In anticipation of Rik Hoskin’s smashing superhero-fantasy hit this summer, he has kindly penned a wonderful short story for you all to enjoy. If you like what you read, may we humbly (and yet strongly) suggest you pre-order Bystander 27, out 11th August.
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A LITTLE PIECE OF HEAVEN
A lynch mob had surrounded one of the locals out near the east fence, Jake could see, and were now endeavoring to hold him still for long enough to wrap a noose around his neck. The noose was made from an old rope, worn and frayed–like the mob, it had been hastily adapted from something found lying idly on one of the farms that dotted this region. The mob, made up of less than a dozen of the local farmhands, taunted and teased the naked intruder who stood in their midst, cowering before them. Behind them loomed the twelve foot high, electrified fence which protected the settlement. A mound of soil beside the fence showed where something had burrowed beneath it, invading the territory here.
Even from this far away, two hundred paces across the plains from the mob, Jake could smell the stench that exuded from the intruder’s skin. A thick, heavy musk that grated on the nostrils, like burning toast on a campfire. They had hooked the frayed rope over the local’s neck now, Jake could see, and he watched as one of the burly farmhands tossed the rope’s free end over the dead limb of a nearby tree. The local was screaming more shrilly now, howling in fear as it felt the trap close in. With a kick of his spurs, Jake urged his horse into action, racing across the dusty plain towards the scene by the fence. He pulled the brim of his Stetson down, tight to his forehead, shading his eyes as the dust kicked up behind him.
Closer now to the lynch mob, Jake pulled his 12 bore shotgun from its saddle holster, took aim at the noose where it rested over the bough of a tree. With a single booming blast, he unleashed a wad of shot, shattering the tree limb to dust. The local fell back to the ground as the pressure on the noose was loosened, and the mob turned as one towards the lone, approaching horseman.
“You’re all under arrest,” Jake called firmly as he drew his horse to a halt in their midst. “If any of you decides he wants to run, let me assure you that I have no more compunction about shooting you in the back for what you are doing here than I did for shooting that tree.”
The proxy-leader of the mob, a man called O’Malley whom Jake recognized from local council meetings, stepped forward and tipped his fingers to the brim of his hat. “Good morning, Marshal,” he began with an obsequious smile, “seems you’ve stumbled on us doing your job for you.”
Jake’s gunmetal grey eyes scanned the group, watching carefully for any furtive movements to indicate one of them reaching for a gun. Satisfied, he turned his attention to O’Malley. “That so, Mister O’Malley?” he asked, challenge in his tone. “Because, it looked very much to me as if you were about to commit a little bit of what the law calls murder on one of the locals here.” The local creature looked up at Jake through its slit, yellow eyes, its vibrant crimson skin covered in globules of greasy sweat. The eyes seemed to glow, even in the bright light of the morning, exuding a pungent yellow mist that drifted around its head as it shifted warily, the noose still tied around the corded thickness of its throat.
“What we were doing, Marshal,” O’Malley explained, “was teaching this local miscreant the error of trespassing onto our territory here. We spotted him …” O’Malley corrected himself automatically, “it creeping around near the Holderbrook farm across yonder. It had already broken through the fence to try to get at us, y’understand?”
Jake shook his head, glaring down from the saddle. “You have to remember, Mister O’Malley–all of you–that we are the visitors here. We are the interlopers. This is their territory, not ours.”
A disgruntled rumble built from the group at this, and one of the other farmhands spoke up. “So, what you’re saying is we have no right to defend our property? Is that it, lawman?” the farmhand asked, making no effort to conceal the anger in his voice.
Jake shook his head, returning his shotgun to the saddle holster in an effort to diffuse the confrontation that was building. “This isn’t defending, son–what I see here is a witch hunt. And I can’t be tolerating a witch hunt on my watch, y’understand? ‘Cause, if I do, we could bring down a whole lot of stink that none of us can handle, yourselves, good men though I know all of you are, included.” The farmhand looked at Jake, a challenge in his eyes. “I trust I am making myself clear,” Jake stated, endeavoring to curtail the discussion.
In response, O’Malley took a shot at the creature before them, having pulled a small, pearl handled revolver from an inner pocket while Jake was dealing with the outspoken farmhand. The first blast took off one of the creature’s curling, bone horns, shattering it to powder. As the creature panicked, O’Malley took his second shot, the bullet taking the thing in the kneecap, just above the extension from the cloven hoof.
Jake steadied his horse with firm legs, whispering to calm her as he pulled his silver-plated six shooter from the holster at his hip and, in one fluid movement, targeted O’Malley’s forehead. “Do you want to try for a third shot, Mister O’Malley?”
O’Malley looked up at him, the bloodlust in his eyes, challenging him to loose the bullet for a moment, before he finally crouched slowly down to the ground and placed his gun on the dusty area beside his feet.
Across from him, the creature lurched away, howling and grumbling in its alien tongue. With its kneecap shot to ribbons, acidic blood spewed in a billowing fog from its leg. The creature struggled to stay upright, taking several paces past the crowd before it finally slumped to the ground. It lay there, red skin smoldering, a pained howl exuding from its lips.
Deliberately, Jake turned his gun towards the local creature as it whined out its death song, taking careful aim between the creature’s eyes. The single shot echoed across the open prairie as the bullet slammed into the creature’s face, penetrating the brain and killing it instantly. Three nights before, Jake had spent most of the evening tooling the protective sigils into the bullet, ensuring it would kill a demon in one, single hit. It didn’t pay to wound a demon, or so he’d been told. In his ten months of patrolling the settlement of Paradise, he had never once doubted that advice.
Atop his horse, Jake looked back at O’Malley where he kneeled on the ground, hands behind his head. Like the rest of the group, O’Malley was shocked at the swiftness of Jake’s action. “If memory serves, you helped to construct the gaol eight months ago, Mister O’Malley,” Jake told him as he reholstered his pistol, “now you’ll get a chance to see your handiwork all over again from the inside, it appears.” He instructed the others to bury the corpse where it lay, then turn themselves in at his office in the afternoon, before marching O’Malley to the Paradise Main Street gaol.
“The locals are getting restless,” Jake told Heather over their evening meal.
His wife looked at him across the wooden dinner table, one of the few decent pieces of furniture they had in their three-room lodge. “Ours or theirs,” she asked after a moment, reaching for her glass.
“Little o’ both, I guess,” Jake told her, not looking up from his plate. He pushed the meager scraps of food across its surface disinterestedly.
Heather reached a hand across to his wrist, halting the aimless progress of his fork. “What’s happened, Jake?”
He looked up at her, his heart softening as he saw the radiant beauty she exuded. Even now, eight months pregnant and looking almost fit to burst, she looked as beautiful as the day they had met, to Jake’s eyes. Maybe more so, Jake decided. “Caught some of the ranch hands trying to hang up one of the locals by his neck,” he told her, “way out by the east fence.”
Heather gasped, putting her chubby hand to her mouth, eyes widening.
“Ringleader was Tom O’Malley, you know?” Jake continued. “Took two shots at the thing so’s I had to throw him in a cell. The others I let go with a warning after a couple of hours, but I’ve left O’Malley to Paul to make a decision on. Unpleasant business, through an’ through,” he added, shaking his head, the food on his plate forgotten.
“Poor Tom,” Heather began. “It’s understandable, I guess, what with losing his daughter the way he did.”
Jake remembered the day when they had found O’Malley’s missing daughter–at least, what was left of her after the locals had finished their feasting. “Like you say,” he agreed, “understandable. Not forgivable though, not how things are right now.”
Heather pushed her chair back and stood up, stepping across to Jake’s side. She reached a hand down to his forehead, brushing the dark hair from his eyes, feeling the scarred over wounds on his forehead. “You’re doing your best, hon,” she told him. “Can’t expect you to do no more than that.”
He reached a hand up, entwining his fingers with hers. “I think these people expect me to fight a war for them, and I can’t do that. We can’t afford to start a war, Heather, because all we would do is lose,” he said.
After a moment’s contemplation, Jake got out of his seat, letting go of her hand, and headed for the back door of the wooden lodge. “I’m gonna go decorate some shot,” he told her as he stood in the doorway, grabbing the bandoleer he kept on a hook there. “Had to fire one of my bullets today, figure it needs replacing.”
She followed him out to the raised porch, leaving the plates where they were on the table.
Jake sat on the wooden bench by the back door, pulling bullets from the bandoleer strap, examining them in the light that came through the open door behind him. The first few bullets already featured the intricate web of sigils which he had painstakingly carved into them over previous evenings. When he found one without the distinctive patterning, he took his tiny scalpel blade from its leather pouch, consulted the book he stored with it. These were Biblical symbols, their pattern settled on by careful consultation with church leaders before they had all left Earth. There was no room for interpretation or stylistic flourish–it paid to get them right.
While Jake tooled at the bullet, Heather spoke up, quietly so as not to distract his steady hand. “Perhaps we could go back home, Jake. What do you say?”
Without looking up, Jake grunted the answer through clenched teeth: “Same thing I’ve said a hundred times before, hon. Earth’s population problem ain’t going away; we’re better off here.”
She held her belly protectively. “I’d like for our son to see home,” she whined.
“This’ll be his home,” Jake said firmly, piercing her with his stare before going back to work on the bullet.
They were quiet then, and, after a couple of minutes, Heather went back inside and cleared away the dishes from dinner.
It was true what Jake had told her. Earth was overpopulated and new settlements like this one had to be formed. They were among the first pioneers, creating new towns in the wilderness, so much of it unexplored. Their little settlement of Paradise was one of a hundred new towns forming, springing up all over the place now that the barriers on travel had been breached.
If only, Jake sighed to himself. If only we’d conquered space, instead of Hell.
Jake was still pondering this two hours later, when he finally put down the steel file and wrapped a graying bandage across the oozing wounds on his forehead. He would have to speak with the apothecary again, if the wounds didn’t clear up soon.
The next day, a young boy–one of the Robinsons’ kids, no more than ten years old–approached Jake in the drinking house that had been set up on Main Street, a little after noon. The boy crashed through the swing doors in his hurry, leaving small footprints in the sawdust that powdered the floor. A carpenter called Kilcher was still working on one end of the long bar, planing down the rough edges. The boy stood doubled over beside Jake’s table, sucking at his breath in huge, strained gulps. Jake continued to eat his steak while the boy caught his breath.
“Spotted your horse outside, Marshal,” the boy finally told him, his breath still ragged. “Pastor Hallard sent me to find you, thought you might be here getting your eats.”
Jake eyed the boy, chewing the meat thoughtfully. “An’ what does the pastor want in such a hurry, son?” he asked.
“Says you’re to come over to our fields soon as you can–we’re out by the dip, you know?”
Jake nodded. He knew where the Robinson ranch was. It was only five minutes on horseback, but the boy’s journey here on foot must have taken the best part of a half hour, running all the way on his stumpy legs. He leaned forward, ruffling the boy’s hair good-naturedly as he got up and headed for the doors. He pulled the brim of his Stetson low, hoping to cover the bandage he wore there, his spurs jangling with each step. Behind him, the Robinson kid climbed onto the stool which Jake had vacated, and began picking at the remains of the meal he had left.
At the Robinson farm, Jake located Pastor Hallard in one of the fields near the ranch, talking with Geoff Robinson, the farm’s owner. Both of them looked concerned as Jake approached on horseback, and they looked up at his arrival.
“Heard you wanted to see me, Father, Mister Robinson,” Jake said, touching two fingers to the brim of his hat in salutation after getting down from his horse. “What seems to be on your mind?”
Pastor Hallard held out a hand to Jake. Resting in the palm of his hand was a tiny, shriveled potato, barely the size of his thumb. “We’ve got a potential riot on our hands here, I reckon, Jake.”
Jake looked at the pathetic vegetable, failing to comprehend. “What makes you say that, Father?”
“The crops haven’t taken,” Hallard explained, looking to Robinson for reassurance. “We’re going to run short this season. And I mean real short, Jake, y’follow?”
Jake glanced at Robinson, then back to Hallard. “You think we’re going to have some hungry people on our hands? We’ll pull through ‘till next season.”
Robinson shook his head, muttering in disappointment. “The soil’s unworkable, Marshal. I don’t think there’s going to be a ‘next season’.”
“Then why didn’t you say something sooner, Geoff?” Jake asked.
Robinson looked at him, and Jake saw the despair in his eyes. “A week ago everything was looking fine. Then something happened. I don’t know how or why, but suddenly the crop spoiled. Corrupted.”
“What do you think did this?” Jake asked. “Best guess it for me.”
Robinson looked at the ground between his feet, his words quiet, as though he was ashamed. “I think evil did it, Marshal. That’s when I called in the minister here, hoping he could …” he broke off, not sure how to put what he had expected into words.
Jake looked across at the field. All around he could see the leaves of the potato plants, rotted, sick and drooping. The plants in the neighboring fields looked similarly unhealthy when he looked across to them. “And what do you say to this, Pastor Hallard?” he asked.
In response, the Pastor let out a long, slow breath. “Hard to say,” he began, but his words were cut off.
Echoing from across the dip, the sound of a gunshot split the air. Jake was already by his horse, pulling his compact binoculars from a saddlebag when the report of a second shot reached their ears. He scanned the horizon through the binoculars, sweeping the prairie past the dip that marked the end of the Robinson smallholding.
“There, out by the west fence–there’s a party of them,” Jake told his audience as he hastened back to his horse. “I’m going to need you to follow me, Pastor, as fast as you can.”
With that, Jake spurred his horse to action, galloping for the west fence.
A crowd of locals had gathered at the west fence, where several of the farmers had surrounded a demon they had spotted crossing the fields there. The fence hummed quietly as power surged through it. Every hundred or so paces, a sign had been placed on the chain-links of the fence, exclaiming that it was electrified. Do not cross, the signs read–demon territory.
The demon that the mob had swooped upon was already wounded. It was of average height, not much more than five feet tall, but it was particularly bloated. It struggled to avoid the blows of the mob, its corpulent frame moving aside gracelessly as the more daring members of the crowd swung tools at it–spades and sledge hammers. Others tossed rocks at the demon or threw coins as they circled closer, many of which met their mark, slapping against the demon’s thick skin, occasionally piercing the crimson surface. A cut beneath one of its eyes bled, acid trickling down its cheek like a tear.
At the head of the mob, a burly farmer called Kane thrust a pitchfork at the creature. “I dunno how you got over the fence,” Kane shouted at the creature, his face red with anger, “but you ain’t gettin’ back to your foul brethren now.”
Another farmhand, Bateman, added, “We’re gonna break your filthy, devil neck!” swinging a branch like a club, keeping the fat creature at bay.
The crowd moved closer, swarming on the creature and holding it down as it struggled. Kane raised his pitchfork high and, with a swift jab, prodded the tines of the fork into the creature’s body. The demon howled as the metal penetrated its thick skin, burning where the iron of the fork entered it.
At the edge of the crowd, now dismounted, Jake was pushing people aside urgently, struggling to make his voice heard over the baying of the crowd, the pained shrieks of the demon. “Get away from that creature,” he demanded. “Let me through, let me through.”
Eventually, Jake reached the centre of the crowd, but he could see immediately that he was too late. Pulling his pitchfork from the creature’s mangled face, Kane stepped aside to let the marshal see their handiwork. He smiled at Jake, proud of the work he had done here. “Showed it pretty good, huh?” he asked, grinning.
Jake took a half step back, swung his right fist at the farmer. The blow connected with Kane’s jaw in a heavy thump, knocking the farmer off his feet. Dazed and bewildered, Kane looked up from the dusty ground, a question in his eyes.
“You stay down,” Jake told him firmly. Feeling nauseous, Jake took the final steps to where the body of the corpulent demon lay. He could see the pained expression on its face, mouth forever trapped in silent scream, yellow eyes open and staring into nothingness. The scarlet body was spattered with traces of the creature’s acidic blood, still smoldering wisps of mist into the air above it. Jake crouched beside the corpse, examining it closely.
Bateman, the farmhand, stepped forward, holding the remnants of the branch he had used as a club. The branch was now just a stump, broken in two with the force of the blows he had inflicted with it. “Why are you bellyaching, Jake?” he asked quietly. “You’re meant to be protecting Paradise for us good folks … stopping the demons getting through the fence. Seems to me we gone done your work for you here with this one. Should be thanking us, I’d say.”
Jake’s grey eyes flicked up, taking in the crowd before settling on Bateman. “You idiots,” he told them. “You ignorant fools.”
Pushing his way through the crowd, Pastor Hallard made his way to Jake’s side as the marshal continued. “The locals can’t break through this fence. You’ve been blind all this time to what’s been going on right in front of you.”
Jake reached down, lifting the left hand of the naked demon. On the hand, something twinkled, catching the light: A gold band resting on one of the fingers, almost overwhelmed by the folds of puffy, red skin. “This isn’t a demon,” Jake told the crowd, removing his Stetson and placing it on the ground beside him, revealing the sweat-stained bandage he wore there. “It’s Heather,” and his voice cracked as he said it.
Pastor Hallard leaned down, looking Jake in the eyes. “Your wife?” he asked, cautiously.
Jake nodded. “Took me a while to figure out where all these devils were comin’ from. But you’ve seen it yourself. The crops, the soil–it’s tainted.”
The pastor looked at the wedding band on the demon’s hand, glanced back to Jake in sudden realization.
“All the while we thought we had tamed Hell,” Jake told him, a resigned smile lifting the corners of his mouth, “but really it was taming us. Guess it’s true what they say–the Devil always gets the last laugh.”
“How long have you known?” Hallard asked him quietly.
Jake put a hand to his head, picking at the bandage there and unwinding it from his forehead. Beneath the bandage, equidistant on his forehead, two small lumps could be seen, the skin angry around them. Bone had split through the skin, and despite Jake’s best efforts to file them down, it was clear what the lumps were: horns, growing through his flesh. The pastor felt his throat constrict, and he instinctively took a step backwards. “I’ve suspected for quite a while,” Jake assured him.
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Liked what you read, you can pre-order Bystander 27, out 11th August, NOW!