Stephen D. Sullivan
For Aalandria Holly Edmonds, 1993-2012.
* * *
My name is Crimson. I’m a warrior, and I’ve lived many lives—though only in fragments. That is my gift … and my curse.
For most people, life is like the flame dancing atop a candle. While the flame burns, you’re alive; once it’s snuffed, that individual flame is gone, never to return.
I’m different. I did the gods a favor once, and because of that, the flame of my life is more like the filament in a light bulb. Throw the switch, and the light is gone, but the filament remains, essentially unchanged, waiting to spring back to full luminosity once the switch is thrown again.
So when the gods flick the switch, I’m back, reconstituted from local materials into a fair semblance of my former self—same red hair, same muscular frame, same blue eyes, same weapons and armor—nearly as good as new. Nearly. Though the “light bulb” of my life has usually been moved to another room since the switch got turned off.
Yeah, always another room, another time … and often another planet or another reality entirely.
I live in the remnants of other people’s lives, reborn into their transformed bodies to use the moments they would have wasted. That’s how the gods told me this deal works—a kind of metaphysical recycling—a fate they deemed both reward and punishment for my past deeds.
Flick! I’m in Asgard. Flick-Flick! I’m in Vietnam. Flick-Flick! I’m on a moon of Tau Ceti. Flick-Flick! I’m in the Blue Kingdoms. Flick-Flick! Pharaonic Egypt.
I never notice the time between the flicks of the cosmic switch—if there is any. For me, it’s just one life after the next. Some of my lifespans run fairly long; most are relatively short. Few allow me any chance to form lasting relationships or even catch a bit of rest.
But I guess I wasn’t put in this position to make friends. My karmic mission is to make things better, to set worlds right, to live out the allotted span of wasted lives and make something useful of them.
I’m the multiverse’s Designated Hitter. You screw up fatally; I take over. Elvis leaves the building, and I finish out the set ’cause he ain’t coming back for that last deep-fried peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich—not in this lifetime.
In each of my new lives, I’m reborn from the body of a life cut short, a life that didn’t deserve to go on.
Sometimes, the span I’m given is horribly brief. But brief or long, I remain the same warrior woman I was when I first died, so long ago. That death was easy compared to some of the ones since.
I’m lying face-down in a puddle, my right cheek pressed against wet concrete. A chill breeze blows away the dust of my reincarnation, the fine ash that is all that remains of this body’s previous appearance … and life. This place smells of garbage and piss. An alley, I deduce. It smells of something else as well. Metallic … Iron? The pool I’m lying in is not composed entirely of water from the gently falling rain; a generous amount of blood is mixed in, likely a remnant of my body’s previous owner.
Not surprising. My rebirth is often accompanied by gore and other unpleasant stage dressing. Usually, though, I don’t awaken with my face in the proverbial dirt. Usually, when my eyes open, I find myself gazing at an alien sky. If I’m lucky, I can see the stars; if I’m very lucky, I even recognize the constellations. If I’m unlucky, I find myself staring at a dungeon ceiling, surrounded by hungry manticore. I don’t know why I’m usually reborn facing out into the cosmos, but that’s the way it is.
I’m face-down and wet and cold before I’ve even been alive a minute. I’m in a stinking alleyway, and I’ve no idea where in hell I am. Darkness surrounds me, along with the patter of the rain, and the sound of distant traffic. Cars. A post-industrial city.
Without moving, I take inventory. Chainmail; sword at my hip; the heft of a dagger in each boot. All good. Thanks to the godly bargain that puts me in situations like this time and again, I remain well equipped during my “travels.” With this gear, I can take on the nine worlds … or at least make a start of it.
Voices echo from nearby, rough and unpleasant: two male, one female. Fully awake now, I concentrate on the sounds, though the way my head is turned I can’t see the talkers.
One of the men laughs cynically. “Jesus, is that all there is?”
“Should have been more,” the woman slurs. “Said she had more. I heard her.”
“Maybe you heard wrong,” the third says. “The little bitch!” He turns and spits in my direction.
They are the killers; whoever I was before, their victim.
I turn my head to the right, so I can see them. The darkness of the alley hides my movement from them, just as it hid my transformation from victim into avenger. The three are standing in a pool of wan yellow light cast by a single bulb burning above a battered warehouse door. Grimy industrial bricks form the walls of the alley; debris and refuse make up its décor.
“Gotta go,” the woman says. “Cops’ll come. Somebody musta heard.” She looks nervously down the alley in the other direction from me, toward a deserted city street. She’s dressed inappropriately for this cold rain: short skirt and cropped jacket, t-shirt, belly bare, nylons with a long run down one leg, scuffed knee-high boots. She clutches a stiletto in one hand and hugs herself with the other, trying futilely to stop the shakes. The blade of her knife is tarnished.
“Your fault,” the third killer says to her. He’s a brute, more than six-foot two and built like a linebacker. Wears a fancy leather jacket two sizes too small. Showing off his beef. “You reeled her in. Shoulda known she didn’t have enough.”
The first one finishes counting a small fistful of blood-spattered greenbacks. He’s slender and handsome, but with a wolfish look to his face. He wears a team logo leather jacket, jeans, and new boots. He finishes a cigarette and casts it to the street, looking at the other two with a mixture of amusement and contempt. “Enough to get us by … for tonight anyway.”
“Sh-she shouldn’t have fought,” says the woman. “Not enough to fight over. Pisses me off!” A drug-fueled mood swing: panic to manic. “Lied to me. Shoulda cut her!”
“Forget it,” Wolf-face says. “She’s done. Let’s go ’fore someone sees us.”
“Dumb bitch!” the big man curses, angry at their dead victim. He steps into the shadows hiding me and reels back to give a savage kick to whoever I was.
I grab his sneaker and surge to my feet, toppling him backwards. He lands hard, the air rushing out of his lungs with a puzzled grunt. I kick him in the head, to keep him from getting back up.
The wolfish man freezes in shock, but the woman charges me, knife in hand, her face pulled tight in a drug-enhanced blend of fury and fear. “You seen us? Cut you!” She stabs at my gut.
My sword clears its scabbard in an instant. I parry her weapon easily and slash my silver-traced blade across her throat. She reels back, spraying blood.
Wolf-face drops the money—not more than fifty dollars—and reaches into his jacket.
Gun! I think, and stab at him. He turns, though, and my blade only pierces the arm of his leather jacket.
I jerk the sword out, slicing down the length of his forearm. He screams and falls to his knees. I aim the sword at his neck. It will feel good to kill him.
I can’t breathe! My chest is being crushed.
The big man recovered too fast. He’s got his beefy arms around my ribcage, trying to squeeze the life out of me.
One of my ribs breaks.
I snap my head back, shattering his nose. He slackens his grip. I heave forward, taking us both to our knees.
With my left hand, I grab one of my boot daggers and stab it up between my legs and into his groin.
He screams like a soprano until I leap to my feet and put my sword through his heart. He falls dead. I smile.
Urgent fire courses through my left leg.
I look and find the woman’s stiletto plunged into my calf and her hanging onto it with both hands. She’s too drugged out to know that she’s already dead; she’ll bleed out from the neck wound I gave her within minutes.
I block out the pain and swing my sword hard. It finishes the job it started, and the woman’s head rolls across the alleyway, a look of dumbfounded surprise on her face.
I stagger back involuntarily, tasting my own blood. My chest feels as though I’ve been stepped on by an elephant. Fragments of red chainmail fill the air.
I’ve been shot.
I wheel and stare into Wolf-face’s hate-filled eyes and the smoking barrel of his Saturday-Night Special. Who knew he could shoot left handed? I stab at him.
He shoots again.
My sword goes straight through his left arm; my right shoulder explodes.
More chain mail shrapnel; more pain.
The gun flies from his hand and skids into the darkness.
Wolf-face howls and jerks away, taking my sword with him.
I can no longer feel the fingers of my sword hand; that arm dangles limp and useless. Sparks explode behind my eyes and the world dims.
At least it’s stopped raining.
He pulls my blade out of his arm, but doesn’t attack me. He stares at me for a moment—a wounded animal—panting, glaring. “Who the fuck are you?”
I smile and clutch the remains of my shoulder, trying to stanch the bleeding. My lungs feel like they’re burning, and I know they’re filling with blood from his first gunshot. It’s no use. This battle is over for me. My head swims.
I force my eyes to focus. I will not die with my eyes closed.
Wolf-face must see I’m helpless, but his eyes are searching for his lost gun.
Gun brave. Coward.
“C’mere, you little bastard!” I manage to hiss through blood-stained lips.
I crumple to my knees, my life bleeding away.
He hesitates, afraid of me, even now.
He stoops to pick up the blood-stained money. Then he runs.
With my left hand, I draw the knife from my other boot and throw it into his back.
It’s a solid hit, catching him behind the right shoulder blade, going clean through his starter jacket, but not deep enough.
Not enough to kill him.
He keeps going, vanishing quickly into the benighted street, taking my knife along, dripping blood as he runs.
In the distance, sirens … growing closer.
Not soon enough.
The police will have to catch Wolf-face, because my time in this body is done.
At least I’ve left them a clear trail to follow.
The flame of my life is like the light from a light bulb. Throw the switch, the light goes off, and I’m ready to live again somewhere else. Mostly, that’s how it works.
This time, when the “switch” goes off, my light fades gradually. I find myself floating away from the earth, away from a body no longer mine—a body now reverted to its original state. I’m gone now; no trace of me remains in the victim. Even my wounds are gone. The flesh has returned to its original owner … to the one who wasted her life, giving me a chance to set things right.
This one cannot have wasted her life.
This one is no thug, no brute, no desperate addict, no career criminal…
She is a waif of a girl … seventeen or so years old. Her clothing is casual and careworn, but not ill-kempt; her skin is clear, and her eyes must once have danced with a joyous spark of life—though now the flames within have gone dark.
She lies on her back in the alleyway, her hair fanned out like a halo around her head. Her face is beautiful in the way that only the young can be, a look that radiates innocence despite a hard-scrabble life.
Someone loved this girl.
She wears a hand-made sweater—perhaps from a grandmother—and in the center of the carefully knitted pattern lies a single bullet hole.
No one this age deserves a bullet, no matter what she had done, no matter how these people knew her—whether false friends or opportunist predators—no matter what deal she had made … or broken.
No one this young can have so thoroughly wasted their life as to not deserve another chance.
I realize that I have been too harsh on the people whose bodies I inhabit during my reincarnations. I have thought of them as worthless husks, as hopeless cases, as garbage.
And perhaps some are.
But clearly, there must be others as well.
Others, like this girl, whose journeys were cut short, who could not obtain justice in their lifetimes, but who could find some measure of peace by offering up their last, brief moments to me, so that I could, perhaps, set things right.
And maybe that’s why, this time, my death is not merely a flick of the switch. Maybe that’s why this time I get to see the person in whose footsteps I lived—if only briefly.
Because she was worth it.
My name is Crimson. I’m a warrior, and I have lived out the last moments of many lives, though only one of those fragments was entirely my own. That is my curse … and my gift.
And even after two dozen lives, I don’t know that I am qualified to mete out justice…
But I am very good at retribution.
The girl lies on her back. Her eyes are open, and she’s looking at the sky.
The clouds part.
There are stars.
All is darkness.
* * *
Good night and safe journey, Aalandria, my friend. We’ll meet again.
—Stephen D. Sullivan
January 23, 2012
The characters and situations in this story are entirely fictitious—though they do reflect some of the pain and endless questions in my heart.
Crimson also appears in The Crimson Collection.