated quickly.

Men-at-arms rushed past the machine gun emplacements, impaling the gunners with their spears. Soldiers screamed as swords and spears plunged into them.

Corinth saw his men being crushed before him. Before he could issue more orders, he noticed a spearman rushing towards him to attack. As the spearman thrust his weapon, Corinth batted it away from his chest, but it caught him deeply in the stomach. Wrapping his left arm around the spear for stability, he fired three shots into his oppressor, his 45 bucking wildly in his right hand.

Corinth groaned, and was forced to kneel. Both hands returned to his pistol. Hastily aimed and rapidly fired shots ended the lives of two more men-at-arms.

A flash of gold caught his attention… a golden knight leapt into the US trench. Corinth noticed the crown and forced his right hand to obey him one final time. His vision was getting blurry, the pounding of feet and shouting of men was gone. There was only silence. He used the last of his focus to aim at the golden figure.

As he pulled the trigger a spear impaled his chest, making his shot hit low. The bullet struck the knight in the thigh, buckling his leg and knocking him to the ground. Corinth smiled weakly, blood dripping from his mouth and wounds.

 

The Empire of Iron

 

“EVEN GODS BLEED!” The Emperor snarled as he leapt into the enemy trench. Having lost his horse earlier in the push, he continued on foot.

His troop’s morale had returned a hundredfold once they got to grips with the mysterious defenders. Imperial might had overwhelmed them and destroyed their fancy tools of war.

Something had struck the Emperor in the thigh, shattering the bone and forcing him to his knees. He gritted his teeth and looked at his wounded leg. His ornate armor bent inward by the impact of the projectile, blood gushed from the hole.

“Men, protect the Emperor!” a nearby captain shouted.

Spearmen rushed to his side, raising him to a standing position.

The Emperor waved his sword, yelling “FORWARD, DO NOT RELENT! VICTORY IS OURS THIS DAY!”

His men cheered, but a strange sound drowned out the Imperial celebrations.

 

The United States of America

 

“We have reached the perimeter breach in sector 13. Rapid response teams engaging.”

Thirty Apache helicopters arrived, along with twenty Abrams tanks. Their withering firepower quickly turned the tide back in the favor of the US, obliterating all who stood before them.

The battle went on for roughly four hours. The Emperor’s lead column was the only group to reach close combat with US forces. Their small victory was short lived, as the rapid response teams repelled them.

Repeated harassment from air strikes had taken an unimaginable toll on the medieval army. As the enemy finally broke and fled, they had already lost an estimated 80% of their forces. Tanks drove over bodies in their way, crushing flat suits of iron armor and their contents. More helicopters arrived and cut off the route back to the enemy ramparts.

Surrounded, bloodied, and defeated, the remaining medieval troops surrendered.

 

The United Nations

 

The secretary relayed the status report the board room.

“UN Ambassadors, Mr. President, We’ve moved the remaining enemy prisoners back into their fortress, under guard of course. We simply have nowhere else to put them at the moment. Doctors and volunteers have been gathered to tend to the wounded. Defences have been set up around the gate, and a shoot on sight order is in effect for anything that comes through.

Priority prisoners, such as nobles and captains, have been moved to a facility for interrogation and study.

We have suffered just under two thousand casualties, and enemy dead are estimated in the millions.”

President Clinton stood, addressing the Ambassadors.

“Thank you, as you can see we have the situation fully contained. The reason I have gathered you here today is to discuss the future. On the other side of this portal lies populations and resources that need to be distributed equally, lest we fight amongst ourselves. A new Golden Age is upon us gentlemen! A new age of exploration and colonization!

Apparently those idiots moved the US prisoners they took to their side of the portal. We already have more than enough public backing. No one will question our motives if we act quickly. We don’t know exactly how vast this new land is, but if they can field an army of ten million, we need to strike before they can rally. Hit them while their faith in their leadership is weak. We must organize a multinational invasion force immediately.”

President Clinton smiled greedily.

“This is one of the best scenarios we predicted the portal was capable of.”

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

Blue With White Stripes

 

Officer Aaron finished shining his boots and put them on.  Being a chilly fall day, he decided it would be prudent to wear his long sleeve uniform. A seven year police veteran in his late 20s, Aaron had grown accustom to short nights of sleep and long days of work.  His jet black hair had recently started to grey from the stress and boredom of the job. Today would be another endless Sunday 5 am shift.  

At least I'll be able to catch up on reports he thought to himself. Still groggy from the night before, he sluggishly made his way out of his house and into his squad car; calling on duty for work just in time. Aaron was a diligent policeman for the Bad River Tribe, a smaller Native American tribe on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Superior.  The area was mostly rural with several suburbs, a gas station, casino, and a highway going east and west that bisected the reservation.  

He began his morning ritual getting coffee, breakfast at his favorite diner, and talking with locals about current events.  He then drove to his assigned hunting ground, the driveway of a derelict house on US Highway 2, the main highway on the reservation. He made sure to be there before 6 am in order deter the crowd on route to work from speeding, and ensure they were driving safely.  On the way to the spot he saw no other vehicles on the road.  

Fantastic, he sighed, today is sure to be a long one. Heavy fog began to seep from the woods, covering the roads in haze, limiting visibility.

Officer Aaron started to drink his coffee while reviewing last night’s emails on his squad's laptop.  He noticed one with the title ‘Missing/Endangered Child’.  

Another missing person? That makes 17 this year.  He studied the message noting that the missing boy was 8 years old, last seen before school on Friday.  Attached in the email was a picture of him. Native American descent with short black hair and a dark complexion.  He was wearing a bright blue and white striped shirt, jeans, and white sneakers.  It was noted the picture was taken the same day the child was reported missing. Poor kid, I hope he's okay. His parents must be worried sick.

Aaron was current on his emails and was about to complete some reports when he was startled from the roar of an engine.  He recognized the noise to be a speeding car, but was not able to see it yet due to the fog.  He activated his radar device to detect the vehicle's speed.  The radar was mounted on the front and back windshield of his car, and would catch the vehicle's speed regardless of line of sight.  The radar let out a high pitched hum and showed the oncoming vehicle’s speed to be 113 mph. Aaron nearly spilt his coffee when he saw the numbers. In his seven years of work he had never encountered a vehicle going that fast.  

He flicked on his red and blue lights, painting the ever thickening fog.  The vehicle screamed past him, undeterred by his presence. Aaron put his car in drive and stomped on the gas.  His tires spun wildly, scattering gravel from the driveway into the air.  He hit the highway and lurched forward in pursuit.  He was able to follow the speeder, but had to maintain breakneck speeds to keep a visual on him. Even this only allowed him to see the dim light emitted by his tail lights.

Aaron radioed to dispatch.

“337 County Sheriff, I'll be attempting a traffic stop on a vehicle on US-2.  Vehicle is traveling west at a speed of 113 mph.  We are currently passing Meadow Road.”  

Dispatch acknowledged the situation and the radio fell silent again.  The veteran policeman knew the roads well even with his vision impaired by the fog.  There was a sharp turn coming up and he would need to slow down.  He halved his speed, temporarily losing sight of the tail lights.  He had a brief moment to sip his coffee, knowing the speeder would not make the turn in time.  As he came to the corner he saw two red glowing lights coming from the woods, and a four foot path carved through the brush in the ditch.  As predicted, the car missed the turn. He heaved a sigh and radioed dispatch.  

“337 County Sheriff, the vehicle went into the ditch on US-2 half a mile west of Meadow Road, it's in the woods.  I'll be conducting a high risk approach and aiding the occupants.”  

Dispatch asked if he would like back up.

“Yes.  Also requesting an ambulance to location due to possible injury.  Those responding should be cautious of the fog.”  

He grabbed his medical bag from the trunk and ran to aid the driver.  

He located the vehicle about 200 feet south of the highway, resting in a swampy area.  The vehicle itself had missed head on collisions with several trees and from a distance, appeared to be in decent shape.  It was a newer red sports car with a spoiler. Nice ride speed racer.

While approaching the vehicle Aaron saw the door on the driver's side was missing.  He looked around, locating the door entangled in bramble some 20 feet from the car.  How in the world...

At the vehicle Aaron noticed several other red flags. There was no one in the vehicle, and there were large scratch marks at the top of the door jam.  It appeared as if the door was torn from the car, unrelated to the accident. There was also a small caliber handgun on the passenger seat. A pool of blood filled the driver seat. The blood trailed out of the car and off into the woods.  It looked like it was smeared across the ground.

Was someone shot?  He explained his findings to dispatch and rushed to his squad, arming himself with the car’s 12 gauge shotgun.  

“337 County Sheriff, I'm following the blood trail into the woods,”  Officer Aaron barked, “Tell back up to get here double time. I can’t sit around and wait for them, someone could be in danger.”  

Aaron found it difficult to move through the woods quietly in the swampy terrain.  Visibility was poor, the further in he went, the thicker the fog became.  He found it hard at times to follow the blood trail.  

Ten minutes into his trek, he heard snapping branches and a gurgling sound. Whoever was making the noise was just ahead.  Walking closer he saw the fog lessened slightly, and the blood trail led to a clearing. He ventured into the opening. Seeing a pile of corpses made him freeze, his mouth agape. It took him half a second longer to notice the monster chewing the fingers off a young man on the pile.

The creature was hunched over but Aaron estimated it to be 10 feet tall.  It had white antlers covered in a red slime which dripped and dangled.  Its head resembled a cow’s skull.  It's mouth was crowded unevenly with jagged yellow teeth. The creature’s body was somewhat humanoid, but appeared malnourished.  Vicious claws adorned its hands and feet.  The pale skin on the beast appeared bruised and scarred, but was tightly wrapped around its body, and showed lean muscle underneath. It's legs bent backwards at the knees and its arms were long and thin.

The young man, still alive, looked at Officer Aaron with pleading eyes.  Reaching out to him,  he gasped desperately. Aaron saw the man's legs were twisted in an unnatural pose.  His right leg was being crushed under the foot of the creature while his arm was being slowly devoured.  He began to wriggle vigorously to free himself, but the effort was in vain.  Before Officer Aaron could react, the creature, mildly annoyed by the young man's attempt to escape, pulled upward swiftly, detaching his left arm so his feast could go undisturbed.  The man's eyes rolled back into his head and his body sagged. The young man became another motionless body on the pile.

Terrified, Officer Aaron aimed his shotgun at the creature.  Disrupting the eery silence, his radio squaked.

“337, status check?  Are you okay?”

The creature snapped its attention to Aaron and glared at him. It's milky yellow eyes met with his, and it's bloody lips curled into a snarl.  Aaron panicked and squeezed the trigger, letting fly a shot which grazed the creature’s shoulder.  The beast whined and recoiled from the shot. Quickly returning to it's feet, it bounded sideways and vanished into the shroud of fog. Officer Aaron could hear twigs snapping in the distance, along with a piercing howl which belonged to no animal he could identify.  Consumed by the horror he had just witnessed he swung his weapon left and right, searching for signs of the creature, flinching at every sound.  

After a few long minutes he built up the courage to approach the mangled corpses. Upon further inspection he saw they were arranged in the form of a nest or bed. Dispatch interrupted his observation, demanding a response.  As Aaron was about to reply, he noticed the tattered remnants of a child's blue and white striped shirt.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Matt Habeck

Breaking Free

 

The orderlies, the patients, and especially the doctors, were a part of it. They were all in on it. Everyone!

Ever since I came to this facility I suspected it, but now I was certain. Everyone was here to monitor me. Actors or enforcers, placed here to hide the truth and keep tabs on me. They needed to see how much I knew about the organization and their plans.

I WILL EXPOSE YOUR LIES.

All of my preparations are made. I have assembled a weapon, food, medicine, and other supplies I would need for my escape. My entire month has been spent in anticipation for this day.

NO ONE WILL STOP ME.

This “mental health facility” is a ruse a child could see through. When I walk through the dimly lit hall ways, the other patients stare as I pass them. Whisper as I pass them. Making careful notes about my activities and when they occur, clearly. Amateurs! How obvious!

The orderlies and doctors try to poke me with needles or give me pills. They restrain me when I try to harm myself, which proves they need me alive. Subdued of course, but alive. I am a threat to the organization. They need information from me before I can be discarded.

YOU ARE WEAK AND PREDICTABLE.

I hear slow and careful footsteps approaching my door.

Right on time.

Today my doctor will be bringing me my ‘good behavior meal’ and medication. His hands will be full, leaving him defenceless. I lift up the bottom right corner of my mattress from its resting position on the floor, revealing a wooden chair leg I had stashed. It would make a fine club. I bunched up my sheets on the bed, to make it appear as if I was sleeping.

Grasping the thick, ornate chair leg in my right hand, I waited in the shadow of the door.

The door eased open. As I planned, the doctor’s hands were full. He had a greasy, crumpled fast food bag in his left hand; a small orange container of pills in his right.

“Hey buddy, just checking on you. I got you a burger for lunch an-”

I leaped from behind the door and brought my club crashing down upon the doctor’s head. He whimpered, and blood sprayed from the savage attack. After he fell to the ground, I struck him twice more, dispatching my first oppressor.

SO BEGINS MY MARCH TO FREEDOM.

I removed his shoes and put them on, discarding the cheap slippers I had been given. I put the food and pills in the pillowcase I was using as my supply bag. Before I could move the doctor’s body onto my bed as a decoy, I was discovered.

Two orderlies stood, mouths agape, in the doorway.

“What the fuck did you do?” said the first orderly furiously, clenching his fists.

“He stood in the way of my escape, so I destroyed him. Do you wish to meet the same fate?” I responded menacingly, dropping the doctor’s corpse.

“I’m calling the police, you aren’t going anywhere!” the second orderly threatened, as he looked down at the cell phone in his hand.

I howled and leapt at the second orderly, distracted by his phone. Idiot! My club connected with his temple and he collapsed to the ground in a heap.

The first orderly grabbed my right arm with both hands. His grip was strong, but his close combat training was lacking. I shifted my foot position, and turned to face him. I plunged the fingers of my left hand into his eyes, bursting them like grapes.

He screamed in agony and released my arm, allowing me to finish him easily. I collected my pillowcase and prepared to depart.

NOW FOR THE NEXT STEP.

A crowd of patients had assembled in the hall outside my room, murmuring in fear and curiosity.

I stepped over the bodies and scanned the rabble. Judging by their reactions, physically restraining me was probably above their pay grade…

“Go ahead and stare! Take notes even! But if you get in my way… I won’t hesitate!” I barked.

The crowd gasped, murmured, and shuffled out of my way. This cleared a path to the common room, which was my next objective. I bolted down the hall towards it.

Entering the room, I briefly observed my surroundings for threats. Patients rested their feeble bodies against the walls for support. A lone orderly stood near the entrance double doors.

He noticed the blood on my hands and club. He heaved a worried sigh and cracked his knuckles. I let my pillowcase fall to the floor and pointed my club at him, smiling dangerously.

I ACCEPT YOUR CHALLENGE.

“How much is your life worth? Would you die for the organization?” I taunted.

“What the fuck are you talking about? Organization? Who did you hurt?”

I found his mock confusion insulting.

“A doctor and two orderlies opposed me. Do you oppose me as well?”

My heart raced. My body prepared for battle.

“Doctor Kinsler? You hurt him? He runs this place for people like you… You ungrateful homeless bastard…”

Before he could continue I charged him. He panicked, reflexively raising his arms to protect his face. Fool!

I used the opportunity to swing my club with all my might into the side of his knee. The force of the blow shattered my weapon. He fell clutching his injury, and I tossed the remnants of my club at him. He begged for his life.

“If you wish to live after what you’ve done, I need information.” I stated plainly, walking back to retrieve the pillowcase of supplies.

“Sure! Whatever! Just don’t kill me!” he pleaded.

SPINELESS COWARD.

“How many other facilities like this exist?” I demanded.

“I don’t fucking know, New York is huge! This is just an old shipping warehouse we converted into a homeless shelter!” he stammered.

“You know what I mean, facilities run by the organization!” I roared.

“What organization? Dude I have no idea what you mean, I just volunteer here!”

I was unsatisfied by his answers, but decided against killing him.

“I will leave, and you can live, on the condition that you tell your superiors that I will stop their plans. The organization will not subjugate me any longer!”

“Sure, I’ll tell them! Please just go…”

“Consider yourself lucky, and try to find an honest line of work, you scum.”

I spat on the wounded orderly as I walked to the exit. A patient appeared behind me and grabbed my arm, I turned to strike him.

“Wait! It’s not my duty to try and stop you, but I want you to know you will never defeat them. No one will believe you.”

He smiled eerily and released my arm.

I decided to let him survive this insult. He didn’t pose a physical threat to me, and I didn’t have time to waste punishing him.

As I exited the facility, I saw that it was in fact disguised as a shipping warehouse. Nearby were cargo ships being filled with trade goods. Piles of shipping containers were being moved by cranes onto the massive freighters. I snuck into an open cargo container, and hid behind a few boxes. I could rest here and collect my thoughts.

Less than ten minutes later I felt the container lifting into the air, guided to its resting place on the ship. A couple of hours after that, the ship departed for its destination, my escape flawless and complete.

FREEDOM IS MINE. FOR NOW.

 

Epilogue

 

“Larry Price here with the Channel 11 Evening News. Tonight’s story is about a deranged homeless man who tragically ended the lives of several volunteer workers. One of the victims was Dr. Terrance Kinsler, a local hero and philanthropist who established several homeless shelters in the area. Truly a sad day. More on this story after a word from our sponsors.”

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

MAD TOWN

The Apartment

Tom heaved a sigh as he attempted to rise from his comfortably seated position. He certainly wasn’t in his 20’s anymore, hell, he wasn’t even in his 30’s, and smoking from age 16 had not been easy on him either. Add that to my list of bad decisions Tom thought.

The debris from the last 13 hours of being in the same battered lounge chair surrounded him. This mostly consisted of empty snack wrappers, a myriad of beer cans, and a full ashtray. His dirty clothes from the previous day had not left the scene yet either. Tom slipped them on, and attempted to navigate his way to the coffee table.

God this place is a dump, Tom mused to himself. There was once a pleasant off white carpeting for a floor. Now the trash made it look dirtier than the streets outside. The walls were stained from beer/mystery liquid spills. He was sure he had some kind of colony of insects living in here; as any food he set out mysteriously disappeared after a few days. The roach carcasses could also be a tell-tale sign… Tom pondered for the millionth time about hiring an exterminator. I’ll do it tomorrow.

After delicately tiptoeing through the landfill that was his apartment Tom reached the coffee table. On it, were the possessions a man of Tom’s nature cannot leave the house without; a mostly empty pack of chewing gum, a can of deodorant body spray, his lucky (and disgusting) denim jacket, a lighter, and a pack of cigarettes. The gum and the spray helped fight the trash heap smell he acquired from living in this hole. It allowed him to walk around the outside world without instantly attracting attention for his aroma. As long as he didn’t stay in one place too long, or talk to anyone, he was ok. About the jacket, well, he had had that denim jacket for so many years he couldn’t even remember how he got it. Washing clothes takes money Tom didn’t often feel like spending; so the jacket, among other things, tended to be in the same condition as the apartment. The lighter and cigarettes were just there, as always, to take part in the military campaign to defeat Tom’s lungs once and for all.

He stepped outside. His eyes squinted automatically. It wasn’t particularly sunny out, just a regular summer day in Madison, Wisconsin; but his troglodyte existence made that red thing in the sky rather annoying. Oh well, the landlord didn’t have enough patience to let things like that get in the way. Tom was on his way to the bank, to withdraw this next month’s rent/random expense money.

After a few minutes of brisk walking (to shorten the necessary time he needed to be out in public) he reached the doors of the bank and stopped. He glanced at the reflection in the polished glass window. His greasy black hair seemed plopped helter-skelter on top of his head. Using both hands he slicked it back, wiping the residue on his already filthy jeans. His pit-stained white T-shirt looked as bad as it always did. You can only fix so much, Tom sneered at his imperfect figure. Pushing the glass door open, he entered the bank.

 

The Bank

He took cautious steps to the teller, there would be no avoiding conversation.

“Um… hi…” Tom muttered.

“Hey there! What can I do for you today sir?” The peppy man answered.

“Withdraw.” Tom whispered.

“Speak up please, I can’t help you if I can’t hear you!”

Tom sighed in frustration.

“Um, I want to take out money.”

“Name and account number?”

“Tom Keen, uh…thirty four, seventy seven, nine.”

“Okey Dokey, how much did you want to take?”

“$650.00”

“Whoa, easy tiger! You gotta put that much IN the account before you can withdraw it! There’s only thirty some cents left in here!”

The teller was still wearing his cheery at-work smile. Tom wanted none of it. Thoughts of his landlord pounding on his door with an eviction notice popped into his head. Nervousness became fear, fear became dread, dread became panic.

Tom bolted for the door, running into a few unlucky bank customers on his way. He wasn’t entirely sure where he was going, but he knew exactly where he wasn’t. He’d lay low for a while, let the whole rent thing blow over, and give the landlord the money soon…ish.

The Alley

Tom’s random sprint was cut short by his sickly lungs. To avoid further attention, he ducked into an empty alley between two large apartment buildings to wheeze and cough in private.

As his breath slowly returned to him he decided to really think things over. He needed to relax. He needed a plan. Tom reached in his pocket. He needed… a cigarette. Nothing calms the nerves like shortening your life. After a few moments of rummaging his hands found the object of desire.

The cigarette pack seemed a little light, which worried Tom. He absent mindedly flicked open the lid with his right thumb and reached for a smoke with the left hand. When the five finger search party came back with nothing, Tom glanced at the pack; the partially crushed, but more importantly, empty,pack. He let his right hand go limp and the pack fell to the pavement.

“Oh, this is just lovely!” Tom moaned.

A passerby heard his complaint and stopped at the entrance of the alley.

“What’s wrong, dude?”  The college student asked.

Tom studied the young man for a second, wondering if he should expose his current weakness to this complete stranger.

His blonde hair and leather jacket shined in the sunlight. His book bag was slung nonchalantly over his right shoulder, it looked far from full. A cellphone occupied his left hand, an ambiently smoldering cigarette in the other.

Seeing the cigarette in his hand, Tom decided to take the chance.

“I… um, I have no money for rent, and I'm out of, uh, cigarettes.” Tom grumbled.

The student’s look of mild concern was replaced with the smirk of opportunity.

“Normally I wouldn’t mind giving one away, but seeing as this is my last one, I need you to do me a huge favor… Interested?”

Tom considered his options. Not too many people offer smokes for free anymore, but this one seemed far from generous. Tom could only imagine the humiliating things this kid was going to have him do. But once he had that cigarette, he would be one step closer to getting out of this whole mess, so the end may justify the means.

“What do you, uh, want me to do?”

“You know the pawn shop two blocks from here?”

“Yea… sure…” Tom lied.

“Some guy mugged me, you see, and stole my watch. It was polished chrome in color, and the hands were gold. It’s worth a lot of money, a family heirloom. The numbers are silver roman numerals, and it has the initials ‘SS’ in the center. He sold it there for $200. I’ve been trying to get it back for a while now, but the pawn dude expects me to pay $600 for it. I refuse to pay him for my own property; and I went to the police and they haven’t done shit. So I scoped the place out. No cameras, and the clerk goes out for a ten minute smoke basically every three hours. Once he does that the watch is completely unguarded. Get it for me, and you can have your cig; and $500 for your trouble. Not to mention all the other things you could grab while you’re at it. We have a deal?”

Something about the college kid’s heartbreaking story didn’t quite move Tom. But the cigarette, $500, and possible other loot would put him well on his way to paying back his landlord.

“Hmm… We just might.” Tom admitted, his desperation must have been obvious.

The opportunist’s smirk became a devil’s smile.

“Glad to hear it… It’s just about four now, meet back here in exactly three hours, got it?” His tone was now demanding, no longer concerned.

The Pawnshop

After the deal was forged by a handshake Tom set off. The instructions the kid had given him were vague at best, so he was heading in the pawnshop’s general direction.

Twenty minutes of aimless wandering later, he found it. “Mad Town Pawn” was the building’s name. The sign’s neon lights were half busted, bricks or rocks had seen to that. The squat one story building was heavily tattooed with the local gang’s graffiti as well; mad town indeed.

Tom’s game plan thus far was go inside, look at the many wares the establishment had to offer, then go back outside and wait for our friend the clerk to have that fateful smoke. Slick, Tom thought. I can be slick

Tom eased open the door, and was startled by the bell that rang as he entered. The bell also seemed to awaken a behemoth behind the counter… wait…THAT’S THE CLERK!?!

Tom spun on his heel and was out of there before he had taken two steps. He leaned against the shop’s outside wall and slid into a seated position on the ground, panting out of fear.

He thought about what he had just seen. It looked like an ox with a name tag. He was huge. Like… a biker in an apron… He smiled at the image. How funny would it be if…

No time for that. Slick wasn’t going to cut it. The bruiser behind the counter could crush his skull with one hand, so there was no chance of winning a fight. Running wasn’t really an option, what with his polluted lungs. He would have to be slick beyond slick. Like… 007 slick. Yea… Operation Watch Heist 2013’ is in progress.

 

The Crime

Tom re-entered the building.

“What’s with you?” The beast grunted.

His handlebar moustache squirmed around his words, temples pulsing as he spoke. His beady eyes regarded Tom suspiciously.

“I…uh… dropped my wallet, yeah…” Tom managed.

“Whatever.” The muscle clerk barked.

Tom was in a frenzy of thought. How do I turn this around, make myself seem just like any old customer? What would James Bond do? Then he had it.

“Small talk…” Tom whispered with a tone of accomplishment.

“You say sumthin?” The clerk put down the raunchy magazine he was leafing through.

Think fast Tom…

“Nice… uh… weather we’re having…” Tom stole a glance at the nametag on the ogre’s apron, “Steve…” Tom peeped.

“Well it ain’t rainin…” Steve replied as he picked up his magazine of choice once more, losing all interest in Tom’s existence.

Success!Now to find that watch…

For the most part, the interior of the shop reflected the outside. The bare drywall was about the same grimy shade as Tom’s apartment, stained by years of neglect and filth. The back wall was just the other side of the brick from the exterior, held together by crumbling mortar.

The wares on the shelves were appropriate, considering the setting. A few reliable looking tools, some clothes that had been nice once; but for the most part, it was all kind of cheap transient looking junk that people seem to accumulate throughout their lives.

Minutes later, the watch presented itself. It was sitting in a clear display case, close to the counter of the shop; the clerk’s roost.

Since Tom had found his prey, he just had to wait out the clerk. Tom began taking steps towards the door when he noticed Steve glancing at his watch.

The monster set down his magazine, fidgeted with something under the counter, reached his hands into his pockets, and left out the back door for his smoke break.

Excellent! Tom bolted for the display case. It was covered on all sides but the back with glass, so Tom would have to venture behind the clerk’s counter to get to it. Next to the watch was an assortment of jewelry and baubles varying in quality and size.

If Tom were to say, throw of few of those in his pocket along with the watch, he might be out of debt sooner rather than later… An idea to toss around, certainly.

As Tom rounded the corner of the counter he saw what looked to be a pistol holster, partially concealed by the lip of the counter itself. Where did the pistol go? Did someone rip that off too? Tom chuckled to himself as he grasped his target, the watch.

Tom felt a large paw grab him by the shoulder and spin him around. The butt of a pistol collided with his face and he blacked out.

 

The Punishment

The sound of Bon Jovi on the radio woke up Tom. He hated Bon Jovi…

A bright light assaulted his eyes. He tried to squint, but was met with a stabbing pain. His left eye had nearly swollen shut from the impact of the gun. He was in an otherwise dark room, which made the light most uncomfortable.

Steve was holding a flashlight in his right hand, pointing it at Tom’s eyes. With his left hand, he lifted Tom up by the front of his shirt.

Tom seemed to have been in a bathroom, in an apartment… How did he get here?

Before Tom could generate an answer he was thrown onto a battered couch, and landed on his back.  

Tom sat up. Steve pulled up a lawn chair nearby and sat on it, facing Tom. It was now that Tom noticed the pistol jutting out of Steve’s right pants pocket.

Steve glared at Tom, and finally spoke.

“You wait here; I’ll be right back… Try anything funny and I will beat you within an inch of your life.”

With that Steve got up from the chair, stomped towards the door and opened it. A few more steps got him to the other side of the hall.

With his large fists he slammed on his neighbor’s door. He then got into a loud and vicious verbal battle with the female resident, about the volume of the Bon Jovi, it seemed.

Tom took this opportunity to check out his surroundings, see if there was any way of getting out alive.

The walls were a shade of tan, with no decorations save for a couple of pin ups, presumably from Steve’s naughty magazines. The floor was a dark green carpeting, and dust erupted at every footstep. It must have been ages since it was last vacuumed. The couch he was seated on was against the front wall, with the door maybe a foot to the right of it. To the right of the door, was the entrance to the unlit bathroom.

Against the wall opposite the entrance to the apartment was a large TV tray, with burn marks and cigarette butts adorning it. A hefty red and gray pipe wrench sat atop that mess. Near the tray was the tacky green and white striped lawn chair Steve had sat in. To the left of the TV tray was an old television, with a bent up clothes hanger for a hat. Still to the left of that, on the wall perpendicular to Tom’s couch was an open window, which didn’t even have a screen. It just let all the air and adventurous bugs inside. In front of the window sill was an air conditioning unit that looked like it fell from the window more than a few times. That would explain the window being open. To the left of the couch Tom sat in was one of those mini refrigerators, on top of a well scratched wooden coffee table. Other than the window, there seemed to be no easy way out.

Tom grabbed the wrench, and slipped it into the inside left pocket of his lucky jacket. Until this very moment, Tom had never used that “useless” pocket…

I guess it was good for something after all. Tom said with a reluctant smile. But this wasn’t a time to reminisce.

From the TV tray he skulked to the window, thinking he might be able to jump down, or at least yell for help. He really didn’t think, even with his newly acquired weapon, that he would stand much of a chance fighting that brute.  

As he reached it he figured the second of the two window options would be better. He wasn’t too high up, second story, maybe only 20 feet or so, but it still wasn’t safe jumping distance, especially onto the unforgiving concrete below. It was getting dark out now, nearly… He looked for a clock, and found one hanging above the TV. 10 PM.

“Hmm… I wonder what college kid is going to do now…” Tom said to no one in particular.

Tom’s train of thought was derailed by the abrupt stop of the music across the hall. The woman’s door slammed, and if it wasn’t busted before it definitely was now. Tom guessed Steve had shut her door, with all the grace of the Incredible Hulk. Tom hurriedly returned to the couch.

Steve ripped open his apartment door, and it rebounded off the arm of the couch as it hit. He must have been expecting this, because he blocked its riposte with his open palm.

“God damn lady and her god damn kid think they own the place, think they can play their music as loud as they fucking please!” Steve shouted to Tom as if he was expecting agreement. Finding none, he continued anyway, “Well, anyhow, I showed her, I slammed her door so hard I bet it’s jammed!” Some throaty grunts and squeals were strung together after this statement; it took Tom a second to realize it must have been laughter.

Steve returned to his seat after closing his own door, rather delicately, Tom noted.

“Well, back to business. I brought you here because you can’t really trust the cops. They start asking all these damn questions, like ‘are you a felon?’ ‘you got a license for that firearm?’ and stuff like that, bothers the hell out of me. So lately what I been doing to people of your nature is rough ‘em up a bit, and send ‘em on their way, lesson learned.”

Tom absentmindedly nodded.

“But you were a bit of a special case, see. Someone else has been hot after that watch, and if I’m right, you’re the third person he sent to steal it.” Steve’s eyes once more seemed to scan Tom, looking for a reaction. He must have found it.

“That college boy… right? Leather jacket?” Steve growled. Steve’s emphasis on the “r” in ‘right’ made the whole sentence a lot scarier to Tom. He was guaranteed to be in physical danger if his answer wasn’t what this man wanted to hear.

Tom didn’t respond at first, wondering whether he should tell the truth, or say that he was acting alone. But he couldn’t really think of a reason to defend the college kid… so Tom went into survival mode, and explained the whole story; starting from the rent issue, hoping for an ounce of pity from his barbarian captor.

“And for the record… um… Steve… I had no idea a man of your… uh… stature… was the clerk. If I didn’t need the money so bad I… well I… really wouldn’t have tried anything so… um…”

“Stupid?” Steve offered.

“Yeah…” Tom finished. The pity Tom had been hoping for was found, in a far larger quantity than anticipated.

“I suppose I see where you’re coming from… I’ve had my share of hard times myself. And I did get you with the butt of the gun pretty good. I guess you can go.”

Steve’s whole person had mellowed quite a bit, especially his facial expression. While he was still immensely intimidating, Tom didn’t feel like he was in danger anymore. The “I’m going to kill you” eyes had gone back to wherever Steve hides them. He seemed… almost apologetic.

Tom slowly stood up, making sure his movements didn’t seem too shady. He thought of returning the wrench, but he also didn’t want to wade back into the danger he was just in; so he decided against it. Tom began his slow trudge towards the door, to freedom and life itself, it seemed…

Tom reached for the handle, grasped it… Turned it… Almost opened the door, when some yelling outside, easily audible via the window, distracted him.

 

The Inferno

“You there, Steve?” shouted a man outside. His tone was arrogant, cocky. He was trying to entice Steve to the window.

Steve, the testosterone filled being that he is, rose from the lawn chair with a smug look on his face, as though he had just accepted the challenge of the unknown person. He strutted to the window and leaned out.

“What is it you need?” He shouted back, sounding ready for a fight.

“My watch, asshole.” The voice responded.

Could it be the college guy?

Tom walked behind Steve, and did his best to scoot next to him. In doing so, Tom caught a glimpse of the man outside. Sure enough, there he was, illuminated by the glow of a streetlight, varsity jacket and all. At his feet were three beer bottles, all of which had soaked rags hanging out of the neck. Molotov cocktails?

“Then gimme six hundred bucks.” Steve taunted.

“One last chance bro… Give me my watch.” The college student threatened as he reached for a bottle.

“Six hundred dollars or go fuck yourself kid.” Steve yelled, and triumphantly spun around to go sit back down. Tom went back to heading for the door.

The distinct click of a lighter and a grunt from outside made Tom glance behind him.

“HOLY SHIT STEVE DUCK!!” Tom shouted in horror.

Steve hit the floor just in time to avoid the fiery projectile as it arced in through the window. While it did miss Steve, it still delivered its hellish payload.

The bottle smashed into the side of the mini fridge, bathing the carpet nearby and couch in flames.

Steve sprang to his feet and shoved Tom out of his way. Tom landed face down, the wrench pressing against his ribs.

Steve flung the door open and was never seen again by Tom.

As Tom began to roll onto his side he saw another Molotov cocktail soar through the open window. This one hit the side of the TV and sprayed its contents onto the wall behind it.

At this point the heat was nearly unbearable, and the fire was quickly rolling through the carpet towards Tom. Smoke was pouring out of the window.

Tom got to his feet and bolted out of the door, and the fire alarm sounded. He looked up and down the hall, and there was a stairway on either end. He was on the front end (side closest to the street, the opposite stairwell led to an alley), in the room closest to the stairs on the left side. As he bounded down the stairs he heard the whimpers of frightened residents as they departed their rooms and began racing for exits.

Tom ran full bore down the two flights of white washed concrete stairs, and out of the front entrance into safety.

A crowd had already gathered, maybe more than a hundred people, all with worry or thrill as their expression.

He looked up, and saw flames erupting and smoke billowing out of a room to the left of the stairway on the second story; must be Steve’s apartment…

People poured out of the entrance, all with looks of relief, but pangs of regret for lost possessions and a place to call home.

The residents retreating from the fire must have all made it out ok, as no more people emerged; it had been almost seven minutes since it started. Tom was still close to the door, he had to catch his breath after the exertion.

The Woman

Suddenly, on the opposite side of the stairwell from Steve’s room, a window flew open. Smoke streamed out for a second or two, then someone leaned out through the noxious cloud.

The woman, maybe in her late 20’s, early 30’s, it was hard to tell with all the soot on her face and in her hair, was fighting for a clean breath of air.

After a moment of choking, she cried,

“PLEASE SOMEONE!! THE DOOR! IT WON’T OPEN, OH GOD SOMEONE SAVE US! MY SON AND I ARE TRAPPED!!!”

Tears streamed down the woman’s cheeks, washing parallel trails of sorrow and desperation through the soot. A simultaneous gasp was shared by the crowd of about 300 onlookers.

Someone’s going to save her… right?

Tom looked around, going from face to face. Many of the observers were moved, some to tears, but none made any signs of going to her aid.

Why isn’t anyone doing anything?

Tom returned his gaze to her, but this time, she looked directly at him, eyes pleading, and mouthed one single word.

 

…Please…

 

A voice in Tom’s head then spoke, whispering sweetly,

“It’s your time, Tom. She needs you.”

The first tear Tom had shed in close to 20 years drifted slowly down his face. He turned around to address some of the escaped residents behind him.

“Give me a handkerchief, or bandana! To cover my mouth! Either will work!” Tom ordered, voice full of command and emotion.

Of the people closest to Tom, a few older gentlemen reached in their back pockets and presented him with what he asked for.

He grabbed the closest one, a rugged white handkerchief. He began tying it around his head to cover his mouth.

“You aren’t seriously going in there, are you?” one of the older men asked.

Without responding he finished tying the last knot and ran through the open door.

The Savior

Tom rounded the corner and sped up the stairs, which, other than the intense heat, seemed free of smoke and damage, but then again concrete isn’t known to burn…

He reached the second floor and looked down the hall… It was like peering into a hellscape. There was a solid foot of smoke hovering near the ceiling, there were patches of floor that had been lost to fire, and the left wall, (Steve’s side) was completely aflame. Burning wallpaper peeled and took flight, like a combination of campfire embers and falling leaves. Tom then noticed the one door that remained closed, the closest door on the right.

Rushing for the door, he instinctively reached for the handle.

He cursed loudly and withdrew his right hand upon contact, as it was now singed. The door handle was quite hot from the nearby flame. Then he remembered the door was stuck anyway…

“Is someone out there?” a young child’s voice wheezed.

“Yes! I’m going to save you and your mother!” Tom shouted over the noise of the fire.

“Please hurry!” the voice begged.

“Get away from the door!” Tom instructed.

He took a few steps back, and threw his shoulder into the door. He rebounded off the door and hit the wall of flame behind him.

Tom cried out in pain and he felt the hair on the back of his head burn, and the back of his jacket catch fire. He swatted the back of his head and threw off his jacket.

When it hit the floor, it made a muffled thunk… The wrench!

Tom stamped out the flame on his jacket and grasped the wrench with both hands. Using his right hand would have been agonizing, but he was purely on will power and adrenaline at this point.  

He held the wrench above his head, like an executioner’s axe, and swung at the door.

The strike wasn’t as fruitful as Tom had imagined. A small, fist sized hole was created in the center of the door; which smoke now oozed out of.

Tom decided that striking the handle and area around it could be what needs to be done.

The handle looked on the verge of destruction, but so did the hallway. The smoke was now obstructing Tom’s vision and the heat was making him light headed, and the exposed skin on his arms and head was now hairless, with a light shade of red from the intense heat.

With a focus Tom did not know he possessed, he prepared for the next swing. He channeled all of his will into this strike, it made a perfect arc. It connected with the handle, and struck true.

He dropped the wrench and flung himself at the door one last time. The lock gave way and he fell to the ground inside the woman’s apartment.

Smoke gusted out of the room, there had been nearly four feet of it at the ceiling. Tom, now on his knees, frantically looked around the room. Near the window, were two people, maybe dead, hopefully unconscious; the mother and child.

He crawled towards them, hoping against hope he hadn’t been too late. He scooped up the boy, who was maybe 5 or 6, under his right arm. He then put the woman, who was of slight build, over his left shoulder, in a fireman’s carry.

He stood up, but was forced back to kneeling. The smoke ravaged his eyes and throat.

There’s no other way Tom said to himself, you need to do this

He stood for a second time, wincing from the abrasive haze, and began to run towards the stairs.

No sooner had he vacated the room, when the ceiling above the apartment fell in, shooting ash and flame out the door.

A fresh wave of pain hit Tom, as the back of his pants legs burned right through, exposing the now scorched flesh. He turned left and was at the stairs.

They presented a challenge, because of his awkward cargo, but Tom, muscles aching, blood boiling, persevered.

He kicked open the entrance door and handed off the mother and child to the nearest bystanders. Beyond the masses, Tom could see that the firefighters had just reached the scene.

“Oh my god! He did it! The guy that ran in there saved them!” The handkerchief donor shouted. Thunderous cheers and applause surged from the crowd.

Tom smiled weakly, coughed heavily, and passed out. As he fell forward, adoring hands rushed to catch him.

The Glory

Tom awoke in a hospital. He almost completely was wrapped in gauze, like a modern mummy. The doctor’s eyes lit up as he observed Tom’s consciousness.

“The hero awakens! What’s your name sir?” The doctor greeted Tom warmly.

“Tom…” he rasped.

The doctor, standing to the right of his bed, was a pleasant looking fellow, a bit plump, with some gray invading his sleek black hair. His glasses made his eyes look a bit large, which made Tom smile.

Tom then glanced over to the left, where a woman and a boy were—THEY LIVED! Tom couldn’t think of a happier moment in his life. A fresh set of tears ran down his face.

The woman again met his gaze, and shared his joy. She put her delicate hand on his mummified one, and whispered between sobs

“…There’s no way I can ever repay you for what you’ve done. You are amazing; you sacrificed so much to save my son and I. Thank you, thank you so much, Tom…”

The boy then stood beside his mother, and said,

“Mister, when I grow up, I wanna be just like you.”

Tom didn’t know what to think. No one had ever… looked up to him before.

A sudden pain in Tom’s chest ruined the moment, the doctor started shouting for nurses and the room began to spin.

After a few more weeks in the hospital, Tom was released. He was missing all his facial hair, his skin looked like he had a bad case of sunburn, but he was in clean clothes.

No sooner had he left the hospital when all kinds of local news agencies began interviewing him, and his story kicked off his fifteen minutes of fame.

After a few further weeks of living in prepaid hotel rooms and eating free food, he got tired of all the attention, and went home.

The Return

He then wondered if his landlord would still kick his ass for not paying… well, now it was two months’ rent. Tom had nowhere else to go, so he headed back to his old apartment.

As he walked down the decaying sidewalk towards his building, a baby blue convertible pulled up next to him. He looked at it briefly and thought,

I’d recognize that car anywhere… It was his landlord.

“Hey Tom, you looking to stay here again?” the landlord inquired, looking a bit like a mobster from the 30’s with his sport coat and cigar.

“Well… uh… I have nowhere else to go…” Tom mumbled.

“No worries man, you deserve a break. I heard about what you did, saving those folks. Good stuff. Just get the cash to me when you can, ok?”

“…Seriously?” Tom asked, dumbfounded.

“Of course! In fact, is there anything else I can do for you?”

Tom pondered for a moment.

“Could I have a cigarette?”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

Not Worth The Risk

Big Pine Key, Florida

12:24 PM

The ferry was nearly packed with survivors at this point, the 150 or so from the tourist village, a few locals, and some UN peacekeepers. It was preparing to pull away from the dock.

“C’mon! Run goddamn it!” Hank shouted desperately at his son, who was carrying a wounded tourist on his back.

The sand on the beach was slowing him down, and tourist would surely bleed out if he didn’t get medical attention immediately. His “vacationy” Hawaiian shirt was soaked in blood. The dock was close, maybe 20 yards away, but there was no way they would make it in time.

The last three peacekeepers on the dock boarded the ship, and it set off.

Once Hank realized the ship wouldn’t be making a return trip, he knew he couldn’t abandon his son. No man should leave his son to die.

Hank scrambled over the boat’s railing and plunged into the ocean. Though he was in his 40’s he was pretty fit for his age, being a police officer for 23 years helped. He didn’t have any trouble hoisting himself over the guard rail. The passengers near him gasped in unison as he leapt, not knowing that he was propelled by something much stronger than the survival instinct. He wasn’t too far from shore he figured, maybe a few minutes’ swim. At least this way Will wouldn’t be alone in his final moments…

 

12:43 PM

Upon seeing the ship depart, Will fell to his knees, agitating the white sand beneath him, and wept. The man he was carrying would surely die, but he would probably be the lucky one…

“I’m going to die alone… be killed by… them…“ he whispered to himself.

Tears welled in Will’s eyes as he considered his predicament. He rolled the thought around in his head a few times, but saying it… seemed to make it more real… more terrifying…  

He turned away from the beach, not wanting to even think about the chance he had, or the fact that his own father had forsaken him. He now faced the tourist village; which was all but deserted now.

As the waves came in and out on the shore, Will didn’t hear the footsteps behind him.

A wet hand grasped his shoulder, and someone was panting loudly. Will cringed and prepared to meet his end.  

“You didn’t... honestly think… I’d leave you… here, did you?” Hank wheezed, exhausted from the swim to shore; the boat was further out than he thought.

“Oh my god! Dad! You came back!” Will exclaimed as he stood and embraced his father.

Their reunion was cut short by the roar of a humvee as it tore around the corner of the shorefront area of the tourist lot; it was now racing towards the dock.

Inside were four men, three peacekeepers, and a local. The driver, a stocky man, with piercing grey eyes and spastic red hair creeping out from underneath the UN beret, was white knuckling the steering wheel. The passenger, a thin, weaslley man with a pencil mustache and short black hair, was anxiously smoking a cigarette. The gunner, a man of medium build with brown hair, was scanning back and forth behind them with the humvee’s 50 cal turret. They skidded to a halt near the dock.

The gunner stayed on the turret, but the three others got out of the hummer and began to yell at one another.

“SEE WHAT YOU’VE GONE AND DONE?! THE FUCKING SHIP LEFT WITHOUT US!” The passenger screamed at the driver.

“Shut up Baker! We couldn’t have just left him to die… what the hell kind of peacekeepers would we be? We’re here to help these people, and by god we will! The ship will come back for us, have a little faith!”

“If we had left him there they wouldn’t be coming after us!” The mustached peacekeeper retorted, tossing his cigarette butt on the white sand.

“Enough of this! We need to get back there! There have to be more survivors! We can’t waste time arguing, every second we waste means more dead, more of them…” The local interjected.

“He’s right, if you could get your head out of your ass you’d see that.” The gunner added snappily.

“Fine! Whatever! I’ll stay here and guard the dock. You go die in whatever way you see fit. If I’m not here when you come back, if you come back, it’s because I left on THE ONLY WAY OFF THE DAMN ISLAND.” Upon yelling the last bit, he grabbed his rifle from the humvee and stomped off towards the dock, binoculars swaying around his neck.

Hank and Will ran towards the humvee, carrying the wounded tourist.

“Excuse me! We’re… um, survivors! But I’d like to help with rescuing others. Could we come with you?” Will asked.

At the sound of Will’s voice, Private Baker turned and aimed his gun at the father and son; his weapon shaking out of nervousness.

“We need to kill them! Look at that, the kid has to be infected! All that blood…” he hissed crazily.

“Jesus man! Calm down! Boy, are you injured?” The local asked, while pulling a bloody machete slowly out of its sheath.

“No, the blood is from this man, he’s still alive… but barely. He was bitten so many times…” Will responded quietly as he flashed back to the moment and shuddered.

“Kill them anyway, just to be sure. Can’t risk it…” Baker muttered as he steadied his aim at Will.

The gunner swung the 50 cal turret around to face Baker.

“Drop the rifle.” The gunner growled menacingly.

“Are you fucking serious?!” Baker exclaimed as he threw down his rifle. The local retrieved the weapon and slung it on his shoulder.

“Baker, if you want to wait for the next boat take this walkie-talkie, stay with the wounded tourist and guard the dock, we don’t have time to sit here and bitch.” said the driver as he addressed the group, “The rest of you divide up the weapons we have and get in the humvee; there’s got to be more survivors out there…”

“Isn’t that the rescue force’s job?” Baker complained, as he put his hand on his last remaining weapon, his bayonet.

“For the time being we are the rescue force…” The driver said worriedly.

1:04 PM

The humvee rolled smoothly on the empty road; it would be a good ten minute drive until they reached the next tourist village.

Will gazed longingly at the abandoned vehicles they passed on their way, hoping that the former occupants made it onto the ferry, or at least had the sense to stay put.

The local, wanting to end the uneasy silence, looked at Hank and broke the ice.

“Hey, names’ Cal, what’s yours?” he said as he reached out his hand.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Hank, and this is my son William.” he replied, gesturing towards Will and shaking Cal’s extended hand.

“Call me Will.”  William corrected.

“Nice to meet you Will.” Cal replied warmly.

“How ‘bout you, driver man, what’s your name?” Cal inquired.

“I’m—“

“Stop, I saw movement!” the gunner interrupted.

As the hummer slowed, Will saw it too; something was definitely moving inside the dingy red pickup on the left shoulder of the road.

The pickup’s passenger door was ajar, there was blood on the seats, and the truck was shaking ever so slightly.

“This has to be ghoul’s work…” Cal muttered quietly.

As the humvee came to a stop, a decrepit head snapped up from behind the pickup’s dashboard. Blood seeped from its clenched teeth. It turned and addressed the humvee.

It looked to be a foul parody of a tourist; a man, but with brown leathery skin and soulless eyes, yellow teeth and fingernails. The Hawaiian shirt and lei seemed out of place on this creature, as its gore soaked hands clutched an unidentifiable piece of its most recent victim.

“What the fu—“

Deafening chatter from the machine gun cut off Hank’s exclamation. The pickup was doused with bullets as the 50 cal sprang to life.

The brief spray was all it took; the truck was annihilated, along with its devilish passenger.

1:18 PM

The humvee resumed its 40 or so mph pace towards the tourist village.

 “That,” the gunner explained, “is the reason the United Nations is here. The briefing said something about a Russian/Cuban biological warfare program from the 60’s that went on in a bunker on the island. Apparently the KGB killed everyone who knew of its existence, and ever since the place was abandoned everything was kept hush hush. “

“But what the hell was that thing?!” Will demanded.

“What exactly was the project they were working on?” Hank asked.

“We don’t know and we don’t know…” The gunner replied solemnly “But what I can tell you is that help is on the way, we will be rescued, and the island will be cleansed.”

“How comforting…” Hank scoffed.

Two fighter jets broke the sound barrier above them, racing in the direction on the dock.

“See what I’m saying? The cavalry is coming to-“ the gunner was abruptly interrupted by an explosion in the distance behind them.

The driver grabbed his walkie-talkie.

“What the fuck was that Baker?!” the driver asked nervously.

A moment of static was followed panicked breathing before Baker responded.

“They… oh my God… the fighters… they sank the ferry!”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

Nature’s Kindness

 

The sun hung lazily above the trees. The sky was clear, blue, and beautiful. It was another perfect day for peaceful contemplation.

All around me the forest's many creatures went about their daily spring activities. Bees hurried from flower to flower. Squirrels scampered in their cedar towers over head. Birds filled the quiet afternoon with their lovely songs.

The family I nurtured had long since moved on. Initially this threw me into emotional turmoil. My son was murdered, and his mother and I couldn’t seem to keep it together. When she left me, I retreated further and further into the forest. I exchanged all I had known for a sense of belonging that could only be found in solitude. It was here that I began to find meaning for my life, and some form of inner peace.

Mother Nature accepted me, and never judged me for my shortcomings. She always provided for me. The small amount I needed from her, I promised to return once my time on Earth was done.

A low, mechanical growl disrupted the forest's natural symphony. It grew louder before it silenced. It was unusual to have company, and I was curious as to the reason for the visit. I went to investigate.

As I skulked near the edge of the clearing, I saw a large red truck. Three men exited the vehicle. They smelled of sweat, smoke, and alcohol. Each of them carried a rifle.

“I’m telling you, I saw him on the trail cam. He’s here.” said a bearded man with an orange hat.

“Well this is my fucking land, so if we find him, he’ll answer to me! It’s not like he’s paying rent.” replied the second, a man with a brown leather vest.

“Oh relax, even if we don’t find him, we have plenty of beer.” said the last man jovially, tossing a can to the other two. He wore a blue bandana to cover his receding hair line.

They were up to no good, but if I make a break for it now I could probably avoid trouble. I tried the sneak away, but rustled some brush near my hiding spot.

“LOOK LOOK LOOK! RIGHT THERE! THERE HE IS!” blue bandana shouted, dropping his beer to point excitedly in my direction. The other two raised their guns to fire.

In a flash I was off. I knew the woods very well, and had planned out a route that would make it difficult for my attackers to pursue me.

Two rifles fired simultaneously, but thankfully missed. The shots ripped tree bark and agitated soil near me.

The last gun fired.

I cried out as pain radiated through my right shoulder into the rest of my body. The bullet had only grazed me, but it was enough to slow me down. Blood seeped from the wound.

“Nice fucking shot Dale!”

“Don’t let him get away!”

The stinging pain in my shoulder pulsed as I ran desperately. Why were they trying to kill me? What had I done to them?

It doesn’t matter. Thinking about it isn’t going to make me run faster.

Branches lashed out against my face and skin as I fled. The slight scratches were nothing compared to the wrath of my oppressors.

Less than an hour into my escape, I was thoroughly exhausted. I was reaching the edge of the forest, which overlooked a scenic valley below. I needed to find shelter, somewhere to catch my breath and consider my next move.

Several minutes of hurried search revealed a cave near the cliff face. It was large enough for me to comfortably lie down in. After thanking Mother Nature for providing this refuge, I wearily rested my bones upon the cool earth inside. I closed my eyes, determined to recoup some strength in case I needed to escape further.

My exhaustion slipped me into a very calming slumber. I dreamt of my son, who was running just a little too fast for me to catch.

“Slow down, your old man can’t keep up!” I jested.

“I’ll wait for you, don’t worry!” he replied, and stopped abruptly.

As I caught up to him, I lovingly embraced him, but the moment was cut short.

Twigs snapped nearby. My eyes jolted open. The sun was setting over the valley. I had slept too long!

“The blood trail leads over this way, by the cliff.”

Cornered, I tensed my body. They would discover me shortly.

Orange hat peeked his head into the cave.

“Holy shit! He’s in here!” he yelped.

Before he could raise his gun, I roared and lunged at him. Adrenaline pumping, I tackled him with far too much force. He and I were sent tumbling off the cliff and onto the unforgiving rocks below.

Orange hat landed with a wet crack, body torn asunder by the fall. I landed on my side, breaking my jaw, leg, and many ribs.

I strained to look up the cliff at my remaining attackers. Evading them further would now be impossible. They stared down at orange hat and I in rage and disbelief. Leather vest dropped his beer.

“That son of a bitch....” sobbed blue bandana.

They raised their guns, and fired round after round into my broken body. I was a stubborn old bear, but I knew my time here was at an end. Off in the distance I saw my son, and a sense of relief washed over me, I would be with him soon.

I released my final breath, and left my body behind to repay Mother Nature for her kindness.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

Farewell’s Odyssey

 

Lieutenant Francis George Farewell wiped the sweat off of his brow. The year was 1823, and he was surveying the plains of South Africa for areas of possible settlement. Of his handpicked team of 24, 21 were British Expeditionary soldiers or sailors, one was a translator native to the area, a physician named Henry Francis Fynn, and last was an appointed noble Sir Christopher Harrison. Harrison wouldn’t have been Farewell’s first choice, but he was prior military, and was assigned to the unit by the crown. He had been to Africa several times before on hunting excursions, his familiarity with the continent could be valuable.

The team had landed in the Bay of Natal, off of southern Africa’s eastern coast. A storm had forced them to port early, deep in Zulu territory. The bay itself wasn’t ideal, the encroaching sand bar would make it difficult for larger ships to port there, but that would be a problem for a future merchant. At least they made it safely to land and found a port.

They had to pause their search, as a Zulu “Impi” of 500 men approached the team. Impi is the Zulu word for a war party, the translator explained. Currently the Zulu had no open hostilities with the crown, and Farewell’s meager force of 25 wasn’t in a position to escape or challenge them. The safest bet was to greet them as fellows, and do their best to inquire about a friendly arrangement for colonial land purchase.

Majority of the war party stood at a distance of 20 meters, but a group of 50 or so approached.

Farewell stepped forward with the translator, hiding his fear and putting on a diplomat’s smile.

The tallest among the dark skinned warriors regarded Farewell’s men with an inquisitive eye, sizing them up. Though Farewell couldn’t understand the Zulu language, the man’s tone and gestures were a testament to his air of authority. Before the translator spoke the Lieutenant could already tell he was being accused of trespassing.

“King Shaka Zulu asks the meaning of your intrusion onto his lands.” the translator spoke hesitantly.

“I am Lieutenant Farewell of the British Expeditionary Force, I am surveying land for possible purchase, we did not mean to disturb King Shaka.”

Shaka scoffed, and waved his hands dismissively while responding, turning away from the Lieutenant.

“King Shaka says he does not have time for negotiations at the present. Some animal has been killing many cattle, he called it ‘umshwabadeli’ or devourer.”

Recognizing an opportunity, Sir Harrison stepped forward to speak.

“Tell King Shaka that we can help him kill the devourer!”

The translator had to raise his voice, as Shaka had already walked a short distance away from the party. He received the message without turning waved his hand, beckoning the British team to follow the Impi as they set off.

Walking closely to Farewell, Harrison spoke in a low voice.

“This devourer, it's probably just a large lion or leopard. Something big enough to kill and eat cattle. If we assist him in this banal task we could strengthen the crown’s influence here, perhaps even get closer to setting up the colony.”

Harrison smiled broadly and nudged Farewell playfully in the ribs.

“Now this, this is a dream job! Expanding the Empire and having a hell of a time doing it!”

A few of the soldiers near Harrison chuckled, overhearing his last outburst.

Farewell sighed and grinned, hopefully this would be as easy as Harrison made it sound.

The British had to hustle to keep pace with the limber Zulu, they moved quickly across the plains. For several hours they traveled, eventually making camp for the night. Tents were erected with practiced haste, the flat lands quickly becoming a beacon of human civilization.

Sitting around camp fires, the British exchanged stories and speculations, none worried about this supposed devourer they would encounter tomorrow. The Zulu, however, remained stoic. Their faces were hardened with worry and anticipation for the upcoming task. Farewell noted this, and sent the translator to inquire more about the devourer.

Less than an hour later the translator returned, sharing the same unease as the Impi. He had also acquired a short spear with a broad head, a favored weapon of the Zulu.

“This is no lion or leopard. They’ve never seen anything like it… They say it’s teeth are as long as a man’s fingers…” the translator took a moment to study his own fingers, shuddering briefly.

“They say it feeds off of all living things, consuming plants as well as animals regardless of size. The smaller tribes of this area have begged King Shaka for assistance, so he brought his bravest warriors to defeat these creatures. He is accompanying them personally because they feel this will be a legendary undertaking.”

He clutched the spear tightly.

“A warrior noticed I was unarmed and offered me this, he strongly urged me to take it. I will need to defend myself, lest I too am devoured…” he trailed off, looking at the spear despondently.

“Try to get some sleep, I’m sure the stories are exaggerated somewhat.” Farewell said, uncertain of his own sincerity.

According to the translator the Zulu were renowned warriors, if something had them this shaken… Regardless, not even an elephant could withstand more than a few shots from a musket. We’ll be fine Farewell told himself, this will be easy and we will be fine

Just before dawn they moved out, marching well into the afternoon. Without warning the warriors crouched down, hiding themselves amongst the tall grass. Farewell’s men were motioned to do the same.

Crawling to the front of the Impi formation with Harrison and his translator, the Lieutenant made his way to Shaka. Before he could speak, a warrior hissed and covered his mouth. Unfazed, Shaka looked ahead and pointed.

Squinting in the sunlight, Farewell saw it. Wide black shoulders, mottled with marks of conflict, moved with feline grace and stealth just above the top of the grass. Though he was unable to see its head, it was still an alarming sight.

The shoulders moved on a steady course for a lone bull elephant. The elephant was aware of the intruder’s presence, and trumpeted defiantly. It stomped its feet and gave no ground to its attacker. Its challenge was soon answered.

The partially hidden predator lunged out from the grass, fully extended it was absolutely terrifying. Reminding him of the largest clydesdale Farewell had ever seen, it was an incredibly muscular horse-like creature. It had no hair or fur, but was covered in sickly dark scar tissue. Instead of hoofs, it had large wide claws, each with three digits and a thumb. It’s head was horse like, but it’s lips curled into a snarl revealing its menacing fangs. They were nearly as long as a man’s finger, like the Zulu had said. Its back teeth were flat for chewing, but all of its front teeth were designed to pierce and tear flesh.

Its eyes were dull black orbs, it’s ears were triangular but folded flat against its head for the attack. Large whiskers adorned its snout, over a foot in length.

Colliding with the elephant, the devourer stood on its hind legs, taller than its prey. It raked its claws along the elephant’s shoulders, causing it to bellow in anger. The elephant shook its head wildly, dislodging the predator. It landed nimbly, and quickly sprung into another assault. This time however, the elephant was prepared.

Impaling the devourer just below the neck with its mighty tusks, it seemed as though the bull would win the encounter. The predator howled in a deep raspy tone, and clawed at the elephant’s eyes. One of it’s swipes struck true, scraping across the right side of the elephant’s face and eye. Furious with his oppressor, the bull tossed the devourer to the ground and stomped heavily upon it several times. It’s immense weight smashed flesh and bone with wet crunches, and when the predator’s death throes finally ceased, the wounded elephant trumpeted victoriously.

Farewell was so distracted by the titanic clash that he failed to notice other sets of shoulders making their way to the wounded elephant.

Ambushing the celebrating bull, a devourer larger than the first bit deeply into the elephant, it’s claws plunged into the animal’s side. Surprised by the attack, the elephant staggered, releasing a pitiful cry. The devourer’s claws went into a digging motion, and large chunks of flesh fell to the ground. Before the elephant could react, its knees buckled, and it was forced to the ground. The other devourers joined the carnage, gulping mouthfuls of meat off of their barely struggling prey.

Uninterested in the existence of anything other than their meal, the creatures gorged themselves. After a short time of ravenous eating Farewell noticed the devourer’s ribs become more defined against its sickly skin. Their stomachs swelled from the gluttonous feast, but still they kept on.

After half an hour, much of the elephant was consumed. The three bloated devourers paced slowly around the corpses of the fallen, they had now eaten their fill. Two of them sauntered off, but the one that had slain the elephant, the largest of the group, remained for a moment.

It stood over the bodies, and its muscles began to twitch and jitter under its tight skin. Some sort of musk was emitted during this process, and the putrid odor filled the air. It was all the men could do to stop themselves from gagging.

Determined to study the creature’s habits before engaging them, the group of men observed the corpses through the night. Hyenas arrived, but smaller devourers of similar size clashed with them over the ownership of the scraps. After several casualties, the hyena troop retreated into the night.

“They must use their scent to mark food sources… The young cannot kill large prey, so the adults slay them and eat their fill, marking it for the younger ones to find and consume… fascinating.” Harrison marveled quietly.

Spying on the ongoing feast in shifts, their vigilant watch lasted another day and night. In that time they had counted six clydesdale or larger size devourers, and more than 20 smaller ones, ranging from house cat to hyena size. The corpses of all the fallen were consumed, the elephant, the hyenas, even the devourer. When all that remained was bones, the larger creatures gnawed at them until they could split them open, and left the marrow for the smaller ones to scrape clean.

When the battle site was clear, and no devourers had returned for three hours, they decided to make camp. The Impi needed to rest up and reflect on what they had seen. The commanders needed a plan of action to deal with these alpha predators that ravaged their lands. Farewell and Harrison were present for a meeting of the leaders, and their translator spoke in a frenzied pace to keep up with the ideas and speculations presented.

“We will lure them with a cow, and follow them to their source. All of them seemed to come from the west, and return to the west.” the translator stated as the discussion ended.

The Zulu selected a sickly cow to be used as bait, a healthy one would have been a waste. After pounding a post into the ground, they used rope to keep the cow from wandering off or fleeing. Dirt that still reeked of devourer musk was rubbed all over the cow, completing their trap. The best scouts and trackers sat in wait, while the rest of the Impi rested in camp for the upcoming hunt.

Nine hours later a scout returned, whooping and shouting in excitement. The Impi sprang to life, packing up their tents and preparing to march. A translator spoke with the scout, who had claimed the creatures lived in a massive burrow dug into the ground. The hole was large enough for four men to walk comfortably side by side, and it appeared to only have one entrance.

Forty minutes of marching brought the group to a completely desolate area of the plains. Instead of the lush grass that blanketed the landscape, sun dried dirt, slightly tilled from young devourer’s plant consumption, greeted them. The Zulu were shocked to see the land in its present state. Instead of it being a disadvantageous emotion, it seemed to steel their resolve. These creatures would pillage all of Africa, perhaps the world, if they were not stopped here and now.

Shaka’s plan was to organize 400 men into a line four wide, with one in each row carrying a torch for visibility in the subterranean lair. This would sacrifice one shield per row, but they could not fight what they could not see. The remaining 100 would guard the entrance from any devourers returning to the burrow. Shaka figured Farewell’s muskets would be better served above ground.

The attack time was just after dawn, the sunlight would assist the units above ground. Final preparations were made, war dances and chants spurred the Impi to new heights of fervor. Fierce determination painted the faces of each and every man. Fearlessly they assumed the formation, knowing their role and committed to eradicating the heinous enemy.

The first men charged in, traveling unopposed into the first 200 yards into the wide cavern. Shouting, screaming, and howling sounded from inside as they must have met the first residents. The feral noise chilled Farewell’s blood, but his role was to remain on defense. A single flanking creature could undermine Shaka’s entire siege.

Off in the distance a massive devourer was spotted. The scouts returned to the defensive line around the burrow entrance. The removal of the grass around the area would increase the effectiveness of the muskets, and wouldn’t allow the defenders to be surprised by sneaking predators.

The large devourer, estimated eleven feet tall at the shoulder, was sauntering toward the burrow entrance. It’s bloated belly full of its latest victims, it did not seem to be the lithe and agile monster they had expected. Well out of musket range, it stopped suddenly, snout raised in the air.

“It’s smelled us, it knows something is wrong…” Harrison muttered.

It released a raspy and primal growl, sensing the harm befalling the burrow. Bounding towards the 125 men, suddenly ignoring the extra weight it was carrying, its teeth were bared in anger.

“The second it enters the clearing, fire! The Zulu will charge after the first volley! Fire at will after they attack, aim high to avoid hitting allies! Destroy the abomination!” Farewell commanded, his musket already at his shoulder.

Moments later the creature burst through the tall grass perimeter, greeted by the crack of gunfire. The Zulu yelled and raced towards their monstrous adversary.

The devourer crashed into the charging men, knocking them about like a child playing with toys. Broken men flew as the creatures sweeping swipes struck them. Vicious bites severed limbs and tore men to pieces.

Farewell’s men fired their weapons as fast as their adrenaline fueled hands could operate, striking the beast in the neck and shoulders many times. The Zulu’s ilkwa, or short stabbing spears, planted into its gnarled skin. Dark red blood oozed from the wounds inflicted, but they seemed to only spur the creature into ever greater fits of rage. Roaring in anguish and fury, it brought a paw down squarely upon a warrior, smashing him flat. Unflinching in the face of the maelstrom of violence, the Zulu surged forth. Rallying from the monster’s assault, they stabbed repeatedly at its legs and belly, carving wide chasms into its sides. Its movements became clumsy as the fight continued, and its eyes drooped as it tried to defend itself from the swarm of men.

Howling a final time, the creature clamped a claw on the thigh of an unfortunate warrior before its legs gave way. It fell heavily to the ground, the Zulu had overwhelmed their foe. Unwilling to risk a second fight, the vengeful Zulu stabbed the motionless body until it was an unrecognizable mountain of flesh. Standing on the corpse and clattering their spears against their shields, the survivors rejoiced. The British shouted and cheered.

Soon after the fight, the price they paid for victory began to sink in. Thirty-three Zulu warriors were dead or grievously wounded. Henry, the team’s physician, dropped his rifle and did what he could to ease their passing.

Two hours passed, and they hadn’t seen any more returning devourers. They could no longer hear anything but faint echoes of conflict coming from the burrow. Farewell wondered how Shaka’s team was faring on their mission. If it had cost them thirty three men for one adult devourer…

An exhausted warrior emerged from the burrow, covered in blood and filth. Without catching his breath, he hoarsely shouted new orders. The Zulu’s initial reaction was that of surprise, but they quickly fell into rows of four and ran underground.

“What’s going on? Do they need help?” Farewell demanded.

The translator’s face went pale.

“Tell us!” Harrison barked.

“They have killed all but one, and it is the largest by far. It has killed over 100 men alone, and as we speak it is fending off Shaka’s remaining troops. The battle hangs in the balance…”

“Fix bayonets then into the burrow, immediately! We will not abandon our allies!” Farewell shouted. His soldiers got into rows of four, with Farewell and Harrison in the front.

As they began their descent the smell of the musk was so potent it made their eyes water. They didn’t have time for weakness and did their best to ignore it. The spacious cave system had many alcoves, bodies of Zulu warriors and monsters of all sizes littered the floor nearly everywhere. Every alcove had been cleared, but at great human cost. Fifteen minutes into their descent, the main tunnel lead to a massive chamber. Inside a desperate clash was underway.

The remaining devourer was of gargantuan size, over thirty feet at the shoulder. It’s gaping maw was large enough to fit an entire man, and the limbs stuck in its teeth proved it. It’s paws were wider than a man’s chest, and stained in the blood of the brave Zulu. Hundreds of spears bristled the creature’s muscular legs, their owners probably among the dead.

Shaka valiantly shouted orders to his men, trying to organize groups to attack each leg while another distracted the head. The creature wouldn’t remain in any one place long. It pounced from small group to small group of warriors, crushing who it landed on and eviscerating anyone who wasn’t fast enough to flee. Several spear wounds per pounce was all they could manage, and at the cost of half a dozen men each. Flayed and mangled men were strewn about the cavern floor and walls.

Farewell estimated this chamber was bigger than the largest theatre in London in volume. Illuminated by the torchlight, the British could see the floor was slick with blood of beast and man.

Upon entering the fray, the British gunshots echoed like a thunderstorm in the enclosed battlefield.

“Aim for the head!” Farewell yelled, his voice mostly lost in the din of battle.

Spurts of dark ichor erupted from the titan’s head, and it let out a roar loud enough to temporarily overpower the man made thunder. Addressing the new threat, it raced towards the British troops.

“Scatter! Ru-”

Harrison’s warning was cut short as the titan snapped its jaws shut on his lower body. Hanging out of the right side of its mouth, he screamed in pain.

Still clutching his rifle with white knuckles, he used every last ounce of his strength to point his weapon at the monster’s large eye.

The gun fired, and the creature shrieked as it’s right eye was blinded. During its wounded cry Harrison was spat to the ground, landing in a lifeless heap.

The blinding of the titan renewed the Zulu’s morale. A savage howl from Shaka sent all remaining men rushing to take advantage of Harrison’s final act of defiance.

Shaka himself leapt upon the creature’s front leg, climbing up using the embedded spears. His men poured upon the beast like ants upon a mouse. The British spread around the edges of the room, taking shots at the beast’s flanks and rear legs. The titan roared and desperately fought, but Shaka climbed ever higher and his warriors didn’t give an inch. Countless men died but Zulu ferocity was an unbreakable shield protecting Shaka as he mounted the titan.

Reaching its shoulder, he called out for someone to throw him a spear. In an instant several spears were sent flying through the air, finding their target in the monster’s neck and shoulders. Wrenching the closest spear from the beast’s flesh, Shaka roared and plunged it into the base of the titan’s skull, ramming it home with all his might.

Amidst the conflict the beast shuddered and faltered, stumbling to a wall to brace itself and scrape off its rider. When its left side slammed against the wall Shaka was sent hurtling to the ground. His landing was hard, but not fatal as it was cushioned by bodies of the fallen. He was alive, but unable to stand.

Warriors rushed in to drag him to safety, Henry and the translator among them. Though the beast’s vicious attacks still came, they were inaccurate, and its head hung low from the critical blow dealt by the Zulu king.

As it leaned in to consume Shaka and his retinue, the translator rushed to the left side of its head, spear in hand.

Driving the spear into its left eye, the translator had now fully blinded the titan. Lashing out at his last known location, a paw swipe sent the poor man flying into the nearby wall, breaking him upon the rocks.

As the monster tried to re-brace its left side, it slammed its head against the wall, pushing the translator’s spear entirely inside its skull.

Whimpering and gurgling, its massive body slumped to the cavern floor. The remaining Zulu descended upon the titan and made certain its defeat.

 

Epilogue

With Henry’s assistance, Shaka made a full recovery. The titan’s head was cut off and dragged to the Zulu capital of KwaBulawayo, as proof of their monumental accomplishment. Of the initial Impi of 500, only 72 returned. Farewell had lost seven soldiers, Sir Harrison, and the translator.

Feasts and celebrations went on for two months, and in that time Farewell had sent men back to the ship to procure gifts for the Zulu and another translator. Upon their return, Shaka announced that the British had proven themselves to be true warriors and allies, and would be granted a 25-mile strip of coast a hundred miles in depth. Twenty years later, this would come to be a large part of the British Colony of Natal in 1843.  

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

Method of Existence

 

The control center buzzed with frantic activity. Scientists pointed at diagrams and argued speculations. Calls were made and answered at a frenzied pace. Admirals and Generals looked at the overhead display in confusion and dismay. President Nixon’s concern grew by the second.

A reflective sphere the size of Texas had simply appeared in the shadow of the moon...

“The Kremlin is just as perplexed as we are. All forms of contact attempted have yielded no response. If the invaders have the technology required for faster than light travel, it is unlikely our weapons will be effective...” a scientist stated dryly as he hung up a phone.

Hours passed like years as contingency plans were made and scrapped. Every nation with an army and a telescope was busy preparing for the worst.

“Hundreds of smaller spheres have left the main ship! They vary in size, and will reach Earth’s surface in minutes!” exclaimed a scientist.

“Point every gun we have at the sky! Put all nuclear launch stations into final alert stages!” A General barked.

“Agreed, but don’t fire. Not until they strike first. We can’t confirm their intentions are hostile, and even our nuclear arsenal isn’t going to stop them if they are. We must-”

“Mr. President! One of the ships is coming straight for the White House!” an assistant interrupted.

“Mother of God…”

Nixon heaved a sigh and wiped the sweat from his furrowed brow.

“Prepare a welcoming party. No armed escorts. I will lead it personally. If they are coming directly to us they might have diplomatic objectives. If anything happens to me, fire everything we’ve got.”

Rushing outside with a retinue of diplomats, linguists, stenographers, and political leaders, Nixon waited on the White House lawn. The spherical ship would reach them shortly.

It thundered across the sky, racing towards Nixon’s first contact team. People whimpered and cowered as it approached. The sphere was reflective, much like the one near the moon, but was only about twenty feet in diameter. Nixon made peace with his God, thinking of ways to conceal his terror and welcome the extraterrestrials as politely as possible.

It came to an abrupt stop, hovering roughly ten feet off the ground. All noise coming from the craft silenced. As it gently landed, four rods extended out of the bottom, biting into the soil and stabilizing it. A three foot tall rectangle illuminated on the ship, folding down into a ramp, sliding out and extending to ground. Several silhouettes became visible in opening.

Nixon’s heart was racing.

Six small humanoids marched down the ramp, wearing what could only be compared to ghillie suits. Their helmets had dull yellow visors, concealing their exact appearance. They were quite short compared to the average human, the largest among them was only three feet tall.

To the surprise of Nixon and the welcoming party, the six aliens payed them no attention. Instead, they trooped over to an american elm tree in the front corner of the lawn, forming a semicircle as they gazed up into its branches. Their conversation sounded like melodious clicking and chirping.

Flustered, confused, and trying to maintain a calm appearance, Nixon began to walk towards the visitors.

Stopping ten feet away from them, Nixon cleared his throat loudly, gaining the attention of an alien.

“Hello, I am President Richard Nixon, of the United States of America. I would like to welcome you to our planet, which we call Earth.”

Nixon’s stuttering and forced sincerity only made him seem frightened and unsure.

The alien looked Nixon over briefly, and resumed its previous activity.

Nixon looked back at his welcoming party, who also ignored him, staring with mouths agape as the visitors went about their business.

A seventh alien emerged from the ship, carrying a long silver pole. It quickly joined the semicircle, and raised the pole into the tree’s branches.

A translucent bubble formed at the end of the pole. The group’s chirping intensified, and as the rod was lowered the human observers could see what the bubble contained; a football sized beehive.

Gently guiding the bubble with the pole, the alien herded it back to the ship, followed closely by the others. Their chittering continued as they returned to the craft.

Nixon rushed in between the aliens and their ship. He held out his arms, blocking their path. The greeting party gasped.

“I demand to speak to a representative! We have much to discuss and I will not let this encounter be for nothing! We could learn a lot from each other!”

Nixon panted from the short run.

The visitors stopped, and so did their conversation. Six of them calmly walked around Nixon and into their craft, the one remaining seemed to be digging through his pockets.

The craft recalled its landing gear and ramp, taking off into the sky. As it did, the remaining alien produced a small speaker, which he plugged into the side of his helmet.

“My associates will return for me before the sun sets. I am not sure what it is we have to discuss, but I shall accommodate you out of courtesy.” the voice from the speaker was artificial, slightly mispronouncing the English syllables.

“Excellent! I did not mean to alarm you by my actions, I’m sure you understand that as a representative of Earth I was quite curious about your unannounced appearance.” Nixon forced a smile and managed to stop shaking from nervousness.

“Please accompany me inside this building, so that we can speak privately.” Nixon gestured towards the White House.

“I will not enter that repulsive structure. We shall converse here.”

Briefly taken aback, Nixon collected himself. He sat down on the grass next to the representative, so that it did not have to look up at him.

“I apologize for the building’s offensive appearance.”

“Its appearance is not as offensive as its existence.” the robotic voice responded cooly.

Not letting himself get flustered, Nixon pressed on. He needed to get human hands on one of their ships at all costs.

“I’m sorry you feel that way. More importantly, my people are intrigued by your technology, and you seem to be interested in our bees. If it is bees you want, or honey, or wax,  we can arrange to get you as much as you could possibly want.”

“The samples we require have been collected, we are not interested in human products or services.”

“Surely there is something we can offer you for a single one of your ships?” Nixon was smiling, but his disappointment was obvious. He thought that deal would be an easy sell...

“No.”

Nixon’s face was getting red, the flat and condescending retorts of the representative were wearing his patience thin.

“What about a single engine? Just one! Or a power source? We’ll give you anything you want!” his voice reeked of desperation.

“Absolutely not.”

Nixon stood angrily.

“Then why the fuck are you even here!”

The alien paused for a moment before responding, interrupting Nixon’s tantrum.

“Your arrogance in assuming all things exist to be manipulated by your will is astonishing. We did find something of fantastic interest on this planet, but it certainly was not humans.

Eusocial, or hive based insects, crustaceans, and mammals function in a manner unlike anything else we have encountered. Their caste based system operates for the benefit of all involved. Although they create structures, similar to humans, these structures are natural and unobstructive. They do not disturb the areas they exist in. When these structures are no longer used, they bio degrade gracefully. Everything required for construction will be given back to the planet without incident. When your buildings are abandoned they crumble slowly, and many of the building materials are so artificial and repulsive to this planet that they poison it. It indicates you are over eager, short sighted, and apathetic.

Bees for example, in industry and existence, are far more impressive than humans. They thrive in a social structure devoid of ego and greed. Through collective effort they produce honey and wax. Honey is a fascinating food source that never spoils, beeswax possesses a myriad of useful applications. To create these products they collect nectar and distribute pollen. Pollination is an essential component to the prosperity of most ecosystems on Earth.

Through dances and pheromones they are able to relay information and communicate. Threats and food sources are identified and dealt with efficiently. If provoked, a bee is naturally armed with venom. It will cooperatively defend itself and other members of the hive. The stinger is simply a necessary weapon with the single application of personal protection.

Humans, in contrast, exist in an artificial system stemmed from greed and exploitation. You casually accept and spread lies such as the value of money and national identity. Through these vehicles you manipulate each other for the benefit of the few. You demand valueless currency of your own invention for basic essentials such as food, water, education, and medical attention. You raise unnecessarily large armies not only for defense, but to enforce your own desires; throwing them as you would a stone at anything that upsets you.

Your concept of land use and ownership is beyond detestable. You live in this white palace, ruling your select group of people based on imaginary lines drawn on political maps while humans starve and perish of curable diseases.

You are able to utilize the sun’s energy, yet prefer to burn fossil fuels to such a degree that you irreparably damage the planet. You have no concept of coexistence, if something does not serve you it is observed until it can be destroyed or altered to serve you.

To state it plainly, my kind would never provide you with our technology simply because you would use it abhorrently. Were humans ever to leave Earth with intentions of colonization, you would become a pest that would require immediate destruction. You will be allowed to exist as long as you only feed on the planet you currently infect. We will not allow you to become a plague that threatens the galaxy.”

Nixon’s anger had long since subsided. He stood in a state of embarrassment and dejection, much like a child that was thoroughly scolded. He barely noticed the ship coming to collect the representative.

“Goodbye President Richard Nixon of the United States of America. I sincerely hope we will never meet again.”

With that the alien boarded the ship and took off into the sunset. Nixon looked back at the greeting party, who could offer him no consolation.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

The Greatest Skipping Stone

 

Tony was a boy of seven years old, and when his parents took him out to their cottage on the lake one of his favorite pastimes was skipping stones across the clear, reflective surface. He had gotten quite good at finding ideal rocks, and was mastering the art of skipping them on the water. He had to have done it hundreds of times, with hundreds of stones. He would spend about an hour scouring the shoreline for the perfect projectiles, gathering them in a sack he would carry with him. He knew to select only the smoothest oval shaped ones to achieve the greatest number of skips.

Today he set out on his usual quest, finding thirty or so rocks to fling with all his seven year old might. The sack was getting heavy, which was normally about the time he’d stop gathering stones, but he made an exception today. On his way back to his prime skipping location he saw a rock that could have been the most ideal skipping stone he’d ever come across. It was the perfect size for his hand, and it’s rounded, near frictionless surface was blemished only by some sort of chiseled marking on what he determined would be the top side of the rock. The marking was nothing that he recognized, and honestly was not what he found interesting about the rock itself. It’s skipping potential would have been foolish to pass up, so in the sack it went.

Having taken up his spot on the shore, he set the sack of rocks down. One after the other the stones were hurled across the water.

Five, six, seven, bloop! Ten, eleven, twelve, bloop! Nineteen, twenty, bloop!

He was down to his last three stones, two mediocre ones and the almighty perfect stone, which he decided would be the last one thrown. His arm was getting tired anyhow. The sky was clear, but it was beginning to darken. His parents would call after him soon, and his fun for the day would come to a close. He threw the other two, which yielded lackluster numbers of skips. With the perfect stone in hand, he wound up his arm like a major league pitcher. With practiced precision he let it fly.

It skipped like a dream, he couldn’t even count how many times it rebounded off of the clear water. When it finally entered the water, Tony let out a satisfied sigh, grabbed the empty bag, and turned away from the lake.

An explosion behind him sent him flying to the ground. Terrified, he turned back to look at the lake. Perhaps twenty feet above the lake there was a floating circle, or portal, opening with large ethereal claws making it wider by the second. Frozen in panic, Tony could only watch the events unfold.

The sound was horrifying. The air itself screamed at the force of the claws ripping it asunder. Lightning struck several times as the gate opened, revealing more and more of the creature as it entered reality.

The beast seemed to be made of tangible shadow, bending light around its twisted alien form. When the gate finally touched the surface of the lake the creature stepped out, and with two giant hooved feet stood on the water. The portal closed behind it with a much smaller explosion than the first, and it was now that Tony could clearly see the creature’s head. Adorned with massive horns, like that of a bull, it’s eyes glowed like rhombuses made of pure sunlight. Its muzzle was filled with dagger like teeth the size of a man’s hand. It looked around for a moment, then focused its attention on Tony. With two hulking strides it towered before him. In a thunderous voice, it spoke.

“MORTAL. YOU HAVE RELEASED ME FROM MY CONFINEMENT BY SKIPPING THE KEY STONE ACROSS THE SACRED LAKE AT THE MOMENT OF SUNSET. REQUEST A REWARD, ANYTHING YOU DESIRE IS WITHIN MY POWER TO GRANT.”

Quivering in fear, Tony responded with all the courage he could muster.

“I want you to go away… please!”

The monster seemed puzzled for a moment, then outstretched it’s arms before replying.

“SO IT SHALL BE.”

The creature clapped its hands, and at the moment of impact disappeared. Tony cried for about ten minutes after the beast had vanished. Once he had regained his composure, he vowed never to tell anyone of this event. He went back to his parent’s cottage, and they suspected nothing.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

 

Purgatory Online

 

Rain poured from the night sky, the darkness occasionally disrupted by wicked bolts of lightning and deafening thunder. A storm raged that Friday evening in Chicago. Jacob Miller, a 19 year old college student, was home from a long day of classes. His favorite way to unwind was gaming online, and tonight wasn’t just any Friday night. A new game he was excited about called Purgatory Online had entered closed beta.

Purgatory Online is an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) where players use magic and weapons to defeat each other in open world combat. Players try to become the strongest by leveling up and choosing skills.  There are several different biomes, each with different terrain, giving different classes advantages. What separated Purgatory Online from most other games was the punishment for dying. Once killed in the game, you could no longer use that character, and your account is deleted.  There were only 50,000 preorder accounts released, and Jacob thoughtfully preordered the game months ago. He thrived in these types of survival games.

Firing up his computer, he rushed to install the game. As usual, he picked the nickname “Innocent1” as his player name. There were several different character types to choose from. Jacob enjoyed being an assassin since he worked best alone.  Besides assassins with stealth, there were warriors with heavy armor, archers with bows, tinkers with traps, and mages with spells. Each class excelled at something the other lacked. He had never played Purgatory Online, but in most games an assassin in Jacob's hands always won.  Finalizing his character selection, Jacob logged in.

His first objective was to increase his character’s combat level. He could do this by killing NPC (Non-Player Character) monsters outside of the starting zone. While leveling he chose several very important skills, Dagger Expertise and Invisibility.  Admiring the allowable skill selection, Jacob’s options to evolve and upgrade his character were nearly endless. He had never played a game quite like this before.

Innocent1 appeared in a thick forest with tall grass and hardwood trees.

“Excellent! With plenty of places to hide and ambush, this is the perfect spawn zone!” Jacob proclaimed.

He opened his character's inventory, equipping all his beginner items (a backpack, rusty dagger, cloak, leather armor, and boots).  

After thirty minutes of killing monsters, he was level five. Level five meant that he could select a new skill, but in order to unlock it he needed to slay a player.

He circled back to the spawn area, and quickly located his first victim. Using his Invisibility skill, he crept closer and closer to the confused new player who had just spawned. The player's name was Martin117, he was a mage.  Martin’s actions seemed hesitant and jerky, he must have been learning the game’s controls. Jacob smiled as he prepared to strike.  He plunged his dagger into Martin’s back several times, killing him in a matter of seconds.  

“Ha, how pathetic!” he gloated.

Jacob looted the body, finding clothing items and a staff.  Jacob also received three Survival Tokens. Survival Tokens were gained by killing players and successfully looting their corpse. Tokens were then used to unlock and upgrade abilities. Those who gained the most tokens gained the most power.

Putting the ill gotten goods in his backpack, Jacob planned his next attack.  

“I'll look for people who are already fighting, and wait until one is killed.  The survivor will be wounded, I'll use that opportunity to get an easy kill and twice the loot.”

Jacob spent his Survival Tokens and gained the skill Hidden Strike, which increased his damage dealt when attacking from Invisibility.

After sneaking around the edges of the forest, he discovered a mage fighting against two archers. Jacob grinned greedily. Their fight went on for a couple minutes and was rather close. Both archers were level one, and used only beginner items. Despite that, they were still able to inflict serious wounds on the more veteran mage. Knowing he wouldn’t last much longer, the mage raised his staff in the air and cast a devastating spell.  Fire shot from the staff in a wide beam, striking the ground where the two archers stood.  

One dove out of the way just in time, avoiding a fatal blow.  The other was scorched and burned to death where he stood. Out of magic power but unwilling to admit defeat, the mage limped towards the archer to strike him with his staff. The archer drew back the string of his bow and released a final arrow, delivering the killing blow to the mage.  

Now it was Jacob's turn.  He sprinted towards the archer, still in the safety of his Invisibility.  With one Hidden Strike he killed the archer and completed his devious mission.

Jacob paused for a second, pleased with his victory.  He wondered how many tokens he had just gained.  He looted the corpses with uncontained excitement, finding 23 Survival Tokens. He also found some new gear upgrades between the three players.  He was well on his path to being a powerful player.

Roughly three hours later, Jacob was doing quite well compared to the others on the server. He selected a strong combination of skills, and had mastered their use. He found a legendary dagger, obtained 96 more tokens, and many other upgrades he had looted. Since Jacob was the first player in the game to reach level 20, he received a unique skill called Second Chance. This skill gave him an extra life, a very significant advantage. Confident in his performance thus far, he started trekking back to his hunting grounds.

Suddenly everything stopped. Jacob's computer froze.

“Oh damnit! Was I stealthed?  Did I get logged out?  Is this a bug?”  

These questions assaulted and frustrated him. The storm outside intensified, and thunder boomed nearby. He checked his internet connection, it wasn’t the source of the problem.  

“Why did this happen to me!?” Jacob bellowed.

In a fit of childish rage Jacob threw his keyboard, shattering it against a wall. Still unsatisfied, he punched his computer screen.

At the exact moment of impact, lightning stuck his apartment building.  Electricity surged into the house, blowing out the lights.  Electrical sockets popped and arched with current, searing plastic and scorching wood.  As Jacob's fist slammed the monitor's screen, electricity sparked off of it. Jacob, struck with a tremendous shock, recoiled violently and faded out of consciousness.

 

Jacob's eyes eased open and he was blinded by sunlight. He was no longer in his room. There was no thunder or lightening.  He was laying in a heap, in tall grass surrounded by hardwood trees.  The ground was soft and damp.  

“Am I dead?” Jacob said to himself.

A word bubble appeared above his head, containing his words.

“What the hell?”

The message changed to his latest question.

He looked at his clothing. He wasn’t in his T-shirt or jeans, but a leather vest and hooded cloak. He even had a backpack...

Just like Innocent1!

Jacob sat up and tried to calm himself.

“This is a dream. Of course I'm still in my room.”  Jacob said confidently.  

“I'll even prove it.”  

Jacob drew a dagger from his pack. and pressed it firmly against his right palm. He was terrified by the sharp pain, followed by a small trickle of blood produced from the dagger’s touch.

“This is impossible...”  Jacob shuttered and fell backwards onto the ground.

Jacob sat for a while in confusion and disbelief.  After a few minutes of frantic thought, he made up his mind, he had to try to find help.

He wandered for quite some time, looking for a person he could speak to alone, to assist him. Trudging through the forest, he came upon a clearing. Once near the edge of the clearing, Jacob saw slight movement. It was a player!

Hiding and spying from a distance, he thought of how to present his problem to the player. If this was just like Purgatory Online, the player would probably attack on sight. The player was a warrior, named MobBoss56, who had strong armor and a sword. As an assassin against a warrior, Jacob couldn’t survive a fight he didn’t initiate with Hidden Strike. Weighing his options, he decided to approach the warrior with his dagger put away and his hands above his head.

He cautiously approached the warrior. MobBoss saw him and immediately turned to face him, drawing his sword.  Eying Jacob’s posture, and knowing most assassins would’ve attacked from Invisibility, the warrior kept his distance.

The tense moment ended when a word bubble appeared above the warrior's head.

“Want to team up bro?” it said.  

Jacob heaved a sigh of relief.

“Yes! You have to help me. There was a storm, and I think I’m in danger!”  

The warrior looked stunned, and typed a response.

“Woah! Why can I hear you talking?  Is this a quest or special event?”

“I don’t know, but I need you to call 911 and send an ambulance to my address as fast as you can! Please MobBoss56, I’m not sure whats going on but I need your help.”

Another message bubble appeared above the warrior’s head.

“I don't know what's going on either, but if you are in danger I'm calling the police. Give me your address and I'll make sure they get there.”

Jacob was overjoyed and gave him the address. MobBoss said he would be right back, making the phone call.

He was getting help! He was finally going to get answers about what had happened. He waited for a few minutes as the warrior sat idle.

From the opposite edge of the clearing a group of five players attacked, two warriors and three archers.  Arrows rained upon his newly befriended warrior and he collapsed to the ground.  Jacob began to panic and ran back in the direction he came from, quickly outrunning them. Being a higher level, Jacob was much faster. He was now alone.

Thirty more minutes passed, Jacob again became frantic and restless. Help was probably on the way, but he had to survive until it arrived. Shaken, but determined, he crept back into the clearing where MobBoss had died.  

On arrival, he found not only the warrior’s corpse, but the corpses of a tinker and an archer.  As Jacob approached the bodies he observed how realistic they were. Bones jutted out of open wounds and flies buzzed around. Blood stained the grass near the slain players. Everything looked and felt so real...

Jacob hastily searched the archer’s body, digging through his pockets and backpack. Nothing of value was left.

He moved towards the tinker's corpse, which was in a patch of overgrown weeds. Perhaps five paces away from the tinker’s body, he stepped on something odd.

Metal jaws snapped shut around Jacob's left foot, agony shot through his leg and throughout his body.

A trap! Obviously prepared by the tinker.  Jacob cursed his own carelessness and fell to the ground. The beartrap bit with such force that his foot was almost severed. He was losing blood at an alarming rate. He fought to keep his eyes open, but soon collapsed and faded out of consciousness.

 

A dull whining noise filled his ears.  First it was soft, but grew it sharp and repetitive.  

A Siren!

Jacob abruptly sat up and looked around.  It was dark, but he knew he was in his room.  He got up and walked to his window slowly.  Red and blue lights flashed outside. He heard a hard knocking at his front door.

“POLICE DEPARTMENT, OPEN UP.”

He looked around and saw his room in disarray.  His right hand had a fresh wound on his palm, and his left leg ached.  His keyboard was shattered and computer screen cracked. Words shined on the damaged screen, distorted but legible.

YOU HAVE BEEN KILLED.

The monitor sizzled, and the words faded off the screen.  Jacob slowly backed away from the computer, and rushed downstairs to answer the door.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

The One True Way

 

Prologue

 

Prisoner: “Yes yes, I promise to tell you everything.”

Koram Interrogator: “Why should I trust you, human? Your kind is known to deceive.”

Prisoner: “I’ve been abandoned by the GHC, and my entire military unit is dead or has already defected. What reason do I have to lie?”

Koram Interrogator: “Very well… Begin your tale.”

 

Chapter 1

 

My recon squad and I were scouting ahead of the Galactic Human Confederacy’s planetary cleansing force on this planet, which has the GHC designation Kepler-186f. We needed to locate the primary nesting ground of the mutants, and the planet was hotly contested by Koram and GHC forces. We made planetfall two days ago and have been holed up in an abandoned four story Koram armory. Upon seeing commotion in an alleyway, we rushed to the upper floors and waited for a few minutes, guns at the ready, manning all windows.

We saw about a dozen GHC troopers in tattered uniforms, and no weapons to speak of, hobble out from the alleyway.

“This is Commissar Gerald Grant of the 187th Confederate Penal Legion. State your intentions!” I demanded.

Alerted by my voice, the tallest trooper of the lot turned to address us in the armory. In an instant the skin on his face churned… His jaw split into two fanged mandibles.

It released a primal, throaty howl.

The other troopers accompanying him had spasms of their own, shedding clothing and revealing extra arms, claws, tails, and eyes. They made a mad dash towards the armory doors.

“In the name of the Confederacy, purge these mutants!” I ordered.

The opening salvo tore the creatures apart, but with the sound of the gunfire more came to investigate. From the sewers and many derelict buildings in the area their reinforcements came in droves. There had to be at least one hundred of them…

Immediately they attacked. Whines and shrieks came from the mob as they rushed recklessly towards the armory.

“Fire damn you!” I yelled over the feral noise outside.

My troopers wasted no time. Volley after volley of fire came from the windows and ripped into the mutants. While reloading my pistol I took out my pack of cigarettes.

“Smoke if you got ‘em!” I yelled. “Kill as many as you can, we won’t walk away from this one!”

A desperate cheer came from my men and their firing rate increased. The mutants were scaling the walls and tearing at the doors.

“Bayonets on! Prepare for close quarters!”

Just before I drew my sword, the mutants began to retreat. Firing continued until there were no mutants to be seen aside from the dead. After a few moments the fire ceased too. An eerie silence overtook the battle zone.

Without a moment to lick our wounds, from around a corner a rocket hit the side of the armory. One of my troopers ran outside.

“Return to us immediately!” I ordered. He shook his head.

“It's probably our reinforcements, we’ve been calling them for days!” He snapped back. He ran out into the middle of the street, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Friendly fire! Friendly fire! Friendly—“

Bright blue pulse blasts tore the trooper apart.

“It’s the Koram…” Private Cziller mumbled.

Two more rockets struck the armory and brought part of the roof down, killing a man. Two hover tanks and a light assault hovercraft were our new oppressors.

“Retreat out of the back of the armory! Move!”

With a few odd shouts from the Koram pulse blasts whizzed by our heads. I heard a few muffled screams. We weren’t going to last in the open.

“Get into cover and return fire!” I ordered.

As my men scrambled to cover a humming sound coming from behind us became deafeningly loud. I looked over my shoulder to see the hovercraft preparing to fire point blank.

I raced out behind the rubble, shots flying all around me, towards the vehicle. Fury and desperation fueled my attack as I leapt onto the machine.

The Koram gunner was terrified. His plasma shots scattered. I pressed on unscathed and leapt onto the wing of the hovercraft. My first two bullets went through the pilot’s head, who shook violently until the third one ended him. I slashed at the gunner viciously with my sword.

Victorious, I threw the bodies out of the hovercraft and moved into the gunner’s seat. I was anxious to use its firepower against the Koram. The controls seemed simple. There were two joysticks, each with a trigger, and screens. One of the two screens was a diagnostics screen. It showed that the craft had thus far taken no damage. The other screen was some sort of GPS map, with Koram words I couldn’t understand. I pointed the vehicle at the closest hover tank, and pulled both triggers on the joysticks. The vehicle bucked wildly, and fell to the ground disabled. It must have some sort of fingerprint scanners to prevent capture…

In disappointment I got out of the hovercraft to see that my men were retreating towards me. Counting them, I had lost many more. I was down to fourteen now. They had taken a single Koram prisoner, and I instructed Cziller to carry the unconscious alien. We continued on.

“The Koram are following, sir!”

“Shut your mouth and run faster!” I suggested.

They were gaining on us…

“There, sir, I see an Abrams Mark 19! Rather, twelve of them! We are saved!”

“Better late than never.” I muttered.

The dozen GHC main battle tanks began firing their cannons upon the unsuspecting Koram. Now that they were outgunned, they quickly broke chase.

When the remnants of my scout team reached the tank company, I was greeted with a casual salute.

“Commissar, I’m Captain Roberts, and this is my tank company. We came as soon as we could. What the hell were you guys doing in mutant territory?”

“I was leading a recon mission. We were hoping to discover the mutant hive, but it was to no avail.”

“Sorry to hear that. What unit are you from Commissar?”

“187th Penal Legion, I want you take us to GHC headquarters, the Planetary Governor’s Palace.”

“A decorated Commissar leading a Penal Legionary scout team? Now I’ve seen it all. Sure thing, hop on.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Dalton Zhillmen, GHC Governor General of Kepler-186f was upset by my failure and regarded me callously.

“What news can you tell me about the location of the hive?”

“Unfortunately nothing solid. We know they have been extensively using the sewer systems. I did get a Koram prisoner though.” I replied.

The Governor General pressed a button on his desk. Royal Guards bearing the captured Koram soldier entered his chamber.

“I’ll interrogate this one myself, sir.”

“That won’t be necessary Grant.” he spat.

The unimpressed Governor General motioned the Royal Guards to carry the struggling prisoner into a room a few doors down.

Before I could leave his office, Governor Zhillmen met my gaze with disgust. He pointed his chubby fingers accusingly at me.

“How dare you fail me! How long must these creatures be a pest? The Koram are making turncoats of our men, more still get sick and turn into beasts, and when I send you to observe one problem all I learn is the magnitude of your incompetence! I will not stand for it! As of right now you will be assigned to a job I couldn’t find volunteers for. Assemble 300 men immediately, dismissed!”

 

Chapter 3

 

Later in the afternoon I met up with the other members of my team. Captain Roberts and Commissar Arcturus were my fellow commanders. Arcturus and his 120 troops were off worlders too, from Saturn’s moon colony on Titan.

“Hello Roberts, Arcturus. I’m sure you were briefed more thoroughly than I was. What are we doing?”

Roberts shrugged. Arcturus glared at us, his youth and arrogance shined as brightly as his new uniform; probably just graduated the Confederate Commissar Academy.

“We are liberating 1,200 troops from a fortress under heavy Koram siege. We will need to cross the Ghost’s Grove in order to go in undetected.”

“Ghost’s Grove?” I asked.

“It’s the name the superstitious troopers gave the forest. It’s infested with mutants. You hear them howl and shriek constantly, it’s terrible.” Roberts replied casually.

“Damn, you sure we can’t avoid it?”

“The mission plan states that if we want to go undetected it must be crossed.” Arcturus scolded. I rolled my eyes before responding.

“Good talk gents, see you planetside.”

 

Chapter 4

 

I gathered my troops into three combat teams, appointing a Lieutenant to each.

“You there, You, and Cziller. You are now hereby appointed to the rank of Lieutenant. Prepare your men as well as you can. As Penal Legionaries do not get standard issue weapons of course, we get hand me downs from other active combat units. We also have a small cache of weapons I have personally purchased. Arm them well.”

“We will do our best Commissar.” They replied.

“We are here for a reason. This will be a bloody mission. Who better to send than the Confederacy’s expendables? Expect high casualties.”

“We will do our best Commissar.” They replied again.

Jason Cziller was a rather loyal man, especially for his position. He had been a penal legionary for almost eight years now, a hardened veteran by all definitions. He had been through hell and back at my side and deserved to be rewarded. It was the least I could do. He probably won’t like the extra work but the alcohol ration for a Lieutenant is considerably higher, therein lies the gift. The other two I selected randomly. I don’t know them, they don’t know me. No doubt vagabonds with dark and terrible pasts; but who cares. This will be our final mission anyway.

My troops were ragtag… to put it mildly. All had bayonets, but uniformity ended there. Their firearms were a medley of pistols, shotguns, rifles, laser guns, and even some Koram pulse rifles. The uniforms issued to Penal Legions were just tattered old GHC rags that had been out of production for decades.

Arcturus’s troops on the other hand were a newly formed unit from the wealthy GHC colony of Titan. No doubt they had freshly stamped standard issue bayonets, laser guns, and modern uniforms.

In orbit we prepared for air drop by the GHC Frigate Judge’s Gavel, and for the first time we laid eyes on Arcturus’s men. Instantly I confirmed my speculations. All were frilly GHC troopers with powder blue coats, glossy black helmets, and white trim on their uniforms. Most scoffed and glared when they saw us. My men came up with the nick-names “blue boys”, and “toy soldiers” (it was their first combat deployment).

“Penal Legionaries? Our first deployment is alongside murderers and thieves?!” complained one Titan Lieutenant.

His combat squad answered by roaring “AYE!” and stomping loudly on the metal floor of the frigate’s drop prep room. Arcturus replied by nonchalantly drawing his pistol and putting a bullet through the man’s chest. His men were stunned.

“You there, you are hereby promoted to Lieutenant,” Arcturus said casually, as he pointed to a random trooper.

“…Aye sir.” The rookie replied as he took the fallen Lieutenant's helmet, which signified his rank, and got into his seat to prepare for the air drop. Each lander was massive, holding roughly 300 troopers at max capacity. We would be using three of them, one for my troops, one for Arcturus’s soldiers, and a third for Arcturus himself, his command staff, and supplies.

The blue boys were scared. My men laughed and jeered.

“PREPARE FOR PLANETFALL.” the loudspeaker announced.

Men rushed to their seats.

“3… 2… 1… Godspeed to you gentlemen.”

The frigate spat our landers out. Strapped in their crash seats the men hurtled towards the surface of Kepler-186f.

 

Chapter 5

 

“Uh… I hate this part… I always…” I watched as the speaker proceeded to vomit on the man next to him. Luckily it was only on his boots.

My lander reached the surface first, which allowed us to watch Arcturus’s landers fall. Mine impacted on target; landing in an abandoned GHC colonial farm field right next to the grove. Arcturus had problems though. The lander he was on didn’t slow as much as it needed to, knocking Arcturus and many others unconscious. Disoriented without their Commissar, the Titan Lieutenants came to me and demanded that we wait for him before moving out. I politely declined. I told them that we will wait for Roberts’ tanks to arrive via shuttle and leave immediately after.

Roughly thirty minutes later Roberts arrived, and he immediately came to the conclusion that he had to take a different route through the forest. Our assigned route was just too dense for the Mark 19s. The mission information about the area was grievously out of date. We tried to radio The Judge’s Gavel to request permission to use a different route, but static and Koram interference made communication impossible. After a brief discussion between Roberts and myself it was agreed he should use an alternate route.

I warned him, “Be sure to go unnoticed, or you will blow the entire mission.”

“Right you are boss.”

With that said, Roberts and his division drove off and we, the footsloggers, began marching.

“Set all radio channels to 33.7. We need to remain in line of sight or at least radio contact at all times. If you get separated from the group we will NOT come looking for you. Do not fall behind.” I ordered.

“Also: to my soldiers; See what you can do to clear a path for the blue boys. You know, so they don’t get their boots muddy.”

My men chuckled. The Titan troopers looked flustered. I was trying to take their minds off the hell hole we were about to enter.

After a few hours of marching I was getting fed up with one particular blue boy. He would moan about his feet hurting, and then mention that he had recently acquired asthma. There was a never ending supply of complaints bubbling from his mouth. Finally he said in an inquisitive tone “What in the hell?!”

A thin sword separated his head from his shoulders.

Koram!” a man yelled.

“Melee gear on!” I ordered.

Pistols were brought out and knives were brought to bear. As I unsheathed my sword and readied my pistol I saw something rustle in the trees for a moment. I looked up. There sat about three dozen Koram, staring evilly at us, perched in the trees ready to strike.

“TREES! LOOK TO THE TREES!” I yelled frantically.

The distinctive “pop” of laser fire sounded loudly after my advice. In unison the Koram leapt from their roosts and landed in the thick of us. Blades slashed up and down and blood of both Koram and man coated the nearby trees. Close range fire blew off limbs and severed heads. As I ran into the fray I was jumped by an alien. He swung his thin sword and I blocked it with mine, with my free hand I shot him twice, ending him. I turned around to see a blue boy struggling to keep a Koram from choking him to death. It was a fight he was about to lose, the blue alien’s muscles bulged as he was approaching the end of his task. Just before the Koram killed him I put three bullets in its head. The man turned around to thank me, but as he did another one came at him from behind to finish the job. It grabbed his hair and his chin and twisted. There was a sickening “crack” and the man fell to the ground limp. I avenged the poor man by shooting the foul bastard in the chest, sending gore everywhere.

A piercing shriek in the background caused a brief pause in conflict. All of the Koram put tilted their heads back, and sniffed wildly.

“Mutants” one hissed.

Men and Koram exchanged understanding glances. Their conflict could resume after the mutual threat was destroyed.

Guttural moans and howls came from the distance. The thundering of heavy footfalls made Koram and human alike nervous.

“Radar reports many enemy targets closing in fast!” said a Titan trooper.  

“Weapons ready!” I yelled.

As the mutants came into view the Koram let out a war cry and ran into melee. It was gruesome. Koram swords were swung in terrifying arcs, separating mutant limbs with practiced precision. When one died, five rushed to take its place. At the onset of the fight it seemed as though the Koram might actually be able to keep the beasts at bay, but as the long seconds passed this thought was dashed.

With my GHC forces firing into their backs as they fought savagely with the monsters, the bodies piled quickly.

“Honorless human!” one managed to cry out before he was cut down. I almost felt sorry for them. Poor alien bastards.

Now it was down to men and monsters. We maintained a high rate of fire but melee was inevitable. They took high casualties from both the Koram and our gunfire but showed no signs of backing down. Melee had finally shown its brutal face. Men were torn apart horribly. I yelled over the frenzy,

“Grenades! Use your grenades!”

I heard the distinctive “Click… BANG!!” of many grenades going off. It came a bit late, but it was devastating to the mutant hordes.

I leveled my sword and charged. My pistol rained holy retribution on these once human wretches. I shot one in the leg, bringing it down to the ground. Another was rendered headless after my hastily placed shots.

Two men fought tag team against one creature. Another man stuck his bayonet through a mutant’s chest and fired three rounds. I turned around to see some of the monsters leaping out of trees and landing amidst our troops, some even landing on top of them. May their deaths be quick and painless merciful God…  

Their dreadful talons tore through our body armor with scary ease. GHC troopers were ripped apart by the deadly swings of their claws. It was horrifying, they moved methodically from target to target until they themselves were slain.

Three of the monsters charged me. As one swung his front claws at me I ducked and shot it in the chin, the bullet exiting the top of his head. The second tried to bite me in the neck. I parried its attack, stabbing into its open maw with my sword, leaving black ooze flowing out of its mouth. The last mutant had moved behind me, and sunk one of his talons deep into my right shoulder as I was finishing off the second. A trooper came to assist me, so it only had one arm to use against me.

I cursed loudly, it wormed its claw deeper and deeper into my shoulder until it met bone. I cried out in agony. Being behind me, I had to blindly fire my pistol hoping that one lucky shot would end the creature’s life and my suffering. After four shots the claws stopped moving in my arm. The dead weight of the monster falling on top of me knocked me to ground. Carefully using my sword I cut away the monster’s hand. I couldn’t get out the very tips of the claws though… they were embedded in the bone. They pain was awful but I was still alive. Sighing in relief, I looked around to see another man fighting for his life.

He was arming a grenade. As he swung back to throw it a beast plunged its claws into his lungs and bit deeply into his throat. The grenade fell out of his lifeless hand and onto the ground near me. Before I could react that same monster tackled me, as if he knew I was going to flee. To my horror the grenade came to a halt next to my left leg. It must have been my imagination, but I swear at that moment the creature’s heavy breathing and growling sounded much more like freakish laughter. I braced for the unavoidable.

The explosion was deafening up close. The monster and I flew about fifteen feet. The mutant, being on top, had taken most of the shrapnel; and thankfully died. As for me… from my thigh down my left leg was gone. Some shrapnel was embedded in my left side as well as my arm. I stared in disbelief my leg pumped out blood… I had to divert my eyes. All around me fighting continued. I looked up to see a man stab a creature in its eye as it ripped his arm off. A Penal Legionnaire with two pistols fended off two beasts. Cziller knelt beside me and was talking to me, but the ringing in my ears wouldn’t let any of the words come through. My head was spinning because of the pain. Before long, I blacked out.

 

Chapter 6

 

I awoke to find myself on a hammock of sorts. My leg had been cauterized and the shrapnel removed. I was lying next to other wounded or dying troopers. One man had one of his cheeks missing, along with some other horrible bite marks. Some had missing limbs or nasty gashes covering their bodies. Terrible injuries, God bless their souls… I examined my right shoulder. I couldn’t find the claw tips in my arm though… There wasn’t even a mark where it happened. Perhaps the medic removed them as well.

As the medic walked by I instructed him to get me a log and a hatchet. A few minutes later he returned with what I wanted. In a in less than an hour I had the log cut to match the length of my other leg. I fashioned it in a rough “L” shape.The medic had some straps to attach the log to what was remained of my leg. Even though I was pumped full of stimulants and pain suppressors it still hurt like sin.

“Congratulations sir. You can hobble.” The medic jested.

“Go tend to the others.” I snapped. Unsurprisingly the pain had affected my sense of humor...

I limped out to the clearing where they were burying the human dead and burning the alien bodies. My men were looting fallen Koram bodies for the swords and pulse rifles they possessed. They hit much harder than the GHC laser guns, so I made no effort to stop them. I learned that I had been lost rather early on in the fighting, and that we had lost roughly 180 men. So early into the mission and we already lost a third of our troops… This isn’t going well. Fortunately not many of my men were casualties. Of course, we had quite a few years of battle experience on the blue boys.

I paid my respects to the fallen, making the sign of the cross on my chest, and stating a prayer I had learned back at the Commissariat.

Once all the human dead were found and buried, we let the men rest; for tomorrow it would be back to the grind. During the night I had a fitful dream with my stump throbbing miserably. I awoke, before my very eyes about an inch of bone and muscle grew back, and was slowly covered with rough scar tissue. What the hell was happening to me?

We ran into no trouble during the rest of our hike, aside from the annoying biting insects the size of the hands that thwarted them. When we reached the edge of the Ghost’s Grove, many a man kissed the solid ground he now walked upon. All of us were thankful to get out of there. Within a half an hour we met up with Roberts. Turns out he also had a small confrontation with Koram but they were ill equipped to battle tanks.

We rested for nearly a full day; we wanted ready troops. Everyone ate up their tastiest rations and drank their small alcohol allotments. Tonight was the last night many of them would have.

During the night I woke up from the same nightmare as before, only this time, nearly six inches grew back… What was wrong with me…? Could this be a blessing from God? Rewarding the faithful for their service? I was a good soldier, but I was no saint... If not God, then what?

A curse from the mutants… I knew I had been injured by that monster! I knew it had planted its claws in me and I must be infected! Damnit! Why me?

There is nothing I could do now. I thought more about it... If I told anyone I would receive a mercy killing. Might as well die in glorious combat, defeating the enemies of man. I will have to enjoy my last days as a human I guess. After thoroughly bandaging my new flesh, I discreetly shortened my wooden leg. I limped out of my tent towards the nearest campfire.

“Pass me some cigarettes and liquor soldier!” I said with a smile to the fire’s tenders.

“Sir yes sir!” He replied jokingly.

Well… Here’s to humanity. Bottoms up…

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was shorten my wooden leg again. I hope no one else noticed that my leg was growing back…

Final preparations were made, and we marched off. The city terrain consisted of bombed out one and two story structures. There were both human and Koram buildings. About one in three were intact. After about a day’s worth of marching, seeing basically the same scenery all the while, we stopped to rest for the night. We stopped at a four way intersection. On each corner there was a four story human housing facility, must have been apartments complexes once. First off, we set the wounded in one building with the least amount of guards we could spare. The rest of the men were divided up into sentry squads or placed in the four buildings we were using. The tanks were be spaced evenly in the street. Set for the night, I fell asleep.

 

Chapter 7

 

I was shaken awake by a terrified blue boy.

“Sounds! I heard sounds! Come quick!”

Quickly getting up I grabbed my sword and pistol.

“What were these sounds like?”

“Like a buzzing… or humming. Yea something like that.”

I stopped. I could hear it. It sounded like… a hover engine. Tanks? No. Too quiet to be tanks… Drones! They were drones!

“Um… sir…? You feel ok?”

I realized had been sitting there for about a minute.

“Yes fine! Sound the alarm boy! We are under attack!”

“What? No. No Commissar. I’ll take you to the place where it was. The sound is gone now.”

“Really? I hear the sound right now! Can’t you too?”

He looked angered.  “Look here sir! I wasn’t kidding around, please take me seriously!”

He led on. My senses might be heightened... I was definitely becoming a mutant.

“It was right here when —“

Suddenly the alarm was set off. Leaving the blue boy there I dashed back to base. A Lieutenant approached me.

“Titan sentries are reporting ‘strange lights and sounds’ sir.”

“Pull the sentries back. Ready everyone for a fight.”

“Yes sir.”

Everyone cleared the streets and took their positions in window sills and open doorways. I wondered how many of our men had even seen drones before. Koram delved into the use of Artificial Intelligence far more than the GHC had dared, and one of the fruits of their venture was combat drones. They were roughly the size of a manhole cover, and had two rapid firing pulse weapons underneath its “shell.” The hover technology the Koram used radiated some kind of bright blue exhaust, which is what the men must have seen.

The humming got much louder. I could tell they were closing in on us. There! A blue light shined briefly in an alley. Acting completely on instinct I fired a shot into the darkness. The shot connected, something fizzed loudly before exploding. The light illuminated at least forty drones.

“DRONES! Keep your eyes peeled for any movement outside!”

Suddenly a automated voice sounded.

“Greetings human soldiers. You are now deep in Koram territory. You have obviously been spotted, and will be destroyed if you do not renounce your human despots and immediately accept The One True Way.”

“Bring it on you blue bastard!” bellowed Arcturus.

“AYE!!” shouted his men.

My men had puzzled looks, as if debating the offer in their heads.

“Don’t even think about it!” I threatened.

Their courage renewed. Shouts of slurs and threats sounded from our force.

“As you wish. What you call heroics we Koram view as absurdity. May your deaths be quick.” the speaker stated.

At that moment all visible rooftops were alight in a strange blue glow.

“Get to cover!” I shouted.

The drones had been hiding along the rooftops the whole time! The buzzing sound grew in volume as the hordes of combat drones activated and flew from rooftops, dispatching the remaining soldiers in the street.

The tank crews were sleeping in their tanks by my command, and were the first to respond to the assault. The Mark 19’s cannons were firing away, producing havoc and destruction of their own.

A heavy rain of pulse shots drenched the buildings before and streets before many guardsmen had time to get to shelter. People fell out of windows as they were gunned down. The survivors in the buildings were pinned down by the sheer scale of fire coming at them. Then the drone firing stopped momentarily. This gave the troopers the chance they needed; they returned fire, but were horrified to see the drones were trying to fly in through all accessible windows and doors. Shots rang out, but the sheer amount of the drones would win the day it seemed…

I watched in terror as all laser fire coming from the many windows was slowly silenced. One by one the windows and doors were secured by the drones. They flooded into openings like a mechanical swarm of insects. The room Cziller’s squad of five and I were in had not been hit yet. We were on the bottom floor of the building, so I ordered the men to search for a storage area or basement level. They fanned out and found one.

“There is nothing you can do here! Climb in and wait them out!” I ordered. The men quickly complied.

I rushed upstairs to try to get more people to safety. The hallway had four doors, and I opened the first one on the left. Five heads turned upon my arrival, with brief looks of fear replaced by relief.

“Go to safety! There is a basement door on the first floor! Run! Now!” I said frantically.

They left immediately.

I went to the first room on the right.

To my surprise, it was not humans who greeted me, but six drones. I dove to the right and raised my pistol. This saved me from the opening salvo, and gave me enough time to fire upon the closest drone. After three bullets it sparked and died; crashing loudly upon the floor. As I aimed my pistol at another drone my hand cringed and my veins bulged, throwing the pistol. I glanced at my hands to see the beginnings of claws, followed by sudden pain in my mouth. My incisors burned as I felt them lengthen... Bestial instinct overcame me and I threw myself upon the drones, my vision slowly going to darkness.

 

Chapter 8

 

I awoke to a roaring cheer, but my vision was obscured by a gas mask… which I was now wearing.  

“Huzzah! He lives! The champion of the night!” men bellowed and yelled.

As I got out of my stretcher and walked among them they parted, clearing a way for me and patting me on the back, all saying something to the gist of me saving their lives.

The survivors were Arcturus (who had retreated into a tank), the twelve tanks, and 34 men; 21 if you count men ready to fight. The other 13 were either wounded badly, or traumatized beyond help. All of the traumatized were blue boys. It’s a shame this had to be their first combat deployment…

“That’s terrific, he is awake. We still don’t have time for celebration and nonsense! Round up all those who cannot or will not fight, put them in that building!” Arcturus ordered. He stomped around angrily because the men were making comparisons between he and I. Their favorite descriptors for him being “coward” and “asshat.”

“I will not be held back by these bumbling morons!” he ranted.

The wounded were carried and the others dragged into the one story building that Arcturus had selected. “Tank Company, on my mark destroy that structure, fire! …FIRE DAMN YOU!” he yelled.

“You will do no such thing!” I protested.

“If they can no longer fight they will only slow us down!”

“Let's at least give them some weapons, food, and a radio. They can try to call for their own evac.”

Arcturus’s face was red from embarrassment and frustration.

“Fine, I wash my hands of them. Do as you please!”

After doing what we could for the wounded, the remaining 21 men and twelve tanks were readied for travel, and preceded. After an hour we came across some abandoned GHC fortifications, laid out in the middle of a pavilion in the city. We manned the fortifications, which consisted of trenches and bunkers, but we had no where near the manpower to occupy them properly. The tanks were spaced out behind the couple bunkers we did use.  

“Thirty minute rest break, effective immediately.” I declared.
At this the men stopped immediately and went nervously into idle conversation.

“What is the meaning of this?!” shouted Arcturus. “We have no time to waste!” Just then I heard something. Like scraping or scratching…

“The hell’s the matter with you Grant! You will listen when you are spoken to! I’ll not stand fo-“

“In the name of God be silent!” I scorned. He sheepishly backed down.

This scurrying sound… it was on a scale nigh imagination. There were also sounds of shouting in Koram, but they were mere whispers in comparison. I put my hands to my ears to block the sound. I dropped to my knees, the noise overpowering me. It had to be thousands of mutants, moving under our position. I could hear them so clearly, they must be close!

I fell to the ground unconscious.

I awoke hours later. Cziller was sitting next to me.

“You ok? Arcturus thought you were losing it so he locked you in here.”

My voice was muffled through the gas mask. “Then how did you get in?”

“I let myself in thank you. I didn’t get put on death row for nothing.”

He smiled. “You know, through and through this whole ‘tour of duty until death’ wasn’t that bad. I was living what I thought was ‘the good life’. I had money, women, drugs, influence. Got caught, conscripted, wound up as a GHC trooper. Turns out these were the best years of my life. Who knew you could be an asset to humanity killing things. Ha, if I had been smarter, I would have just enlisted instead of being a bodyguard to some corrupt aristocrat. Either way, just came to let you know those of us that are left were glad to serve under you. We have acquired Koram rifles from the dead, the most powerful weapons available to us, and are ready to meet our maker. Arcturus and his seven blue boys all have their battered lasguns and mucked up dress suits. Most of them are crying, or pleading to God to return them to Titan safely. They won’t last ten minutes when it hits the fan tonight. So don’t rely on them for jack. And three of Robert’s tanks went missing yesterday on patrols. It is assumed they defected. Captain Robert seems kinda sketchy so I don’t know if he will fight the good fight with us or against us. Hey, one last thing.”

“Yes?”

“You fought like a beast yesterday… literally. Your sword was sheathed when I found you unconscious. You’re face looked terrible so I gave you my gas mask. Word is you went from room to room… building to building… annihilating drones. You single-handedly saved most of the remaining men. Sure scared the hell out of me… but despite your looks, I’ve known you for eight years. You are many things, but a monster is not one of them. If anyone can control it, it's you. Your secret is safe with me.”

Cziller pointed to my hands. Scales had formed instead of tissue, and claws now fully replaced fingernails. He threw me some tank driver’s leather gloves. He smiled knowingly, and left.

I was horrified! My terrible secret was revealed! I snatched the gloves and put them on. I wondered when I had received the gas mask. I took it off and looked in the reflection of the mask’s eye piece… Lord no … My incisors had become horrendous fangs and my eyes had become pitch black. As I stood up my uniform was loose and baggy, my muscles were toned and my skin felt tight. I was stronger than ever before, my decades of tobacco addiction no longer soiled my forty year old lungs. My leg was also completely healed, but with lizard like scales and claws for nails. I looked like a monster, but I felt wonderful.

I sighed. Humanity’s path is one of struggle and suffering, but of righteousness. No matter the cost. After I re-bandaged my leg, I put on the gas mask. Successfully covering my mutations, I stepped into the brightness of the outside world.

 

Chapter 9

 

I walked over to Arcturus, who was in deep conversation with his last Lieutenant, ironically the man he had promoted at random just days before.

“We should just go back! We just got a new report saying the men we were supposed to liberate defected! There was no fight, they turned right away! What are twenty men and a few tanks supposed to do against an army?!” he whined.

Arcturus paced in a small circle and debated what was said, huffing and puffing, his breathing becoming more and more irregular. Moments later he fell to the ground; sobbing.

“Why my first deployment… why me? I can’t fail my first assignment...” he moaned.

I stomped over to where he was on the ground crying. As a reached him I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him to his feet with one arm. Still holding him with my left arm I struck with the right. His eyes met the reflectors of the gas mask and I struck him once more.

“I would expect this kind of behavior out of the lowest cur of your ranks, but certainly not out of a Commissar.” I declared. My voice was raspy and dry sounding. I guess it wasn’t going to be long before I was more beast than man.

“I-I’m sor-“ he feebly stammered.

I threw him to the ground, and as he lay there I stripped him of his badges and cap, both signifiers of his rank.

“You are no longer a GHC Commissar. You have failed beyond restoration in that respect. Now you have two options, you may leave with the rest of us as a trooper, or you can flee into exile as a criminal. Which will it be?”

His beady eyes glared at the circle around him, his gaze slowly making it all the way around the group.

“I have failed no one! You have all failed me!” he screamed at the top of his lungs; while scrambling to put his legs underneath him. As he righted himself he broke into a run, with no real destination in mind, I’m sure.

Cziller raised his pulse carbine. I lowered it with my arm.

“That won’t be necessary. He’s had shame enough.” I said flatly.

Cziller nodded solemnly.

“Ready yourselves, we are going back to pick up the wounded troopers, then back to drop zones for evacuation immediately!” I ordered. This was greeted by the biggest smiles I had seen all week.

Chapter 10

Three days ride, with remaining infantry riding on top of the nine Mark 19’s. We made frequent stops for food, and given the situation, was actually quite peaceful. The nearest star was shining brightly, producing high temperatures. The troops simply removed articles of clothing to relieve heat, but I had no such luxury. I feared my appearance had become even more fearsome during the past few days. I was stifling under my overcoat and gloves, and was the subject of much chit chat as to why I wouldn’t remove the clothing, or at least the gas mask. During one of the rest stops I stood on top of Robert’s lead tank and proclaimed the following.

“Many of you wonder why I do not remove my articles. I will tell you plainly, I have suffered terrible burns and bruises from the pulse carbines of the drones, and unfortunately many of them are getting worse. I will not subject you to observe my appearance, as it my dismay you. I am well enough to return to the Judge’s Gavel, and I will have my wounds tended. Until then, I will bear this burden with honor, and I’m sure you’d do the same.”

Many nods and looks of understanding meant the matter had been laid to rest.

We had taken the path through the grove that the tank company had originally used to hasten things up.

“Around the bend! A few more minutes and we’ll be at the landers!” a man riding on the front-most tank informed us. A cheer rose among the men. It was quickly silenced.

 

Chapter 11

 

“Drop your weapons, leave the tanks and no one will be harmed!” said a familiar voice on a loudspeaker… Arcturus…

He sat atop a defected Mark 19 smugly dressed in a mixture of his old uniform and newly acquired Koram armor. An assortment of Koram and GHC defectors waited with guns ready. Also under his command was a multitude of hover tanks and Mark 19s. This massive mixed force stood ready in the farm fields to vanquish our meager 21 troopers and nine tanks.

“Drop them now! We are more than equipped to deal with you.” Arcturus said menacingly.

Cziller was muttering something into our tank’s radio. I clambered into the tank to see what he was doing.

“Cziller, what are you up to? We don’t have time!” I whispered forcefully.

He smiled as he looked up at me.

“I’ve never seen an orbital strike up close, sir. I have Arcturus’s confirmation codes. Pretty please?” He asked sarcastically.

I smiled grimly in return.

“I’ll keep them talking.”

“Do that.” He said as he finished sending the Latitude and Longitude.

As I arose from the tank I was shocked … All other tanks and their men aside from my tank had defected, joining ranks and shaking the hands of the Koram and their allies. I glared at Robert, who would not meet my gaze. Still looking at the ground he said,

“Desperate times… I don’t know about you but I’d much rather wave a new flag than lose my life. We all know the GHC is falling apart...”

So be it. If Cziller’s plan works he’ll be waving that new flag in hell. I looked at my remaining options. We were right next to the Grove… that could buy us the time we need.

“Open fire, then into the woods! Now!” I ordered.

The gunner and driver nodded, and carried out their tasks with determination.

Before our retreat, the cannon fired, the shot crippling one of Roberts’ Mark 19s. Our tanks machine gun turrets chattered to life as we turned to bulldoze our way into the grove. A multitude of heavy weapon fire whizzed passed us, splitting, igniting, and detonating trees to the left and right of us as we crashed through.

Our fleeing was quickly impeded, due to a pulse cannon strike to the left tred. As our vehicle slowly came to a halt, it drove halfway over a natural ditch in the forest, tipping the tank on its side. The crew, Cziller, and I spilled out of the hatch only to be completely surrounded by enemy soldiers. The crewmen shook their heads somberly and walked towards the enemy with their hands up.

“Till death takes you…” murmured Cziller.

Unexpectedly Cziller drew my sword and attempted to run at the myriad of gunmen, but was cut down instantly. A pang of sorrow hit me, as I realized I lost my only true comrade... But then, a slight smile came to my face, and a small chuckle left my mouth.

“What could possibly be funny at a time like this?!” demanded Arcturus, who had made his way over to the tipped tank.

“You will be tried accordingly for your crimes.” I stated.

“Wha- You are crazy! I knew it from the moment I saw- Oh my god… what the hell is tha-“

An infinitely blinding light seared the eyes of all observers. The heavens themselves couldn’t forge destruction as potent as this. A blast that could level a small city had just arrived from the Judge’s Gavel. I was thrown about, and my clothes and flesh burned terribly. Most things around me were vaporized instantly but the blast had “trapped” me and a handful of others including Arcturus in the ditch under the fallen tank, saving our lives.

 

Chapter 12

 

“I suppose your search teams recovered me and the other few survivors of the blast, and by the way, how’s Arcturus doing?” I asked sarcastically.

“Just fine actually, he’s observing you from the one way mirror behind me, along with three members of the ruling caste.” replied my Koram interrogator.

“As you can see I was told very little of the severity of the mutant infestation of the planet, or what our long term plans for Kepler-186f consist of. What more do you want from me?” I asked plainly.

“I suppose we don’t need you alive anymore. Plenty of information can be gained from your dissection.” said the interrogator in a rather bored fashion.

I had noticed briefly as he stood up from his chair, what I had become. My body had just about completed its transformation. My claws were large and the tips poked out of my gloves, my teeth were pointed and so long that I could no longer close my mouth comfortably. It hurt to observe things in bright light, I assumed I had night vision to some degree. My skin was scaly and my voice was more rasping and growling than speaking. I was an animal in a Commissar suit, shamed in the eyes of God and man. I was still wearing my gas mask, but I wanted to breathe fresh air one last time. As I removed it the interrogator ran out of the room and screamed for guards.

“May God have mercy upon my soul!” I roared. I gave in to the feral instincts commanding me to attack.

 

Chapter 13

 

The ex-Commissar tore off his gloves and mask, revealing the full extent of his monstrous appearance to his captors. All that separated the ruling caste members (and Arcturus) from him was a thin sheet of one way mirror. The mutant grabbed the chair he had been seated in and hurled it with all his inhuman might at the mirror, the four legs penetrated easily. With this the Koram were fumbling for the pistols underneath their seats, but only one of them was fast enough. A further kick to the chair sent it flying through the mirror, impaling one of the observers. The mutant dove through the hole in the glass and was soon face to face with the remaining three. A terrified Koram raised his pistol with trembling hands, but in a flash of claws and gore the would-be gunman was lying dead. The creature slowly removed his talons from the Koram’s head, waiting for the next move of his former captors. A door burst open and five Koram warriors came in, opening fire. The mutant leapt through the ceiling tiles and scampered off with animal speed in the air vents above the ceiling.

“I am so sorry that got out of hand! We will have soldiers escort on you at all times from now on!” apologized a Koram observer to Arcturus.

“I should hope so! Escort me to my personal chambers to start with! I need to rest away such a terrible experience.” spat Arcturus.

He walked with one Koram warrior ahead of him and one on each flank, going from hall to hall eventually stopping at his master suite. The guards stood outside, awaiting his call, and he swung open the door and threw himself onto the enormous bed.

As he lay in his luxurious bed, Arcturus said aloud,

“I should have joined The One True Way years ago! Such a lifestyle I never even dreamed of! Fuck the human despots and fuck the GHC!”

Suddenly a rustling sound above him made him jump.

“Guards!” Arcturus yelped.

 

Conclusion

 

It was decided that the hive should be called; this would make an excellent place for a hive to increase their number. With all his might the ex-Commissar emitted a scream too high pitched for man or Koram to hear. Once this was done he burrowed through the thin ceiling and landed on the bed of Arcturus. He screamed and lost bladder control, but before the mutant could harm him it was shot to death by three guards he had called in moments before.

“Oh thank God!” he exclaimed, thoroughly exhausted.

Approximately eight hours later the Koram fortress the ex-Commissar had been killed in was under siege. Thousands upon thousands of mutants climbed over walls and broke through doors and sewer grates. The Koram and their allies gathered themselves for one desperate last defense.

They wouldn’t survive the night.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  

 

Matt Habeck

 

Setting:

Inside a German bunker in an unnamed town during World War Two. A table with chairs, a large crate, various supplies surrounding crate including rope and shovels.

Characters:

German Soldier: Thin, dirty, and starving. Does not speak english. Does not have a gun.

US Soldier: Young, with fresh clothes. Has pistol, large backpack radio, and pack with supplies.

Hero

(stage is dark. sound of heavy metal door opening, light comes from right side of stage along with sounds of gunfire. German Soldier is hiding near crate and table on left side of stage. Enter US Soldier. Sound of heavy metal door closing. US Soldier looks for a switch, finds one. Stage becomes dimly lit. Soldiers notice each other, German Soldier grabs for a shovel and US Soldier raises pistol.)

US Soldier: Don’t move! Put it down! (shrugs his gear to the floor)

(German Soldier shows his teeth, yells, and puts down the shovel. US Soldier motions with the gun for the German Soldier to move away from the crate/shovels. He does.)

US Soldier: How many of you are still in the area? (says this line a few times, slowing it down and sounding it out. No response at all, verbal or physical from German Soldier)

US Soldier: Oh forget it! Chair! Sit down on the chair! (motions towards chair with gun)

(German Soldier sits down in chair. US Soldier uses rope to tie him to the chair. Tight enough for him not to move, but not uncomfortable. US Soldier pulls up the other chair to the table, begins to relax now that other soldier is tied up)

US Soldier: Let’s see what you got me for christmas… (begins looking through German supply crate, finds gun parts, hand tools, ammo, and eventually a bottle of schnapps with cups)

US Soldier: Aw, for me? You know just what I like pal. (pours himself a cup full, drinks it. German soldier stares angrily at US Soldier.)

US Soldier: (sarcastically)It isn’t polite to ask someone to share a gift you know, but I’m a nice guy. (pours the German Soldier a drink, realizes the man can’t drink it by himself, adjusts his ropes so he has one arm free. German Soldier drinks the schnapps, lightens up a little and cracks a small smile)

US Soldier: (smiles) Now we are making some progress! (goes over to his supplies, grabs some crackers, sits back down at table. German Soldier stares longingly at the food the US Soldier has just revealed)

US Soldier: (with mouth full) We’re about to make this meal five star pal, have some crackers. (German Soldier devours crackers very quickly, US Soldier notices this and gives him most of the food on the table)

US Soldier: (with pity in his voice) You haven’t eaten much, have you bud? Take what you want, I’m so sick of those crackers at this point. Let me get you something to wash that down. (grabs his canteen from pack on the floor, gives it to German Soldier who gulps down all the water)

US Soldier: Thirsty too huh? You were pretty lucky I walked through that door and not some of the other guys. (shrugs) Of course, a lot of them act like they want to be here too. Honestly I’d rather be back in the states getting to know the local ladies, Ha!

(German Soldier finishes food, sits back in the chair comfortably [still tied up] and smiles widely)

US Soldier: Some of the guys in my unit think that the Germans fight so hard because they are bitter, or tainted in some way; but I’ll tell you what, if someone invaded the states I’d fight till my last breath! (brief pause, clears throat) What I’m trying to say is I understand why our governments don’t like each other, but that is no reason for me to dislike you as a person. You might not be thrilled that I’m sitting here on German soil, but I’m not here by my choice either pal. (brief pause, look of guilt on Chuck’s face, switches to excitement) I just realized, we haven’t been formally introduced! (points at himself) Chuck. I’m Chuck. (points at German Soldier)

German Soldier: (uses free arm to point at himself) Held.

Chuck:(genuinely happy) Nice to meet you Held! (vigorously shakes Held’s hand, Held beams at Chuck)

Chuck: Sarge says that I don’t understand the war yet, that replacements don’t know what’s at stake. I wholeheartedly disagree. How about a drink, professional and between ambassadors, of course! (Joking smile, pours drinks. Both finish drinks, Chuck gets up and performs a 30ish second dance. It is a very peppy, jazzy dance with no music. Held finds it very funny and laughs loudly.)  

Chuck: (slightly winded from dancing, sits back down)Oh wow, aren’t we having a ball! Ha! Another round for the thirsty folks in the front row. (pours more drinks, they finish them)

(Radio buzzes loudly)

Radio: (static) Attention! Attention! This zone is now fully under US control. Good work! The day is ours!

Chuck: Woohoo! Cheers! Here’s to my first battle! (pours another round of drinks, notices it is the last of the schnapps. Toasts cups with Held, who is all smiles)

(they finish their drinks and Chuck tosses the empty schnapps bottle back in the german supply crate)

Chuck: Hey Held, it looks as though the well has run dry. I’m going to see if I can get another bottle of the good stuff, and I’ll definitely grab some more food for you. I’ll be right back! (gets up, staggers to door, sound of heavy metal door opens, exit Chuck, heavy metal door closes)

(as soon as door closes Held’s smile vanishes, using his one free hand he frees himself from the rope/chair. He digs around the US Soldier’s supply bag and finds a knife. He puts it in his pocket. Held grabs a shovel and waits near the door of the bunker. Lights on stage fade again)

 

(stage is dark and there is no activity for 30 seconds)

 

(sound of metal door opening, light shines onto stage from stage right, enter Chuck carrying a crate with both hands, 2 whiskey bottles and a stack of crackers. He flicks on the light and Held strikes him from behind with shovel.  Chuck drops crate and Held drops shovel. Chuck whimpers, cries out, and falls to the ground, Held gets on his back and stabs him several times. Held then takes the crackers [which have Chuck’s blood on them], Chuck’s pistol, hits the lights, runs outside and closes the door. Light coming from right of stage disappears when the “door” closes.)

 

END SCENE

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Matt Habeck

The Man in Red

Characters

Lieutenant: A Union Lieutenant in his 20s

Captive: A Confederate soldier in his 20s

Man in Red: ???

Captain: The Lieutenant’s commanding officer

Soldier: A private in the Union Army

Setting  

US Civil War. Abandoned farmhouse, near battleground. Farmhouse empty except for a table, some chairs, and a bottle on the table. Can hear the ongoing battle with occasional muffled gunshots, and cannon fire in the background.

 

Soldier, Lieutenant, and Captain enter the farmhouse, dragging a bound prisoner with a bag over his head. Soldier hauls captive into the corner and drops him (unconscious) onto the floor.  

Soldier: Who ever lived here left in a hurry.

Lieutenant:(walks to table, opens the bottle on the table and sniffs, coughs) That’s strong!

Soldier: Home brewed moonshine most likely. We used to brew our own back home, before the war. (trails off then, walks over and kicks the captive)  No good Confederate bastard!

Captain: It’s good that we caught him when we did. This battle could be a decisive blow to the Confederate forces.

Soldier: Those scum will never win with him in captivity.

Captain: This was a lucky break! (sternly) We can’t drop our guard and trust luck to take care of the rest of the battle for us. Let’s get back out there! Lieutenant!

Lieutenant: Yes sir!  

Captain: This man is very important to our victory.

Lieutenant: I understand sir.  

Captain: We’ve gotten quite a bit of information from him, so he may be of some use to us alive. But he also knows valuable information that could tip this fight in the Confederate’s favor… Now, I am gonna trust you to watch this man.

Lieutenant: Yes sir! I would be honored.

Captain: (dismisses other soldier, whispers). We are counting on you in this matter Lieutenant. But think of it more as an opportunity… You are always someone we can rely on to follow orders, even when you have to get your hands dirty. Make no mistake, the United States will reward you for your service.

Lieutenant: Of course, thank you sir. (sounding pleased)  

Captain: If this man escapes it could effect this battle’s outcome. The enemy does not know that we are occupying this farmhouse, so you won’t need to worry about defending this location.

Lieutenant: I understand sir.  

Captain: Excellent. Now for the important part… If you don’t hear otherwise from me within the next hour, assume you should execute the prisoner and rejoin the battle. That is an order.

Lieutenant: Yes sir! (salutes)

(Exit captain. Lieutenant paces excitedly, gun to chest. He relaxes after a few moments and slings the gun over his shoulder. He approaches the unconscious prisoner and looks him over.)

Lieutenant: I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to let the poor bastard breathe for a bit.  

(He leans down and tugs the bag off the prisoner’s head, revealing his face. The prisoner is also a young man, face dirty and bruised. Lieutenant stumbles backwards as if struck and drops gun to the floor.)

Lieutenant:(mumbling in shock) I know your face.  

(wanders over to the table pulls a chair from the table over to the prisoner and sits down)  

Lieutenant: I never expected to see you again… especially not here… (sighs) this war doesn’t care about our past.

(lieutenant gets up and goes to table, taking long pulls from the bottle and sitting back down over the prisoner. As he starts to drink the stage lights dim and an imposing man comes on stage, highlighted by red light)  

Red Man: You don’t really need the liquor to do what comes next.

Lieutenant: Who the hell are you to say what I need?!

Red Man: (standing over the captive) I think we can agree that following your orders is what’s best.

Lieutenant: Best for who?

Red Man: Well, best for us.

Lieutenant: I’m trying to figure that out for myself.

Red Man: Which is why I’m here.

Lieutenant: Aren’t you the devil?

Red Man:(pacing around the captive, smiles dryly) You’ve been called many things, but never the devil.

Lieutenant: What do you mean by that exactly? (takes another drink)

Red Man: (gestures all around himself) Well all those bodies that we’ve crawled over to get where we are...Do you really think that we would be having this conversation if you didn’t know that captive? (points at captive) He would have been dead already.

Lieutenant: It hasn’t been an hour yet!

Red Man: Hasn’t stopped us before. Why do you think we were chosen for this job in the first place?

Lieutenant: (gulps the drink) Because I follow through with orders, even the tough ones, even the ones that others couldn’t bring themselves to do!

Red Man: Exactly! Well this one would have been just as easy if you hadn’t removed the damn bag. Why not just put it back on him? Let him be the nameless, faceless captive again. You wouldn’t have a problem killing that man.

Lieutenant:(takes a big gulp of the moonshine, coughs and swishes around the half empty bottle) God, why the hell did I remove that bag? You’re right, this would have all been over already.  

Red Man: Then we would already have that promotion. We like the sound of Captain, and our family would be so proud of us, coming from such a humble background, making something out of ourselves.  

Lieutenant: But what about him? If our situation was reversed...Do you think he would pull the trigger on me? If I were unarmed, bound, with a bag over my head?

Red Man: Of course he would. Think of the increase in pay alone! If we kill him now, we don’t have to risk his escape. If he runs and changes the fight in their favor, do you want that added guilt? One Confederate versus the lives of many Union ones. Do the right thing and take care of the job now.  

Lieutenant:(nervously checks pocket watch) The hour...it’s not time yet…

Red Man: What does it matter!?  He is a threat to us, our country, and our promotion! He is a rebel and a traitor! (points threateningly at captive)

Lieutenant: (jumps up and drops bottle, which rolls away) Stop it! None of that mattered when we were kids, we would have done anything for each other! I owe him a debt! His family saved me!

Red Man: (starting to get in the Lieutenant’s face)When did you become so weak? You forget all progress we’ve made? We didn’t make it here by paying our debts, we took what we could whenever we could take it! We aren’t poor or starving anymore, we do what we must to provide for ourselves. If he had been more careful, he wouldn’t have been captured, and made our problem! You can pity him and still follow orders--

Lieutenant:(grabbing up gun, as if in defense, aiming it at the red man) Stop! Stop it!

Red Man: You can’t stop me! I am the strongest part of you!  

Lieutenant: (serious, sobering up, lowers the gun) Well if that’s true, then maybe we both deserve to die.

Red Man:  I’ve been dragging you by the hand through all these years. You don’t think you need me anymore? You hardly have a spine at all without me! You created me to make the choices you couldn’t!

Lieutenant: (unhappy) Let’s wait, if the hour passes, we will have to weigh our options…

Red Man:(pacing around quickly) Fine! It's not like two minutes will make a difference.

Lieutenant: I guess I didn’t realize how many times I’ve just done what I was told. I didn’t feel compassion or remorse when I was told to kill those men. So many of them….

Red Man: (taking a seat at the table)I take over when it gets to the hard part, so don’t act like the victim here.

Lieutenant: (defeated)Oh I’m no victim, I’m just wondering whether my crime is unleashing you on the world or not being strong enough to make my own choices… How many lives have we taken?

Red Man: We never kept count. You know that. You are just stalling now. (impatiently) It's time.

Lieutenant: Give it a few more minutes, please.

Red Man: No, we’ve danced around this long enough. Kill him or I will!

(Red Man looks menacing, starts walking over to the confederate like he is going to choke him to death)

Lieutenant: (begging) No! Get away from him! Please! (raises gun again at Red Man) I mean it!

Red Man: I’m doing this for us! Go find that bottle and leave this to me.

(gunshot, Red Man turns to face Lieutenant in disbelief, Lieutenant looks terrified, unsure of his action, captive wakes at the sound of the gunshot)

Red Man: You aren’t strong enough to live without me…. (red light fades, exit red man in the darkened stage area)

Captive: William, is that you? (shocked) You’re a Federal? Did you shoot at me?

William (Lieutenant): No Jonathan, I didn’t shoot at you. We don’t have time to catch up here, you need to listen to me very carefully. (reloading the gun)

Jonathan (Captive): (worried) Are you going to kill me?

William (Lieutenant): (reluctant)I’m going to release you, we’re going to trade uniforms, and you are going to run off into the night.

Jonathan (Captive): You’re what?! You can’t do that--

William (Lieutenant): (still talking fast)  Don’t go back to your forces, they’ll shoot you in my uniform, and if my forces inspect your papers they may kill you yet.  

Jonathan (Captive) : But we’ve only just met up--

William (Lieutenant) : There’s no time! (urgently)

Jonathan (Captive): But what am I supposed to do? Now I live with your blood on my hands-- Will, I can’t--

William (Lieutenant): Just run home...Please! Tell my parents I’m sorry. Live. That’s all you need to do. (finishes loading gun, now walking over and untying Johnathan. They switch coats)

Jonathan (Captive):(confused) Are you serious?

William (Lieutenant):(stern) Yes, get the hell out of here. Away from all this. (gestures around him)

Jonathan (Captive): (still in disbelief) Thank you, thank you so much! My family William… My family will never forget what you have done for them in freeing me. (runs off stage)

(William is sitting alone at the table in confederate uniform with gun beside him. He finishes off the moonshine and coughs. Red Man pulls up a chair at the table)

Red Man: (defeated)We could still run after him, maybe get him. At least escape into the woods…. Or do you really feel that strongly about it?

William (Lieutenant):(wearily) Yes, I do.

Red Man: (sigh)I suppose I can do you one last favor. (reaches for gun)

(William closes his eyes, Red Man stands up and points the gun at William’s head. Stage fades to black and the sound of one gunshot is heard.)

END SCENE

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Habeck

Murphy is Dead

[Scene: Commander and Loader in an M4 Sherman tank (Gunner, Driver, and Radio Operator are dead)]

Commander: Enemy in our sights, FI-

Commander:(wheezing) FIRE

Loader: (gagging) I’m covered in blood…It's not my blood, I don’t know if… I don’t think the gunner... survived…

Commander: Do you want the next shot we receive to kill us both? Fire the damn gun!

Commander: Fire again, our shot bounced off!

Loader:(whimpers) oh god no….

Commander: Thank god, we can rest easy for a moment. We got them.

Loader: (defeated)Murphy said we were going to open a bar when we got back…

Commander: (looks at the 3 dead bodies in the tank) Which one was Murphy?

Loader: The radio operator! How could you not even…

Commander: I don’t become friends with the replacements so I don’t have to replace my friends. If you were smart-

Loader: -If you were smart we’d be on the correct side of the bridge, with our vehicle AND our FRIENDS intact!

Commander: I have orders!

Loader: Damn your orders!

Commander: Tell that to Patton, to Eisenhower!

Loader: That’s it, I’m getting out of this tank, and leaving you to the hell of your choosing.

Commander: Don’t leave the tank you damn fool.

Loader: The hell with you and the hell with your tank!

Loader: OH JESUS!

Commander: How bad is the pain? Do you need one shot of morphine or two? Wake up! Answer me!

Loader: I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I should have just…

Commander: I could’ve stopped him. I let him get shot. I knew he wouldn’t listen. It's my fault...

Murphy: (raspy) Yea, you probably could’ve saved Doug, but don’t blame yourself for me, Jake, and Ernest.

Commander: What the-

Murphy: (raspy) Oh right, Jake was the gunner, Ernest was the driver, in case you didn’t know.

Commander: No but how are you….

Murphy: (raspy) Well it is going to be quite a while before friendly troops come and relieve you. I figured I’d keep you company in the meantime so you don’t go crazy.

Commander: Well thank you, after the loader-

Murphy: (raspy)-Doug.

Commander: After Doug died I thought I was going to lose it.

 

END SCENE

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 


© Copyright 2017 Losdelrio. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

Comments

More Flash Fiction Short Stories