September 23, 2019

Free Fiction Friday: Shadowfall Part 2

Here it is; the continuation of our eclipse-fueled  science fiction tale Shadowfall. And this is just in time for the end of the first eclipse season for 2015. If you’ve ever wondered what sort of eclipses might occur on far-flung worlds, look no further than this tale. But beyond that, Shadowfall also considers just what humans of the far off era might make of such bizarre spectacles. Read more of our original scifi tales as well, and be sure to start at Part 1 for Shadowfall here.

Enjoy!

Shadowfall

Chapter 2

by

David A. Dickinson

Kendra and the others had all heard tales of the Swarmers and how they had entered the inner core solar systems of the Diaspora generations ago, nearly exterminating mankind. They were replicating machines, mindless drones with just a single directive: replicate themselves at the cost of any emerging civilization that stood in their way. Neither Kendra nor any of the others had seen a Swarmer; no one alive had. But evidence of the destruction that they had wrought was still strewn about the star system. Helium fusion generators turned into weapons had managed to save humanity then, but only the Guardians possessed such technology now.

“You can only rely on yourself now,” Herrick continued.

Kendra tried to ignore the taste as dry as sawdust expanding in her throat. Water was a stranger here on this parched world, a commodity that had long since boiled away with the swelling of the angry star above. Kendra had once heard that this star wasn’t always a scorching crimson beast, but a placid yellow star, though she failed to believe it. Children are fed so many lies, Kendra thought.

—-

“Grind them,” She heard the voice of her old Slonath racing instructor say. Her parents had forbidden Kendra and her siblings to visit the old Guardian, which of course they did every chance they got.

“You are the crucible. Saddle up next to your fellow racers, set the pace, and grind down their souls.”

Kendra could feel the burning deep in her lungs then and now, a grim reminder of her body trying to find what it could to fuel her failing limbs but also working to keep the rest of the world out.

She kept going, and knew that there was no reason to complain.

“Every single competitor is feeling what you feel now,” the old Guardian would tell her. His voice motivated her today, along with the fear of succumbing to Shadowfall. There would be no retry, no return to a disapproving family. There would just be a desiccated corpse drying out on Priea to serve as a warning to others as the clockwork motion of the universe ticked on.

“Enjoy the burn. Let it consume you with pleasure and wear down your enemies.”

Maybe that was why their instructors took an almost perverse pleasure in inflicting pain on them in training, Kendra soon realized. Maybe that was why eager hopefuls soon sought to emulate them and sought out the same pain every chance they got, accepting stupid challenges and getting additions to ever expanding tattoos that adorned their bodies for all the world to see.

But Kendra decided early on that she wouldn’t wear her pain on her skin. Instead, she would inflict it on others before they realized it.

“We’re at the back of the pack,” Garath shouted, trying hard not to sound winded.

“Pick it up or die, pollywogs!” Herrick shouted.

Kendra picked a spot straight ahead on the flat horizon and fixed her eyes on it. How she hated this game that they were forced to play, and how she had feared even more the life that would’ve awaited her growing up on Slonath: a hardscrabble existence in the thorium mines, with her body slowly rotting from the inside out from radiation poisoning, as had happened to her brother. No chance to raise a family under the new Reproductive Limitation Act, except for by lottery or a remote chance at becoming a Guardian. Her sister, turning tricks at the spaceport to support them.

Her father hadn’t talked to her since she had decided to become a Guardian, and she knew that there wouldn’t be any turning back to her old life now anyway.

She took a sip from her hydration hose and tried to sense the rhythmic slapping of her feet through her soles against the hard desert pavement. The air was breathable here on Priea, and perhaps it would have been habitable at one time… but the world around them now was just a burned-out cinder.

“Remind me again to ask the Elders sometime just why the Diaspora decided to settle this system in the first place…” Yeara called out.

“Isn’t it just a bad business practice to settle around a red giant star at the end of its life?”

“And that’s precisely why we’re here,” Kendra said, knowing that she was sounding like a tired old holo-vid lesson. “We knew no one else would want this system, that no later surge of immigration would dare follow us here.”

“I think that they just ran out of fuel,” Yeara responded. “I think that they ran out of options and said ‘this’ll do, good enough…’”

A cloud loomed on the horizon.

Kendra squinted and watched as several runners in the lead pack went down in front of them, as if they’d struck a wall.

Then it hit them.

“sand mites!” a voice cried out.

Kendra ducked, covered her face and rolled. She knew she couldn’t waste precious forward momentum. The moisture-hungry mites would be hunting for traces of humidity in every orifice that they could find.

Kendra had heard the stories. The mites were thought to be mythical, something that was told to frighten other runners. But they were certainly real enough now. Kendra heard screams from ahead and felt the mites ping and cling to her clammy skin, feeling like a thousand clamoring fingers probing to unravel the succulent moisture contained in her flesh…

“Kendra!” A voice called out from her left. She could hear Yeara’s plea, but knew if she opened her eyes the mites would immediately want to bore in.

“Over here!” She slapped her visor down as she stumbled towards the sound of Yeara’s voice. The air inside the visor felt thick with heat, as Kendra fought a desperate battle to pick the few remaining sand mites off  her skin.

Her visor tinted, warning her that the edge of the rushing umbra was near. Kendra pulled a reflective blanket from her backpack and grabbed Yeara and pulled her underneath it with her. The Red Giant star beat down upon them now with its full ferocity. The stifling heat almost made her want to pass out.

“Listen to me,” Kendra told Yeara, faces both pushed against the dirt. She was shaking uncontrollably, almost more violently than the persistent scraping of the sand mites trying to get in.

“We’ve got to ride this out,” Kendra continued. “Then, when the mites are fried, we’ve got to run back for the shadow like you’ve never run before.”

“I don’t want to die,” Yeara sobbed, “My family can’t know I died out here…”

“You won’t die,” Kendra said, pushing her drinking tube into Yeara’s swollen mouth. She tried not to think about the mad dash coming up and the reality that lay ahead.

The scratching stopped. She dared not waste another second.

“Now!”

Her heart sank as she pushed the reflective blanket away and discarded it. She was almost blinded by the full fury of the sun overhead, and the edge of the shadow now seemed like a thin dark thread far beyond their reach.

“Listen to my voice,” Kendra called back, dropping all of the gear that she dared to. A furnace now raged around them both.

The universe seemed to pass them by in slow motion now, though Kendra knew it was all through the fog of her mind. She felt pink and naked, the beating of her heart the only thing that stood between her and the yearning to simply lie down and sleep while her desiccating body slowly returned her scattered atoms back to the unheeding cosmos…

No, she decided grimly. She saw the pool of darkness that was the moon’s shadow just up ahead. It was a small island of safety in a waterless ocean of death. She wouldn’t give them all the satisfaction now.

to be continued…

Read Shadowfall and other original works of science fiction by David Dickinson in their entirety.

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