The Beginning of an untitled story (involving death)

Thomas awoke to darkness. He knew his eyes were open and yet all he could see was black. He walked forwards, not really knowing where he was going or doing. Just placing one foot in front of the other. As he started walking he noticed a soft tiny amber glow in the distance like a small flickering candle. Since he could not see anything else of interest he walked towards it. He got closer and closer and he realised it was a small campfire. Behind the fire was an old black gate, intricate in design and somehow standing up on its own. Next to the fire were two wooden logs and on one sat an old man. The only clothes Thomas could define was a long dark green cloak which put the rest of the man into shadow. His head was worn and tired with a long grey beard but his eyes shone with a hidden sense of humour. He held in his right hand a large gnarled piece of wood; Thomas guessed this was used as a walking stick.

Thomas sat down on the other log and looked up at his new mysterious companion. No words were shared, but the old man seemed to know something that Thomas did not. Whilst the old man stared, Thomas wracked his brains for some clue and eventually he spoke,

“Am I dead?”

No response from the man, apart from a small grunt.

“Am I dead?”

“That depends,” the old man spoke in a shaky voice, “on whether or not you accept my proposal.”

“Sorry what?”

“It all depends on whether you accept my proposal.”

“Right.” Thomas looked worried, “It’s just I remember being shot, quite badly. I was washing my clothes and then BAM! Dead, or at least I should be. So I was wondering could you explain?”

The old man laughed, “So many people above you would love this opportunity.”

“Huh?” Thomas looked up, something he had neglected to do before. He noticed a hoard of people racing for another black gate. He saw people of all ages, all races and all types just making their way through the gate. But no matter who they were they all shared something. A look of peace, as if their faces said “Finally it is over.” All looked tired but relieved. Thomas stared once again at the old man, and saw a smile creep across his face.

“So have you figured out where you are yet?”

“No, as I should be dead.”

“You are, and this is Netherworld.”

Thomas laughed, “So when am I going to see a young boy in green tights?”

The old man hit Thomas on the head, “That’s Neverland.”

“Ow, if I’m dead then that should not have hurt me.”

“You not exactly dead, nor are you exactly alive. You are in a state of flux.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow, “Shouldn’t I have passed on to the other side by now?”

The old man slowly got up, leaning on his staff, “If you’re that much in a hurry to see what’s next you can just walk through the gate.”

“Oh no, you have a deal for me.”

“You are not as stupid as you look.” The old man sat back down and got out, from under his cloak, an old dusty tome. “Let us cut to the chase. You were not supposed to die.”

“What?”

“My boss knows exactly what everyone is going to do in their life. All their mistakes all their worries and all their triumphs. You were supposed to live a long and healthy life, and be fairly successful.”

Thomas’ eyes lit up with glee, “Doing what?”

“Never you mind. Anyway, somebody cuts off your life. Instead of dying at the ripe old age of ninety-two in your bed, you die in the university halls laundry room at the age of nineteen. Something or someone has messed with the universal time line.”

“So where do I come into this?”

“The boss cannot send anybody to search as his employees are not normal and would cause a widespread panic. So the boss is giving you a choice.”

“Which is?”

“You can walk through that gate and find out what is on the other side or you can go back to Earth. We make it that you are still alive and you investigate for us.”

“Why do you need me to investigate?”

“It is very obvious why. If someone can do it once, they can do it again and again. Before you know it the other side has a huge influx and will not be able to cope. When people die they will just become empty walking souls. We cannot be having that now can we. I’ll give you some time to decide.”

Thomas stood up and walked around. He went over to the gate. It was an old metal gate, but huge. It was slightly bigger than Thomas and arch shaped. The metalwork was exquisite. It was patterned to be vines intertwining and moving in and out of each other. Occasionally a rose would appear. This would not look out of place as the entrance of a garden, yet in this space it was just intimidating. Thomas turned back towards the old man.

“If I did go through the gate, what would happen?”

“You would find out what’s on the other side.”

“Can’t you give me a hint?”

The old man looked as if he was thinking about it, “No.”

“Why not?”

“That might influence your decision. Imagine if I told you that what lay beyond that gate was nothing. Emptiness. A black void. You would easily jump at going back to life. Similarly if I told you it was the perfect paradise that you could only dream of you would be racing through that gate. I cannot tell you what lies beyond. Besides which,” and at this point Thomas noticed a sadness run through the old man’s eyes, “I stay out here. Would you even believe me?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Listen Thomas, you must understand. It is not only for your sake we want you to return, this person could do it again. If you were able to find them then we will somehow repay you.”

Thomas sighed, “Go on then. I’ll return home.”

The old man jumped up and shook Thomas by the hand. “You do not realise how wonderful it is to hear that. Now I must warn you of something.”

“What now?”

“A dead man should not be walking the Earth. It creates strange phenomenon.”

“Like what?”

“Well it’s only ever happened once before, and he was only there for a couple of weeks before coming back. We are not exactly sure about what it does.”

“Oh really? And you want me to go back when you have no idea what might happen.”

“That sums it up quite nicely.”

“Okay, what do I do?”

The old man grabbed his stick and bashed it on the floor. A white door sprung up out of nowhere and opened. Through it Thomas could see himself lying on a bed in a hospital, the doctors were rushing trying to save his life.

“On you go,” the old man said beckoning towards the door.

“Will it hurt?” Thomas said with a sudden sound of trepidation in his voice.

“Let’s see, you got shot in the chest. Yes it is going to hurt. A lot.”

“Thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome,” and using his stick, the old man pushed Thomas back through the door into his life.

by Dominic Spencer

Prologue for a story currently without a name

 

The endless sky of Russia was dirty grey that winter’s day – except for a red stain made by the campfires of the cossacks.

Unsupported by the mountains of home, it weighed heavy and cold on the forests and marshes; on the fields, shallow scratches of human habitation that had to be reclaimed from the wilderness year on year; and on the town of Borisov, a wretched place in that year 1812, abandoned by its whole population – well, almost – and yet, for a few short desperate days, more crowded than it had ever been or would ever be again.

Such was the prospect that greeted the 4th Line Regiment of the Kingdom of Italy, such as were left, when they arrived in the early evening. They trudged down the road with a tired, mechanical gait. At their head a tattered standard fluttered sadly in the snow; below it, his face telling the same story of wounded but still living pride, Captain Giacomo Balducci was carried between two of his men, slung on a musket that had been wrapped in rags to prevent it from freezing to his skin. In spite of the cold he still wore only his uniform – where the soldiers who tramped behind him were a grim carnival of warm ladies’ pelisses and bejewelled Orthodox vestments rescued by theft from the fire at Moscow. His absurd little glasses magnified his deep blue eyes.

Such was the prospect; and then the river Berezina, laughing derisively, splashing white with foam and jagged lumps of ice; and beyond, on the steep far bank, a single cossack, a black silhouette against the white like one of the charcoal-sketches that filled the captain’s diary. He sat in the saddle so motionless that snow piled up on his cap, and stared thoughtfully across the river.

The 4th Line Regiment had been on the deathly field of Borodino – had seen the Russian cavalry flooding downhill with oddly high-pitched whoops, as if their whirling sabres were slicing up the very air. But all that was not so terrible as this single silent sentry.

Captain Balducci did indeed make a sketch of the scene before he died.

He spent his last hours wrapped in a shroud of those same pelisses and vestments, tucked on the ledge above the stove in what had been someone’s pleasant townhouse. His rank hardly entitled him to such a spot, of course; he would never have consented to it, or to the blanket his men had made him from their warm clothes, if he had had the strength to object. But he was no longer altogether conscious, and had smiled vacantly as his men chased out a band of fat Swiss, looking like Englishmen in their shiny red coats, and installed him in their commander’s place.

So there he lay with two soldiers for company, delegates from the men he had dismissed downstairs to eat their miserable supper and catch some sleep. They were the two he, a naturally quiet man, had most often talked to: Antonio Farina, the Florentine pasta-maker who could write; and Neri Burroni, the young peasant whose village had appointed him philosopher and herdsman because of his habit, shared by the captain, of staring protractedly at nothing much.

Balducci sketched the scene until his hand failed, and then dictated to Farina his final testament. Then he lay still, except for the hand that kept rubbing his wounded leg. The two men peered out of the window. In the last light of the day, the lone cossack picket rode away.

‘Do you remember, Neri, in Poland, when Mattia told us we were going to march through Russia and invade England?,’ said Farina with a faint smile.

‘I do, sergeant. I think, sergeant, that he had England and India mixed up.’

‘Fat lot of difference it makes now.’

‘Yes, sergeant.’

‘I wonder what there is, though, beyond Russia. Besides more poxy Russia.’

‘Home, sergeant, the way we’re going.’

‘Good answer. Good bloody answer to a stupid question. I was a happy man when I kept myself to wondering what was over the mountains and not finding out.’

‘Yes, sergeant.’

Then there was a long silence, which was broken after a time by the strains of a badly-played accordion, and a sharp young tenor rising from the yard where the defeated Swiss had made their camp:

Unser Leben gleicht der Reise

Eines Wandrers in der Nacht;

Jeder hat in seinem Gleise

Etwas, das ihm Kummer macht…

For reasons he never understood any better than he understood German, which was not at all, the melody stayed with Farina for the remainder of his life. No doubt it had something to do with the noise which followed the end of the song: the mewling of an infant from the room across the hall.

The men glanced at each-other. Farina had heard stories like this from other regiments. Nobody knew where the children came from: whether they had been forgotten by the fleeing Russians, or born in a rolling wagon to one of the canteen-women and left behind in the hope that somebody would stumble across them. And so people did. A few were trundling along with the retreat in those same carts, learning their first words in the Grand Army’s language of violent blasphemy from across half Europe; others were not.

An Italian officer on a general’s staff had confessed to Farina one night under the stars, blind drunk, that he had drowned triplets that had kept him awake in Smolensk, breaking the ice on a barrel of water with his own hands. He had seemed particularly upset about that ice. Farina had tentatively assured him that if they were to have grown up as little soldiers and marched with the Grand Army on another such campaign, then it all made no more difference than England and India. And he had gotten to half-believing it, but… well, in the morning he would see if there was space on a cart. He nodded to Burroni and stood up.

‘Bring the child in here, would you please?,’ said the cracked voice of Balducci. The two men stared – although for Burroni this involved only a change of direction. The captain had pushed himself up on one arm with the feeble struggling motion of an upturned beetle.

‘…Yes sir!,’ said Farina, and hurried out.

He found the boy in a lady’s bedroom, nestled in covers pulled from the plump-looking bed. The room had been well-appointed once, but now showed the signs of a hasty ransacking. In any other case Farina would have put it down to looters from one army or another, or the Jews; but some sudden romantic impulse – all the stronger, somehow, now that everyday compassion had been all but squeezed out of him – made him imagine a Polish princess tearing through her cupboards in search of prized possessions, hurrying away at the last moment as the first shots sounded…

It was a naked screaming child; it could have been Polish; it could have been a prince. Who knew? So he made it one with a thought, a promissory note for the warmth and safety he couldn’t give.

He presented the boy to his captain with trembling hands – he felt all at one a working man’s fear of the delicate, a soldier’s instinct against manhandling the ill-understood possessions of an officer, a father’s panic at holding a child. Balducci shook his head. ‘I can’t hold him, Antonio. Put him by the stove. Give him one of the blankets. Give him all the blankets. I don’t need them, Antonio. I’ll die in my uniform.’

‘I thought,’ he continued as Farina busied himself, ‘When I put it on, that this was a shameful uniform, covered in the braid of kings and paid for by plunder. I’m proud to wear it now. You men have made me proud to wear it as you do.’

The soldiers said nothing: neither Farina, nor Burroni, nor the others, roused by the baby’s crying, who filed quietly into the room.

‘I regret,’ said Balducci, his old lecturing-voice – none too loud, but with an odd penetrating quality that demanded to be heard – somehow returning under his wheezy breath, ‘That the campaign has unfolded as it has, and I feel sorry for the poor people in Poland, and in France, who are certainly going to be put under the tsar and the cossacks-‘

There was a stir in the hot, heavy air enclosed by the crowding soldiers; Mattia’s cry of denial and defiance died on his tongue.

‘-But more than that I regret that we fought it at all, in the way we did, against and not for the wretched people in this country, which has surely given rise to our defeat. And I would very much have preferred to have died for the freedom and independence of our Italy,’ he went on, his bemused tone of voice just as when he had told them, months ago in Poland, that he would very much prefer them not to use foul language.

‘Most of all I regret the part I’ve had, however small, in leading you all into this really frightful war, and how I’m now leaving you to get out of it without whatever help I might have given you. I regret a good many things. But I think I’m just coming to realise that if Destiny doesn’t equip us to make large and historic gestures then we should attach as much importance to the small ones that are in our power, and so I should say that in the end I’ve not made the worst use of my life.’

Silence again, of a new and less restful kind: not a blank like the snowy fields, but an awful hole like the captain’s wound.

‘I don’t subscribe to the beliefs of the priests, or of Russians, Jews, Turks, or Englishmen, however I know some of you will take comfort in praying for me and for my part I will be glad to have my comrades thoughts rest on me for a little while. After long consideration, however, I think there is probably a governing power in this republic of our universe, and even if there isn’t then that is no excuse to retreat from my responsibility to do good works and to try and mend my bad ones so that I will have been a little force for bettering humanity. I’d like you, Antonio, to take a letter which is on my person to the addressee in Italy, and to look after the child and take it to her as well.’

‘…Yes, sir,’ said Farina for the final time, and Balducci nodded and died. The silence, this time, was as loud as all the emperor’s artillery, and the tsar’s too.

‘We could put the boy on someone’s cart,’ said Mattia eventually.

‘The captain was very clear,’ said Burroni in a quiet but firm voice. ‘But I think it should be me who looks after the child. I’m younger and littler than the sergeant, and he’s got a  family and a trade – I’m not going back to anything. We all have to eat. I’ll share with the little one.’

They all thought for a moment of Moscow, of the jewels they had taken from dressing-tables, and of how they had laughed at the men who had stuffed their sacks with rye-flour and searched high and low for a frying-pan; and then, led by Farina, they gave a murmured assent.

‘I wonder what being dead’s like,’ said Mattia.

‘Don’t,’ said Farina.

From that moment on, Farina’s memories of Russia dissolved like frightening dreams, and only a few clear images remained – many of them irrelevant and bathetic. Only one scene need come to our attention.

There are the guns roaring on the heights, and their ragged, hoarse, explosive cry is echoed by the ‘Ura!’ of the Russian infantry. There are the fat Swiss, food for the cannons just like the thinner men. There are the soldiers of the 4th scrambling up from they had been finishing their crusts of bread, taking their places in the column, losing themselves to a greater moving mass as if climbing aboard a vehicle. There is Mattia throwing off the lady’s fur coat which he had claimed was for a mistress and which everybody knew he meant to sell, declaring that he’ll die like a soldier of the emperor’s army. There he is, promptly getting his wish. There is the red blood on Burroni’s shirt – all too vivid, Farina feels: he has after all seen plenty of blood on the campaign, some of it his, and by now he thinks he knows its ugly brown colour. But now it blooms like roses on the snow, the linen, the pale skin.


And there is the boy crying in the dead man’s knapsack.

by Robin Thomson

Dark Sector (extract)

Dark Sector (extract)

The sight of white orbs of light up ahead were, at first look, a kind of mirage after so many hours of dusk and darkness. In fact, since Mercer had crossed over the border into the northern wastelands (a striking insult considering all of Britain was practically a rubble-pile these days) he hadn’t seen anything more illuminated than a single dimly lit neon bulb. Expecting a searchlight, or, though it was unlikely in such a desolate place, a laser turret, Mercer crouched and placed a hand on his M4. However, his weary eyes, after much inspection, saw only lights, and so he walked on.

It was quite daunting, the prospect of actually finding the people he’d spent countless days and nights wandering barren roads looking for. England in itself was a burned up, ash-strewn stretch of vicious urban jungles and fields filled with atomically-ravaged madmen, but Scotland hadn’t sent even a single communication since the final bomb had been dropped. It was an urban wilderness. Hell, it was just a wilderness. To come here alone with the objective of rallying whatever was left of civilisation? Even Mercer had to question himself on that one. Nevertheless, his experience in London had renewed in him an idea that he’d abandoned in 1984, five years ago now, the very day that Britain, and indeed all the world, had been swallowed in the voracious mushroom cloud of antagonistic pride and malice – that Britain did not have to be a dark sector forever. The small pockets of co-operation and community that could be found across England had been enough to convince the American colonies that aid might be possible for Britain after all; if Scotland too had enough heart left to salvage, then maybe the Darwinian struggle between the devastated inhabitants of the country – which Mercer had fully accepted as the way of life – could be subverted. 

A slicing breeze picked up the closer Mercer got to the crumbling city; his dishevelled hair blew back and his well-defined, even features were saturated with a damp chill. As soon as it calmed down and he was standing by the city border, Mercer took occasion to warm himself up with a cigarette. Drawing the lighter from one of his leather coat’s many pockets, he inspected his surroundings slowly; noticing the blood-stained signpost which read ‘The city of Glasgow welcomes you’. The buildings were thickly painted with black dust and their once ornate arches and panes had now fractured and been overrun with moss. Charred skeletons were interspersed throughout the road and all the shops and restaurants were littered with sinew and scrap metal; it was as though someone had taken the dankest slum and hurled mechanical waste all over it. “Well, at least it hasn’t changed much” Mercer remarked after a long drag.

It had been a long time since Mercer had walked up and down the city, but he could still conclude that he’d arrived over the abandoned motorway onto Great Western Road, and so he undertook to follow it. Mercer had never felt such a sullen silence in all his wanderings. Even the wind was dead now, and Mercer, for the first time since he’d crossed the border, was made anxiously aware that he could be attacked at any minute. Indeed, no sooner had he registered that other people could be nearby than Mercer began to hear the faintest patter of footsteps. The concrete seemed to crunch more and more under his own increasingly less stealthy footsteps; any slightest noise louder than a breath could give him away. It was perhaps the biggest tragedy of modern life, that a person encountering another person had to be prepared for either an offer of assistance or a barbaric fight to the death – Mercer had learned to expect the latter. 

The sight up ahead, though, arrested Mercer’s keen senses and made him lower his gun in bewilderment and walk, as though hypnotically ensnared, toward it. Next to what looked to have been a pub, Mercer could see a rigid, lifeless black patrol suit impaled to the wall a few feet off the ground. Bodies were no rare sight in dark sector Britain, but the sight of the apparel of the patrol unit which Mercer had once belonged to, before the end of all things, was very rare indeed. For Mercer, the fact that the man was dead was of too little surprise to upset him, but the familiarity with that insignia, dark visor and intimidatingly robust armour was; he could easily have ended up like this comrade corpse at so many points during the war years. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the world had been consumed by war and the US and UK had instituted these patrol units as a kind of everyday police-army. Mercer had signed up the minute he’d been able to. It was a haunting connection to a time he’d barely thought of since it had ended, like a half-remembered dream which, in its split second of perception, has the power to transport a person back into their own memories and immerse them in feelings long forgotten. It made Mercer sick to imagine what had happened to this man.

Suddenly a loud and shrill call sounded behind Mercer; without thought he spun round and let out a burst of semi-automatic fire, downing a muscular man wearing tattered rags. Another man emerged from a side street carrying a wrench. This man looked more confused than angry, but he also headed towards Mercer, his movements awkwardly stuck between surrender and attack. Within seconds he’d been shot dead too. Mercer was now breathing heavily and his skin stung with heat under his long jacket and combat apparel. The first fight in unfamiliar territory was always the most nerve wracking, and the times in which Mercer had to convince himself that, in such a disparaged and depraved period of history, death wouldn’t be such a bad thing at all. A horde of lost souls had now begun to crawl out of hiding and were advancing, with surprising vitality, towards him. Mercer coldly glared at the blood thirsty mob and loaded a fresh clip of ammo into his M4.

Mercer opened fire again and killed another two of the approaching assailants, but in between bursts of fire he, and his attackers too, could hear clear, sharp musical notes cresting the air between violence and calm. The mob all looked to each other, murmuring and then, with a shared knowledge of where these notes were coming from, scattered off. “What the…” Mercer muttered. It soon became clear that it was the sound of a violin that he was hearing. The admittedly perfect playing was so serene and melodic that, rather than soothing any rattled nerves, it provided such a stark contrast to the blackening dusk and hostile air that it made Mercer’s hair stand on edge. He looked to his right, towards the direction of what was still presumably Byers Road, and saw, emerging from the faint mist like phantoms, two figures. Both walked with a bold posture and swift stride; it was the woman of the pair who was playing the violin. Never one to run away, Mercer stood his ground in the centre of the street and called out “On your knees, hands where I can see them!” The couple continued to walk toward him until he could make them out clearly. 

Mercer had to shake his head first before actually accepting what he was seeing. The man was tall and had a very bright complexion; his skin was completely without blemish and his hair was immaculate. How such a vision of youth and refinement could be on this street was baffling. The woman was also beautiful, though in a much more lustrous way. In the dim glow of the street lights she appeared to be wearing subtly applied make-up across a pale skinned supple face. Her body, which was hugged by a dark corset and tight fitting dress, moved gracefully as she continued to resonate both music and sex in every flourish. More baffled than alert at this point, Mercer once again called them to stand down.

The man, who was now only twelve yards away from Mercer, with the woman just a little behind him, gave him a long and meticulous bow. The stranger was wearing a cape, knotted with a jewel, and had well-tailored trousers and polished shoes as well as a pinstriped waistcoat. After his bow the stranger stood aloft and brandished his cane, saying “Greetings my rugged voyeur!”

Mercer raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The apparent gentleman went on “My name is Alasdair; but before I welcome you to my domain, I’d like to congratulate you, in so many years I have never before seen a wanderer who could rival me in looks! Indeed, we both ooze allure, albeit you with a rustic chique and I with an exquisite comeliness, wouldn’t you agree…”

“Shut the fuck up!” Mercer yelled.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Shut the fuck up and get on your knees!”

The woman, who stood calmly with one hand by her side, scouring Mercer with hungry eyes, replied “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement there.” Mercer fired his gun into the air as a warning. 

Alasdair chuckled with mirth “Ah, this is my companion, Rosa. To gaze at her is to boil over with desire, is it not?”

Mercer shrugged his shoulders “I once went out with a twenty one year old Ukrainian gymnast, everything afterwards is a sour disappointment.”

“Ha! You’re a funny man, Mr…”

Mercer answered “My name isn’t important. You’re clearly an educated man, so why don’t you do the smart thing and step aside?”

Alasdair tapped his cane against his head and looked musingly at the ground. He then replied “Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t do that, you see, I have a very eclectic and comfortable society around here, and they do not want their peace disturbed.”

“There is no peace in this country, or in any country!  Now I’m sick of the Oscar Wilde bullshit; let me pass!” Mercer railed back at him.

Rosa took in a deep breath “Darling, my mind is racing with ideas, can’t we take him back with us?”

“Maybe,” Alasdair replied, though his gaze was now predatorily fixed on Mercer “first we’ll need to apply a quick test.” And with that, Alasdair flung off his cape to reveal two holstered revolvers fitted neatly against his waistcoat. “We are the solace of the disaffected, the apathetic, and the brilliant!” He yelled. “Oh God, students!” Mercer shouted in disdain. Alasdair laughed “Now this will be a good fight, it’s been a long time since I was so thrilled!”

Mercer raised his assault rifle, barely able to articulate how ridiculous this whole situation seemed to him. He sighed “Let’s just get on with…” before he could finish Alasdair had upholstered his guns and fired two simultaneous shots in one rapid movement. Mercer now adopted a combat-ready stance and, no longer looking at this Victorian gentleman of an assassin as a joke, took careful aim. Both of them were breathing in heaves, their eyes were stringently fixed on the other and their muscles were set to rip from the tension. Rosa had stepped aside slightly and watched on with folded arms and an excited grin. The two were now ready. Alasdair called out “Let’s go!” 

by John Graham Anderson