I watched from the wall as they began arriving. First in ones and twos, then larger groups of desolate soldiers trudging towards the city. There was no doubting what this meant: the capital had fallen. The walls which had held for four hundred years were breached.
The horde would follow.
Behind me I could see the dusty road that led to the border. Already it was jammed with carts slipping away. We had been ordered to search anyone trying to leave, ensuring they didn’t take food or weapons. How were they meant to reach safety without food or weapons? How were they meant to reach it at all? Was there anywhere safe?
We had also been given orders to stand here, no matter what the cost, if only to give our countrymen time.
When my watch ended I walked home past the infirmary. I lingered by the door, listening for a few minutes.
“There were too many of them.”
“It was carnage. Only a small number of us…”
“…harried us all the way…”
“…it’s all gone…”
“…the stench. You can’t imagine…”
“On the last day we broke out. We abandoned them all. We don’t deserve to live.” That last voice was so tragic. He sounded like he wanted only the relief of death. I leant in through the door. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He stared wide-eyed as he gripped another man’s shoulders. “We made a mistake leaving them. I won’t make that mistake again. God will see that I stand here. And die if He wills it.” These were the survivors, and they would stand with us.
At home my son greeted me by leaping up. As if nothing was wrong. I looked at my wife. Her face showed nothing, but her eyes were sad. I said, “You have to go.”
“We’ve been through this, my love. I cannot leave. For his sake, go.”
She looked angry. It was unfair, I knew, but it might save their lives.
“You could…” she began, but I shook my head. I had taken the oath. There was no choice now.
“When?” she asked.
“Immediately. The horde cannot be more than a few days from here. If they surround the city, it will be too late.”
She burst into tears. Our son ran over and hugged her, not understanding what was going on. He was a good boy. I would miss him. I would miss her. Not for long, at least – that was a comfort.
I needed to do something. “I will pack what you need.”
“Where will we go?”
“As far as you can.”
“I don’t speak other languages.”
“You will learn.”
“I don’t want…” I stepped forward and held her, and my son. I knew. But there was no choice.
The gate was closed when we arrived. I begged the captain, persuading him with now-pointless money. He took it all. Through the small door I could see a few distant carts. “Hurry,” I said. “Catch up with them and you will be safer. A group of survivors is providing escort.”
She tried to speak, but couldn’t. They flung themselves at me. I pushed my wife and son away.
“Take care of him for me. Good luck.”
I turned. It would only get harder the longer it took. The captain closed the gate, and her sobs were cut short. I hoped she wouldn’t linger, but there was nothing I could do now. I had to get some rest before the battle began.
The survivors were scattered amongst us, filling our ranks. Seeing the numbers on the walls gave me brief hope, until I remembered who we were fighting. No walls could withstand the horde. No army could stop them. Sometimes no one survived – sometimes a few lived to tell the tale. My heart sank as a cold wind gusted round the city.
“The Baron has given orders,” said a man near me, a survivor. “No inch of the wall is to be surrendered. He will make a final stand in the keep. We must not leave our posts.”
Of course we wouldn’t. The walls looked strong. There was still no sign of any army. That gave me hope. Maybe there had been a miracle? At least my family would be long-gone before the horde reached us.
A horn blew, and there was commotion by the back gate. Surely my wife would not have returned?
The word spread rapidly. An ambush. The survivors described their battle. They had been driven back, separated from the women and children. When a chance came to return, the slaughter was complete. With nothing to fight for, the survivors rode back for the city.
My heart was ice. I had only one task to accomplish now. To avenge them. To drag as many of the horde to hell as I could, to make them pay for what they had taken. My death now meant nothing.
I heard the horn sound three times. It was the sound of an attack, but still no army. A man to my right screamed. And one to my left.
I saw a survivor thrust his sword through one of our soldiers and push him off the wall. The other side, the same. All along the walls, men were falling. I drew my sword to face the survivor in front of me. I recognised him from the infirmary, but his face was different now. He stared into my eyes, grinning. I raised my sword, parried his blow and responded as swiftly as I could. He crumpled, clutching his chest. I turned to face another, blocking a blow to my head. I prepared to counter, but felt the steel run me through from behind, and then a boot, and then merciful blackness, swallowing up the betrayal.
When not writing, and not suffering the burden of a very much less creative day job, Robert Kibble is usually upset about the lack of a single Russian oligarch with a preference for recreating zeppelins over buying football teams, is accidentally collecting whisky, or ranting about the vagaries of modern life. He has written a novella, “The Girl in the Wave”, which is a modern gothic horror set on the beautiful Cornish coastline.
You can’t find your keys this morning, so your wife drives you to work.
At dinner, it seems, the salt is lacking, but when you attempt to add some more, the shaker is bare.
The only consolation at the end of such a troubling day, of course, is Aurelius, but he too is absent from the shelf.
When sleep doesn’t come, the bedroom grows long, the blankets constrict the body, stretching over with elastic tension, blood stagnates in the head, and the ears sharpen to the muted creeping of thieves, careful things, biding their time in air vents and drains and the narrow crevices between walls, watching through miniscule peepholes.
Every day you notice something amiss: a sock, the lid of the blackberry jam, the spiral binder of your notebook. All that remains is a new scuff on the floor, and then the next morning the scuff too has vanished.
Things fleeced never return, things that were your life: a living room full of books and machines, kitchen stocked with food and garbage, bedroom decorated with modern art, cage-free eggs, excruciating whitening mouthwash, wedding ring.
Your life an aesthetic list.
You can’t catch them. All the traps you lay—the tripwire, rat catchers, fishhook nets—all triggered and taken. The shadows of subtle pilfering evaporate when you flick on the lights in the middle of the night, the little thieves darting into unseen corners.
Then one night the light doesn’t flick on, the bulb gone, the muted sounds of thievery persisting defiant in the dark.
One day, when the wife doesn’t return from work, you realize the thieves have become so emboldened as to rob you of her warmth.
The place barren now—skeletal frames of furniture and appliances with no content to fill them—life has descended into a new level of emptiness, the pinnacle of enforced austerity, but there is always more that can be taken away.
The next morning you find they have absconded with your doors. When you return from work, the windows are gone. Your house has become a Second Circle wind tunnel, every corner in constant, restless motion.
Then the frames of furniture drift away: the cushionless couch, the chairless table, bed frame, book shelves, carpet, refrigerator: more items struck off the list. Finally, all that is left is you curled into the corner of your bedroom at night, watching the hunched forms of the thieves flit through the shadows.
Bolder and bolder.
The less there is for them to have, the greedier they become.
It is only a matter of time before—a longing throb—you find the nail of your pinky toe missing, plucked neatly from your body.
By parts, they pluck your limbs from you: a foot, a forearm, a calf, a bicep . . . . One day you awaken to find a stillness in your body: the beating of your heart silenced. You can only imagine the pit there, flanked by slabs of lung.
One by one the organs of your body are ripped from you, cleanly, without any disturbing scar, just the memory scar of that wholesome feeling of filled body space.
By now you can only shamble about, the bits of you that still poke out exploring the parts of you with holes. With the exposed retina of the one remaining eye you piece together that they have stolen the entire left side of your house, parts of the roof, the floor. Beyond that are giant, empty bites out of the earth, the sky, existence.
Worst of all, you realize, staggering on the brink of a void, somehow, throughout it all, they managed to steal your volition and motivation to fight back.
Finally, the pathetic scraps of sleep and solace that had been left you are yanked away: at night all there is to do is watch their slight, bird-clawed shapes lurching through the darkness as they plunder through the pathetic remnants of your ravaged life.
As you stare blankly, they rip the digestive system out of your mouth, the circulatory system out of your chest, skeleton out of the hole in your arm, and then, with their little thief hooks, your entire nervous system out of your nose, brain and all, leaving behind the deflated folds of skin that had once been the mask people had called “you”. Then, of course, that goes too. It all goes, every atom, until you are not really sure what it is the thieves were charitable enough to leave behind.
Nothing, it seems.
The edges of vision.
But then you see it flashing in the corner of your mind, distant and tantalizing.
Your car keys.
You reach out and grab a hold of them with psychic energy, reel them into your essence, and from there associations begin to branch out: your car and travel coffee mug, your house and fence, your refrigerator and wife, all the books and wood, paint and carpet, paintings and spaces. It all begins to fill back in, and you find that you are not only grasping the keys mentally but are also gripping them physically, can feel the metal biting into your palm. There is more, as well. Carpet fuzz beneath the feet. The sight of the disorganized kitchen counter. The cloying smell of overripe fruit in the fruit bowl. The sound of your wife preparing for work in the bathroom.
Everything seems miraculously as it was before the thieves: so present.
As you drive out in the sunlight, the universe is not full of holes, but you can’t shake the feeling that this dangling keychain, this car, these thick hands, this brain, none of them belong to you.
Tim W. Boiteau’s fiction has appeared in journals such as LampLight, Kasma Magazine, and Write Room. He was a 2012 finalist in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open contest.
From a dim corner I laughed as I watched Ashlyn coax Dr. Jesmit into Graves’: a clever rabbit drawn into a den of foxes. Dr. Jesmit had clawed her way from a third tier slum to a first tier office in the world’s biggest tech company and then thrown it all away on principle. It would be hard to pass judgment on a creature like that.
My stone sat heavy in my pocket.
“I want you to see what I’m offering you. What I’m asking of you,” Ashlyn said.
“I know,” Dr. Jesmit said, “I just didn’t realize — there’s so much.”
Ashlyn laughed making thin black creases in the shimmery gold around her eyes. “This is Mr. Graves’. Circus employees only.”
Mr. Graves’ was brimming with gambling, sex, and the cleanest eating in the world. We were allowed no drugs or junk food so we could be at our best for the crowds. The Circus was a religion, after all. It required sacrifice.
“This is Baker Vegersteff, the Master of Clowns,” Ashlyn said. Clowns crowded around Baker. “A scoundrel for sure, but a kinder soul you’ll not find. We discovered him in a traveling show in Romania. When he joined us, he’d been awake four days with a dying elephant.”
“Why did it die?” Dr. Jesmit asked.
“Why do any of us die?” Baker said. “She was mortal.”
“Of what did she die?” Dr. Jesmit said.
“Bureaucracy,” Baker said. “Our Animal Transports were out of India. They were ingenious in how they absorbed shock so the animals didn’t get motion sick, but only if the gears weren’t too dirty. If we took them apart for cleaning, we couldn’t get them back together. We had to send them back to India. Customs in India didn’t want them back, though, once they’d been in contact with animals. A piece of the hydraulic system on her door had come apart and cut her legs. She died of infection.”
“Do many animals die as a product of being in a circus?” Dr. Jesmit asked.
The room hushed, giving away our trick of listening without being quiet.
“Every single one of us,” Baker said.
“We use the same transports here,” Ashlyn said, the disapproval in her voice not daring to crease her makeup as her laughter did. “Nobody’s died, yet.”
Dr. Jesmit nodded. “I could reconstruct a transport.”
“Not legally,” Baker said. “Reverse engineering is considered corporate sabotage by the U.N.”
“I’m aware,” Dr. Jesmit said.
“That’s pretty dirty for a corporate scientist,” yelled a clown.
“I think you misunderstand the nature of corporations,” Dr. Jesmit said.
“She’s got my stone,” said Baker, a hearty laugh making his hoop belly shake wildly around his reedy frame.
Several of the clowns slapped each other on the backs, piled their stones into Ashlyn’s hand.
Ashlyn guided Dr. Jesmit around the room, her hand at the small of the Doctor’s back. I wondered if we were going to acquire Dr. Jesmit so Ashlyn could have her or if Ashlyn would have her so she could be acquired.
“This is Legion Comfrey, a tent tech,” Ashlyn said, coming to politic to me.
“What do you do for the Circus?” Dr. Jesmit asked.
“I sweat for it. I bleed and ache from muscles down to bone for it. What do you plan to do for our Circus, Dr. Jesmit?”
“Develop more efficient generators and maintain the more advanced equipment.” Dr. Jesmit studied me. “Perhaps I can find a way to ease your burden.”
“Ain’t you helpful,” I said.
“Isn’t that why I’m here, Mr. Comfrey, so my usefulness can be judged?”
“Your usefulness ain’t what we’re judging. I’ve read some of your papers. I especially liked your work on low cost prosthetics.” I shook my prosthetic foot for her. “It’s easy to lose parts when the tents go up.”
“Then what are you judging?” she said.
“The weight of your soul, Dr. Jesmit, the direction of your compass. We all keep our Circus rolling, from the Mistress of the Skies here,” I pointed to Ashlyn, “to Daisy Germel who scrapes the trash from the ground before we disappear. We have to make sure you can dance before we invite you to the party.”
“I understand,” Dr. Jesmit said.
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’ll hold my stone for now.”
“Your stone?” she asked.
“We cast stones,” Ashlyn said, “to vote on whether or not to allow you to join the Circus.”
I produced my stone. “They’re all identical. When all the stones are cast, they’re weighed. I know you’ve won the clowns’ stones, but us tent techs will need a little more convincing. Many of us have been kicked out of fine nations to be citizens of the Circus. Our mothers won’t claim us and the rest of the world only wants us on their stages but not on their streets. I’m not sure you can bear that kind of honor.”
“So you’ll do unto me as they’ve done unto you?” she said.
“Trust me girl, the irony ain’t lost on me,” I said.
Dr. Jesmit smiled. “So the lobbying continues.”
“Guess so,” I said, unaffected by Ashlyn’s glare.
Ashlyn paraded Dr. Jesmit to the juice bar so the food vendors could have their turn. I jostled the stone in my pocket. I hadn’t wanted to like her.
Truth told, though, casting my stone had nothing to do with who I liked. She would be a boon for the Circus. The Vid feeds remembered how New World Industries had tried to rake Dr. Jesmit over the coals when she gave away her plans for low cost prosthetics after they’d rejected them. Her prosthetics were better than the expensive ones. The Circus had to have a Mistress of Engineering, so it seemed right to get the one willing to piss off a global corporation now and again.
It wasn’t in me to spare kind words though. I slipped by Ashlyn and dropped my stone into her pocket, leaving politics to the performers.
Sara Jackson lives and loves and makes believe in Oklahoma where her advanced use of sarcasm is underappreciated.
Adam stared across the table and tried to remind himself that when he looked at Eric, he was seeing the future of humanity. Or at least that’s what the paperwork said. The dossier listed Eric’s qualifications including strength, resilience, and a rare pre-adaptation to low oxygen environments. Adam’s supervisors dubbed that the ‘perfect genetic mix’, a mix the company needed to have.
Adam thought that ‘perfect’ mix should include street smarts, but in that respect Eric had proven disappointing. They’d been playing cards for hours and Eric’s money was almost gone. The boy should have learned to control his reactions by now. Instead, the future of humanity drew another card and his breathing quickened.
“I’m guessing you have a good hand, my friend.”
“I’m not your friend,” Eric snapped back.
Adam was surprised. By this point in the evening, most targets believed that Adam was their best bud. Perhaps Eric’s genetic legacy included a fast metabolism? Adam pushed his untouched beer across the table to join the three empties near Eric’s elbow.
The boy ignored the fresh bottle and glared at Adam. It wasn’t much of a glare. Eric’s brown eyes were large and innocent. Adam had to look away to hide his envy.
“Well, friend,” Eric said, “I need to fold.”
“There’s no sport in folding. Wager something. It doesn’t have to be money.”
“You’re looking at all I got.”
Adam turned back to consider Eric’s olive skin, curly black hair and lean compact body, a body that made Adam’s heart race. “You look healthy,” Adam murmured.
Eric scowled, pushed back from the table and stood up. “That’s sick. No.”
Apparently, the future of humanity was homophobic so Adam went for the straight approach. “Relax. My business is clinical, not carnal.”
“Uh? You want me to wager a kidney?” Eric looked completely flustered now.
“There’s no money in black market organs when people can just grow what they need in a dish. All the money’s in off-world operations.”
“What does that mean?” Eric asked.
That was an excellent question, a question Adam asked his own company nine months ago when they yanked funding for his neural imaging project and funneled it all into research they claimed would ‘save humanity’, or at least a select few, the ones with the genes required to change, to hide.
Adam had thought the project crazy and he’d hated the company’s new name. “New Year’s Dive? You mean those idiots who jump into the water in January looking for a fresh start?” He’d headed for the door, but his boss took him aside and showed him a video assembled by the company’s astrophysics wing. That video still made him wake up screaming. Now, here he was, discreetly saving the race, one moron at a time.
Eric cleared his throat. “So what does it mean?”
“It means you can pick up your cards and I’ll tell you what to wager.” Adam picked up his own hand. A pair of eights. He could work with that.
“These are the people that I represent.” Adam passed a business card across the table. The company’s ridiculous new name “Nieuwjaarsduik” was printed on the card in iridescent letters. “You wager yourself as a volunteer in one of their projects.”
Eric glanced at the card, but didn’t pick it up. Either the guy was smarter than Adam thought or just lucky. It was time to deploy the bling. Adam reached across the table and flipped his business card over. Letters strobed across the back of the card casting a violet light onto the table.
“Don’t change the world. Change yourself.” Eric read the company motto out loud and reached a hand towards the pretty lights. He tapped the back of the card and then turned it over. “It’s blank.” Eric sounded disappointed. “What good is a blank business card?”
“It just transferred our contact information to your cell phone,” Adam said. Adam also knew that it had transferred a neural susceptibility vector to Eric’s finger tips. Adam picked up the blank card and tucked it into a pocket. “So are you playing?”
“I think I need to know more about the project? What exactly will they do to me?”
Adam mentally listed the modifications. They’ll rip out your lungs, replacing them with an organ that can split oxygen from water. They’ll pump your blood full of antifreeze, modify your gut to digest hydrocarbons, tweak your eyes to see in almost total darkness and then dump you into a methane ocean and call you a colonist.
Adam said, “Do the details really matter? You’re going to win, right?” He smiled but had to force his mouth into the right position.
Eric looked at the money on the table and licked his lips. “Okay. I lose, I’m your lab rat.” Then he slapped his cards down face-up. “Beat that!”
Adam did. He closed his eyes, flicked the transmitter in his pocket and lowered his cards. He’d already built the mental image he planned to send.
Eric’s jaw dropped. “That’s impossible! Two four of a kinds in one game? You had four eights?”
Adam opened his eyes and gathered up the cards. The transmitter worked by synchronizing the firing pattern of a host and target’s sensory neurons. It was tricky to maintain a false image for very long.
“How. How did you—” Eric didn’t finish that thought. “You cheated!” Eric grabbed at Adam’s sleeve, but only succeeded in knocking the beer bottles off the table. “Where were you hiding the cards?”
Adam stuffed the cash into his coat and started for the door. “My company will be in touch with you about your debt.”
Eric gaped. “I won’t pay it. You cheated! Get back here and tell me how!”
Adam kept walking. He had other volunteers to collect. No doubt they were all fascinating and worthy people. No doubt he would find some way to use them to get off this rock before the world burned.
Kathleen Molyneaux is a recovering academic living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She has a Ph.D. in Cell Biology. Her work experience includes the care and feeding of yeast, HeLa cells, frogs, mice, whooping cranes, cats, and humans (a.k.a high schoolers, undergrads, graduate students and medical students). She is currently working as an Ultrasound Technician. She writes science fiction and mysteries in her spare time.
I had just decided the day couldn’t go on without another pot of Blackheart Vienna Roast when our dog Bogart walked in and announced, “Found the problem, finally, the baastads.”
On any other occasion having one of my corgis address me would cause a panic at the least, but when the AC, water heater and dryer kick it on the same morning you’re a bit numb and don’t rule anything out. I went with it.
“What problem?” I asked with a slight quiver, thinking with weak amusement that I could detect a bit of Richard Burton in his voice.
“Your conveniences. The water and whatnot failing. Think I can stop any more from goin’ south. Need to get out back.” He pause for a moment to scratch his neck as our other dog ambled into the kitchen and said, “Yes — quite clear what the issue is.”
I had half expected this, so I just put my mug down and turned to Koda. “What is it?”
“Tylwyth teg,” she answered. “Sorry — faerie to you. Mucking things up, it is.”
Little people, magical ones. Not really a surprise given the way it was going. It actually made more sense than brand new appliances failing at once for mechanical reasons.
“Can you do something about it?” I asked. Couldn’t hurt to try.
“Yes, but I’ll need a few things from the yard and cupboard,” she replied. It struck me that she affected an English accent, but then again Kristy and I always said she belonged in Buckingham, what with her demanding nature. I nodded.
“All right. One thing though — why hadn’t you said anything before?”
Bogart looked up. “Wasn’t sure it was them. Had a hunch but nothin’ else.”
“No, I mean — never mind. What do we need?”
At mid-morning we lay on the patio looking out at the backyard baking in the May sun. I had spent a good fifteen minutes pulling things from the pantry and following Koda as she searched the wooded area beyond our back border for various roots and plants. Bogart had stood watch on the hill and now lay to my right, eyes darting here and there.
“Don’t corgis get along with faeries?” I queried. He shifted his tricolored bulk a bit and sniffed forcefully with disdain.
“Never. Our ancestors were practically enslaved by them. Threw off the yoke in the last century but they pester us and our associates when they can. Minor stuff, but uncalled for.”
It crossed my mind that Ana and Jeff, who we met during CorgiCon, had been plagued with a spate of homeowner issues last fall. The pool pump, garage door and a transmission, all in a week…
Koda sniffed the bowl filled with our procurements. “Wish there was some elder’s ribbon around. Very potent, but it’s too warm for it to thrive here.”
“Will this kill it?” I queried, looking at the paste and thinking back to my last D&D campaign a decade ago. She gave a shake of her head.
“No, but a thorough dousing will make it leave for good. It will go and find anoth—”
Bogart suddenly cocked his head in typical curious-canine fashion. “Quiet — he’s about.”
I peered out, scanning about for motion. Something the size of a dragonfly zipped by low to the ground, fast and with no noise. It pulled up before reaching the fence and disappeared into the top branches of the oak tree.
“That’s it? How can you tell?”
“Look above that broken bough near the left,” advised Bogart. “The lighter form.”
My eyes search through streamers of Spanish moss until falling on a thin figure no more than three inches long. Delicate arms and legs clung to a branch before pushing off and allowing filmy wings to burst with speed.
“Get ready,” Koda yelped as she left the porch in a fawn-colored flash. I was to stay low until both dogs flanked the faerie. They claimed he would harass them, allowing me to sneak up and smear the repellant. As soon as Bogart joined the fray I dipped my hands into the mixture and began to creep into the yard.
The moment came: the wispy being was twirling above the dogs in a corkscrew motion while they circled, and a low growl from both was my sign. I darted as quick as I could, hoping the neighbors were all occupied indoors, and raised my hand toward the fluttering shape.
And it may have worked had I not tripped over Bogart.
The faerie immediately shot up as I hit the ground, my striking hand gouging into the soil. The bowl flew from my other grip and struck the tree trunk, spraying its contents all over the flowerbed.
“Bloody hell!” Koda roared, hopping away from my legs. Bogart had recovered and moved out to the center of the yard, eyeing the creature as it danced just out of reach, and I could have sworn I heard thin, buzzlike laughter threading through the slight breeze.
I was thinking of endless repair bills when Bogart muttered, “Blast it,” ran to the fence and tore back weaving right and left. The faerie stayed stationary but high, having no doubt been in this spot before. Yet at the last minute Bogart lunged nearly vertical, forty-plus pounds of low-slung fury rising up farther than I — or our minute tormentor — could imagine.
Jaws snapped, and our problem was gone.
Koda stared mutely as he landed, gave a few hearty chomps and issued forth one of his usual belches. A filmy wingtip fluttered down to be lost among the grass.
“Well,” Koda mused, “I guess that’s just as good!”
“Might over magic,” Bogart retorted. He licked his snout. “What’s for lunch? That fellow wasn’t much of a meal. Bit stringy, actually.”
“I’ll check the fridge,” I said, pulling out the phone to cancel the warranty company’s appointment.
Philip Wentz writes in Florida, USA.
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