Author’s Note: this short story was written for a writing challenge, to include the words ‘the four of diamonds.’
Dylan kicked at the rusted pipe that was blocking the gate again. He hesitated to strike it harder, fearing its clang would reverberate throughout the complex. He bent down and with gloved fingers, moved it with his hand. It squeaked in protest as it pushed aside. Then his hands were on the vault, spinning the wheel. There was a hiss like steam and the squishing suck of the rubber seal breaking as the door opened. He lowered his goggles over his eyes, turning everything a rich shade of amber. He retightened the strap on his goggles, released a valve on the side of his mask, and sucked in the sweet air of the oxygen canister.
Then he stepped outside…
The air – if air was still the appropriate word – was thick with black dust that rose from the dirt with each step he took. The sky was dark red as always. There were no trees, no shrubs, no hills. There was scarcely a rock to hide behind if he needed to.
He quickened his pace. He hated being out here, especially alone. And especially without permission. But there was hardly any choice, was there? The complex was down to its last few packets of food. The sick bay was low on medicine. And it wasn’t as though there were plenty of able bodies to take on the supply runs. The adults were far too busy. The children were far too frightened. And the elderly too frail. Which left Dylan.
“Wait.” Dylan slowed but didn’t turn around. He knew the voice, distorted though it was by the gas mask, but there wasn’t enough time to stop and wait. Sure enough, the footsteps turned into a run, and soon Barrett was at his side. “I want to come with you.”
Dylan shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come,” he said, honestly annoyed that his brother had caught him.
He quickened his pace again, not daring to give Barrett time to catch his breath. The nearest complex was just barely one gas canister worth of breath, and Dylan only had two. One for the way there. One for the way back. If anything should happen along the way, anything that might slow him, he’d be forced to turn back. And that just wasn’t an option.
“How did you find me?” he said after a while. “How did you know I was leaving?”
“Found out Cecily has the sickness,” Barrett wheezed. “Ain’t stupid.” Dylan sighed. “They have medicine over there,” he said. “And food.”
“Yeah,” said Barrett, “And you’ll be a real hero if you make it there and back without running into any Diamonds.”
Dylan bit his lip. He hated it when Barrett acted like he was the older brother. Dylan had been born a full hour before his brother. If anyone should get to act as the eldest, it should be him. “You shouldn’t have come,” he said again.
Barrett was right though. If they came across the Diamonds, they were as good as dead. The story was that back when the sky had only just turned red and people didn’t know they couldn’t breathe the air any more, the first of them was spotted overhead. There was this old song, apparently, called Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. So when they spotted that thing in the sky, they called it Lucy. She was up there for days, flying above them, looking down with black, ravenous eyes, but no one knew what she was. Or where she came from. Or what she wanted.
Eventually, instead of Lucy, they just called her Diamonds. “Look, there’s ol’ Diamonds,” they’d say, pointing and smiling like she was a thing at the zoo. Then one day there were four of them in the sky, Lucy and three others. People were still smiling when the first four of the Diamonds were spotted, flying overhead like deranged angels. Maybe from a distance it was too hard to tell what they really were. Must have been, because people sure were surprised when ol’ Lucy and the Diamonds descended from the sky like a hail of fire and began to sink their claws into the flesh of people below.
Blood spattered the ground, mixing with the soot-black dust and dirt, and the sound of the Diamonds’ laughter echoed across the desert. They gorged on flesh till their mouths were full. Then they spread their wings and took to the sky again. Blood-stained feathers floated down from above, but no one knew to burn the bodies. Not back then. Back then they took the time to grieve for their loved ones, to scream and to cry and to stare in abject horror at the desiccated bodies of their friends and family. If only they’d known to burn the bodies.
So, yeah, Barrett was right. Dylan shouldn’t have come out here, not even with Cecily dying back at the complex. Not even with the food supplies running low. There were bound to be Diamonds. It was odd that they hadn’t seen any yet.
“Go back,” he said through gritted teeth.
Barrett laughed. “I ain’t leavin’ ya,” he said.
An hour later and they had almost reached the entrance to the other underground complex. Suddenly Dylan heard his brother’s footsteps cease. He felt cold sweat start to trickle down his back. He came to a sudden halt himself, and looked over his shoulder. Barrett’s gaze was fixed at the sky.
He shouldn’t have looked. Not that it would have saved him by keeping his head down, but at least he could have made a run for it without that cold feeling of dread that comes from gazing into the hideous faces of one of the Diamonds at such close range. He could see their eyes, black as coal, from here. He could see their skin, grey and purple, cracked and decayed with sickness. And he could see their thickly feathered black wings, beating quickly as they caught sight of him and his brother.
“Lucy in the sky with Diamonds,” he breathed. There were four of them, and they were bigger than other Diamonds. Their faces were colder, their eyes were darker, their claws were sharper. The Four of Diamonds were death incarnate, and he was staring into the edge of oblivion.
“Run,” he said, though he was frozen himself.
Beside him, Barrett broke into a run. Finally, he tore his gaze from the Diamonds. He could hear each beat of their wings as they swooped down towards them. Each breath he took began to burn in his lungs. His canister was low. He shouldn’t be running, he was draining the oxygen so fast, sucking for breath as hard as he could. His feet hammered across the dirt, kicking up huge clouds of black dust.
Fifty feet from the door to the complex. Too far. He tried to run faster, but he was gasping for air, and his legs were burning. The wingbeats were getting louder, more incessant. The Diamonds were gaining on him, he could practically smell them, even through his mask. The stench of decay.
Thirty feet from the door. Barrett at least was ahead of him. He at least might make it. If he could get the door open in time. Gasping for oxygen, he pushed himself forward. He didn’t want to die. Not like this.
The Diamonds closing in on him. Reaching out with their clawed hands. The slightest stumble and they’d rake him with their claws. He really could smell them now.
He felt a claw against his back. It seared through his clothing, and he felt the burn on the base of his spine. He heard them cackle. They must have thought they had him now. But, fighting for breath and choking back tears of pain and fear and rage, Dylan kept on running. He even managed to put a bit of distance between him and the Diamond.
He remembered something his father had told him once, when he was younger. “Never turn around,” he’d said. “It’s the fear that gets you. Just keep moving forward.”
He heard the hiss of steam, the suction sound of a rubber seal opening. Five feet away, and the door was opening. Someone must have been manning the door. He saw Barrett squeeze through the opening.
He felt the claws on his back again, and he knew they nearly had him. He was almost there. All he had to do was –
With everything he had left in him, he dove. He slid across the threshold of the door, and heard it shut behind him, before he passed out from the pain and lack of oxygen.
When he awoke, he was surprised he wasn’t looking down on the earth below, with black eyes and venomous claws. He was alive. Beside him, Barrett was loading up his satchel with food and medicine.
Oh, right, he thought. We still have to make it back.