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Science Fiction Sad Thriller

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

The shovel made a sickening thud, as it came into contact with flesh. Daniel gagged at the odor of death and reeled backwards. You'd think he would be used to the smell by now. He covered his mouth and nose with his thick, homespun winter scarf, but nothing could keep out that stench. Damn, but it permeated everything! Maybe you never got used to it, he thought, but then maybe you weren’t supposed to? His father would say that was just his moral compass kicking in, good and strong, as it ought to be. Lately though, he wasn’t sure if his moral compass was working right; this job seemed to have put it off kilter. Way off.


He wondered why there was no grave marker here. He got out his microchip reader from the leather holster at his side, and scanned the body. No chip. So, who was this poor soul rotting in the earth, with no name or number? They were not supposed to be there, that’s for sure! He jumped in and pulled the skull bone from the skeleton, with a sharp twist, and brushed off the dirt. Some small amount of flesh remained. He sealed it into a specimen bag, and put it away in his pack. He would deal with that later. He knew the authorities would grind up the skull to get a DNA match and compare it to the master list of colonists.


He then rolled the corpse of the elderly Mrs. Mary Mathews into the pit with the unexpected tenant, just as the second small sun rose into the sky, quickly passing the larger sun in its slow, wide arch. The larger sun was called Maul and the smaller was called Petite Maul. Even their combined light was week at this time of year, being too far away to produce much heat. He shoveled the manganese rich, blackish, purple dirt, over both bodies. There were only two rules he had to follow. Burry them deep so the Targ's don’t get them, and keep track of their names and numbers for the government census.


His breath crystallized in the cold air as he finished up. His footsteps crunched on the stiffly frosted grass as he hurriedly walked away, wiping his dirty palms on his stained trousers. He wished he could just wipe away the memory of all the faces he had buried. All their hopes and dreams, now gone with them down into the ground. It seemed such a waste. 


It began to rain. It was slushy he noted with dismay. He pulled his coat around himself more tightly, and pulled his hood up over his head. He reconned winter was coming and fast. Soon the ground would be frozen too hard to dig. Then they would have to store the bodies in the “cold room” which was really the morgue repurposed. There was no one left to perform autopsies now anyway, so no one would miss the space. Even if there were still a coroner, the cause of death was almost always the same, since the meteor shower; Spore infection.


However he mused, the skull he had put away in his pack, looked like it had been bashed in. So perhaps there had been an accident? or maybe a murder? Well he wasn't a police detective, so it wasn't his call to make. He was more concerned about the weather than the unknown body. He knew that when the mercury hit zero below, and stayed there, then that would mean no wages for him. There was only one thing worse than digging graves, and that was not digging them. If he didn’t dig, then they didn’t eat. Dan feared they would all go hungry, him and his sisters. He knew they had to move and soon, or risk being snowed in.


His thoughts were dark today. Yes, he had buried strangers, which was rare. Tomorrow it would be someone else he knew, as it had been on so many occasions before. It was only a matter of time. Everyone came to this place in the end. You new the spore had gotten you if you began to lose weight for no reason. Then the shakes would set in so bad you couldn't get out of bed. Then the cough started. Once the cough started you had days left until you couldn't breathe, and then you died. Some folks turned mean at the beginning, but was that a symptom? or just their response to the fear of dying? Some folks got the shakes, and then recovered. They were immune.


He had known most everyone in town and was related to the rest, there were very few left who were strangers to him. The population of the colony outpost, they called Jacksonville, was still small. They were all like family. That was what made it so hard. It was abhorrent to him to be dependent on the death of others, especially friends and loved ones. It was even more abhorrent to think of his little sisters starving. He imagined Jaime with her bones standing out through her skin and Rosa with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes; abnormally swollen bellies. All the tell-tale signs of starvation. He imagined storing them in the cold room, and burying them in the spring. Like he had buried dad. The thoughts that haunted him were unbearable. He couldn’t stand to lose any more of his family. He had to do everything he could to stop that future from happening to them. He wished he could earn more money so they could leave sooner, but that meant more bodies. Guilt choked him, and fear of the weather dropping below zero, tortured his thoughts. “It’s ok” Dad would have said if he was still here. “Take care of the girls. Do whatever you have to do”.


On his first day, as town grave digger, he had had to bury the previous occupant of the position. Joe Deroche. A good family friend and a really nice guy. A Farmer; like most people were out here. No one could make you laugh like old Joe, his dad always said. Daniel remembered a kindly, middle-aged man, with a really big smile. A man who was quick to share a joke, or give a bear hug, or pull a coin from his ear to make the little kids giggle. Dan had liked him. The spore had taken Joe; just like it had taken Dan’s dad and so many others besides. The spore didn't care who you were. It didn’t care if you were male or female, rich or poor; it certainly didn’t care if you were nice, like Joe, or had a family like Dan. The spore didn't discriminate. Except, of course, for the children; they seemed to be immune, including Dan. He was fifteen and was still considered a child, by colony standards. When he turned eighteen and was old enough to vote in a town hall, then he would be an adult. He didn’t feel like a kid anymore though. He felt old. He had been to more funerals in the last year, than he had seen birthdays in his short lifetime.


There seemed to be a cut off age with the spore. Mostly twenty somethings and above died. Anyone under that didn't. It was almost as if the spore had been engineered for that purpose, or so the conspiracy theorists surmised anyway. He wondered if they were right? He wasn't sure since some of the adults were immune too. No one knew why they were immune and others were not.


Responsibility wasn't new to Dan. He had been helping to take care of his eight-year-old twin sisters since mom had left them. That was right after the meteorites fell on New Terra. Dan shook his head sadly. Now that dad was gone too, there was only him to look after the girls. In fact, most of the adults were gone now; while the children remained. Donna, a former classmate, was sixteen. Her and her mother, who was one of the lucky ones; were housing most of the orphans, up in the big school house. Dan had heard there were lots of adults in the immune colony, where his mother was. He hoped so, because he didn’t want to be alone anymore. He missed her so much, and the twins did too.


The job of grave digger paid by the piece and there was no shortage of "pieces" right now. For sure he was grateful for the coin it produced, but it still gave him nightmares. He had dreams where the corpses were rising up out of their graves and pulling him into the dark purple ground, covering him with dirt, burying him alive. The two suns of New Terra, the only witness to his demise. The bright orange circles turning into laughing, maniacal faces. He tried to escape the pit, but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t even breathe. Dan clawed at his scarf, which suddenly felt too tight around his neck.


Dan was young and strong, but even so, the work was hard on his body and harder still on his mental state. He knew he had to save up enough money to take his sisters to the immune colony in New Manitoba, before the temperatures dropped below zero. Then it would be too late to travel. He hoped to find his mother there at the colony. That's where she had been heading when she left almost six months ago, after her and dad fought. Dad had wanted to stay in their home. He said everything would blow over soon, and he didn’t want to have to follow all “those rules” they had in the bigger city. Mom wanted to take a chance on going there. She said rules were better than dying out here alone. Mom and dad fought over everything after that. They used to hide in their bedrooms until the “little storms” passed. That was what him and his sisters had nicknamed their parents battles. Dad grabbed Daniels arm as he lay dying, his bony hand still surprisingly strong. "I'm sorry" he said breathlessly "That you have to do this alone." He made Dan promise to take the girls to New Manitoba where they would all be safe. “If I could do it differently" he said, gasping to get the words out "I would. I just wish your mother was still here" he said, and then closed his eyes for the last time. Dan had buried him on Sunday. That piece of silver burned his hand more than any other coin and was as heavy as a lead weight in his pocket.


He went to the town hall to collect his pay. He wrote the names and numbers of the dead on the chart.

“How many today, Dan?” Alex, the clerk asked.

“Three” Dan replied.

“Sorry about your dad” The clerk said, not looking up. He counted out three pieces of silver from behind the glass shield, and shoved the coins into the slot. “He was a good man.” Jared said. 

“Thanks” Dan said taking the coins and pocketing them, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks. Guilt and shame made him feel sick. It made him feel ill that he needed death in order to live. He felt almost as if he were the one who had killed them. Which was absurd, but he couldn’t help it. He hated having to violate his own moral compass in this way. 


“Oh … ah … hey Jared” he said, dropping the skull on the counter. “There was a no-chip in the spot where I buried Mary today. There was no grave marker either. The body’s been there for a while by the look of it.”

 “That’s strange” Jared said looking up at last and making eye contact. “I’ll pass the message on to the sheriff” He shrugged narrow shoulders. “Though I don’t imagine he’ll do much about it with the way things are. If he does a DNA scan, I’ll give you a credit for the burial”.


“Right” Dan nodded “Thanks Jared”.


***


Two Weeks later Dan and his sisters had the wagon packed, and were ready to go. A large group of children and a few adults and older teens would be going together with them. Including Donna and her mother. He smiled shyly as he passed them. Donna's pretty blue eyes, met his eyes boldly and she smiled, showing bright white teeth.


His last chore as grave digger was to help store ten bodies in the cold room. The colony was almost deserted now. He had strapped their two horses to the buggy, and then together with his sisters and all their stuff, they had come into town that morning. They would leave after he had collected his final pay. He saw the Sheriff inside as he performed his duties.

“Dan” The Sheriff said. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure” Dan said, though he was in a hurry to leave.

“That skull” The Sheriff said in a gentle, quiet voice, that seemed out of place in the moment. “I did some tests on it, and … well... it belonged to your mother; Moira Brown”

“No! you’re wrong!” Dan said in shock. “My mother went to New Manitoba”

“I’m sorry son” the Sheriff said sadly, shaking his head, “Your mother is gone”. Dan reeled away from him, like a drunk man, and ran outside.


He stumbled out of the jail house, still in denial, and climbed up into the seat beside his sisters. He told himself he had no time for the tears that threatened to come and never stop. He would morn later, when things were more stable. He had no time to question how his mother came to be in that grave, or to wonder if his father had known the truth. He looked up into the winter sky, almost expecting an answer from above, but saw only clouds that threatened snow. Threatened their safety.


Dan had just barely settled himself on the hard wooden seat, when he heard a gong sound. It was so loud everyone had to cover their ears; it came from above them. He looked up, squinting at the charcoal sky, only to see a gigantic space ship hovering in the clouds. Dan's head felt like it was going to burst. The gong rang again. From within the jail house there came the sound of running, then screaming. Dan saw the Sheriff bolt out the front door. Behind him came, what appeared to be the ten bodies that Dan had stored away in the cold room. They came piling out the door, vying for space. They pushed each other, then fell, then got up again. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so terrifying. Of a sudden, Dan wished he had locked the cold room door when he was done; perhaps that day would have ended differently. The Sheriff took his Colt six-shooter from its holster, but he wasn’t fast enough. He went down in a tangle of pale arms and legs, never to rise.


Dan whipped the horses into a frenzy and sped away, running over one of the creatures. He looked back over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed. On foot, the zombies were no match for the speed of the buggy. Fortunately, the buried corpses stayed buried. They were down too deep to climb out, which gave Dan a new, more positive outlook, on his old job. Dan looked and saw the undead creatures take down those adults who were on foot, and then herded the frightened children into a group. He saw Donna break free from their grasp, a bloody scratch on her arm. She ran after the buggy calling his name. Her hair flew out behind her as she ran, hampered by her long dress. Dan slowed a little, but just enough so she was able to jump into the back. She landed on their soft bedding, in a flurry of ruffled fabric. He looked at her tear-stained face with compassion.  All the children in her care, were left behind, lost to what ever fate held in store for them. Donna's mother lay broken and bleeding in the dirt, her eyes staring up, unblinking. Dan wanted to go back and help the children that had been captured, but he knew he had to take care of Rosa and Jaime first, and now Donna as well.


It turned out the spore was the emissary of an alien race they learned as they made their way south with other survivors. It was sent in advance of the mother ship, to build an army of zombies. They apparently wanted the children for slave labor, hence the genetically engineered virus didn't harm them. Dan reconned that the difference between a conspiracy theory and fact was, in this case anyway.....just time. They kept moving, rarely stopping; except for supplies. He took turns driving the buggy with Donna, who was a Godsend to him and his sisters. It was an eight-day journey to the immune colony. He wondered what awaited them there in New Manitoba? One thing was for sure, the aliens were getting these children, this family; over his dead body.

September 02, 2022 19:26

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2 comments

T.S.A. Maiven
17:49 Sep 11, 2022

I didn't see the zombie/alien twist coming. I keep wondering if Donna gets infected from the scratch or if she's still immune. Good story.

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Graham Kinross
03:49 Sep 07, 2022

“Even their combined light was week,” weak* Is Maul a Star Wars reference? Interesting. Reminds me a bit of the end of the Walking Dead comics, I don’t think the tv show will go that way, too much of a U-turn. Interesting use of viral warfare. Big fan of the zombie genre?

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