Shadow Hunter Training

This is another one that was  previously published in Tim Rodriguez’s Pendragon ‘Zine.  It also features one of the RPG characters that I return to, in some form or another again and again.  For that matter, he is the main character of the fictional universe that unites most of my writing.  I am a shameless recycler and hate to see anything I create go to waste.  If you’re read one of my two novels, you’ll recognize Shadow Hunter.  And you can expect to see him again, in the future.

 

Shadow Hunter disliked his new teacher almost from the moment he first saw the man. Shenendril was slender and pale and Shadow Hunter felt certain that he cold snap the elf in two with very little effort. His teacher’s face was thin and long with prominent cheek bones and an overly soft mouth. Shenendril’s clothing was ridiculously ornate with a great deal of embroidery, lace and meaningless folds and buttons. To Shadow Hunter’s admittedly unschooled eyes the outfit looked distinctly feminine. Everything about the elf seemed pampered, spoiled and soft. Shadow Hunter wondered briefly what Sk’Tash might have thought he could learn about fighting from this girlish man.

That is, until he saw the way the man moved. Shadow Hunter had been on the field of battle often enough and faced enough opponents to know when a man could fight and kill and when he could not. He could see through the pompous swaggering of a noble who wanted to be a warrior as easily as he could the false bravado of a scared youth. It was clear from the graceful, confident way Shenendril walked and carried himself that he knew the limitations of his own body and how to push himself beyond those limitations. When he drew nearer and Shadow Hunter could see his face, he recognized the hard, calm look of a person who had killed and would kill again if necessary in Shenendril’s eyes. Despite his outlandish appearance Shadow Hunter knew that he was no fop.

“So, you are my new student,” the elf said with obvious disdain before he sipped something from a golden, etched goblet that he picked up from a table that also supported numerous weapons of a wide variety. He appeared as bored with the contents of the goblet as he did with the weapons on the table and the young man standing in the courtyard with him.

After setting down the goblet, he began turning up the cuffs of his shirt, careful not to tear the lace that decorated them. “What backwater did they find you on? Or do you even know what the proper name for it is?” he asked.

“Vel,” Shadow Hunter answered curtly. Though the wonders the Ravnivori possessed boggled the mind and they were clearly far advanced beyond the simple society and technology of his home world, he didn’t like it being referred to in such insulting terms.

“Ah. So you do know, Perhaps there is hope for you,” Shenendril replied, looking shocked that his new student was aware of anything. With his sleeves now rolled up to his elbows he examined Shadow Hunter again for a time. “But, somehow I doubt it. I’m surprised they even managed to get you into a decent set of clothes. I know how you primitives enjoy prancing around in little more than your skins. While it can be entertaining when your feral women do it, I’m glad that they’ve managed to instill the decency in you to cover yourself properly.”

Shadow Hunter’s fists clenched as he was tempted to test his theory that he could break the man with his bare hands. There had been a few other people who had spoken to him so contemptuously because of where he was from since he’d come to the city, but he’d often convinced them with word or fists that it was a mistake to underestimate him. Or course, his often violent responses generally only reinforced what they believed about him, but at least he felt better afterwards.

It only made matters worse that Shenendril’s barbs were not far from their mark. While Shadow Hunter was grateful for the heavy clothes he’d been given when the chill of night filled the air, he itched to be rid of him. The sleeves of his shirt and coat felt like bindings intended to restrain his natural movement. He longed for the freedom of the simple breeches that he’d worn since childhood.

“Aw…I’ve upset you,” Shenendril continued mockingly. In addition to his other talents, he was also, annoyingly, a good judge of character. “Well, perhaps a little exercise will help calm your nerves. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even get a chance to make me pay for insulting you. Come, get a weapon so you can take your chance.”

He picked up two of the spears that were leaning against the table, holding one casually in his left hand, the shaft balanced lightly on his shoulder. He offered the other weapon to Shadow Hunter, who waited a moment before stalking over to snatch it out of his grip. But as he reached out to grab the weapon from Shenendril’s hand the elf dropped it with a smirk. Shadow Hunter lurched forward gracelessly to make a grab for the weapon but fumbled with it before it slipped from his grip and fell into the grass at Shenendril’s ornately buckled, high heeled, well polished boots.

“It looks like I have my work cut out for me if I’m going to train you. You can’t even keep your weapon in your hands. How can I hope to teach you to wield it properly?” Shenendril’s laughing taunt sent a molten rage through Shadow Hunter, filling his chest and stomach until he thought they might burst.

Snatching up the weapon, he fought down the urge to simply stab the man right then and there. His patron and sponsor, Sk’Tash believed there was something this person could teach him and he owed the Saurian too much to disappoint him in a fit of temper. Besides, he suspected that the elf, despite his pompous attitude and foppish garments might be able to train him as well.

Instead, he simply straightened up and waited for Shenendril’s next words with clenched jaw. The elf was clearly bored by the whole situation and did not speak for several seconds. In fact, he eyed the goblet on the table apparently contemplating taking another drink rather than worrying about the man standing nearby with a weapon.

“Well? I’m waiting. Attack me. I’d like to see if there is any skill and understanding behind those brutish eyes or if I’d be better off trying to train a monkey,” the elf finally said, exasperation heavy in his voice.

The goading did nothing to increase Shadow Hunter’s anger, but the permission was all that he needed. Taking a tight grip on the haft of his spear, he lunged forward with a growl, aiming a stab straight for Shenendril’s gut. The jab would likely not kill the man, especially with the healing abilities he knew the Imperials had, but it would hurt a great deal and might leave the elf in agony for hours.

It appeared that Shenendril didn’t even see the attack coming but he moved subtly, his left arm and wrist twisting. The small movement had a great effect, though and the haft of his spear shot down, deflecting the point of Shadow Hunter’s weapon wildly off target. The Possessed man’s momentum drew him forward and past the elf and before he could regain his balance he felt a sharp pain in his side.

For a moment, he was certain his teacher had stabbed him in turn. It seemed in character for the elf. Shenendril would no doubt injure him simply to prove that he could. Shadow Hunter quickly realized that he wasn’t bleeding, though and the pain was simply the effect of having the blunt butt of Shenendril’s spear rammed into his kidney. Still, the pain was enough to make his knees weak and he stumbled and almost fell before steadying himself.

“Amazing,” Shenendril said with mock surprise. “You are even clumsier than you led me to believe. I don’t think I have to fight you at all. If I just watch you for a few minutes, you’ll trip and fall on your own spear. I won’t have to get mine dirty. How is it you have not killed yourself before now?”

“Shut up!” Shadow Hunter shouted as he spun to face the elf. “I’m going to mount your flapping tongue on the tip of this spear and then we’ll see if you can create such clever barbs.”

He did not rush blindly forward again but rather moved toward his opponent much more carefully. When he was within range, he thrust his spear at the elf’s face like a bolt of lightning, the weapon a blur of motion and death. Again, Shenendril hardly moved but managed to deflect his attack without the slightest hint of effort.

Shadow Hunter jabbed again and again, seeking out any gap in his teacher’s defenses. In desperation, he even attacked all but meaningless targets like Shenendril’s feet, but was no more successful than his attempts to strike something vital.

His frustration and confusion grew with each passing minute. He was no neophyte, after all. He’d been in numerous battles and defeated dozens of foes in the tribal conflicts on his home world. Many opponents had died at his hands and he’d never been beaten. His reputation extended far and wide back home and only the bravest or most foolhardy warriors voluntarily faced him.

In fact, quite a few members of the Imperial Army fell to his prowess when they first arrived to conquer his world as well. Even they began to fear him as they spread across the world. Then the fateful day came when he killed one of the soldiers near Sk’Tash and the spirit that possessed the Ravnivori Saurian sensed something special in Shadow Hunter. No one understood what made the Daemons that gave the Possessed their powers choose a new host for their offspring or the process that occurred when they sent a splinter of themselves to reside in a new host.

Whatever the reasons and methods, though, Shadow Hunter was now one of the Possessed, the elite of the Ravnivori Empire, completely ageless and capable of becoming more powerful with every person he killed and every soul the daemon that shared his body claimed. He was stronger, faster and tougher than he’d ever been and he was only going to get better.

For all his abilities, however, the best he could do against Shenendril was force him once to step to the side to avoid one of his many blows. Every other thrust and swing he made was deflected by the elf with only the barest hint of effort.

Without a moment’s warning, Shenendril lashed out in return, the haft of his spear swinging in a vicious arc that whistled as it cleaved the air. Too late, Shadow Hunter moved to thrust his own spear between the elf’s weapon and his legs in a failed attempt to protect himself from the blow.

The wood struck him at the knees and lifted him off the ground. There was an instant where he was completely free of the ground before he thumped violently onto his back. He barely managed to keep his grip on his weapon as the air exploded from his lungs and the shock of the impact jolted his whole body. Before he could even gasp to begin replacing his escaped breath, Shenendril was over him. He drew his spear back and Shadow Hunter had only a moment to realize his intent and know that he was about to die.

The elf’s weapon shot down, aimed straight for Shadow Hunter’s heart and he felt the first sting of pain as steel parted flesh. Instinct made him grab for the haft, though he knew it was too late to stop the blow.

But, sting was all that the spear did. The blow was deadly accurate and the point of the weapon was on a course to slip between his ribs and cleave his heart in two, but Shenendril did not complete the thrust. Instead he withdrew his weapon, leaving Shadow Hunter with only a shallow gouge on his chest that still began to bleed freely.

Indolently, Shenendril moved back to the table and picked up the goblet he’d left there. He took a long gulp of the liquid inside as Shadow Hunter climbed painfully to his feet and dabbed his fingers against the wound on his chest. A jolt of pain punctuated the ache that lingered there at the touch and the blood flowing from it would ruin the new clothing his patron had given him. He was surprised to find that the wound was relatively minor, though and there was no risk of it becoming fatal or permanently damaging. He likely wouldn’t even have a scar.

“Your form and technique are pathetic,” Shenendril said, swirling the contents of the goblet around and examining them before taking another drink. He did not deign to look at Shadow Hunter. “Maybe that wild flailing was effective against the other barbarians back on your home world, but any decently trained warrior would cut you to shreds in a minute. You are Possessed now, a scion of the Ravnivori Empire and, as such, you will learn to fight properly, like a Ravnivori. You will learn skill and efficiency when the time comes for you to go to war in the name of the empire.”

Shadow Hunter was contemplating attacking the elf again, but somehow doubted he would get any better result than he had so far. Still, the temptation was powerful. Shenendril had insulted not only his own abilities but also everyone from his home. He wanted nothing more than to erase that smug, bored look from the elf’s face with the tip of his spear.

“Do you understand me?” Shenendril continued, impatiently. “Or have I used words that your primitive mind is incapable of comprehending? Do I need to speak slower?”

“I understand you perfectly,” Shadow Hunter managed to answer through gritted teeth.

“Good. We’ll see what else you are capable of understanding.” The elf put his goblet down and strode toward Shadow Hunter. Expecting an attack, the latter tensed and gripped his spear with both hands.

“There’s no need for such dramatics,” Shenendril said dismissively when he saw Shadow Hunter’s reaction. “It should be obvious that if I wanted to hurt you there wouldn’t be anything you could do to stop me, anyway.”

Shadow Hunter glared at the man, but he could not argue with the logic and had he thought to protest the pain in his chest would have been a good reminder of the futility of such an act. Nonetheless, he did not relax. This man had hurt him both physically and mentally and he certainly didn’t trust him.

“First, your grip is all wrong,” Shenendril said. “You’re holding your spear as though it were a club that you were going to use to batter some beast to death. Don’t clench it, grip it.”

He grasped Shadow Hunter’s hands, making him tense even more. For a moment, Shadow Hunter flinched away but then slowly extended his arms forward. Shenendril pried his fingers off the spear and then replaced them gently on the haft. “Like this. Tight enough so that it won’t slip free but loose enough that you have some flexibility in your movements. Now, you need to find the balance point of the weapon and always know where it is.”

Slowly, Shenendril showed him everything he was doing wrong from the way he gripped the weapon to how he stood and even how quickly he attacked. By the end of the hours that followed, Shadow Hunter wondered how he’d never been killed in battle before now. It was clear that he was too ignorant about the arts of fighting to even understand how much he didn’t know. Compared to Shenendril’s knowledge and skill Shadow Hunter realized he actually was a neophyte.

Shadow Hunter came to realize that the spear was such a crude weapon in his hands. Granted, it just gave him extra reach and the point allowed him to do more damage to his opponents. But in Shenendril’s hands it was a complex and intricate tool of destruction. He used it in ways that Shadow Hunter had never imagined and the weapon became a deadly part of the elf. Despite his dislike for the man, Shadow Hunter longed to learn all that he could from him. He wanted to be just as dangerous with the weapon as the elf was. In fact, he wanted to be more dangerous. He wanted to be able to beat his teacher with the weapon.

The sun was setting, the light around them changing to the strange, deceptive grey of evening when Shenendril finished his lessons and said “Try again, now that you are beginning to understand.”

Shadow Hunter readied himself, trying to remember everything the elf had taught him in the last several hours. There was so much, he was certain he would forget something. In fact, he suspected he would forget most of it and have to learn it again and again. He also knew that only so much of a skill like this could be taught through words. He had to experiment with the methods shown him and the best way to do that was through combat, whether real or mock.

His first thrust was even clumsier than the first time he attacked Shenendril. His mind tried to use the new techniques that he’d been taught while his body reverted to the old methods he’d used with the end result being that neither actually worked. The elf did not even bother to block the blow, but simply twitched his head to the side to completely avoid the attack.

To Shadow Hunter’s suprise, he also did not have any chiding, derisive remarks for the failed attack, though. Instead, he simply waited in silence until Shadow Hunter’s next attempt. The jab required him to deflect it with the haft of his own spear, though again a simple flick of his wrist did the job. The next attack was even closer and they came more rapidly and accurately as Shadow Hunter began to gain experience using what Shenendril had taught him and confidence in the lesson’s effectiveness.

The clatter of wood striking wood filled the air in the courtyard as the light continued to slowly fail with the closing of the day. Every crack was the sound of Shenendril deflecting or blocking one of Shadow Hunter’s strikes and was the noise of success as far as the Possessed man was concerned. The two men engaged in a dangerous dance that could turn instantly deadly with a single misjudgment or misplaced move.

One of the many advantages that the Daemon that shared Shadow Hunter’s body provided was the ability to see clearly in much dimmer light than any normal human could. Even as the twilight faded into true night, he could still plainly make out Shenendril and his weapon. Fortunately, Shenendril’s elven eyes were at least as keen as his own and the two continued to spar as night drew in around them.

After one close particularly close call, Shenendril went on the offensive. No longer did he simply block and evade Shadow Hunter’s attacks. He began to fight back, the head of his spear easily darting through Shadow Hunter’s defenses and cutting a thin trail of blood along his side with the first thrust. The change in tactics took the Possessed man by surprise but he adapted quickly, at least partially because some of Shenendril’s training had taken hold.

He could only defend himself and give ground for a time, backing away from the elf and narrowly avoiding being skewered several times. Even with his defensive posture and the fresh training Shenendril had given him, he was left with several more shallow wounds and the beginnings of numerous bruises as the elf was as likely to use the butt of his weapon against him as to stab him with the point.

Shadow Hunter managed to get a few counterstrikes in, though no one would claim that the combat was anything but one sided. As they continued to spar the light became so dim that he could hardly see what was happening and more than once he was made aware of a successful attack by his opponent by the pain it caused rather than seeing it coming.

“You’re watching my spear,” the trainer declared with a surprising amount of disdain.

Shadow Hunter thought that was perfectly reasonable given the situation. “The spear is trying to hurt me,” he answered.

“No, I’m what’s trying to hurt you. The spear is just the tool I’m going to use to do it. Watch me and you will know where the spear is going. Watch it and you will only know where it is.”

Shadow Hunter considered that advice completely foolish, until he noticed Shenendril was taking his own advice. His unreadable eyes flicked subtly and quickly but followed his motions and not the motions of his spear. Despite that, he always seemed to know where Shadow Hunter’s weapon was going to be before it got there.

Slowly, he adopted the advice, focusing on Shenendril. At least until the other man’s spear flashed by his face so close that he could feel the breeze as it passed. That shining point was all he could think about for several minutes and he could not pull his attention away from it.

That concentration only seemed to make things worse and the progress he thought he’d been making slipped out of his grasp. Once more, he was narrowly avoiding being skewered at every turn.

Finally, Shenendril called for a halt. To punctuate the command, the elf thrust his spear forward, entangling it with Shadow Hunter’s and gave a twist that sent the Possessed’s weapon flying despite the firm grip he had. Before he could even think to retrieve the weapon, another swing of the elf’s spear caught him in the knees and he once more found himself with his back on the ground.

“Not bad, barbarian,” Shenendril said and Shadow Hunter thought he could detect the faintest hint of breathlessness in the elf. He also noticed that the elf was leaning more than casually on his spear as he planted it in the ground near Shadow Hunter’s head. The possibility that he had tired his teacher out at least left him with some satisfaction and a redoubled desire to learn until he could best the man.

“Perhaps there truly is hope for you. Next time, we’ll use the blunted spears…just in case,” Shenendril continued a bit too casually. “After all, death is but a matter of a moment. One instant a man is alive, the next he is gone. And dealing that death takes only a moment as well. One stroke of the blade or a simple flick of the finger if there is a gun involved and a life that spans decades or centuries of life is over in the blink of an eye. Perhaps you could get very lucky and end the glorious story of my life. A very sad idea when you contemplate it.”

Just then, the moon peeked over the wall of the courtyard, bathing it in faint silver light. Thanks to his Daemon, even that dim illumination was enough to allow Shadow Hunter to see as well as if it were the middle of a cloudy day. And, it was just enough light for him to see a small gash in Shenendril’s clothes. It was not deep enough to break the elf’s skin, but Shadow Hunter swelled with pride at seeing that he’d actually managed to hit his trainer. It also explained why Shenendril wanted to use the blunted spears. Not only was Shadow Hunter now good enough to potentially land a lucky and dangerous blow against his teacher, but also Shenendril would no doubt have to stop pulling his attacks to maintain a distinctly upper hand.

Of course, Shenendril said nothing about either of these possibilities. “Be here again in the morning and we’ll see if I can do anything more with you or if you have simply gotten lucky today,” he said, instead, turning away from Shadow Hunter and returning his spear to its spot on the table.

He scooped up his goblet and drained what remained in it as he sauntered away, leaving Shadow Hunter lying on the grass in the pale moonlight without a backwards glance.

Sk’Tash passed the elf as he came in and the two men gave each other small bows before the reptilian humanoid approached his young protégé. His amber, slitted eyes rested emotionlessly on Shadow Hunter.

“Not many smile after a training session with Shenendril,” he said his voice thick and his mouth straining, as usual to shape the words of the humans. “He must have gone easy on you.”

“Perhaps, milord,” Shadow Hunter replied as he hauled himself to his feet. “Or perhaps only a few of his students understand what it is that he teaches them.”

Egg Drop

Link

Here’s a little something I wrote up to try to get published in one of the online scifi mags.  It didn’t work.  Though Tim Rodriguez over at Brooklyn Indie Games was kind enough to print a couple of my stories in his Pendragon Zine.  If you don’t know Tim, you should check him out.  He’s a brilliant game designer and game master and some of my best memories from various Fear the Cons include him.  He was also kind enough to give me my first paid writing gig, creating scenarios for his awesome OmegaZone game.

Go to http://brooklynindiegames.com/ now and check him out..then come back and read this.

Colonel Murphy would never admit it to anyone but he found the lightshow created by a Orbital Insertion Pod drop beautiful. Even in the light of day, the pods left bright lines sweeping across the sky as the pods entered the atmosphere and the heat created by that entry converted to light.

He kept the pleasure he felt at seeing that beauty tightly contained, his face displaying no emotion. Joy was not an expression an officer of the Colonial Military should display while on duty. A few of the other observers were new to this and he even managed to hide his disdain as they flinched at the booms that occurred as the pods finished their plummets and struck the planet closer to the spectator bunker. Even with the braking jets and parachutes the impacts were fierce and more than one entrenched location had been destroyed by that collision even before the trooper contained within stepped out of the pod.

It was not too long after the streaks stopped lighting up the sky that the first of those troopers wandered into the rally zone. Half of them had a haunted look about their eyes and flinched at every noise and slightest motion around them. The other half were just as wide eyed and keyed up but had the frenetic expression of a satisfied daredevil about them. Every one of them was shaky and not a few of them stumbled as they entered the rally zone.

Murphy had seen enough of these training exercises that he no longer bothered being furious and offended that not a single one of them entered the area correctly. In fact, a shocking number of them did not have their weapons. None of them came in with their weapons up. Many of them jogged into the area instead of with the careful steps of a person expecting combat.

Only one out every handful of first drops had a person who remembered their combat training after the pods hit the ground. For that matter, he was not proud of the fact and was happy that no one knew that he had stumbled into the rally spot completely unarmed during his own egg drop. After all, it was a mental shock to everyone to be shot out of a dreadnought’s missile tube and into the upper atmosphere of a planet with nothing more than a few inches of carbon tube plating and heat resistant panels between a person and being incinerated in a fiery death.

Of course, most of the pods were insulated well enough that the occupants did not feel that heat. Those that did not have the appropriate insulation were repaired or retired long before it became and issue and less than one percent of troopers were cooked inside that high tech shell.

What was far more distressing to the average occupant of one of the pods were the motions they were subjected to. The atmosphere was not one homogenous thing but rather a swirling mass of ever moving gasses that were thicker and thinner at different points. Passing through it at faster than the speed of sound translated to a bone rattling, brain jarring ride that, even with being securely strapped in and pumped full of anti-motion sickness drugs often left a would be trooper vomiting violently on the way down or after he hit the ground. Those candidates washed out before they could wash up.

And there was a reason why Orbital Insertion Pods were often called the most expensive coffins in the galaxy. The interior space was uncomfortably small and tight, the occupant strapped in tightly so that the turbulence would not fling a hand, foot, or limb against one of the hard interior surfaces and leave the trooper with a broken finger or toe that would hinder his combat capabilities.

Add to that the fact that the interiors were dark as often and not. There were dim lights in the pod, but they often failed due to the rigors the pod undertook. Not a few potential troopers were left gibbering or shrieking idiots because of the extremely claustrophobic 15 minutes or so that it took a pod to fall through the atmosphere. And, the anti-nausea medication was the only thing they got. Early in the program, troopers had also been giving anti-anxiety drugs, but it was quickly determined that their combat effectiveness was reduced by the calm that the drugs imposed on the people under their influence.

The mere fact that the men gathered below were psychologically and physically tough enough to climb out of their pods and make their way to the rally point meant they were a rarity. The fact that they were also the best members of the various armed forces meant that it would not take their trainers long to hammer their combat training back into them until they were even better at being assault combatants than they were before they became drop troopers. They were not the best of the best yet, but it was Murphy and his fellow trainers’ job to ensure they would be soon enough.

And that was why the egg drop came so early in Orbital Insertion Pod training. Being elite didn’t mean a thing if a soldier could not successfully undergo the rigors of a drop. These men had only been here a week, just long enough for the trainers to make sure that they were actually good enough combatants to deserve the chance of becoming drop troopers and for them to learn the basics of the drop pods. Not a few of the men washed up before ever getting into a pod and it would be a waste to bother with any more training for those left if they could not perform a successful drop.

Some people thought it was called an “egg drop” because of the rounded teardrop shape of the pods. But all of the trainers were drop troopers themselves. They had as much faith in the pods as they did any piece of technology they used and little fear they would fail. In fact, the pods were more reliable than a lot of the other hardware the military was expected to depend upon. No, this inaugural landing was called an egg drop because they were seeing if the men inside those pods were going to crack.

Five minutes after the last candidate entered the rally point and that meant that it was time for them to go pick up the stragglers. Invariably, some of the potential troopers got lost or injured or trapped in their pods and very rarely, one died. Murphy’s stomach clenched as he noticed that Cragger was one of those stragglers.

The colonel could not remember the last time he’d seen a more promising candidate. Drop trooper trainers got too much tail to have anything left over to waste on a wet dream but if they did have them, Cragger would be one.

The man wasn’t the biggest of this group of candidates, but he was one of the strongest and was definitely the toughest. He’d let out not the smallest complaint about any of the rigorous training exercises the group had been put through and not a few of the men who were considered elite members of their military branches had fainted, quit or even broken down weeping from the physical and mental strain.

Cragger was one of the better marksmen and was easily the best hand to hand combatant. He’d demonstrated a savage efficiency when it came to injuring and killing his opponents. He was no mindless brute, though and while he was also no master strategist, his grasp of personal and small unit tactics was impressive.

Putting it in simplest terms, Cragger was a born soldier, a weapon r created by the hand of God and gifted to the Colonial Military to smite their enemies.

It would be just Murphy’s luck for the man to get a bad drop pod end up a scattered collection of vaporized molecules because of failed heat shielding or a smear across the countryside because of malfunctioning braking jets or parachutes. Hoping against all evidence that there was nothing wrong, the Colonel mounted up on the half track command vehicle waiting nearby with one of the other trainers and took a seat as the remaining trainers addressed the men who’d gathered in the rally zone below.

Of course, the fact that they all expected the men to come staggering into the rally point shell-shocked did not mean that they let it go. The lovely sounds of a sound dressing down filled Murphy’s ears as the private at the controls started the vehicle and they were soon humming along over the irregular countryside. Another private monitored the electronics that were in contact with the telemetry from the various pods. A multi-wheeled mini MASH unit followed in their wake, ready to provide first aid to any of the drop troopers who needed it.

Each of the Orbital Insertion Pods used during a training drop had a radio beacon in it. During a real insertion, there were almost no electronics in the pods. It reduced the chance of the enemy tracking the incoming pods and made it difficult to find them once they hit the ground. While it was hard to hide the pyrotechnics involved in a drop, it was almost impossible to hit one of the pods without electronic aid given how small they were and how fast they were moving.

It did not hurt the impressive psychological impact a drop had when the people it was being perpetrated on realized they could do little to stop it. After all, there was something inherently intimidating about facing a soldier who was willing to be dropped from orbit.

For a training drop, though, the beacons installed in every pod indicated where they were, whether or not it had opened, and any damage it had suffered in the drop. The satellite uplink between the hardware in the halftrack and the GPS sensors on the trainee’s uniforms also indicated whether or not the trooper assigned to any particular pod had made it to the rally point.

Murphy cast a glance over at the display, noting another of the little red numbers that corresponded to one of the troopers turn from red to green as the person arrived at the rally point. He was disappointed when he realized it was not Cragger’s number but rather belonged to one of the three women who’d made it this far. He wasn’t disappointed it was a woman, in fact McCoy was one of his best candidates. He was simply hoping that Craggers would show up at the rally point on his own power instead of them being forced to pry him out of his pod.

The small convoy worked their way out from the rally point to the closest pods that belonged to the individuals who had not made it, yet. The first pod they found had not opened at all, a malfunction keeping the door from unsealing.

The trooper inside showed impressive self control as one of the privates and a drill sergeant sprang the external, manual releases. His eyes were wide and starting but his cries for help were relatively controlled and followed the strictures given to them for just such emergencies. He simply repeated his name and the nature of his emergency. Those cries were pretty pointless, as the pods were all but sound proof, but it gave the troopers a way to counteract the helpless fear that would shake even the sturdiest of men and women when they realized they were trapped in a metal box. What they did didn’t help but at least it was something to do and had the weight of their trainers’ authority behind it.

The medics gave the man a cursory examination, quickly determining that there were no broken bones or damaged organs. The young man weathered his misfortune with such aplomb that he was able to ride in the open bed of the half-track instead of the MASH unit as they set out for the next pod. Murphy made a mental note to keep tabs on that one. A man who could keep his cool in an emergency like that was worth watching.

The next man was not quite so calm. The hatch of his pod had opened but the restraints had not released. He was thrashing wildly and howling, his face twisted with an animal fear. It was pointless, of course. Those restraints were essentially unbreakable. He would never get himself free. Much to his disgust, Murphy could see big, fat tears rolling down the man’s face.

That was not as bad as the next man. He had proved that his restraints actually weren’t unbreakable. Sometime during the descent they had failed. He was thankfully unconscious, knocked out from the pounding he took by being thrown around inside the pod. Murphy overheard the paramedics as they loaded him up in their MASH unit. Apparently, most of his bones were broken and he had a concussion.

The next pod was empty but the trooper was not at the rally point. The private altered the search parameters on his scanners and they found his GPS moving away from them.

To his credit, the candidate continued to jog, only casting a glance over his shoulder at them as they approached. Even when the half track drew up next to him, he kept his eyes forward and continued to jog.

“Goddammit, Tennyson, are you some kind of goddamn moron? The goddamn rally point is back that way,” Murphy shouted as he leaned out of the open side of the vehicle and jerked his thumb back the way they’d come.

“Sir! Yes, Sir!” Tennyson replied, gasping for breath. He turned smoothly and headed back in the correct direction.

Murphy got a little nervous as he realized that the last unopen pod was Cragger’s.

He grew more nervous as he noticed that the pod had not opened. They were supposed to spring open within moments after sensing impact but even if that mechanism did not work, there were internal manual fail safes. Either those had also malfunctioned or Cragger had been incapable of triggering them for some reason, whether physical or mental.

Murphy, in a very out of character gesture, approached the pod himself when they pulled up to it. He helped one of the privates trigger the outside locks.

Even as the pod opened like an enormous, strange flower, the colonel knew why Cragger had not made it to the rally point and was filled with disappointment.

The smell of vomit, urine and feces almost gagged him, telling him immediately that the man inside had lost control of his bodily functions.

The whimpers that came from the inside of the pod as light came into it told Murphy why he had lost control and he found himself surprisingly disappointed.

As the pod fully opened, Cragger’s whimpers turned into hoarse, terrified, maddened screams. His eyes were wide and goggling, rolling in their sockets wildly without seeing anything they passed over.

“Godammit,” Murphy muttered. Cool, calm and dangerous as Cragger might be with blood on his hands and bullets whipping past his head on the ground, it was obvious that the combination of tight space, radical motion and helplessness inherent in being a drop trooper was beyond his ability to cope.

“Get him out of there and off my training grounds,” the colonel growled in disgust, turning his back on the man in disappointment and stalking back to the halftrack.

The End

Not Scraps

It may not seem like it, given the usual contents of this blog, but most of what I write is actually fiction.  Below is a sample.  This was originally intended as flash fiction, a style that is intended to tell an entire story and be exceptionally short.  Short though it may be and story it may tell but it is not short enough to really be flash fiction.  I would really need to take an editorial razor to it.  I still think it’s pretty good, though.  This story is inspired by one of my wife’s many terrifying nightmares.

If you like it, you can find links to my long form fiction available on Amazon over at http://www.blackguardpress.com/

Oh, and don’t confuse this with my slash fiction.  That’s totally different.  You can find that under “Richochet/Riptide: Further Adventures in the Teacups.”

Not Scraps

 

Nell sighed in relief when she got to the top of the stairs outside her apartment and fished her keys out of her purse. It had been a very long day. But then, they all seemed to be very long days since she got the promotion. The extra money was nice, but didn’t balance the extra hours.

To save money, Nell left her apartment dark when she wasn’t there and an inky blackness filled the place and hardly seemed to budge at the light coming from the hallway through the open door. It took her a second or two to find the light switch next to the door and just before she flicked it on, she thought she saw one of the shadows that filled the apartment move, flashing away from its spot near the kitchen before disappearing.

The motion brought a gasp from her and started her heart racing, though she knew it must have been her imagination. After all, in the bright light from the living room lamp there was nothing there now.

Still, the feeling of fear didn’t go away, logic or not. So she wasn’t surprised when her voice wavered a little as she greeted her cat. “Heya Scraps, miss me boy?”

He meowed up at her, his one good eye focused on her briefly before he turned to look in exactly the spot she had seen the shadow. The trepidation built in her again, but a thorough examination of her apartment turned up nothing untoward. She did succumb to the urge to turn on every light in the place in the process.

Scraps waited with admirable patience for her in the kitchen, only letting out the occasional forlorn wail as he sat next to his empty food bowl.

After changing into some old sweatpants and a worn t-shirt, Nell returned to her pet. “You act like I starve you, brat,” she grumbled to the cat before pouring him a bowl of food. An accusatory meow was her only response before Scraps attacked his food with gusto.

Nell sighed. She couldn’t really blame the little creature. Before Nell found him, Scraps was a stray and probably hadn’t had a decent meal since his mother abandoned him or was killed.

When she found him in an alley on her way home from work one day, the tiny kitten was a few moments from becoming a snack for a hungry stray dog. She’d frightened the dog off fast enough to keep the kitten from coming away unscathed and even an emergency visit to the vet hadn’t kept him from losing an eye and having scars that would be with him forever.

“That’s not a cat, that’s the leftovers of a cat,” her mother had said after taking one look at the pathetic little kitten the next day.

Nell’s heart went out to the helpless creature, though. It didn’t seem fair that the world was picking on such a tiny little thing and she knew then that she would keep him even if no one else saw his appeal. Her mother’s comment did provide the perfect name for the cat, though. With his ragged appearance and courage, his official name became Scrappy and Nell, as well as everyone else, called him Scraps.

As the cat devoured his food, Nell headed for the living room. A night of mindless entertainment in front of the TV would be just the cure for the nerve-wracking, headache-inducing day she’d had.

A motion in the corner of her eye as she passed the hall stopped her, though. Her heart pounded again and she froze, her breath catching in her throat as the hair on the back of her neck rose. Slowly, she turned her head and looked down the hall.

There was nothing there. She could see all the way into her bedroom and the usual scattering of clothes and clutter of papers was there, but nothing out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, her heart continued to race and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she and Scraps weren’t the only ones there.

It took an act of will to calm down, go to the couch, sit down and turn on the TV. She was just tired, she reasoned. The stress from the day had set her on edge and left her jumping at shadows. Still, she felt better when Scraps joined her on the couch a few minutes later. Something about having the little mass of purring fur close gave her a sense of safety. Not that she really expected much protection from fifteen pounds of one-eyed cat.

As happened far too often lately, Nell found herself playing a balancing act between duty and fun. The dutiful part of her knew that she should go to bed early so that she would be ready for work the next day instead of being a zombie animated by far too much coffee. The fun loving part of her knew that the sooner she went to sleep, the sooner the next day and the grind that involved would come.

In the end, sleep won. She stayed up an hour later than she should have before her eyes drooped so badly that she couldn’t keep them open. Reluctantly, she trudged off to bed and settled in.

The feeling of unease from her earlier frights still lingered though and there was a certain sense of tension about her as she turned off the light. Even several hours of distraction hadn’t banished the feeling that something was in the apartment with her other than her cat. Still, the bed was soft, the blankets were warm and she was tired, so it didn’t take her long to drift off into a fitful sleep.

The night was filled with strange, ominous dreams. The feeling that there was something or someone else in the apartment with her carried over into her subconscious mind and tormented her sleep. She dreamed of being trapped in small places, like caves and cages with dangerous, vicious animals or lost in places she had never been while being chased by people who wanted to hurt her.

It was almost a relief when a strange rustling sound intruded on her sleep and woke her up. Fear gripped her again. Before her conscious, logical mind really started working there was that shimmering moment of confusion between sleep and wakefulness that left her vulnerable to her emotions and something primal in her made her freeze in terror.

Her senses sharpened as her heart raced, but her room and the apartment were quiet and still. Only the hum of unknown machinery and traffic outside disturbed the peace. A city born girl, Nell didn’t even hear those noises, and would have been more disconcerted if they weren’t there. True silence was simply not something a modern person expected.

Nell jumped when the rustling came again. This time the sound was followed by a sharp clatter before silence reigned again. Her breath came in short fast gasps, her heart pounding away in her chest. Her head spun as a heady fear filled her.

Cold sweat broke out on Nell’s body. She didn’t know how long it took her to calm down; it certainly felt like hours of excruciating tension, but since the sun didn’t rise, she knew that couldn’t be right. Finally, though enough of her reason returned to figure out what the noises were.

Scraps learned early on that he shouldn’t miss an opportunity for a meal. He often rummaged through her garbage for even the tiniest leftovers. It was an annoying habit, but mostly only because he liked to do it late at night and she always had to clean up the mess afterwards. It was also yet another reason why his name fit so well. Scraps was always after scraps. The rustling was undoubtedly the sound of the animal burrowing into the garbage bag and the clanging was probably a can falling to the floor.

“Scraps, get out of the trash!” she shouted in irritation toward the front of the apartment. Nell shook her head, chiding herself internally for getting so worked up over such a little thing. Her relief was so profound that when she lay back down, she fell asleep almost instantly. Her last thought was a nagging suspicion that something didn’t fit in place.

At first, her dreams were peaceful, filled with warmth and comfort. They quickly mutated into nightmares of being pinned down or bound and unable to escape while some unseen creature slowly stalked her. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t get away and her assailant taunted her with the slowness with which it approached as though it relished her helplessness.

That nagging voice in the back of her mind was what woke her up the second time. The night was at its darkest, and her apartment filled with a thick blackness that seemed to relish devouring the light coming in through the window.

Nell shifted her feet, trying to get comfortable so that she could at least attempt to get enough rest for work the next day. A familiar mass provided resistance and bound her feet under the covers, though. Scraps meowed with irritated indignation as she shifted him from his sleeping spot.

It was only then that she realized what had been out of place before. She was too sleepy to realize it at the time, but Scraps had been in that same spot when the rustling and clattering came from the kitchen. Her sleep-addled brain hadn’t noticed the incongruity between the cat being in bed with her and disrupting the trash in the other room.

A cold dread washed over her, sending icy trails of fear up and down her spine as the full implications of that realization hit her. Nell jumped when there was a rustling and a clattering in the front of the house again. She barely managed to suppress a shriek of fear into a simple squeak at the sound.

It took several long moments for her to gain enough control over her voice to use it properly. “Scraps?” she managed to call out softly.

Her wide eyes strained in the night seeking any sign of comfort. She could see the entrance to the kitchen down the hall and the shadow she saw earlier appeared once again. A deeper darkness in the night, it held ominous promise as it drew nearer.

“Not Scraps,” the shadow assured her in a voice filled with an unholy threat of violence and pain.

Nell just had time to give full voice to the scream she suppressed earlier.