Based loosely on idea I had for a world after a particularly abstract nightmare. More of a taster to see for myself if the world holds together. Present tense feels clumsy to me – I’d initally thought about writing the second section in the usual past tense to show that the creatures experiencing the different parts are different (you heard me!), but I’ll post it up like this for now. The tense transitions might work in a longer piece to show short little vignettes from the “enemy’s” point of view. The idea was to paint two portraits of the war, one showing the inhumanity of the humans trying to hold on to the dwindling remains of their empire, and the other from the creatures slowly advancing, and their reasons for doing so.
Meh, enough waffle. Here it is, warts and all.
Even at this altitude, the air is warm and thick, oppressive as a sauna. A range of mountains, bare rock flanks glistening with frost, dominate the view. A slipped halo of misty cloud obscures each snow covered tip. Below lies the shallow foothills, rolling acres of stony barren ground descending haphazardly to the boulder strewn glacial valley below. There is no large scale vegetation here to anchor the soil, and it shifts and moves leaving the ancient rock below to be cracked and split by the wind and sun where once is was scoured by ice. The numbing monotony of the brown landscape is broken here and there by a languid pool of brown water, hemmed by dull green algae.Halfway up the undulating foothills, revealed by the brown scars of ancient terraces carved into the hill is a sprawling camp, a darker brown stain on the grey brown sameness of the downs. Row after row of tents of various sizes, once white canvas turned sludge brown by time and weather, seem to tumble down the hill with the viscous brown rivulets of filth stained run off. Below the camp, separated from it by a wide, litter strewn stream, is a large flattened field. This terrace is much wider, a large section of the hillside has cut away and the boulders moved to form a rocky wall on the opposite side, leaving a compressed earth plaza.. There are machines squatting on the field, each a beetle-like ovoid made of timber and metal. At first glance they appear to be arranged at random, but after a moment a pattern emerges. Where once an orderly array of thousands of machines had stood, each parked side by side, aligned toward the outer wall, there are now more empty spaces than machines to fill them. Two tin sheds dominate one of the lower corners of the field, a huge scrap pile the other. Figures pick over this heap of rust, and the clamour of metal on metal can occasionally be heard as a figure hurls a useful item into a barrow. While the clouds continue to shroud the upper reaches of the mountain behind the camp, the sky overhead is blue and clear. A weak rainbow in the mountain’s spindrift throws a cheery splash of colour onto this monochrome landscape. The air is humid and oppressively warm. At least water is plentiful despite the desolation; it can be wrung from the air. Flies rise from the sodden ground in whirling clouds, appearing to be columns of dust drawn up by slow tornadoes. The figures below know them for what they are; dust does not exist here. A solitary buzzard wheels high in the sky, soaring on thermals from the cliffs. Outside the camp, a straight grey road of worn rock slices through the valley, from the great pass to the distance north, where the sparks of reflected sunlight dance on a shallow sea, to the hazy southern lowlands. There, far to the south, can be seen a bright demarcation, so stark it appears to stand out from the blurry landscape, a razor blade spanning the vista from horizon to horizon. As the sun catches it it glints, like edge of a knife. The road is but a pencil mark at this distance, all depth flattened into an oil painting. Roads from valleys to the east and west converge on the razor, merging into a single plane of naked grey rock. Occasionally a rumble of thunder rolls up the valley. Despite the lack of any clouds, the noise sparks no astonishment from the multitude below. As the wind gusts, a drone can be heard. This is different from the incessant hum of the billion-billion insects; is the rhythmic groan of a human-made mechanism. An elegant cigar shaped craft, sweeping lines marred by two square fins adorning its flanks, flies sluggishly up the valley toward the camp, losing height fast. An oily haze is following in its wake. A fart of a horn somewhere in the camp triggers a swarm of browns and grey. People boil from tents and the shadows beneath dilapidated machinery like termites.
There is a flash high above, something swift catching the sunlight lancing down between the occasional thin cloud. Several humans point, some yell out in alarm. The bright shape darts into another small cloud, sheer speed and rapidly shifting reflection conspiring to defy identification. Another flicker from a patch of vapour little more than a wisp of mist on the breeze causes a rapid swivelling of heads, and then panic. The airship crew, just visible sat in the open seats under the lozenge respond to the yells of people on the ground and begin working to increase their already breakneck rate of descent. The pilot, one arm limp, hauls on a lever, and the tiny airship begins to turn into the breeze. Without warning a silver shape appears over the ridge of the hill behind the camp, whistling low over the tents and gathered bodies. Crossbowmen on the ground, rushing to form a firing line, launch hurried shots at the speeding shape. A repeating ballista mounted on a cart just inside the fortified walls looses a trio of bolts in rapid succession. They buzz like angry hornets as they pass over the ranks of crossbowmen, and a lucky quarrel hits the blur as it passes over. The creature’s shape seems to flow like mercury as it snaps into a bone crushing ninety degree turn. Before the shooters can adjust for a second shot the shape has climbed back into the stray cloud. Crossbows are lowered, suddenly robbed of a target. The shooters stare at the cloud, eyes searching the shifting shadows for signs of movement. Only a handful of soldiers turn as a stray shadow dances over them. One or two shade their eyes and squint into the sun, panic rising. With a piercing cry like a saw on stone, a silver shape extends four long blade like wings, sun glaring from the rippling mirrored surface like halos of flame, and pulls out of it’s dive. Men scream, and scatter as the creature screeches past, barely missing the ground. The concussion of the creatures violent manoeuvre throws several from their feet. A frantic squeaking of gears can be heard over the shouts as the ballista turret tries to swing around for a shot, but it is frustratingly slow. Crossbows are fired in desperation, but the creature is moving too fast. Tortured air screams as the razor wings flick this way and that, causing the creature to jink and weave with bone-snapping force. The crowd of unarmed on-lookers yell and gesture at the crew of the airship, panic in their voices plainly audible even if the words are robbed of their meaning by distance. The crew, however, can do nothing. They look on in dumb resignation as a silver wing tip tears through the top of the reinforced canvas gas-bag like tissue, and gravity reclaims them and their vessel. There is a single clear scream as the disintegrating wreck smashes into the ground not a league short of the camp with a sickening wet noise and a screech of tearing metal; the cry is cut off abruptly. For a moment all that can be heard are the discordant pings of metal falling on stone, before silence rolls in like a suffocating fog. Of the silver shapes, nothing remains. A few moments later the camp is just a speck far behind. Ahead is a shimmering silver expanse, rapidly expanding from the horizon as it approaches, shining brightly in the summer sun. ————————————————————————————— Guildswoman 2nd Class Bethany Freedman – dissident, convicted murderer and aristocrat – slumps back in the seat behind the repeating balilsta and gazes up at the large but distant zinc coloured creature souring high above. As she watches, it turns lazily and begins it’s cruise back to the front. It’s fast moving kin are nowhere to be seen. She lowers her eyes and mind back to the plume of oily fumes that is beginning to dissipate in the heavy atmosphere. The scout balloon had been the vanguard of a larger force consisting of about eighty bombers and troop transports. That the scout balloon was the first to return was not a surprise, but that it had been tracked so far beyond the front did not bode well. It would be the only one to return to day, she suspected. She slips to the ground, and tugs on the sleeve of the man next to her and sets off at a run. She hears the thump of the mans boots on the compacted dirt as he obediently follows in her wake. At a jog it takes ten minutes to bring them to the base of the column of smoke. The crash site is confined to a relatively small area of swampy dirt in a dip not far from the road. A number of scrap workers are already there picking over the remains, although they were mercifully leaving the cockpit area until last. Beth sneers at them with half-hearted contempt as she squats on her haunches and peers down at the remains of the pilots’ seats. They languish at the bottom of the stagnant pool, a dense cage of twisted spars. With only a momentary hesitation, Beth takes a deep breath and slithers down the incline. Awkwardly she collides with the wreckage, trying to spread her weight while doing so in case someone lived within. The scrappers regard her with sunken eyes from the rim of the hollow as, with a sodden squelch, she kneels by the crumpled remains of the pilots seat. The first thing she sees is the arm protruding from the crushed metal, several fingers pointing entirely the wrong way. She grimaces, and peers between the lips of the metal clam the pilot’s seat had become. A moment later she is several feet away vomiting into the mud. When the nausea recedes enough for her to think, she glances up at her companion. He is stooped, hands on knees watching her dry heave with a look of amused sympathy. With a flash of irritation only Colm could instill, she shakes her head to indicate the fate of the crew, if the vomiting had not already. Guildman Colm Roper shrugs, an impressive sight considering his lanky frame, and extends a rough hand. As she is hauled easily up the slick slope, Beth watches the scrap vultures descend. The Guildguards start back up the hill without a backward glance. As they approach the camp’s fortified gates, the pair wave at the gate guard atop his stumpy tower. The walk under the stone arch, and onto the plaza, past two of the huge Scarab war machines. As they round the second machine, Beth spots a group approaching them. “Shit,” mutters Colm under his breath. This rare utterance from the big man makes her peer closer at the group, and she sees at their head Sergeant Jan Rutter, a gleeful thug in his mid-forties, proud rapist, and the leader of her detachment. “Terrn-shun!”, bellows the Sergeant as soon as he is in ear shot. Freedman and Roper comply; there is no other way. Boots thump to attention, and they stand rigid until the Sergeant and his entourage arrive.
“Just WHAT the fuck was that, Guildsman 2nd Class?!”, thunders the bald man, his pale blue eyes aflame with malice.
“Sir?” Part of Freedman crawls at dignifying this weasel with the honorific.
“I went to see if the crew could be saved..-” He is now no more than six inches away, and Freedman feels the spittle on her cheek – her ear drums twang with every bellowed syllable. Behind the Sergeant’s reddening face, she sees the smirking figure of one of his nameless goons, a tall blond haired youth with a pretty face marred considerably by a scar like a fault line which twists his nose and pulls his mouth down in one corner. “Not that, SCUM, the shootin’! Your crew failed to defend that balloon! Your tardy response meant that you only JUST had a shot at the first Glint, and didn’t even see the second!” Beth feels her already simmering rage rise further at the injustice of the accusation. “The attack was fast sir, we responded as fast as we could!” she hears herself say, and curses her tongue; defending herself would be the same as an admission of guilt to the likes of Rutter. Rutter grins in predatory delight. He’s enjoying this, the bastard, she thinks bitterly. “That’s as may be, but was it fast enough, bitch!? You know, I am tempted to punish you, Freedman.” The last is said in a hoarse whisper, his mouth so close that she feels his lips brush her unruly hair. The unspoken connotations cause her to shudder, and she feels the fury bubble over. Rutter’s thugs chuckle, enjoying the impotent rage passing across her face, like storm clouds ahead of a hurricane. She sees Colm’s fists clench out of the corner of her eye and risks a sidelong glance at the big man. His fury is naked and white hot, and he is staring openly at Rutter. She shakes her head, warning in her eyes. The exchange is not lost on Rutter. “Guildsman, you are dismissed!”, he yells. Pointing at the shorter thug with the dreadlocks he quickly adds, “You, get him the fuck out of here, this bitch is far too full of herself with her little boy toy watching”. Dreadlocks nods, and gives Colm a shove toward the camp proper. Colm stumbles. The thug turns to grin at his partner, but Beth hasn’t taken her eyes from Colm. She has seen him do this before – the stumble is far too controlled. As the thug turns back to his prey, Colm’s fist meets him coming the other way. Rutter moves like a cobra. Before the stunned man has landed, Rutter kicks Colm in the back of the knee, bearing him to the ground. The blond, expression only just morphing to one of surprise, is jolted into action by the heat of Rutter’s furious gaze. He goes in boot first, catching Colm in the chin with the steel reinforced tip.
The big man collapses like a side of mutton. Unthinking, Beth lunges to catch him, and Rutters forearm catches her across the bridge of the nose, effortlessly knocking her backwards into the dirt beside Dreadlocks. She curls up as Rutter delivers two vicious kicks. Pain blossoms in her back and head. When the third kick fails to arrive, she risks a glance around, and rolls over with an involuntary groan. Dreadlocks is on his feet, blood dripping from a split lip. He is dealing kick after kick to Colm’s unconsious form, with a grinning Rutter watching on. The sergeant turns, sees her watching and spits contemptuously. The gob hits her in the forehead. He sneers and leads his men away without another word. Beth lays still, a metallic taste filling her mouth. She rolls over, coughs and spits blood into the dirt. She heaves herself to her knees and crawls to Colm. Something pierces her hand, but she gave it no mind as she sits down and hauls Colm’s head and shoulders on to her lap. His jaw is broken, she is sure, and he’s lost several teeth. She lifts his jerkin to see several livid bruises blooming on his abdomen, and leaves a smear of blood from her palm. As she wipes her forehead with her sleeve she notices a sharp chip of tooth embedded in a rip in her palm that throbs with blood. There they stay until a passing medic stops and yells for a stretcher. While the two medics bustle around them, Beth seethes silently, the pent up rage of the last month smouldering in her chest. The injustice of her trial, the implacability of the enemy and the cruelty of this existence on the Razor Front combine, rendering her numb and disconnected. When she is finally returned to her tent an hour later, she makes straight for her hammock. She brushes off her bunk mates urgent enquiries without so much as a glance, curls up with her back to them and, cradling her bandaged hand, cries for the first time since her childhood. She sobs at every image flowing through her head like drifting clouds, her room in the city by the sea, her piano, her family visible from the window playing on the beach. Sack cloth pillow dark with tears, she finally sleeps.