Bastion

Science Fiction Magazine

Short stories reminiscent of the golden age.

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Issue #2 - May 2014

Cover image courtesy of Milan Jaram

Cover image courtesy of Milan Jaram

Season 1, Episode 2

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Our inaugural issue, published on April 1, can be found on our Previous Issues page. 


Featuring

"Moving Past Legs", by Jamie Lackey
"The Endless Flickering Night", Gary Emmette Chandler
"Worried About", by Brandon McNulty
"Vines", by G. J. Brown
"A Considerate Invasion", by Mark Patrick Lynch
"A Rather Different Sort of F-Bomb", by Marty Bonus
"Zombie Limbo Master", by Rosemary Claire Smith
"Nigh", by Eric Del Carlo
"Wruyian Sands", by Jessica Payseur


Just to give you a taste...

The Endless Flickering Night

by Gary Emmette Chandler

 

     Toaster said, “Nothing there, broken.”
     He opened his mouth again, then turned away and sat staring at Burrow’s open iron gate, mumbling, while we shuffled around, waiting for Hal to come back and tell us what he’d seen.
     “I just can’t.”
     That’s what Toaster said to himself, always in a loop, when he had no other words: I just can’t.
     Toaster had earned his name as each of us had: from a film, or our friends. After the accident, it still fit: everything he said came out burnt. Understanding him was Soot's job. We just smiled, or set a hand on his shoulder. If we knew anything, it was what we knew with our hands. It was the earth and how to carve her, how to pit her belly in the endless night.
     After a while, Hal came fumbling bow-legged back up the path. He carried a lantern and kept his eyes on his feet as he walked, quivering like an animated broom.
     “They’ve gone,” he said, stumbling to a halt and sniffing, putting one dirty cuff to his nose.
     Alex leapt forward and grabbed poor Hal, taking him by the collar and spitting as he tried to speak.
     “Gone?” we guessed.
     Alex had a real name, and didn’t feel things the way we did, so he wasn’t one of us. He had been an adult when we were children, and had lost his teeth early on. For Hal’s sake, someone pulled the two apart.
     Hal put a hand to his throat and glanced about before he spoke again.
     ”I don’t know," he said. "They’re not there, so they’ve gone.”
     Alex had only just opened his mouth to protest when the tremor hit.
     It came growling through the tunnel, shaking us like bugs in a can. We crawled together beneath the nearest support, pressing our hands to the earth beneath us. Huddled there, we weren’t thinking of the films. We were thinking of those we had lost. As the earth stooped and stretched around us, we lay there processing what Hal had said. We watched the word, “gone”, as it moved about, taunting us, whispering in our ears.
     It was the soft dribble of Toaster’s words that brought us back. We glanced around, blinking in the dark. Slowly, we helped each other up and followed Hal along the narrow path through Burrow.
     Hal had been right; Burrow was empty. We moved in a hush through the corridors and held our breath as we passed the shithouse, listening to the distant warble of the sewers we had built below. Together, we made our way to Burrow’s cinema. Each time the Five set us to digging a new outpost, that was the first room we carved; the cinemas were our cathedrals, our last remaining sparks of faith. We were ambling through the rows, running our hands along the surface of each abandoned throne, when Toaster began to howl.
     He had gone around the back to the projection room, where we found him in a little pile, bunched up, just that quivering bit of skin stretched over bone. He was rocking, crying, his words all tangled. We tried to calm him, but he fought us off, clutching something to his chest, sobbing.
     After a few minutes he stopped and looked up at us, saying only: Why?
     Strips of film littered the ground at our feet, desecrated, snipped and burnt. In his hands, Toaster held a charred box of film. Alex, who could read, bent down and said what was left of the case’s title: “Snow”. Even without that, we would have known which film it was. The cartoon was ludicrous, bursting with color and song, obscuring our own grim reality. When we traded it to the others at Burrow, Toaster had run from us, blubbering and howling like a wounded animal, refusing to work. The Five had beaten him for that. It was a guilt we had shaken off, had stored away and forgotten. Now, it felt like coming across the flooded grave of an old friend.
     As we knelt there trying to comfort Toaster and sort through the scattered, shriveled strips of film, the walls began to shudder. We made fast then, collecting what we could from the floor and tossing it in a satchel, before leaving back the way we’d come.
     Only Toaster spoke as we trudged back to Marrow. He burbled away like a reel on repeat, like always. As we walked, each of us were thinking of a different film. In the absence of a world of our own, above, we had been given the cinema. It was everything we would never have ourselves. We saw it as link to our humanity – a word learned in theory, from a projection on the screen. But even then, humanity was the word that kept us hanging on, that kept us digging. At the command of the Five, we built our gates with nothing to keep out, carving new outposts that spread us farther apart from one another. And what good had that done? There was no one else, now. There was only Marrow.

#

     As we turned the last corner home, Soot came tearing up, oblivious as she knocked into us, flinging her arms around Toaster. Even with the grime and rags, Soot was beautiful. Shrouded in coal-black hair, she had a face that belonged to the screen. If we had lived in another time, above ground, we were convinced she would have found her place in a hundred different films.
     “I was ready to leave,” she said to Toaster, laughing and crying at once, kissing his face. “When we felt the tremors I wanted to come find you, but Ben wouldn’t let me through the gate.”
     She paused for a moment and looked at us, pulling back a little and smiling – like an apology – making us blush. Then, she turned again to Toaster, and smoothed his muddy, once-blonde hair.
     “But you’re here,” she said in a hush, taking him once more in her arms. Toaster stopped his burbling, finally, and closed his eyes, pressing into her.
     It felt like too much to stand and watch what we were missing, to come back to no one. It was all we could do to store it somewhere safe, looking at it like another film – the frames scratched and nibbled – blacking out Toaster’s face, and replacing it with our own.
     After a moment, one of the Five parted the group and took me aside. We still called them that – the Five – even though there were only three of them with us in Marrow.
     “Flare,” he said. “The lights – we still have no power. What happened? Where are the supplies I sent you to barter for?”
     I shook my head a little, placing one hand against the damp wall to steady myself as I watched the others trudge off. After the disease, when we were teenagers, we discovered we didn’t always have to speak to understand each other. It was nothing extravagant, not like it was in the banned films. We never used the "T” word, and it wasn’t like we could look at something and make it move, or even read anyone’s thoughts. Mostly, it was just that we caught what the other was feeling. When one the Five addressed us individually there was always this tug of nausea, like they were chipping us off from the lode.
     “Everyone at Burrow was gone,” I said, watching Ben’s eyes as I spoke.
     Like us, Ben was gaunt – always at the edge of starvation. But he was frail, too. It had been a long time since any of the Five had helped in our work. The digging...that was our job from the moment we were old enough to understand and operate the machines the Five had brought with them. I sometimes wondered: would he shatter if I pushed him? Would he fall? But then the thought would vanish, and I was nodding, accepting whatever he told me. I should have thought of him like a father – he was always reminding us of this – but I detested the man.
     “The gate was open, and Burrow was empty,” I said. “All of us went to look after Hal told us that. We didn’t want to believe it. But what is, is – right, Ben?"
     He scowled at me.
     I shrugged and opened the satchel I carried, showing him the mangled husks of film we had collected.
     “We found these in the projection room. Why would they do that?”
     The old man said nothing in response. He just snatched the sack of butchered film from my hands, and stalked off to join what was left of the Five. We had grown up in the darkness, had been spent at their use, and still they refused to include us. As Ben fell out of view, I tried to spit, but found my mouth dry, my throat parched and caked with dust.

#

     There is a memory so clear that sometimes I think I am there, and it is happening again. I remember my mother’s eyes: green, like kelp. Then, I remember being passed to the hands of a stranger, unable to tell between her cries and mine as we drifted apart, until it was only my voice moving through the darkness, in the rough, steady arms of a man. I remember watching the steel door close as they sealed it behind us, after I was set down beside my sister and numbered seventy-three. And yet, I remember so little before that. I have only fragments left; the warmth of my mother's breast; a kind face laughing; a sky so blue and vast, so far from everything below.
     There were other children in that tall, grey bunker. I'm not sure how many. Hundreds – so many more than there are now. I remember the sobbing all around us. I remember my sister's small hand clasped tight in my own.
     The Five, as we came to know the men that would direct our lives, weren't the only adults; there were others, and several of them shuffled about at the back, their clothes worn and soiled, their eyes never remaining on us for long. Alex had been among them, with only two or three teeth missing.
     It took a while to quiet us. When they did, Ben was the one to speak.
     "You must be frightened," he said, standing in front of us, beside four other men. "But there is no time for that. You are adults, each of you, from this day forth."
     There had been a great war, he told us, and the surface above had been lost. But they had been prepared. They had learned how to draw power and air from the surface that lay dead above, threading it like veins into the earth. They had preserved the world we'd lost, had brought it with them in projectors, in thousands of reels of film. Below, where we started, they had built their gardens, and drawn their plans: we would build a new earth, within the earth.
     But they could only sustain so many lives; our mothers and fathers had been left behind out of necessity. We were both the last generation, and the first, and through us humanity would survive. All that had been left, then, was to teach us how to dig.
     They wasted no time in that. Each day, they showed us how to extend the air vents, and direct the aqueducts. They taught us how to operate the large machines that burrowed ahead, taking large bites from the earth as they went, and instructed us in how to support each new tunnel we dug. We learned to thread and patch the thick power cables that ran to the back of the first bunker, lighting our way and bringing life to the cinema. That was our only reprieve; the Five measured time on a device they had brought with them, and at the end of our shifts each evening, the screen brought us all the life and hope we had lost above.
     As we grew older, we were allowed one small piece of autonomy: to choose where the tunnels took us. "You will know the way," they said. We never understood that, but we carved our tunnels, and built our outposts underground. Sometimes, we found stones that glowed like fire, and vast ore deposits, which the Five would channel on down the tracks, in carts, stored for some use they never explained. If we asked questions about anything – why the air was safe if we could never go above, or what they did with the ore we collected – they only looked at us with half a smile, and a great silence. Then, they would tell us, “What is, is. Look to the screen, child. You will find your answers there.”
     It was the sixth year, when I was eleven, that the sickness came. We had no capacity to treat or understand the disease, and it struck out at the girls alone. I watched my sister, Root, wither and waste away, red sores burning through her skin. She had been the one to name me. “My light, my Flare,” she would say when I was a child, holding me to her in the darkness. In those first years, I had known nothing but fear and labor. And yet, with her, that had all seemed to vanish. As she wilted with the sickness, there was nothing I could do. I begged the Five to do something, to save her, but they had no answers for me. I could only crouch at her side when I wasn’t digging, clinging to her and cursing everything, just watching her die.
     The disease vanished almost as quickly as it had come, taking all but eight of the girls in its passing. The Five didn't say what that meant for us, for humanity, but we knew. Years passed, until we were no longer children, and the survivors chose their mates. They split off from us, the vanguard, into the other outposts we had carved and left behind. Soot, who paired so early with Toaster, was the only woman of Marrow, and it left us fumbling after something we could only see like a glimmer in the dark.

#

     Hal came and told me later that he had followed Ben.
     “Thought we should know what they were saying, since they never tell us anything,” Hal said.
     He had hidden by the door to the projection room, listening. Hal told me this, chewing on rat jerky, and wiping his nose as he spoke:
     “They say, I guess, that we might be the last ones down here, and that they don't have enough tools. It’s something about what happened at Burrow. That’s all they really said. Just in circles, you know.”
     I asked him what he meant by tools, but he just took one finger and shoved it deep inside his nose, twisting as he spoke.
     “That’s what they said. That there aren't enough tools. Doesn’t make sense. If we have anything, it’s the machines.”
     When Hal left I kept the lantern on for a while, looking at my hands. They were creased and stained, stamped with a lifetime of dirt. I was thinking of the films, of the screen on fire, burning back the darkness like a limb of the sun. There, for those few moments, we melted into the light, and the world was no longer the cold stone seat beneath us, or the hunger, or the endless empty all around.
     At last, I stood and made my way to the hall. The lights we pinned along the walls, threaded out from the first bunker, had gone black before Ben sent us out to check on Burrow. It was a pure darkness, like the screen at rest, but it made little difference as I crept through Marrow. I had dug these hallways from the earth with the others; the walls had become a part of me, and I left the lantern behind, moving by touch. In the silence, I followed the path to the projection room behind the cinema. The Five were still there, huddled around a lamp, arguing.
     I crouched at the doorway, hidden in the dark. William was speaking, shaking his head and looking away from the others. He had been the only one of the Five I cared for, that spoke kindly to us.
     “It doesn't feel right,” William said. "We're slaves as much as them, always have been. Difference is, we know it."
     There was a long silence where none of the men spoke.
     “They are tools, William – nothing more," Ben said in a quiet voice at last, looking away.
     "You've always had that wrong."
     “We'll hang if we're caught,” Richard said. "You realize that. They might be tools, but
dowsers are worth something up there. Maybe even more than the deposits they've found for us this year. You can't just pay to take children from the camps anymore. Equal rights for dowsers, that's what I heard the last time I was above."
     “What choice do we have?” Ben cried, throwing up his hands and glaring at Richard. “You have both felt the tremors; it's not safe here. We have no power. The dowsers at Burrow must have found out, somehow. You saw what they did to the film. What do you think they did to the foremen?”
     Ben paused.
     “You're right about one thing though,” he said. "We'll take the half-wit and his woman, smuggle them out through the maintenance shaft at Brook. We won't be able to handle the rest, but those two we can manage. They'll fetch enough to get us across the border. I don't want to die down here. Do you?"
     He stopped for a moment, looking between the other two men. When they said nothing, he continued.
    “This is our only chance. We leave tonight.”
     There was a silence, followed by an eruption as the three spoke all at once. I knelt against the wall outside the projection room, dizzy, steadying myself, repeating only one thing in my head: there is a world above, there is a world above, there is a world above.
     I stood carefully, creeping back without a sound, tracing the wall with my palms before breaking into a run.

#

     Moving through the darkness, I came to each of the rooms, waking the others and collecting them. As we walked, I told them what I had heard, in fragments, as I could understand it. They felt the rest. I watched Toaster and Soot amble ahead of me in the silence, trying to understand what the Five had wanted from them. Something kept sticking in my mind, repeating itself. It was how Ben had spoken of us as tools. How he had called all of us slaves. How he had been so sure of a way out, above.
     We were at the store room, taking the food we had left – rodent meat and roots – when Hal turned to me.
     "What about Alex?" he asked.
     I shook my head.
     "He's not one of the Five, but he wants to be. He would run to them before we had a chance to go. No Hal, I’m sorry. We leave him here.”
     Hal looked at me, uncertain, saying nothing. It made my stomach turn, but I had to think like the Five if there was any hope for us.
     I filled my satchel with jerky and several flasks of water, tied it, and turned back. At the edge of the tunnel, Alex stood watching us, peeking out in silence. My heart skipped, then fell. There was no way to tell how long he had been following us, or what he had heard.
     “Please,” he said, stepping forward and speaking in his foul, toothless way.
     Hal translated the rest for us:
     “They never told me anything. I believed them, just like you.”
     After a moment, Alex began sobbing and trying to speak at the same time, making it impossible to understand a word he said.
     Hal spoke up again, turning to me.
     “He said, ‘I won’t say anything. Please, just take me with you.’”
     I looked at Hal, then at the others. They were silent, just watching.
     “Fine. Fine,” I said, shaking my head. “Come on Alex. I’m sorry. Calm down, old man.”
     With a sigh, I walked over and gripped his shoulder, locking his eyes with mine, waiting for him to get his breath.
     “It’s alright now,” I said. “Let’s go.”

#

     The iron gate of Marrow was shut, as always. It cried out as we pried through, bursting forth and into the black.
     I had never been able to grasp why they had us build our gates so large, so heavy and imposing – what it was they intended to keep out. As the shriek echoed through the corridors of Marrow, I understood at last: it had been built to alert the Five if we ever tried to leave.
     We had only taken a few steps through the gate when a voice bellowed out behind us.
     "Flare!” Ben shouted. “Not another step.”
     I turned and stared at the old man as he approached. Ben walked quickly, halting twenty paces away, with William and Richard trailing behind him. For a moment we all stood silent in the dark tunnel that seemed to be narrowing, drawing close around us. All we had ever known had been split between the screen and the orders of the Five. We had never disobeyed them because there had never been any use in it. And yet, with a purpose at last, we stood rooted and unsure, chained by a history of obedience.
     It was Toaster’s soft murmur that brought us out of it.
     “I just can’t,” he said.
     I looked at him, at his small hand clasped tightly in Soot’s, eyes cast first to his feet, then raised, staring fierce into mine. He smiled at me, like a question.
     Even with half his mind lost in the collapse at Brook, Toaster had the only thing that any
of us had ever wanted: a hand to take in the darkness. And that was when I saw it – that I was happy for him. After my sister died, and the cinema was all I had left, I had felt nothing but hatred, but anger. I resented Toaster because he wasn’t like us anymore, and because he was the one that Soot had chosen. We had all felt that way.
     Standing outside the iron gate of Marrow, watching them as they pressed together there, it began to feel different, like light gathering in the darkness. It was something even the films couldn’t give us. It was real.
     I no longer envied him for that.
     “What is up there,” I asked, very quietly, turning my head to Ben and gesturing above. “What you told us, how much of it was truth? Anything?”
     None of the old men spoke, but William wouldn’t meet my eyes. And then I knew.
     “You took everything from us,” I shouted, taking a step forward and throwing my satchel to the ground.
     “My sister–”
     The words caught in my throat.
     Ben was silent. Then, slowly, he took something from the folds of his clothing that I had only seen on the screen. Without a word, he lifted the revolver, and pointed it at me.
     There was a spike of emotion, and for a moment I couldn’t tell if it came from myself, or the others, or all of us at once. It only seemed that everything was still, and that my lungs were poised to burst.
     “Why?” I asked, when I could breathe again.
     I didn’t expect him to answer, but I could find nothing else to say, could hardly stand as the fear and panic of the others tightened in my belly like a fist.
     Ben just shook his head, the weapon still fixed on me.
     Again, there was a silence that seemed to pulse through the dark, undulating like a current as it wrapped its long, thin fingers around us.
     And then, at last, Ben spoke.
     “This isn't one of your films, Flare. I don't have any answers for you."
     Ben was wrong. It was just like the films. The Five had written every step, had charted our purpose with no hope of change. If there was any difference, it was this: for us, there would be no closing credits – no new role to hide behind. It seemed like a bitter end to a useless life.
     “So that's it, then?” I asked, laughing, somehow, shaking with the rage and terror that bristled through each of us like a conduit. “You could take us with you!”
     Ben sighed, and leveled the gun at my head. He began to speak, then didn’t.
     I watched his hands as he latched onto the trigger, and finally just closed my eyes, hearing the words I had heard my entire life as they echoed through the darkness: What is, is.

#

     In my dreams each night, I stumble through a canyon cut deep into the earth, chasing a light that flickers in the darkness. A giant lumbers after me, pixelated, pieced together by static and crackling like a failing wire. When I wake, I am always alone, clutching for a space that lies empty at my side.
     All that is left, then, is the sound and the muted color, the shades of grey as they flash across the screen. There, a couple embraces on holiday in a moment that will never last, yet lasts beyond us all. I was always watching the lights, dreaming of the soft, small face I had lost so long ago in the darkness.

#

     “Flare!”
      I heard my name and the shot at the same time.
     Everything seemed to happen at once: William and Ben were fighting, fumbling for the revolver. Then, as William crumpled to the ground, Ben was turning, lifting the barrel toward me once more. There was another shot, and a great trembling around us. At the same time, there was an impact at my side, and I was moving, falling, thrown against the wall of the tunnel. Hal stood above me, his arms out in front of him, as the earth between us and the Five collapsed.
     After the tremors stopped, I found my senses piece by piece. There was pain, and blood, and dust, but I was alive. The tunnel had caved in, burying the gate to Marrow, and it had swallowed the old men – that remnant of the Five – beneath it.
     Then, I saw Hal.
     He lay on the ground in front of me, next to the rubble, choking, as a dark pool spread out above his lung.
     “Hal,” I said in a whisper, kneeling over him and cradling his head.
     He had thrown me against the wall, stepping in front when Ben fired.
     “You fool,” I said, brushing his hair back and forth across his forehead.
     We had named him after the lights we strung along the tunnel walls. When we came across the film with the mad computer, we had shortened it to Hal; a joke, because it was everything he was not.
     He looked up at me, coughing up blood like he had something to say, but had forgotten his line.
     I kissed his forehead, unable to speak or keep myself from sobbing, conscious of nothing, reaching out and trying to feel what was in his mind, yet finding only silence where I remembered him to be.

#

     Even as he passed, I couldn’t seem to let go of Hal. I just knelt there, cradling him, knowing I should stand and move on. The supports above us had held, but we knew there wasn’t much strength left in them. We were all canaries in our own way, and could sense the earth when she was ready to bellow and give out. It was time for us to leave, to slip from her veins at last.
     I allowed myself another moment before forcing my body upright. There were fourteen of us left. I looked to Toaster and Soot, to Alex, then back to Hal.
     “We’ll dig a grave at Burrow, in the cinema,” I said, unsure if I was whispering, or just thinking the words.
     They nodded in the darkness, murmuring. I knelt down and lifted Hal’s body. It felt like losing my sister, when it seemed I couldn’t remember how to stand. But of course, I had.
     As I shuffled through the darkness, with Hal just gone in my arms, I could understand only this: there was a light building and burning above us, no longer just a still frame in our hands, like the pattern of a dream.
     We had finished with living out the footsteps of ghosts. At last, we would carve our own end to this endless, flickering night.

###

     Gary Emmette Chandler graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Creative Writing in the Fall of 2010. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works from home as a copywriter and web developer (generally in pajamas, with a cat on his lap). When he isn't working, he's writing, re-writing, and submitting short stories. If you like, you can follow his occasional meandering words on Twitter @TheWearyLuddite.