“Ow! For fuck’s sake!”
Jen glared at the bead of blood swelling on her fingertip.
It was one of the fresher pinpricks scattered across her hands, most of them having faded to barely visible marks at this point. Her sewing had improved over time, the stitching was much neater and the seams strong enough to withstand long periods of wear, but she was still a novice. Combined with the awkwardness of having to sew herself into the suit and she was thankful to only be pricking her hands; there had been more than a few nightmares about piercing her gut.
She picked up the needle again, letting out a little sigh and muttering “I’d sell my soul for a decent zip right now.”
The only response to her wish was a sudden shout from Mama’s room, followed by a few faint curses. Jen dropped the needle and leapt to her feet.
“Mama?! What happened?!”
Nothing seemed out of place, in fact Mama was gently rocking an egg-shell cradle as if nothing had happened; inside a featherless bird-like baby writhed and squealed.
“Ah child, you have a visitor.” She said, pointing a talon towards the main entrance. “Quite a rude one at that; they didn’t even say hello.”
Jen’s eyebrows creased, stepping outside into the humid air. There were footprints on the ground, but she couldn’t see any-
“DON’T MOVE DEMON!”
A gun clicked loudly behind her and Jen instinctively raised her hands. “Woah woah woah don’t shoot! I’m not a demon!” She turned slowly, keeping her hands high. “I swear I’m not a demon!”
The barrel of the machine gun hesitated, its owner staring in bewildered horror at her half-suited body.
Good job I didn’t put the mask on yet. She thought, trying to keep her voice calm while she eyed the weapon. “I know this looks weird but it’s just a suit. Completely human under here, see? I’ve got a shirt and hair and everything; 100% human.”
The gun didn’t lower but it visibly hesitated, giving Jen the opportunity to examine her shooter. Despite being covered in dust and bloodstains the camouflage gave him away as a soldier. He stood at least a foot taller than her, his dirt smeared face peeking out from under a round helmet, a few strands of blonde hair hovering over his eyes. Apart from the one still pointing at her, he had two smaller guns on his belt and a knife strapped to his leg.
That amount of weaponry wasn’t helping her nerves.
He wasn’t the first soldier she’d met since the meld, there were quite a few who still had their uniforms and equipment. Most seemed to be working with other humans to rebuild and defend communities, such as those Colonel White commanded at Gamma base, but others acted a bit more… trigger happy. The attitude seemed to be ‘shoot anything not human and act like you know what you’re doing’. Humans weren’t the only ones being hunted after all, and even she had been shot at a few times. Part of her knew it wasn’t fair to judge them all for this, some were just as scared as everyone else and coping however they could. But after spending so much time with Mama the idea of demon slaughter was more than a little upsetting.
At last, the gun was lowered.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Jen blinked; not sure she’d heard him right. “I’m… I’m sorry?”
“This!” He said, standing upright and using the gun to gesture at her suit. “This sick shit demon getup! I was told I’d find a postman here who can take messages anywhere, instead I find some messed up cosplayer!”
Lowering her hands Jen countered “Postwoman if you don’t mind. And do you seriously mean to tell me that nobody mentioned I’d be wearing this?”
“Bloody hell! What’s the point of networking if a detail that important gets left out?” She rubbed her forehead, feeling the pressure of a migraine beginning to build. “Look, you’ve got your big old gun to survive. Me? I wear this; it makes it easier to move around unnoticed.”
He didn’t look convinced, glancing between her and the curtain. “What about the freakshow in there?”
“Wow, are those the manners you learned at boot-camp? Not all demons are hostile you know, and Mama’s been helping me-”
“Mama! Fucking Mama!”
Jen gritted her teeth; this soldier was starting to seriously piss her off. She had dealt with questions about her situation before, but most of the people who gave her letters tended to either shrug it off or keep quiet.
“You know, if how I do things is so disgusting to you then clearly my services aren’t suitable. Thanks for wasting my time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got letters to deliver.”
She turned back towards the curtain, mind already turning to the route she had planned today when a heavy hand fell on her shoulder.
“Wait! Look I’m… I’m sorry. Whatever fucked up shit you’re into is none of my business.” Jen glared at him, starting to pull away but he held on. “Ok ok I really amsorry, but I need this letter delivered! Please!”
There was a long pause, the two of them watching each other until the silence was broken by Mama’s voice.
“Everything alright out there child?”
Jen looked between the curtain and the soldier, seeing a line of desperation cutting through his hardened features. She was tempted to go back inside, but eventually called out “Fine Mama, just… doing business. Alright, let me see the letter.” Her last words were addressed to the soldier, who quickly fished out a letter from his pocket and handed it over. The paper was thin and crumpled with an untidy scrawl on the front. “Private S Walker? Colleague of yours?”
“Yes. He was in my squadron. Good man, due to be promoted.”
“Got it, and where would… have you got a name, soldier boy?”
He grunted a little, straightening up as he responded “Corporal Martin Marshall. But that’s Corporal to you, civilian.”
“Alright Corporal, my name is Jen. Now, where is Private Walker?”
“I don’t know.”
“… what do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know where he is, that’s why I’m here talking to you! You’re supposed to know this hellhole better than anyone and be able to find people! Isn’t that your fucking job?!”
Don’t hit him Jen. It’s not worth it… plus he has guns. “Ok, let me make this clear to you, Corporal. I. Deliver. Letters. I wear the suit for protection and, yes, I have figured out a few tricks to navigate around and find people. But that doesn’t make me omniscient; I still need something to start from! A direction or a landmark; something! And sometimes… sometimes I can’t find them even then.” Names floated in front of her eyes as she spoke. “If that’s not good enough for you then go.”
Another silence passed between them, Jen once again considering just walking away.
“There was… there was a storm. A sandstorm.”
Sandstorm. More like grains of acid travelling at a thousand miles an hour. Mama had explained it as best she could, apparently it was a natural phenomenon the world used to cleanse itself of any impurities. The sand would burn any organic matter it touched, and if left too long it could even dissolve bone. She had seen some of the remnants; not a pretty sight. Mama also mentioned that they happened more and more often since the meld, as if humans were a type of infestation.
“We were on patrol when it hit, investigating some reports of ground collapses and attacks on one of our usual routes. There was not much time to react when it started, and we got separated very quickly. I managed to take shelter under this ridge thing. By the time the storm had passed there was no sign of him. No trail to follow, not a single footprint and there was still so much sand… I-I don’t know where Sammy’s gone.” There was a crack in his voice. He turned his face away, but Jen swore she could make out a faint shimmer in his eyes as he added “We went southeast of Black Lake, if you know it. I remember there was a big metal thing near where we got separated. Long and round; I think it was an old submarine.” He looked up back at her, his expression hardened. “That’s all I can say. I’m sorry if it’s not enough but I still want you to try.”
It wasn’t much to go on, though she had succeeded with less. She knew Black Lake at least. The sandstorm was the biggest factor to contend with. And he had mentioned something about the ground collapsing; that couldn’t be anything good. Every time she looked at it there was less chance of success.
I could say no, I’m under no obligation to deliver it. And he has been a jackass. Still…
The Corporal’s expression faltered, and despite everything Jen couldn’t bring herself to say no.
“I can’t promise anything, Corporal. But I will try.”
It was amazing how quickly his face brightened at her words, and there was a genuine note of gratitude as he muttered “Th… thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Now… please tell you were told about payment.”
“Huh? Oh, yes right. Obviously you won’t take cash.”
“That’s right, it’s trade on… ly… You still have cash?” A few rustles later and Jen was staring at a tight roll of £20 notes. She let out a low whistle, genuinely impressed. “Wow, I didn’t know any had survived; old Delaney might get to run a bank after all. But unless there’s a shop in one of those pockets it’s still useless. I don’t take food either; got my own supply.”
“I don’t know what I’ve got that’s useful to trade; it’s mostly regulation stuff, and even that we keep light these days. I could probably part with the desert eagle?
“No guns. Got any stationary? I could always use extra paper.”
“Nothing like that. Let’s see, I have a pocketknife… a compass… bandages…”
“Does the compass work?”
He frowned as he pulled the little circle out of his pocket. “Surprisingly yes, don’t know how but it’s able to find the poles. Hasn’t helped me much but if you want it…”
Jen nodded, taking the small device and watching as the arrow shuddered towards north. This was a surprising stroke of luck. Due to the lack of sun directions had been a nightmare, even more so each time the environment changed. The compass wouldn’t fix all her issues, but it would at least give her a better anchor to work from.
The two parted ways and Jen headed back inside, still looking at the compass.
“This is going to be a long one; I’ll take a waterskin with me.”
It took nearly a day to reach the site known commonly as Black Lake, slowed by a longer than usual delivery to the rabbit mountain community. The cave system was one of her most common stops, and even when the world shifted it was such a clear landmark that finding it was quite easy. However, she had accumulated a large bundle this time and with how complex the community had become tracking down each recipient took some time. A surprise encounter with a tearful Emma and John waylaid her even further; she was pleased to see them reunited and was even introduced to their son before finally managing to pry herself away.
A few more stops after that left only Private Walker’s letter remaining, finally leading her to the vast expanse of dark water in a star-shaped basin.
Jen didn’t know if the colour came from the water itself or the lakebed. There was a distinct smell of salt coming from it, similar to that of an ocean but much stronger; it irritated her nose the longer she was exposed to it. A few small demons wandered along its bank, tiny creatures that looked like a strange combination of crocodile and chihuahua, though they didn’t go near the water itself.
Come to think of it, I’ve never seen anything go in the water. Not to drink or to bathe… is it even safe?
The thought festered in her mind for a while, and she decided it would a good idea to keep her distance from the water.
Crouched by a rotting pile of wood, she pulled out the compass and watched the arrow start to spin, keeping her hands close to her chest so nobody could see what she had. The waterskin sloshed inside a makeshift pocket she had sewn onto the front of the suit, making her belly appear slightly swollen.
“Southeast… southeast… that way!”
While at rabbit mountain she had taken the opportunity to ask a few people about Private Walker and the submarine, hoping to flesh out the directions she had been given by Corporal Marshall. Nobody recognised the name, and although a few mentioned seeing something that looked like a submarine their pointers were just as vague as the corporals. She was still very much on her own.
Slipping the compass back into her pouch, she let out a low growl to help get into character, then began to crawl away from the lake.
The sky seemed brighter than usual, illuminating the red-tinged landscape. Beneath her feet the dust-covered ground was growing harder, scattered with the remains of the sandstorm that hadn’t yet dissolved. Her suit was thick enough that the remaining sand wouldn’t reach her skin, but she still avoided it however she could; no point risking damage to the suit, and it made sense for a rat-head to keep their distance from something so dangerous. There were other traces of the storm; withered plant-life, burn marks on the rocks… and bones.
Jen stopped, tilting her head as if sniffing the air.
It was quiet. Quiet and far more open than she would have liked. The lack of life was starting to make her uncomfortable, her spine growing tense as if being squeezed. No demons, large or small, or even an eyeball growing out of the ground. And yet she didn’t feel like she was alone. The more she listened, the more she could swear she heard a faint scuttling sound in the distance.
Maybe I should have taken the gun. She thought, but immediately shook it away; she had managed to avoid killing so far and intended it keep it that way.
After a few minutes she resumed her crawl, moving slower and taking more breaks than she usually would. A stone ridge began to incline on either side of her, lightly covered in withered grass. She noticed the ground appeared looser, and as her hand scraped over the dirt she could have sworn there was a faint vibration. Corporal Marshall hadn’t mentioned anything like this, but the compass still indicated she was going in the right direction. Just as she was starting to consider doubling back, she noticed something poking out beyond the far end of the ridge. Something large, rusty in colour from what she could tell at this distance, and with a round shape… like the end of a submarine!
“Bingo!” She all but cheered as she picked up the pace.
Her left hand suddenly started to dip. She pulled back just as the ground crumbled away, a deep tunnel left in its place. Panting slightly, Jen stared into the dark hole. The Corporal had mentioned hiding, but he said it was under a ridge; this was more like a burrow. When she leaned forward the scuttling sounds got louder. She moved back, trying to decide what direction to move in, only to feel something grasping her ankle. With a shriek she yanked herself away from a thick, grey, fur-covered lobster claw sticking out of the dirt.
The curse had barely left her lips before more claws came bursting up, soon followed by narrow heads and clicking fangs. Jen had to hop to avoid each new attack. There were big enough gaps between them for her to step on, but it was hard to predict where they would come up. She hissed as loud as she could, swiping back at the nearest claw, but her attempted display of aggression only resulted in the nearest creature giving a horribly high-pitched squeal. Her heart raced as she looked back at the submarine; there were at least a dozen of the creatures between it and her, far too many to get past while pretending to be a rat-head.
She sprung up to her feet and ran, aiming for the ridge as she continued to dodge attacks. Several of them snagged her suit as she passed, but soon she had reached the nearest of the ridges, taking a running leap to grab onto the edge. The claws helped her to find purchase on the rock, and she struggled to pull herself up. One of the furry lobsters took advantage of her dangling, grasping her leg and yanking it down. Tears filled her eyes, the pain shooting up her body while her leg felt like it was going to dislocate. She wriggled, using her other leg to kick the claw away as she dragged herself onto the top of the ridge. Her leg finally came free with a tearing sound and she collapsed on the grassy surface, pulling it up to examine the damage and seeing her own foot peeking out of a gash in the suit.
“Perfect… just perfect….”
Clicks and screeches caught her attention, seeing the lobsters were moving towards the ridge. From up here she could see just how big they were, their bodies like centipedes and their tails wide and flat, pounding the ground in frustration.
“Thanks for warning me about this Corporal!”
Gritting her teeth, she turned back to the submarine.
The ridge stretched all the way towards it, so she stood up and forced herself into a limping run, aware of the lobsters starting to scratch at the bottom of the ridge. A few of them seemed to have figured out where she was going and were scuttling alongside her, others returning to their burrows. A small gap loomed ahead, Jen building up as much speed as she could with the damage to her suit, jumping at the last minute and landing on her stomach with a heavy thump.
Her lungs and her muscles ached, every inch of her screaming for respite. A flush of dampness spread across her front; the impact must have caused the waterskin to burst inside its pocket. With what was left of her strength she pushed herself onto her knees. Not far in front was a raised section of metal, indicating the main entrance to the submarine. It took some effort to get her body crawling, but soon she had reached the entrance, finding the hatch door open and a pulsing mass of flesh surrounding it. Before she could look inside, she heard a thud, followed quickly by an ear-splitting scraping sound, turning to see one of the lobsters approaching. It was even more unsteady than she was, but she knew it wouldn’t take long to reach her and started to move back.
The metal gave way to nothing as she slipped into the entrance, shrieking while her flailing arms sought any kind of grip.
Her descent came to an abrupt halt when something cold grabbed her wrist, quickly revealed to be a hand protruding from the fleshy mass on the ceiling, it’s grip strong enough to keep her suspended in the air. Before Jen had time to process this there was more scrapes from outside. Using the hand and a few tentacle-like appendages dangling alongside it, she swung herself back up to the hatch and grabbed the wheel, slamming it down with a grunt of effort just as the lobster slashed at her.
The world grew dark, silent save for the echoing bangs of her attacker. After several moments, feeling the blood rushing to her head as she hung awkwardly, the sounds began to fade. Jen managed to disentangle herself from the hanging limbs, twisting as she dropped down to land on her feet; an act she regretted as the impact ricocheted through her knees.
She gasped, not even having the strength to groan as she curled into the foetal position on the metal grating.
She lay there a minute.
Eventually the discomfort of the metal overcame her aches and pains. Jen uncurled herself and stood up, pulling apart the jaws of her mask and blinking to let her eyes adjust to the gloom. It wasn’t pitch black, now that she looked she could see what appeared to be luminous algae scattered along the wall, casting a sickly yellow glow throughout the submarine. The inside was certainly big, though the number of old pipes and controls made it feel a bit claustrophobic. Part of her wondered if anything still worked, or even how such a massive thing had even ended up like this, but considering how messed up the world had become since the meld it was unlikely she could ever find an answer.
Her eyes turned instead to the hatch she had come through, staring at the limbs still hanging down.
“Thanks for the hand.” She said, unable to stop herself giggling as she did so. Once she had caught her breath, she reached into her pouch and pulled out the wrinkled letter. “Ok, now I have two things to deal with; getting past the lobsters and where to look for Private Walker. If he has already left the area, then I’m screwed.”
Her foot slid backwards, and she nearly jumped at a burning sensation, whirling around to see piles of sand all down the left hallway. It was strange seeing so much that hadn’t dissolved, especially compared to how it was outside; perhaps the lack of organic material left it no way to fizzle out.
“The door must have been open during the storm. Perhaps…” She hesitated, glancing down both corridors then shouting “PRIVATE WALKER? PRIVATE WALKER? SAMMY? ARE YOU IN HERE?”
Not a single sound.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t here.
With no other choice, she turned down to the right.
There were a few bits of sand down this direction but nothing like the other piles she had seen, and just enough algae appeared to help her navigate safely. She searched each room she came across, occasionally calling Private Walker’s name in the hopes that he was hiding out somewhere. The deeper inside she went the more flesh mounds she noticed appearing on the walls and ceilings. Mostly limbs and eyes, though she did see one shrivelled head, too disfigured to make out what kind of creature it was.
After opening one cabin door, Jen was momentarily taken aback by a wash of decay. For the most part she had grown used to such smells, but this was strong and had a faint acidic note to it. It did not take long for her to find the source of the smell, a rotting body slumped against the far wall beside a thick stretch of flesh; part of it had grown around the body’s arm like the root of a tree. There was enough of the body remaining to show it was human… and enough clothing to identify it as a soldier. Her stomach tightened, dread flooding her brain as she gingerly turned the body over, careful in case there were any loose grains remaining. A glint of silver drew her attention, and soon she was looking at a dog tag.
“Private S. Walker… sorry Sammy.”
Tears pricked at her eyes; she always hated when this happened.
The dead letter was placed on the Privates chest, and she even gave a small salute before turning away. There were a few distant bangs from outside, but not as many as she was expecting. That either meant that the lobsters were getting bored or they were waiting to surprise her again. Either way it was still too dangerous to leave. She slumped down against the door of the cabin, pulling out the damaged waterskin from its damp hiding place. There was still a small amount remaining, so she took a swig.
Her eyes fell again on the soldier’s body.
“I know you couldn’t read the letter Sammy, but I’m sure you’ll see the Corporal again eventually.” A much louder bang sounded, and Jen gritted her teeth. “Sooner than expected if I ever get my hands on him.”
Also available on itch.io – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-3-corporal-marshalls-letter
Well it’s been a LONG time but I finally wrote a new entry in this series! Not sure how inspiration came to me but I’m happy it did, I forgot how much I’ve enjoyed writing about this world. I’ve already started working on the next entry so hopefully I can start writing them regularly like I originally planned.