Alfred looked out the lower edge of the window. He hated flying. It was his third time on a plane, but it never seemed like it got any easier.
He hated the pressure in his ears. He hated the turbulence. And he hated looking out the window and seeing everything so small below.
It reminded him of how high up they were. If anything happened and the plane crashed from that altitude…
Well, let’s just say that there wouldn’t be any survivors.
Al avoided watching the news for a week before his trip. The last thing he needed was to hear about a plane going down somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Or worse yet, while trying to land.
If he had heard any of those reports before his trip, he would have chickened out and refused to go. He had finally gotten the courage to buy a ticket. Then he had made the mistake of telling Juan not to relay any news of airline crashes.
See, Juan was a news addict. He watched the news morning, afternoon, and night. And when he wasn’t able to watch the news, he had his headphones on. Tuned into some 24-hour news broadcasting station.
Everyone knew that if you needed an update on something, you just asked Juan. He was like an up-to-the-minute walking news channel.
Well, after that, it didn’t take long for everyone on Al’s unit to know how terrified he was of flying. Not that Juan tried to rat him out. He had heard some bit of news that was airline related.
He told the other guys in the barracks. Then he mentioned it to the other guys as an afterthought. “Oh, but don’t mention anything about it to Al because he’s terrified of flying.”
And that was what started it all.
Poor Al didn’t hear the end of it for the rest of the week. Every time someone came across him, they would tell him some crazy, made-up story. First, a plane crash on a deserted island. Then there was the story about some plane hijacked by terrorists. And it went on and on. For the entire week.
At first, it freaked poor, ol’ Al out. He thought all those things were really happening around the world. Then he caught on and realized what they were doing. He got pretty upset at Juan. Juan apologized profusely, but Al refused to talk to him for a couple of days.
He almost canceled his ticket home, but Juan finally talked him back into it. Well, it probably wasn’t Juan’s talking that convinced him.
It had more to do with the fact that Sheila was going to be back in town for the holidays, and Al did want to see her. That was the only reason he had planned this trip in the first place.
Sheila was his high school sweetheart. They had grown up together. But about the time she had gone off to start college, he had ended up joining the army. Well, not by choice. He had enlisted as required by law when he turned eighteen.
He was somewhat skinny and generally considered a nerd in high school. He didn’t exactly believe himself to be full grade military material. He figured that they would sign his release forms and let him go. But for some reason the officers on duty that day had taken a fancy to him, and ordered him to stay.
Al had a job and was studying which should have given him a free pass. But the onery admissions officer wouldn’t accept any of his excuses. Just plain ol’ dumb luck he figured at the time. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But little did he know what they had in store for him. Whoops! I can’t tell you about that yet. I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, Al thought all he had to do was put in his two years of hard work. Then he could get his life back on track. Or so he thought.
He hadn’t planned on leaving town either. Al figured they would station him at the local battalion in his city. But for that same reason you and Al don’t know about yet, they had chosen him for some specialized training program.
Right away, they had shipped him overseas. That had been two years ago. He did his time without complaining, and he thought he was leaving soon. But a week before, his commanding officer had called him in for a meeting.
The officers there went on and on about the training they had him in. They praised him for all his diligence and hard work. And they buttered him up about his presence having a significant impact on this particular mission.
Al had no idea what they were talking about because he didn’t do much of anything. Some days they had him keeping post at the front gate. Other days they had him on kitchen duty. But most of the time he just sat in his barracks twiddling his thumbs because there wasn’t much to do on this island.
Well, not twiddling his thumbs because he liked to read. He usually had some sci-fi or fantasy book to read on his Kindle reader. But you know what I mean. Al had a lot of time to kill.
They said something about him being a vital part of the process and needing him for another six months. Blah blah blah. Typical army spiel for giving you orders but making you feel like you had a choice.
Al didn’t ask any questions, he just said ‘Sir, yes sir!” and signed on the dotted lines. He didn’t mind too much. Sheila still had three more years of college, and he didn’t have anything else lined up for now. Plus the cash bonus and four weeks of paid leave would be a nice consolation prize.
He used the money to buy a ticket home. He also bought Sheila a new car. They weren’t married yet, but he already sent her money every month. He told her to put the money in their savings account until they had enough to make a down payment on a house.
Al made pretty good money out here. He and his colleagues knew that their salary was way above the pay grade for most soldiers at their ranks. No, one knew why of course, and they talked about it in hushed tones when they were alone. But in general, the money was enough to make them keep their heads down and not ask any questions.
They didn’t want to rock the boat and get knocked back down a pay grade. Al had heard of that happening to a few other chaps before he had arrived. So, no one brought it up in any of their meetings.
Al just cashed his checks and enjoyed the money. But he had kept his eyes and ears open the whole time. He knew a lot more than he let on.
He had also earned the trust of his commanding officers. They often talked freely when he was around. He pretended to ignore them and focus on his work during their meetings.
It seemed like they were doing some high-tech research together with the US army. They talked about working on some highly-classified technology.
No one ever came out and said actually said what it was when he was around. But from what he gathered, it had something to do with a sort of cloning process using alien technology. It seemed like they wanted to find a way to give wounded vets new, fully-functioning bodies. From what he gathered though, they didn’t seem to have been successful yet.
He didn’t know all this for sure of course. Most of it was just hearsay from the bits and pieces he picked up. Al never actually came out and asked his commanding officers any questions point-blank.
But Al was a likable guy, so they often invited him along to their parties. He had been to a few where the officers had a little too much to drink and spoke a little too openly. Especially that Colonel Smith chap that requested Al drive him home a week or so back.
Anyway, Al enjoyed being the only one in his unit who thought he knew what was going on. And he knew better than to say anything or let on that he knew more than they did.
He just let them speculate. At night when they were alone at night in the barracks, he pretended to ask questions along with the rest of them. He didn’t want them getting too suspicious about what he knew. So, he played dumb.
Anyway, that’s how Al ended up getting the time off and the extra cash bonus. Money that he used to buy himself a first-class ticket back home. Al decided that as much as he hated flying, he deserved the perk for surprising his girl like this. Besides, if the plane crash, he wanted to die in style.
He chuckled at the thought of his mother seeing him like this. Surrounded by all these fine things the first world had to offer. He smiled when he imagined the look of surprise on her face when she saw him first thing tomorrow morning.
Al hadn’t told anyone he was coming. Not his mother. Not his girl. Not even his best friend. He planned on surprising everyone when he rolled into town in that fancy new car to give the love of his life.
He also planned on proposing of course. He knew it would still be several more years before they could be together. But there wasn’t any way she could refuse. He had a good job, made good money, and was going to give her the car of her dreams.
The fourth shuffler that had stopped to help its ‘friend’ had managed to pull out a part of the arrow. The shuffler pointed the arrow in Thorgaut’s direction as it charged him. Thorgaut wanted to laugh because it was shuffling in slow motion.
He imagined that it may have been a soldier at one time before becoming undead. He deflected the arrow with his sword and sidestepped the creatures attack. The creature turned around and stared at him. He could have run it through with his sword, but Thorgaut actually felt sorry for the slow shuffling thing. He hesitated for a moment.
It looked at him with eyes wide open. This creature wasn’t as decayed and disgusting looking as the others. It looked like it was aware of what it was doing. Its eyes seemed as if they were pleading with him silently to put it out of its misery.
Thorgaut wasn’t quite sure what to do. Should he just stab it and run it through with his sword. That felt so heartless and cruel. Maybe the creature would just turn around and move on back into the forest where it could live out the rest of its days in peace.
The shuffler leaned forward a bit, and Thorgaut took a step backward. He shook his head when he realized what he was thinking. The Viking prince had never felt like this before over killing an enemy. He had always enjoyed killing those he fought. Especial when using his sword. The feel of warm blood running down the hilt of his sword and over his hands. Maybe it was just because this creature was unarmed.
Thorgaut relaxed his stance and shifted to the side. Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him. It was the shuffler he had shot in the shoulder. It walked toward him with its good arm stretched out in his direction. It was so close that its fingers were almost touching his shoulder. He leaped back out of the way and bumped into the other shuffler.
It roared when he touched it and tried to grab him. He threw himself off to the side and away from either of them. He lost his balance and tripped. He stumbled and fell off to the side. He kept right on rolling and got up as fast as he could. Both creatures were approaching him and he kept moving backward while stumbling over himself as he tried to get back up.
After gaining his balance, he managed to get his feet under him to stand up again. Thorgaut had somehow managed to keep his grip on the sword. He readied himself and pulled back into an attack stance.
Both the shufflers had stopped and were now standing in front of him. It was really eerie. Almost like the expected him to do or say something. Again, he stood there silently watching them. And they watched him back.
The shuffler he had shot in the shoulder started to gag and vomit at his feet almost without warning. Thorgaut snapped his feet apart to prevent any of the vomit from spattering on his boots. But when he looked down, Thorgaut noticed that some of it had dirtied his shoes. He made a mental note to not touch them and to dispose of them as soon as possible.
The shuffler looked like it was about to puke again. Thorgaut was already upset that it had ruined his shoes. He pulled back his sword and let it fly. The blade seemed to sing as it swung through the air and sliced cleanly through the shuffler’s neck. Blood from the sword’s arc splattered across the other shuffler. It did nothing, but just continue to stand there as if it was waiting for something.
“What do you want?” Thorgaut asked.
The creature didn’t say anything. It just continued to stand there.
“That’s pretty creepy you know,” Thorgaut said.
He backed up slowly toward the fire. The shuffler continued to follow him. It matched his pace and took a step forward for each one he took backward toward the fire.
Thorgaut reached the fire and jumped over it to the other side. The shuffler stood there looking like it was trying to decide what to do. He took a few more steps backward, but the creepy creature remained still.
Thorgaut noticed the smoldering remains of the shuffler that he had kicked into the fire. Most of his body had burned up and completely disintegrated. They burned up so easily in the heat. He pushed the logs and pieces of wood together, and the flames started to grow once again. The shuffler moved back a few paces but continued to stand there watching Thorgaut and the fire.
Thorgaut picked up a medium-sized piece of wood from the fire. He walked around the fire towards the bodies of dead shufflers he had killed. The standing shuffler took a few steps toward him but stopped when he waved the fire in its face.
It watched him as he touched the flame to the body of one the dead shuffler. The shuffler’s body caught fire easily and started burning where ever he touched it with the flame. Whenever the flame came into contact with blood, there was a small explosion as the flames burst up even higher and hotter.
Thorgaut turned and moved over to the other body. He touched the flame to the stump of its neck where he had beheaded it. The whole pool of blood that had run out exploded into a fireball that knocked him back. The heat singed the hair on his head and body. He pulled himself up and watched for a minute as the entire body was quickly engulfed and consumed by the flames. He also burned up the arms he had cut off one of the shufflers as well.
The living shuffler watched him intently and but didn’t move around after he started burning the corpses. Thorgaut kept a close eye on him though to make sure it didn’t try anything. He got the impression that the creature was waiting for him to do something, but he had no idea what it was. There was an alertness and awareness in his eyes that the others hadn’t had. There was something different about him and it piqued Thorgaut’s curiosity.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is there something you want to tell me. You seem fresher and more alive than the others. You’re still not totally taken are you?”
Thorgaut took a step closer and stretched out the stick with fire in front of its face. The shuffler didn’t flinch or move.
“You just joined this clan recently. You’re under their control,” he said. “If you are still aware of what’s going on, go ahead and blink twice.”
The shuffler didn’t blink, but it did keep staring at him intently. Staring at him in a way that unnerved Thorgaut.
“That’s creepy. Stop it. Go back into the woods and do your thing.” he commanded, but the creature just stood there.
“Better yet, let’s go find that woman,” he muttered. “Where is she? And how many more of you are there?”