Cemetery World II: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 27, 2023
Wayne rolled to avoid getting stepped on by the Pushmi-Pullyu, but he failed. One of the rubber hooves caught him in the ribs, and he cried out. The people in the costume didn’t seem to notice. Then, worse, the other end of the Pushmi-Pullyu kicked his left crutch, sending it skidding under the doughnut case.
“No!” Wayne cried out. He turned to grab his right crutch so he could walk as far as the doughnut case.
But as if dragged by an invisible hand, the right crutch slid across the floor and into the dining area, far beyond Wayne’s reach.
He fell back on the floor in despair. Without his crutches, he would never reach the Comet.
The transport ship made landing on Lanning’s World at a small spaceport far away from the capital, in an agricultural region. Paula looked at Sean. “What city is this?”
Sean checked his wrist comp. “The itinerary says Caladbolg.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
Sean shook his head. “It’s familiar, but I can’t place it. Something important about that name.”
“We’ll find an information kiosk. It’s more important that we find where the Tomb Builders are hiding here.”
“Are you sure they’re here?”
“They have to be. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If not here… Then I’m not sure where we’ll find them.”
As the ship’s systems shut down, indicating that they had tied into the spaceport’s power and control, Sean rose. “Well, Paula, do your magic.”
Paula rose as well, shaking her head. “It’s not magic, it’s Cognitive Logic.”
“Whatever you call it, do it. We have to get out of here. It’s only a matter of time before the stevedore’s come back here to this storage bay to check on the cargo Here. Do you think you can disguise me, or just yourself?”
Paula frowned. “I think…” She ran through proofs and algorithms in her mind. “I think I can, but there’s really only one way to know. We have to go out there.”
Sean grimaced at the door. “It would’ve been nice to know that ahead of time.”
“I didn’t ask you to come along, you know. That was your idea.”
“And I’ll face the consequences of my mistakes, as usual. Might as well find out. Are you ready?”
Paula ran through one more series of proofs, then said, “Ready.” She pulled open the closet door and stepped out. In a soft voice, she said over her shoulder, “Let me take the lead. I know I’m cloaked. If they do see you –”
“If they see me, I’ll make one hell of a distraction so you can get away.”
“Not what I had in mind, but… Yes.”
Sean grunted. “If it comes that, you run like hell.”
They continued through the passageways. At first, Paula was relieved that they encountered no one. Maybe this would be easier than she’d feared.
But when they made it almost to the main cargo hatch without encountering anyone, she began to worry. In a low voice, she said, “Where are they?”
“This isn’t right. The crew should be busy unloadin’, makin’ room for the supplies they’ll be returnin. Inspectin’ the cargo containers for damage. There should be somebody here.”
Paula decided they had time to investigate before leaving the ship. She made her way to a ship control kiosk, and she tapped the access code she had stolen before.
Nothing happened. The console didn’t reject her code nor accept it. The screen wiped, then went black. “The computer is offline.”
“Maybe it’s just the kiosk,” Sean replied. “Let me try remote.” He tapped a code into his wrist comp, and waited. At last he said, “Nothin’. Like there’s simply nothin’ there. Like the ship’s computer is dead.”
“How could we land with a dead computer?”
“We couldn’t. It’s impossible. There are too many operations that must be precisely synchronized. Without a computer, we’d just be wreckage strewn across the landscape.”
“And wait!” Paula said. “When I asked you where we were, you looked it up in the ship’s computer. That… Caladbolg…”
“Ye’re right. The computer must’ve shut down sometime after that.”
Paula shivered. “This could be a trap. Let’s get out of here.”
“Lead the way, Paula.”
But in the end, it was Sean who led the way. Without computers, the cargo hatch wouldn’t open. They needed a manual override, and Paula had never done that. She was no ship’s officer. So Sean came forward, found the manual access cover, and cycled the hatch. Paula stood impatiently in front of it until Sean grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “If it’s a trap –”
But before he could finish his remark, the hatch popped loose at the top and then gently swung down to the ground, becoming an access ramp. Sean looked out carefully, then checked his suit scanners. “There’s nothin’ movin’ out there, not within range of my sonic scanners. Put up our cloak, and let’s go.”
When they stood upon the tarmac of the landing field, Paula was surprised at how quiet everything was. There were no other ships within sight, no work crews, and no traffic in the air. It was like the landing field had been abandoned in place, perfectly preserved but empty.
Empty… That word also applied to the air itself in a strange way. It tasted as stale and old as the air on the ship. Once past terraforming, human worlds usually had a rich surface atmosphere, full of organic odors as well as the smells of civilization: vehicle exhaust, maintenance equipment, thousands of scents you didn’t notice they weren’t there. A ship had its own unique odors; but the air here was nothing. Oxygen and nitrogen and carbon dioxide for breathing, but nothing that indicated anything lived here.
“I don’t like this,” Paula said. “It’s making me nervous, and I may drop the cloak when I’m nervous. I’m still new at this.”
“I don’t like it either. The only ship on the tarmac and the only people standing near the ship. I know how good your cloak is, but I feel exposed.” He glanced toward the main building of the spaceport, then shook his head. “I don’t want to go in there. That’s where they’ll be expectin’ us.”
“Whoever.” He looked south to where the tarmac ended in a field of tall grasses, with tree analogs behind. “That way. Let’s get some cover.”
Paula didn’t argue. If he was making the decisions, that let her concentrate on her algorithms and their cloak.
They set off at a fast walk. They briefly experimented with running; but Paula felt her concentration slip when they did. And besides, the dead air meant she got winded quickly. They kept to a fast walk and crossed to the underbrush.
“Keep low,” Sean said, crouching down. Paula did the same, and they were almost hidden by the tall grasses. Now they couldn’t walk as fast, but she felt safer. Soon the trees would hide them from any observers.
Then the sizzle of a plasma bolt made her reassess their safety. It struck two meters to Paula’s left, making her turn and shriek.
Suddenly Sean grabbed her arm. “Get up and run!” She needed no more persuasion than that as they headed for the nearest trees. Two more plasma bolts struck, one so close that the heat blistered her the back of her neck.
At last they were within the trees, and Paula stopped to catch her breath. Sean shook his head. “Keep go –”
A plasma bolt struck the tree that stood right between them. Instantly it went up in flames, and the charred trunk split and fell as they ran away.
Paula was an archaeologist. Fieldwork usually gave her plenty of exercise; but the time she had spent confined on the Relocation world had left her out of shape. She ran most of a mile before falling onto the orange and red leaves of the forest floor. “Can’t…” she wheezed.
Sean turned back and sat down beside her. “Catch your breath. We have a few minutes. Depends on what sort of trackers they’re usin, but we mighta lost ‘em.”
“You… think so?”
“There’s really only one way to know.” He grinned. “Right now, with no choice. Catch your breath, and then we’ll keep going.”
“Okay,” Paula said, rising up onto her hands so she could turn to a sitting position.
Then she froze. Not two feet from her was the giant stone disc of a Tomb.
Winded or not, Paula got to her feet and started running. She wasn’t going to wait around there.
They seemed to have shaken their pursuer as they sped through the woods, down into a gully, and downstream towards a town. “Caladbold?” Paula asked.
“I don’t know.” They were walking now. Even Sean was exhausted. “I don’t want to tap into local networks. They might be around.”
Paula knew who they were. In the rush through the woods, they had encountered fifteen more of the stone Tombs. These were indistinguishable from the ones Paula had seen on Wotan-7: the same rings of writing, the same polished stone surface, the same disc in the middle. She had warned Sean not to touch any of them.
She shook her head. “Something’s wrong here. The Tomb Builders… It’s like they’ve been here for years. Decades, maybe, depending on how many Tombs they built. How could they do this without anyone noticing?”
Sean looked around as if expecting trouble. “That makes no sense. I was stationed on Lanning’s World right before this assignment. In the capital, but I think we would’ve known if the provinces were full of Tombs.”
Paula shook her head. “Not if they were using the Mathematics of influence. You could walk right by and never notice. We did that back on Wotan-7.”
Sean grinned at her. “Ye know you’re not supposed to mention that world. That’ll get you Relocated.”
Paula gave a weak grin in return. “Let them come and get me.”
They continued on toward the city. As they got closer, it became apparent that there was no traffic there, either. No sign of people around anywhere.
And ominously, the streets were filled with Tombs.
Sean looked at one as they stepped out into the city streets. It rose right up through the road, where a ground vehicle would tear out its undercarriage if it drove over the disk. No one could miss that.
He looked around. “No people… All these Tombs… You don’t suppose?”
Paula was beginning to suspect exactly what he hadn’t said: these were Tombs of the colonists, the citizens of Caladbold. If correct, that meant that the Tomb Builders had chosen to bury the colonists. And that everyone was dead.
“No, we don’t know that,” she answered. “We are scientists.”
“I’m just a Fleet officer.”
“All right, damn it, I am a scientist. I don’t put conclusions before data. We need to –”
But she never said what they needed to do, because a plasma bolt hit her right in the back. She was out before she hit the pavement.
Paula woke to found her find herself on a stone disc inside a chamber like the one she and Sean had searched on Wotan-7. Her arms and legs were spreadeagle upon the disc. Unlike the usual Tomb Builder custom, they were also manacled in place.
She looked around. The light was dim, just as she remembered it from the earlier chamber. The same high arched ceilings rose above, and three stone consoles stood nearby. To her left she saw more gravestones, with skeletons upon them. To her right…
“Sean? Is that you?”
The figure was indistinct in the darkness, but the voice was clear. “Paula. Thank the Lord you’re alive. I thought that blast…”
Paula frowned at that. “A direct plasma bath blast is usually lethal, isn’t it?”
“Even with immediate medical attention.” He paused. I did my best without even a first aid kit, but…”
“Paula, you died. While I was treating you. I was sure of it.”
Paula swallowed hard. Maybe it was Mathematics of Influence. Maybe you only thought –”
“Maybe!” Sean said. “Sorry, didn’t mean to snap, but… It was horrible watchin’ a friend die like that. And then… While I was falling to pieces over yoe, someone came up behind me, slid forward my helmet and…” Paula was afraid to ask, but eventually He continued. “I felt the tip of the knife go in. It’s a standard kill from behind, quick and quiet. The knife in the brain leaves no time for a body to cry out.”
“You don’t sound dead to me.”
“I don’t know, Paula. I wonder if maybe we’re both dead.”
“I don’t believe it. We’re victims of Cognitive Logic, that’s all. They just… just manacled us down here for some purpose. I don’t know what it is, but…”
But suddenly she had a gues as a humming started, just as she’d heard on Wotan-7 when the tomb started playing its occupant’s life story. She squirmed to her side as the big central column of rock rose up.
Then she remembered. “Sean! Get off that round rock you’re laying on!”
But her warning was too late. She heard Sean screen, and she imagined the pillar rising up under his back, lifting him up until his hands and feet pulled the manacles to maximum extension. And then…
“Sean! Can you hear me?” But there was no answer.
Then her tomb spun its holographic tank, and scenes from her life started to play.
“Paula, don’t do this to your mother and me.”
Paula stood in their old house back in Albion. Everything was… bigger than she remembered, stretched as if all the distances were wrong. Her Father and her Mother stood at the end of the long maple dining room table, frowning at her. It was… that day…
“This isn’t about you,” Paula answered. “This is about me! School isn’t –”
Mother interrupted, her eyes half lidded as if she couldn’t look at her daughter. “You wouldn’t know what school is, now would you, child?”
“I’m not a child!”
“Then stop acting like one,” Father answered.
“Now, now,” Mother replied, “there’s no sense trying to get through to her. Paula, how many classes did you miss?”
“I was…” Paula stammered for an answer. “They were boring classes. And I was writing!”
“Ah, yes, writing,” Mother said, with heavy sarcasm in the last word. “Your little stories… You know, if you wanted to write for a living, we could transfer you to the journalism school.”
“You don’t get to transfer me anywhere!” Paula intended it as a shout, but it came out as a childish mumble. “It’s my life, damn it!” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. Her daughter had never sworn in front of her for. Paula saw an advantage, and she pressed it. “Fuck college! It was never for me, it was what you wanted.”
“Your Mother and I know what’s best for –”
“What’s best? I’m going to write, and that’s all there is to it.”
Mother started to cry, and Father said, “You’ll never amount to anything. Think of the only sort of jobs that will be open to you without a degree.”
“I don’t care! It’s my decision, my mistakes if it comes that.”
Father stepped forward, reaching out his hands to her. “Paula, be reasonable…”
Paula backed away until she was up against the door. She grabbed the handle and yanked it open. “I’m not going to be reasonable, I’m going to be a writer!”
Paula lay on the stone disc, tears running down her face and into her hair behind her. “It wasn’t like that… It…”
But before she could take in that twisted memory, the scene changed…
Mother had selected a coffee shop in Lansing, neutral territory. Maybe it would keep them from fighting in public.
“That’s the date, Mother, and those are my conditions. I want you there, but only if you agree. If not, then please stay away. I don’t want my wedding ruined by another fight.”
“But Paula –”
“No ‘But Paula.’ You show up, you smile, and I’ll even let Father give me away if he chooses to. But you don’t criticize, you don’t question my choices, and you lay off of Evan.”
“Paula, you’re making a mistake. He’s not right –”
“it’s my mistake to make, damn it!” The effect of her cursing was less much less pronounced by now. There had been too many arguments and too many curses. Some even from Mother. The shock value was gone.
But Mother spoke more quietly when she said, “Paula, he’s not good for you.”
“He supports me, Mother. He believes in my writing.”
She expected that to cause Mother to turn critical again. But instead, Mother’s response surprised her. “No, he doesn’t, Paula. He doesn’t understand like… like we do…”
Paula’s eyes grew wide. “Mother…”
Mother shook her head. “I’m still not happy about your choices. I never will be. But… But we can’t stop you. And you are doing it.”
“Paula, you’re holding down a job that’s paying your bills. Your being responsible. It’s not a job we would’ve chosen, but…” She shrugged. “And you’re doing the writing as well. I don’t understand. I don’t know why this is so important to you. But you’re doing it! It’s as hard as you’ve ever worked at anything.”
“That’s because it’s important to me, Mother.”
“And it’s not to Evan.”
“Yes, it is!”
“You can’t see it. You’re… You’re in love, and blinded by it. He’s humoring you, Paula. That’s all it is.”
“No, it’s not!”
“Mother, I told you: If you can’t lay off of Evan, this conversation is over.” She got up from the chair. “And you can forget about the wedding.”
Paula breathed heavily. The memory had reopened multiple old wounds.
But it hadn’t been that way. Some of the words were right, but not the meaning. For the first time, Mother had said that she was proud of Paula’s writing. Proud that she had sold the story Un/Seen magazine.
But that part wasn’t in the holotank. None of the good parts, only the fight.
Before Paula could ponder that, a new scene filled the tank…
Evan was shouting at Paula, but she couldn’t remember the cause of the fight. Something to do with the big brown box which he kicked. It slid across the floor, and Paula picked it up.
“I told you to leave that alone!” Evan yelled.
Paula couldn’t remember what was in the box, but it was important. It was… It was as vital as her stories.
And that filled her heart with rage. “You don’t get to tell me what to do! I’m going to deliver this box, and I’m going to write a story about it, and you’re going to stay out of my face!”
“No, I’m not! You’re becoming obsessed. You missed work for those stupid boxes. And you’ve spending all this time with that… that Kevin person. Are you… Are you cheating on me?”
Evan rushed forward, almost tripping on their cheap kit-built coffee table. He grabbed the box to pull it away from her. “Yes, cheating! The way you talk about him…”
“He’s an editor. And a friend. He understands my writing.”
Sean tugged on the box, but she didn’t let go. “Nobody understands your writing, Paula. It’s time you realize that its sucks!”
“It –” Suddenly furious, Paula shoved the box into Evan’s midriff, knocking him backwards, off balance. He stumbled backwards over the coffee table, head hitting the old beat up couch, legs sliding down between the couch and the coffee table. Blood oozed from scrapes along the back of his thighs. “Fuck, Paula, stop! Talk to me!”
She didn’t wait to hear. She grabbed the door with their spare hand and …
This wasn’t Wotan-7. Where was she rushing to?
And what was in the box?
Sean’s back ached, as if one of his old enemies from Belfast had tried to break it. He had slid off the rising stone column just before his spine had snapped. He was sure of that.
Now… The air around him was filling with light and images. He recognized the familiar Belfast streets…
“Hand it over, Sean,” Bram said.
Sean was sweating, but he didn’t want them to know it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Bram.”
“The money, and don’t try to play stupid,” the big brute said. “We know you nicked it.”
Sean shook his head. “You mean you nicked it. You robbed the register of that curio shop. It shoulda been mine, after I –” But he stopped himself from saying the rest.
Bram wasn’t fooled. “After you inspected the place, figured out the cameras was fake, and kept an eye on what days the old lady would have a full register. Admit it, we did what you planned to do. We was just faster.”
Sean looked at Colm. “And he had to blab.”
Colm shrugged, hands spread. “Ye wouldn’t have gotten away with it, Sean. You’re just not that good. Bram could pull it off.”
“Not that good?”
Bram laughed. “Ye do okay with breakin’ into places. Ye know how to find stuff. And you know the fences, and where to unload stuff an’ make some money at it. But face-to-face with the victim, you ain’t got the bollocks.”
“No, I –”
Colm laughed. “It ain’t anxiety, Bram. He’s too nice. If they’s gotta look at him as he robs ‘em, he loses his nerve.”
Colm laughed and took a step forward. “Nice, eh? I’ll show you what nice gets ye.” He took another step forward, then another.
Bram was right in Sean’s face, but he was too confident. Hr hadn’t paid attention to Sean’s hands, certainly not the right one that had slid into the side pocket of his jeans. When Bram grabbed his shoulders and started shaking Sean, Sean pulled out the knife and pressed the button. Bram just had time to look down at the sudden snick of the blade popping out before Sean buried it in his belly.
Sean trembled from the memory. So long he had buried it as he made his new life in…
In where? He hadn’t grown up on this new Cemetery World. Where –
But before he could follow that line of questioning, the images shifted.
Sean was in another street, someplace sunny and bright, but no less terrifying for all that. He was running through an open-air mall, dodging in and out among shops. Three coppers ran after him, shouting, “Stop!”
Sean grinned. There were places in America where the police might shoot a fleeing suspect; but not Southern California in broad daylight in the middle of an upscale mall. It simply wasn’t done.
But they could Still catch him. There were three of them, so they could flank him. And they might call for backup. He had only himself, and the necklaces he had cribbed.
With a sigh, he cut through a video arcade and threw the necklaces in the first trashcan he saw. If they caught him, better it be without evidence.
Then he dashed out the back, but tripped and fell over boxes stacked behind the building. He rolled to his knees, got to his feet, and took off.
But that small delay was enough. Two more officers appeared at the end of the alley. And here away from the public, their guns were drawn.
“No…” Sean said. “It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t…”
But he couldn’t lie to himself. It was exactly like that. And when the light show around him turned to scenes of his time in prison, that was exactly the truth, too. All the fights… All the gang leaders he had to bow down to, because no one survived without protection in jail. Not even in the minimum security jail he was in, thanks to being a a first offender and all. He didn’t get no time off for good behavior, but he survived without too many new scars. The whole thing was a time he had all but blotted from his memory. Damn these Tomb Builders for bringing it back.
The next scene was the parole officer’s office. Sean was making his first appearance after leaving prison, as ordered by the court. He had met the woman in court – a cold bitch by the name of Carol Scott – so he had a hint what he was getting into. He doubted she would ever approve of him, given the way she had stared at him at the courthouse. He just needed to stay on the straight and narrow until his probation was over. Then he would have to see her ever again.
He looked around, and the office was empty. Not of stuff: there was plenty of furniture, all of it in good condition. Somebody maintained it well. It was a small place, with a laminate covered desk beside some bookshelves. Behind the desk was a chair and a tall window. Neatly stacked on the desk were folders with names. Not something he was supposed to see, he was sure of that. He wondered where Scott was.
The other main feature of the room was… Spacecraft? Posters on the walls with spaceships, others were pictures of satellites. There were also kittens in the fog, dragons, robots, and swordfights…
Swords… There was something…
But he lost the memory when he stared at the other stack on the desktop. It was a pile of science-fiction magazines. The one on the top was Un/Seen magazine. He had never heard of it, but the picture was interesting. It was an undersea scene, with ripples of water and fish swimming by a bunch of skeletons standing around talking to a man and a woman. At the bottom of the cover, it said: “Voyagers’ Graveyard” by Carol Scott.
She was a writer? That iron woman in the courthouse didn’t seem capable of enough emotion to tell a good story.
Where was she?
He turned in place, frantic. She was not the type to be late for an appointment, he was sure of that.
Maybe she was outside? Maybe hurt somewhere? He turned to leave the office.
The door was gone. Not locked, it had simply disappeared. He was trapped in here. And somewhere out there, she needed him.
“Carol!” He ran to the window and hammered on the glass; but it was suddenly thick and bulletproof, impervious to his fists. He ran back to where the door should have been and beat his fists on this blank white wall there. “Carol!” But all he got for that was broken bones.
He stood in the middle of the room, spinning until he got dizzy. At last he fell to the floor.
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt (which I won’t even pretend to have followed: Haunted Skyhook.