Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In
Continuing the story, Aphelia has a conversation with a familiar (and rather odd) barman before taking to the air on her resupply mission. Sorry if it needs a little more work – you’re really my beloved guinea pigs for these drafts.
Be sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t:
And if you want to let me know what you liked, or didn’t, then throw in a comment.
Aphelia lay on her side in her dormitory bed, unable to sleep. Across from her, Merrietta lay on her own bed, limbs draped over it’s edges as she snored. Between them was the bottle of rum, half empty and resting on the bedside cabinet they shared. She hadn’t drunk a lot, just enough to warm her against the oncoming chill of night and put her into a light doze.
Yet the knowledge that the mission bell would ring had kept her awake, the anticipation of its chimes making it near impossible for her brain to shut down. Instead she stared at the label on the rum. It was probably one of the very last bottles left in the whole world, and the thought stirred a shadow of a memory. It flitted through her mind. There had been a bar….. somewhere. It was indistinct. There was a stranger who had served her rum and beer, but didn’t want the money she had tried to pay with.
“It’s not shiny enough,” the bartender had said.
Perhaps it had just been some sort of dream. Aphelia drifted through soft, floating memories of another place…..
She was riding in a car through the afternoon sunshine, all rolling hills and woodland. The coming of Spring was in still in the air even as the Moon swung into view; low in the sky, round and pregnant. Theran was driving, but he looked younger and as strange as he looked, the landscape itself was baffling her because there were no signs of war, no craters or skeletal trees, no blasted scars marring a tortured landscape. It was a world untouched by the hordes of creatures that had swept in relentless waves over the face of the civilised world.
It almost lifted her heart, but where she should have been happy, instead she was resentful about something. Yes, she was annoyed because there were going to some old factory and a party where she was supposed to wear a mask. She wanted to go somewhere else, but Theran had insisted and passed her a likeness of a bird. The memory shifted and she caught an image of herself in a mirror: the head of an owl, big eyes in an oval face. She blinked and looked around. She was standing at a bar lit by strings of little lights hung from the walls, incense coiling in the air and a muffled thud of music from somewhere nearby…..
Someone said a name. “Ellie?”
She blinked. The barman had his head cocked on one side, giving her a strange look. Despite the empty, black eyes and the bleached bone of his skull, she was sure that she knew him. “You?”
“Me?” replied the bartender quizzically. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Who are you?”
The stranger cocked his head. “I seem to remember having this conversation before. You can call me Crow, but I think you already knew that, hmmm?”
Waves of memories suddenly crashed against each other in her mind, a tidal collision that tossed her soul on the crest of the wave. Ellie shuddered and put out a hand to steady herself on the bar. This place was so familiar, how was it that she felt that she had been lost in some other world, lost in some sort of nightmare about a war?
“I was dreaming…..”
“A dream? Indeed,” replied Crow. “Want to tell me about it?”
The initial swell of conflicted memories subsided, like a wave pulling away from the beach to reveal freshly washed stones. Each one was a little piece of a life Ellie knew, but mixed into were other memories that she could simply reach out to and pick up.
Each one was a recollection from those eddying currents of that strange dream world….
“Go on,” Crow insisted. “Tell me what you remember of the other place.”
“It’s not real. Just a dream.”
“I thought it was a war. You’re aircraft was downed, but you survived.”
“Yes…..” Ellie wasn’t sure. She shook her head as if to clear the confusion.
Crow continued, “You remember the details clearly enough, don’t you, Ellie?”
“But this is where I belong,” she retorted. “I know this place.”
“Humour me. Tell me of this other world that you dreamed about. All you need do is reach out to them.”
She knew she shouldn’t, and as much as Crow was insistent, it was her curiosity that won over: her name Aphelia and she had been a teenager when it had all started. The first signs had been worrying news broadcasts that talked about a possible toxic spillage, but it was quickly apparent that there was something else going on. The government had a project that was digging a super deep mine to extract the crystals that lived at great depth in the mantel of the planet, drilling deeper and deeper until something bubbled up out of the ground and attacked the machinery and their operators.
The old footage had become required viewing by the time she joined the military effort, a scene filled with the same scrabbling madness, the flailing limbs and manic faces as the creatures who had engulf the biplane. They surged forth, perhaps from a hollow world as some had it, or perhaps they were aliens or the product of a dozen different, bizarre theories. The scientists had analysed what they could, and determined that the things were biological, but like nothing they’d seen before. Given their number and swarming behaviour, they had been dubbed The Tide and they were numerous beyond imagining.
The bizarre goblin gaggle of limbs and laughter had been joined by great lumbering beasts like golems of living rock that had been like living bulldozers, and a myriad of other bizarre things that digested concrete and steel, things that killed themselves throwing their bodies into the engines of jet planes while the tales of deep sea terrors like the Kraken had come to life as great tentacled beasts dragged shipping to the ocean floor.
And flying above the ever entrenching Front had come the Tidecallers, the only creatures that might have been thought to have some sort of human equivalence to intelligence. They were humanoids, shrouded in armoured plates of dark bone or bark who flew astride great feathered, fire breathing carrion mounts. Despite their best efforts, the military had never caught one of these creatures, nor had they ever attempted to communicate with humanity.
The war raged on, and after the shock of the initial assault waned, humanity had retaliated by bombing huge swathes of the tidlings, striking against the greater beasts with their heaviest weapons and searching for ever more ingenious ways to attack the creatures. Yet there had been no end to them and eventually the system became so strained by internecine warfare that it had recycled every last piece of civilisation in order to survive, turned every citizen to a soldier.
Aphelia had been a trainee pilot when the war started, and that had earned her a place in the auxiliary pilots corps, eventually bringing her into the primary force as crews dwindled. A few short years later she had arrived at Bastion which had now held for three years, its foundations apparent proof against attack from below, and time and again had survived the enemy where it had broken through the Front. Yet the Tide never relented, and the Front was a forever shrinking cordon.
“How long will they hold?” Ellie asked Crow.
Crow shrugged. “Days? Weeks?”
She wanted it to not be true, but she had been part of the fight long enough to know that it was hopeless. The Tide couldn’t be stopped, no matter how many you killed; they just kept coming. They were monsters, devils that had escaped the bowels of Hell itself.
“I prefer the term anti-bodies,” said Crow conversationally as he wiped the bar, then placed a glass and a bottle of rum beside it. “Drink?”
She nodded, silent as she tried to process all the material passing through her mind. “B-but what about this life?”
“This life?” Crow mused as he poured. “And what is this life you talk of? The life of a British urbanite? Did you really live in some small, dirty estate on the edge of the big city? A place riven with division against ephemeral enemies that you are either unaware of or cannot comprehend? A world where you can access information at the press of a button, yet still ignorance persists? It is a world of blurred lines and uncertainty, a world that surely must be some fevered dream compared to the war, where there is no need to sift through the endless flow of information buzzing between fuzzy lines: you fight the Tide, you fight for life. How could that not be real?”
Ellie stared at him, and Crow smiled. Was he right? The memories stood in stark contrast, and she was drawn more easily to those of fighting; they were so much simpler to comprehend, the people so bold and courageous in their struggle. They gave their heart and soul to arrest the onslaught. What was real was the war, the coming mission, the comrades struggling against the Tide.
And so Aphelia grabbed the glass of rum and threw it back.
Crow cleared his throat. “I haven’t been completely honest,” he said. “You see, this isn’t a case of one thing being real, the other not. It is foolishness to simply dismiss one as a dream, the other as real. What exists are mere tangents of your soul.”
“Tangent of my soul?” Aphelia frowned. “What does that even mean?”
Crow sighed and picked up the bottle of rum. “Let us assume that can accept that there are other realities?” Aphelia nodded. “Then why would it be so hard to think that your being, the essence of your soul if you will, exists in tandem with them?”
Aphelia shook her head. “That’s doesn’t make sense. If a person has a soul, then surely they have one only.”
“I never said you didn’t,” said Crow as he poured himself a drink, “But think of it like this. If you stand in a river, are you not both above and below the water.”
“Yes….. I suppose I see what you are saying, but why? Why would you show me this other world.”
“Well,” Crow replied, appearing slightly embarrassed. “There is a little matter of payment.”
He leaned over the bar and poked a finger at her. “I want my shiny. You still owe me.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I have no money here. We are at war.”
“Oh indeed you are. Remember that before you surrender to the inevitable.”
“I’ll never surrender!” Aphelia snapped.
Crow chuckled. “Spoken like a true warrior. Perhaps you’ll win the day after all.” Then he threw back the rum and disappeared. The glass hung suspended for but a second before tumbling to the floor and shattering, making Aphelia start awake. She looked around the dormitory, but it was empty. On the floor lay a shattered glass, and the sound had stirred Merrietta too.
“Wha – ?!” the engineer mumbled, rolling onto her side. Her one open eye focused on Aphelia.
“It’s okay,” Aphelia said to her with a sad smile. “Just an accident. Go back to sleep.”
* * *
The night had drawn down as the Moon had risen, full once more and there was not a cloud in sight. The temperature had fallen off and frosted the small windows of the dormitory where Aphelia, shaken by the strange dream, had briefly dozed off only to be awoken by the mission bell. The pale light glowed through the patina of ice and she saw that Merrietta had already upped and gone.
She dressed quickly and went in search of her friend in the hangars. It didn’t take long to find the ever smiling engineer doing pre-flight checks on the instrumentation, fuel and under wing mounts.
“You are awake!” smiled the giantess. Her breath made great plumes in the air. “You come back safe my little flower, dah?”
“Little flower?” Aphelia frowned.
Merrietta shook her head, smiling in bemusement. “Your nickname. It’s what I always call you.”
“Of course,” Aphelia smiled. She wondered why this had slipped her mind; her parents had named her after the first flowers of spring which were blooming on the day of her birth. “Where’s Theran?”
Merrietta shrugged. “He was standing out on the strip earlier, waiting for us. He’s eager always to be up in the air.”
Yes, thought Aphelia, he is. He enjoyed the freedom of the air, being above it all and getting a chance to rain fire down on the enemy. He still hoped, still believed that the Tide could be turned. Aphelia sighed. The fight was keeping the creatures at bay, but how long could they keep it up?
It wasn’t a thought to dwell on, especially now that she could hear the Cleric preaching to the work crews in the adjacent hangar: “….. and there will come a day when the enemy falters, a day when their numbers will thin, and if we have been too easy on ourselves in this purgatory, then what good shall it do us? We strive for our very survival! So rally your spirits! Those that do not fall will know that they have been blessed to carry on the light of the human spirit! Fight on, for who knows what tomorrow will bring!”
As the loading crew began to affix their payload, a familiar voice called out, “Ready for the off?”
Aphelia and Merrietta turned to see Theran strolling up. He was grinning with a maniac gleam in his eye.
“What’s so funny?” Aphelia asked.
“Oh, nothing much. Just that there isn’t a cloud in the sky.”
It was true, and all she could say to herself was “Great!” as she rolled her eyes. There was nothing they could do about it, Aphelia reflected. It was in the lap of whatever benevolent powers were watching over them to give them safe passage. There were soldiers on the ground relying on them, and they had their orders.
“Good to go!” shouted one of the loading crew. Theran gave him the thumbs up.
“Looks like we’re all ready,” he said. He checked his watch. “No point hanging around. Let’s get this over with, then we can get ourselves loaded up with something a little more explosive.”
With a grin, he hugged Merrietta and climbed up into the cock pit, and with one last embrace Aphelia bid the engineer farewell and followed Theran into her seat. Theran gunned the engine and the propeller became a blur. A moment later and it was chocks away.
The plane taxied to the strip and joined the other half dozen biplanes waiting for the off. Theran and Aphelia waved to the other crews as they waited for the signal, Aphelia’s leg twitching with nerves. This was always the worse part, waiting for take off out here on the strip. Once they were in the air they would be above the world and she could busy her mind with the navigation.
She didn’t have to wait long. A flare shot up and the biplanes set off, trundling down the grass runway, bumping along as they gained speed, then with a little wobble Aphelia’s stomach lurched and they were climbing up into the sky to join the Moon.
* * *
The drawback of a clear sky was also the only benefit: they could see you, but you could see them. At least that was the theory.
It started as an itching on the back of her neck as she hunched over her map and compass, out of the wind with a small torch focused on the details. They were on course – and there wasn’t a one in her squadron who would have doubted her intuition on that whether she had a map and compass or no – and after an hour and a half’s flight they would make deployment in maybe another half hour. But something was bothering her, and she started to scan the skies for a threat.
She leaned forward and shouted her fears to Theran. He nodded and radioed the others. No one could see anything, but the unease amongst the squadron was growing palpable. You could feel it, that sense that someone was watching you……
Another ten minutes went by.
Aphelia shivered and cursed. To take her mind off it she set about checking for a course correction which she knew she didn’t need to make.
And that was when the roar of flames churned the air in a blazing streak, lighting the night sky around them.
A giant avian shadow sped past and disappeared back into the night as the squadron peeled away from each other in emergency manoeuvres. One of their number was burning, the wood and canvas biplane ablaze. Aphelia craned her head and watched in horror as it spiralled out of control, heading for the earth. The crew had jumped but everything was burning, and they were nothing more than blazing candles hurtling toward the ground, parachutes brief wicks fluttering into petals of embers blown on the breeze.
And somewhere out there the great bird wheeled and made another pass.
Aphelia’s heart pounded, every second an agony of expectation as her eyes scried the darkness for their attacker, and when the night lit up again she flinched, her scream swallowed as Theran jammed the stick over and they rolled away. Her head wheeled and she saw a flash, and as they exited the roll her eyes were drawn to the plane that was descending on them, it’s crew jumping from the burning wreck. This time they were lucky enough to make it out before the flames engulfed the plane, but as the doomed aircraft slashed past on the left the fuel tank ignited.
Their own plane gave a little jolt, and she saw Theran slump forward. The nose dipped and they went into a dive that threw her back even as she reached forward to grab his shoulder. Her hand caught his collar and with all her strength she hauled him back from the controls. He was heavy, but with one hand holding his collar, she used the other to take the spare controls and level the biplane out.
Breathing hard, they were stable and Aphelia spared a quick glance around for pursuing danger.
She couldn’t see anything, but the tension wouldn’t relent and the ache of her muscles was beginning. She didn’t have long before she’d have to let Theran go, and she prayed that he was just unconscious. If he woke up in the next couple of minutes…..
But if he didn’t then she better get prepared. They were flying low now, and she needed to get her orientation. Her thoughts turned to the target. They had been quite close to the drop, and she might still manage it. She closed her eyes and breathed. They were close, very close. She had a release on the payload, and she could still make the drop.
If the worse came to the worse she might be able to ditch nearby and take refuge with them. She flew on, flinching as something lit the night, but it had dropped behind and she was moving away from the horror, skimming the wasteland towards the troops.
A flare went up, and she allowed herself a tight smile. With all her strength she guided the plane towards the entrenched soldiers. They were dug in and barricaded on a hill small hill, and as she skimmed the top of it she could see men waving.
The pain in her arm was almost numb now, but she was going to make the drop. Releasing the payload as she buzzed past, there was a moment of relief and triumph waxing in her heart.
She had done it.
The only question now was whether Theran would wake up? For all she knew he could be dead – pleasepleaseplease don’t be dead – but there was no way to tell without climbing forward, and the failing muscles in her arm told her that in a minute she lose her grip on him.
She banked around, intending to try and land as near the troops as possible. After all, there was a relief mission attempting to break through for them. If she could reach them, she might still make it back to Bastion.
At that moment the engine spluttered and Aphelia’s eyes went to the fuel gauge and saw that it had hit empty – whatever had hit Theran must have hit a fuel line or something.
She fancied that she could hear cruel laughter a moment before the engine died and she was suddenly gliding down through the night and into a no man’s land lit by a bulbous, glowing Moon.
End of Part 3
With any luck I should be able to get the last part done for next week, so stay tuned to find out just what happens as the tide comes in for the penultimate chapter!
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