WAR OF THE NIGHT

Larry Hodges, an Odyssey workshop grad, has sold more than one hundred stories. His four novels include Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions, published by World Weaver Press, and When Parallel Lines Meet, a Stellar Guild team-up with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn. This is his thirteenth appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

***

On All Hallow’s Eve the spirits of the dead rose out of the ground. Like balls of light, they rose into the air, and then, weighed down by their twenty-one grams, they fell back to earth…and bounced. They shot about like plum-sized rubber balls, until slowly, slowly, they settled on the earth, forming lines of infantry, ready for war.

A short distance away the ground trembled. A gray, shriveled hand reached out, clutching at the sky like a fluttering flag. More hands came out, then heads, shoulders, and entire bodies, as the rotting dead arose. At first they shambled about drunkenly, and then they too formed lines of infantry, ready for war.

“Calder!” Private Seth cried as he located his friend. The centuries had come and gone, and they had faced numerous adventures and escapades, and yet the two spirits were still together.

“Seth!” Private Calder cried back, bouncing up and down excitedly, his blazing scarlet a contrast to Seth’s pulsing yellow. They bumped in greeting, and then the two rejoined their patrol.

“I hope they have better plans this time,” Seth said, the voice coming from deep inside his ball of light. He and the other four spirits in the Crushed Skull Patrol hid from the dead in the thick grass, waiting for their orders. Only the stars and a nearly full moon shed light on the darkness that covered the field, surrounded by even darker forests and a large hill on one side.

“They blazing hell better,” said Calder. “Sometimes I think the generals ain’t got no brains.”

Seth had seen the generals—Washington, Grant, Lee, Pershing, Eisenhower, Maddox—from a distance a few times. Somehow he seemed to know the first four better than the last two, and Pershing especially seemed somehow familiar. What did those six spirits have planned for tonight’s battle? Somewhere out there, the dead bodies of the generals’ six counterparts were also making plans. Somehow the dead always seemed to have better plans.

“I just hope they don’t send us into another hole,” Seth said. He remembered the fiasco from last year, where their attempt to capture the bridge at Smith’s Creek ended with the patrol falling into a trap the dead had dug into the ground, with the dead smacking them down when they tried to bounce their way out. It had been a long, painful night, one of the worst of the past seven hundred years. And for what? Spirits had no need of a bridge, they could just bounce over. If they had captured it, the dead would just build another somewhere else. Capturing the bridge was an important task, Sergeant Myers had said. But they had failed.

“It’s the holes in their heads that frets me,” Calder said. “’Cept we ain’t got no heads.”

“Silence in the ranks!” They hadn’t seen Sergeant Myers sneak up on them.

“Yes sir!” Seth and Calder cried together. Nearby, Privates Robyn and Harmon also leaped to attention.

“I said…oh, never mind.” Myers slowly bounced up and down like a pink grapefruit. “We have our orders.” The Crushed Skull Patrol gathered round. Robyn, shining brightly like an orange, playfully bumped into Harmon.

“Hey!” Harmon cried, his voice slurred. His dull white light matched the dullness of his mind. Calder believed that Harmon must have died from getting hit in the head by a cannonball. “Watch what you, uh—”

“Watch yourself, dummy,” Robyn said. She gave him another playful jab. “You look like an onion.”

“What?” Harmon said, flickering in confusion as she faked another bump. As always, Seth found it somehow strange that there were women in the patrol, but he wasn’t sure why.

“Shut up, both of you,” Myers said.

“Maybe we get to be the point of the spear this time,” Calder said. “Just once I hope we lead the attack. I wanna smack Grant’s drunken nose into his blueberry face.”

“Our Grant is the blue one,” Seth pointed out. “The dead one only has a blue uniform. You meant that one?”

“I stand by what I says,” Calder said.

“Maybe we’ll be the point next year,” Sergeant Myers said. “Now listen up. This year, our mission is to capture Smith’s Hill.” There were groans. “It’s an important task.”

“It’s always an important task,” Calder said.

“Why the hell do we need Smith’s Hill?” asked Robyn, giving the squawking Harmon another nudge. This time Harmon bumped her back. Both laughed.

“Because you can’t control the valley without taking the high ground around it,” Myers said. “And stop giggling like little girls. Now here’s the plan.” As usual, the plan was less a plan and more a rah-rah speech that basically said, “Go get ‘em!” Seth tuned it out; there was no point in listening. Rarely did their battles go according to plan, not when faced with the traps and ambushes the dead always set for them. And yet, the spirits did somehow win about half the battles, due to their superior speed and quickness, ability to gang up on the individual dead, and refusal to give up.

The Crushed Skull Patrol rolled silently through the brush along the edge of the forest toward the hill, dodging shards of crumbling gravestones. How strong would the defenses be? Seth rolled along with care, remembering the hidden trap from last year. Calder was in the lead, followed closely by Seth, Robyn, Harmon, and Sergeant Myers.

None saw the dead hand reach down toward them from an overhanging branch, nor the shinbone it grasped, not until it had smashed into Calder. He shot away like a pumpkin seed spit in the air, crashing into a nearby tree.

Then the dead looked down at Seth, already bringing the shinbone back to strike again. With a burst of energy, Seth leaped up at the dead face. So did the rest of the patrol as they slammed into the dead’s head, a massive stoning. The dead tried to protect itself with its arms, but the spirits came at it from all sides at high speeds until the dead fell to the ground and lay still, its skull fractured like pottery.

“Good work, ladies,” Myers said. But he and Seth were already bouncing toward where Calder lay still on the ground. “Robyn, check on Calder.”

She rolled next to Calder, whose orange light flickered. After a moment, Robyn shook her ball of light side to side. “No good, sir.”

Seth rolled next to his friend. “Calder, you okay?”

“Seth, I forgot to bounce.” Calder’s light grew dim.

“You’re going to be fine.”

“Yeah, sure, and maybe they’ll find a way to pin a medal on us, and we’ll spend the day in officer territory talkin’ shop with the generals. And then we’ll return to the front to do what we’re supposed to do, killin’ the dead.” There was barely a spark left in him.

“It’s so pointless!” Seth said, rolling from side to side. “Why do we fight?”

“We fight because we was ordered to fight,” Calder whispered. And then his light went out, and he was dead.

Dead? Seth couldn’t believe it. Not Calder. Not again.

“Get up!” Seth cried, but Calder lay still and dark. Only minutes into their mission, and already his best friend was dead. Seth’s own light dimmed as he stared at the dead spirit.

“He gave his life for the mission,” Myers said. “Now we must move on. Calder would have wanted us to complete the mission. We’ll give his death meaning.”

Seth continued to stare, unable to move.

“Roll away, soldier!” Myers cried, in full command voice.

Seth jerked away from Calder. Myers was right; Calder would have wanted them to continue, to fulfill their mission. A cold, hot fury rose in Seth; the dead would pay! His light flashed to full brightness.

“Let’s take that hill,” he said, dropping the words like hot icicles. He took the lead as the others followed.

“Crushed Skull Patrol, forward!” Myers cried.

Again they rolled forward, using whatever cover they found to hide. They reached the base of the hill and began to roll up. The hill grew steeper, covered with trees and undergrowth, making forward progress slow and tiresome.

Seth bounced forward, the adrenaline of battle coursing through him as he pulled away from the others.

“Slow down, soldier,” Myers said, “save that energy for battle.”

“Can’t, sir,” Seth said. “I think I’ll explode if I go any slower.”

“Then we’d better get you into another battle,” Myers said. “Crushed Skull Patrol, halt!” They came to a stop. “Most of the dead should be off defending their forest outposts. There shouldn’t be many guarding the hill. Robyn, Harmon, you two reconnoiter ahead, and report back on its defenses.”

“Yes sir!” the two cried as they rolled forward.

“What about me?” Seth asked.

“The way you’re bouncing around,” Myers said, “they’d see you coming like a drunk jackrabbit. You’ll have your chance to fight. Now sit still and try to stay alive.”

There were the sounds ahead of broken underbrush and curses, and then Robyn and Harmon bounced into view. Chasing them were four dead. The long legs of the dead allowed them to cover surprising ground, and while they were normally no match for the speed of a spirit bouncing on a straightaway, the thick undergrowth slowed down the bouncing spirits. The dead gained rapidly on them.

“Retreat!” Myers cried. He and Seth joined Robyn and Harmon as they bounced back down the hill. The undergrowth died down a bit, and the downhill aided their flight. Soon they had left the dead behind, and were back at the base of the hill, hiding under a bush.

“Whadda we do now?” Harmon asked, his words even more slurred than usual.

“Whadda ya think?” Robyn said, mimicking Harmon’s voice.

“But we lost!” Harmon cried.

Robyn smacked into Harmon, knocking him almost out of the cover of the bush. Myers turned toward them and started to say something but stopped. He stared behind them.

“What do you think we do?” Robyn continued. “We go right back and—”

“Shut up, private, and look,” Myers said. They all turned and looked. Six spirits were rolling by.

“It’s the generals!” Seth whispered. They were instantly recognizable. First came Eisenhower, a majestic purple, bobbing slightly up and down. Then came Pershing, green and low to the ground like one who’d been in the trenches too long. Next came Lee, gray and dignified and rolling in a perfectly straight line, like a cadet trying to be a sergeant’s pet. The blue Grant followed, weaving like a drunken blueberry. Then came Washington, a bright white that almost hurt to watch. And finally Maddox, a pulsing, bloody red.

The six stopped for a moment. Washington gave a short nod at them. Then they continued on, disappearing into the undergrowth.

“Did you see that!” Harmon cried, vibrating up and down as his dirty white light flashed.

“He nodded at us!” Robyn cried, her orange light also flashing.

“Keep it down,” Myers whispered. “You keep yelling and blinking your lights, you’ll attract every dead within a mile.”

Seth realized he too was flashing with excitement, and forced himself to calm down. The generals! Right here, near the front lines!

“That’s why we fight,” Myers said. “For the generals!”

“For the generals!” they cried in poor unison.

“Let’s go, men!” Myers cried.

“Charge!” Robyn screamed.

They charged back up the hill. So much for the supposed plans Myers had gone over with them. They would take the hill, or…

The ambush happened so fast it was almost over before Seth realized they had rolled into a trap. The four dead leaped out from behind trees swinging various leg bones. One smashed into Robyn, slamming her into the ground where she lay still, her light already out. Another just missed Seth as he bounced above it, then squirmed to the side to avoid a second blow. He was too close to gather speed to ram, but one of the eyes of the dead was an open socket. As another blow came toward him, he rolled aside and leaped for the opening.

The dead grabbed at him with gray, rotting fingers, catching him in both hands. Seth squirmed, but the dead had him, and began to squeeze the light out of him.

“Get your stinking paws off me, you—” Seth began, but was interrupted as Myers slammed into the dead’s face, rebounding off. Seth pulled free, hit the ground, and with a gigantic leap, reached the dead’s eye socket. He squeezed inside.

Before him lay a brown, rotting mass, like something a dog left on a lawn weeks before. The dead’s dried-up brain. There wasn’t enough room in the skull to build up speed, but he remembered a trick from boot camp those first few All Hallow’s nights after he’d died so long ago. He leaped against the side of the skull, hitting it at an angle and rebounding against the other wall. Bouncing side to side in this fashion, stiffening his spirit body at contact each time to absorb the impact, he built up speed. Then he dived into the brain, and it was like hitting dried-up mud as it crumbled to dust. Suddenly he was weightless as the dead fell, its head slamming into a tree. Caught off guard, Seth slammed into the side of the skull. He had no time to brace for the impact.

When Seth awoke, he was still inside the dead’s skull, covered in brain dust, with a massive mindache, like the night long ago when he and Calder had hid in a whiskey still, breaking open some bottles of many hundred years vintage, and regretting it in the early morning hours. He shook the dust free, and then squeezed back out the eye socket.

The four dead lay still on the ground. So did Myers, Robyn, Harmon, and half a dozen other spirits. Another patrol must have come by and joined the battle.

He rolled from spirit to spirit to make sure, but their lights were gone. A tear rolled down his surface.

With the dead dead, and he the only surviving member of the Crushed Skull Patrol, he knew where his duty lay. He would mourn later. He had his orders.

He began the agonizing journey up the hill, too tired to bounce. The undergrowth now seemed especially treacherous, with roots and thorns attacking him as he rolled. He was sure the sun would be coming up soon when he finally approached the summit.

A dead stood at the top, staring down at him. Its tattered brown uniform and trousers looked somehow familiar to Seth, but he couldn’t quite place it. Both its eyes were intact, leaving no easy route to the brain. The dead raised a sword.

Where’d it get that? Single-handedly taking on a dead with a sword wasn’t his idea of fun, but he had his orders. Take the hill.

He considered coming in fast and slamming into the dead. The problem was that one spirit can’t do that much damage to a dead with one blow, and after he rebounded, the dead might slice him in two with the sword. That was the advantage of a group, where there’d be a constant barrage.

Then the dead lowered its sword, its pale blue eyes wide in wonder, though it was hard to tell from the rotting eyes of a dead. Seth studied its thin, gray face, surprisingly well preserved, and realized why it was so familiar.

It was his own dead body.

In all the battles in the ongoing war of the night, he’d never seen his body before, not since he’d died seven hundred years ago from—what? He couldn’t remember.

He moved closer, advancing up the hill, staring into the soulless eyes of his body, which stared back. Then his body raised the sword. It too had its orders. Guard the hill.

Seth went in, dodging and weaving as his body slashed at him with the sword, just missing by inches. Seth slammed into it, but he was too close to gain momentum and so it was like a hummingbird slamming into an elephant. As he rebounded, shaken and woozy, he noticed that the rotting left eyeball protruded slightly, leaving a small opening.

The sword slashed at him again, missing by a fraction of an inch. Seth bounced away. His body gave chase. Seth built up speed, slowly pulling away. Then he bounced against a tree, rebounding back toward his body, another trick he’d learned at those boot camp exercises he’d once thought pointless. He shot toward his body at high speed, once again just missing the sword. He hit the left eye socket. His body howled as Seth used his momentum to push the eyeball into the skull as he forced his way in.

His old brain lay before him, rotted and desiccated. He again built up speed by rebounding off the inside of the skull, and then slammed into it.

Instead of turning his brain to dust, Seth sank into it. He tried to stop himself, but something pulled him in. Then he was inside his old brain. It was like putting on a comfortable old sweater.

Vague memories poured into his mind, of a previous life so long ago. Of a wife and children—but they were only hazy shadows from the past. Sitting in a hall full of students—had he been a student? Getting drafted and military training. And of a violent death on a hill in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in France in World War I, which he’d known as The Great War and The War to End All Wars.

As a spirit, he only knew the generals as larger-than-life entities they were supposed to follow. But the dead have actual brains and seemingly better memories. Now he remembered them from history—Washington, Lee, Grant, and of course Pershing, who he had fought for in Argonne. He only knew of Eisenhower and Maddox from what other dead had told his dead self—Eisenhower had fought in something called World War II, Maddox in World War III. There were others from other wars, from the Revolutionary War through the Iraq wars—where, according to some of the more recent dead, women fought in actual combat—and right up to World War III, the last war anyone from the dead outfit knew of. The memories were like half-forgotten dreams after one wakes up, phantoms of a previous life.

More vivid were the memories of his unit—the dead’s patrol. The rotting dead, conscious beings with thoughts and desires no different than spirits, with their own orders. They had given their lives to fulfill those orders—guard the hill—just as his own spirit squad had been ordered to take it.

He stood up and looked out of the rotting, crumbling eye sockets that had once been his eyes. He stood on top of the hill, out over a cliff on one side; a glow of satisfaction ran through him. He had completed his mission. Then he breathed in, a strange sensation from long ago. The intoxicating scent of forest and war filled him—trees and pine cones, dried blood and rotting flesh. Souls have no sense of smell, and he’d forgotten what it was like. Another advantage of having a body, even a dead one that didn’t actually need to breathe.

He looked about and could see and hear distant fighting. Why must they fight? Because of orders? To take a hill? For the generals?

“We fight because it is our nature to fight.”

Seth looked about wildly, and then realized the voice came from below. He wasn’t yet used to his new vantage point; he’d been a ball of light rolling and bouncing on the ground one night a year for seven hundred years.

The voice came from a bright white ball near his feet. Only one spirit possessed that powerful whitish glow. Seth flickered in shock.

“General Washington!” he stammered, not sure what else to say. He awkwardly came to attention, no longer used to doing so in an actual body.

“At ease, private,” the ball of light said.

Seth relaxed somewhat, but still stared. “How did you know what I was thinking, General?” He noticed the dawn was breaking, and that the eastern sky was beginning to light up.

“It wasn’t hard. The faraway look as you watched the fighting and killing.”

“What did you mean by it’s our nature?”

“What did you think I meant, private? We’re only active one night a year, and look what we do, both body and spirit. No different than when we were alive. It is our nature.”

“Do you mean man’s nature, spirit’s nature, or the dead’s nature?”

“All of the above. The spirits and the dead are just two facets of man’s nature. The dead have more of the rational side, the spirits more of the emotional side.”

“Is that why the dead always seem to have better battle plans?”

“They do have the brains. Hopefully not all the wisdom.”

Seth’s spirit self had sometimes pondered these questions, but it had always quickly forgotten and gone back to the business of fighting. No other spirits seemed to go even that far. Now that he was reunited with his body and brain, he seemed more complete, more able to contemplate things. He did not like what he saw.

“Why are all six of you generals here?” Seth asked. It seemed coincidental that all of them would happen to—haunt?—the same area.

“Call it command central, private. Now, are you ready to return to your unit?”

An eternity of fighting. And for what? It may be our nature, but he could fight it. “No,” he said, surprising even himself. Nobody said no to a general.

Washington pulsated in surprise. “What will you do?”

Seth looked out over the battlefield, and then turned the other way, toward the reddish dawn. He’d never really thought about the world outside. “I’m going out there. To explore.”

“You may not like what you find,” Washington said.

“What will I find? I don’t like what I find here.”

“You will find man’s destiny,” Washington said. “And then you will return.” The sun broke over the horizon. Like a marionette with broken strings, Washington sank into the ground.

For the first time in seven hundred years, Seth did not sink into the ground at dawn. Perhaps it only happened to disembodied souls and bodies, but now his were reunited.

He stood and watched the sunrise. He vaguely remembered that it hurt the eyes for a living human to look directly at the sun, but with his dead, zombie eyes, he truly watched the sunrise for the first time in his existence.

Then he set out to explore. At first, all he found were forest and fields, little different than the region they had been fighting on all those centuries. Then, after hiking for weeks, he came upon the remains of a large city. Parts of some of the buildings still stood, steel and concrete monuments to the past. Birds nested in the vine-covered rooftops while squirrels scampered in and out of windows. It was all that was left of man. Seth continued to explore, and found other cities, but no sign of living humans. His dead brain remembered talk of World War III and something called nuclear war from long ago.

You maniacs, he thought coldly. You killed yourselves off. All that was left were the dead and the spirits, damned to an eternal fighting hell. Tears rolled down his desiccated, dead face.

After a year of exploring, he found himself back where he’d begun, where he’d last spoken to Washington. Something had pulled him there, and he hadn’t resisted.

Once again it was All Hallow’s Eve, and the sun was sinking into a glorious sunset. When it fell below the horizon, the spirits of the world would come out of the ground, the dead would arise, and their war would continue. But Seth knew there was no point to the fighting. General Washington was wrong; he had to be. Any thinking being, whether man, dead, or spirit, must have the power to change their nature and their destiny by simply choosing to do so. He had no more tears for mankind; they had shown their nature and were forever gone.

But he knew he was wrong.

He hiked up Smith’s Hill to the cliff he’d seen earlier. He stared down at a rocky area in the midst of the forested valley far below. He took one more deep breath, luxuriating in the scent that made him feel almost alive. Then he jumped.

The sun sank below the horizon.

***

“Private, get in formation!” Sergeant Myers said.

“Yes sir!” Seth cried, getting in line behind Calder, who playfully bumped him in greeting, as did the giggling Robyn and Harmon. “Orders, sir?” Seth asked.

“Our mission is to capture Smith’s Pond,” Sergeant Myers said. There were groans. “It’s an important task.”

Copyright © 2017 by Larry Hodges