The Gathering – A Short Story by BJ Sheldon
I’ve decided to share my first sci-fi short story with all of you. It was a lot of fun to write. It’s a different genre than I’m used to writing, but I guess that’s a good way to stretch my skills as an author. Special thanks to my amazing friend Sean Reischmann for being my beta reader throughout the process. I hope you all enjoy!
I knew I was dead.
I knew from the moment it happened.
And yet, almost immediately, time became irrelevant…my existence merely floating from one moment into the next.
The seasons changed. The leaves turned and the ground froze as the snow gradually covered what was left of me.
Months passed, the snow melted and I continued to lay there unnoticed.
It’s difficult to explain, really. Over time, I began to forget how I’d ended up on the forest floor in the first place. My life had ended, and I couldn’t even remember that single moment where I’d taken my last breath.
Was anyone missing me? Had anyone come looking for me? I couldn’t remember.
There had been running. Who was I running from? Where was I running to?
I needed to know. Piecing together those events that led to my demise, I fought hard to evoke any memory, knowing there wasn’t much time before even that part of me faded away forever. The need for closure consumed me as I struggled to recall bits of my past, forcing them to the forefront of my consciousness.
As I began to remember, the fog of death began to dissipate and my life flashed before my eyes.
My father used to say, “It’s a damn shame that death takes the best of a person and buries it with them while the worst remains.” I knew that more times than not it was a person’s faults that were remembered rather than the good they’d done. He knew all about death. The high cleric in town, he’d presided over many a funeral in his day. The epitome of intelligence and kindness, the people in our community loved him.
After the gathering, he was the natural choice to lead in our village. It transpired so quickly that no one had time to prepare. The visitors entered city after city, destroying everything in their path. Those who managed to escape fled to the caves deep within the forest walls. Father organized the survivors into groups: those with the skill to fight, those with the skill to heal and the rest to provide food and anything else the group may need for survival.
Our cave was dark. The sunlight couldn’t penetrate into the chasm due to the thick foliage at the entrance. Well hidden from the visitors, the darkness made it difficult to see or assist anyone in need. Some wanted to light a fire at the entrance for warmth, but Father quickly convinced them otherwise. We couldn’t take the chance of being discovered.
Hours passed. People were hungry and cold. It became apparent that someone needed to go back and gather provisions for the other survivors. I quickly volunteered to go since I was the fastest and most agile – plus the darkness was suffocating and I needed to escape it. My older brother, Merchent, agreed to go with me. Born with a birth defect, my brother wasn’t as smart as most, but I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else watching my back. He may have been slow and heavy, but he was fiercely loyal – not to mention, strong as an ox.
Father protested at first, but finally gave us his blessing to venture out. After placing his hands over our heads and pleading with our God for protection and guidance, he hugged us both and sent us on our way.
It was two miles of pitch black. We struggled to avoid low tree branches, sharp rocks and steep inclines before we were finally able to see the outskirts of what was left of our city. I’m not sure how long we stood there together taking in the horrific sight.
The visitors had leveled everything in their path leaving nothing behind but fire, smoke and rubble. Tall buildings were reduced to multiple piles of charred brick. Deep craters were situated where paved roads once lay. People’s homes were completely gone, almost as if they never existed in the first place.
I could hear my brother sobbing silently. Without turning my head, I wiped a tear from my eye and took his hand, squeezing it reassuredly.
We scoured the skies and our surroundings for the unwanted visitors. We could hear their ships in the distance, but we weren’t able to locate their lights in the sky. It seemed we were alone for the moment.
Merchent and I scrounged in the dark on all fours for anything we could carry in our backpacks and pockets. With the moon the only visible light we had available, we felt around with our hands, trying to identify what would and wouldn’t be vital to our immediate survival.
The air was suffocating at times. My eyes watered. Smoke still rose from the ashes of what was left of people’s lives. Another smell lingered around us. Decomposing bodies, or what was left of them, lay in the streets. Some were swollen from the heat. Others were rigid and contorted – as if they had died with their arms outreached, trying to protect themselves from the invisible foe.
I threw up twice.
Most landmarks were leveled making it virtually impossible to determine where we were in what was left of the city. I stood up and looked around in the darkness. For an instant, I felt despair and overwhelming sadness consume me, but it didn’t last long. I knew that the survivors were depending on Merchent and me, and I didn’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for myself. There were too many lives at stake.
The sound of the invasion continued to reverberate. We could feel the ground shaking beneath our feet. We could hear the rumbling of their transports everywhere we turned. Screeching and clicks, unlike anything I’d ever heard before, echoed throughout the air, hanging on the wind – as if they were communicating with one another. I knew they had moved on and were invading the next city over and would probably continue until there was nothing left to conquer.
When we couldn’t carry anymore supplies, we began our return to the survivors and our father. With sun-up still a few hours away, the darkness that encompassed us in the woods was a huge obstacle. Somehow, my brother seemed to be able to find his way through the dark and successfully led us back to the cave – undetected – with provisions in hand. Weapons, clothing, blankets, matches and even some food had been found strewn about the streets. Father divvied it up amongst the three groups, advising everyone that it was imperative to make it all last until the visitors were gone.
We prayed that they would leave.
We prayed that they would leave and never come back.
Eventually, my father, Merchent and I made our way to the cave opening. The fires in the distance had finally cleared, and we could once again see the moon and the stars above without the blanket of smoke that had hung in the air for so long, created by the visitors’ destructive disposition.
Everything was still.
The smell of death continued to linger.
The silence should have been comforting, and yet it was terrifying. Not even the owls, which were aplenty in our region, could be heard in the night skies. It was as if all of the animals had been wiped off the earth. The rumbling of the engines, which had been a constant reminder of our town’s demise, subsided…telling us that our visitors were gone…for now.
We were able to move from the cave and set up dwellings in a forest clearing. Various trips to town garnered a number of salvageable items that assisted us with creating our new community. We built crude huts, cooked food over an open fire pit and washed our clothes in the stream down the hill from our cave.
Those that my father had chosen to fight practiced their skills daily in the event of another invasion. They learned to throw knives and axes but saved the ammunition for when it may truly be needed. Waste was no longer a word that could be spoken in this new day and age. We had to sustain ourselves at any cost.
Those who had been ordained as healers spent their days attending to the sick and injured. They were busy from sun up to sun down, hardly managing any sleep for themselves. Even though we had all escaped that terrible event, some didn’t escape unscathed. Many suffered breaks, scrapes and burns. Others lost limbs. One elderly woman died a few months later from the trauma she received during the invasion. We buried her at the edge of the forest with Father presiding over the service.
No one cried. I don’t think anyone had any tears left.
The rest of us tended to daily chores. Cooking, washing and gathering provisions when necessary. My brother and I often made our way through the wooded areas looking for fresh meat. Animals had become as scarce as humanity, so it was always an adrenaline rush when we spotted a four-legged creature roaming through the brush. There were also times when we ventured out even further to nearby towns to gather whatever we could from the ashes and devastation left behind there as well. It became apparent that the visitors had wiped out everything around us, but we had no way of truly knowing the extent of the destruction. Radios, television, computers and cellular devices had been outlawed by the world’s government two hundred years prior to the gathering in an effort to gain control of its citizens. While it had aided in wiping out global war and tamed the hatred from country to country, it also paralyzed the world to the dangers that could potentially come from somewhere else.
Perhaps people could have been saved if there had been some kind of warning.
Then again, I’m sure no one could ever have imagined destruction at that level.
Time passed, and our little village grew. The cave filled up with various items discovered throughout the years. Antique books, blankets and other comforts had been rescued from beneath the rubble. The cave was closely guarded at all times and provisions were only handed out at the direct consent of my father. Still seen as the leader of our village, he felt an obligation to sustain and protect his people. The idea of another invasion was always in the forefront of his mind.
No one was sure exactly how much time had passed since that fateful day. Some guessed ten years. Others insisted it had been eleven. Regardless, that day was still burned in my memory. We lived in a small community at the edge of town, not too far from the forest’s edge. My mother had suffered from a debilitating disease, causing her to lose muscle function in her limbs. Even with the aid of her crutches, she had great difficulty getting around with any kind of ease. When they came, she couldn’t keep up with the crowd and fell behind. In the confusion, we lost her. When we tried to go back for her, the city was already ablaze…and she was gone. It took me a long time to forgive myself for not staying with her, even though she insisted we go ahead.
In the end, the only children that made it out were Merchent, a small, blue-eyed boy named Kingley and me. Since that day, four more children had been born into the village, all of them inside a rudimentary hut that was only used by the healers.
As far as we knew, we were the only survivors left on earth, but without radio communication of any kind, there was no way of knowing for sure.
It didn’t take long for people to appreciate what little they had. Before the gathering, people took for granted they would always have everything they’d ever need: clothing, food, and a roof over their heads. However, after the invasion, things were drastically different. Everyone escaped with only the clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet. As children got older, they outgrew everything. We collected what we could from our numerous outings to other cities, but sometimes there just wasn’t enough to go around. In fact, I’d become accustomed to walking around barefoot over the last few years since there never seemed to be any shoes available in my size…which was fine during the spring and summer, but when snow fell in the winter months, I resorted to wearing boots nearly twice my size just to keep my feet warm.
Although my father remained ever vigilant and watched the skies religiously, the rest of the villagers grew confident in their security. Since the day we emerged from the darkness of the cave, there had been no sign of the visitors. We ceased looking over our shoulders, almost in an attempt to wipe out the memory of what had occurred. I knew the entire village was living in denial, but I also knew that fear of the unknown future was no way to live out one’s life.
Little Kingley had grown into a tall, lean young man who was eager to hunt and scrounge with my brother and me. He had been raised by the entire village. When the survivors ran for the woods, he was found alone, crying at the edge of the city. Without hesitation, my father scooped him up in his arms and continued to flee with the other survivors. Kingley had no recollection of that day or his parents. He was an orphan.
We began to bring him with us into the woods, teaching him how to hunt and trap. Kingley was a fast learner and seemed to enjoy spending time with people who weren’t necessarily adults, and Merchent and I thought of him as a little brother.
It was a beautiful spring day when the three of us woke at dawn for a short hunting trip. We were quiet, not wanting to wake any of the villagers. Merchent gathered up our weapons while Kingley and I packed some food for the day. Smoked venison and berries. Father appeared from his tent, praying over us for a good hunt and safe return. Hugging him goodbye, we were on our way.
We walked through the woods for about three hours before stopping to set some squirrel traps. Animal populations had grown over the years since the gathering, so hunting wasn’t as sparse as it had once been. Although squirrels were small, there was more than enough meat on them to feed the younger members of our village. The larger game was usually smoked and dried. Electricity and refrigerators were a thing of the past, so if it wasn’t winter, we did what we had to do to keep food from going bad.
After placing more traps near a number of trees, we decided to take a break. Sitting near the bottom of a hill, we pulled out our lunch and quickly ate everything we’d packed. Kingley volunteered to fill our deerskin canteen with water from the small stream we’d passed a few minutes before. Merchent and I passed the time trying to see who could spit berry seeds the furthest.
Kingley didn’t return. I knew it was only a ten minute walk to the stream. Doing the math, I knew he should have been back by then. Sensing something was wrong, Merchent stood up and squinted into the distance, looking for any sign of our young friend.
I called out his name.
I called out to him again.
We followed Kingley’s footsteps on the damp forest floor. Eventually clearing the trees and brush, we were happy to see him standing at the water’s edge.
But that joy quickly turned to dread.
Kingley stood, staring into the sky with a look of euphoria on his face.
We followed his gaze.
My skin grew cold. My stomach knotted up.
I unknowingly held my breath.
They had returned.
The ship lowered itself from the heavens, growing ever larger above us.
Merchant let out a blood curling scream. We had to get back to our village to warn everyone to take cover. I grabbed Kingley’s arm and tried to run, but he wouldn’t move. He was as stiff as a statue – immoveable.
I screamed at him to run.
Then, only for a moment, he took his eyes off the sky.
“They’ve come for me,” he said. Kingley smiled and again directed his attention back to the visitors above.
Merchent was shouting for me to follow him. Unable to move the boy we’d come to love as family, I began to run toward our village.
Reaching the thick tree line, I turned and looked back just in time to see Kingley being lifted into the sky by an unseen force. Arms out, he seemed to be embracing the visitors without fear. He was welcoming them, seemingly forgetting what they had done to our people a decade ago. I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it, but I no longer had the luxury of contemplating his actions.
My brother and I ran. We were miles from the village, but we couldn’t give up. Our friends’ lives were at stake…and our father’s.
Nearly an hour passed, and we were close to home. A thin pillar of smoke from the village’s fire pit could be seen billowing into the air. Stopping for just a moment to catch our breaths, we heard the undeniable sound of spacecraft heading in our direction. We were too late.
Before we could react, the visitors passed overhead. In an instant, our village was in flames. We knew everyone was dead. Our father was gone.
Merchent fell to the ground. He curled up into a ball and began to scream in terror. Falling to my knees beside him, it took all my strength to pull him up. I took his hand and forced him to run with me.
We had to hide.
We never turned around. There was nothing to see. The smoke in the air burned my eyes as we continued to sprint for cover.
I was having difficulty feeling my legs. My chest was beginning to burn from lack of oxygen and my hands were starting to tingle. If I was in that much pain, I knew Merchent must be worse. I turned to witness my brother throwing up our day’s lunch. He couldn’t go on anymore.
Panicking, I searched my surroundings for somewhere to hide. I pulled him along until we were both crouched behind a fairly large boulder. Together, we tried to catch our breath…and waited.
I could hear them. They were above us now.
The closer they got, the more the ground shook below us.
Merchent snapped. He couldn’t take it anymore. His complete and utter fear of the situation took over. He was too strong for me to control as he leapt up and once again began to run.
Before I could scream out his name, he was struck with a bright stream of light, and I watched him fall lifeless to the ground.
He was dead…and I knew I was next. But, I wasn’t going down without a fight.
With tears streaming down my face, I ran, zigzagging throughout the woods, dodging one beam of light after another.
Why? Why did these visitors care about killing one person? What did I have that made me a threat? I was a lowly, human girl. I was nothing special.
In the blink of an eye, Kingley stood before me – smiling.
He began to speak of another race – his race – which had been watching us with great interest for centuries. They witnessed our atrocities: murder, hatred, pollution and war. Careless overpopulation of the human race was seen as selfish in their eyes. To them, we appeared indifferent to the world’s rapidly diminishing resources…just so we could thrive at the expense of what had once sustained us. Humans, he explained, gave little regard to any possible consequences of their actions.
I asked him about the progress my people had made over the past few hundred years at the hand of our world government.
He told me it was too little, too late.
I argued that we should have been given an opportunity to turn things around. The human race, while flawed, did possess the ability to change.
Kingley spoke, stating that the suffering of our planet was too great. His people could no longer stand idly by and watch our planet’s demise…and so, it was decided that it was time we were stopped. To protect what was left of the earth, they became judge and jury of our fate. We never had a chance.
My mind raced, unable to completely grasp what he was revealing; yet, there was one thing that demanded an answer. An overwhelmingly sick feeling rushed over me as I asked the question.
Was I the last of my kind?
There was no need for him to respond. His silence said it all.
I was the only remaining human on earth…and then, he gave me a choice.
I could choose to stay and help the visitors with restoring my planet to its once natural state.
Or, I could choose to die like the others.
It didn’t take long for me to decide. Everyone I had ever known and loved was gone forever. Humans were slaughtered and wiped off the face of the earth. Men like my father had given people hope in the days leading up to and after the gathering – Kingley’s people had taken that away. What gave them the right to judge us? Who were they to condemn us?
I chose death.
Fear welled up inside me, but I garnered up the last of my courage and turned my back to Kingley. If he was going to kill me, I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of looking me in the eye when he did it.
I heard Kingley sigh with disappointment. He had hoped I would join him and his people.
Then, he said something that initially confused me.
In the silence that followed, I came to understand everything clearly.
Suddenly, I was falling forward. Kingley had taken the shot. Hitting the forest floor, I struck my head on a rock, blood flowing from my temple.
I took my last breath. It was as simple as falling asleep.
I’m not sure how long I laid there.
The seasons changed, and months passed.
Time and darkness had caused my memory to fade. I struggled to remember everything exactly as it occurred: the invasion, the gathering and ultimately…my death. As I lay there, a gift to their new ecosystem, I was overwhelmed with emotion knowing that very soon I would be reunited with my family and friends in the afterlife and that my mortality would soon fade away forever.
My father used to say, “It’s a damn shame that death takes the best of a person and buries it with them while the worst remains.” In my final moments, I negated his words. Kingley and his kind would always remember me – I stood up for myself and the human race, not allowing myself to be reeled in by their offer of refuge and assimilation. In the end, death didn’t take the best of me. Death brought about my incredible resolve and would leave a lasting impression on those left behind.
As my consciousness gradually began to fade into oblivion, I remembered Kingley’s last words to me. I finally understood what it had all meant. In their minds, they had done the human race a favor. Kingley and his kind truly believed we had done irreparable damage to our planet. They believed we were slowly destroying all life on earth. In the end, they merely sped up the process. In the end, they saved us from ourselves.
I think this story would work better as a full novel, or at least a novella, as opposed to a short story. There’s a lot that goes on and a lot that needs to be explained before the speaker comes back around to the beginning, where she’s laying dead on the ground and still somehow alive. It could be that it is one of those stories that’s easy to read quickly, but it comes off as too quick-paced, or rushing to get to the meaningful conclusion. Some parts are more summarized than others – specifically the parts where the speaker is explaining the invasion and the damage. It’s also difficult to tell how old the speaker is, because I believe she claims to be a child AFTER noting that the villagers argue whether the invasion took place ten or eleven years ago, but she remembers the events clearly. I assume that she is a teenager or adult by the time she is killed by the aliens/invaders. I imagine the opening could work well as a prelude to a book, with the rest of the story being fleshed out over hundreds of pages and finally returning to the beginning, where she is lying dead on the ground, possibly at peace with what has happened.
The story itself is a good one, though it rings very similar to the film The Day The Earth Stood Still, with some tweaks here and there. One of the most important tweaks is the fact that most of humanity has been wiped out and the villagers are living in caves. An equally important tweak is that the story is set in the far future, after are most common forms of communication (via technology) have been banned. These two things could fill numerous chapters of a book, but here we are given a couple of paragraphs and tossed right into the action/scavenging. Finally, there is the point that I find the most terrifying of all: the fact that she is alive and trapped inside her own dead body for months (and very possibly years).
Back in high school, I wrote a short story about a boy who uses some black magic to make him live forever. At the end, he is killed by a reckless vehicle, but his soul lives on, trapped in his dead body. He is buried “alive” and impatiently awaits the day his body decomposes, and hopes that some day a dog might happen by and dig up his bones so that his soul can be free from the confines of his casket. The whole point of the story is absolute horror. I feel a similar horror in your character’s paralysis-like death, but the story itself reads with a tone of clarity and deep calm.
My last qualm with the story is the conclusion your speaker reaches: that the aliens/invaders have saved the people from themselves by wiping out humanity to start a new life on Earth. I disagree, because it appears that every human and animal is destroyed by the end, leaving only the earth itself and, I suppose, the plants. Therefore, it can only be said that an inhabitable world has been saved from a greedy and wasteful race; not that humanity itself has beeen saved, or even the wildlife.
Aside from these points, it is a very good, well-thought-out tale about society’s flaws and the end of civilization.
Thanks Kevin! I appreciate your candid and kind review. You are correct in that this would probably have worked better in another form, but truthfully I wrote this story on a whim when I needed to take a break from the current novel I’m writing. I don’t typically dabble in sci-fi or short stories, but as an author I feel it’s important to stretch your skills. One should never be afraid of trying something new just because they’re afraid to fail. I have contemplated reworking this concept one day and turning it into a full-length novel, but it will need to wait until my current trilogy and other planned concepts have been completed first. Just knowing that you took the time to read it and review it is greatly appreciated.