The October Editor's Pick Writer is Malcolm Laughton
Please feel free to email Malcolm at: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE RED MAUSOLEUM
Murdoch rolled in the dirt of the Kop, like one of their bloody commandos, he thought. The Kop—that nickname for this hellish South African hill in the middle of the British versus Dutch Boer battlefield—chopped through his head. At least, in 1900, his British Army masters had given them khaki uniforms, not the bright red that stood out like bull’s-eyes.
They didn’t see him. He saw them. Or at least one of them. The Boer sharpshooter, his face pressed into his sights, hadn’t even flinched on Murdoch’s roll. The man was too focused on his target to be distracted. Murdoch had him in his sights. This close he couldn’t miss. His finger squeezed.
Click. The chamber was empty. Stupid, stupid! He hadn’t reloaded. The Boer moved like a startled snake; the rifle point swinging toward him. Murdoch rolled again out of the way of the incoming bullets.
Murdoch rolled further, tumbled, fell, hit the ground, and tumbled again down the side of the Kop. He was moving so fast—still clinging to his rifle—that he’d be killed if he hit a rock. He couldn’t stop himself; would there be some cliff edge, a void into which he’d spring, a few thoughts and memories before he hit? At least no sharpshooter could get him at this speed.
The ground leveled and Murdoch came to a stop. He lay there a moment. Nothing broken, but he felt bruised to buggery under his uniform. He became aware of something in his peripheral vision. He looked up. That shouldn’t be there. He stood up and stared.
The Egyptians hadn’t gotten anywhere near this far south, Murdoch thought as he tried to make sense of the great, red granite building rising above and before him. It looked like some lost pharaoh’s mausoleum. He wondered if he was dead or dreaming, but he didn’t believe in an afterlife, and the stone looked too real to be a dream.
He stooped down and placed a hand on one of the stone steps that ascended before him. The steps lay between two sculptured lions that were roaring silently. He felt hard stone, still cool where shadowed by a lion from the African sun. He could see the individual crystals, under the cut and polish, and here and there he saw noticed imperfections, chips and scratches. It was real all right. Must be Egyptian.
Murdoch felt the curious draw of the unknown, but hesitated. He had no time to be curious. The sniper was still out there on the Kop.
He turned around. He saw the Kop…still there, all too present, with its now distant and muffled gunfire. He would get shot for desertion if he didn’t go back.
He knew he would not go back. He considered himself brave, but not foolish. To go back was to die.
Sod it, he thought, I’m taking shelter in this mausoleum. He started up the steps between the brutal big cats.
He stood in a great hall full of statues. A dark, domed ceiling arched high above from which a multitude of light beams cast from eye-like apertures. Seeing a stream of light fall on a sculpture in the middle foreground, Murdoch walked toward it.
Two fully armored and mounted medieval knights clashed. Well, that screws the Egyptians, Murdoch concluded. This was built much later in time…maybe the 14th Century.
He stood and stared. The knights rode monstrous, half-ton horses whose tongues lolled from gaping mouths, gasping for air in the exertion of their charge, spindles of spittle frothing into the air. Murdoch could recognize extraordinary craftsmanship when he saw it.
He remembered, once, thumbing through a fine art book of prints of Italian Renaissance sculpture. None of that matched this. The stone was some kind of darkish, blood red marble, barely translucent, that took detail marvelously. The lances splintered in collision on shield and armor; and the horses’ spit seemed to hang in the air; the armor plate so defined that it seemed to encase living bodies inside. He sensed the forces of the collision running through knights and horse; sensed fear and exhilaration behind those visor snouts. He wondered if anyone would ever carve British and Boers, shooting each other in the dirt, so lovingly.
He stood there a long time. He fancied that, if he waited there long enough, he’d see actual movement. But the knights remained enthralled to that one fragment of time. Time? As he moved away from the statue, he felt his gaze drawn to the far side of the hall. There he saw light cast from another chamber.
As he walked toward it, he thought he heard another’s footfalls dog his own. He swung round, but saw no one living—only the statues. The footfalls could only be his own echoing in the hall.
He stood on the threshold of the second chamber where the light obscured the limit of the arched roof. Before him lay a vast floor of immaculate white marble inviting his tread; he stepped out onto it, and the chamber darkened slightly. He looked up, and the ceiling appeared to hang with an overcast atmosphere, straining to shed its load.
Then the fall began. The ceiling looked like a sky hemorrhaging red snowflakes that were falling like bloody petals into the hall. Murdoch stepped out; his hand outstretched to catch one, and felt his foot sink into the marble floor. He looked down into mud.
As movement caught his peripheral eye line, Murdoch looked up. He saw a single soldier walking across the floor, his uniform British khaki. But where his face should have been, some terrible, leather-snouted mask hung, and upon his head a shallow, rimmed, iron helmet sat.
Shadows accompanied the soldier in his unsteady march so that he appeared accompanied by the advance of an incorporeal army, against a muted thunder that Murdoch recognized as guns. He saw the soldier looking about, as if trying to find his way through some invisible barrier; then he saw the faint outline of barbed wire, upon which the shadows of men hung. The soldier found his way through some torn fragment.
He couldn’t suppress the fear that gripped him. He was supposed to be a soldier. Soldiers weren’t supposed to react with fear. And then he thought, I’m no soldier. I’m a deserter, because I give into my fears and curiosity.
Murdoch’s eye felt drawn to the other side of the hall. There he saw a second soldier—grey, masked, and with a flanged helmet—sitting behind a gun rattling silent, mechanical gunfire. The gun turned toward where the first soldier had marched, and Murdoch turned to see that one kneel and aim. Two shots blasted. Two soldiers tumbled to the ground.
Murdoch silently stood in falling red snow. He’d seen men die before. But here, in this hall, he felt he bore lonely witness to the extinction of light; the sudden and merciless curtailment of two mirrored nests of perceptions, thoughts, memories and feelings. In these two strangers, he felt like he’d lost friends and compatriots to some stupid bestial reflex of violence.
Suddenly the red snow began to clear. Murdoch saw that the second hall was as full of statues as the first, its floor once again marble, unstained by the blood-petals. There must have been some kind of magic lantern show projected from hidden places. Either that, or war had finally driven him mad.
A man crouched and aimed, Murdoch in his sights. The Boer had followed him! But Murdoch’s body relaxed…it wasn’t the Boer, only a bronze statue of the first soldier. Statues couldn’t shoot him, could they? Would this soldier move like the others did?
No! He couldn’t have seen what he thought he did. He was experiencing war fatigue, and guilt over his desertion.
Statues didn’t move.
The third hall glittered with steel. Murdoch gazed at some huge, armored vehicle from whose turret a long gun protruded. Could use a few of those against the Boers, he thought.
He’d have a look at the other sculptures. But these he couldn’t comprehend. A man, apparently in civilian apparel, sat, slumping, at a desk filled with items Murdoch didn’t recognize. What kind of a soldier fights from behind a desk, he asked himself, a general?
But the man looked too young to be a general; and he appeared to be dying, though he looked more the victim of disease than weapons. Pustules pimpled around his mouth and nostrils, and veins swelled in his eyeballs. Murdoch thought if he looked around, he would find some paired collaborator in destruction, but he moved on.
Murdoch—half wondering if the building had in fact been built by gods or Martians—stood before a sculpture of two machines, pocked with weaponry, with nothing human about them, fighting at zero quarters like giant rhino beetles. The metal of the sculpture seemed to be melting, yet he felt no heat. And yet the machines were melting away as if under some sun far more cruel than that of Africa.
He decided to get out of the hall. It really was time to get back to his own war. But could he go back? Was it worth throwing away his life for so-called honor? What did he care who ruled this bit of Africa? British, Dutch, Zulu, Egyptian, it was all one to him.
He stepped back into the second hall. He stopped dead. A man knelt, rifle aiming at him. Only the statue again, thought Murdoch. But then he realized this one was no statue.
A Boer had followed him into the mausoleum!
Instinctively Murdoch ducked. He heard the rifle blast from where the Boer crouched, and the ping of the bullet as it missed. It had been very close. Murdoch knelt and took aim, looking at the Boer through his sights.
The Boer’s rifle shook. The soldier scrambled up and ran like a maddened hare, weaving and zigzagging between the cover of statues… running from Murdoch’s unloaded gun.
Well, he’s quick on his pegs, Murdoch thought, as he stood up and watched the Boer disappear through the chamber exit into the first hall. He stood awhile longer, trying to calm his frayed nerves. Then he realized his terrible mistake.
He dashed after the Boer. Murdoch had to get through that open doorway, the only way he knew in the direction of out. The Boer would know that, and cover it with his rifle. It was maybe already too late.
He scrambled through the entry and took up cover behind a statue. Good. He’d made it. Time to reload for sure.
He stuck his hand in his ammo pouch. Nothing there! He was out of ammunition.
A wave of panic washed at him. He fumbled for his bayonet. Calm down. He doesn’t know you’re out.
His fingers let the bayonet slip back into its sheath. Fixing it would give the game away. He’d assess the situation from where he crouched. From behind the statue, he had a clear view of only a narrow angle of the hall. If he stuck his head out he’d be asking to get it shot off. Best to wait, and stay still and quiet.
Murdoch listened, but heard nothing other than his own breath. Time dragged, and he came to feel he was being watched. A thousand eyes on him. Observing. A thousand Boer rifles out there. Peering in on him, silently whispering. Waiting for him to come out.
Murdoch felt himself retch from fear. He gagged it back down. The retching would make noise. He’d give his position away. He’d show his fear. Start the shakes. He couldn’t wait here. Being watched. He had to go out.
Somehow he managed to control himself. He would adopt the role of hunter. He strode out into the hall, and struck a confident pose. If he was going to get it, it was now.
No shots came. His eyes scanned the hall. He saw the presence of statues everywhere, but nothing moved. He waited and listened. Nothing.
It looked like the Boer had run from the building; Murdoch had better do the same. Get back to his own side, before the Boer sent anyone down for him.
He reached the light of the entrance. The stairs and the lions still stood there. But the Kop was gone. Before him lay a desolate landscape—a grey black desert where shards of glass glinted. He found himself under a dark sky that was somehow infected by a purple white glare.
He heard no birdsong, nor any cry of the hyena—only a mournful scurry of wind. Murdoch looked again at the stairs and lions; they appeared identical to those he’d seen before. It seemed as if some conjurer’s curtain had been drawn across the real landscape. He would walk out onto the top step.
The heat hit him. He stepped back and looked at his hand, the only part of him that had passed through the threshold. Nothing showed yet, but it was burned; he needed to get water on it. But there was none. He spat on it as best he could, and waved it in the cool air of the hall. That would have to do.
Maybe he’d come out the wrong door. He looked about and saw the sculpture of the two knights doing combat. He walked toward it to check.
He recognized the same knights, but the statue had changed. One of the knights had fallen; his great, red-marble horse had tumbled from the plinth onto the floor. It looked as if it had been carved there. The visor up, Murdoch saw the face of the fallen man. It was young and terrified, and a battle axe lay where it had slipped from his hand.
He looked up at the other man who leaned down from his horse; a long sword lunging a death stroke. His visor had been torn away by some terrible blow, the face savage and cruel. Murdoch smelled something bad. Someone had soiled themselves.
Murdoch heard breathing—not his own—fast and irregular. He started to move round the sculpture.
And then the Boer came at him, a Bowie knife glinting. Murdoch dropped his rifle as the Boer slammed into him. Murdoch grabbed at the soldier, catching and holding his arms. They rolled over each other.
Murdoch found himself on top as he let go of the Boer’s unarmed hand and drew his bayonet. The two of them scrambled and tangled, limbs freeing and being caught, until they fell into a deadly press.
Murdoch, the stronger, felt the other man weaken—his gaping mouth not more than sixteen winters from his mother’s teat. Oh my god, Murdoch thought. He’s just a boy.
Fear tugged in the boy’s face. Murdoch’s weight behind it, the bayonet penetrated the boy. The young soldier went into spasms, limbs flaying free. At last it stopped, and Murdoch clambered up onto his knees. Something caught his eye.
Murdoch looked at the sleeve of his jacket. He saw his uniform turning red through the dirt. The red was spreading, pumping in time to the beat of his heart. He fixated on the floor.
He saw names carved there: Here fell Alexander Murdoch…
He was in a bloody War Memorial! There were other letters. The name of the lad he’d killed. But he couldn’t read it because the letters swam and flowed and blurred and darkened.
The last thing that Murdoch saw were people…civilians walking past, reading the writing on the War Memorial—the fallen of the world.
Malcolm Laughton lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He works as a Parliamentary Assistant. He enjoys listening to varied rock music; and sharing company over a few beers in various haunts.
His stories have appeared in: Supernatural Tales; Electric Spec; Eulogies II, Tales From The Cellar; Bards and Sages Quarterly; Deep Wood Publishing, Fantasy Friday; Dark Horizons, the Journal of the British Fantasy Society; Abandoned Towers Magazine; Whispers of Wickedness; Quantum Muse; and Wild Violet, Mystic Mist Issue.