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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2089444
Cramp Co-Winner: During a trip to the past, a local legend is uncovered.
The temporal vortex dropped him in a swamp. After he found his footing, he sloshed to his right as the vortex opened again, depositing Valair. She landed with a groan. After a moment she stood up with slimy water plants sliding down her fatigues.

“Of all the cesspools to end up in…” she grumbled.

“I think we’ve been in worse.”

“Is that smell you?”

“Hardy. Har. This beats the desert any day. At least there’s water here.”

Valair looked at the liquid. “Yeah, water. I’m pretty sure I didn’t bring any purification tabs.”

“We’re not gonna be here long. We find the locals, tag a troll, hop back to base.”

“I know you wanted to say ‘back to the future’.”

She was right. It was as common to say in his line of work as Who you gonna call? was in the paranormal entity field of research. Pillo grimaced, feeling the stubble of his chin rub against his helmet strap. “I did wanna say it. I always do, but we have a job.”

The mission was simple: Valair and Pillo needed to get a lead on a troll in the past and put an insignificant tracker on it. Being a swamp troll, it would likely die and be preserved by the primordial elements deep under the soil. In the year 2084, when trolls were all but extinct, they could find the tagged troll’s beacon, safely dig up the body without destroying a swath of hippie-protected swamp, and perform harmless research on the perfectly preserved corpse.

“The medicinal properties alone are exponential,” squealed the science geeks. Pillo didn’t care either way. A mission was a mission and he knew a troll would be less taxing to tag than a sphinx in the Ancient Desert

Valair moved first. “Let’s go, Pill. The village is nearby.” She was all business, as usual.

*          *          *

The village was remote and Pillo made sure his translation stick worked. Valair’s memory smudging sonic emitter was also working when the first villager they saw made a noise and ran.

The stick translated in Pillo’s ear. Swamp ghosts! He smirked. “They think we’re ghosts this time.”

Smirking, Valair added, “At least they don’t think we’re trolls.”

He nodded and then whistled. Another pack of science nerds said that whistling helped this particular tribe to earn trust quickly. The one that ran away approached Pillo. Using the trans-stick and an earbud, he was able to determine a semi-credible lead on a troll.

“But it’s almost daylight,” said the native idiot. “Trolls sleep in the day.”

“That’s fine. It’s best if we tag ‘em asleep. Less chance of altering the past.”

The local didn’t nod, smile, or blink.

“Buddy, you okay?” asked Valair, knowing good and well she wouldn’t understand what he said without a bud in her ear.

As if he understood, the leather-skinned local pointed behind the pair of reconnaissance soldiers. Pillo turned in time to see a furred hand the size a human torso reach from the gloom and grab Valair. She screamed and fired her rifle into the blackness.

The bullets didn’t go far. The troll that had been stalking the pair slowly reared itself up from the swamp floor to stand almost two stories tall. Its matte-black fur tickled the darkness. Its eyes, pale red orbs that floated in space as if independent of the body that housed them. They only made sense when it opened its mouth to scream and roar at Valair, giving definition to its misshapen head.

The villager ran, his sloshing imperceptible. I need to work on my stealth was all he could think about. The troll pulled Valair closer. She didn’t scream anymore, or grunt. Her rifle fired as if on automatic. The mouth opened and the bullets ended briefly as Valair yelled, “Grenade!”

Pillo dove for cover under the muck as a ball of heat and troll meat engulfed the area. When he surfaced, the stench was horrid. When he found pieces of Valair, the smell was forgotten and he vomited. He’d never lost a solider during a temporal mission before. But he knew protocol.

With the compact magnet, he drew whatever shrapnel might be in the area back to him and put what he could find of Valair into a compressible pouch. He did this without tears, knowing he’d have time later for that, in the present. The future.

Looking down, Pillo saw a ripple of water move toward him. After aiming his gun in that direction, he saw the villager, the local idiot.

He was muttering something but the trans-stick wasn’t getting it. Pillo adjusted the many tiny dials on the side of the stick before he realized his earbud wasn’t in. Inserting it, he heard what the man from the past was saying: “You are being followed by a moon shadow now.”

I’m being followed by a moon shadow?” The stranger nodded. “And what’s that?”

The villager explained that those who kill a troll awaken the moon shadow that lives within. “Trolls cannot come out in the sunlight because of that shadow: they turn to stone, for the moon is never meant to live under the sun.” Pillo stared grimly. “But to kill a troll, you free the shadow, the part of the moon that has been imprisoned inside them since the Sun and Moon battles from millennia ago. Now the shadow looks for new home. It will follow you. It will take you. And then you will be what you came here for.” The villager’s eyes fluttered. “You’ll be troll.”

Pillo looked at the sack and realized Valair’s memory wiper was destroyed: the villager might have to be killed. He resigned himself to traveling home without any more death, letting the villager and his legend remain in the past.

But time alone for Pillo was never the same: he always felt like something was just out of reach. And he wondered if the scientists might eventually see a real troll soon enough.

Word Count:996
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