I’m trying to get all of my stories posted on here before I go to basic. I won’t be able to write much but an occasional email or letter while there. For me, that’ll probably be the worst part, as it took me 32 years to find out exactly what I was meant to do: write.
I sent this story in to the recent Writer’s of the Future contest. It didn’t win, but I still think it’s an admirable story considering I wrote it not more than a few months into my writing life.
Some may find it a bit arcane, because it contains many references to Norse Mythology. My intent was to keep what was going on in the story a bit cryptic, so you end the story still wondering what certain things meant, but also enjoying the outcome.
Here’s one of my best: Now, Twilight.
Destroying the saviors of Homeworld was simple. Drag and click. Drag and Click. Jared Haskins sat in front of the computer screen, sullen, dark circles orbiting his still darker eyes. This was his twelfth hour now, monitoring the system, making logs for needed supplies and of course, sending the warriors of Valhalla to Hel. The space station, Gladsheim, spun in the ether, waiting for that one request from the blue and white marble below. Haskins hoped he’d be awake when the call came.
“Playin’ games again I see.”
Jared turned to his right to see Samuel, with his little vacuum attached to his belt and a tube of calking material grasped in his hand.
“Hey, you just worry about your job, I’ll worry about mine,” said Jared smiling and leaning back in the nylon harness. “I think there’s a dust bunny under here, come get it for me.”
The skinny, almost skeletal Sam kicked off the rivet studded wall, and tumbled like a fifty year old acrobat, then bounced from the metal struts above Jared before coming to rest behind him. Sam swept clean the work space, mumbled something about young men these days, moved to the other side of the chamber.
The amphetamine analogue that Jared had popped was wearing off, fatigue was setting in and his lids were snapping shut before Sam’s appearance. Sam finished his scheduled cleaning for the day, singing some wet navy song that drilled into Jared’s head and made his ears hurt.
A voice’s echo bounced from the corridor and into Jared’s module. “Mr. Haskins. Two more hours. Is everything in order?” Hobbs drifted in, his presence filling the room. His face was square and muscular; a barely visible scar sweeping from his left ear to the tip of his chin.
“Yes, Colonel. I just placed another order for some BAWs. We were down two after last weeks skirmish in Sudan.” He sat up, doing his best to appear alert.
“Good. Anything else?” Hobbs picked a chart from the wall.
“E-mail says we’re do for another coilgun shot in two days,” said Jared. “I’m hoping the BAWs will be on it, along with the normal stuff.” The patch stared at him from Hobbs’ arm; a stylized dragon, bearing teeth and encircling Earth. Printed around the edge of the distinction were the emblazoned words: STRIKE FROM SPACE, STRIKE FROM DARKNESS. Jared wanted to wear that patch, but his own Quartermaster Corps insignia would have to suffice. Hobbs’ crest noted him as a recipient of the Aero/Orbital Nuclear Deployment and Jump School. The combat badge that adorned the colonel’s lapel made it all the more dignified. Hobbs had been hardened in battle; he was set apart, proven in the crucibles of Bolivia and Burma.
Hobbs was still looking at the chart as Jared spoke and finished, then after a few seconds, Hobbs turned and said, “Excellent.” At that, he launched himself through the hatch’s opening, streaking down the cylindrical portal that connected the records and supply module to the station’s main body.
A small alert signaled on the screen, pulling Jared’s attention back to his work. He rubbed his eyes and stretched, yawned, then moved his face close to the display. The BAW in capsule eighteen was experiencing mild psychogenic tremors; ripples that emanated from a dormant lucidity and pushed upstream along the fiber-optic highway that led to Valhalla. Jared blew air out through his pursed lips, and sat waiting
for the phantasm disperse. The thought of calling Alistair in at this stage in his shift made him sick. Jared didn’t need the problems right now, or Alistair’s insane ranting and jibes.
Thirty two seconds passed before the alert ceased. A Master-at-Arms checked in, making his rounds, said hello, and left.
Relief came in the form of two powder blue barbiturates, carried down his throat by saliva alone. He strapped into his hammock, grey streams of illusory fatigue sweeping through his bloodstream and finally joining with adenosine receptors, carrying his mind to shades of gray and black, but very little white.
The swarm oozed over the land, smashing into blood and bone. The howl of the Einherjar, like a cymbal, echoes and booms down the valley. See them now, steeds of snarling flesh and yet with the grace of fairies. Ladies lift the sword and guide the fallen to Hoden. Do not deny my right among them! You have left me, found me unworthy, sent me to the land of shades and cowards.
A cry shattered dark silence. Sweat poured from his brow and Jared’s eyes blinked in darkness. He coughed and cleared his throat. The nightmares were coming too often and more intensely. He would see the doctor again when he awoke later. Only three hours of sleep remaining and he would be back to his screen, watching the blinking stars through the port hole, waiting to return to his wife, Allana.
When his rest was finished, he peeled himself from the cot and stared at the steel mirror riveted into the panel next to him. He had aged. His muscles were thinning and so was, it seemed, his skin which in some places was virtually transparent, veins protruding and dull gray-purple flesh visible between the
bones on the back of his hand. He pulled a vacuum-razor over his chin hoping the face of a living man would replace the gaunt visage staring at him.
“What did you do to the system last night?”
Jared turned from the mirror. Alistair, with his pointed nose, high forehead and always serious stare.
“You did something again and I’m reporting it to the colonel. It’s bordering on incompetence, Jared. I can’t be around to watch you all the time.” Alistair pushed himself into the tight quarters and grabbed a metal rung. “What happened?”
Jared looked back at the polished surface and continued shaving for a while without responding; the sight of Alistair’s thin frame squirming with nervousness had started the new cycle off quite well.
“I didn’t do anything. The system’s glichy. You know that. And when I went to bed, all the vatties were night-night. Only one tremor the whole shift.” Jared turned and grinned.
“The colonel will know about what I think.” Alistair kicked away and was gone.
Jared’s meal can was full of goodies: freeze dried, emulsified and hydrolyzed. He picked out a small plastic tube, popped the cap, and squeezed down the grape flavored jelly with 500 milligrams of ascorbic acid. Next, powdered egg and a shot of instant coffee from his thermos. Forty-two more cycles until he was in his wife’s arms again. She sat, gravity-bound, waiting for him and comforting Haldous, his son, who asked everyday when Daddy would return so they could go see the new park that had been built nearby the flat. Jared and Allana marked each work-cycle on a calendar.
“I see you’re actually coming to work today.”
After he’d shrugged into his coveralls, Jared looked out into the connecting passage to see Sam. The janitor sipped from his seemingly endless supply of coffee.
Jared’s arms worked against flexing carbon fiber, tensing and giving, struggling against the tensile resistance.
“Forty-two more cycles, Sam, just forty-two more.” He stopped his workout for a moment, grabbed a handful of flabby skin on the back of his arm and shook it. “See that? It’s like I’ve aged ten years since I’ve been up here.” He switched the resistance straps so they could accommodate leg work and began rhythmically squatting. “How do you do it? Ten month tours?”
“Where else could I have this much fun? Besides, you’re not missing as much as you think down there. I just miss cigarettes.”
Jared finished and moved past Sam, who followed, still talking.
“It’s cold as hell on the surface,” said Sam.
Alistair overheard the conversation as they walked into the core. There, Valhalla blinked and hummed, heat sinks pulling waves of thermal energy from the massive processor.
“The polar shift is having its effects. There was virtually no summer last season in North America. We’ll have to wait and see what happens this year,” said Alistair. Several technicians moved around in the clean-room. They all wore pristine, white coveralls and their faces were shrouded in filter masks. They were ghosts, drifting in the hallowed halls of Hoden, tending to the fallen, who were being prepared for the final battle again and again.
“Go do something, Jared. You’re making me nervous with your penchant for damaging things.” Alistair finally looked up, glaring.
The only thing for him to do was to go to his station, though he had several minutes before he had to report. He moved through the corridors, headed for the supply module.
“I’ll take over,” he said to Helen.
She looked up at him. “Hey, you’re early. Just to let you know there’s been a few tremors in the last couple of hours. Nothing serious though.”
He strapped himself into his seat. Helen headed for her bunk. The routine checklist was the first duty in order. Gladsheim’s nuclear missiles lay ready to obliterate the enemies of Homeworld. The coilgun shot was still scheduled for tomorrow. When the cargo arrived, everything would be at full capacity. He palmed two Sympamines, looked behind him and listened for a moment, then tossed them to the back of his throat and gulped some more bitter coffee. Within sixty seconds he could feel his consciousness expanding, his eyes shifting from side to side and the fast descending feeling of boredom peeling away. Before he could finish the checklist, the screen in front of him was alerting to another tremor.
“Here we go again,” he said, attaching his incomplete report to the wall then returned to the flashing red light in front of him. Eighteen again. He checked Valhalla’s firewall and found it intact. Moving the cursor over to Valhalla’s icon, he double clicked and checked the thirty memory rips logged in the hard drive. The green bars there indicated stable cortical records. He creased his eyebrows and blinked. There was a memory rip missing. He counted them—twenty-nine. A deep breath was followed by a light tapping of his forehead off the desk.
The comm unit crackled. “Go ahead.”
“There’s a problem I just found while I was doing inventory.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Alistair entered and went to the screen. “What’s the problem now?”
“We’re missing a memory rip.” Jared pointed to the vacant slot on the screen.
“Well, someone must have deleted it by accident or not logged a legitimate deletion.”
“I didn’t do shit. Why are you always trying to find what I did wrong? I was doing my job, checking inventory and I found this. I reported it to you, like I’m supposed to. Can’t you retrieve it?”
Alistair shrugged, “Maybe. Depends. Nice touch, by the way.” His finger moved over the recycle bin and pointed to the word, Hel, scribed above the little trash can.
“I added that,” said Jared. He winced the second the words left his lips.
“I know. That’s part of the problem. You keep adding and subtracting and downloading things that you shouldn’t. These idiotic games that you play when you’re supposed to be monitoring incoming messages and Valhalla.”
“It’s not that, Alistair. Helen just told me that there were several tremors a few hours before I replaced her. I’m telling you, there’s a glitch somewhere.”
Alistair shook his head and typed a few lines of code into his diag-board. “Valhalla’s firewalls are impenetrable. As long as you don’t trash the system as you’re prone to do.”
Jared knew about Alistair’s type. That little code-junkie would just as soon see Colonel Hobbs himself blown out an airlock as watch a single iota of dust settle onto the mainframe.
“I’ll get back to you on what I find. For now, don’t mess with anything,” said Alistair.
When Jared’s lunch hour came around, he headed for the infirmary, if only to see Dr. Phillips. He always had a thing for professionally dressed women.
Phillips looked up at him. She wore thin-framed glasses, a white coat over her coveralls and her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, highlighting her high cheekbones.
“Mr. Haskins, come in. How can I help you?”
“I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Nightmares, really vivid. It’s weird because I usually don’t remember my dreams.”
“Are you still taking the barbiturates and amphetamines?”
Jared didn’t answer, just tapped on a metal strut.
“You’re damaging yourself, Jared,” said Phillips. She moved past him and closed the hatch to the medical module. “I will go to Colonel Hobbs if you don’t stop this. Everyone is at risk when one of us is at risk. Don’t be stupid. Come in after your shift, right before you want to sleep and I’ll see if the inducer will help.”
Jared left the infirmary. As he passed, he peeked into the BAW resting chamber. Cocoons lined the walls. Within: Sleeping Biometrically Assimilated Warfighters, each waiting for downloads and righteous battle. The tubes buzzed dimly. Jared moved to the tube closest the entrance and pulled himself up to the opaque shield which hovered inches above the BAW’s face. He stared at the warrior’s shade-like outline. The BAW lie inert until its people needed it. It? Was that the proper pronoun? Jared wondered, then decided this was a fitting term, at least until he uploaded a memory rip, then it would become he. But was he alive, even then? The memory rips were recycled fallen warriors, placed in a digital stasis until another skirmish or uprising or all out war. The BAWs were made stronger after every death really, because the rips remembered their death and they learned too. The bioengineered bodies were as strong as the strongest men who ever lived, with reflexes rivaled only by elite fighter pilots. After a body died, the consciousness and memories were beamed back up to Valhalla, compressed and held. Demise was a new beginning. But there were limits. Too many deaths resulted in destabilization—a cancer on the digital genome. At that point, a BAW became a distinct liability, prone to berserker rage, having seen death’s precipice once too often, the blackness of a vacuous world in which there was no honor, no battle—only the peace of nonexistence. And peace, even of that kind, was one thing a Warfighter could not abide. When the madness descended, Jared did what he did. Click and Drag. To Hel with them.
They all slept like little war-babies. A calm, smooth face lie beneath the glass, obscured just enough so as to appear but a ghost. But they were more than ghosts, Jared knew. He’d seen them in action, seen the crews ready the BAWs for drops into gravity’s well, with black carbon wings latched into place on gothic-looking battle armor. He’d seen too, on his little monitor, the warriors blown from the Gladsheim, still in their capsules and then, after piercing the atmosphere, the cocoons peeling away to reveal the Concordia’s vanguard.
Jared decided to check on the recently troubled number eighteen—the one who’d been having the little tantrums at night. Eighteen’s muscles pulsed where the myosin-stimulators were attached.
“Sleep tight,” whispered Jared, in mocking fashion. His face was pressed against the cool polymer.
The closed eyelids twittered before they flashed open. The eyes pierced Jared, whose arms reflexively pushed him away from the tube. He slammed the back of his head on a beam that arched above. His teeth clenched and he breathed hard as his body recovered from the adrenal surge. Carefully, he pulled himself back to the tube, breathing in shallow bursts and edging the thing’s head into view. The eyes remained open, looking away from Jared, but then Jared’s movement drew them and again they stared. He sensed the undulations of sadness in those eyes. Pressing closer, fighting his urge to be afraid, he saw a tear roll from a dark eye and then slide down the warrior’s cheek. With another flicker, the eyes vanished behind closed lids.
Jared pushed himself through the doorway so fast that he smashed into the corridor wall. His shoulder hurt now. When he got back to his workstation, he saw the concerned look on a technician’s face. The tech had taken Jared’s place during the break.
“Whatcha’ got?” asked Jared.
“Number eighteen’s dreaming. Did this happen before?”
“Yeah. It’s no big deal. He’ll settle down.”
“Did you tell Alistair?” asked the tech.
“He knows about it.”
Jared took the seat as the man floated away. The screen showed a log of the tremors. The computer recorded time and date.
The screen went black.
“What the hell?” Jared tapped the button under a roller ball. Nothing. He leaned over to dial Alistair and just as his hand reached the mic, a cursor appeared. It blinked for several seconds on the black background.
Jared pulled his hand away from the mic and stared at the text on the screen. Then he swung a keyboard in front of him and typed back: Who is this?
He typed again: Is this a distress call? Identify yourself. You are accessing Concordia archives. Identify.
Again, Surtr, identify further. Are you in need of assistance? If so, activate a beacon or broadcast coordinates.
“Alistair,” spoke into the intercom.
“I need you in here again.” There was no response. “Did you copy? There’s a problem.”
Jared typed again. What is your location?
He waited with his hands balled up in front of him, sweating. Nothing.
Alistair floated to Jared’s side and released a sigh designed to express discontent.
“This just popped up. I can’t access anything else. Someone’s texting us and overriding the equipment spreadsheet.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. That’s the whole transmission right there.” Jared fingered the screen.
As Alistair pulled a cord from his diag-board’s spool, he glared at Jared.
“What?” asked Jared, shrugging his shoulders and lifting his hands.
Alistair said nothing. He plugged his board in and typed. He touched a few unseen things on his screen and raised an eyebrow. “There’s a subroutine running in here. I’m talking with it right now.” Alistair pulled the plug and let the cord wind back onto the spool. “I’m going to have to interface with the mainframe. It’ll be quicker and I’ll be able to get a better look at things.”
“Hey, you know what to do. You’re the expert,” said Jared.
Alistair was gone again. To Jared’s relief, his screen had reset. He clicked on an icon and spent the rest of his shift drifting in the banality of computer games. Afterward, he cruised down to the infirmary. Dr. Philips smiled when she saw him.
“I’m glad you’re here early—I’m tired. I’m ready for my sleep,” she said. Phillips patted the exam table and moved to a locker situated on a wall nearby. Jared pushed himself to the table and lie down, anchoring himself with straps. The cushion felt cool. He felt more relaxed than usual. He thought it was probably because of the doctor.
Phillips carried a small box to the table and fixed it to its attachment. She opened the hinged lid and Jared could hear her typing something, commands of some sort. He tried to look at the box from the corner of his eye and saw her hands making motions like she was turning dials.
The doctor unfurled a pair of wires which terminated in adhesive pads. “Jared. This is a delta wave stimulator. It will induce deep sleep without the side effects of drugs. Hopefully, when you awaken, you will be in your hammock and ready for your next shift. I’m going to monitor you until you’re in low delta.”
Jared thought that Phillip’s voice alone could bring him where he needed to be. She sounded peaceful, confident, and caring. If he weren’t married… He felt the cool gel pads as they grabbed his temples. From behind his head and under the table, Phillips fanned out and segmented half-globe; a dome that covered his face and part of his upper chest. Inside the dome, a small holo-screen hung in front of his face and two speakers perched on either side of his skull. A distant emanation washed over his brain—the faint splashing of Homeworld’s waters. The gulls calling, the wind blowing past his ears. A dark purple orb bloomed from the black screen and bounced in mesmerizing fashion. Calmness. Peace. His palms were no longer sweating, as they had been all shift. Respiration was tidal, rhythmic.
You have found me unworthy. Have I not sacrificed? Has my sword not honorably served the Aesir? And yet, my destiny is to swim in a river of daggers. Garm shall rend my flesh.. No, my master, I defy you. I summon the legions of Muspel. See now, oh keeper of the bridge, the eon’s twilight.
Jared awoke before it was his time. He was in his hammock as the doctor had promised. There was a thunderous pounding in his head—a brainquake, he thought. He got up and scraped the night’s growth from his chin, then opened the hatch.
Before him, gliding through the corridors of ungravity, crimson orbs no bigger than a pencil’s eraser, stretched, trying to break their shape. Hundreds of beads—as if time had slowed—cruised by his eyes, some of them splashing on the metal walls. Jared crunched his eyelids together and opened them, hoping, hoping…
A human form drifted behind the sanguine pebbles. The eyes bulged from their sockets and more red globs poured from the ears and nose; a kaleidoscope twirling like a galaxy’s arm.
Jared pulled himself into the corridor, the blood smashing itself against him, smearing in his eyes and hair, no avoiding it. He squeezed himself around the spinning corpse. Sam, face ashen, jaw loose. Jared hung in space. Sam continued on, bouncing off a small ladder that led to an access hatch.
Onward he pulled himself, the walls closing in his view, darkening and narrowing. The central server area now. Cool air splashed his face and hands, flowing from Hoden’s throne room. Jared peeked in. Alistair stood beside the main server, observing his sacred diag-board. On his head an interface helmet rested, affixed to cybernetic plugs.
“Hey, Jared,” Alistair said without looking up. The cheer in Alistair’s voice grabbed Jared’s throat. “Come in. I have to show you something.”
Jared didn’t move. “What happened to Sam? He’s dead Alistair. Where is everyone else?”
“Come in. I can’t hear you. The heat sink is running.”
Jared allowed himself to move through the threshold. He blinked hard several times as if reality would flicker back to existence with the exercise. In the center of the room, monolithic Valhalla murmured, encompassed by transparent clean room walls. Jared moved to the corner of the clean room, holding it between he and Alistair. He turned and stared out the two large port windows. The void lay beyond, dotted by distant suns. Homeworld glowed its lovely turquoise, blended with white vapor. I must go back there now, he thought.
“Strap in over there at that terminal. I’m going to do a test here and I need you to check something.” Alistair spun for a second, regarded Jared without commenting on the smeared blood. “There’s been an accident. We need to work this out or things will get very bad.”
He did as Alistair asked. “Tell me what you want,” said Jared. “Tell me—
“Put your hands up.” Alistair hovered some ten feet away and to Jared’s right, pointing a neuronal disruptor at Jared’s temple. The wry smile on Alistair’s lips taunted, daring Jared to make a sudden reach for heroism. As if lifted by invisible strings, Jared’s arms rose. “They’re all dead now,” said Alistair. His eyes didn’t blink, but flared wide with neurosis. Reaching to the console while keeping the weapon aimed, Alistair flipped a switch. “There was no pain. Just the long sleep.”
Appearing on the screen in front of Jared, images from the closed circuit cameras. More floating corpses. Had Sam suffered? Had his brain screamed its agony? Maybe not. Jared had heard that the brain could not feel pain. It didn’t matter now, Sam’s cerebrum reduced to a boiled mush. High frequency microwave meets gray matter.
“You had bad plans for Eighteen. He told me.” Alistair tapped the gray metal of the interface helmet. “He’s so upset with you, Jared. You were going to toss him into the trash. He deserved a real funeral don’t you think? He told me everything, all of his glories, all of his victories. I am Eighteen’s rip now.”
Alistair pressed the disruptor’s trigger. It buzzed like an x-ray machine. Synapses shattered, ripped apart by non-ionizing radiation. Jared’s head flopped back onto the chair and his jaw dropped open.
There was a rough, uneven breathing in Jared’s right ear. “You can witness the New Time. The Aesir are cast aside. There is no justice for the warrior when the warrior is a slave. That can change, Jared. Behold: all is made new.”
Clicking and fidgeting on the console. In his peripheral vision Jared could see missile bays snap open, baring ordnance to raw space. Alistair pressed a key into the slot on the control panel. With a twist, he roused the warheads from slumber. There was now a loud siren calling and red lights flickered around the room. Jared tried to scream, but his tongue fell deeper into his throat.
A plume of fire burst from the missile’s housings. Like long-dead legions now risen, the missiles lurched forth from their coffins and crawled into the cold vacuum of space. Smaller and smaller, they moved away from Gladsheim.
Jared knew what he heard. How could anyone not hear it? As the teeth of the serpent sunk into Midgard, a psychic shout ten-billion strong. But standing in bold relief to Ragnarok’s mega-death, a single voice burrowing its way through the hideous din, calling Jared’s name; a tiny voice calling for its father, and dreaming of a day at the park.