The Shadow and the Flame
A short story from the Masters of the Future universe
Fire, flames, burning, burning everywhere, cannot see, cannot breathe, must escape, must hide! Deafening screeches resonated inside the cave as the scorching blaze engulfed those who fell behind. Now a massive splash joined the echoes of the damned, chased by the roaring doom.
Unnatural, water doesn’t burn, water shouldn’t burn. Marveling, stupified, at the flames dancing on the surface of the underground river that was now carrying her away, the last temporary survivor was making very sure she stays close to the bottom of the stream. Why does it hate us, why does it hurt and lie? It promised.
As the underground river delved deeper into the mountain, it finally provided some distance from the purge and the water started getting cooler again. It would have been a relief, if the lack of oxygen wasn’t slowly becoming a serious problem. The thing about these underground rivers is that they can take a very long time to resurface, if they indeed resurface at all.
It did buy her some extra time, but she knew it was a gamble. Better to die here, better to sleep in water than scream in fire. At least in the dark, we can see. She closed all of her eyes, calmed down and surrendered to the reassuringly cold embrace of the flow. Right before a nasty turn connected her head with a rock wall.
“Resilient vermin, I’ll give ’em that much.” A mercenary pyrotrooper was checking a small screen attached to the right arm of his suit. Each push of a button changed the color spectrum of the map on display, but none of them seemed to indicate any signs of movement, life, or the fact that a whole damn colony of insectoid monsters ever lived anywhere in this incredibly vast system of caves of seemingly natural origin.
“You know, in my line of work, it doesn’t happen every day that I actually have a good feelin’ about the job I’m doin’. These…things…sure need a lot of killin’. Ideally with fire.” The soldier standing beside him apparently wasn’t in a very talkative mood, or feeling particularly well. He was holding his assault rifle tight, his head twitching in all directions, pointing intently at every drip of water, every wail of wind.
“Relax, nothing around here survived that blast. Well, I know that it is too soon to pick up any specific heat signatures. Not that those bastards give up much heat in the first place. And the smoke could mess with the visual, sound, and smell detection… You know what, let’s fall back. We were supposed to verify this section is clear and that’s what my instruments keep tellin’ me. Let the boss sort it out.”
If the soldier felt any relief over this decision, he certainly chose not to show it. They’ve been at this for days already, and even though they did eliminate plenty of bugs, they had no idea how many more there were. What they did know was what happened to about a dozen patrols just like this one that were ambushed. In dark, damp, cold corridors, just like this one. They did find enough body parts to identify the victims, but nowhere near enough to sow them back together.
The lack of attack reports or radio communications cut short by agonized screams showed that their enemy approaches silently and kills incredibly swiftly. No one from this entire attack group has actually killed a single bug in regular combat or survived a sighting. So far, indiscriminate firebombing was the only effective means of putting a hurt on them, because hitting everywhere at once leaves exactly zero ground to hide in, no matter how quiet, sneaky, and invisible you are.
The soldier finally joined the conversation: “They’re not paying us enough for this. I signed up for a simple extraction of some primitive specimen, not a fucking war against legions of invisible killer bugs.” This time it was the pyrotrooper who didn’t respond, because he was rather preoccupied with frowning at the scanner display.
That did have a somewhat unsettling effect on the soldier. He started whispering to the pyrotrooper: “Oh fuck, did you see anything? Don’t tell me you saw something…” A smile returned to the face of the pyrotrooper as he deeply exhaled and replied “False alarm!”
Then he got decapitated by a razor-like claw descending from above. His head seemed to keep floating in the air, smiling, as the rest of his body collapsed to the ground. In a split second, the soldier dropped both his jaw and assault rifle and turned in the opposite direction to run, only to meet a wide open maw full of jagged fangs poised to dismember him, face on.
He instinctively ducked, deployed talons on one of his gloves, and tried to stab the demon’s head from below, but one of its limbs blocked the blow and broke the blades, not letting go of his hand, twisting it. Its opposite upper limb immediately moved to cut off the soldier’s arm at the shoulder as its other four limbs started scaling the wall of the tunnel from the ceiling to the side.
The soldier detached the glove and slipped his arm out of it, just in time to evade the sideways swipe of the claw. Noticing that the beast got off balance by missing him, the soldier hit the only monster’s limb currently attached to the wall with a kick boosted by the servos of his exoskeleton armor. A cracking sound coming from the monster’s leg indicated a fracture while it clumsily fell to the ground, face first.
The soldier used this momentary advantage to try and escape. He recognized that he got lucky — the creature was stronger than him in exosuit, had armored skin, and it surely needed only four limbs to still be fully mobile. What he failed to consider was that the creature was also capable of a ranged attack. As he turned his back to it and gained some distance between them, he got hit by a volley of poisoned spines that pierced his suit.
To his even greater horror, the poison was only paralytic, not lethal. His muscles stopped obeying him almost instantly and only thanks to the automated reflexes of the suit he still remained standing, with hands hanging and head dangling as if he was a puppet. The creature slowly crawled around him, revelling in its victory. It moved to slash the soldier to pieces, piece by piece. He tried to close his eyes and he tried to scream, but he couldn’t do either.
Then a strange mix of quiet hissing and clicking sounds echoed in the cave, and the creature froze, to the soldier’s amazement. It still appeared to be intent on killing him, seething with rage, but suddenly unable, as if it was paralyzed itself. Then the source of the intervention was revealed — it was another bug, this one looking way more dangerous.
The two creatures seemed to be communicating, but about what, the soldier couldn’t tell. Maybe they were deciding which one gets to kill him. Or eat him. Or torture him. Or worse. He didn’t exactly know what the “worse” would be, but at this point, he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a “worse”. Encounters with aliens do have a tendency to widen one’s horizons, especially with aliens like these.
The new creature approached the soldier, looked him over, and surprisingly non-threateningly reached out with one of its limbs to touch his head. He didn’t feel anything special happening, but something must have been going on, because the bug touching his head had a look of deep concentration on its bruised face. What happened afterwards was rather unexpected.
We want you to live and listen. It wants us dead, and it wants you dead too.
The soldier was terrified beyond capacity for rational thought even before the giant insect communicated with him telepathically, so it took him a while before he processed what’s happening. Not exactly relieved that he isn’t dead already and finding himself at the opposite end of calm, he tried talking back at the creature, not realizing he probably could have just thought the reply. To his surprise, the paralysis had already worn off.
“Who are you? What are you? What it?”
We… Do not have a name. We are what you would call a Queen. You are here to murder our children.
Oh gods, I’m so dead, the soldier thought to himself, still not realizing that someone who can speak through thoughts may likely also be able to read them. He managed to put himself together a little bit. “Ehm, pleased to meet you Your Ma-Majesty, you can call me Ezri.”
We know it is making you do it, it lied to you, and it does not care if you live or die, if it sends you down here it does not expect you to come back.
“It… You don’t mean, the boss?”
“I mean no disrespect, ma’am, but isn’t it, I mean, a he?”
“Yes, yes, of course, you’re absolutely right!”
You don’t understand, it is not a walker of the plains like you at all.
“Then what is he, or, well, it?”
A nearby underground explosion shook the ground beneath their feet, rather rudely interrupting the improbable conversation. The other bug started hissing and fidgeting.
No time, we must run and hide. You too should run, Ezri, or it will see that you never leave this world. You must not tell it that you saw us here. Will you help us?
Ready to promise the killer bugs absolutely anything if only they let him go, Ezri started furiously nodding in agreement. Then he realized the Queen may not understand such conversational subtleties and quickly added:
“Yes, absolutely! You seem like you’re good… People. I’ll tell the boss, I’ll tell him I got separated from my partner here…” Ezri tried instinctively pointing to what was left of the pyrotrooper, but he couldn’t immediately decide if he should point to his head or the rest of his body, and so he gave up on it in the middle of the motion. “I’ll say I just ran and didn’t see anything.”
The Queen was looking at him carefully for a moment, making him very nervous. He was scared stiff to a point where he actually meant what he was saying, but he couldn’t be sure that this whole thing isn’t just some sort of weird alien practical joke bugs do before they dismember you and have a laugh. It was impossible to read her face, so he had to rely on what she says.
Good, we thank you. Remember to run.
And with that, the Queen and her warrior disappeared quietly into the shadows. Ezri wasn’t sure he didn’t just hallucinate the whole thing, but decided not to take any chances. He picked up his rifle and started running back to the base before the Queen bug changes her mind, or before he runs into bugs who haven’t got the memo yet that he’s no longer on the menu.
“Boss, where should we hit next?” A female mercenary asked from her impromptu terminal set up in the middle of a large gloomy cavern. The boss stared at the screen in deep concentration for a while, overlooking a maze of tunnels crisscrossed by a grid with various areas highlighted in different colors, and then said:
“Sectors 4A through 4C, that should herd the remaining creatures in that quadrant into sector 5B, where we can incinerate them all at once in a single strike.”
The mercenary entered the order into the system and echoes of distant explosions and screeches whispered all the way back to the base. She looked at the boss, not being sure if she finds his cool confidence reassuring or worrisome.
He wasn’t equipped with any kind of armor or weapon, he simply wore a formal black suit. She watched him as he walked a few steps away from the terminal towards the largest corridor leading from the depths of the mountain into the cavern. The mouth of the corridor was lit up by searchlights, and that was as far as the light was able to penetrate. He just stood there, gazing silently into the darkness in the distance, arms folded, like a creepy statue.
Even though there were considerable losses which didn’t seem to concern the boss at all, she had to admit that his strategy was effective. Soon, there will be only few bugs left and they will have no way to escape but through the main corridor. As far as she was concerned as his second in command, she felt pretty safe. The pay was good too, and getting better with every lost patrol.
To feel safer, she decided to check the perimeter again. Several dozen troops in a colorful mishmash of irregular armors were busy reinforcing the outlying fortifications and traps, as well as preparing the main concealed cage for the capture of the Queen. Equipped with flamethrowers, incendiary ammo, and explosives, they should be more than able to handle a few bugs.
And then something appeared to be moving in a distance through the tunnel. Boss immediately shouted at her: “Ira, get ready, everyone into positions!” All of the mercenaries stopped what they were doing and manned the bunkers and towers around the perimeter. Boss calmly walked behind the defenses, while Ira took point right in front of the entrance into the main tunnel.
To everyone’s surprise, it wasn’t the bugs, it was Ezri, scared out of his mind, missing his glove and his partner, yelling: “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, it’s me!” Ira approached him right away and asked: “Where the hell’s Igen?” Ezri, all nervous, said: “I, I don’t know, I must have taken a wrong turn and then we got separated. When I retraced my steps I couldn’t find him anywhere.”
Ira wasn’t at all happy with that answer: “Great. Idiots. I wonder what I’m paying you for. Now we’ll have to go look for the moron.” She activated her radio by pressing a button on her wrist. “Ira to Igen, report. Igen, report dammit.” Ezri, trying to back up his lie, said: “We were pretty deep in the caves, the signal is unlikely to reach that far. Besides, he could be anywhere by now.” Boss, only watching the conversation until then, decided to get involved.
“Mister Beyel, how did you happen to lose your glove?” Shit shit shit, Ezri thought, he completely forgot about that. “I, uh, the secondary explosion caused a small collapse and my glove got stuck under. I’m lucky to be alive, really.” As he was making it up, boss started casually walking around him. Fuck, he’s trying to see the back of my suit! Ezri kept turning to face him, rather suspiciously.
Eventually he would have to turn his back to the rest of the group, so he instead switched to thinking frantically about how that could have happened. “What about the damage to the back of your suit?” Boss asked. Ezri tried to sound confident: “Oh that, during the cave in, some of the rocks must have fallen on my back too, didn’t even feel it, I guess.” Boss looked… Stoic. I’m so screwed.
If the boss knew he was lying, Ezri couldn’t say. “Well, go get that armor changed, mister Beyel, we will need every hand ready when the Queen finds her way here.” Ezri, relieved, said: “Yes sir, on it sir!” and started planning escape right away as he walked to the improvised armory on the other side of the encampment. The boss turned to Ira.
He waited for Ezri to be out of hearing range and told her quietly: “Watch him, and have everyone pretend they resumed patrols, but stay on alert. The attack will come soon, but not from the direction we anticipated.” Ira felt adrenaline surge through her body, but maintained a calm appearance. She had no idea how the boss divined all that from nothing, but she trusted his judgement.
She silently nodded at the boss and whispered the instructions to her two lieutenants who in turn started quietly spreading the message among the rest of the men and women in the squad. Ira then started following Ezri, but kept her distance and looked at him only peripherally, so that he wouldn’t notice that he’s being watched. For the moment, he seemed to be changing armor.
Ezri decided that changing armor is a good idea no matter what he’s gonna do later. It also gave him a little bit more time to think. Knowing how intelligent the bugs are, Ezri had no confidence whatsoever that their unit can stop them without heavy casualties, and boss had to realize that. He still wasn’t sure about him being some sort of weird it, though. Doesn’t matter, he thought.
And then, without any warning, the attack came. Predictably, it wasn’t a full frontal assault, it was worse. Something resembling a big black bat with razor wings flew like a blur from one of the smaller side entrances across the length of the cavern and cut off one of the searchlights. Some shots were fired, but only after the creature was already gone. Ira shouted “Protect the lights!”
Along with an echo, the creature returned and managed to cut off one of the three remaining big lights before it was shot down to the ground and then burned to a crisp. Then nothing for a while. Right as everyone relaxed, three other creatures just like the first one flew from different small openings and simultaneously cut all of the remaining lights. Ira panicked and froze.
Boss, noticing the absence of further commands taking more than a fraction of a second shouted: “Pyrotroopers, torch the main tunnel, now!” Sure enough, as the fires lit up and crossed the gap between the barricade and the mouth of the largest tunnel, they were met with screeches of a wave of insect warriors who were trying to sneak in silently right through the wide open front door.
That’s when the freaky bats returned and went for the pyrotroopers. While the rest of the mercenaries were trying to protect the pyrotroopers by shooting at the bats, something big has flanked all of them from one of the side tunnels and went right for the boss, who still seemed entirely calm, standing right in front of the big trap in the middle of the cavern meant to capture the Queen.
Ezri, watching all this from behind a crate, decided this is the right moment to go for the back tunnel leading out of the mountain. To his moderate surprise, Ira beat him to it, sprinting for the entrance. Since they only had a single ship, that presented a bit of a problem because she didn’t seem to be in a waiting mood. Ezri swiftly picked up the pace, but she had a major headstart.
As she approached the entrance to the escape tunnel, she stepped on a land mine and exploded. The shockwave sent Ezri flying in the direction he came from back towards the center of the cavern. Lying on the ground with a probable concussion, he had a nice view of the duel between the Queen and the boss. For what seemed to be a very civil bug, she attacked boss in total frenzy, heading straight for him.
She roared, too, jumping to close the last stretch between them. Right when she was about to slice the boss, he rolled to the side and let her land into the hidden trap. As soon as one of her limbs made contact with the ground, multiple harpoons fired from beneath the ground tethering the Queen to it, while a massive cage sprung up closing around her. The bugs went mental.
While this may have seemed like a momentary victory, it was likely to be short lived. The capture of the Queen now rattling madly in her cage made the remaining warrior bugs overpower the remaining mercs in seconds. The finishing blow was one bug suicidally puncturing a pyrotrooper’s fuel tank. All the pyrotroopers, standing in a circle next to each other, took turns exploding.
The few mercs that survived the blasts were thrown around the cavern, one female one landing close to Ezri, the rest being picked apart by some of the bug warriors while most of the dozen or so bugs left went straight for the boss. Ezri picked himself up and almost started heading back to the now de-mined exit, but then he stopped himself. I’m going to regret this. He went back for the merc.
She seemed to be alive, just knocked unconscious. Thank gods for the exosuit, he thought at her as he was picking her up over his shoulder and started going for the exit. He looked around and saw the pack of bugs circling the still calm looking boss. Strangely enough, the bug killer monstrosities seemed to be way more nervous than him. And then Ezri saw it. Boss went aflame and, apparently, spread wings that he somehow now had.
Nope. I’m out. Ezri darted for the tunnel, as fast as he could while dragging the female merc on his shoulder, listening to the screeches of the warrior bugs being undoubtedly seared apart one by one. Fortunately, the ship was parked not very far away, right outside the mountain. Ezri threw the female merc inside and ran into the cockpit. He had no idea how long will the bugs keep it busy. And sure enough, reddish light started shining from the tunnel entrance. Fuck fuck fuck, launch already! The ship was stuck.
“Bastard, he has the ship locked down on the ground by some sort of hidden clamps or something! Fuck!” Ezri yelled at himself. He turned around and got up to go outside to try to manually sever the clamps but his mercenary companion beat him to it, already on her feet jumping out of the ship. Moments later, he heard strange tearing sounds, shaking the ship around.
Then the merc boarded the ship again, saying: “It’s alright, we can go!” Ezri wasn’t able to come up with a plausible explanation for what has just happened, but he sure as hell wasn’t gonna stay on that planet any longer. He entered the launch codes again and set out for orbit, and not a moment too soon, because whatever boss was exited the mountain only to see them flee.
Ezri put the ship on autopilot to a random star system and turned around to check on the merc, and almost got a heart attack. She stood right behind him, her helmet still on. “Whoah, didn’t hear you there. So, I’m Ezri, which one are you?” She took off her helmet and looked at him with her purple eyes. Don’t you recognize us? He heard in his head. Fuck. “Of course I do, my-my Queen!”
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I began developing Masters of the Future few years ago as an open universe for any media, with special focus on computer games — a compelling story engine built in a playable way. Since the original idea of developing a game in this universe has been put on hold, I have decided to move it in a direction of literature for the moment. If you find it interesting, feel free to give me any feedback. We could even discuss some potential cooperation on the universe development, especially if you are a writer or a graphic artist. More lore is coming.