[This story was featured in the New Pulp Tales print magazine, sold at PulpFest 2019] A young man is torn from his life and thrown into a savage war on a strange new world. Will
[This story was featured in the New Pulp Tales print magazine, sold at PulpFest 2019]
A young man is torn from his life and thrown into a savage war on a strange new world. Will he survive?
The trunk was the only thing my father left me.
Three years since we talked—our final talk, it turned out—and the first news I had of him was from a lawyer settling his estate. I put my thesis defense on hold to see that trunk in his attic. It was the last contents of a now empty house, the rest of it having gone to pay outstanding debts.
When I was a child, I was never allowed to touch the trunk. My father never talked about what he kept in it, or where he came from. Not that it mattered to me when I was young—he was just my Dad. I didn’t even notice his accent till he picked me up at school and some other kid mentioned it.
Then I got older, and Mom died. I wanted to know why he had so many secrets. We fought, and it was a long time before we talked again. Then the times between talks got longer and longer, till we just stopped.
I opened the trunk and found what looked like a WWI military uniform, in royal blue and gold. I lifted out the ensemble—jacket, trousers, tunic, and boots—and an envelope fell onto the floor. Inside was a handwritten letter:
My Precious Son,
Forgive me for not speaking out, for I feared what you’d think of me, should you hear the truth. And after your mother died…my desire for life waned. Still, I was oathbound, yet with no notion of how to keep my oath. I hoped to speak with you again, to explain myself and ready you for the task, but the sickness came on too quick. The notebook has everything I could remember, and the contents of the trunk are proof of my words. Please, it is my dying wish that you finish the duty I could not.
I love you eternally,
My knuckles were white against the half-crumpled page. I shook with what roiled inside me, too many feelings to name. Two thoughts, though, stood out clearly—I would give everything in the world to see him again, and I really wanted to punch him.
I took deep breaths, smoothed the letter, and checked the trunk. At the bottom were some wrapped items and a leatherbound volume, the notebook he mentioned. I’d leave that for later. It was…too much to think about.
A memory, long forgotten, flickered through my head, of the one glimpse I’d gotten of that uniform and the thrashing I took for it. Out of spite, I decided to try it on.
In front of the second-floor bathroom mirror, I felt like some old-time Prussian soldier on parade. Besides the gold embroidery and piping, there was some kind of crest over the breast pocket of the jacket, a bird with bright plumage, but with the profile of an eagle…with teeth, swooping down on some large fanged cat. A blood stripe ran down the trousers. This had to be a costume, but it had the fit and quality of a real uniform, or so I imagined.
I’d brought the items and notebook with me. I unwrapped the first on top of the pile, and then nearly dropped it. It was a flap holster with a loaded pistol and two extra magazines, both full. My father had taught me how to shoot, but the sleek design was unfamiliar.
I absently clipped the flap holster to my belt. The second package had military metals, none of which I recognized, and what I thought were dog tags. They weren’t cheap trinkets and had the look of being worn. I wanted to shove aside the idea forming at the back of my brain, but it was getting louder.
The last package held a perfect crystalline sphere that did odd things with the light. But I set it aside. I needed to read the notebook.
Just as I picked up the volume, the sphere lit with an unearthly light. I put the notebook in the crook of my arm and reached for the crystal. As I put my fingers to its surface, the world exploded.
In reflex, I shot up out of the freezing water I was sitting in. My vision cleared and everything around me was washed with rhythmic blood-red light from overhead lamps. The distant whine of a siren echoed somewhere.
The chamber was all columns and arches, with tunnels leading off in different directions. There was damage to the stonework, bullet holes and blast marks. Then I noticed the bodies.
At the center of the chamber was an empty fountain, which seemed wrought of living glass. A man was propped up against its edge, staring up sightlessly, blood staining his vividly embroidered robes. Around him sprawled the bodies of men dressed in the uniform I wore.
I shook myself. “Has to be a dream.” I snatched the notebook from the water and fanned its pages to dry it off. I started with the first line of the first page, My Son, I am not from this Earth…
Over the top of the notebook, I noticed where I’d dropped the crystal sphere in the water. Its inner light guttered as sparks spurted from the top of the fountain. They were wrought of the same material. I stood gawping at the sight.
That is, till armed men dressed head to toe in black emerged from one of the tunnels. My feet moved before my brain and I found myself racing for one of the archways. I was sprayed with water as bullets landed around me. I slipped as I snatched up the sphere.
The tunnels, in the style of the chamber and under the same bloody light, seemed to go on forever. I took random turns, but the echoing thump and squeak of boots followed me. I tasted the sharp damp scent of water and stone as I sucked breath.
I was running ragged, till some attraction, almost magnetic, tugged at my hand through the sphere—that’s the only way I can put it—as I passed a cross-tunnel. I backtracked and, with desperate hope, followed the feeling and repeated the action with every tug.
I exited into a chamber like the one I’d fled, but smaller, with no fountain. Instead, there was a massive vault door to one side. I caught my breath and brushed at my burning shoulder, only to wince as the back of my hand came away with blood. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry at my luck.
A shock went up my arm as a small starburst flared in the crystal. At the same time, with an ear-splitting buzzer, a blue lamp flashed above the vault door as it swung open.
It opened onto an antechamber, whose steady light called to me. But I thought to draw the gun first. I put the notebook in an inner pocket to free my hand. Shaking from nerves, fatigue, and the chill of damp clothes, I could hardly hold the pistol straight.
Along one side of the antechamber were metal coffins, with thick shielded cables that ran into an overhead conduit. The other side was dominated by a large screen, under which was a control board with numerous dials, knobs, and push-buttons. A crystal sphere, like the one I held, stood on a shoulder-high pedestal. At the back was a row of beds, unoccupied.
A light on one of the coffins blinked. I jumped when it opened with a hiss and thump, as its top section slid back. I approached on unsteady legs and the body of a young woman—hardly more than a girl—rested inside. She was porcelain pale, tinged blue with cold, and her hair as dark and shining as a raven’s feathers. She wore a mantle as rich as the man who’d been sprawled against the fountain.
Then she sputtered and coughed.
I worked my mouth a bit before I remembered how to move and lifted her out of the coffin. She feebly wrapped her arms around my neck and mumbled words I didn’t understand. Steam rose from her. I set her on one of the beds, checked her pulse, and waited.
Her eyes fluttered open and went wide when she saw me. She bolted upright, babbled unintelligible words, then fell sobbing on my chest.
I was out of my depth at this point—really, at every point—and I won’t lie, I felt the way she did at that moment. All I could think to do was pat her on the back. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I know you’ve had some bad things happen…”
She stiffened, then scrambled off the bed to the opposite side of the chamber, grabbed the sphere from its pedestal, and reached her hand into a recess to draw out a pistol like the one I held, which she pointed at me. Her amber eyes were lit with wrath.
To be continued…