October 22nd, 1998
Thursday. The train going by directly under my feet made the rickety track vibrate the ground I was lying on. The patch of grass beneath me had stopped feeling itchy roughly four hours ago. Another savory cigarette pressed against my lips.
“Seven,” I muttered, in my head.
Seven trains had gone by since I’d collapsed next to the railroad in the dawning hours of the new day. My left leg had fallen asleep three times, and at least two stray cats had curled up next to my body. I couldn’t feel my fingertips at all, but I was becoming used to the numbness all throughout my tainted limbs. October air was unforgiving, especially as it passed through the thin sleeves of my well-worn hoodie.
Finally, the train’s horn disappeared into the distance. It was the only sound that gave me the notion that I was, in fact, still alive. Or, maybe I wasn’t. I couldn’t tell anymore.
“They’ll be wondering where you are,” I said aloud, sucking on the end of my cigarette. “They’ll be wondering where you are,” I repeated.
My eyelids felt heavy. “..wondering..”
The precious cigarette slipped from my stiff fingers and rolled down onto the track. “Dammit..”
I quickly turned over onto my hands and knees, a few loose rocks poking into my kneecaps where my shredded jeans refused to cover. As I was about to pick up my cigarette, another freight train rolled by, nearly taking off my hand. I couldn’t hear it over the roaring sounds deep within my velvety mind.
I dug my fingers into the dirt and hoisted myself up, nearly falling over as the vertigo set in. It took a few moments for the blood to start flowing to my feet again, but once I had regained most feeling, I began walking along the rail, heading in the direction that the trains were coming from. The events of these past couple of days fired at me like bullets. Memories formed in pieces as I put together the puzzle.
A pocket watch. A bloody nose. A bottle of liquor. And sirens.
I reached into my hoodie’s pocket and pulled out a circular piece of golden metal. It was chilled from being out here with me, and rather heavy. Heavier than it looked, anyways. A thin chain extended from the top of the carefully engraved watch. It wasn’t mine. There was no way in hell a lowlife like me owned something as beautiful and seemingly priceless as this well-loved accessory. I racked my brain for more information as I balanced on the rails. Something caught my eye in the ditch parallel to the rusty tracks, so I sped up to grab it. It was a newspaper. The first thing I noticed was a bloody thumbprint covering part of the headline. I looked at my hands, and sure enough, it was mine. The indentions in my left thumb had dried blood stuck in them.
“October 18th, 1998 – The search for fourteen year old Monroe Kadence has officially been called off. Two months ago today, the young boy was reported missing by his older brother in the early morning hours of July 18th when he failed to return to his home the night before. With no hope of his return and no indication of what has happened to him, police can go no further with the investigation..” I read aloud, my mouth becoming dry.
Biting down on my lip, I began to shred and tear the newsprint into tiny, insignificant bits. I tossed them all in separate directions and stomped on the scraps with force that kicked up clouds of gravel dust.
Pulling the pocket watch back out from my hoodie, I gently turned the dial at the top and wearily, almost longingly, gazed at the treasure as it popped open. I’d taken it out of Monroe’s hands the night I’d killed him and buried it next to the train tracks.
The summer breeze blew through your ruffled hair.
My thoughts mixed in the ocean’s shifting palm.
The grass under our fingertips felt like a rigid edge to a new beginning.
My mouth uplifted by your euphoric hum.
Oh, how the dandelions danced to the trees marching beat.
A part of me will forever remain here,
implanted in the soil under our feet.
Until the last apple falls from the frolicking tree,
I will remain in this for eternity.
The young mercenary raced through the night, her heart pounding fast as her horse’s bionic hooves ricocheted off the ground. Night was falling, and the forest grew thicker with each step. Ursa thought to herself, They can’t be far behind. I’m running out of time. In between her heavy breathing and the thoughts firing through her brain, Ursa heard shouting close behind. Stopping in the middle of the forest, Ursa realized she had lost her sense of direction. Morgan and his henchmen rode into view. Dismounting from his horse, he grinned with false love in his eyes.
“I never wanted it to be this way, dear,” he said stepping closer to her. She hopped down from her horse, trembling with hatred.
“This is all your fault! Do you think I wanted this?” Ursa replied, backing away with her bow in hand. She stared through him, not recognizing the man he had become. She tried to remember a time when this would have ended peacefully. Sadly, those times were long gone.
Of all the childhoods in the galaxy, Ursa had among the worst. She was orphaned when her parents died in a deadly winter. Cold and malnourished, Ursa found a guard from a local organization. He took her back to his headquarters, where she would recover and grow. She spent the next seventeen years training under CORD — the Council of Robotics for Democracy — led by a man named Morgan Dubeau. She thought of CORD as her family, and of Morgan as her father.
Ursa trained with robots and cyborgs, who taught her about weapons and technology. Being one of the only humans in the organization, she often felt like an outcast, but was thankful to have grown up in a supportive environment. However, as she grew older, Morgan neglected to clarify her role in the organization; she began to worry what her work had been for.
Propaganda messages began popping up around the city. CORD had been working with various agencies to plaster Morgan’s face on every billboard with the saying “Join us today for a brighter tomorrow.” He began giving televised speeches, his words illustrating a future where the country becomes a world power built on cybernetics. CORD opened its doors for citizens to join the new society, and in the following year, Morgan gained control of the city. He developed a hatred for humans; he believed their imperfections made them weak.
It had been weeks since he had spoken to Ursa, until one day, he showed up at her quarters. Ursa was disgusted to see him. In her eyes, Morgan was the shell of the man he used to be. She felt as if her own “father” hated her for being human.
“I have a question,” Morgan prodded.
“Okay…” she trailed off. She had always dreaded this conversation.
“When would you like to start your conversion?” He grinned at her excitedly.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Surely there’s some part of you that you want replaced, right, dear?” He sensed her apprehension.
“I never agreed to be operated on, Dad.” She rose to her feet. “I’m fine just the way I am.”
“You know I want what is best for you, dear. The time is right and you would benefit greatly, especially with your archery skills. You would be a killing machine.” His hand grazed her prized bow on the bedside table. Ursa snatched it away. A machine was the last thing she wanted to be.
“I understand you’re scared, but I’m just looking out for you. The world is changing and you have to change with it, or you’ll be left behind. Don’t you want to rule the world with your old dad?” He held out his arms. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
In an attempt to end the conversation, Ursa replied, “I’ll think about it, okay? I’m going to bed.” Morgan nodded and left her room. As his footsteps faded away, she began packing. She grabbed her bow and a small knapsack with food. The place she called home no longer felt safe, and her father was a stranger. Before dawn, she snuck out with Shock, her now-cyborg horse. Ursa didn’t look back as she rode away.
For a year, Ursa was on the run. She went from village to village, building a rebellion among the humans. To keep CORD’s reign from spreading to other countries, Ursa formed alliances with poor families and elders, who still had memories of a life without robotics. They saw her as their savior. Despite this, CORD named her a wanted fugitive for treason, an act that had led up to this very moment.
Ursa stared at Morgan’s cold, dead eyes, her childhood flashing through her head. All the pain and anger came flooding back to her as she stood, her eyes locked to his.
“Why should I have to turn? It’s not like you’re one of them!” she spat. Morgan was taken aback as Ursa stood her ground. She had built a wall between them, and he fiercely desired to tear it down. Trying to remain calm, Morgan motioned to his henchmen, his two “special projects.” Their bodies were human, but their minds had been almost entirely replaced by machines. By just looking at their eyes, Ursa could see them calculating every outcome of the situation. She knew if she tried to take them on, she’d be overwhelmed.
“Take her,” Morgan ordered the soldiers. Ursa panicked as the drones marched toward her. Hopping back into Shock’s saddle, she charged through the pair into the woods. They reacted quickly and returned to their horses for the chase with Morgan not far behind. Ursa knew she must act soon to keep from being caught.
Shock darted between trees as Ursa selected her next move. She readied her bow and looked back to see how close her pursuers were. Putting her trust in Shock, Ursa aimed at one of the henchmen, hoping to injure him enough to slow them down. She took a deep breath and released just as Shock changed his course of direction. The arrow went flying past its target, who didn’t even flinch. Ursa could feel Morgan’s laughter echoing on the wind.
Grabbing Shock’s reigns, she wrenched him around to face her attackers, and shifted his gallop into reverse. She now had a clear shot. Her vision bobbed up and down with Shock’s steps, but she drew back, ready to fire. She was desperate and tired of running; she wished for her old life back as this episode of chaos unfolded before her. She did not wish to harm her father, the man who had raised her, but the world was changing and so was she.
Ursa let out a final breath, relaxed, and sent the arrow flying. It soared from her hand and plunged itself deep into Morgan’s abdomen. Her jaw dropped as she realized what she had done, but she had to keep running. Morgan’s face drained of color as his eyes locked with Ursa’s. His hands fled to the wound to stop the bleeding, and he fell from his horse.
As the pain began to flood his mind, Morgan thought to himself, I raised her better than this. Ha! Couldn’t even hit a vital organ. His agonized grimace slowly curled into a wry smile. She’s playing with fire, he mused. But I’ll get her back. He stared off through the trees as Ursa rode away and his vision faded to black.
Acidic rain drizzled from the dingy sky onto the stranger’s coat as he waited, leaning against a thrumming boiler. An unearthly bellow could be heard in the distance, but he knew its source would not arrive quite yet. Even so, time could not be wasted any longer. The stranger leaned forward, cracking his spine briefly before striding off into the night in search of another like himself — someone who knew how to deal with the monstrosity that was yet to come.
Stepping through puddles of grimy rain, the stranger found his way to a familiar building: McBane’s Pub, which smelled of gasoline and matches, yet somehow relentlessly attracted the stranger and others like him.
The stranger shoved the door open and scanned the room for a particular man, eventually finding him near the bar. Sitting down, he turned to his old friend, who at the moment was wearing his oddly raven-like mask.
“I assume you’ve heard the calls tonight,” muttered the first stranger, almost as if he was talking to himself. “They’ve been getting louder. Closer.”
“I am not a fool, Mr. Craven. I’ve been dreading dealing with the repugnant creature for days now.” His voice echoed faintly in his mask.
“You think too highly of yourself, Goodwell. I doubt you even noticed, considering how you never take off that ridiculous mask of yours.”
“The rain makes people sick; I’ve said it for years. I refuse to breathe the rain’s disease,” said Goodwell indignantly. “And as for my mask, it doesn’t hinder me in the slightest.” With that response, the two sat in silence with their tasteless drinks in hand, unaware of the man watching them from a nearby table.
Solomon Barnes had been watching the two men at the bar for a while now. They’re probably some of those nightwalker folks, he figured to himself. Nothin’ but trouble, the lot of ‘em. Always looking for some kind of reward for their less-than-decent work. Taking a heavy swig of flavorless alcohol, Solomon left the dim pub.
Throwing open the squeaky door, he stepped into the night, grumbling quietly to himself. He walked through the city alone, ducking under stray electrical cables and various pulleys. The city itself was rusted into oblivion; every piece of metal was tarnished, and anything not made of metal was rotting away from the rain. The rain was still drizzling down ceaselessly, and it made Solomon’s skin tingle like it was slowly eating his flesh away.
Solomon worked his way to the main Boiler District — an endless maze of steam engines and copper pipelines. Grumbling, he began his ascent to the first of hundreds of machines for his weekly quality assessment. He glanced around, pulled out a notepad, taking count of major rusted areas, a number that never failed to increase night after night. While continuing along with his routine, a shrill noise broke the quiet rhythm of ticking panels and bubbling pipelines.
Swearing under his breath, Solomon glanced around. The rumbling screech he’d heard was only comparable to the most dangerous pressure leak he’d ever heard. He shuddered to think of the kind of trouble he’d be in if he missed something so catastrophic, but at least he could try to find it before something horrible happened. Frantically pacing between generators, Solomon searched for the screech’s source, scrutinizing every inch of every boiler down to the smallest dial. He dashed from pipe to pipe, and suddenly he heard the noise again — this time, much, much louder. Craning his neck up slowly, Solomon saw a nightmarish creature crouched on top of an old, pitted steam turbine.
The beast was horrifying to behold: its eyes glowed yellow in the fog, while a mane of bramble-like appendages sprouted from its neck like a crown, slowly shifting and twitching in the air like a cockroach’s antennae. Its shadowy-gray, muscular limbs ended in taloned claws that bit into the steel it stood on. Slowly, its twin tongues edged out of its mouth, hungrily licking its fangs. Solomon’s screams echoed in the dead streets.
Back at McBane’s, Craven and Goodwell crashed through the pub’s door with unnatural speed and began weaving through alleys and jumping pipelines, eventually arriving at the Boiler District. Back to back, they entered the labyrinth of pipes and wires, scanning for anything unusual. Craven quietly loaded his large revolver and gave it a good luck spin, while Goodwell clutched his various caustic tinctures and devices. After a few tense minutes of searching, the hunters came upon the sundered body of what was once an engineer.
Suddenly, an ear splitting howl came from overhead, and the beast lunged towards them, ready for the kill. In an instant, Craven and Goodwell leapt out of the way, and the beast skidded across the cobblestones, leaving deep gashes in the ground. Goodwell grabbed an intricate bronze orb from his belt and hurled it at the creature before it could attack again. The device smashed into the side of its face, releasing a gas from within. The beast roared in anger as its eyes burned from the noxious vapor. Fighting through its pain with monstrous rage, it tore through pipes and gauges to get to its prey: Craven.
Craven, who would never get used to the idea of hellish creatures chasing him through tight spaces, quickly rounded a corner onto a series of steel platforms, but the beast was on his heels, and its vision was slowly clearing. Out of options, Craven vaulted over a rail, managing to land on a large water heater. Then, with an ease only a professional killer might have, he tore his revolver from his belt and fired three rounds into the monster jumping after him.
With a yelp of pain, it misjudged its landing and fell to the ground below with a heavy thud. Heading after it, Craven slowly climbed down until he stood in front of the beast, which struggled to its feet to face him as it bled profusely from its wounds. Another orb whirled into view, burning the beast’s lungs once more. It roared in anguish, but Craven crouched in front of it, unshaken.
“You know, I used to kill wretches like you out of necessity,” Craven said to the dying monster, slowly getting closer and closer to its massive maw. “I fought to keep people I cared about safe from harm. But now, they’re all gone. So I ask myself one question every time I hunt one of you down: why do I keep doing this again and again? What’s the point of hunting you down if there’s always going to be another monstrosity to find afterwards?” Now, the beast watched him intently, its massive, yellow eyes unblinking.
“And you know what? The answer is always the same,” Craven told the monster. “Because I enjoy it.”
Three more gunshots echoed in the night, hanging in the air like the toll of a church bell. Solemnly, Goodwell appeared behind Craven and removed a tinderbox from his coat, along with some gasoline, and set the remains ablaze, never saying a word. By the time the massive body had begun to smoke, Craven had disappeared without a trace. Taking a deep breath through his peculiar mask, Goodwell leaned against a boiler, watching the embers float into the bleak sky that still drizzled rain down upon him — a lone stranger in the night.
This archives page collects the creative writing works of high school students that won the Young Lions Creative Writing Contest.
Printing is not supported at the primary Gallery Thumbnail page. Please first navigate to a specific Image before printing.