Short Story (Part 5 Finale): When The Tide Comes In
In our last installment Aphelia was downed and stranded in the no man’s land of the battlefield where she encountered one of the enemy who showed her a strange mercy. Taking Theran’s lifeless body with her, she finally reached the embattle company of soldiers who are waiting for the artillery barrage to open up an escape route from the hill where they’ve dug in.
So a warm welcome to you dear Readers. It was a push, but I finally just sat here and bashed away at the keyboard until some kind of ending materialised. It represents, at the least, some sense of closure to this little escapade. It’s not quite what I expected or wanted, but instead took a life of its own. Whether that’s for the best I don’t know, but as with many literary works it probably needs several re-drafts before it comes to fruitition.
For now, all I can say is that if it entertained some of you out there, then it was worth doing.
And if you have no idea what this is all about, you can go back and read the previous parts here:
- Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
- Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In
- Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In
- Short Story (Part 4): When The Tide Comes In
Now, without further ado, the finale!
(PS – sorry if there are a few typos. I almost certainly missed a few in my push to get finished).
“Hear that?” asked the soldier next to her. Aphelia cracked an eye open, the pain in her neck and shoulders a relentless dull ache even after her rest. From afar the concussive blows of raining artillery thudded through the expectancy. The soldier stood up and went to join his sergeant. Together they stared out over the barricade into the no man’s land between the entrenched hill and the horizon.
“You think they’re coming?” asked another soldier hopefully.
“They’re trying to move up from Pallasad,” Aphelia answered.
“Even if they do, I don’t know if we’ll make it through the gap,” said the sergeant, lowering his binoculars and looking down at them. “They’re certainly putting some serious ordinance down though.”
“Better chance than staying here sarge,” said the first soldier beside him.
“Probably,” muttered the sergeant. He climbed down, took a breath and bellowed. “Listen up and pass it on! We’re going to make a break for it in the next couple of hours. The artillery are making a passage for us. Command says to wait for the signal. If you’re not ready, we leave without you!”
Aphelia listened to the men bustling about even though they had nothing to prepare. It was, she reflected, simply a way to take their minds off of waiting, just as the ‘funeral’ for Theran had been. She had resisted at first, but the sergeant had patiently explained that there was no way they could make a run for safety with a dead body in tow. In no uncertain terms he told her that she needed to see sense, and that they would give him a warriors send off.
Just as they had done for dozens of his own men.
“This hill,” he had smiled sadly, “Is a graveyard. He’ll be as safe here as anywhere.”
Aphelia had relented and now, as they waited for the flare to go shooting into another clear cold night, she stared at Theran’s tags dangling from their chain. Inscribed in the tiny metal rectangles was his name, blood group and his service number. At the bottom it also stated his religious affiliation. Aphelia rubbed her thumb over it and wondered why he’d never said anything about being a believer. Oddly he’d never seemed enthusiastic about the Cleric’s exhortations. Perhaps he had not shared their faith in a final, sudden deliverance.
And the truth was that she would never get a chance to find out.
Brooding about it wasn’t going to help, but in the chill of the trench there wasn’t anything else to do. So she waited for the flare to go up. It couldn’t be much longer. With a huff she got up and joined the sergeant, standing up to get a view out across the plain below.
“What’s taking so long?” she asked.
“You hear that?” the man asked her. He had an odd expression on his face and she shook her head.
“The artillery isn’t firing.”
Aphelia frowned. He was right, and she hadn’t noticed. As she read the expression on his face, she read the fear that was in his eyes. The artillery wasn’t firing, and there had been no signal.
There was nothing out happening out there…..
“Oh shit,” she whispered.
He nodded and took another looked with his binoculars.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, his voice strangely calm. “I’m going to sound the alarm.”
He lowered his binoculars and looked at her. “They’re coming.”
“Who? The support?”
“No,” the sergeant shook his head, a sardonic smile on his face as if she had cracked a facetious joke. “The Tide of course.”
* * *
The horde was a frenetic carpet of impish mayhem surging up the hill, manic and unrelenting. The small bodies simply absorbed the withering hail of fire from the gun nests and rifles. Aphelia stood beside the sergeant with a rifle from the spare supplies and fell to firing, reloading, firing. On and on it went as the horde pushed came closer and closer with their cackling, grinning faces.
Over her head the mortar teams launched their deadly projectiles again and again, the whistle of their trajectory became blisters of light and thumps of dirt as the explosives tore the into the masses on the hillside.
Wouldn’t the damn things never relent?
She had seen them attack Bastion like this, but their numbers were easily dispersed and broken. They had often relented before losing themselves completely, but now there was no end to them. The creatures were without guile, and came en masse without any other plan than to simply swamp the defenders. But the disarray often left gaps in their formations so the waves came staggered, like the waves of an ocean, over and over until the high tide began to recede and the numbers dwindled.
Yet they were persistent, not more than a dozen feet from the barricade and falling over themselves and their own dead to reach her. Another empty clip. They were at the barricade. Reloaded, and empty again, she jumped back and the line of men began to fall back from the first trench to the second, firing.
Every step back was contested, every inch spattered in green blood as the defenders slowly contracted tighter and tighter, stepping around the barricades and tightening the cordon.
The enemy did not relent, but came on wave after wave.
A cry for ammo came up, then another.
“I’m running low too,” said Aphelia to the sergeant. “How long before they give up?”
The man’s breath was coming in ragged gasps as he wiped sweat from his eyes. “This isn’t like normal. We’ve fought them off before, but they never came this hard.”
Tidlings hopped over the barricade and he shot the first, stabbed the second with his bayonet. Aphelia popped the next and it went spinning back over the top with a cry like an injured dog.
The sergeant shouted to her, “It’s like they’re here to finish the job.”
Behind them the mortar team raise a cry – they were out of munitions. . The tidlings fought on, scrabbling over and around the sides of the defences and even as adrenaline and determination to fight on to the last breath they knew it was hopeless. They were being overwhelmed. Once they started to fall it became a cascade, men disappearing under the waves of creatures with muffled cries. One or two saved their last grenades for themselves, and as the dull crump! Of detonations sounded, Aphelia felt the claws clutching, the teeth biting and she was swallowed up into the horde with one last scream of defiance.
Her rifle was pulled from her hand, the other gripping Theran’s tag, the chain wrapped around her hand. As she struggled against the thrashing bodies the last thing she glimpsed was the rictus skull of the Moon’s face grinning down as the Tide dragged her into the darkness…..
* * *
“Where am I?”
“INSIDE,” answered a hollow voice.
“Inside? Inside what?” Aphelia asked, her mind floating in cool detachment.
Aphelia felt a pulse of meaning, a notion resolving into knowledge. She was inside the Tide, within its consciousness and it was like an ocean. Somewhere in the vast expanse of mental water she floated between worlds. “How did I get here?”
“WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN PART OF THE SAME OCEAN.”
“I don’t understand.”
“WE ARE WHOLENESS.”
“What does that mean?”
“WHAT WAS SEPERATE IS WHOLE. CONVERGENCE.”
And then she felt it, a tremor in her soul: there were the high walls of Bastion, her gaze from below rising to see the tiny human figures raining down bullet and grenade. She began to scale the wall; she was attacking as part of the horde. Her mind rode the tidling as it scaled the walls, and all around her the bodies of her kin absorbed the hail of death and destruction and even in pain they did not grieve for their own deaths. They merely returned, energy and nutrient, their death sinking into the soil and feeding life.
For their life and death was part of a cycle that came from a transcendental being. The Tide was neither hateful, nor merciful. It simply existed in a desire to survive and it showed her the day when it had reacted, the day the drill had bitten into the layer of the planet where it lived. It was an organism that had lived on the planet since the dawn of life, and Aphelia sensed that it had been some sort of cosmic spore that grew like a great tapestry through the crust of the earth.
There were times when it had been wounded before, but where it had often retreated from further pain into safety, this time the drill came again and again, deeper and deeper. That cold, biting metal pain had been unlike anything that had touched it before and instead of retreating further, it triggered a surge of primal rage.
It lashed out and attacked.
Aphelia understood it then. It had nothing to do with good or evil, and everything to do with simple self defence. It had protected itself, and the more humanity had fought back, wounding it further, the more the Tide had lashed out with the responses that formed its survival system.
And for all that it was alien, it had been here before humanity and had simply existed for so long it could remember the slow moving of continents, the pain and fear of a fall of meteorites, the joy of seeing life flourish again and again after extinctions. It was a gardener, even an experimental biologist that tampered and evolved strains of beings. Behind the beast was an inquiring mind, an alien sentience that, when she touched it, threatened to lose her within its wildly different perception and thought.
It had seen humanity arrive and been amused and curious, but within a brief span of a few thousand years humanity had suddenly broken with nature and become detached in its little bubble of civilisation.
Within a few hundred years, the blink of an eye to something that watched millennia pass, humanity had come to threaten its existence. Yet even as Aphelia understood it, she lamented that it was tearing down the walls of her home. It drove forth in a final act of destruction, intent on the peace of total annihilation.
“There must be another way!”
“WE SHALL BE WHOLE. WE SHALL BE ALIVE.”
Aphelia experienced the helplessness of the defenders as a mirror to her own inability to intercede. Men and women fell and they too were absorbed. She sensed their souls, like hers, within the ocean, old and young alike. They were all here from the soldiers on the hill to her own family; mother and father, right there, so close as they floated in limbo. She reached out to say something, but instead found herself in a real ocean, the ocean of a childhood memory where she bobbed on gentle waves under the Sun with her mother and father.
There were other memories too, but they were conflicted, like waves moving against each. Here she was in Brighton, the southern coast of England, where she was playing with the stones on the beach. But the memory of her mother and father was on a sandy beach and the realisation made her mind bifurcate; two perspectives, one soul….. A soul in limbo, and a thousand other fractal reflections echoing through eternity; everything was possible, but limited within the essence of who she was. A million different worlds, a million different situations, but there she was like a shining diamond twinkling in the sea of possibility, her facets all sides of the same person. Aphelia looked across at Ellie, and Ellie looked back, a million reflects stretching out behind each of them like endless reflections in a mirror.
Startled, both images saw the other panic and flail as if drowning…..
A voice spoke then, but not the hollow mind-speech of the Tide. It was the beaked stranger: “It’s time for you to go back now.”
With it’s words came serenity, and the part of her that was Ellie asked. “How?”
“You know the way. You have always known the way. Trust the gifts that you have been given, keep moving and do not fear.”
Ellie moved, but as she turned away a hand caught her. She turned, floating, to see herself as Aphelia. In Aphelia’s hand was held the glimmering silver of Theran’s service tags, and the dead navigator reached out to pass them. Ellie received and a voice spoke across the gulf between them: “Look after him.”
Then she was flying, tumbling, headlong like a rush to reach a door in the dark. She knew it was there, knew that she would throw it open and there would be light….
The door opened.
And she tumbled to the cold, hard floor of a dimly lit toilet.
* * *
“You okay?” said a familiar voice. Ellie looked up to see Merrietta standing over her, a concerned expression on her face.
“Merrietta?” Ellie asked, throat dry.
“Nope,” said the big woman and Ellie took in her black garb, the little pin badges and punk patches sown onto her jacket. “You need help?”
“Please,” said Ellie, grasping the woman’s outstretched hand.
“Had a bit too much, eh?”
“You could say that,” Ellie nodded. She was holding something in her hand, and the awareness of what had just happened was making her head spin. But she was clear-headed enough to keep it to herself. “Think someone spiked me,” she offered as a diversion.
“Bastards. If you see ’em let me know,” and the big woman clenched her fist up. “Good job I saw you stumble in here. Even better that you didn’t get proper roofied either.”
Ellie nodded, getting her feet under her, then lurched to the sink where she splashed water on her face. The Tide was already fading in her mind, the war and the cries…..
But the chain that was wrapped around her hand, and she gripped the service tags hard enough to bite her flesh. They were real. She couldn’t let go, not just yet. Sensing the other woman’s gaze on her she pocketed them and said, “That’s better. Think I got it out of my system before it could take full effect..”
“You sure you’re okay?” the woman asked. She looked dubious.
“Yeah, feeling much better,” Ellie replied, and she wasn’t lying. She really did feel a whole lot brighter and turned to smile at the giantess. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” replied the woman, then frowned and cocked her head to one side. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” Ellie replied with a shake of her head even as she could recall so many stories of their times together in that other world. Still smiling, Ellie shrugged. “Maybe we met somewhere before. I’m Ellie.”
Merrietta’s double smiled back and held out a hand. “Claudia.”
They shook hands, and Ellie had the feeling that they were going be good friends in this world too. “Do you like rum?” she asked.
Claudia smiled. “Who doesn’t?”
“I need a drink.”
Ellie laughed. “After that close call, I think I can take just a little one.”
Together they headed off back to the bar.
* * *
Ellie paused at the entrance of the bar and scanned for any signs of the stranger that called himself Crow. In her hand she clutched the service tags as she held to the memories that were fading to something like a dream. With them she held an image of the feathered trouble maker. He had been in the bar and sent her into the other world where she had met the doubles of this life.
And perhaps even a double of Crow; the Tidecaller she had met was so familiar, so alike but yet so alien. Was his double a creature orchestrating a war against humanity? It begged the question of what Crow’s purpose in this world was, and why he had sent Ellie across.
It would be nice to tell Claudia about it, to confess everything, and although she found believing it easy, once she set about explaining the story would be transformed into something total insane. Right now it was inside her mind, and the tags in her hand made it real. Which also meant that Crow would appear, somewhere, at some time. He too was real.
She was sure she would find him.
“Two glasses of rum,” Claudia told the barman. He nodded. Claudia glanced at Ellie and grinned. “Make them doubles.”
A minute later they sipped rum and stared around the room, making small talk about the place. Claudia had been here several times before, knew a couple of people involved. They were the grand children of the locals who had fought the factory owners back in the day. Back then, pretty much everyone in the village had worked here, or in the dairy farms.
Then the factory folded. There were rumours of murder, and the workers unions had collapsed.
“These parties are like the last gasps of rebellion. Seems these days everyone just wants to get their face on social media and get paid for it doing it too.” Claudia threw back her rum. “All smoke and mirrors if you ask me.”
“So, do you work around here?”
Claudia gave Ellie a grin. “Only the best mechanic at the village garage. I can fix pretty much anything.”
Ellie grinned back. Of course you are.
“You?” Claudia asked.
“Just pointless office work. Pays the bills, you know?”
“Don’t you want to do something else?”
“Guess I never really though about it much.”
“Perhaps you should,” Claudia suggested. “A person needs a purpose or they’ll lose themselves.”
Ellie nodded, turning the glass of rum. It was true. For all the horror and death in the other world, there had been purpose, a sense of life’s value in the struggle. Going back to stale little office with its stale little people was suddenly its own little horror……
Claudia interrupted her thoughts. “Just a minute,” she said, heading for the toilet.
Claudia wended her way to the door and Ellie turned back to the bar. “Two bee – ”
“Hello my little owl,” Crow said and cocked his head. “Do you have my shiny?”
Ellie stared at the dark orbs of his eyes as they regarded her and shivered. “Wait. Just one question.”
“Ah, you wish to know why?”
Crow leaned back. “You probably think that you’re special.”
“Does this sort of thing happen to people on a regular basis then?” Ellie asked him back.
Crow chuckled. “Who knows the dreams of men and women? Perhaps your should be called homo oblitus, the forgetful ape.”
“I never dreamed of other lives.”
“How can you tell? Do you remember dreaming about frying an egg this morning?”
“I…..” Ellie’s voice trailed away. Maybe I did, she thought. But it didn’t matter. “That still doesn’t answer the question. Why me?”
Crow stared at her for a time, then shrugged. “Do you think that war is always so obvious?”
“Depends what you mean by war?”
“I mean the continuation of life.”
“And the Tide were the continuation of life?”
“As you saw, they are part of the life of that world.”
“And how is that relevant to this world?”
“I suppose it is a question of what will you fight for?”
“I fought for my friends.”
“And if there was a war here, a war that threatened your friends, you would fight it also?”
“I suppose I would, but this world isn’t the same, you said so yourself. Aphelia had a black and white choice, but this world is a dozen shades of grey.”
Crow grinned. “Is it? What if it is as simple a choice as life or death?”
“I would know.”
“If someone was threatening to kill me.”
“Are you sure? Right now there are people in this world drilling into the earth and altering the planet perceptibly. This is a necrophilic culture, thriving only through the use of long dead things, turning their liquid bodies into fuel by which they convert more of the living world into dead objects for you to possess in your isolated lassitudes. Humanity had made the world conform to its designs, and as the whole world becomes a gilded cage where the rich and powerful perch above the many who are left to scrabble over the crumbs that fall from the table above.” Crow crossed his arms. “In the other world, you fought for your friends, you fought to the last. Why will you not do the same here?”
“You’re mad. The enemy was clearly in front of Aphelia. A horde of monsters. Where is the clarity here?”
“Perhaps it is clear, yet you refuse to see. Now, I have answered your question, and I want my shiny.”
Ellie clutched it tighter. “If I give this to you, will I forget everything?”
Crow shook his head. “The details perhaps, but the understanding? Deep down, are you the same person that went in?”
Ellie smiled. “I don’t think so.”
“And you always did know which way to go. You knew your way here, even though you didn’t want to come. You found your way back from between life and death. And now you’ve met Claudia, and you already sense that your life might find a new track.”
Ellie nodded. “I think your right. Nothing can be the same.”
“So follow your heart and fight on.”
Ellie held out the service tags. She had no need of them. In the other world Aphelia had found peace, and for Ellie she did not need the memories. She needed to act, to change. Crow smiled and accepted.
“I’m glad we understand each other. Now, how about I top your glass up?”
Ellie shook her head and put her hand over the glass. “I think I’ve had enough adventures for one night.”
“Ah, no matter,” Crow said with a shrug, then looked past her to the doors, “Ah, here comes your other half.”
Ellie looked over her shoulder, expecting Claudia, but it was Jon. He was radiating heat and elation, his hair a sweaty mess hanging over his badger mask. For a brief moment Ellie felt a stab of grief. She gasped a small breath and turned to look back to the barman.
But Crow was gone, His presence was like smoke slowly dissipating as Jon sat down on a bar stool next to her and drew her attention. “Hey, where’s you mask?”
“I must have dropped it in the toilet,” Ellie said, making to stand, but as she did so Claudia came back in holding the owl face in her hand.
“Did you drop this?”
“Who’s this?” Jon asked.
Ellie introduced them, and Jon shook Claudia’s hand. “Great party,” he said.
She shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“How about we get another round then?” Jon asked, undeterred. Together they ordered some more drinks from the barman who was watching them. For some reason Ellie had to suppress a little shudder, but for the life of her couldn’t remember why.
“So how’d your mask end up in the toilet?” Jon asked as they sipped some beer, “And how’d you two meet?”
Ellie glanced at Claudia, and for a moment there was a recollection, fading like a dream into the soft clouds of her memory. By the look on her face, Claudia felt it too. “It’s strange, but I feel like we’ve known each other years,” said Ellie.
“Yeah,” said Claudia, holding out the mask. “Perhaps it was just destiny, eh?”
Ellie smiled, taking the owl visage from her. “Yeah, something like that.”
And in the back of her mind, Ellie swore that she heard the rustle of feathers, like a bird taking flight.
Perhaps it was a crow.
Or maybe an owl.
Well, that was a mission and a half – I hadn’t intended for it to end up like some kind of novella but that’s just the way it goes.
At this point I’m just glad to have finished, and now I can spend a little time thinking about what was right and what was wrong, but that’s a post for another day. It could certainly do with a proper edit – again, thank you to the guinea pigs who read through this draft.
Right now, I think it’s time to finish the edits to Red Star Rising and then I’ll try and get the reworking of the Mind-Thistle Run to you. I’ll also look to add a tab where roaming internet travellers can access the back catalogue of stories.
Anyhew, if you made it this far, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read through.
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