Contest #210 shortlist ⭐️

13 comments

Fiction Horror Science Fiction

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

Dysus drove west, obeying the speed limit, and he trembled as he tried to light his seventh cigarette of the morning. His lips tingled around the filter. He smelled his own stale breath, captured in the palm he cupped around the lighter’s weak flame. He swallowed against the sticky thudding of the pulse that beat too high in his throat.

The cigarette caught the flame and smoldered. Dysus cracked his window, and the smoke that drifted up to burn his eyes was sucked away into the cold morning. He coasted under yet another green light. He’d encountered only green lights; insistent go, go, go signals from the universe.

Heavy slugs crept in his bowels. He sucked greedily at his cigarette, crossing his eyes to watch the ember glow. Flecks of ash dusted his lap.

Another green light. Dysus flicked a quick gaze to the dashboard clock, cursing his good luck, slowing down, willing the minutes to move.

He was running early for his appointment, so many factors having contributed to the unwelcome streamlining of his journey. He still hadn’t gotten used to the lack of traffic on the Rue - everyone took the new Magway now. The perimeter gates of his settlebloc had been open already, and he hadn’t needed to wait for security to buzz him through. The sobriety checkpoint had been unmanned. His trip had taken ten minutes fewer than he’d planned.

Another green light. The car’s rusted axle scraped a deep pothole in the middle of the intersection. Dysus thought about pulling over to kill time, but he knew if he stopped the car he would not be able to start it again.

He inhaled a huge, head-spinning drag of smoke and opened the window a bit more. His hand shook as he poked the tip of the cigarette out the window to tap its growing column of ash onto the street.

A nervous tremor rippled through him, and the stick fell from his nicotine-stained fingers. He fumbled instinctively, knocking his knuckles against the glass, and the drafting air pressure caught the cigarette and blew it back at him.

He didn’t see where it landed. The car was full of kindling: fast food wrappers flammable with grease, sun-brittled paper, dirty clothes. He imagined the backseat catching fire and tried to reach behind him, patting, feeling for the errant ember, grimacing at the green light visible above the next empty intersection.

Dysus felt a huge, hot bug bite his left elbow and reacted by slamming his foot against the gas pedal. He yelped and smacked the sleeve his cigarette had fallen into. It burned as he ground it into his skin. The car veered. He shook his sleeve out, flinging the still-smoldering cigarette out of his cuff and made to stamp it out on the floor mat, wincing and checking the time and still accelerating under the last green light, and when the flustered panic retreated beneath his original anxiety he finally looked back at the road just in time to watch a man disappear under the front of his car.

He braked, far too late, long after being gently jostled by two soft thumps below him.

Dysus never got to find out if he possessed enough cowardice to pull off a hit and run.

The pitchy squeal of badly maintained brakes and the crash of chassis on curb alerted supplicants of the Tor Vah’Gaar. They streamed out of their temple to investigate, their white ceremonial robes billowing in the morning wind.

Dysus sat still, his hands locked in grip around the wheel as if he meant to strangle it. He wished he could let go and light a cigarette, but that would mean he’d next have to open the door, step into the morning, and face the red squeezed-tube of a body on the road behind him. Would it be wet, steaming in the frigid air? Was his car heavy enough to squelch organs from orifice, or would he find less messy blunt force trauma? He pictured dirty tire tracks on a crushed throat. Might the man still be alive?

It was that thought that loosened his grip and allowed him to move, sludgy slow, on shock-cocooning autopilot. He reached for his cigarettes and felt a flood of relief when he found that two smokes remained in the worry-crumpled package. His hands were steady when he lit one.

He got out of the car and watched the white robes flock to the stillness in the street.

A woman stood over the body and cried, while another tapped off a message on her handheld. A man knelt, the pristine hem of his robe drawing road dust up through fabric capillaries. He reached for the body with tentative, gentle fingers.

They all saw the gun at the same time.

It had been knocked several feet from the dead man. A scratched-up bootleg particle cannon. Tech from an old empire, illegal and devastating, primed and still pointing at the temple of Tor Vah’Gaar. Dysus thought ridiculously of that old game, spin the bottle.

He sat on the curb and smoked, not wanting to bother the Vah’Gaarans with his stink, not wanting to yellow their robes with his residue. Sirens wailed, melancholy and distant, approaching via the Magway.

The crying woman ran back toward the temple, calling a name in an alien language as she flitted inside. “Baaraana!”

Realization of their narrowly-escaped victimhood widened the eyes of the Vah’Gaarans on the street. Shock ran through them like a contagion, vulnerability dawning like a weak sunrise. They stepped away from the body, their eyes on the gun as if it might come to life and shoot them on its own.

More Vah’Gaarans exited the temple, joining the congregation that formed in the road, keeping a safe distance from the downed would-be gunman. They discussed in hushed voices, asked shrill questions of each other, and gradually their attentions diverted to the silent, smoking man sitting on the curb by his ruined car.

The man with the dirty hem approached Dysus and crouched.

“Sir,” the Vah’Gaaran said. “Sir, are you alright? Are you injured?”

Dysus blew smoke away from the man’s intent, searching face. “Don’t think so.”

“Don’t think you’re alright, or don’t think you’re injured?”

Dysus blinked. “Both, I guess.” He wanted to laugh. He’d killed a man. He would not be making his appointment.

“He saved us!” A woman rushed over, the one with her handheld out, the one who’d presumably summoned the emergency vehicles that were now speeding down the Magway’s off-ramp onto the Rue. Blue and red lights spun halos in the morning fog around them. Sirens muffled the increasingly frantic voices of the Vah’Gaarans as their attentions closed in on Dysus.

He stubbed his cigarette out on the concrete and pocketed the butt. He didn’t want to litter in front of these pristine, holy people. Saviors have to keep up appearances, he thought.

Admiration was foreign to Dysus and at first he mistook it for suspicion.

When the responding officers were finally able to pry him away from the Vah’Gaarans, the media, and the tangle of emergency vehicles, they took him to the police station and parked him in an interrogation room. They gave him a cup of hot chocolate. They shook his hand. Short, neatly groomed Officer Kayata led him outside to smoke when he requested it, though she wrinkled her nose while she waited for him to finish.

He caught a glint at her throat, noticing the stylized Tor Vah’Gaaran saucer pendant she wore on a delicate chain. An icon of worship, veneration of the alien hands that cradled Earth, mending it from its human-inflicted wounds.

“You should really stop that,” she said, squinting her eyes against the smoke as he exhaled. “It stinks.”

They’re my lungs and I’ll ruin them if I want to, he thought. He narrowed his eyes at her pendant. Not that you’d understand.

Officer Kayata took a call on her handheld, walking a few yards away as Dysus blew smoke into the still-cold early afternoon sky.

“This is about to get a lot bigger,” she warned him as she strode back to him, her call concluded. “A Tor Vah’Gaar ambassador was supposed to be at that temple today.” She maintained her professional demeanor, but Dysus didn’t miss the sparkling hint of tears at the corners of her eyes.

Back in the interrogation room, Dysus sat on his hands to both hide their trembling and warm them up. Officer Kayata brought him another hot chocolate and sat primly in the metal chair across the table from Dysus. Fluorescent lights clicked above, probing and harshly bright, the better to scrutinize you with.

“This is just a formality.” Officer Bosqov, gruff and bushily mustached, shuffled incident reports and witness statements on the metal table. “You’re not in any trouble, we just want to get our facts straight. As you can imagine, the entire Vah’Gaaran community stands behind you. You told him about the ambassador?” Officer Kayata nodded. “They’ve offered their best lawyers but I don’t think you’ll need them. They’ve also set up a donation hotline.”

Dysus clenched his stomach against the tide of bile that threatened to rise. He wanted a cigarette, but his pack was empty. He felt the deprived addict’s headache peeking around the corner, waiting to ambush.

Officer Bosqov’s voice took on a serious tone, and he asked the question Dysus had been dreading.

“Where were you headed when you saw the gunman?”

Dysus swallowed, pausing for a moment too long.

“Going to the doctor. My lungs,” he said, freeing a hand unconsciously to reach for the empty pack of cigarettes in his pocket. He thumped a tightly closed fist on his chest. He thought a cough might be too much, too performative.

“Will your doctor verify that?” Bosqov clicked a pen, made a note.

“I was hoping they’d see me as a walk-in. I was coughing up blood last night.”

“I see,” Bosqov said. He leaned back in his chair, running a hand over his mustache as he regarded Dysus. “Now, I know this might be hard to talk about and you’re probably still in a bit of shock. But I need you to describe what happened again, with all the detail you can remember. Start with when you first saw the man on the street, what caught your attention, and what made you act. Again,” he said, his eyebrows raised with kind concern, “you aren’t in trouble. Fact is, you’re a hero whether you see yourself as one or not yet. You prevented what could have been an absolute massacre. That gun was modded and energized to Gaar and back. You saved a lot of lives. But we need to get everything on record.”

Officer Kayata twisted the Tor Vah’Gaar pendant she wore, her expression thoughtful, thankful. Dysus tried to keep from hyperventilating.

He cleared his throat. He spun his tale. He’d seen a furtive, suspicious man crossing the street, with hunters’ eyes narrowed and predatory, a gun hefted and steady, striding with obvious, murderous intent toward the temple. Dysus told the officers how he’d accelerated without hesitation, careening for the terrorist without fear for his own life, steering to kill and damn the consequences, it was the right thing to do! He had been out of his body, righteous instinct taking over, and all he’d felt was relief when the man’s rampage was aborted under his balding tires.

He’d almost convinced himself the story was true, until he found himself absentmindedly scratching the blister on his left elbow.

Vivette, the Vah’Gaaran PR representative, was a harried woman with two briefcases and a shaved head. She wore glasses and chewed gum like it fueled her, and her frantic productivity agitated and exhausted Dysus. He tried to pay attention to the several trains of thought she conducted.

“Tor’Baaraana will want to join you for some press conferences,” she said, typing a proposed media circuit schedule on a shiny laptop. She checked the official Vah’Gaaran forums. “Four independent congregations set up charity pools to cover any legal expenses. Gifts are coming in from all over the place. Is there any weird stuff about you online that I should know about?”

“I don’t think so,” Dysus said. He sipped tepid coffee and forced himself to take a bite of his rubbery omelet.

Vivette had wanted to meet him at his home, “to make you feel more comfortable, and for privacy”, she’d said, but he suspected she’d really wanted to scope out his situation and avert any potential PR crises before publicly canonizing him into the Vah’Gaaran sainthood. He’d refused, citing embarrassment about his messy bachelor’s apartment. She’d looked at him suspiciously, but had caved and met him at a cafe downtown. Time was of the essence for a story like this, she said. Already his face was plastered across screens and papers, his full name emblazoned in impact font under epithets like ‘The Hero of New Hartford’ and ‘A Savior’s Savior’.

Vivette checked a text message on her handheld, an email on her laptop, a notification on her watch. Information about Dysus assaulted her while he watched, tapping a nicotine-withdrawal beat on the table with his fingertips.

“Oh look, the Massippi branch got you a new car.” She turned the laptop around and showed Dysus a photo of grateful, white-robed zealots smiling next to a state-of-the-art Magcar. Dysus sneered. He hated those identity-stripped husks of bland futurism.

“You don’t like it?” She asked, catching his expression before looking down to respond to another text message.

“If I’d had one of those today, I wouldn’t have been there to run down Corsican.”

Trent Corsican, the other face of the day, the lone terrorist with a grudge against the benevolent aliens and their worshipers. A Regressivist with a raided apartment full of heretical literature and Macgyvered weapons. Dysus couldn’t picture the man’s face as having belonged to the body he’d smeared on the road. The visage and the corpse felt like two different men. Dysus felt like two men as well: the one who’d been anxious about an appointment earlier, and the paragon of righteous bravery he’d become.

He needed to get home. He had to clean his apartment.

“It is a bit ironic, isn’t it. The Tor Vah’Gaar give us MagTech and then you go and save them with that pollution machine relic. Oh, your ‘Reward a Hero’ fund is up to seventeen million credits,” Vivette said with an uncharacteristic awe.

“Wow.”

“I’ll say.” She narrowed her eyes. “How do you feel about joining a Vah’Gaaran chapter? It’s a great organization. And it would look great.”

Dysus clenched his teeth.

“I guess I could do that,” he said, thinking of seventeen million credits. He felt a piece of his principles snap off inside him.

“Great. A conversion might seem pandering if we do it too soon...” She checked her calendar for a good baptism date.

“Okay.” He really needed to get home to clean.

“And you’re going to need to stop smoking.” Vivette gave him a disappointed mother’s face. “It’s terrible optics and it smells awful.”

And it’s bad for me, I know, Dysus thought, and he’d never wanted a cigarette more.

He pictured himself smoking in his new Magcar. The two versions of himself, collided. The rebel and the hypocrite.

Is there anything so sacred as a being’s right to self destruct? Dysus wondered as he finally lit a cigarette. The smoke collected in the dark room, his comforting blanket of reckless autonomy.

Dysus had waited for the MagCab to pull away before unlocking the door of his apartment. He’d wondered how many more times he’d go through that familiar motion; he was now the owner of sixty million credits and could already taste the fresh air of a new settlebloc, a skyscraping penthouse with windows that opened to let in the cleanest clouds.

It was dark, the grimy settlebloc quiet, secured for the night against the scavenger sects. Dysus had slipped inside the apartment already feeling estranged from it, a trespasser, and he’d locked the door behind him quickly. He’d gone straight for his stash of smokes, navigating the clutter without needing to turn on a light.

He sat now on a ratty couch full of cigarette burns. He touched the circle on his elbow. “We match,” he said out loud, and laughed. He thought of the new couch he’d buy. Something soft, pillowy, something not pulled from a dumpster, something he might try to fall asleep on without a lit cigarette between his fingers.

Maybe it would be nice to live in the world the Tor Vah’Gaar race was trying to build.

Dysus exhaled, and he couldn’t see the smoke in the darkness. He never felt the drags as effectively when he couldn’t see the evidence of them; he saw emissions as proof of life. Was a sterile world a lived-in world? He’d believed destruction was inevitable, and more insidious if hidden.

He coughed. It was too dark to see any blood.

Maybe it was good he’d missed his appointment.

He imagined his beautiful, freshly painted penthouse again, then he thought of its opposite: a run-down safe house in a derelict settlebloc across town, sitting empty. He hadn’t had a chance to give the houses’ rusted key to Corsican; it was still nestled in his pocket alongside a pamphlet containing encrypted contact numbers, meeting coordinates, and credit stash codes. He’d lusted after the assassination bounty before, but now it seemed pathetic, an insult. Hardly enough to rise from ashes with.

A getaway driver was supposed to provide a new life, but not for themselves. He wondered if the Tor Vah’Gaar ever felt that way, rerouting a civilization from its path of shit, finding themselves Gods when they finished.

“Sorry, brother-in-cause.” Dysus raised a fresh cigarette in salut. “To new lives.”

He lit the cigarette, wondering if it would be his last, and used the same flame to burn the Regressivist pamphlet.

August 07, 2023 19:24

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13 comments

C. A. Janke
01:46 Aug 14, 2023

Your writing in this story has an almost cinematic quality - felt like I was reading a Black Mirror episode, a shiny world with a grim underbelly. The whole opening scene with him in the car was so vivid and drew me right in, and was so rewarding to reread. How frantic he is, his anxiety at his "good luck", the terrible car he's driving, how it all makes sense in the end. Very fun and engaging read all the way through. Really well done, and welcome to Reedsy!

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19:04 Aug 14, 2023

Thank you so much! Really appreciate the feedback and the warm welcome :)

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C. A. Janke
17:36 Aug 18, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist!!

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Cedric Busteed
19:05 Aug 18, 2023

Stunning detail. You did a great job keeping the audience attached to a morally ambiguous protagonist and setting. Fantastic use of smoking as a metaphor for a type of dangerous freedom.

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Kerry Clark
09:44 Oct 05, 2023

What a great story. The dark irony creates tension throughout, and I love the twist at the end.

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Amanda Lieser
19:05 Sep 14, 2023

Hi Amanda! I love your name! ;-) Congratulations on the shortlist and welcome to Reedsey! I got to say I love that this prompt took you to a car crash moment. You painted a thrilling picture for this piece and I love the way you incorporated the aliens. Nice work!!

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Mary Bendickson
21:38 Aug 24, 2023

Great entry into Reedsy and congrats on the shortlist.

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Story Time
17:05 Aug 24, 2023

I love that you gave the main character a lot of inner layers so it wasn't just cut and dry good/evil conflict. This reads like a sweeping epic in such a short amount of space. Good job.

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:53 Aug 20, 2023

Finely crafted. The scenes are wonderfully done. Congrats.

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09:55 Aug 19, 2023

Welcome to reedsy and what a start! This was a great story about a really interesting and conflicted character who felt real and even more real by the revelation at the end. Great work!

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J. D. Lair
00:24 Aug 19, 2023

This was a very good first submission Amanda! It’s no wonder you were shortlisted this week. Following for more in the future. :)

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Marty B
23:41 Aug 18, 2023

I loved the transition of this line, 'Dysus never got to find out if he possessed enough cowardice to pull off a hit and run.' The conceit is simple enough, a would be get-a-way driver, foiling the crime and becoming a hero by accident. However your descriptions are fantastic, 'Blue and red lights spun halos in the morning fog around them.' -as well as the conflicting emotions of the chain smoking Dysus. Congrats!

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John K Adams
15:07 Aug 17, 2023

I am in awe. Your navigation of the conflict between values and practical down to earth needs was magical. At what point does idealism bump heads with fanaticism? And is self-care really selling out? Easy to resent the successful. Harder to resist their acceptance. And your description of tobacco addiction is horrific and alluring. This could almost be a commercial for the joys of lighting up. Powerful story Amanda. Look forward to reading more.

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