The Wake of Survival


BY:
Joel 'Cop' Furches



It was back there, somewhere, in the darkness behind him. He heard the scurrying of its claws as it ran, stopped and sniffed him out, or checked for his heat patterns, or whatever it was those ugly scum did. He had faced dozens of them in the past two days he had spent in this tormentuous place, this walking death. Each one was likely to be his next doom. His emotions and nerves were already dead, and the feeling of fright no longer registered. Instead, strangely enough, all that he could feel was loneliness. Every human he had seen in this place, this Diogenese, was a corpse. All were victims of the terror that had not yet managed, through some perverted miracle, to take him yet. The weapon he was holding, a flame-thrower he had pulled from the stiff fingers of a dead forerunner, was nearly out of fuel, and would certainly not have enough to kill the blethral that stalked him. It would take too long to swing his knapsack from over his shoulder and pull out another weapon. The metal armor on his body was shredded by talons and nearly eaten through with acid. It would need to be replaced soon. His flesh was ripped and seared, and he was weakening from blood loss.

Pulling a flare from his belt, the survivor twisted the top sparking the bright flame he knew would give him away if held it too long. He swung the illuminating beacon up in the direction of a dark alcove. Just as he suspected there was a cubby up there. He threw the flare into the cubby, then grabbed the ledge and pulled himself up, just as he felt the blethral's hot breath at his heel. The squat, ugly beast half-growled, half-screeched as it clawed at the base of the wall he had just scaled. He ignored its protests, knowing that there was no way it could come after him. The blethrals were about the size of large dogs and ran in a similar fashion. They tended to pounce with surprising speed, and would tear at their victims with the three jaws that formed the muzzle of their face. All the carrying on this one was making might well attract more of its kind, or possibly one of the worse enemies there were to face in the Diogenese. In the flickering light the flare gave off, he could see he had struck a jackpot. In addition to the extra fuel packs for his flame-thrower, he could see various clips for his other weapons, a new armor vest, and several health kits.

He swung his backpack off his arm and pulled out a sulfur grenade. Pulling the pin, he tossed it down at the beast howling for his blood. Five seconds later, it exploded, burning the creature to a crisp. That taken care of, he pulled off his shredded armor, exposing his bare upper body. Quickly opening the medical kit, he pulled out a needle and injected himself with a painkiller. Then he twisted the lid off a cold storage container packed tightly in the med-kit, and pulled out a blood transfusion to let it thaw. Next he injected himself with an anti-toxin to counter the effects of the poisons he had been exposed to. He hoped the chemical mix he was now putting in his body wouldn't do more harm than good. He quickly bandaged his wounds, making sure to place skin-regeneration patches on the sections of his body that had been burned beyond his ability to heal. He started the blood transfusion while simultaneously gobbling down the nutritional supplement stored in the kit. A quick application of the 'sonic-fusser' mended his broken ribs. When all that was done, he checked his health indicator band. It read nearly 100%. With a satisfied grunt, he pulled on the new armor, which quickly molded to the frame of his body.

All this done, the survivor removed an alien device, a gheheton, from his pack. This device had been his salvation, that pervert miracle that had allowed him to survive this terror where others met only bloody death. He closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. He hated using this thing. It was almost worse than death... almost. The fine line that separated the two was all that compelled him to use it. Deciding to take the plunge, he jammed the circuit of the bulky object into a port in his health meter, and felt the world and time collapse around him. And he saw death. He saw himself burning horribly in a pit of lava, feeling the unbearable heat consume him. He saw himself lying at the bottom of a gapping chasm, his bones powdered from the fall. He saw himself being trisected, torn to bits by the mall of one of the unspeakable beasts of the Diogenese. He experienced the pain; the terror of each separate moment compounded, and awoke with a silent scream clawing to escape his throat. And it was over. He leaped down from the alcove, aware that the next time he died; he would awake in that spot at the exact moment he had awoken from using the gheheton. That was the gift of the device, a second chance. But the chance was exacted at a heavy price. Every time he used the device he had to re-experience all his previous deaths. He smiled a humorless smile. The device was less of a salvation from death and more of a punishment for getting himself killed.

The halls were dimly lit where they were lit at all, and ahead was a flashing red light that at one time may have served as an alarm. It served no purpose now other than to add confusion. He knew he was in trouble, no light was needed to tell him that. Further down the hall was something that was a little more helpful. It was a door that was labeled 'Danger: Laser' and had bright yellow and black stripes running diagonally across its surface. He knew from past experience that four laser defense devices guarded the door, and he had to find some way to deactivate them. Another hallway branched off to his right and left, the corridors diminishing into the darkness on either side. He lit two flares and threw them down either hall. Immediately he heard a screeching followed by several answering screeches. Something in the dark unfolded and moved quickly and fluidly to his right. He cursed under his breath, recognizing it as one of the more dangerous inhabitants of the Diogenese. These creatures, the giators, walked upright and seemed to be intelligent. They shot crackling balls of energy from a glowing portal in their chest, or slashed at him with blades on their wrists. Generally, they folded into their exoskeletal balls and waited for him to stumble upon them. He blasted the giator as it rushed at him. The flames seemed to stall it a bit. Suddenly he felt a slash of pain from his left, and his vision flashed red for an instant. They were attacking him from both sides! He backpedaled furiously, while swinging his pack around and pulling out a double-barreled shotgun. An energy blast sizzled by, inches from his left side. He fired off both barrels into the creatures baring down upon him. Beyond them, more were coming. The shotgun blasts halted the creatures in their tracks, and with four shots the first of the giators fell to the ground, dead. The survivor turned and ran around a corner, listening for pursuit. For the moment all seemed quiet, his pursuers having given up on the chase. His heads-up display, mounted on his headset over his left eye, read that only three shots remained in his shotgun. He replaced it and pulled out a bulky grenade launcher. Rounding the corner he blasted the hallway with four grenades. Two flaming bodies stumbled from the explosion and fell to the ground. Satisfied he ran down the hall, covering his tracks with proximity mines, and quickly rounded the circular hallway surrounding the laser-guarded door. He found four switches evenly spaced down the hallway, and threw them. When he did, a readout on the display panels above the switches told him that the lasers were all deactivated. His task accomplished, he hit the activation button and walked through the door.


The room on the other side of the door was pitch black, and as he walked through, the hatchway closed ominously behind him. He groaned inwardly. He should have known. The lights came up slowly, and his fears were confirmed. Before him sat a hulking, lizard-like beast the size of a two story building. It was by far the biggest monster he had seen in the Diogenese. Sighing he pulled out a missile launcher and looked for things to hide behind. This was another in a long series of more and more challenging one-on-one battles he had been forced to do with destructive monsters that could take almost as much punishment as they dished out. These monsters were not like the others. They were larger, more lethal, and usually stationed at the end of each section of his journey. While they all usually had some weakness he had been able to find and exploit; they also had a tendency to kill him several times before he did so. He made a mental note to use the gheheton when he could find a safe spot to do so.

Suddenly the creature came to life; its red eyes burning, and let out a deafening roar. The roar was followed by its tongue, which shot out with lightning speed in his direction. He tried to side step it, but was caught off guard. The tongue snagged him and reeled him in quickly. He found himself in the creature's mouth, as it's sharp teeth sunk through his armor and punctured his flesh. His shoulder bone snapped, and only a miracle kept him from passing out at the pain. He struggled, and finally managed to pull his pistol out, shooting several rounds down its gullet. The creature roared in pain and dropped him in the process. He ran behind some crates and immediately stumbled upon a health pack. Quickly he pulled out the 'sonic-fusser' and slapped it on his injured shoulder, topping it with some bandages. This took only a moment, and he was back in the battle again, swinging out from behind the crates and unloading several missiles in the direction of the lizard-thing, then ducking back again with out even checking to see if the missiles had found their mark.

The rest of the battle was like that. Hiding behind crates, firing on the creature, and most importantly, trying to keep its backside to him, where he wasn't exposed to the deadly tongue. After what seemed like an eternity, a blast brought the creature to its knees, it let out one last roar, and the battle was his. At its final twitch, three doors opened as if by some strange magic. Behind the left and the right door were gun clips, armor and health packs. Behind the middle one was a passageway.

Following the passageway led to the outdoors where he found himself in the middle of a dark, hauntingly beautiful valley. A nebula swept across the star-studded sky and a large orange moon hung just above the horizon. Still, the danger was far from over. As he journeyed across the valley, the landscape seemed to ooze horrid and lethal creatures that attacked him at every turn. Each met its death only after exacting pain from the survivor.

The sides of the valley were sheer cliffs; too steep to climb, while the valley itself formed one long passageway terminating at a still, murky pool. The survivor dove into the water without hesitation, and scanned the aquatic terrain. Immediately a school of large, toothy fish darted toward him. He fought them off automatically, neatly putting a bullet through every one. Surfacing, he gasped for air, then submerged again. At the bottom of the pool lay what appeared to be a door. He swam down to it, ignoring the pressure in his pounding ears and the screaming of his lungs. As he approached, the door slid open, revealing an aquatic passageway. Desperate for air, he swam without hesitation down the underwater tunnel. The tunnel slanted sharply upwards, and seemed to go on forever. Finally, he burst through the surface of the water at the end, and gulped down great breaths of air. He found himself in a dank, dungeon-like room opening out into a labyrinth of corridors and prison cells. Behind the bars of a few cells, madmen stumbled drunkenly about. Upon seeing them, the survivor felt a pall of despair grip him. They were the only humans he had seen alive in this place, but when he tried to speak with them they ignored him, and when he tried freeing them, they lashed out at him. Nothing remained of their minds or their wills. They were worse than the animals that skulked about in the shadowy corners.

The survivor soon found that the dungeon was the bottom level of a massive castle. As he battled through the levels of the castle an epic nightmare unfolded. The survivor used the gheheton more and more often, despite the building pain. This he suffered gladly, for he met his own death in many unpleasant ways on the way to the top of the massive citadel.

As the battle raged ever upward, upon each new awakening from the temporary grip of death, the survivor felt a sense of building hope. Something big was waiting him at the top, and beyond it, freedom. He didn't know how he knew this, but he was sure it was so.

The survivor awoke from a sickening agony and shook the fog from his head. He tried to recall what had happened. Oh yes. A swarm of blethrals had been awaiting him behind a door. He had been low on ammunition after a battle with several giators, and was unable to fend off all of them. He silently calculated how far he had to go before reaching the hall where he had last died. He needed to go up one level and face five enemies before he reached the swarm that had ended his life. The warrior pulled one of his more recently acquired weapons from his pack. It was of alien design, and he had taken it from a creature he had killed. The creature had resembled a giator, only bigger and better armored. This particular weapon shot out a swarm of quickly dissipating, two-dimensional energy fields capable of slicing an enemy into pieces at short range. His heads-up told him it had a charge of five. That should be just enough. He rode the elevator up, and swung around prepared for the onslaught.

The five giators fell easily, and this time he was ready for the swarm of blethrals. He opened the door and quickly backpedaled, firing sulfur grenades down the passage. When the flames finally died, he saw that the hall they had come from was lined with lockers. He opened one after another, finding many health packs, weapon clips, charges, and armor. The amount of equipment so readily available made him nervous about what might be waiting beyond the hatch at the end of the hallway. All at once, he knew this was it. This was the moment when it all came together. At last he would finally have the answers he sought.

The doorway was dimly lit, and he could find no switches or levers to open the door itself. Suddenly, someone spoke. "If you want to get through that door, you're going to have to give me your gheheton."

The survivor swung his double-barreled gattling gun toward the source of the voice. An unassuming man sat there in a foldout chair. He was flipping through a newspaper, and had a bored expression on his thin face. The man looked up slowly into the muzzle of the survivor's weapon, and held up a hand.

"No need to get violent," he spoke calmly.

"I... who... what?" all this time apart from human contact had dulled the survivor's ability to speak.

"You heard what I said," the man replied, "If you want in, check your gheheton at the door."

"But... who are you? How did you get here? What is beyond the door?"

"I'm the gatekeeper, and this is my job," the man answered in an automatic way as if he had had this conversation a thousand times.

"But... why should I..."

"Because it's the rules of the game," the gatekeeper cut him off, "Give her here,"

The survivor looked mournfully at the ugly device. Part of him wanted to fling the thing at the gatekeeper and rejoice at being rid of it. The other part of him wanted to grasp it and refuse to relinquish the object of his salvation. Finally, he handed it over to the waiting man. This was how it was meant to be, he decided. You only cheated death temporarily, and humans were not meant for immortality.

"Thanks," the gatekeeper smiled, "Step on in. There will be a short wait."

"Wait? Wait for what?"

The gatekeeper did not answer as the door slid open.


Beyond the entrance was a brightly-lit and friendly waiting room. Rough looking people in various mutilated, rusted and scored battle gear sat politely chatting or flipping through magazines. Their scarred, unshaven faces and dirtied features along with their bulky packs loaded with all sorts of ugly weapons were a sharp contrast to the light music playing over the intercom speakers above. On the other side of the waiting room was an unremarkable door.

"Hey, look, we got a new arriver!" exclaimed a woman seated close to where the survivor had entered. She was clad in body-hugging metal armor and nothing else. Everybody looked up and waved, or offered various greetings.

"Have a seat," she patted the chair next to hers, "Your turn will come eventually."

The survivor accepted the chair, and as he sunk into the cushioned seat, he suddenly remembered how good it felt just to sit down without fearing that his head would be ripped from his shoulders at any second.

"Um... may I ask what we're waiting for?" the survivor addressed to no one in particular. A few people chuckled across the room. The woman beside him smiled and said, "None of us really know for sure."

"Look, I been tellin' you all: beyond that door is the mother of all monsters!" a gruff, muscular man seated closest to the door shouted, "When we go through there, we gotta battle 'er without our gheheton's. It's the final test."

"Is that true?" survivor asked the woman. She shrugged.

"That's what we all tend to think. You'll see it soon. The door will open, and one of us will go on through, then it'll close again. Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes hours, but the door will open again, and the next one will go through and so on. No one has ever come back to tell us what's on the other side."

A man across from the survivor spoke up, "Yeah, well when I go through, I'm not givin' whatever is out there a chance! I'm gonna blast that scum suckin' slime with my missile launcher before she can take a wack at me. That's how I made it this far, ya know? I only died, like, a half-dozen times."

"No way, man," another warrior voiced, "The missile launcher will just as likely to blast you away as it will her. The gattling gun is the way to go. It's quick, clean, and gives you a chance to switch to another weapon if you need to."

An argument quickly broke out over which weapon was better, but was ended abruptly when the door swung open. Dead silence dropped over the room. Finally, the man seated closest to the door rose shakily, adjusted his armor, pulled out a huge, radioactive slime spitting device, and headed to the portal.

"Wish me luck," he laughed nervously at the room. There was no response, and several people looked away in something like shame. The door swung shut after the man, and the silence remained. A few picked up magazines and began flipping through them without actually looking at the pages. The lady next to the survivor turned to him and whispered, "That guy over there is so full of it, isn't he? There's no way you could have made it through the Diogenese and only die a half dozen times, am I right?"

The survivor shrugged. He hadn't actually kept count, but he knew he had died more than six times.

"What do YOU think is past that door?" the survivor asked her. She looked down and shrugged. After a long pause, she said, "I guess after all this pain, all this struggling, its hard NOT to think it'll be just another battle. But I just have to ask myself, what's the point? Ya know? I mean, all that torment, all the death for what? Another, bigger battle? Another, final death? I think maybe, just maybe, there's a better answer to all this, and it's past that door."

The room lapsed into silence punctuated only by the music from the intercom. Eventually the door opened again, and the next in line stood, and stretched. He rummaged through his pack, extracted a mean-looking weapon that shot bladed discs, and strolled through the open door.

"If there is a big creature on the other side, wouldn't the door just stay open if one of us killed it?" asked a hulking cyborg who had not spoken yet. He stared blankly into space as he asked this, and no one answered. He was the next to go. Like the others, he readied a large gun before walking into the unknown.

And so it went. Each one's turn came, and they each walked out the door hugging their favorite tool of destruction. Finally only the survivor and the woman next to him were left.

"Well I guess you're next," the survivor spoke, reluctantly.

"Yeah, I guess," she murmured.

"Look..." he began, and paused, then, finally, continued, "You seem like a nice person, and I wish I had gotten a chance to get to know you. This isn't right for you. It's not right for ANY of us. This whole thing was wrong from the start, and I hate for it to end in such a stupid way," he stopped, exhaled, and continued, "I guess what I am trying to say is, you don't HAVE to go through the door."

She smiled sadly, "I appreciate it. I really do. But I have to go. I need to know what this is all about. If I die, at least it will be over. It could be worse. I could still have that stupid gheheton."

"But..." the survivor began, and was brought up short as she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. The door swung open. She pulled out two pistols and loaded them with fresh clips.

"Nothing like the classics, huh?" she smiled. With that, she rose, walked to the door, and turned.

"By the way," she asked, "What's your name?"

The survivor couldn't answer. He had forgotten.

Alone again. The pain of having had a brief taste of companionship only to have it ripped from him was almost more than he could bear. Maybe they were all waiting for him on the other side of the door. This whole thing would be over, and he could finally purge his memory of his thousand deaths. The thought that death itself waited on the other side was almost equally appealing.

Alone again. What WAS the point to it all? How should he choose to go? Which enormous weapon should he pull from his pack so as to go out in a proper blaze of glory?

The door swung open. It hadn't been long. A few minutes at most.

"She didn't stand a chance," the survivor muttered. He pulled his pack from his shoulder, set it on the floor, and stared at it. He reached for his wrist, and tore off the health indicator. It clanked to the floor next to his pack. He pulled the headset off and dropped it. Reaching back, he unlatched his armor. It fell to the floor with the rest. At last he stood with no weapons, no equipment, no protection. He was naked to all that should seek to destroy him.

"Time to pay the piper," he said, and walked through the door, which shut gently behind him.





Votes for: The Wake of Survival.





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