I hesitated for months about posting this because I want to do something with the concept and didn’t want to ruin my chances for publication… until I realized I am more interested in self-publication for short stories and this particular iteration needs a lot of work before I get even to that point. If it hadn’t been written for a contest, this story would have been about three times its current length. Even after writing it with the 2500-word limit in mind, I had to chop off 400 words. I have my opinions concerning its quality, but I’ll let you decide.
The Long Shadow
Samarkin raised a fist, squinting through his blackout goggles at the dust cloud hanging off his stern over the Uzur Desert. His first mate Sitara shut off the ship’s thruster and bowsed up its single sail against the howling gusts, casting the vessel into mechanical silence. The winds of a coming storm screamed over the dunes, punctuated by the metallic clinks of the rig resting its tired parts.
“See a sail yet?” Samarkin asked.
“Should soon, Sir, according to the heat index,” Sitara said in her robotic monotone, rolling over the deck on her treads.
Samarkin turned in the midday sun.
“Sir, north-northwest is behind you.”
Samarkin twisted around, pursing his lips. He felt a tickle at his collarbone and gently prodded his tarantula, Ina, toward his shoulder. He circled his finger over her hairy body to calm her as he peered through the wind-kicked sand.
“What’s her signature?”
“That’s the strange thing, Sir,” Sitara said. Samarkin glanced at his first mate. The robot’s screen was computing a series of indiscernible numbers. “I have no such vibration signature in my database.”
Samarkin took a deep breath and ran his three-fingered right hand beneath the kaffiyeh holding back his shaggy hair before murmuring, “It’s the Ghost.”
Sitara uttered two short beeps of alarm. “Sir, how can you be sure?”
Samarkin didn’t answer. He lifted his navigator screen up, casting the sunshield over it to kill the remaining glare, and zoomed in on the map of the continent of Caspasia. He was in an area once known as Turkey, before the great waste of the desert had buried it.
No tell-tale ping on the radar indicated a registered ship sailing these dunes—unsurprising, as no one but seekers of the Long Shadow would brave the forbidding sands of the Uzur. It was said a man’s corpse could never rot there for all the salt in the air. Corpses, as it happened, were indigenous to the area.
Zooming his goggles on the horizon, Samarkin watched as a distant shimmer resolved into the solar sails of a three-masted barque. The Ghost, the storied dread of the dunes, jetted over the sands with such speed that she pulled up next to Samarkin’s diminutive rig within a few shades of the dial.
The Ghost’s square sails soaked up the power of the sun. Her cannons gaped from her gray-washed gunports. If the metal patchwork on her hull was to be believed, she’d seen recent action.
On the deck, arms crossed over a wide chest, stood a man with a grizzled chin and grizzly smile, his face darkened by years in unforgiving rays.
Samarkin blinked against half-dead nostalgia, doing his best to suppress the resentment and pain upon seeing the infamous, wanted Captain Ruslan before him. The stubs of his middle and ring fingers twitched. He stroked Ina again, then reached up and clicked on his ear node. Ruslan’s low voice growled through the tiny speaker.
“Hard to hide out here.”
“I wasn’t aware I ought to be hiding.”
“You should have been if you didn’t want to be followed.”
“I wasn’t aware anyone would be stupid enough to follow me into the Uzur.” Samarkin shrugged as Ruslan glared. “The tricks a man’s memory will play! When we were kids, I had no idea you were this stupid.”
“I do not understand,” Sitara said, plugging herself into the binnacle behind Samarkin. “Are you already acquainted?”
“Intimately,” Ruslan said.
“Bitterly,” said Samarkin.
“You can’t tell me that you don’t revel in my reputation,” Ruslan sneered, “frustrated as you might be that it’s not yours.”
“I have never reveled.”
“Right. And am I to believe they’ve let you into the taverns on the strength of your own pale Shadow?”
Samarkin ground his teeth but neutralized any outward expression.
“You spent your years as a youth tailing my heels like a dune dog,” Ruslan said. “Do tell me, Brother brightest: why do you think you can waylay the scheduled caravan in my shift of the sands?”
Samarkin sighed. Three treacherous days of wading deeper into the desert had passed since his effusive, drunken declaration in the edge-of-the-desert town of Voor. He would cast the Long Shadow, he proclaimed, darker and farther than any man before him. He had come into possession of urgent, sensitive comms, he had explained to the patrons of the Red Skimmer tavern, regarding a royal caravan from the Shah of Ildid. A king’s coffer of silver, gold, and other riches were to be transported in the safety of the prohibitive Uzur, where none but the maddest dared to tread.
Samarkin knew there was no hiding his intentions after his pronouncement. Ruslan could hack into any town’s security feed. He would have heard Samarkin’s plans. Samarkin had felt safe knowing that no normal man would follow him, no matter the prize, but Ruslan was not a normal man. He was out to cast the Long Shadow, to resonate throughout history.
And he was a brother who had tried, off and on since they were kids, to kill or maim Samarkin. The remains of Samarkin’s right hand twitched again, recalling the cold edge of Ruslan’s knife.
“I thought you were flush,” Samarkin observed. “I seem to recall that you raided the Shah of Zuruk’s treasury a week ago.”
“Gold isn’t legacy. I couldn’t let my little brother fade my Shadow.”
The Ghost’s crew stared at Samarkin with varying degrees of malice and conceit, as if they, too, took personal offense.
“Give me one reason,” Ruslan said, “why I shouldn’t blow you out of the dunes right now.”
Samarkin turned to Sitara, who faced him blankly, then looked at Ruslan.
“Do you know where this caravan is traveling?” he asked.
“That’s a stupid—oh. Oh.” Ruslan’s shoulders shook as he laughed. “You mean, you’re tracking it. With an algorithm only your bot knows.” Samarkin saluted his brother. “Then tell me why I shouldn’t just take the bot and bury you.”
“She’s programmed to self-destruct if you blink wrong, but I think you assumed that already,” Samarkin said, flashing a grin.
“You son of a—”
“Likewise.” Samarkin reached up and coaxed Ina onto his palm, then walked her over to the little bucket of sand he kept for her and set her within.
“So now what?” Ruslan asked. “We pretend to be friends until you lead me to the caravan, and then I kill you?”
“I have always pitied your imagination.”
“Then kill me? I’d rather you stopped tailing me like a dune dog. I mean that as a friend.”
He switched off his node. Ruslan’s cheeks blazed, and his eyes sparked with homicidal hate. Samarkin had always thought it was a good look on him. He hoped one day that his brother would complete the aesthetic with a hangman’s noose around his neck.
“Sitara,” Samarkin called over the rising keen of the winds, “what’s our heading?”
“Due east.” Samarkin peered out over the riotous desert. “Sir, that’s southwest.”
Samarkin rolled his eyes, pulled his scarf over his nose, and stepped up to the helm as Sitara geared up the thruster. A rattling cough heralded the engine’s wakefulness, and in a moment, they were skimming over the sands, battling the gusts and leaving the Ghost behind.
“I see it,” Samarkin said, pointing at a dune a few minutes later. “There.”
Sitara calmed the thruster, and the vessel sank down. As she secured the ship, Samarkin pulled a soft leather pouch from his hip and dumped gold coins into his hand. With a toss, he scattered them over the half-buried carcass of an old shipwreck on the dune.
“He’s here, Sir.”
Samarkin glanced toward the stern, saw the Ghost surging forward. He tucked the pouch away.
The Ghost bore down on them in a matter of moments and stopped a ship’s length away, but Samarkin was pleased—and relieved—to discover that the crew had vacated their offensive positions at the guns and stared at the wreck. Ruslan gestured at him, and Samarkin complied by turning his node on.
“What’s this?” Ruslan asked.
“I guess what remains of the caravan.”
“Lies. It’s a trick to stop us from following you.”
The first mate aboard Ruslan’s ship barked orders at the crew. Ruslan switched off his node, then barked something at the mate, who yelled back at him. They argued back and forth, gesturing at the coins below, as the crewmen cast a rope over the ship’s side. Ruslan yelled something at them, but after a moment’s hesitation, the first of them slipped down to the baking sand. Another five followed, scurrying to collect the strewn coins.
Ruslan bellowed again, and several crewmen rushed to the guns. Samarkin was about to call for Sitara to raise the shields, but the lasers aimed instead at the dune above the men on the ground. A hissing screech, a burst of red light, and suddenly the dune cascaded over the crew, burying them in a natural oven of collective insubordination.
On board the Ghost, the first mate yanked out a saber as wicked red as the war banners of Ildid. The captain pulled out a pair of scimitars from his belt. Before Samarkin could blink, the remaining crew aboard the ship took sides and all was a flurry of steel and blood.
“Move out,” Samarkin said, his eyes fixed on the violence.
Samarkin’s rig bumped up over a dune, which hid the scene. With a sigh, Samarkin walked up to Sitara, held out his hand, and the bot drew out the link-disc they’d been using for the caravan. He typed a message at the binnacle, then resumed control of the helm, flipping the link-disc between his fingers in his good hand like a pen.
Before them, a wall of dust and sand cast the world in darkness. A serpentine dune devil, a true Long Shadow, touched down in the distance off the starboard bow, mesmerizing Samarkin as he fought to keep control of the rig. For some time, they drifted over the dunes.
Samarkin felt no rush, even when, in her usual unenthused way, Sitara announced the dark form of the Ghost coming up behind them once again, and Samarkin heard the familiar voice growl in his ear.
Samarkin didn’t respond.
“Fool!” Ruslan shouted over the node.
Samarkin turned, feigning surprise.
“I apologize. Were you addressing me?”
Ruslan rammed the Ghost into Samarkin’s ship, breaking off the rear thruster and grounding the vessel in a dune. Samarkin winced as wood snapped and metal groaned. Sitara whined a moment, then, when all had settled, continued her work at the binnacle.
Ruslan ran to the railing of his ship, grabbed a waiting rope, and swung down onto Samarkin’s skiff. Without so much as a greeting, he drew back his fist and punched Samarkin, who sprawled on the deck.
“All you did was help me,” Ruslan screeched, his shoulder dripping red. “I’ll get that caravan, and what’s more, I’ll do it single-handed. I’ll do what you told everyone you would do. They’ll think the better of me for it, because I’ll succeed where you failed.”
He kicked Samarkin in the ribs. The force knocked the breath out of Samarkin’s lungs and the link-disc out of his hands. It skidded across the deck and into a coiled pile of ropes, boards, and spare gears.
With a roar, Ruslan spun around and dove into the pile, ripping through it. Samarkin, shaking his head and rubbing his ribs—he was going to bruise—forced himself up. He gestured to Sitara, picked up Ina’s bucket, and hefted himself up the rope of the Ghost. Sitara powered her thrusters and landed on the deck just as Samarkin flipped his legs over the railing.
“The treasure’s here, Sir,” she said. “My survey of the ship confirms it.”
Ruslan snatched the link-disc from the pile and pulled out a comm-port screen from a trouser pocket, jamming the disk in.
“What?” Ruslan slapped the comm-port. From his vantage, Samarkin could see video on the screen of a younger Ruslan beating, kicking, pushing, cutting, and otherwise trying to kill a young Samarkin, video Samarkin hacked from the security feed archives. “What the—”
“A little gift from me to you, in return for this.” Samarkin gestured around the Ghost as it rose out of reach. “I’ll give my regards to the Shah.”
“But—but—the caravan! You can’t take it on your own!”
“Foolish me,” Samarkin said, massaging his nose. He could almost believe he was a kid again. “It seems to have been here all along.”
Ruslan ran to the binnacle and found its computer as Sitara had left it: burnt as a desert corpse.
“You can’t just leave me out here!”
Samarkin pursed his lips, tilting his head a little as he considered his brother. It was strange, looking down on him, as the long shadow of the Ghost shaded Ruslan. For a moment, Samarkin almost felt sorry for the man—a brother—tainted by cruelty.
“Please! Samarkin, I’m sorry.” Ruslan fell to his knees. “I’ll serve you wherever you go. I’d wash the sand from your feet. Just don’t leave me here!”
Serve him poison, no doubt, and wash the sand from his feet with fire. Samarkin made a show of thinking about it.
Samarkin saluted his brother with three fingers as Sitara set the ship in motion. A guttural scream of desperation soared over the winds. Samarkin ignored it. By the time he looked behind him over the rails, his brother was indistinguishable from the golden sands.
“Let’s get out of here before we encounter ghouls or lamassus.”
“My records indicate that such beings have never been proven to exist,” Sitara said.
“Lamassus, maybe not,” Samarkin said as he lifted Ina out of her bucket and gently prodded her onto his shoulder. “But I wouldn’t put it past my brother to come back as a ghoul just to haunt me.”
Samarkin rubbed his forehead. A part of him felt hollow inside, like he had bested an old enemy and found the sense of retributive triumph trivial. But his purpose was not to destroy his brother, nor to prove by winning that he was better. He had come to cast the Long Shadow.
“Shall we observe a moment of silence to grieve for your brother?”
“I understand that it is a normal reaction to death among humans.”
Samarkin looked out over the desert. Few could make it here and return, but the Ghost would get him home.
He chuckled. He’d already put out a call for help on his old rig when he’d taken the link-disc from Sitara. Of course, the only people daring enough to come out to the Uzur to pick up his brother would be bounty hunters, but that was Ruslan’s problem.
Samarkin pointed toward the horizon.
“To the west.”
“Sir, that’s the east.”