Short Tales by Paul J Fleming

He scrambled backward over the rough dirt and debris, the edges cutting into the flesh of his hands and his legs kicked out in a desperate effort to propel him further, his feet slipping on the loose rubble that was strewn all about his position.

Surely he’d gone far enough?
Maybe they’d not seen his flight under the cloud of dust that’d been kicked up under their torrent of fire?

His back impacted on the rough surface of a wall that remained stubbornly upright against the repeated bombardment of the area, his chosen route of retreat rudely blocked against any further progress.

No. They wouldn’t have him. His hands clutched desperately at the rifle that was slung over his torso, bringing the weapon up across his chest and ready to fire.

He licked his lips feverishly, swallowing down the saliva that gathered in his mouth between the eager gasps for air as his breath came in rapid bursts.

Gunfire. To his left.
He flashed a glance and scoured the rubble as far as he could see, but to no avail.

The shots were distant, their origin obscured from his view but the howl of defiance that tore through the air gave him hope that he was not the last.

The howl turned to screams. Defiance to terror.
The gunfire stopped abruptly.

He swallowed hard, his right hand firmly clasped around the grip of his rifle as he pressed his eyes shut and hoped like hell his comrade had found a swift death.
He’d heard the stories. They all had.
Those who survived were hauled away by their mechanised captors. Dragged into the sterile laboratories while the soulless scientists played with their new subjects, subjecting them to the horrors of experiments to test the limits of a human body.
To find new ways of inflicting pain, of subjugating their victims.

His gaze fell to the rifle he clasped against his chest, his eyelids opening as he glanced upon the small gauge for his weapon that told him how little use is was to him.
Three shots left, maybe four.
Against their normal militia troops, he could see to a few before using the last energy bolt on himself.
Those mechanised monsters, though? Their hide was armoured. His chances slim.

In the scramble to retreat he’d lost the ammunition belt with the few reloads he’d carried into battle. Out there, among the rubble and debris.

He let his head fall back against the surface of the wall as he tried to slow his breathing, taking in hearty gulps of air. In through the nose and out through the mouth.

Somewhere, over to his right, he heard the scrabble of metal on stone.

He turned his head, ever so slightly, with his eyes as far to the right as he could manage to try and gain sight of the source.
His gaze stretched along the wall he used as support to the far end where its jagged uppermost edge met with the cracked paving slabs, then beyond to the almost mountainous pile of masonry that had gathered where a building had fallen into the street.

There was no sign of the thing that now stalked through the ruins, but he could still hear the movement of rubble as it scrambled and scuttled on its artificial limbs.

His tongue slowly slid across his lips as he stared intently over to his right, his breathing now reduced to a slow and steady rhythm as he tried to blink away the small beads of sweat that had cascaded from his brow to the corners of his eyes.

Oh, how brave they’d all been. Their spirits high and the flow of camaraderie almost intoxicating as they planned their strike against the invaders. To drive them back with a fatal blow. To lance this tendril of their advance across the Earth and prove to others that these monsters weren’t infallible.

He almost snorted in scorn at that memory of their ill-fated endeavour.

They’d struck out with feeble intelligence and found their foe waiting.
Their bravado had bled out as quickly as the bodies which fell in the first wave, the remainder of their little band finding cover to fire back against the automated troopers they now faced.

The main thrust of their strike had been nulled and now they were a scattered few amid the tumbled remnants of civilisation, their number harshly reduced by the precise and heavy onslaught from those they’d once thought of as their prey.

For all he knew, he was the last.
Cowering in the shadow of a ruined wall, those he’d sought to kill now scouring through the rubble for playthings to send back to their scientific masters.

Dirt fell upon his shoulder. His breath caught in his throat.
Slowly, steadily, he twisted his head around so that he could look up above to the ruined line of wall that stood above his own place of refuge.
His heart thudded heavily in his chest, as if it were trying to break out of his ribcage to flee.

There it stood, up above him, with its front two limbs snaking about to and fro, the sharp claws at the end of each snapping tentatively at the air.

An arachnoid.
Not one of the bipedal things they’d sent into battle against the human defence, but a later progression as their forces gained supremacy. As the humans were scattered and beaten.

The wall had clearly obscured him, for now.
He tried not to move, though his lungs screamed out for air as he struggled to maintain control.
So slow. So steady. So slight. He let himself draw in a breath and then let it out.

The thing was scouring the landscape, searching for him. It’s body carapace twitched and swayed slightly as it moved on the six legs that spread out on the rubble, the other two ready to lance and grab.

He fought against his urge to snatch his rifle up, instead moving with painful slowness as the muzzle raised level with his chin, then upward slightly as his fingers gently flexed around the grip.
One good shot against the lightly armoured underbelly. One lancing bolt that would end its pursuit.

His finger began to squeeze on the trigger, then paused.
When it fell, the others would know.
He had no doubt that this wasn’t the only one out here.
They’d find him. Catch him and haul him back to the horrors that he’d heard of in whispered tales.
He swallowed hard.

The thing above him crouched slightly, the swaying ceased as the claws snapped menacingly and the front legs drew back slightly. It had sensed something.

A cough? A splutter?
His head lowered swiftly as he followed the arc of the thing’s movement, fear lancing his chest as it arced over him with lightning fast precision.
It pounced upon the prey it saw crawling over the rubble, the claws driven home. The legs spanning out and writhing as it twisted around to ensure it’s victim could not escape.

He saw the agonised terror in his friend’s eyes. Another survivor.
The kindest thing he could do would be to end the man’s life.
The victim met his gaze, the man’s mouth opening wordlessly as the creature snatched him up and held him aloft with such ease, then turned away to carry its prize down to those masters it served.

Quickly he shook his head. A silent, desperate plea for the stricken man to not give him away.
It was much too late.
The man fell limp within its grasp as the arachnoid scuttled away.

Tears streaked down his cheeks as his gaze lingered on the departing figure, the horror of their plight now clear for him to see. Their efforts were futile.

He tilted his head and allowed his left temple to rest upon the upright muzzle of the rifle as his eyes closed and he drew in a long, deep breath.

Slowly, his finger pulled down on the trigger…


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