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:

  1. Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
  2. Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In
  3. Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In
  4. 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).


5

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.

“No.”

“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.”

“What?”

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.

“INSIDE.”

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.

Good times….

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.”

“You sure?”

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.

“Sure.”

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?”

Ellie nodded.

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.”

“Know what?”

“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.

The End


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.

DJC

© 2020

Short Story (Part 4): When The Tide Comes In

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Part 4 coming in. Sorry for anyone waiting – doubly so because this is actually going to be the penultimate chapter. And I know that it’s more than a touch unpolished. Ultimately it’s more like getting ideas down for later. This story likely needs development in terms of plot and character, but as some would have it, “no work is without merit.”

So if you haven’t read the previous parts, you can check ’em here:

  1. Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
  2. Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In
  3. Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In

Not sure what people make of it. Constructive criticism always welcome, or perhaps you’d like to see it in a more developed form? Let me know in the comments.

Cheers.


4

Aphelia looked down at Theran and smiled sadly. Shifting him had been like trying to move a sack of rocks. Now he lay on the grass pale and still, a piece of shrapnel lodged in his temple. There was not a lot of blood beyond what had leaked onto the sheepskin collar of his flying jacket.

She’d lost people before of course, they all had, and she had grieved for them, standing in the biting cold of the airfield as they saluted those killed in action. Last night they had lost at least four more squadron members, yet losing Theran was different. They had been so close, had loved each other certainly even though they had never been lovers. There was a partnership that went deeper than desire, and Aphelia wanted the empty space she now found insider her to be filled with something that reflected that; loss, rage or something, but instead she was suffused with a cool, calm melancholy.

Perhaps it was because she was a long way from safety, and a part of her had sealed it away until she could release it. So instead of digging for grief, she had instead laboured through the quiet of the night to haul the man from the downed biplane – she still had no idea how she had managed to land the thing without flipping it tail-over-engine – and when done she had slumped over him and passed out long enough for the sun’s light to touch her.

With the dawn there was warmth; not enough to remove the biting chill of night that still clung to her bare face, but a brightness that entered her soul as she looked up. Climbing up onto the wing of the downed plane she looked over the distance to the far, snow capped mountains and just for a moment there was nothing in the world but herself and the rising Sun, the pale sky ripening to a deep blue as lone clouds scudded along in the early breeze.

That was when she also been able to fully appreciate the scenery all around her. In the light of day it had taken her breath away despite being far into what must have been enemy territory, but also far beyond the retreating battle lines. This was the Tides land, a land that had been pounded with artillery, bombed and flamed and scoured until the troops and tanks had been pushed back by sheer weight of numbers. But of the scars, there was little beyond the dimples of craters now covered in a new skin of green grass, shoots and foliage. There were trees that had survived, not mere burnt skeletons but which were whole and budding! The land was repopulating with foliage like scar tissue growing over old wounds and bespeaking recovery.

Turning around she looked upon Theran. He lay on the grass as he had before, his still form clearer now that the Sun had risen, and all around him amongst the green she saw little white flowers pushing up and opening.

Aphelias, her namesakes.

The first flowers of Spring.

*  *  *

Despite the flowers, despite the beauty, Aphelia couldn’t stay. A part of longed to just sit down and stay, yet the fighting spirit in her wouldn’t allow it. The enemy would find her in the end and then she would be killed. So instead she would strike out towards the entrenched battalion who couldn’t be more than a dozen miles from her location.

She would take Theran with her, so set about building a sled to carry his body. There was splintered wood from the airframe, and the undercarriage had come away in one piece as the plane hit the dirt. Perhaps she could wheel him away.

As she worked the land was tranquil and quiet, so it was a surprise to her when she was disturbed by the sudden arrival of a trio of strange creatures. They were centaur-like, but their bodies were more bovine than equine, built more for labouring than for speed. Their torsos were covered in a rough, brown hide that bore long, multi-jointed arms in three pairs. Upon seeing her they emitted snorts and whistles of surprise, but they did not attack. In fact, they seemed more annoyed at the presence of the downed aircraft and quickly became engrossed in inspecting the biplane, prodding it and testing it’s resilience as they communicated to each other with shorts grunts.

Perhaps she could slip away…… but she wasn’t finished building the sled.

At that moment the creatures reached a consensus and suddenly attacked the biplane with co-ordinated vigour, pulling it apart with frightening ease. They ripped through the canvas and tore the wood frame to splinters. As they did so Aphelia dragged Theran’s body clear in fear that they might perpetrate some similar atrocity, but the act attracted the attention of one beast which trundled towards her.

Aphelia stood her ground. She would be damned if she would leave Theran’s body to the carrion things of the Tide and immediately drew her knife, fearing to use her pistol because of the noise. As the thing came closer she waved her arms and shouted, trying to shoo it away. It paused, and the three yellow eyes blinked in surprise. It snorted and grunted and reached forward, not for her but for Theran’s body. She slapped its grasping hand away, and the creature emitted a snort that sounded like annoyance. It’s three eyes regarded her, then poked a finger at her, grunting. She backed away, pulling Theran with her.

Still the creature came on, treating her as a hindrance rather than a threat. As it reached out she slashed at its arm with the knife, but the skin was thick enough to absorbed the cut, so instead she drove it full force into the hide bound arm. The creature bellowed and slapped her away. The blow was light, and she was pumping adrenaline as she screamed and charged, swinging and stabbing. This time the blow knocked the wind out of her and she crumpled to the ground, with a sob.

She wanted to shout, wanted to stand, but could only wheeze out the words, “Stop…. Leave him alone….”

The beast had picked Theran up with ease and was inspecting the deadman, almost muttering to itself. Aphelia drew the pistol now, aimed at the creatures lower chest and squeezed off a pair of shots.

The thing squealed, dropping the dead body and backed away, its hands touching the wounds as it stamped its feet. Yet, to her despair, it appeared to be relatively unharmed, and the other two were now coming to the aid of their companion.

It was the shadow that passed over them all that saved her. The three creatures paused, and everyone looked up at the wheeling carrion mount of the Tidecaller. It circled with avian grace and swooped down, landing lightly with a hop. It looked like a giant crow, and as it fluttered its wings and bent its head down, the Tidecaller dismounted, barking an immediate command that made the three beasts back away.

Aphelia watched him approach. He – if such a thing could be called a he – was robed in feathers like a cloak, their colour shifting from black to green to purple. Woven amongst it were thin vines sprouting small shoots and flowers. In a gnarled, feathered hand he bore a wooden staff while his face was as much a crow as the great carrion mount he had arrived on.

“You?” gasped Aphelia, the fuzzy image of the stranger in her dorm rising to her mind. But the creature did not reply, and instead cocked its head to one side. Aphelia braced herself. Was it looking at the stretcher? She sensed that it was, and was surprised when it commanded the attending creatures to bring her – of all things – the parts she might need.

Then the Tidecaller tipped his head and she understood what he was indicating: that she should continue.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. The figure said nothing.

For a moment they stood regarding each other, Aphelia feeling studied by the dark orbits of the creatures eyes. Nearby the centaur things stood patiently while the carrion mount preened its feathers. The Tidecaller cocked it’s head. Was it amused? It gestured with a hand for her to continue, and in the absence of anything else Aphelia worked to finish lashing the sled together.

The worse thing about it was not a feeling of threat, but rather the sense that she was a child being observed by a teacher, as if this thing were going to grade her efforts. Still, it didn’t take her long to get it sturdy enough to bear Theran’s body, and lashing the harness she’d made from the parachute strapping over her shoulders she looked to the Tidecaller who nodded and gave a whistle.

In response the centaur things returned to breaking down the plane and the Tidecaller beckoned for her to follow, dismissing his mount with a gesture of his staff as he lead the way at a walk. The great carrion mount cawed with blood curdling fervour and took to the air with great beats of its black wings.

Taking a deep breath, Aphelia followed her strange intercessor, all the while wondering why this creature was taking her towards the entrenched soldiers….

It’s enemy.

Her comrades.

All she could think was that there was some sense of honour in the thing, some intellect that guided its actions in an alien manner she couldn’t understand because if the situation had been reversed she was sure that no mercy would have been given.

It didn’t matter. They would still be enemies, and whatever boon this thing perceived she deserved would not stop the war. So she trudged on, straining to haul Theran’s body over the grass as she promised herself that she would still fight to the death for humanities survival.

The march was hard on her neck and shoulders, but finding a rhythm she pushed on through the landscape as the day passed. Several times she heard the approach of creatures, some of them oddities like the centaurs, others equally strange and some mere tidlings, frenetic and giggling. But the Tidecaller waved them away, and the beasts would fall back and continue on their way without another word. Hours later, as the Sun arced overhead, they reached a strip of land bearing the clear ravages of conflict. On one side fertile grass, on the other a barren, bare earthy….

Like a border between two worlds, and perhaps that was why the Tidecaller stopped short of the divide.

Aphelia almost walked straight into the creature. With aching muscles she straightened and looked to where he was staring. Far off she could see the hill, the matchstick fortifications and the little ants toiling to reinforce their position.

The Tidecaller turned to her and tipped its head before walking back in the direction they had come.

“Thanks,” Aphelia muttered, “I guess.”

She watched the figure strolling away, wondering at the land of greenery and sunshine that was its domain. Envy curled inside her, because all she had ahead of her now was a trek across a blasted landscape. As she picked up the sled once more she heard the Tidecaller whistle once again, a high, piercing note.

She spared the thing not another glance, even when she heard the far cry of his carrion mount. Had it been shadowing them the whole way? She shrugged mentally and set her mind to the task at hand. She set to the burden again, noting the worse thing about taking a moments pause was how much heavier it felt when you started up again. Aphelia took a deep breath, and trudged towards the distant hill.

From somewhere behind her she heard the rustle of feathers and the caw of the Tidecaller’s mount as it landed, and all she could say to herself was, pity the bastard couldn’t have given me a lift.

*  *  *

The Sun was well on its way to the horizon as Aphelia pressed on through the pain and cramp in her neck and shoulders. It had produced a tight headache and terrible muscle pains, but she wouldn’t give up on Theran’s body. She would hold on to it until she was ready to let him go, and so she stumbled on into the waning afternoon, through the wasteland of scorched earth. Smoke drifted across her path and on the left she saw the remains of an armoured vehicle, half sunk in the dirt and bearing the marks of the Tide’s burrowing creatures.

Her mind a blank from strain and weariness, the sound of voices approaching was almost startling alien to her ears. Then the realisation: human beings! She stumbled, finally, as much from relief as exhaustion. The entrenched soldiers had sent out a patrol to meet her and they immediately took up the sled between two of them, while the other two draped her arms around their shoulders and bore her weight.

Into the gathering twilight they shuffled back towards the Hill as the Moon peeked over the distant horizon, a giant mottled peach.

Later, under it’s pale glare they would bury Theran in the makeshift graveyard on the hill and Aphelia, too exhausted to weep, would fall into a deep sleep, Theran’s service tags wrapped around her hand.

End of Part 4


If you’ve made it this far you must be digging it, and so all that remains is for you to move straight on into the finale, Part 5: When The Tide Come In

Peace.

DJC

Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In

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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:

  1. Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
  2. Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In

And if you want to let me know what you liked, or didn’t, then throw in a comment.

Enjoy!


3

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.”

“What?”

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.

Nothing.

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


Find out just what happens as the tide comes in for the penultimate chapter!

Read Part 4: When The Tide Comes In now!

DJC