Today’s story is a guest post by Ed Frost. Ed (along with his wife Eileen) is a fellow member of the Writers’ Group. Ed’s stories are always entertaining, and his sci-fi stories are a particular favorite of mine. I’d like to share with you his supernatural spin on our homework theme “shadows.” Enjoy!
Shadows. Illusions. Shape-shifters. Perhaps cosmic dust that had been spreading since creation. None of us knew what the truth was. However, it was definitely true that the mood of depression and defeat that encapsulated all of us was palpable. Sure, we were all hand-chosen for this mission and had suffered through extensive psychological testing prior to that selection. A more stable group of people could not have been found and, yet, all of us were unnerved by the shadows. Silva had been transformed from a man with huge reservoirs of strength and an unshakeable faith in his own courage and capabilities to a near-catatonic lump of quivering flesh. We debated the merits of leaving him behind as we struggled on. No one wanted to leave him but we had no way to carry him without endangering ourselves. He cried silently as we stuffed him in a cleft in the overhanging rock that almost completely hid him. What we were hiding him from was unknown to us. Those of us who believed in a merciful God said a quiet prayer for him, knowing full well that he would soon be dead.
Now there were only 6 of us left out of the original 35. None of us could even guess what had killed the people we were leaving behind – they had just fallen and died. Each was unmarked, with no wound or evidence of what had killed them. Yet, each face was a grotesque death-mask and terror was plainly etched into their features. We tried to carry the first couple of casualties with us back to the ship but it was beyond our capability. In the perpetual shadows surrounding us, each of us could only look out for ourselves and our own ability to stay upright. Even had there been good lighting, the footing was treacherous. With the shifting shadows, being responsible for dead weight was just not possible.
I took the point only because I was the leader; I wanted to remain in that cleft with Silva and close my eyes. Shut out those illusions, those shapes. Fear is powerful and when all you can see are shadows and those shadows continually evolve into something that reaches deep into our psyche, the fear mutates into something enormously destructive. I had faced dangers and the fear that comes with danger multiple times in my career, but in every case I could see what it was that I was dealing with. Not here. Not even the powerful lamps we carried could remove the shadows – it was like the light was swallowed up; like it couldn’t exist among the shadows; like it didn’t belong. Only 3 more kilometers to our ship and we could leave this place forever.
“Lieutenant, Stewart is missing!” Evans shouted. “He was right behind me and now he’s gone!” Panic was evident in Evans’ voice and that was just as dangerous as the shadows.
“Shut up, Evans! Just stop and get a grip; there’s no reason to lose control!”
What a joke. We had lost control within 24 hours of arriving in this God-forsaken place.
“Everyone just turn around. We’ll backtrack a bit and see if we can find him.”
There was muttering at that but they did turn around and walked slowly back the way we had come. It was a testament to their courage and the training they had received. We were scared and nearly broken, but we were still men. I was scared and close to panic myself; I admit it. Stewart had been riding trail and I was now riding trail. I kept turning and looking behind me, expecting to see whatever it was that was killing us; expecting to die next. Before that could happen, though, the column stopped.
“Here he is, Lieutenant; he’s dead,” Evans muttered. “He looks just like the rest of them did.”
Evans was right – Stewart had the same look of horror on his face that all the other men had when we found them. Saying a silent prayer, I ordered the march to resume, leaving Stewart in the dust and shadows.
We were less than a kilometer from the ship when it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard anything from the men following me for some time. I stopped and forced myself to turn around. Emptiness. Emptiness and shadows. Emptiness and fear. Who knew when the last man died or fell over? My heart hammered at my chest and I knew that the shadows had won.
With grim determination, I turned back toward the ship and started to run. In one of those inexplicable twists of life, the shadows momentarily cleared and I could see the ship standing tall and proud and ready to return me to safety and sanity. I pushed harder in an effort to reach the ship before the shadows returned but I could tell it would be in vain. I could feel the breath of some unknown thing close at my back. I pushed myself harder in an effort to escape. The last thing I saw was the shadows closing back in over the ship and I knew it was too late; too far; too difficult. My screams went unheard by anything human.