It always began with an explosion.
Any explosion – any one of the hundred or more he had survived.
The explosion would lock him in, trap him, make him a prisoner of his sleeping mind. In the real world, he was safe in bed with a woman curled close beside him. Vel’s cousin, Lea, her body warm and sated. But it was not enough. The moment sleep claimed him the explosion would still come, shredding his sanity. Then the nightmare would run on, making him relive each episode, as vivid as life. Every thought, sensation, feeling, image, as clear as it had been at the time, pursuing him remorselessly until he could – somehow – scramble back to consciousness from the relentless abuse of sleep….
An explosion crumpling the building to his right as if it were paper.
“I see them, sir,” a familiar voice reported.
“Everyone converge on Vekim’s location.” Jaz ran, crouched low, finger just off the trigger in its safety position. The Lattice guided his movements. It displayed his four soldiers closing in around Vekim and what appeared to be a full battalion of enemies. He strained past the reverberation of the explosion ringing his ears.
“Acknowledged.” Four voices clipped into the ringing. Just four.
“Pault?” Jaz swore under his breath, the Lattice knew the remark was private. It confirmed what any man who ran a squad in the Legion already knew. His new recruit was freezing up. He changed directions and bolted toward Pault. It was pointless to try keeping anyone alive, much less a rich man’s son whose fear could turn them from hunters to hunted.
Jaz rounded a heap of rubble, then pressed his back against a crumpling wall to get a visual. Pault was backing away from something big. Flashes of sun bleached bone and a deep muddy red moved like a predator. Pault fired his weapon, but even the Lattice’s targeting assistance couldn’t make the mark. “Pault, drop now!”
The recruit turn and locked eyes with Jaz for an instant. Jaz read the expression of terror, a look that went beyond first mission jitters. Then he tumbled to one side and Jaz made his target with Lattice enhanced guidance. Two shots to the chest and a third grazed the head as the bone clad thing fell back. Its weapon clattered among the debris on the street.
Jaz was over Pault. The man was trembling, but looked otherwise unscathed. “Finish pissing your pants, kid, we’ve got work to do.”
Pault pulled in a few deep breaths, and shook his head. “Yes, sir.” His weapon was held at the ready, though his hands trembled.
Jaz gave the recruit a nod and used his connection with the Lattice to dose Pault with a drug cocktail. The weapon steadied. Jaz walked over to the dead thing.
It was wearing an armor of sorts. White bone protected the chest and limbs, save for the smoldering hole. Its skin was painted a dark red making the dead man’s face look inhuman.
“Two and a half meters,” Pault said.
Jaz pried the giant’s weapon from a hand that made his own hand feel child-sized. He grunted and heaved a massive wooden club upright. Bits of blood, bone, and hair clung to it. The weight of the weapon was nearly too much to bear. “This isn’t tech, it’s a bloody tree.”
“He said he was going to eat me.”
“All part of the game, Pault.” Jaz dropped the club and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Let’s take care of his friends.”
Jaz followed the sound of weapon blasts. He took a quick peek around a building and had to pause and process what he saw. His unit, side by side with their target, firing wildly into a horde of those bone clad giants.
“Too many…” Pault said while taking aim.
“Fire at will, Pault. Leave the gang alone for now and focus on…”
A sick squelching sound interrupted him. Blood spattered Jaz’s face. It tasted metallic as he spat. Pault’s surprised expression went slack. A crude spearpoint retracted through his chest.
Jaz fired his weapon though Pault’s remains and screamed. Another of the bone clad giants fell dead. He scrambled through the chaos and rejoined his unit. Two of the gang members they had come to hunt lay dead next to his four surviving Legion soldiers.
“Leader Four-Delta from Prime. Withdraw immediately.”
The voice in his ears at last.
Relaying the order to his team members, Jaz put down covering fire as they retreated. The Lattice was pounding him with information through his scalp implanted data-port, faster than he could absorb it: numbers and location of the enemy, their armaments, expected movements, ground plans, suggested paths he could take. More.
“The gang called these guys Ghostkin.” Avilon said. Jaz’s friend and best soldier was covered in someone else’s blood. “They’ve been raiding this smuggling outpost.”
“So these giants are stealing the smuggler’s goods?”
“They are after the smugglers for food.”
Jaz opened his mouth, but paused before he could speak. Electricity crackled in a small circle, then widened until it offered an expanding view of bone clad men, lined up in what looked like a tree village in the jungle. Jaz turned his head to warn Avilon and his other two soldiers, but caught sight of another portal opening.
“Fall back! We need to get to the rendezvous point, now!”
He focused on keeping up covering fire. It crossed his mind to wonder who he had pissed off enough so they chose him for this suicide run. If – when – he got out of this he would find out and make them pay. Then the thought occurred that it was probably nothing personal at all. When you were living out a death sentence, you shouldn’t be too surprised to be treated as completely expendable.
For every one of the bone armored giants that advanced toward his retreating band, another collected a corpse from amid rubble and disappeared through the portal. Jaz fired at the giant who dragged Pault’s corpse, but not even the Lattice’s targeting assistance could hit the mark at this range.
Screams over the com caught his attention.
“Jaz, it’s just you and me now.” Avilon shouted through the com.
He started running again.
Watching the environment.
Watching the screens.
Checking the Lattice data overlays.
A movement on the screen broke the profile of the low rise building beside him, some kind of accommodation block. Appearing on screen: ground-plans, elevations, positions of people, their predicted paths. The data projected into his visual field, augmenting his reality. He turned, raking fire across the facade. One of the massive figures dropped. Something heavy glinted as it arced through the air toward him and clanged on a wall nearby. Lattice visual was showing him six men in there. He knew he could take one or two, but their crude clubs and hand axes would overcome technology eventually. The energy threshold of his kinetic shield would be zero defence against that kind of power. Lattice data flashed up a helpful message warning him of the over-ride risk. Better late than never. He cancelled it and pumped more of the adrenalin based cocktail of drugs through the intravenous clip fixed into his torso. Speed was his only defence now and not much of one.
His whole focus on making that speed.
The buildings ended in a high wall and as he made the final sprint towards it, he tried to decide between tracking along it for a break or scaling it and risking exposure. Checking Lattice screens for the information he needed to inform the decision.
Huge hands grabbed at him and Jaz slipped to one side, discharging his weapon as he passed. To have to grapple with one was a death sentence. The sheer strength of someone that could swing a club that weighed nearly as much as a man would crush him. Even if he got lucky and beat one, the delay would be enough for the rest to dogpile him.
Jaz ran until blood thundered in his ears. The Lattice showed Avilon as a dot holding their rendezvous point. He was getting close, but the labored breathing grew even closer. One of those giants was right behind him.
Then he heard it.
Distant sounds of a fire-fight.
All he needed was to cover some more ground. He saw Avilon and their reinforcements. Avilon’s eyes went wide. Then spots burst in Jaz’s vision and everything went black.
He hit the ground and stayed down, unable to rise, unable to think, his consciousness hollowed out by the pain.
The smell of the dark ground beneath his face, tasting musty and sweet – an alien soil. The beat of his heart timing the steady flick of numbers that counted down to the moment these giants would devour him.
“This food belongs to the Ghostkin! Your flesh will sustain us through the ash winter.”
“Not this flesh,” Avilon replied. Weapon fire drowned out the sounds of bodies in motion.
Something moving, lifting him, an arm under his shoulder. A voice – his brother’s voice – Avilon Revid.
“Let’s get you out of here.”
….. waking was always sudden and never easy.
Like ripping away flesh.
Then came the disorientation as the two worlds of the past and present battled for supremacy.
Which was real?
His mind was still caught in the snare of memory, vividly relived. He could feel the cold sweat on his body and the hammering of his heart. A face, vague in the darkness, then another voice, familiar and feminine, full of concern and compassion:
“You got it bad tonight?”
Lea was there for him as she had been the last time and the time before that. And he knew then, with a sudden certainty, she would be there for him every night he needed her. He reached out and her arms slipped around him drawing him close, holding him as he sobbed in relief, like a frightened child.
This 'Writer Battle' is based on the Fortune's Fools story Doubled Spirit and the Ghostkin from A Paleolithic Fable (An Anki Legacies Adventure) and first appeared on S Shane Thomas's Website. Keep up with S Shane Thomas, the Anki Legacies, and all his Writer Battles by signing up for his newsletter. Sign up now and get his novelette, Rakshasa for free.