This story is by Tyler R. Bertram and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The radios crack and fizzle.
-zwei, eins, null!
The payloads are dropped; they whistle all the way down. A full thirty seconds pass before the town a mile below ignites into little red flames. As one, the bombers rise and veer away, disappearing into the night sky, making room for the next wave to pass.
The radios crack and fizzle. The countdown begins anew.
Sechzig, neun-und-funfzig, acht-und-funfzig-
It began as a deep, methodic hum in the back of Baron’s head. There it waited, festering until it crept into his dreams. Louder and louder it grew; Baron wondered if a bee was lodged in his brain. He rolled over in his sleep. He’d deal with it tomorrow.
An explosion rocked the earth. Baron awoke.
He shot up on all fours, eyes scanning his home for danger. The grass was green (that was good); the picket fence bordering his home was still there, and the old wilting oak Baron marked every morning hadn’t run off. Everything in the yard of the little blue house was as it should be.
Why am I awake? He looked beyond the fence and his tail fell between his legs.
The world was on fire.
All around him, burning homes lit up the night in glorious red. Dwellings laid in heaps of smoldering rubble as black clouds rose from the earth and merged with the darkness of the sky.
Men ran along the street, shouting for water, for missing loved ones, for God. Others crowded before the structures, assisting people out of the blazing inferno and letting them down on the street, unmoving.
Baron barked at the chaos outside his home. Everything else was making noise, why shouldn’t he? Flames roared. People were screaming. Even the wilted oak seemed to moan as the wind tore through its branches. And still, that dreadful humming was heard over all else. Where was it coming from?
A small group of people, mostly children, stood just outside Baron’s fence. They peered into the sky with pale faces marred with soot and ash. They pointed to the east, hands trembling. Baron followed their gaze.
He had no idea what the children saw, but through the clouds of smoke and dust, Baron saw birds. Giant, black metal birds soaring through an ashen sky.
And they were coming his way
“Run for your lives!”
“They’re coming back!”
“Where’s Momma? Where’s Momma?”
Baron wined and paced along the fence, tail between his legs. He didn’t want to be here. He shouldn’t be here. Where was Master? Was he safe? Baron didn’t see his face in the swarming horde outside his fence. Was he inside the blue house? Unlikely, he worked nights at the mill. Would he come back for Baron? Baron didn’t want to be here. He shouldn’t be here.
Everyone in the street turned and ran. Baron wanted to run with them. Out of the corner of his eyes, a great glow was approaching
Large, red flames streaked across the roof of the house next to his own. They twisted and bent with the wind, reaching out, like a wreathing fiery hand, and grasped onto the side of the little blue home. In a matter of seconds, both houses were lit like candles, and Baron watched as his home burned away.
Home. Where Baron caught his first ball. Where he spent his days before the hearth, dreaming of noontime naps on rolling hills beneath the sun. Where his master would pat him on the head and whisper, “good boy,” before going off to work. Where Baron belonged.
And he had to leave it. Now.
Baron began to dig under the fence. He knew he shouldn’t. He knew his master hated it, how he would call him a bad dog when he got home, but the fear of the fire outweighed the fear of the whip. Grass and dirt flew. Baron worked like Death was hovering over him, sharpening his scythe. He felt the heat, hotter than any nap beneath the sun, and dug harder.
Where was Master?
The hole was almost large enough to crawl through. Heat blasted against his back. He yelped and dove into the hole, got stuck, wiggled, and was free. He turned and took off down the street. He never looked back.
Must find master.
Baron knew the way. Once, Master forgot to lock the gate when he left, and Baron followed him all the way down to the mill, where Master worked. Master was furious, but Baron remembered the path. Down the road till you got into town. Go three blocks, pass the butcher, where a kind old man had fed Baron pig scraps, take a right, one block, a left, a right, till he was only one turn away.
Baron rounded the corner and beheld the mill in ruins.
It’s dark inside.
Baron crawled his way through the toppled doorway into the mill. It was like navigating through a slash pile, with branches closing in all around you and leaves and needles poking into your skin, only the branches were crumbled walls and toppled ceilings, and the leaves and needles were bits of nail and splintered wood that pierced into the flesh. A fire had passed through here, the remnants of smoke marked everything. Dust was everywhere; dust and ash and soot, with the smell of death clogging all other senses.
Baron pushed forward as best he could. Twice he came across someone, but they made no sound and refused to move when Baron nudged them. They weren’t Master, so he pressed on.
Finally, Baron could go no further. The wreckage had closed in around him. He was cut and bleeding in several places, but couldn’t turn around to lick it.
And he still couldn’t find Master.
Suddenly, Baron felt small. He realized how silent the world had become. He could hear his heart pounding away at his ribs, begging to break free and run.
He barked, chasing the silence away, only to have it return stronger than before. His body was heavy. He was being crushed beneath a weight he didn’t understand. His head fell low, and he cried a short, steady cry that made the silence seem stronger.
It was all cut short by the humming of monsters.
-vierzhen, dreizhn, zwolf-
The engines roar; the wind screams. Nearly a mile below, the little town burns.
The bombardiers take aim as they fly over the mill.
Baron was lying on the floor, his head between his paws, crushed by the gravity of loss.
Then he heard a sound.
It came from behind, so quietly Baron almost mistook it for dust settling from above. He pricked up his ears and listened.
It was calling Baron’s name.
Slowly, Baron worked his way backward, daring to hope. To his side, barely visible in the lightless passage, was a small hole Baron missed on his way through, leading to a collapsed corridor. Baron entered.
It was darker here than outside. The smell of blood weaved through the air. Beneath the rubble of tiles, beams, and broken boards came a shuffling sound.
zwei, eins, null!
The payloads are dropped; they whistle all the way down.
It will be a full thirty seconds before bombardiers see the mill ignite into a little flame.
“I’m fine Baron,” his voice was soft, like a mellow dream, but weak, on the verge of breaking. A bloody hand reached out from between the beams and tried to push Baron away. “Go home.”
Baron licked his master’s hand.
He was home.