Of Shards and Shadows (science fiction)

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Of Shards and Shadows
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Title: Of Shards and Shadows
Author: Clea Saal
Born: October 15, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Page count: 206 pages
ISBN:978-1539499770
Price: $12.95
Note: This volume combines a fully revised version of the book originally released under the title of The Shadow Walker and its sequel, The Shard (and that, in case you were wondering, is the reason The Shadow Walker is missing from the list).

1.

The kaleidoscope was turning, the pieces were shifting, rearranging themselves into a new pattern, one that was recognizable and yet different from all the ones that had come before. It was a disquieting experience, but also one the entity had long since become intimately familiar with. When it stopped it was deaf and blind, a disembodied consciousness that was barely aware of the presences that surrounded it. It fixed on the nearest one, entered its mind, made itself at home, and using its —no, not its, his— eyes got its first glimpse of its new world. The problem was that the entity had no frame of reference, nothing that could even begin to help it make sense out of that cacophony, and then, after what felt like the briefest of instants, it realized it had a far more immediate problem: something within its host knew it was there. No, it was more than that, there was something there that was actively fighting it. That was something it had never experienced before, and for a moment it didn’t know what to do, then it tried to grab a stronger hold. It worked, and that enabled the entity —the Shadow Walker— to begin the process of sifting through its host’s memories, but those were in such a disarray that it couldn’t even begin to make heads or tails out of them. It was still trying to do that when it became aware of the fact that there was something wrong with the body itself. The body was sick. No, it wasn’t just sick, it was actually dying. It had been dying since long before it had settled into it, and its presence was making matters worse.

The Shadow Walker hesitated, it didn’t know for how long, its notion of time was still too vague, too distorted, and it hadn’t been in that body long enough to even begin to orient itself in that regard. To it time was anything but a constant, in fact it was something that, in the absence of some objective data that was so seldomly available that it had long since gotten used to not having it, was all but impossible to quantify in anything remotely resembling an objective fashion, but however long it was, it was too long, as before it could finish making up its mind the host was dead, and it found itself being unceremoniously flung back into the void, only this time around there were no shifting pieces, no new patterns, just an all encompassing darkness. It was back to being a disembodied presence, but now it was a disembodied presence that was stuck in that world. That was rather unexpected, though fortunately its brief glimpse into its previous host’s mind had enabled it to get some semblance of an idea as to what it was up against.

True, the details remained annoyingly vague, but It knew some things, enough to make a few educated guesses. It knew it was in a world in which the inhabitants divided themselves into two genders, and it knew its previous host had been weakened by something long before it had tried to get a purchase into his mind. Had his sudden death been a coincidence, due to whatever had already been in the process of ravishing his body, or had its presence triggered something deep within him? The Shadow Walker wasn’t sure. The problem was that staying in a disembodied state wasn’t exactly feasible, and seeing how it had no control over its journey, getting out of there without fulfilling its mission was not much of an option. That meant it was going to have no choice but to try to take a new host, though at least this time around it knew enough about that world to be able to look for one that was healthy.

It didn’t help.

Sure, that second host lasted a little longer than the first one, and the fact that the Shadow Walker had the time to sift through its memories for a while did provide it with a more nuanced picture of what was going on, but it too became aware of its presence almost immediately, it too began fighting it, and as it did the Shadow Walker became aware of the body’s rapidly rising temperature, and that was the key. It was as if the body’s immune system were responding to its presence, treating it as if it were some sort of an infection, but given that there was nothing physically there for that immune system to attack, the body wound up turning against itself. As soon as it realized what was going on the Shadow Walker tried to get out of there, but by then it was already too late, and even though it managed to break free before it collapsed, a ghost of a link remained, one that flashed for a moment before vanishing into nothing as the body ceased to function.

The Shadow Walker was stumped. Twice had it tried to enter a host, and twice had its attempts proved fatal. It could try again, of course, but it had gleaned enough from its second attempt to identify the mechanism that was causing the problem, and it knew it was one that, unless it could figure out a way to bypass the host’s immune system altogether, would effectively ensure that its efforts would lead to the same result time and time again.

It stretched what passed for its senses to those around it, trying to learn as much about its potential hosts from a safe distance as it could, but its inability to perceive the physical world made that a rather tricky proposition, and the fact that there were literally billions of potential hosts for it to choose from wasn’t exactly helping matters. Those hosts ran a whole gamut, and trying to pinpoint something that would make it possible for one of them to accept its presence when none of the others seemed to be able to do it was a riddle it didn’t know how to crack. Knowing it had to start somewhere, it focused on what it had managed to glean up to that point about the world’s inhabitants, trying to identify some basic traits, and then it tried to apply its knowledge of those traits to its potential hosts in an attempt to identify the differences between them.

It knew there were two genders, and it also knew its first host had already been dying by the time it entered his body, so it tried to sense a pattern in that regard. Had that been a coincidence, or was the number of weakened individuals greater than it ought to be? Could there be something like a pandemic that was affecting the population at large? It sure felt that way, and that was another factor it knew it was going to have to take into account, as it didn’t know how long was it going to be there, and even though jumping from one host to the next as the need arose was something it was used to doing without giving it as much as a passing thought, given the difficulties it had encountered up to that point, it suspected that those shifts were not going to be an option, not this time around.

Simply put, after countless eons it seemed to have stumbled upon a world in which the inhabitants were literally allergic to its presence, and that was one problem it was going to have a very hard time trying to overcome because —being blind— it didn’t exactly have the means to go looking for someone who would be an exception in that regard.

That was the big one.

It didn’t know how long it stayed there. Time had no meaning for it, but eventually it succeeded in recognizing some subtle variations, and by combining those with the few stray thoughts it had managed to catch from its dead hosts, it tried to make some basic inferences.

There were six categories, or rather three dichotomies, it could actually perceive. The world’s inhabitants could be divided into male and female, into healthy and infirm, and into young and old. Those were minor variations that grew more recognizable the longer it stayed there, a finer grain that made it possible for it to see its potential hosts as individuals with specific traits that could be combined in a myriad of ways. The question then became whether or not there was a way to combine those traits into something that would translate into a reliable exception when it came to their reactions to its presence. It was hard to tell, and then it realized that there were a few presences that felt fundamentally different. It was as if those presences were muted somehow… no, not muted, sheltered. That was by far a better word, and the vast majority of those were actually healthy. It was as if they were beyond the reach of whatever it was that was wreaking havoc among the population at large. That was certainly enough to catch its attention, and then it realized that those presences shared another common trait: they were young, in fact they felt much younger than the others.

It was a puzzle, one that was niggling at the back of its mind, and then it hit it. If there were males and females in that world, then chances were that there was also some sort of sexual reproduction going on, and that meant that there was also likely to be a gestation period of some sort, one in which the world’s future inhabitants were apparently sheltered from the world around them, and one in which chances were that their immune systems too would be immature, a fact that could make them far more malleable than those of their fully developed counterparts. The question then became, would they be malleable enough to adapt to its presence? And, given that those muted versions weren’t self-contained, but rather seemed to be engulfed by others of their kind —something that hinted at an internal gestation mechanism— could it take one of those unborn beings as its host without triggering its parent’s immune system’s response?

It contemplated its options.

What it was considering, it was something it had never done before, in fact it was something it wasn’t sure could be done at all, and even if it were to succeed, that success was bound to bring its own set of problems along for the ride, such as the fact that, if it were to take over an unborn being, then chances were that there would be no memories it could rely upon to make sense out of its surroundings. That was a shortcoming that was likely to add considerably to the time it would need to complete its task. Did it have that kind of time? It didn’t know, but then it realized that it didn’t really matter, because at the end of the day it didn’t have much of a choice.

With that thought firmly in mind, the Shadow Walker set out to find a host. It needed a healthy one, but given that the world in which it found itself seemed to be in the grip of a pandemic, the challenge wasn’t so much going to be finding a host that was healthy, but rather finding one that would remain so for long enough to allow it to accomplish its task… and to make matters worse it was going to have to try to answer that question with nothing but the vaguest of notions as to what that potential pandemic actually entailed.

It didn’t know what the symptoms were, what were the means of transmission, the incubation period, or the mortality rate. On the other hand it was fairly certain that the disease wasn’t invariably fatal, as it suspected it had sensed it fade away in a couple of instances. The problem was that it didn’t know if survival conferred some sort of immunity to the blasted thing, and much less did it know if those survivors could pass that immunity down to their offspring. That would have been ideal, but even if that were the case, the most the Shadow Walker could do was sense what it suspected was the illness’s presence as a sort of dissonance in the active cases, and given what it was up against, that ability was bound to be almost entirely useless.

Realizing that there was no point in putting it off, it set out to choose one host. It knew there was a developmental range there, but it didn’t know what the safest point of entry would be. No, that wasn’t entirely true. It did know. In that regard the answer was likely to be that the earlier, the better, but it didn’t know how long that gestation period happened to be, and it didn’t particularly relish the idea of being stuck in that unborn state for longer than it absolutely had to. The problem was that the farther along in its development its potential host was, the higher the likelihood it would cause yet another death —if not two— and that was not a thought it was particularly keen on.

In the end it decided to split the difference, and settled on one that felt like it was roughly half way through.

It worked.

It was warm, it was in a small space, but in spite of that there was an odd sense of safety, and after a while it became aware of some sounds, muffled, but still discernible, that reached its host’s ears, thus enabling it to begin the process of getting acquainted with that world’s language. That was a positive development, as was the fact that there were periods of light and darkness it could actually recognize, periods that enabled it to regain its sense of time.

It languished there for what felt like eons, thinking, binding itself to its host in a way that was tighter than it had ever done before in a desperate bid to keep that host from rejecting it once its immune system matured, and with each and every passing day the space within which its host was contained grew tighter. Yes, on a rational level the Shadow Walker knew that was to be expected, it knew it was a good sign, but at the same time that tightness was turning that environment into one that felt increasingly hostile.

The pain was all but unbearable, and it caught the Shadow Walker completely off guard. The problem was a simple one: while pain was something it had seen through its hosts’ eyes countless times, never before had it experienced that pain as its own, and it frightened it in a way few things ever had. Throughout eternity it had remained untouchable as the worlds crumbled all around it, but now it felt as if that immunity had been taken from it. Could it even unwind itself from its current host? It didn’t know, and for a moment it was tempted to try, especially because it knew that was the one thing that might enable it to leave the pain behind, but unfortunately it also knew that was the one thing it couldn’t do… not without running the risk of finding itself rejected, and flung into the void once more.

Almost as suddenly as it had begun, the pain stopped. No, it didn’t stop, it changed. It no longer felt like it was being squeezed from all sides, but instead it found itself trying to cope with a series of alien and uncomfortable sensations that threatened to overwhelm it. Realizing that its host had been born, the Shadow Walker tried to use its senses to get the hang of its new surroundings.

Try was a good word to describe those attempts.

The sounds were too loud, and their pitch was much higher than that of the sounds it had gotten used to prior to its host’s birth. They were grating, almost painful, and then it tried to see through its host’s eyes. Unfortunately those turned out to be even less useful then the ears. Not only were the lights too bright, but the eyes themselves seemed to be incapable of focusing, so everything looked like a blurry blob. It wanted to escape that assault, but it couldn’t. Its host’s eyes and ears were open, and the fact that they were its host’s meant that it didn’t have the ability to close them, that it never would.

Of Shards and Shadows
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Its host felt a sharp pain, one that caused it to let out a wail of displeasure, and the Shadow Walker couldn’t keep itself from thinking that it most definitely agreed.

It was still thinking about that when its host’s body was surrounded by a warmth that was totally unlike the one it had known before. There were a series of garbled noises it couldn’t quite make sense of, and one word —Shayma— that was repeated so often that it actually managed to percolate all the way down into its mind.

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