Sergeant Kleg Holstead peeked through the gaps between boards and barbed wire that surrounded their flanks. Nervous soldiers—perhaps the last left alive on this world—shifted their weight behind him, armor and guns clattering in the quiet morning. Beyond them, deeper inside their fort, Kleg heard the soft weeping of the civilians under their care. He and his men had sworn to protect them from the beasts that roamed the planet of Chelkan. But though he lied to them, he could not lie to himself. They were going to die. All of them. It was inevitable. Even if they held out in their stronghold for a year or ten, the grey devils that bayed at the moons at night and feasted on the flesh of human stragglers by day would never go away.
The monsters had consumed the world like wildfire. And humankind is facing extinction.
It had happened almost overnight, when the strange visitor arrived from beyond the stars. The “alien” was human like them, and a young man, but with pale marbleized skin and white-blond hair. Contrasting with his albino appearance, the boy wore all black—leather, with straps and buckles on his jacket. Kleg had been part of the envoy sent to meet this visitor.
Before the stranger’s arrival, wars on Chelkan had finally been all-but quenched. They were entering a time of unprecedented peace. Kleg had nearly forgotten the primal, maddening fear of combat, except in his nightmares, but seeing that boy in the leather jacket with the blackest eyes had changed all of that.
The boy came with a message that day. A “gift” from the darkness between worlds.
Then he lifted his hands and a rip in the very fabric of reality had split behind him, crackling with black energy. Out of it clambered them. The monsters. Kleg retreated with a few others, but the hordes massacred the rest of Chelkan’s welcoming committee.
The Grey Death had come, and now all of Chelkan was going to fall.
Kleg’s weathered eyes narrowed at the innumerable creatures beyond the fenced perimeter. They prowled about, their naked bodies ashen. Their rows of dulled, cracked teeth opened and closed in anticipation of their next meal against a face devoid of eyes and noses. The beasts walked on all fours, their toes curled under and their arms tapering into deadly blood-drenched insect-like spears.
“Sarge?” Private Telgan whispered from his left.
Kleg had witnessed his teenaged daughter impaled by one of those spears a week ago.
“What is it, Private?”
“Sir…request permission to speak freely.”
“Get on with it, Telgan.”
Telgan shuffled out of the corner of Kleg’s eye. “Sir, people are starting to talk. They think…they think you’ve led us here into a death trap.”
I have. “What do you think, Private?”
Kleg faced the young man. “Give me your assessment.”
Telgan paused, his face paling. He looked to his scuffed boots. Gripped his rifle tighter. “I think we can hold our position, but not forever. We’ll starve long before the monsters get inside. I…I think we should keep moving.”
“Where would we go? Would we just forage for food from town to town, losing more from our camp every night?”
Telgan kept quiet, the ground holding his interest.
Kleg leaned in, letting his rifle hang off his shoulder as he balled his gloved fists on his waist. “We’re talking about a new world order, here, Private. This planet belongs to them, now. Stay here or leave…we’re only delaying the eventual.”
The young man’s eyes cut sharply to Kleg, as if slapped. “You’re saying we should quit?”
Kleg grew sullen. He didn’t know what he was saying anymore. Just knew that his family was dead thanks to those creatures out there and the punk kid who brought them to his planet. If he didn’t have these civvies under his care, he had half a mind to take a couple rifles, as many clips as he could carry, and walk through the grey hordes, blasting until they took him down.
He was ready for payback. One last guns-ablazin’ stand.
Private Telgan trembled beside him, whether with fear that his commanding officer had lost the hope of survival or angry for the same reason, Kleg didn’t know. Didn’t care.
“How about this?” Kleg spat on the ground, hoisting up his rifle, the only thing he had left in this life. “Why don’t you lead them, Private? Go on. Run out the back and I’ll cover you.”
Kleg’s earpiece squawked, “Sergeant Holstead? You’d better come take a look at this.”
Kleg stepped away from the private, knowing the kid wouldn’t do anything. People talked, people complained. They wouldn’t be people if they didn’t. Kleg didn’t care about them or their worries or fears. If the civilians were merely worried about where they’d find their next meal, they didn’t understand the reality that was staring them in the face.
They were up against total annihilation. And if they didn’t get that, he had no time for them.
Taking hold of the steel rails, Kleg ascended the steps to the watchtower. Eagle-eyed guards leaned at their posts, casually keeping eye on the milling extra-dimensional invaders beyond the gates. Kleg stopped before Private Rickmond, a dirty-faced youth who didn’t bother saluting. Kleg wasn’t offended. “What?”
The young man pointed across the horizon. Kleg placed both hands on the edge of the wall and peered closer. Hundreds of charcoal bodies danced around each other, huddling closer and closer in some sort of celebration. They had their claws squirming under the cloudy sky, their teeth chattering in a way that set Kleg’s gut on edge.
“They’re moving into one group,” Rickmond said.
“For how long?”
“Just started a couple minutes ago. It looks like they’re gearing up for something.”
Kleg stiffened. Thought he saw…“Give me your binocs.”
Rickmond had barely offered them before Kleg yanked them from the boy’s hand. Pressed them to his eyes. “Skiv-steen,” he cursed. “It’s him.”
Rickmond motioned for the others on the wall and everyone fell into position. Eager, the private hovered nearer. “Are you sure?”
Kleg felt the sting in his heart. Saw the boy standing there, like some sort of deity, amidst the growling, worshipping, no-faced monsters. The boy, dressed all in black leather like some common rebellious teen. His eyes void of life and compassion, his skin and hair pale to the point of being white. He’d never forget the sight of that kid nor the fear he felt when he first saw him.
A fear which only magnified when the boy looked up, directly into the binocs, and saw Kleg Holstead.
Kleg lowered the binocs, his heart hammering, now. “Then we’re the last,” he whispered. “The last ones on Chelkan.”
Tears built in Kleg’s eyes, and he lost all the bluster he felt only moments ago. All thoughts of fighting some heroic, though foolhardy, last stand were gone. He didn’t want to die in a blaze of glory. He wanted to live. He wanted his wife back. His daughter. Wanted to hold them and kiss them and laugh and cling to all that had been stripped from him.
I don’t want to die. Not like this.
A tumultuous roar came from the devastated streets below. Kleg’s hands reached for the gun slung over his shoulder, felt its familiar grip, but his fingers were numb and heavy.
“Sir?” Rickmond hesitated, as the other snipers shuffled about, anxious and uncertain. “What do we…?”
A stampede of galloping grey figures surged ahead, trampling broken-down vehicles and upended sections of street alike. Running in their midst, sporting a wicked grin, was the kid—their master.
We’re going to die. This is it.
Wide-eyed Rickmond brought his rifle to bear. “Sir! What do we do?”
Kleg remembered the last time he held his daughter. She’d just graduated from school. Ready to be a woman, forge her own path.
Kleg looked to his rifle. Heard the thumping bass of the charging monsters at their gates, the screams of frightened women and children in the stronghold. He knew, then, that he couldn’t save them. Not all. Maybe none of them.
But that didn’t change anything. He was a man of war.
“FIRE!” he commanded, and the walls lit up with gunfire.
Rickmond moved his friends where they needed to be to best thin out the herds. Kleg left him to it and jogged down the stairs. He found Private Telgan among the terrified masses. “Get the families back! We’ll bottleneck the creatures through the front gate. Distract them and maybe buy you some time.”
Telgan nodded and rushed off.
Kleg raised a closed fist to the remaining soldiers. “On me! You got one order: Kill ’em all! Let’s show them what happens when you try to take over our planet!”
The soldiers cheered, “Oveka!” and formed up, locked-and-loaded.
He grinned at his men. His army. “Oveka,” he whispered and took the lead.
He was going to see his daughter again today.
Bring it on, you blargin’ ghiffas.
Rickmond shrieked from the watchtower and Kleg looked up just in time to see a beast ripping the private’s rifle arm off before plunging a long, crimson lance through his chest. Rickmond twisted, then fell off the wall, inches from Kleg’s feet.
“Hold the line!” Kleg roared as a flood of ashen monstrosities spilled over the edge of their barriers.
He and his men opened fire, their bullets chewing through the first wave of creatures. The monsters were strong. A gunshot or two couldn’t pierce their rubbery flesh.
But a hundred could.
The perversions fell like insects and Kleg shouted in vindication. It felt good to cut them down. To repay them for their horrors.
He looked to the walls where the men either retreated to the ground floor or were consumed by the flood of evil. Kleg kept firing, pushing back the droves, praying that Telgan and the others were able to get out. He knew there was nowhere else to go, but now he didn’t care. The will to live—to survive—shoved all logic aside, replacing it with irrational and powerful instinct.
Thunderous pounding shook the front gates. They wouldn’t be able to hold off a two-fold attack from above and ahead. There were simply too many of those things, not to mention their master, that damnable boy.
“Door!” He pointed at a battle group and gestured for their gates, assigning them to the area. Just as the men changed targets, the doors burst open.
Legions of extra-dimensional devils strode in, their barbed arms twirling, lashing, killing. Kleg lost several good men in the second and a half it took for the things to get inside. And, surrounded by their madness, the boy. Kleg ground his teeth in seething hatred.
“Kill him! Fire on the kid!”
His troops did, diverting attention from the alien armies, and focusing only on the pale youth in the black leather jacket. But the kid—
Bullets zipped all around him, perforating his animal minions, but the kid simply dodged out of the way with unnatural speed, and brought out two pistols of his own. He twirled, as if dancing around the soldiers’ shots, and opened fire. Bullets tore into soldiers until the kid’s guns ran dry. Deftly, he tossed them aside while simultaneously leaping through the air, kicking out. His boot caught the chin of a nearby soldier and Kleg heard the man’s neck snap.
“Don’t you quit!” Kleg said as soldiers hurried after the boy.
They fired, they punched, they leaped, but the kid seemed invincible, bobbing and weaving—that cocky grin still on his face. Without breaking a sweat he caught fists, popped wrists, broke arms, shattered shins, and dispatched every soldier who came at him. Kleg lost sight of the monsters tearing apart his men around him. He focused only on the insufferable teenager. The teenager who should not be here, in this world.
“Where did you come from?” he hollered in desperation, his voice growing hoarse.
The kid did not answer. Just kept killing, using the guns of his fallen foes on their brothers.
An army of the dead at his feet, the kid gave the sergeant his full attention and charged. Kleg fired his rifle, blinding light exploding from the barrel. The youth sprang into the air, pirouetting overhead, and came down with a fist that separated Kleg’s jaw. The military man could not close his mouth. Pain blossomed and he felt like passing out, but he wouldn’t give the kid the satisfaction. Dropping his gun, he brought out his blade. He thrust the tip forward, tears of agony streaming down his face. The kid whirled out of the way and deflected the Sarge’s arm, coming up with a kick to the gut.
Kleg’s breath left him and he doubled over, but kept a grip on his knife. He slashed up, cutting the boy in the stomach.
Time seemed to slow as the kid looked down, seeing a tiny trickle of blackish blood expanding on his shirt. Dripping onto the ground.
“So,” Kleg grunted through pained breaths, his words garbled because of his useless jaw. “You can be hurt.”
Enraged, the boy punched again, shattering Kleg’s nose. But the old war horse pushed past the pain, the humiliation, the misery of seeing his wife and daughter taken from him. None of that mattered now, for he had wounded the boy. He had cut a god.
Kleg slashed again, again, again.
The boy flailed wildly, dodging the attacks, but the smile was gone now. Off-guard. Kleg understood. This kid was used to inciting fear and always having the advantage against a foe clinging to life.
But I want to die. I’ve got nothing to lose.
His smile held back an outburst of laughter as Kleg charged, hacking with the blade. The boy backed away, dancing away from the knife’s edge, but not every time. Sometimes the metal drew yet more blood.
“Come on!” Kleg jeered. “Don’t stop now!”
The boy dodged another attack, but lost balance in his retreat. Stumbled to the ground. Carried by his own momentum, Kleg landed on top of the kid, blade out.
The youth gasped and sputtered, those dark soulless eyes widening in shock and pain.
Kleg buried the knife deeper, barking laughter in the kid’s face.
The sergeant rose off the bleeding boy, heaving giant-sized breaths, his insides on fire. The boy looked at the wound as though he’d never felt hurt before. As though he were above that kind of thing.
Welcome to the human race, ghiffa.
The punk laid his head back on the cracked concrete and a sublime euphoria washed over Kleg’s soul. With the boy dead, Kleg turned to the grey monsters once more. He spotted a handful of his men still alive—still fighting. The horde was thinner now, and weaker with their master lifeless. Kleg wanted to believe that Telgan and the others were far away from this place. That they found some hidden sanctuary, safe from this death and free to start a new world.
Yeah. Yeah, that’d be nice.
He felt white hot pain enter his back. Wheezing, he groped behind him. Felt the familiar hilt of his own knife.
Kleg slumped to his knees and faced the boy, still lying on the ground, the knife removed from his bleeding gut. And not dead. The kid did not grin. Instead, his face was set and somber. Resigned to his fate, perhaps, and Kleg felt the same. With war still raging around him, he crawled to the boy and sat beside him, sensing his own life ebbing away.
After a long moment of silence, the dying sergeant asked through excruciating huffs from his punctured lung, “What’s your name?”
The boy took a moment to answer. “Michael,” he said in a lazy drawl that made the word sound like Machel. “Michael Morrison.”
Kleg nodded in return. “Kleg Holstead. I used to be a sergeant.”
The kid—Michael—regarded Kleg with a furrowed brow. “You lost,” he said.
Kleg grinned, hearing laughter from somewhere. Sounded like his daughter. “Guess we both did.”
“No,” the other shook his head. Looked to the swarming monsters. “There’ll be more. I’m just one.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Everywhere…nowhere. There are more worlds than these.”
Kleg no longer felt angry. He saw the sadness in this kid’s eyes. The boy was lost without his war, his victory. Kleg pitied him. “Why? Why did you do this?”
Michael looked to the sunlit sky as he lay down, his hand resting over his open wound where a thick black substance oozed. “It’s what I was told to do…And I’ll do it again. Another me will do it all again…Other worlds…other me…I don’t matter,” he rasped, his eyes turning glassy. “I’m just one of them…”
Then the kid died with that mystery still on his lips.
Kleg reached over with bloodstained hands and closed the boy’s eyes. His daughter’s laughter filled his hearing and he smiled. There are more worlds than these.
He looked forward to seeing them.
Kleg Holstead closed his eyes too, and saw his daughter waiting to embrace him.
Copyright 2012 Greg Mitchell
Liking it so far? Now that you've seen what kind of damage one Michael Morrison can do, read on to discover if the next Michael Morrison that is chosen can escape the same dark fate. Order the book today and uncover what mysteries and adventure await you within the multiverse!
UPDATE--This just in: The Splashdown Blog Tour for Rift Jump is in effect. Head over to my publisher's blog to read the first of many insightful interviews behind the new book and follow the links to other participating sites.