A father and his daughter face a menacing terror as the stars disappear.
|This short story won first place in the "Short Shots: Official WDC Contest" for August of 2021!
“See that one there?” Thomas asked his daughter as she leaned back into him upon his lap, “that one’s Orion. “There are three stars. One. Two. Three. That’s his belt.”
Gentle evening breezes blew across the Montana valley, stirring the grasses and teasing the campfire, the immensity of the Milky Way set on edge high above. “One. Two,” Abigail said.
“Three,” he corrected, smiling kindly down at the five year old and loving every moment.
“No, No. One, two, Daddy,” she chuckled, pointing skyward at the exact location they’d been gazing.
He laughed. “One, two, th…” Thomas hesitated, suddenly realizing Abigail was right. One of the stars from Orion’s Belt was missing. “Huh. That’s odd.”
Then, the next star over flashed and disappeared. “Bye, star!” she shouted.
Almost immediately, another one, this time far from the others, flashed and vanished. Then, there was another, and another. As if evaporating, the glittering dust of starlight twinkling over them steadily faded away, the valley dimming under an increasingly blackened, moonless sky.
Thomas held his daughter tightly, a curious dread filling his heart. The stars nearly gone, one of them unexpectedly broke away, streaking the sky and growing increasingly larger as it tumbled downward. With a deafening fiery roar, it soared directly over them, rocketing toward the nearby edge of the river and shuddering the ground as it struck. Dust and wind blasted in every direction, so Thomas sheltered Abigail from the barrage. Finally, daring to peak, he noticed a solitary figure materialize from the glowing impact crater. Tall and slender, it scanned the terrain before finding them and drifting immediately in their direction.
In a panic, Thomas knew to hide his daughter away, finding shelter in the only possible place upon the vast open valley floor – the two person tent they’d hiked in with. The ominous creature approaching, he tossed the flap wide and they climbed inside. He whispered anxiously to his daughter, “Now, we’re going to play a game. But to win, you have to stay as quiet as possible.”
“Okay, Daddy,” she whispered back sweetly, completely unaware and thinking it to be all in good fun.
He tucked her into her sleeping bag and pulled it over her head. “Remember, Abby, not a sound.” She didn’t reply, so he said, “Good girl.” Thomas grabbed his rifle. He’d only brought it for protection, the most threatening thing in the valley being the wildlife – a wandering bear or moose moving through the low brush. But this was completely different.
With as little sound as possible, he pulled the rifle’s bolt clear, just to load the first cartridge, and rolled it back into place with a light click. Thomas waited, his heart racing, palms sweating. He labored to control his breathing, listening to the land just outside the tent.
Silence. It was too quiet, not even the wind through the long grasses or the sound of an evening cricket. The world had stopped.
Without warning, the tent suddenly filled with brilliant light from outside. Reflexively, Thomas squeezed the trigger, blasting through the fabric toward its source. Abigail screamed and the mysterious light tumbled away. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he consoled, pulling her in and smoothing down her hair with a comforting hand. His breathing was heavy, shock setting in. So, he waited.
His nerves settling, Thomas grabbed his flashlight and, using the barrel of his rifle, dared to peer through the tent flap. The sky was barren, not even the hint of a star remaining, only a single piercing white light shooting from the dense grasses up into the firmament like a beacon calling to a pitch black sky.
“Stay here,” Thomas said to Abigail.
“Don’t leave, Daddy!” she refused, gripping his arm and not letting go.
“I’ll be right back. I have to take a look.”
“You’re safer here,” he whispered, motioning to lower her voice. Reluctantly, she released him, and he eased out of the tent, his weapon gripped tightly in one hand and his flashlight in the other. Thomas crept toward the light. He was quiet, almost unnaturally so, a skill he’d learned in the military. Slowly he inched ahead, crouching low, until he finally reached the source.
Rolled down into a shallow gulley, he discovered a creature, not so unlike a man, but different enough. It was taller and thinner than any human, and had no face or any distinguishing marks, not even any clothes. Its skin was faintly luminous, a pearlescent shimmer shifting from read to blue, then to green and red. From its shoulder, if that’s what it was, a piercing white light shot skyward, and it oozed a glowing white liquid, perhaps blood. Its chest heaved, dreadfully wounded.
Thomas pushed into the clearing where the creature lay. Now fully exposed, he stood tall, staring down his sights without even blinking. The creature slowly turned its eyeless head toward the man.
“The hell are you?” Thomas interrupted.
“English. Excellent,” it replied.
“You speak English?”
“I speak all the languages and dialects of your world.”
Thomas pressed his barrel in. “What are you?”
“Is she safe?”
“She? What does that mean? Is who safe?”
“The Spirit of Creation. The Architect,” it said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Surely you must,” it continued. “This rotation is the female, fulfilling the balance of opposites. The last was male. A symmetry of equivalence. It’s said that her arrival would bring much joy, for she is the hand of the universe, the sculptor of this reality. And she must be protected at all cost.”
Then Thomas remembered the stars and how they went out. “What did you do to the sky?” He eased his weapon in again.
“Not me, her,” it managed through a labored breath.
“Where are the stars, what happened to them?”
“They must be close,” it groaned. “Please, help me up.” The being raised its hand toward Thomas and he fearfully backed away.
“Not a chance.”
“They’re coming.” Its gaze turned away, fixed on a distant horizon disguised by the pitch-blackness of a starless night. Suddenly, there was an explosion in the darkness, then a shriek. “They’re here!”
“Who is?” Thomas demanded. “Who’s here?”
“The Hollow. They’re here for her.” It turned again desperately to Thomas. “Please, you must help me. We must protect the Architect.”
“I still don’t know what that means!”
“Daddy?” Abigail suddenly asked, having quietly joined them.
“Abby, I told you to stay in the tent!” he shouted, now terrified for his daughter. She cowered away, but her father pulled her in. With a deep sigh, he said, “I’m sorry honey.” Then he stood, and raised his gun again. “Stay behind me.”
“What’s wrong with that man, Daddy?” she asked innocently.
“Hurry, they’ll be here soon,” the being pleaded.
Another growl and shriek in the distance and Tomas brought his rifle up, scanning for any threat he could find. When he returned his gaze to the creature from the sky, he found his daughter standing right next to it, reaching toward its pearlescent skin. “Abby! Get away from there!”
With her slightest touch, the glowing wound in the creature’s shoulder closed up completely and its distress eased. “Ah, there you are,” the creature said calmly. “Thank you, Architect.” The shrieking grew louder and the land began to rumble, darkness seemingly closing in from all sides. “The Hollow approaches,” the alien remarked, rising to his feet. “I hope you are prepared, human, for we may not be enough to stop the nothingness.”
“Yes. We are all that’s left…all that remains of the universe. I barely made it past the threshold in time.”
“So, what are you then?”
“A guardian. A protector. And now, perhaps the last of my kind. I am Hatu.”
The shrieks became the gnashing of teeth, the clacking of claws, and the rabid growls of feverish desperation closing in from all sides. Thomas turned away from the guardian, aiming his weapon toward the darkness. Meanwhile, countless monsters they couldn’t see closed in from all sides.
“How does this end?” Thomas asked, frightened.
“That depends on young Abby here.”
“Are you saying she could stop this?”
“She is the Architect, after all,” it replied, plainly.
“How, then?” Thomas scanned the darkness anxiously.
“A little help.” Hatu knelt down before her. “Abby, look here.” It held out a slender hand. “Do you want to go back to your peaceful valley?” The image of the valley surrounded by mountains appeared in its palm.
“Then it’s up to you.” The guardian remained particularly calm, especially considering the terror descending upon them. “Now, close your eyes,” it said, caressing her cheek. “And just say no.”
“No,” she repeated, though nothing changed.
“Picture your peaceful valley, just you and the Allfather. See the mountains and the stars. Calm your mind.”
“This isn’t working,” Thomas said.
“It will,” Hatu replied. “Breathe deeply.”
“How many times have you done this,” he asked of the alien.
“Never. Abby is the first Architect born in ten generations of my kind.”
“So, how do you know it will work?”
“I don’t. But it must. Otherwise this reality will end.”
The stampeding horde continued faster now, closer. Thomas shot a round into the darkness, eager to hit something, but the shrieking only intensified. Abby clenched her eyes and covered her ears, terrified and hoping for it to end. Another shot, but still, the monsters charged in.
“Abby,” it said again. “Tell them no.”
“No.” she said, still cupping her ears, refusing to open her eyes. “No,” she repeated, now more distressed.
“They’re almost here,” Thomas said, not know which way to turn or which direction they might come from first.
“No…,” Abby repeated, her confidence fading, “…no.”
Then, her father was there, holding her in his arms as only a father could. “You can do this sweetheart,” he said, boldly trusting the creature from the sky. “Focus on the mountains, on the valley.” She pulled him close and embraced him tightly. “The river. The grasses.”
“No,” she said, stronger this time.
“I love you and you can do this. Focus on me,” Thomas pleaded.
“No!” she screamed and an energy wave instantly exploded away from her in all directions. A tempest against the darkness, power surged and the beasts nearly upon them were laid bare to the unstoppable light of creation. Teeth and claws were torn away, the vicious, rabid fury of a monstrous horde was replaced by the frantic terror of imminent destruction. Overwhelming power blasted into blacken scales, dissolving the toughest hides of the terrible beasts from the darkness. They clawed and scratched over themselves, fighting to escape, but it was too late, the fiery power of the universe sweeping through them and dissolving them away.
“You see? You did it,” Hatu remarked proudly.
Abigail opened one eye, then the other. Discovering the area quiet and clear, she raised her head from Thomas’s chest. “I did it?”
“Yes you did!” Thomas confirmed proudly.
“Now, can you replace the heavens?” the guardian asked. “Put the stars back in their proper place?”
“Can she do that?”
“She was the one who erased them, hid them away from the Hollow, to protect them. She must have instinctually known. Abby, just think of the sky and put them back where they were.”
“With just a memory and a wave of your hand.”
So, Abigail closed her eyes, remembering the stars over a peaceful valley. “I see them. I see the stars, Daddy!” Then, motioning toward the sky, they steadily began to return, blinking back like stardust spilled across the heavens.
“Incredible,” her father marveled. “So, what now?”
“Training,” Hatu said. “The Guides of Sebraxis are waiting.”
“I’m coming too.”
“Of course you are,” it agreed. “As the Allfather, you are the Architect’s greatest defender. She will discover her potential through you.”
“So, what do you say kiddo?” Thomas asked her. “You ready to really see some stars?”
She didn’t even hesitate and replied, “Ready.”