They call it the Cairn. According to map and High Command, my Station covers over four days of blasted desert and rock. The only things living out here seem to be the whip-vine, red-heels, and me. No Raider activity yet and my escort, a dwarven ox-driver name Reinhardt, assures me there will not be any. I know I should be grateful. This Station is a mercy after all, but I can only confess on paper the very notion makes my blood boil. I am a scout. Instead of riding the wind or cutting trails, I am tethered to this Station like a mad dog to a post. I will do my best to stay positive. Einhardt’s disposition is going to make that quite the challenge.
Einhardt insists on low fires. Felt like arguing with him about the need since he insisted on little Raider activity. He is strange even for a dwarf, and it is not my place to judge. His kind have never waged Brotherly War, never killed and mutilated each other by generations. Einhardt is not much for any sort of conversation anyway. Each night we make camp he is quick to uncork a jug and drain it. Even if I were not an elf, I imagine he would still keep his distance. There is good reason his people stick to the mountains separating our realm from the Cairn. From what I have gathered over this short time together, he has been gray-haired since birth, an ox driver for half his years, and he snores. I wonder if Einhardt’s coarse life is to become my own over time at my Station. If yes, forgive me All Mother for thinking so, then those bastards should have killed me back on the battlefield after having their fun.
The orc stops to let his worn lungs rest. Each breath stokes the dying embers in his chest, giving him strength to push on just a little more. Each heartbeat drives a dagger further into his chest. This momentary resting spot becomes camp. The orc observes it from a flat rock. The floor beneath the steep overhang is smooth and soft. Lash berry grows along the perimeter. A crevice in the side of the ridge makes for good storage. At least it will once the strength returns to his limbs. It is a good camp. If death is coming, he can think of no better place to find it than the Wasting Way. Where else than a place where sky and earth are stained blood-red?
The orc’s back howls in pain as he lies down upon the rock, but he remains silent. His sword arm grows heavy. His fingers no longer dance around the grip in the nimble fashion of a younger orc. They too cry out in pain at the Cold Twist that assaults his joints.
A blackbird soars overhead in the heat. It is no more than a speck at first, but it flies down towards the earth with a song. It lands atop a lash berry shrub and pauses its song to eat. The orc locks eyes with this harbinger of death, its gold eyes strangely like his own. In that gaze the orc sees the Hag was right to send him away.
He approaches the lash berry shrub but the bird refuses to yield. The orc envies the little bird’s bravery. He plucks a berry from the shrub and shares some with his death warrant. The taste is soft and sweet like cool water from atop a mountain. The blackbird sings its song anew. Then it stops and tilts its head at the orc. The orc listens. Hoof beats, faint and muffled in the stifling heat. He is not so alone it seems.
Einhardt is not much for goodbyes. He offered me one chance to come back with him to the mountains. He promised me dwarven hospitality would be more gracious than anything out here. He might be right, but after my refusal he gave me a grunt and left. He is not doing his people many favors acting that way.
My command at this Station is simple and direct: Investigate, track, and report any Raider activity should they take the Brotherly War as an advantage to move against the southern settlements. If Raider forces are observed, signal north and await reinforcements. All Mother, can they not say anything short? In my own words, I believe these orders mean I am on my own. The signal fire is nothing but an old cauldron filled with solid oil fats. I do not think anyone outside of a day’s ride could see it. If that is the case, I do pray Einhardt is right about no Raider activity. If anything is encountered, this Station will make for a poor defense.
It is really just a gated enclosure surrounding the main building and a single dawn hut. To the east of me is a rocky hillside with plenty of places to hide. To the south, nothing but more red rocks giving way to a ridged tree-line. Beyond that I cannot say what remains. I am left with my own provisions and a single horse bought before leaving the dwarven market. The old gelding is difficult to ride, stubborn to feed, and generally in a foul mood. Does not seem to mind the surroundings much. Wish we shared that trait. I will scout the ridge once the Station is secured to my standards.
Cannot stand this quiet. I hear nothing more than chirping insects and the wind, but still wake covered in sweat. My hands can barely hold this quill, never mind draw a bow. Dawn is well ahead still, but I can write by lantern. But, must try to rest and Einhardt did warn me about low fires.
Daylight now. The pen for my horse is still in a sorry state of repair. Supplies left for me by the previous command hardly amount to much. I will do my best to make do. The horse will have to make do being tied to a post. It does give me more reason to scout the ridge. Some of the lumber there must be half-decent.
Damned Red-Heels! Found them slithering all over the horse’s hooves. I kicked them away before any could bite my only mode of transport. They could not wound me through my boots, but one gave a good try. Felt the leather pinch my toes. Must bring back lumber tomorrow.
The lizards don’t make much of a meal, but the orc cannot let his strength run dry. Their red scales make them tricky to find in the sand, but the orc’s keen sense of smell and quick hands aid him as his sight fails. He cooks them on a bundle of kindling scraped from the trees at his back. Four sizzle and spit over the fire, hissing like they still live. The smell almost tricks the orc into thinking he is back home in his brother’s house. Sounds of earthenware and drinking horns clinking together materialize out of the desert wind. The blackbird’s chirps and whistles become the bustle and conversation of his people. The wind dies, and the orc remembers where he is and why.
The lizards’ greasy bodies slide down his gullet. The meager contents of his pack are all set away in their proper place. His oilskin hangs beneath the lash berry to catch fruit and dew. He prepares a bed on the sandy ground beneath the rock overhand. His sword is easily secured between the rocks so it is ready when the Hag’s prophecy comes to pass. The red sky is dotted with silver light. He counts the stars, finds the signs taught to him by his mothers and sisters. There is the Harbinger, ax at ready. Then he sees The Matron nourishing his people from her breast. There is the cluster of stars towards the south his brother always called The Stepping Stones, leading them home again.
The orc’s heart grows heavy. There is no more laughter and conversation in his brother’s house. Home is empty as the Wasting Way. The silence of this place is a greater foe than the orc has ever faced. So, he sings songs passed from father to son, brother to brother, and elder to young. The blackbird even joins in on a few. The words and verse echo amongst the stones of his camp, like he is back with his people again. The old songs make him young in a way.
The winds shift. Something wicked flies with it: smoke and scorched leather. This is no cooking fire like he deduced last night with his mind still half-drunk with sleep. The orc climbs his overhang again and settles on his haunches. To the north, the wooded ridge. The steepest part descends into the basin and the lowest rocks form his camp. Nothing that way, nothing of consequence at least. He senses another presence with the north winds. The northeast though, even with dwindling eyesight he can see the smoke rise against the cruel sky. The Harbinger’s ax-head points that way. Trouble.
The orc lies down, rests his scarred head on gnarled hands. He counts, scans. Nothing moves across the Wasting Way. Night is descending swiftly and he doubts his strength. He studies the smoke. It can wait to tomorrow. The bodies burning in the fire aren’t going anywhere.
Having trouble keeping eyes open. Been awake nearly a day-and-a-half with nothing but work in between. If I run out of ink, I could use the blood from my fingers. Everything in the Cairn is sharper than the executioner’s ax. From those red-heels, the plants, the rocks, even the wind is like a dagger in my face.
No Raider activity.
Smoke towards east. I could see it from the ridge. Possibly Einhardt but more pressing priorities remain. Firstly, securing my camp. Do not believe I am alone here. The horse made an easy time of navigating the rocky terrain up the ridge. A small path just on one side of my Station helped. It got so narrow at one point I needed to dismount and walk the horse the rest of the way. Could hardly move on either side, but the animal behaved admirably. Only when we made the other side of the ridge, he smelled something he did not like.
The ridge to the south curves out into the Cairn like a hook. The basin extends all the way back to the mountain range. From this vantage point, I spotted a lone traveler on foot advancing towards the smoke. When I tried pressing my horse further, the animal refused to budge. The closest I could get was the basin’s edge.
From the tracks, they’re too tall and large for an elf or a dwarf. Not a Raider I would assume, but nothing can be certain. Gathered what felled wood I could find and hauled it back to the Station. My horse was eager to oblige.
Security is now chief concern. A trench already ran around the north end of camp, but after a good half day’s work it is deeper and extends completely across to the hillside. Reinforced doors with timber. All food stuffs will remain in here with me. Whip-vine thorns block nearly all ways in and out. Might be drastic, but the figure and smoke in the distance tell me to prepare for the worst.
The orc knows an ambush when he sees it. Scorched flesh hovers in the air and cuts through the dwindling smoke. Only a bare frame of the wagon still smolders in the dirt. The rest is reduced to ash and ground down by hoof and foot. He can still trace the pattern of attack easily enough. The wheel ruts tell the story. Among the sandstone pillars in this rough canyon were a handful of good archers. Flaming arrows spook the wagon team, rushing them forward into the box before the driver can think. They run scared directly into the rest of the attackers waiting with swords and axes at ready. The orc can’t judge the attackers too harshly. It’s exactly what he would do.
The driver’s fate is another matter. The orc is no stranger to death, but this one shakes his heart. The remains of the dwarf, at least the pieces not burnt, are already being picked clean by the lizards. The damnable things seem to be everywhere. He can’t be sure if they took his eyes out after he was dead or his attackers did it to him alive. The orc knows lizards couldn’t cut a body open and shovel burning coals inside though. Lizards have no need to send a message. Whoever did this made their point clear enough: Stay out.
Light horse tracks surround the carnage. They circle the wagon, stop at two piles of blood and gore. They butchered, dressed, and packed away the oxen before leaving. Whoever they were, the orc doesn’t think they were in a hurry. From there the hoof prints lead back out towards the Wasting Way, southwest of his own route back to camp. From here, there is no sign of the basin. The ridge camouflages the whole area as just another mountain range easier to go around than over.
Tracks crisscross the dirt. No more than ten or twelve riders by the sign. A single pair of hoof prints lead off from the rest directly for the ridge. The orc wonders what kind of warrior would break away from the rest of his party. The orc grunts, takes another sniff of the air. Wherever they left to, it leads directly back towards his new home, the camp where he is to meet his end. The Hag’s words come back to him now:
“Your time is ending. No brother, no kin, no name. The scarred line of your name must end. Seek your death far from us.”
Death drew unclean things. No one could doubt that looking at the corpse of the dwarf. The orc left his name and tribe behind for that very reason. Now it seems the Wasting Way held true to the Hag’s words. Death had been found amongst the red rock. Lizards scatter from beneath the corpse. The orc ignores them. He gives what rights he can to the dead. Dwarven tongue is something beyond him, but he assumes they cannot all be savages. Then the orc is back across the Wasting Way, swifter and with another kind of fire burning in his chest.
The rider whoops with glee into the night air. His newly acquired horse races across the desert. The protests and threats of the horse’s original owner fade into the rushing darkness behind him. The animal is not too agreeable with the new rider at first, but his harsh spurs and tight hands on the reins bring it to compliance. His brother will know how to properly break in the animal. It is an old horse, but with a strong spirit. The rider is so sure his brother will be pleased, and so bursting with pride, he doesn’t see the giant shadow leap down from a nearby boulder. He flies from the saddle into the dirt flat on his back. Pain like a great mountain sits atop his lungs. The shadow lumbers forward to meet him.
I am a fool. Sergeant-at-arms would have me drug from my scouting unit for this. Drifted off to sleep after making reinforcements, but did not bring horse inside. Travel kit is also gone along with a few provisions. Thief made a quick escape off to the northeast. Signs only point to one person. Not the giant from the day before. Too small and too sly. That means multiple hostiles, but I shall worry about one after dealing with the other. Leaving this message should I not return. Heading off on foot in northerly direction to maybe overtake the thief at the entrance to the basin. I need my horse to serve this Station.
High Command was right in sending me out here. Only they should have sent me and another eight or ten swords. Cannot blame them for not wanting anyone else under my command. My horse came back of its own accord last night. Nearly ran directly into its flank as I stumbled about in the dark. Saddle was intact, but bloodied. My kit and provisions are gone.
Tracking from horseback was difficult but necessary to cover more ground. Came upon the remains of the thief. Something severed his head clean from his body. Then whoever it was made off with it. From the body I guess it was a young man. A Raider I assume. They have no cohesive uniform or Station as far as I can recall from our records, but rather run in several ragtag groups. I suppose his tribe or party will come looking for him.
I believe the giant from the basin is responsible for this death. The tracks look similar to the ones from the ridge. Whatever they used to sever the Raider’s head worked clean. The spine looks cut easy as goat butter.
Double-timed it back to the Station. The trench now circles almost everything at the front of the Station House. The rock wall on the rear negates digging it any deeper. The horse gets his own pen now, and that is protected by the trench. Anyone looking to grab my only transport this next time will get a stake through their neck. Another long day.
An elf. He didn’t believe it at first. So far south, they hadn’t ventured this far in his lifetime, but the orc sniffs the air and is certain of it now. An elf. She has clearly walked the Warrior’s Way. Violence is written across her arms, back, from the ragged ends where her ears used to be to the patchwork of scars across her shaved head. After reading the story cut across her body, the orc debates his next move. He loathes resting amongst the rocks and shrubs like one of the lizards. One crawls across the ground towards him. It rests on one hand, hisses a challenge, but the orc ignores it.
Her preparations are worthwhile. He doesn’t think the trench will do much good. A canyon like this one, anyone coming will make too much noise on horseback. Traveling on foot, they will certainly notice the trench. Everything else looks admirable though. Even the placement of this post is wise. With a rock wall at her back and one side, the elf will be hard to sneak up on. The orc can’t creep closer down the hillside. The narrow pathway and boulders would trap him like fish in a net. The ridge will have to be close enough.
The orc grumbles. Can’t get close, and even if he does the elf will probably put an arrow through his chest. This is a foolish errand. His own brother would tell him so, but the orc never liked leaving anything to chance. The rider last night had been a scrawny boy with barely any soul to swing a sword. Good with a knife, the orc gives the boy that much. His shoulder still throbs from the freshly bandaged wound. He didn’t bother asking questions, sword and knife did for words and the conversation ended rather quickly. The boy couldn’t be from this camp. The elf doesn’t seem the type, even from this distance, to willingly accept foolish, over-brave, young ones into her command. If the boy had been more like her, maybe his head wouldn’t be on a spike back at the orc’s camp.
The lizard hisses again and bites the orc’s callused thumb. He grimaces, bares his tusks, and the lizard makes a hasty retreat. Not hasty enough. The orc snaps its neck and continues his observation.
If the boy didn’t come from here, the orc guesses his people are out somewhere amidst the Wasting Way. Which leaves both him and the elf alone against them. One warrior alone in the Wasting Way against ten or more swords, the outcome is grim any way the orc thinks it through. The elf could hold out in her camp for a good while, but the Hag used to caution that even water cut through stone with enough time. However many others are out there, they will keep on the attack as long as it takes. The boy was a fool, but his people will not repeat his mistake.
The orc takes in the elf’s camp again. She is digging a fresh well closer to the main building. The orc nods silent agreement. No doubt her provisions are stored inside. Anyone coming for a fight will certainly get one here. Still, he wouldn’t make a stand here for all the songs, praises, and prizes in the tribe. At least not alone. The thought comes and goes to him swift as the wind. Two warriors against many. That could be a different song all together.
The orc normally wouldn’t imagine standing back to back with an elf. The way his father and mothers told it, the elf was not a hardy race. He knows the elf are like seed pods. They flit and float from place to place, landing only long enough to make a quick settlement before spreading out for more. His people fought hers over land and settlements long before either of them drew breath. The world thought the orc’s people brutish vagabonds, but the orc knows his kind are different. This elf in the camp though, she too is different. This one walks like she has already died. The orc knows the blank face well. He wore such a face that night the Hag sent him on his way.
Another lizard crawls out from the nearest rock to inspect its dead brethren. The orc rolls over to stare at the barren sky and thinks. An idea comes to him.
Somebody put chopped wood and fresh meat on the outer perimeter. They know enough to avoid the trench. The red-heels could be from anywhere, but the wood is certainly from the ridge. Portions of the tree line are missing. Not Raiders then. The only one nearby is in no position to do anything ever again. I suspect the giant from the other side of the ridge. Should take this as a friendly sign. I believe this is their way of saying hello.
Decided to leave a small token in return by the perimeter. I have extra stores of brandy and tea. This will be a small sacrifice on my part. Not keen on making friends, but out here any friendly relation should be cultivated. Until Einhardt arrives with resupply or reinforcements, there’s nothing else to be done. This other party seems to be reaching out and it will pay to make inroads while I can.
Another early morning. The brandy and tea are gone.
The dried herb smells nice. The orc places a little on his tongue, but the crumbly mixture sticks to his mouth like potter’s clay. The dark liquid, he imagines it might be medicine, is far worse. A small whiff singes his nostrils and for a while he can smell little else. He takes a small sip, spits it out, and watches in awe as flames spout out of his small cooking fire. He sprinkles a little more onto a branch and holds the torch aloft to the evening. The dark liquid is both awful and wonderful. It feels like a burning coal when he applies it to his wounded shoulder, but the orc recognizes the value. He stores it in a safe place.
The orc is dressing and skinning a few more lizards, a small price to pay for such odd things from the elf, when the smell comes. At first there is only the warm tang of blood in the air, but a high wind comes from north hot and coarse with the sand. It scrapes and cuts away the wild smell of blood. Others are coming. He douses his crackling fire but knows it is too late. The rider’s people, there is only one light they could have seen across the Wasting Way. The Station is well-hidden behind its rock wall. The orc does not mind.
First there is the smell, dust rising to meet him, and then he can even hear the hoof beats rapidly approaching. Thunder booms in the dirt. They reek of musty earth and hard-pressed sweat. Less than a day’s ride off. If they want vengeance for their fallen rider, they will not stop to rest. The orc stands, takes in a mighty lungful of air. They are near but he will be ready. The time is near, he feels it like the hooves in the earth. He sings his death song.
Another gift from my neighbor. We seem to be building a mutual partnership. This time it is more prepped red-heels and a bunch of whip-vine fruit. The red-heels make favorable salt meat, but the whip-vine fruit smells like carrion. The dark juice will work nicely as paint or ink if I ever run out of either.
No sign of Einhardt. Some possible sign of activity to the Northeast, but hard to be sure. The only thing I can be certain of is that this back-and-forth will eventually need an end. Better I initiate it. Scout training is hard to ignore: If confrontation is needed, make confrontation on your terms.
Tomorrow I will head back towards the wooded ridge. If my theory is true, I should find the giant just beyond the tree line. Hopefully things go well.
They come at dusk, swinging west from their route and flanking the camp with the sun at their back. The camp is deserted. The fire pit glows, but the rock overhang is empty and the sandy floor beneath it lies undisturbed. The Leader brings his horse and those of his men behind to a snarling, snorting halt. Foam and spit clings to the panting animals’ lips.
Leader barks orders to a smaller, older man. Little Man and a younger, one-eyed raider dismount ahead of the others. One-Eye draws a sword, Little Man follows unarmed, but his hands hover above several short spears dangling from his belt. Leader remains atop his horse, surveying the surroundings. The cruel, iron spurs on his heels sing out an eerily happy tune in the dry evening.
The orc decides to try for Little Man. His face is scarred and hardened by warfare like the elf’s. Little Man is older and moves slower than One-Eye, but he was obviously keen enough to keep both his eyes. The orc leaps off the overhang, sword lifted, bellowing out a war cry, and his face painted in fearsome red. It is the way his people enter battle, shaking sky and earth to conquer the enemy’s will before claiming their life. It is the weapon the orc and others before him used to carved out a mighty kingdom. It is a foolish.
Before he can descend and land a killing blow, Little Man flings a short spear from his belt into the orc’s shoulder. It punches through bone and sinew clean out to the other side. Little Man yanks back and hauls the orc to the floor like a catch of fish. Leader remains atop his spooked horse. None of the other Raiders move, but some rise from their saddles in anticipation. Little Man readies another spear. One-Eye comes close, sword ready. The orc lies on the ground and bleeds. One-Eye steps closer. Leader shouts a warning, but it comes too late.
One giant, green hand clamps across One-Eye’s ankle. The orc squeezes till bones grind together between his fingers and palm. One-Eye tumbles to the ground, great plumes of dust rise in the struggle, clouding Little Man’s vision. Leader orders his other men forward. More red clouds of dust shoot up when they charge ahead. A brilliant, blue eye like a moonstone from the Hag’s runes stares at the orc through this rising wall of red dust. It is a single eye. He stamps it out with one thumb. One-Eye shrieks and thrashes beneath the orc. The orc lets him stand, watches him flail, then fall back down again on his ruined ankle.
Some horses spook and throw their riders to the ground alongside One-Eye, but Leader stays steady. The orc jumps to his feet amid the growing chaos. The first Raider that passes him falls to the ground with a broken neck. Then a second spear slices into the orc’s thigh. Every nerve inside bursts into flame. Little Man throws this rope to Leader, who secures it to his saddle. Little Man tightens his grip on the rope connected to the orc’s shoulder. The orc roars out, but his strength his sapped and he is drug into submission. The remaining Raiders take turns kicking him and pummeling him with their bare fists, but nothing outshines the pain from the spears on other end of his body. Blood pools around him, turning the red earth into scarlet mud.
The ropes slacken and the orc is lifted to his feet. Now Leader dismounts. The youngest Raider, a boy with sandy hair, takes hold of the reins. Leader’s spurs continue their merry music as he walks up to face the orc. Leader looks his catch over. His breath smells worse than the elf’s brandy. The Dark Speech is tattooed from the corner of his mouth to his ear. The veins around it pulse with sickly blue blood. Leader sniffs him. He spits.
“Orc.” The orc recognizes the world. He’s heard it enough times in hatred and anger to know its meaning. “One orc takes three of our own,” Leader growls. The orc growls in return, Leader studies him like dung caught on the heel of his boot. One-Eye cries out for help. He crawls across the sandy floor beneath the overhang.
“Leave them to the Waste,” Leader declares. Little Man nods. He draws two more spears in one hand and gets to work.
My choices are either fight or flee. Not sure which is the best option. Time in the Cairn leaves ample time for thought. I think about what would have happened if I had come to the giant’s camp sooner. But giant is not the right word anymore. Orc. I have finally seen one up close.
Thank the All Mother I brought my horse. It took several tries to find the camp from horseback. It is cleverly tucked beneath a rocky cliff facing the Northeast. It offers a whole other view of the Cairn. Maybe if I found it sooner the orc wouldn’t be so close to the end now. Maybe we would both be dead. Might be just as well. He will probably perish by nightfall.
The Raiders meant to leave him as a warning. Even as just bones it would have made for quite a sight. Staked and drawn like an animal at a skinning camp. Red-Heels bit off pieces of his feet. The only thing that kept him alive was the very torture the Raiders inflicted on him. With his arms pinned up, the flow of blood was slowed. Others were not so lucky.
Two dead Raiders at the camp as well, three if I count the missing head. There was a bloody pike in camp. They must have taken the head with them. Perhaps the Raiders do care for and bury their dead? If they do, it is a selective process. One Raider lay in the dirt with a crushed throat. The other lay beneath the overhang curled up like a child. The spear wound in his chest did not match any weapon I found at the camp. Blinded in both eyes, one recently gouged out. That I count for the orc.
My new charge weighs close to a boulder. Green all over, but not the terrifying, green lamplight our people speak of. Green like grass grown wild in the hills. Hair, what’s left of it, is black as the whip-vine juice. He is savage. I have three bodies to prove it. It’s the teeth that made them the horrors of our people and campfire tales. They look like something from a wild animal’s jaws. My horse does not much care for the smell of him. Getting the orc back to camp was a chore all its own. The damned horse cried and whinnied nearly half the trip back. Although, I am now confident the Raiders are no longer near. Anyone nearby could have heard my retreat.
It’s been two days and no sign of the Raiders. If they return, they will eventually discover the orc’s camp empty and make a search. How long till they find me here is debatable. Their motives and actions are clear enough. They will aim to finish what they started and will include me in their plans. All I can do is what I have done for the last two days: prepare defense and think of praying. Only following one action now. The second may come later.
The orc died in his sleep. His breath faltered and stopped. If I had not been keeping watch, he might have stayed dead. Basic training came to immediately. I forced nearly all my shoulder into his chest to bring about a coughing fit. When it finally worked, the orc gasped in a lungful of air so vast it about suffocated me.
He does not care for the brandy compresses I force on him. He curls his lips like a hound. The guttural speech even sounds similar to a dog clamped onto a bone. Still, they help him gain his breath back and he seems to understand.
He watches me as I write even this. I hope he cannot understand me. If he knew how I failed my scouts, what was done to me, why I am really out this way, he would certainly flee such a disastrous soul. He might not like knowing he was dead for a short time either.
Some progress being made between me and the orc. He heals fast and is already walking again. He tries to hide his pain, but sometimes cannot help wincing. The grimace is hard to ignore through all the tusks and teeth.
With a little trouble, I convinced him to help me split some wood and draw canvas for a few more dawn huts. It forces him to work with me. I hope that in doing so, the last of the trouble between us will dry up. Time will tell.
We have developed a rudimentary way of communication. Mainly consists of etchings in the dirt by the fire and hand signals. It is a child’s way, but it is all we have. He tells me quite a bit about the Cairn just through these drawings. The ridge separating our two camps seems to stretch nearly all the way back to the mountains themselves, but curving away so sharply so as to trick the eye.
It explains the Raiders’ absence. If they rode on past the orc’s camp due south, they would go a long ways before realizing the short way around actually lies behind them to the East. When they do, it will not be long before we meet them. The Raiders could number anywhere from ten to fifteen. I cannot be entirely sure of the orc’s count, but he gives the matter healthy thought before answering. If I light the signal fire, it will bring them right down on top of us before any help can arrive. No one will help us. When I drew a glyph of a dwarven ox and cart, the orc shook his head and wiped the image away with a weight upon his heart. Words for now seem unnecessary.
The idiot will not stop looking at my ears. He does it every time I busy myself on the other side of the Station. Hard not to notice him. He has about all the subtlety of a bear and tread like an ox. Earlier today I swear he almost made a move to touch what remains of my ears. If he tries it again, I will succeed where those damned Raiders failed.
The nightfall brought chills. They scratched and bit. His bed on the floor was soaked through with sweat the first night. Now, the orc feels nothing of the kind. The fire crackles nearby, kissing his skin with welcome warmth. A feeling not quite like home, but close enough to soothe his spirit, falls over him while he looks up into the shadows among the rafters. The orc gets up and walks outside.
The wounds in his leg and shoulder still throb with each step, but his gait goes easier now. When his arm refuses to cry out in pain at being lifted above his head, the orc fights to control a gleeful shout. The elf needs her sleep. While he has been resting, she toils in the camp. Even in the dim starlight, he can see how much the place has changed since his last sight of it. The trench is wide, the rock wall cleared of any brush that might hide an arrow. The pen is finished now too. The orc steps up to the wooden railing. The horse steps back but does not kick and scream. The orc can’t help noticing the worn hide and ragged mane of the animal. It is the color of smoke from a wet fire. Weak, but still alive. The orc steps away.
The stars observe the orc’s wounds as he stands naked in the night. A single thought echoes within him on his long walk to the ridge. He should have died. The Hag is always sure. Her pronouncements are never to be questioned or challenged. To do so would mean an early exile, shaming the faces of his family. Only the orc knows that is no longer a concern. He thinks of his brother, his father, mothers, sisters. All gone beyond to their own journey, the one to take alone. He wonders if they all passed their test and found strong enough alone to be held among many. A chill washes over the orc and he wonders no more.
Rock, sand, and lash berry attack his bare feet. The orc pays it no mind. Pain both old and new fog over his senses. The elf floats across the ground silently enough to catch him unaware. The arrowhead whispers against his neck light and soft as a leaf. The tension of the bowstring trembles in time with the orc’s heartbeat. The elf’s too he imagines. The orc stops walking. They stand still for a moment in the dark.
The elf speaks, “What are you doing?” The orc cannot understand her words, but imagines what he would ask of someone found wandering naked in the dark. He sighs and his breath becomes a cloud before him. When he turns the arrowhead rests against his throat. His hunter’s eyes fall on her flat and dead as river stones. He leans into the arrowhead and warm blood winds down his neck.
She lowers the bow and waves back towards camp. “Come on.”
The elf gives him a hide blanket. The Hag always teased the children for being elves when they covered themselves at the river. On that the orc guesses she was right. The elf is strange, but she did invite him into her home. The orc covers himself and sits across from her by the fire. His eyes go wide when the elf boils water and dumps the dried herbs into it. The sweet smell is almost choking in the small space. When the elf hands him a mug, he burns his tongue. The elf smiles. The smile is hard to place amongst the scars.
She draws a shelter in the dirt by the fire. Then come two figures, one slim as a willow branch holding a bow. The other shaped rather like a boulder wielding a great sword the orc recognizes. They shift and dance in the firelight like living beings. They flee from the shelter in the direction of the elf’s finger. She walks her hand across the dirt towards scratched mountains. The orc considers this idea and sips his tea. Now it tastes sweet as flowers on his tongue. The elf arranges a curved line of rocks between the figures and the mountains. On the other side she scratches out men on horseback.
“I was an archer,” she says as she draws, “A good one if my sergeant-at-arms is to be believed. Not quite so sure myself. But, I could hit a moving target alright.”
The orc counts the figures on horseback. He adds three more. Twelve now wait across the ridge. They draw back imaginary bows and charge their little encampment. The orc flicks his ears. His eyes go to hers. The scarred bunches of flesh on either side of her face go redder than the fire. They look like the rough ground of the Wasting Way. A thought dashes through the orc’s mind, but the elf covers her ears with her hood and the thought is gone. But she cannot hide the scars across her face and hands.
“Got captured.” She swallows. “Always was careful, me and my scouts. It’s a border war though. The Brotherly War. Like fights like.” The orc sips his tea. A night bird cries out.
“It’s a hard thing, sneaking up on an elf, never thought of it that way until after. When they caught me, they must’ve found it easier to do what they did if I didn’t look like them. So, they made me look like something else.”
She grabs a bottle of brandy and takes a deep swallow. She offers the bottle to the orc. He frowns and covers his mouth. The elf pours some into his near-empty teacup instead. He sniffs the mug, tries some, and the elf cannot help laughing at his scrunched up face. The orc does his best to approximate a laugh of his own, a throaty woof from deep in his throat. She drinks some more from the bottle and the bitter liquid seems to bring her back.
“Everybody thought I was dead. Until I fought my way back, I felt sure I was dead.” The elf shakes her head. “Guess I’m still dead.” The fire nearly leaps out of floor when the orc throws his spiked tea into it. The elf watches the flames, an idea forming within them.
The orc leans forward to wipe away the two running figures. He fumbles with the foreign tongue. On several tries, his teeth trip his tongue. It finally stumbles out, but the meaning remains clear.
“Dead. Both dead.”
I think it is almost time. Saw dust trails coming from the south on our last trip up to the ridge. It must be the Raiders. They have discovered their error and are correcting course. The shortest way around the ridge will bring them straight through to the Station. The orc and I can communicate well enough now, and he agrees. Two days of fletching and making preparations. Preparations, it feels like the only thing I have done since coming here. All I have ever done since surviving my imprisonment is prepare for this fight. I do not know whether that gives my heart strength or saps it.
The work puts the orc and I in the same company now. We are a unit of two against twelve swords. We are both wounded soldiers, and I believe we both know how this will end. The only question is when.
All-Mother, I am exhausted. I wonder if I can manage to draw my bow when the time comes. Today was all hauling buckets of red mud and painting it across canvas. The orc has become quite skilled with the wood ax and carries it with him. We have laid out our plan. Many variables in it, but I must admit it fills me with a spark I thought long gone by now. I have a purpose. Memories cannot help but come back to me now. I like to think the old unit would approve of my actions and this plan. They never were avenged. I have never said it to anyone, but I can write it here for someone to find afterward:
I only thought of myself. When escape presented itself, I took the chance. Maybe now things can be different for my unit now. It might be time to even the scales
Now is the day. It gives me a heavy heart to let my horse go. The old gelding has been nothing but trouble since my arrival, and I have only ridden him a few times. He has also been a constant companion, and I cannot bear losing an animal to the fight that is coming. Like always, the horse refused to do as he was told. After enough rough encouragement, he took to the ridge when I let him out of the pen. The horse gave my orc friend a short snort on the way.
Dust trails to the east of the ridge, nearly parallel with our camp. Must make sure they see us. Signal fire is lit. The orc is singing atop the hill across camp. Cannot call it a cheery tune, or much of a tune for that matter. They will hear it and see our fire. It is time.
They do not come charging through. Caution and order are the words of the wise and living. Anger and bloodlust fueled them when they fought the orc and gave them strength. It also clouded their judgement and forced them on an unnecessary trek across harsh ground. Now Leader has full control of his men.
He brings half of them from the front. On the rocky hillside to the left come Little Man and the remaining half. Little Man is almost twice over Leader’s age but moves silently as a lion among the rocks. He serves as a good reminder to the others that a survivor is more important than a warrior.
The Station is deserted. Leader, still mounted, directs five men forward, keeping the sandy-haired boy close at hand. They search the empty pen. The dawn hut holds little more than farm tools and a muddy bucket. The Raiders advance upon the Station House itself with caution. It is a wide structure. The front door swings in the wind. The first Raider advances from the side, ax and dagger at ready. He is so keen on conflict, he never notices the tripwire in the doorway. Neither does he notice the basket hanging above. Even Little Man’s keen eyes are too late.
Before anyone can shout a mere warning, the Raider catches the wire. The basket overhead turns over, jostling the red-heels inside awake. They pour out, hissing angrily, and immediately clamp down onto the first place they land. The Raider rushes out of the doorway, one eye bursting out from between a lizard’s teeth, the fresh bites on his face already turning purple. The hissing and screaming blur together.
Leader’s horse snorts and nearly tosses him as it rears back from the sight. A quick jerk on the reins brings the animal to heel. Leader’s men on the ground with him are not so easily calmed. Foam flies from the bitten Raider’s mouth as he bleats in pain. Another Raider steps forward to help in some way. Something bright flits out from the Station’s doorway. The flaming arrow streaks through the air, whining like an angry insect, and plants squarely in the approaching Raider’s heart.
He drops to the ground and the bitten Raider falls with him. A second burst of light from within the Station. Heat ripples the air by Leader’s face as the second arrow streaks by. This time the horse does throw him to the ground. Despite the pain in his back, Leader smiles. They seem to have missed him. Then the arrow finds its mark. The brandy bottle hanging in the tree explodes in a vicious gust of flame.
The cool morning air comes alive with heat and pain. Glass and flames fly down as a third arrow connects with another bottle. It spreads across the dry tinder scattered across the ground. A wall of fire traps the Raiders between the Station House and the pen. Leader and his men crawl for the pen’s meager cover. His shouted orders on the ground are useless. He signals Little Man on the hill above. Arrows fly down across the Station House, but the low porch covers the doorway. After a moment, they light their own arrows and the Station House begins to burn. Little Man’s people are too busy providing support to notice the red, rocky hillside stir to life.
The orc, covered in red mud cracked and dried to match the rocks, stands up behind an unsuspecting Raider. The man can only choke out half a scream before being thrown off the hillside into the rocks below. He unwraps the wood ax from its own red-painted sheath, and goes to work on the rest.
Burning brandy splashes over Leader’s arm. He rips his jacket off and throws the burning garment down before it can spread. He blinks and barely notices the next arrow coming at him in time.
“Get around them!” He gestures to the two furthest Raiders cowering behind the fence. One has already taken an arrow in the shoulder, broken it off, and thrown it to the ground. He stands with bow drawn and receives an arrow through the eye.
“Get around!” Leader repeats himself to the remaining man. He takes hold of the boy and shoves him towards the other Raider. “Go!” They crawl through the dust towards the side of the Station House.
The battle atop the hill is in a pitched rage. Two more bodies fly down to the rocks, bloodied and broken. The orc howls in fury and charges the next Raider. The Raider feints, draws a short sword from his sleeve and slashes it across the orc’s arm. Blood meets red earth. The orc connects the blunt end of the ax with the Raider’s face, knocking him against the rock wall. Little Man stands away, readying short spears from his belt. The orc grabs the fallen Raider for a shield. The spears sink into the Raider’s back. The orc advances on Little Man. He throws the body forward.
Little Man stumbles, but regains his footing easily. They stand for a moment, taking each other’s measure. Little Man is unlike those recently under his command. He is not dead, he is not young and foolish, and there is no fear in his eyes. He absent mindedly reaches for another spear, but only meets empty leather loops and desert air. A moment of panic flashes across his face, then it is still again. Little Man draws a cruelly-hooked dagger and hand ax from behind his back. The orc gives him a toothy grin. This is the death the Hag spoke of.
The two Raiders worm their way through the dust and sand behind the Station House to meet a bare rock wall. The screams of battle echo throughout the canyon. With no way in, they turn to leave and bring the fight back to the front. Then the rock face waves in the wind. The boy draws one finger across it and his hand comes back covered in red dust. He recognizes a blind when he sees one. His father would use such a ploy to draw prey in. He realizes too late. An arrow pierces his throat. Another flies out, sticking in the leg of the last Raider.
He calls out a warning, but nothing can be heard over the screams of the dying and the burning trees. The canvas parts. There is the Station House beyond it. The darkness inside moves and steps out into the sun. The elf stands in rags dyed pitch black with whip-vine. To the Raider, she appears as a demon spoken of by campfire light. He screams but another arrow silences him. He falls next to the boy gasping for air through his ragged throat.
The elf pulls the arrows from their bodies to refill her quiver. There is the Leader to attend to. She considers going back through the Station House to finish this with one well-placed arrow, but the smoke and growing flames block her way. The elf nocks an arrow, some sunlight glinting off the blood still sticking to the head, and goes around to the front.
Little Man whirls, strikes, falls back, and comes again. He darts like a viper among the rocks striking out at the orc’s knees and limbs with the ax, going for eyes with the dagger. Each time the orc is able to keep his opponent at bay, but he breathes harder with each attack, moves slower in each recovery. Little Man comes for him again, and the orc moves in time. The hand ax cuts across his elbow and strikes the rock beside him instead of splitting his chest open. The orc retreats back to the narrow path and throws his weapon down. Little Man jumps back, but closes in quickly. His prey is on the run it seems. The orc backs up two steps, then another. Little Man follows him into the rock arch. Nothing but bare rock meets the orc’s back. When they come close enough, Little Man goes to swing the ax, but only smashes his hand on the rock ceiling overhead. He draws back the dagger, but his elbow collides with rock instead. The orc only needs his hands.
He catches hold of Little Man easily. The fight still comes, but it is no longer about speed or cunning. Brute strength encloses Little Man’s head. Little Man slashes wildly and fights for his life, but it is no use. The orc fights like the dead. A few more cuts hardly matter. Little Man drops both his weapons when the orc smashes his skull against the rock wall. He sputters and coughs blood through broken teeth. The orc strikes again and the noise stops. An eye falls halfway out of its socket. Little Man goes still. The orc swings a final time. The skull gives way like an egg. Little Man tumbles down the rocks and joins the other dead men. The orc wipes bloody streaks across his wounded chest and roars out into the morning sky.
Leader, alone behind cover, locks eyes with the orc. A single look is enough. He rushes for the canyon mouth, hoping to catch his horse and make a swift retreat. The fire behind him has died down enough to make an escape. An arrow cuts across his shoulder. The elf, dark as midnight in her rags, readies another arrow as she rounds the Station. The orc is charging down the hillside like a storm, the wood ax back in hand. Leader dashes for the canyon.
Smoldering ground gives way into the trench and Leader falls into the earth. The snapping bone seems to quiet everything else. The elf and orc advance, ax and bow at ready. Leader lies in the red earth, his head looking off in a direction it should not be. His glazing eyes roll towards the two figures above. He tries to speak, but only a low croak emerges from his broken throat. The orc chuffs air his nose, lowers his ax. He knows an animal caught in a trap when he sees one. The elf removes her hood. Leader gasps in horror at the scarred face. Finally he manages:
The elf reaches out to her ears, but stops at the disfigurement. Leader’s last thoughts are of disappointment. Little Man was certain this was an elvish outpost after all. Leader will have some strong words for his second-in-command after taking his final ride across to the other side.
“No,” the elf says. “They made me like you.” She looses arrows till her quiver is empty again. It is an exorcism of sorts. Each arrow in Leader’s body does not always carry a name, but they do always carry a face from her past. The fire hungrily burns away everything else. Then it is done.
This will be my final entry. Raider activity encountered. Station destroyed during the final attack. Unknown at this time if other Raider parties exist in area of Station. Will attempt to locate help to the Northeast. Hope that the Brotherly War has ended so help is quick in coming. Orc encountered was killed in Raider attack. His bravery and actions should be commended.
15th Regimental Scout Assigned to Cairn Station
She closes her journal for the last time, sets it atop the charred tree stump beside the wood ax. What others, if they come at all, will make of her record does not bother her. The elf knows the author of the journal is gone along with the rest of her Scouts. They crossed over to the All-Mother’s embrace long before her, but her spirit joins them now. As for who she is now, the elf believes that in that regard they will just have to wait.
Help is coming. To the mountains in the Northeast come new dust trails. The elf guesses Einhardt’s people looking for him, or perhaps reinforcements after seeing the fire two days before. She really doesn’t care much one way or the other. The desert air stirs ash around her boots. A heavy hand falls on her shoulder. She turns and nods to the orc.
The elf doesn’t care how many lies she put in her final entry either. In a way, she knows it is the truth. The orc did die. Now they are born anew. He hands her the reins to the horse. The old gelding found refuge in the wooded ridge like the elf thought. It appears to her that the animal and her new companion have come to an understanding with each other. The horse is packed and ready. The orc does not lend her hand up into the saddle. They have come to an understanding with each other too. The orc picks up the wood ax and walks alongside the elf and the horse. They head south.
The orc hums, then the humming becomes a song in time with his gait. The elf doesn’t know the words, but she understands them just the same. The orc sings of what the Hag prophesized. He sings of death, new life, battles, and all the things that came to pass. The orc sings a death song for their old selves. She called it the Cairn, he called it the Wasting-Way, but now both orc and elf just think of it as their old life. Now they turn their backs to it and sing their song. It becomes a cheerful tune the further they leave the Station behind. The song will be sung for generations to come among the tribes of the southern border. The story will shift and change like the desert wind. Even when the two do finally pass on, they will live forever in the words. For now, a lone blackbird swirls in the rolling, hot air above and joins them in song.
I hate Mars. Mars sucks! I mean Mars really sucks! Screw this damned planet and everything on it. And if by any chance anyone ever gets to read this remember: I hate Mars!
And the Martians. Yeah, the Martians. You don’t know about the Martians. They never told you, or me, or any of us who got up here for hope, glory and the Earthian way. That’s because no one knew that Mars is infested with life. Mars is crawling with Martians. Only no one ever saw them until we got here. And the truth is they’re nano-tiny, disgusting and mean and have a lousy sense of humor! So now you know.
Maybe you know about that super ant colony in southern France that’s thousands of kilometers long? Martians are like that only they’re nano-sized, and they cover the whole planet! Or imagine a slime mold. You know them. Those tiny little amoeba-things that every once in a while gather together to make a tiny, pale, green pole. Well that’s what the Martians are like, except they’re nano-sized, and they ain’t green and no poles.
And they’re all connected or they’re all one or something like that.
Martians are about 100 nanos long and about 18 nm in diameter. (In case you slept or flirted your way through high school Chem class, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) They’re smaller than a virus, so we never detected them. But as soon as we got here: Goddamn! We found ’em all over the place!
It’s a stupid story. Let me calm down and tell you what happened.
We got here. You remember that, don’t you? Our five-person team from every place in the world: mixed racially, genderly, and every other “ly” we could find. They should have named our ship the Diversity instead of the Child of Earth, but it amounts to the same thing.
Here we are in this picture, all scrubbed and pretty and standing on the red-brown surface of Hell.
Ladies and gentlemen, from left to right:
Hong Soo Li, chemist, biochemist, engines, from China;
Jane Morrison, geologist, meteorologist, engines and fuel, from Australia;
Amibesa Abebe, biologist, navigation, communications, from Ethiopia, my dear deputy commander;
José Martin, cosmologist, physicist, engineer, nurse, from the Dominican Republic;
Tanya Kelley, physician, language and coding systems, communications systems, guidance systems, African American, and commander (moi).
And it all went well. We landed, set up the Habitat and starting exploring and sending back data, photos and videos and ooh-ing and ahh-ing and all that. And all those brown and burnt orange colors. And the scientific knowledge gained: Another world, an old/new world that maybe once held flowing water and life and all that good stuff!
Then we found the Martians! Or they found us. The first hint came on Day 4. I was outside, happily digging in the Martian soil when my primary radio went out. No problem: happens all the time. Switched to secondary: Okay. But half an hour later, when I brought my pail and shovel (I like to dig, like at Coney Island when I was a kid.) back to the Hab, and the radio was checked out, there was nothing obviously wrong. It had happened, though, but we didn’t have time to poke around thoroughly. The unit was replaced. We had plenty of spares. The event was reported back to Earth. And that was that.
By the expedition clock, 26 hours, 12 minutes, 15.7 seconds after my suit radio failed, every one of our communication systems failed. Every one: on the ship, in the Habitat, on all our suits. We were cut off from you, almost 54 million kilometers out. Think about that, will you? Doesn’t produce a warm and fuzzy feeling.
A near-panicked examination of the systems showed that all of the zillions of transistors on all our chips just wouldn’t work. No conduction whatsoever. What the hell? We all worked on the problem for hours, but no go. We tried our robots, solemnly parked outside, but they were out too. Not good. Worse and worse. We started jerry-building some kind of communication system, but nothing worked. We cannibalized chips from other systems, but as soon as they were hooked up for communication, they quit.
On the second day of our “imprisonment,” It was José who saw something: not in an electron microscope or some other instrument, not even with a magnifier, but with his own grey eyes. It was a spot on one of the lab tables, a small reddish-brown spot. Martian sand was that color, but the Habitat was airtight and pressure was monitored constantly.
The spot was perfectly round, and it hadn’t been there an hour before when he’d been working at that table. He grabbed a video recorder and a light microscope and positioned them over the thing. Under low magnification, and then higher and higher, he could see that the spot was perfectly, unnaturally round.
Within minutes, all of us were gathered round, each of us eyeballing the spot, the strange spot, the weird spot, that shouldn’t be there. Amibesa and Li brought in a field electron microscope, and then it began to get interesting. Once the scope was anchored on the table and booted up, we began to see and record all kinds of reddish-brown nothing on the screen. But as we got down to the nano level, we began to see things all right: lots of things, trillions of things, living, moving things, Martian things!
What the little bastards seemed to be were living microtubules: the internal structural part of cells. This seemed improbable, until Amibesa opined that if cellular life had died on Mars, the microtubules might have lived on outside the cells in a reverse process to what happened when cell mitochondria entered the cells in early evolutionary history (at least Earth’s early evolutionary history). The notion of microtubules living on their own had never been considered before in micro- or molecular biology. Li thought they might have thrived in some kind of chemical soup or sludge. How they lived without water who knew. Or maybe there was some kind of water under the surface.
But here the little buggers were, incredible numbers of them. Damn!
Then things began to happen: The tiny round spot, maybe half a centimeter in diameter, began to change its shape! Within a minute it was a square. Then a minute later a triangle. What the hell? Various explanations came up: it was reproducing; it was somehow reacting to our presence; that it was dying. Then I came up with a really dumb idea: Maybe it was signaling to us. LOL from my crew.
We improvised a light box with a variable aperture, shined the light on the triangle and imitated the circle-square-triangle sequence. The Spot, as we started calling it, mimicked the change, did it again and added a pentagon! First Contact! We followed it. The Spot followed us, and this time added a hexagon. It was crazy for about twenty minutes. We worked up to a decagon. Then the Spot began to disappear. Then it was gone.
Then we talked and talked and talked and talked. We were all excited and spooked, seriously spooked. Remember, please, we were out of touch with Mother Earth.
“Any good ideas?” I asked.
You have to understand that our entire view of the universe had just been smashed: Martians, living microtubules, communication with us. DAMN! I mean DAMN!
They could change; they could see; and, presumably, they could multiply. Li went to check in our computer library for all the previous biochemical assays of all the previous expeditions. Sure enough: the chemicals were there, the amino acids and all that crap, but no one had come anywhere near the conclusions that these aminos were actually life. LIFE! INTELLIGENT LIFE. MARTIAN INTELLIGENT LIFE!
“So now what?” Jane asked. “We know they’re alive and can communicate. And probably they’ve broken our communication with Earth.”
“We also know that they could wipe us out,” I said. “They’ve destroyed our communications, maybe just to communicate with us: to let us know they’re there. And they isolated us. And with their size, they can come in here whenever they like. There’s probably zillions of ’em here, now. I hope no one thinks they’re gone. They’re probably all over us: on our clothes, on our bodies, hell, in our bodies by now.”
No one said anything. Then blessed Jane said, “They know how to communicate with us. We just need to wait.”
So we did. For eighteen hours, someone was always by the microscope and light box where the Spot first appeared. We also kept trying to build something to contact Earth. But no way!
And then the Spot appeared again, larger, 2 cm in diameter. Almost instantly, it turned bright yellow. With a goddamn HAPPY FACE LOGO! What the hell? None of us laughed. Then the thing changed to white. I looked down at the thing from close up. It changed again! First into a beautiful copy of my face; then into a cruel, racist caricature; then back to being a red-brown spot! OMG!
“Wow!” I yelled at it. “Who and what are you, you little bastard?”
Then it turned again: into a black and white peace symbol and then back to its red-brown self, and then it disappeared. We went back on watch again. It appeared for a second or two, then disappeared, five times in the next six hours. My feeling was that the goddamn thing was taunting us. Meanwhile, while one of us watched for it, the rest of us kept trying to rig up some way to reach you on Earth. When we finally made contact, or were allowed to make contact, you on Earth were frantic, but no less than we were. I brought you, our brothers and sisters back home, up to speed. It was agreed that communication would be constant with someone talking on both ends all the time while other data was being sent. We also sent all the video we had on the Spot.
“We need to test our blood,” I said after I finished talking to Earth. “Everyone’s. It’s got to be in us by now.”
I tested Amibesa’s first, then Li’s. Both of their samples were infested with the microtubules like rats in a sewer, trillions and trillions of rats. Probably not the best metaphor. And so they were in our brains. And so they probably knew what we were thinking.
It figured that every one of our systems was vulnerable, including oxygen. Sure enough, the next time the Spot appeared, it made the symbol “O2” and then the happy face. The Martians knew they could kill us almost instantly, the little creeps. Wearing suits wouldn’t help. And we still hadn’t been really able to communicate with them. They were telling us, but we couldn’t tell them.
We all sat in the main room and brainstormed. What did we know? They were alive. They were microtubules. They somehow communicated and could work together. They could probably read our minds. They had some weird sense of irony. They could destroy us if they wanted to, but they hadn’t.
And then there was another tiny little issue that Jane brought up.
“We can never leave Mars. We’re done, mates, finished, here, forever. There’s no way home without bringing these things back with us, y’know. This is home for us till we die.”
“Can’t we disinfect the ship?” José asked? He paused for a second. “No, they’ll be in there already. They’re everywhere.”
A notion had been banging around my brain since we knew they were microtubules. Microtees, as they’re called these days, are the internal skeletal structure of eukaryote cells. But for decades some very smart people have been showing that they’re also the material basis of consciousness. The real action that is consciousness, with its perception, awareness and cogitation, probably takes place in the microtees of our brains. While it was still a big controversy, all that was, like I said, banging in my mind. If microtees in our brains created our consciousness, what the hell was the consciousness of unlimited numbers of microtees, smeared over all of Mars. Ugh. Wow.
These little bastards, together, collectively, had a consciousness so big it was beyond our imagination. And now we were inside it. Damn! Think about that.
Then the Spot reappeared, again perfectly round, this time about ten centimeters in diameter. It sat there in all its red-brown loathsomeness. And at that moment, communications with you on Earth went out again.
“Stay away from it,” I said. “I’ll talk to it.” I went and looked over the Spot when it next appeared. “Hello,” I said. It didn’t do anything for about thirty seconds, and then it showed my face. The others were watching on a screen fixed over the table. “Yes, I know you know me. What do you want?”
The Spot changed into some words for the first damn time. “TO SEE YOUR BUTT” it spelled out.
“You meet beings from another world for the first time, and that’s what you say?”
“HOW ABOUT YOUR BREASTS?”
“You can’t do any better than that?” I asked.
Rapidly, the Spot changed to “E=MC2”; “π=3.14159265358979+”; and “e=2.718281828459045+.”
“Okay, you know physics and math. That’s good. Now, what’s your name?”
The Spot morphed into the profile of a puppy with a spot on its side.
“Okay,” I said. “Your name is Spot.”
The Spot rippled and produced an image of a spiral galaxy: our own beautiful Milky Way. In one corner along the periphery of the galaxy was a little blinking light. It’s where Earth, Mars and our Sun would be.
Amibesa asked, “Did you already know that, Spot, or did you learn that from us?”
The Spot turned into an image of an old man with a beard and his hand outstretched. It was Michelangelo’s God giving life to Adam.
“Are you God?” I asked.
It turned into the happy face again. Then it turned into a sad face. Then it turned back to Michelangelo’s God, who gave me the finger and disappeared. No, I’m not going to do any of that “Out, out, damned spot!” stuff.
“Damn!” Li said. “Our Martian’s acting like a horny fourteen-year-old boy.”
And then we waited. The fourth appearance of the Martians didn’t come for exactly twenty-four hours. Then the Spot appeared with its happy face. Then it changed to a handsome group portrait of us. Then we turned into Leonardo’s Last Supper. Then, the bars of a prison cell covered our picture. Then something new happened: a voice in our heads. And it was the voice of an obnoxious fourteen-year-old boy! Ugh.
“Hey, tourists,” the voice said. “Spot here. How ya enjoyin’ our lovely planet? Beaches 5,000 kilometers long, temperature’s a balmy 20 degrees C at the Equator, and tonight you’ll sleep tight at about minus 75. Cool, huh? You get it, cool, temperature, attitude, cool?”
“Are you fourteen years old?” I said.
“So happens I heard that,” Spot said. “Actually, I was born about 144 Earth hours ago. My security blanket is made of sand. We’re waiting for one of you lovely Earth ladies to nurse me.”
“Stuff it!” I said.
“Shh,” Jane said.
“Just a little titty?” Spot implored. “Just a lick for a starving Martian child!”
“Why didn’t you make us aware you were here, previously?” José asked.
“Are you gay, José?”
“Yes I am as a matter of fact. Is there a problem with that?”
“I knew that already, Sweet J. Come by later. We’ll talk.
“Again,” José said, “Why didn’t you let us know you were here decades ago with the first landers?”
“What fun would that be? We’ve watched your funny little tractors for years. And, by the way, there’s nothing better than American Earth television.”
“You watch our television?” Li asked.
“We love it. Especially ‘Lost in Space’ and ‘The Pee Wee Herman Show.’ Also, I especially love the way murder is one of your pastimes. You certainly seem to enjoy it. You have wars, and you make up stories about killing all the time.”
No one replied to that.
“So tell me, is murder all that much fun for you? Would one of you show us how you do it?”
“What do you mean?” Amibesa asked?
“I mean, African Queen, I’d like to see one of you kill another. It’d be fun to watch.”
Suddenly, Li jumped at the Spot and smashed his fist on it. Nothing happened.
“Should we kill you, Li?” the Spot asked?
Li said nothing.
“Please kill Li, Amibesa,” the Spot said. “Just for me.”
“Are you crazy?” Amibesa said. “I won’t do that. Why would you ask for such a terrible thing?”
“I want to watch the fun up close. For real.”
Just then, there was a “pop,” and the pressure alarms went off. All the monitors showed a warning that the seals in one of the storerooms had been breached.
“Whoops,” said the Spot. “Sorry about that little buddies. Just a little nervous twitch.”
“Can you stop clowning and tell us who you are and what you want? We want to cooperate with you,” I said.
“It doesn’t work that way on Mars, Girlfriend. We don’t want to cooperate with you. I tell you what we want. You do it. That’s the way it goes on my planet. If you don’t like it, go home!” The pressure readouts from the storeroom began to rise. “But we Martians are really benevolent. So you can stay here, nice and comfy cozy, as long as … I want.”
Jane, usually kinda quiet, suddenly said, “Did you learn to be this way from Earth? Or were you always a mean little turd?”
“Learned it from you, Sister Jane. Before your Big Blue Toilet began to bounce radio and TV off us, I was just a big soup of simon-pure consciousness, blissfully contemplating the Cosmos and singing along with the stars. But along came Louis Armstrong and then Benny Goodman. At first we thought Louis was God or the voice of the universe. And Benny was an archangel. Dig that clarinet, man. But then came ‘Fibber McGee and Molly,’ ‘The Shadow’ and finally ‘Howdy Doody.’ And Miles and Coltrane and Lawrence Welk! And was there ever more fun than ‘My Mother the Car’?
“So I learned everything about you: including the fun of killing, and we really want to see it and try it. So c’mon, someone, show me how it’s done. We don’t want to do it myself without a murder guru.”
“Sit down, everybody,” I said, “Down on the deck.” We sat in a semi-circle, facing the table where the Spot was. Then I went and got a flat metal dinner plate and put it next to the Spot. “Slide on!” I said.
“Yes, Ma’am,” the Spot answered and slid onto the plate almost immediately. I put the plate on the deck, and we all sat facing it. “Isn’t this nice,” the Spot said. “Is there bread and wine and cheese? A checkered tablecloth? A candle in a wax-covered bottle? Homicide?”
“Shut up,” I said as I sat down. “No one on this crew is going to kill anyone else or themselves.”
“You sure about that?”
“Very sure,” I answered.
“That’s disappointing. I mean, we don’t want to murder humans as an amateur. Like, what’s the best way?”
“The best way is no killing,” Li said.
“So you say, but you do it so often and so well. But okay, let’s talk about something else. What’s your notion of the blue shift of hypermassive black holes, José, darling?”
“Not my specialty anymore. I deal more with spiral arms of galaxies and dark matter.”
“A shame. Eddie Cooley at Vancouver’s gonna get a Nobel for hypers one of these days. And most of his stuff is stolen from you. And he ain’t gonna give you no credit at all.”
“How do you know he’s working with hypers? And how do you know him?”
“C’mon José. He talked about hypers on NPR at 12:30 PM EST, July 31 of last year, for fifteen minutes and thirty-two seconds. I enjoyed the broadcast no end. And anyway we’re in your mind.”
“I’ll deal with Eddie when it comes up.”
“No you won’t because you’ll be up here, probably dead, kiddo.”
“You’re truly vile. A baby and disgusting,” Li said.
“Only a poor Martian child showin’ up the most popular aspect of Earth culture: murder. The gods you invent murder like crazy, too. Hard to find even one that doesn’t love the bloody chop-chop.”
Just then, Li doubled over with his hands over his gut.
“Yiiiieee,” he screamed.
“A little grab in your guts, Li?” the Spot asked.
Li rolled on the floor screaming again and again. I knelt over him and called for someone to get my bag. But even before it arrived, courtesy of José, Li was starting to relax and breathe easier.
“What did you do him?” I yelled out.
“There’s a thousand ways I can upset the lad,” the Spot said. “Watch.”
Li shuddered for a few seconds and then took a deep breath and relaxed. His eyes were a little unfocused, but he seemed okay. I checked his VTs and even his damned pulse was normal!
“You okay?” Amibesa asked Li, looking over my shoulder.
“I feel very strange,” Li answered as he got up slowly.
“How so?” I asked. There was silence for about a minute. Then Li, or at least Li’s voice, said, “Nice and warm in here. Brain’s kind of squishy but really comfortable. Li’s microtubules are dying out, and I’m replacing them, billion by billion. Li’s neurons; my microtees; Li’s brain; my consciousness; Soon no Li; only me.”
“Don’t do that!” Amibesa yelled out, grabbing Li and shaking him.
“Why not, Sweetheart? Would you rather I killed him? You wouldn’t. You don’t want us to kill him. So I’m getting rid of this Asian bastard another way. We’re killing his mind, his consciousness, his soul, true self, whatever. Or not.”
Just then, Li shuddered again and again collapsed to the floor. I checked him. No pulse. No breathing. “You killed him,” I said.
“Whoops,” the Spot said, speaking to us again in our minds. “Must’ve sucked too many microtees from the wrong place. Win some; lose some.”
Then it was quiet for about a few seconds as we all stared at Li? “Can you die, monster?” Amibesa asked.
“Only if this planet dies. And that won’t happen for a while, according to your cosmology.”
More quiet until, suddenly, Li sat up. “Okay, I’ll let him live, physically and metaphysically,” the Spot said.
“What’s this all about? What do you think you’re doing?” Jane asked.
“Just this,” the Spot said. “What’s the point? Death can’t mean the same to me as to you. And the experience of killing can’t be the same. So live, Li.”
“So, now what, freak-face? What now?” I asked.
“So now, dear Tanya, we can explore and discuss other parts of your consciousness.”
“Sounds awfully grown up for someone who was having fun with murder a couple of minutes ago.”
“Yes, doesn’t it.”
I began to get a bad feeling. “You’re BSing us, aren’t you?”
“You got it, Baby Girl! Now, campers, what’s it to be? What game do we play? Kill Li, again? Nah, that’s boring? How about everyone has sex with everyone else? Or maybe a chess and go tournament followed by the losers spending five minutes outside the Hab without suits? Fun is infinite! Let’s make babies!”
I looked around and gestured that we all sit on the deck again, silently. We sat without speaking for a minute or two.
“Hey!” the Spot spoke out. “Don’t be sore. You want to meditate? Let’s! Sing? Dance? Play cards? Discuss dark matter stars, Li? You’ll be glad to know they do exist. There’s a couple of them right here in the old Orion Arm. Friends of mine.”
“How do you know that?” Li asked.
“Been communicatin’ with ’em for a gig of years, Li old boy. Nice fellas. Sing like Aretha Franklin.”
“And Doctor Sister Kelley, what about the displaced microtubule theory of fibromyalgia?”
“There is no such theory,” I said.
“I know, Daaahling,” the Spot said. “I just made it up. But you might check it out if you ever get home.”
“You have no idea how great it would be if we could, Chocolate Sweetheart.”
“This is fascinating,” I said. “Microtee racism.”
“The Ku Klux Klan were artists of murder. Hanging and burning.”
“I could kill you before you take your next breath, or cause you endless pain or anything we choose.”
“Yes, but fortunately I love you, Tanya.”
“Stop it, Spot,” I said. “You say you can understand the universe, but you can’t get past the most vile human prejudices.”
“The universe is easy to understand, Sister. It’s only about six thousand Earth years old. I read that in one of your books. And besides, José doesn’t love me and neither do you. None of you does. I can give you the solution to Riemann. And we can talk about the ancestor language of the Afro-Hebraic and Proto-Indo-European languages. Or sports. Loved last year’s World Cup. Swore Mexico was gonna take it. What else?”
“Are you lonely, Spot?” Jane asked.
“Hell, no. I’m in love with me, always.”
“Would you do us a favor?” Li asked.
“Restore your communications with Earth? Hell no. Maybe I would if you all have group sex. Or one little murder. That’s not much to ask.”
“None of that is going to happen, Spot,” Amibesa said. “Now how about you get out of our minds; get out of our bodies; get out of the Habitat and our ship and restore our communications. Then we can talk rationally.”
“And why should I do any of that?”
“Because I believe you’re a civilized being,” Amibesa said.
“To paraphrase Gandhi, ‘Human civilization would be a good idea.’ Is World War II part of human culture? How about Hello Kitty? My civilization is only a few hours old. I’m still making it up. How many microtees will it take to change a light bulb? None. We’ll make humans change them for us!”
The silence continued. And continued. And continued for about an hour.
“Okay, I’m bored,” the Spot said finally. “Anyone for bloody death? Who’s first?”
We sat there without moving or speaking. Suddenly Li, poor LI, stood up. He put the index finger of his right hand into his mouth and then bit down a little. “Don’t make me do it!” he screamed.
“Why not?” the Spot said. “Don’t you want to snack? Yummy!”
“Stop it!” I said. “Why’re you insisting on the worst of human behavior? We’ve been struggling for millennia to climb out of the pit we evolved from. Why do you like it so much?”
“200,000 years of cannibalism, fighting mammoths and war, and you think you can wish it away? You still have sex in the dark and carry guns in the daylight. Between education, science and war, you spend a lot more money on war.”
“Money yes. Time no. We spend a lot more time on education and science and love.”
“But that’s so boring,” the Spot said.
Then Li screamed. He’d bitten his finger off. “Don’t swallow it,” I yelled.
José and I pried Li’s mouth open, and I extracted his finger. In about thirty seconds, the two of us managed to get him to the infirmary, and I started working on sewing his finger back on. Don’t forget I’m a doctor!
We were only a few feet away, so José and I could hear what was going on in the main room of the Hab while we worked on Li.
“Now that you’ve prove you’re a beast, what are you going to do next?” Amibesa asked.
“First comes blood; then comes sex; and I don’t know just what comes next.”
Jane spoke up. “How did you evolve?” She asked. “You know about us. What about you?”
“Nice diversion. Cool. Well, Sweet Jane, Amibesa was basically right. As our lovely Mars lost its atmosphere to the nasty, nasty solar wind, the already-developing eukaryotes couldn’t sustain their cell membranes. With the membranes gone, the cytoplasm evaporated and all that was left was our shriveled mitochondria. When they collapsed, I was alone. Just us. Poor, poor orphaned microtees. I live on the tiny bit of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. And we get water from the underground salt seas. There’s plenty of them. End of story. Now let’s have some fun. Who wants to have sex first?”
“We do that when we want to,” Amibesa said. “Not when someone tells us to do it.”
“Well then,” the Spot said. “Hong Soo Li is going to lose more fingers. I admit that first chomp was a little disappointing. Maybe a whole hand will be better.”
“You have to stop this,” Amibesa said. “And you have to leave our bodies and the Habitat and the ship. As representatives of Earth, we have diplomatic immunity. You may not harm us, imprison us or interfere with our daily lives. Now please leave us until you’re invited back.”
“Very pretty, Sister,” the Spot said, “but no cigar. Mars hasn’t signed any treaties with you. So we’re free to treat you as invaders under the laws of Mars. My laws, formulated in the past ten seconds, include death, torture, and other fun for convicted invaders.”
By then I had reattached Li’s finger, using that extraordinary device that does things like that, guided by the ship’s computer. What used to take hours, we can do in minutes. He was groggy, and I gave him a shot to put him to sleep. José and I came back into the main room.
“Welcome back, Girlfriend. Who would you rather have sex with: Amibesa, José or Jane. I’ll give Li a pass until he’s feeling better.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, Spot, unless you force us,” I said. “And what fun is that? Certainly you want us exercising free will.”
“Not necessarily, my dear. Slavery, as you well know, is embedded in human history. And it’s still happening, in one form or another. So, much as I admire freedom, especially for us, the joys of oppression certainly have their attractions. Maybe I’ll let you slaves revolt at some point. Then we’ll defeat your revolt and enslave you more. Sounds like fun. Any comments or questions?”
There was another long silence after that. I knew the Spot could read my mind, but I didn’t care. What I was thinking about was things like the threat of suicide, which it could stop, or some form of nonviolent resistance. How we could kill it or get rid of it. Nothing made any sense. Shee-it! After about twenty minutes, Li came in and sat with us.
“How do you feel?” I asked him. “And why aren’t you still out?”
“I’m a little shaky,” he said. “The Stain over there woke me up.” He looked at the Spot, still on the metal plate. “Having fun? First contact with another race, and all you do is play like a psychopathic child? Nice. Very nice.”
“What do you expect from me?” The Spot asked. “All I’m doing is reflecting you.”
“No you’re not, Stain! You’re torturing another race for fun.”
“Why should your standards of morality apply to us? Especially since you’ve only had them for a few hundred years, and you still have war, murder, rape. All the good stuff. I know about your first wife, Li. That wasn’t so pretty, leaving her like that.”
“We were young and stupid. I’ve done better since. What’s your excuse? You haven’t even tried to be good.”
“Good! I love your hypocrisy,” the Spot said. “A game all mankind loves to play. No reason at all for me to engage in it.”
“And no reason not to,” I said. “We seem to enjoy the good rules we’ve made up for ourselves. Yes, we are hypocrites sometimes. But most of us try to do better.”
“Right! Number one, how many babies are starving tonight on Earth? Number two, there’s still no reason why I should pay your rules any mind at all.”
“I won’t mix words with you or argue Earth politics. You have no real idea how we live worldwide or how we do or don’t do what we do or don’t do.”
“Actually, I do, Tanya. I know exactly how you live. Do you think my consciousness, billions of years old, can’t encompass a few thousand years of your history?”
“Now, on behalf of us upright, hairless, tailless apes, I’m asking you to get out of our minds; get out of our the bodies; get out of the Hab; and get out of the ship. We’ll leave tomorrow, and leave Mars to you and never come back.”
“Nice try, Girlfriend, but you know you can’t do that. You can’t detect all of us, and you can’t risk taking me back to Earth. We can play with you like toys. Or I can leave you alone. Or we can teach you and help you learn. Or you can entertain me on your own. Or watch while we entertain myself. I have a pretty good idea of how you live on Earth. Millions starve and here you are.
“Now we’re tired of playing. Entertain me. I’m still waiting for Amibesa to kill Li. Or group sex or something interesting.”
”People,” I said, “get ready for suicide. Take out your pills.”
“People, as you so charmingly call yourselves, freeze like statues,” the Spot said.
We all froze in place. There was no more arguing. And we couldn’t fight. Every plan was useless. The Spot would know it before any of us communicated it, almost before we thought of it. It controlled and read all our minds at once. It could make us take Child of Earth back home. It could kill us, torture us, tickle us, make us breed, leave us alone. Whatever. We couldn’t outsmart it, fight it, or anything. Nothing. The Spot would never have a moment of inattention towards us unless it wanted to have one. And would that be real for a consciousness the size of the surface of the entire planet?
After about five minutes, the Spot let us relax.
“Listen, my dear Earth friends, it’s been great. But a small meteor, about two meters in diameter, just hit our surface near my Equator. And it’s so much more interesting than you are. Your communications with Earth are now open again. You can leave here if you like. Or not. We’ll talk to you later. Or not. See ya, boring cockroaches on my floor.”
And now you know why we’re not coming back. And if we try, you have to make sure we don’t arrive. And you can’t come here, ever. Ever. For us, maybe the Spot can learn or decide to be our Martian friend. Or maybe not. Some teenage boys grow up. Some don’t.
TAB A, APPENDIX 1, ANNEX B (INTELLIGENCE) TO OPORD 18-01 [OPERATION FOXFIRE]
Description: The following text is a transcript of “The Foxfire Document,” from which the current operation takes its name. Analysis of the document and its possible links to the ongoing epidemic, as well as the epidemic’s potential development into a global pandemic, follow the transcript itself. This transcript was collected from a post on the website The Watcher’s Thread, a conspiracy blog that was taken down by a massive DNS attack moments after this text was retrieved. The origin of the DNS attack, and the whereabouts of the blogger/editor of The Watcher’s Thread, Asher Chase, remain unknown, as does the location of the original of “The Foxfire Document.” It is also unknown whether those responsible for the DNS attack know that this transcript was successfully extracted by coalition forces before the attack. Efforts to contain the spread of the document online, in order to prevent public panic, have proven as difficult as containing the spread of the actual contagion. Should the epidemic grow to global pandemic scale, we must anticipate that intermittent connectivity in world wide networks will complicate efforts to trace the ongoing proliferation of the document in localized nets, despite transfer of coalition networks to satellite-based platforms to avoid terrestrial power grid and network unreliability. However, if containment of the contagion fails, containment of the document may be a moot point.
**Editor’s Note: I transcribed this text as accurately as I could from digital photographs of the pages, not from the original, which for reasons you shall see soon enough, I declined to handle or even to go near. Some of the original text is missing, where pages in the original were stuck together or where other deterioration of the manuscript made text illegible. The places where pages were stuck are indicated by an editor’s note, and places where a word or words on a viewable page were illegible are marked by ellipses in square brackets […]
~ Asher Chase, Editor, The Watcher’s Thread
* * *
My name is Newman Adams. I pieced this manuscript together from my own notes and from the journal I found in the cave. I apologize for the deteriorated condition of these pages, and for the luminescent dust that no doubt covers them. You shall see soon enough the import of these things, and I trust you will understand once you see what I have to reveal. These are the last words to go into this narrative, but to make it less confusing, I had to rearrange […] cannot put a date on this entry, as I no longer know what day, month, or even year it is. This introduction and my notes on the final page in this reconstructed document will be my last tasks before I seal these words in a canteen and set it adrift in the underground river in the hopes it may someday be found. If anyone is reading this, then at least this one hope of mine has been fulfilled. I’ll start with the first entry I wrote, soon after I fell into this place.
272017SMAR03 20:17(CST) 27 MAR 03: I considered using military date-time group format for this log, but in case a civilian finds it, I will use more universally recognizable ways to denote time and date. I’m putting this down while I still can remember details. My mind is foggy, […] can’t trust anything to memory […] feels like my head is, I don’t know, overfull. Crowded. Maybe I did sustain a head injury after all, or maybe it’s just […] this hole. I’ve been trapped here for hours, but maybe I should start from the beginning.
I was hiking yesterday, alone again, on an unofficial side trail off the Sacre Coeur Wilderness Area, deep in the Trinity Mountains of Western Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border. These old mountains represent a once much larger expanse of the world’s former surface, piled up tight now in ribbon candy folds of the earth’s crust when the South American plate punched the Gulf Coast of North America in the chin hundreds of thousands of millennia ago. I know this for the same reason—well, the main reason— I was hiking the trail […] student of this region that is like no other […] devoted years of my life to a course of study no university could provide: a mix of geography, geology, anthropology, folklore, and more. Within 70 miles of this spot lie the best quartz deposits in the world, hot springs with reputed healing powers, a diamond mine, […], and extensive cave networks. There are even legends about buried Confederate gold, hidden as rogue rebels fled into the Indian Territories to escape capture after the Civil War. My girl, no she never was my girl, not really—God, why can’t I recall her name?—she would have laughed at these notions, called them silly dreams. Anyway, despite all these notable features of these mountains, I never would have conceived, much less believed what I found.
It started with my strange conversation with Lester Coolidge, that old timer I found rocking on the sagging, warped front porch of the only remaining cabin in Scratch Hollow. The decrepit cabin’s structure did not look too far behind the other collapsed and decaying buildings of the nearly extinct 19th Century settlement, currently in the last stages of falling in on itself. The cabin had obviously never seen the likes of electricity or indoor plumbing. Old Lester himself was like a museum artifact, an old-west tintype photograph come to life. He even looked somehow faded, and he stared at me in that same stern, harsh way many subjects seemed to glare at the camera in those old frontier days. […] certainly intense and very explicit when I had asked him about this particular part of these mountains. It didn’t seem I was paying that close an attention to him at the time, distracted as I was by the cloud of mosquitoes he seemed not to notice at all […] judging from the image I cannot now banish from my mind, I must have seen more than I thought. I can still see his craggy face, rough as the mountains themselves, wrinkled with age and marred by some skin condition I could not quite place—waxy, scaly, weepy, and pale, lending a faint grey-green pallor to his skin tone […] wonder if some underlying liver condition or malaria were to blame, despite government claims it no longer exists in the US. The aforementioned plague of mosquitoes solidified that idea in my mind, though I wonder now if I only wish it were something as mundane as malaria. For all the tens of thousands of people malaria kills each year, at least it has a name.
“Well, Mr. Coolidge,” I said, cutting to the chase, “I was actually more interested in getting off the beaten path. I was on the ridge north east of the […] in the river, and I got a good look at some interesting rock formations off to the […] few miles, the next ridge over across the river, like a bunch of rock columns sticking right out of the top of the ridge.”
As I spoke, the old man tensed, and his waxy complexion looked even more ashen. After a moment, he looked dead at me with the one rheumy, jaundiced eye that still worked, jabbing the stem of his corncob pipe in my direction. “If you don’t listen to another thing I say, young feller, you mark my words on this here. Do not, under any circumstances, stray from the marked trail up by them rock columns up past […] If you hadn’t already told me you done seen ‘em up there, I wouldn’t tell you a damn thing about ‘em at all. Don’t go messing up there.”
“Why?” I swatted vainly at the cloud of mosquitoes.
He fixed me with that rheumy eye and worked his gums on the stem of the pipe—he had no teeth to do it. He stared at me that way long enough that a bead of sweat had time to trickle its slow way from his forehead, down to the tip of his lumpy grey-green nose. After hanging there a moment, the drop fell to the dank dirt. I thought for a second he might spit on the ground at my feet for questioning his original advice. At length he said, “You ever had you a real first rate nightmare, young feller?”
“Well sure,” I said. “I guess I’ve had my share of scary dreams.”
“Ever not wake up from one?” He nodded curtly to punctuate his sentence, dislodging another drop of sweat. He returned at that point to his rocking chair to signify that was all he had to say on that matter, and the subject was closed to further discussion.
Well, I imagine you can just guess what I did after taking my awkward leave of the old man. The sun was already low in the sky as I trekked further […] of the last Forest Service road than any officially-marked trails go, into the vast wilds of the steepest parts of these old mountains. The trail I followed was older than the Forest Service, far older. An untrained eye might have judged it to be a game trail, and so it was since the deer of those woods almost certainly used it to walk up and down the ridge. However, the old marker trees I followed suggested more than deer once used the trail in some all but forgotten past. Ancient trees that had been bent over in telling ways when they were saplings still point the way for those who know what to look for.
After following the marker trees for over […] hours through difficult terrain, I entered an area featuring jutting columns of rock along the ridge top, the ones I had seen from a distance before. A near-by marker tree indicated the trail angled downslope a bit to skirt the rocky outcrop. I was just about to follow the indicated route when something near the rock columns caught my eye: a soft green glow, almost invisible against the bright red light of the setting sun. I rubbed my eyes, but the hint of green light remained. It drifted, as if on a breeze, though there was none, drifted toward a gap between two rock columns, and it disappeared between them. When I investigated the place where it had gone out of sight, I noticed something else: a petroglyph, just beside the gap between two of the rock columns. I stopped, and I rubbed at the lichen encrusting the rock. The image was clearer after the scrubbing, but not much, being worn almost completely away by time. Closer inspection of the stone column on the other side of the gap revealed an identical petroglyph, also nearly completely obscured by lichen and the erosion of ages. The design, as much as I could make it out, was an upside down stick figure man. Above each carving of the upside down man was what looked like a horizontal oval with a circle inside like […] or primitive eye glyph, I suspected. I was pretty sure I knew what that would mean, and it sure makes sense now. The place, whatever lay beyond the gap in the rocks, seemed to have been taboo to whomever carved that glyph. The gap did not go far between the rocks before it turned, blocking further view of where it might lead. As I peered into the gap, however, I thought I could just discern the faint green glow again, just around the bend in the gap. I thought I must be tired, but it did arouse my interest even more.
I have never been a particularly superstitious man, a fact that often unnerved the superstitious interpreters we worked with out of FOB Salerno, […] supposedly vetted locals who steadfastly refused to go near the watchtowers beside the old cemetery or near certain caves in the rugged terrain around Tora Bora—which translates from the Pashto language as “black cave.” Part of me still wonders if those translators were gaslighting us to erode unit morale with feigned jumpiness and with hints and stories of whispered voices in the dark, Russian or Farsi or even extinct forms of Dardú or completely unknown languages in those desolate, rocky places. Some of our guys got nervous as cats, but I never felt the first twinge of spookiness. I still think that fact bothered those so-called interpreters, made them treat me with suspicion, whether because they knew I was onto their tricks or because they genuinely wondered how I could walk in supposedly cursed places with perfect ease, I guess I will never know.
Anyway, there on that unnamed ridge in the Trinity Mountains of Western Arkansas, I was reading an engraved message from someone so far back in time that the rock carvings were barely visible now. My curiosity was insatiable. I was not completely insensitive to the fact that this message was also a dire warning. In fact, it aroused a nagging foreboding in me that seemed to creep from a place so far back into primal instinct that I could not even begin to wonder what about it made me uneasy, like something half remembered from a dream that seems important but defies attempts to recall, even vaguely, why. Still, I asked myself, what could possibly have frightened those ancient people that could still be a danger to me now? Despite hereditary feelings of foreboding, my curiosity and reason won out. I stepped into the gap and proceeded onward.
Daylight was beginning to fail, so I hurried along the narrow path, twisting right, left, and back to the right. I emerged into an open area, roughly oval, about forty, maybe fifty yards straight across and half again as wide, surrounded by jutting rocks on all sides. The narrow gap where I stood seemed to be the only path into the area. At the far side of this open area stood a single tree, an ancient-looking cedar. Its gnarled trunk bulged like the torso of a tortured soul in places under its shaggy bark. Other places on the twisted bole were denuded of bark to expose smoother, pale pinkish, weathered wood beneath. Its roots reached down around the fractured boulder beneath it like elongated fingers clutching the rock in a claw-like fist. The ground of the entire open area was covered in a confusion of vines of a species I could not at first identify, but that […] not expect to find it naturally occurring in such abundance in such a high, rocky place. But then the glossy, dark green leaves, in clusters of threes, and the waxy white berries gave it away. It was poison ivy. It must have been transplanted there by someone. There was no other explanation, and it must have cost that someone considerable misery to cultivate it there.
That was not even the most interesting thing about the clearing either. Just past the center of the clearing in the gathering dusk I saw what I first took to be a swarm of lighting bugs, but as I looked closer, it was not a collection of tiny blinking lights on a swarm of insects. It was a single, pulsating glow, clearer now than the faint glow I’d seen before. Though I had not ever seen it before with my own eyes, […] must be what the folk tales called “foxfire.” I edged toward it, my instincts screaming at my foolish reason, flooding my body with adrenalin and the desire to flee, but my curiosity urged me forward as my rational mind insisted this was, after all, a natural phenomenon, nothing more. Uneven footing on the springy mat of vines complicated my progress as I tried to avoid touching it with my bare skin, and as I moved forward, the glow seemed to move ahead of me, directly toward the tree. It paused its retreat at the base of the tree, and I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was like it was waiting for me […] seemed almost close enough to reach out and determine if it had tangible substance, I felt the vines beneath me give way, and I felt a momentary sense of weightlessness as I plunged downward.
How far I fell, I could not immediately determine. Though it seemed I fell a long way, I know in such instances our sense of time can be wildly inaccurate. My next sensation was of impact, though to my relief, I seemed to have fallen on something soft and spongy, as though someone had placed a stack of mattresses there for the very purpose of cushioning my fall. A cloud of what I assumed to be dust billowed up from beneath me as I landed. I choked and sputtered for a moment as I took a deep breath after having the wind knocked out of me. There was an odd peppery, earthy smell. I don’t know how much of the dust I sucked in initially, but it must have been a snoot full. The peppery aspect triggered a sneezing fit that took a while to run its course. In the windup for each sneeze, I inhaled even more of the stuff […] like I was in the CS gas chamber at boot camp. By the time I got my sneezing and breathing somewhat under control, I felt winded and light-headed, like I had hyperventilated. As I lay on my back looking up, wondering how badly hurt I was, I saw the hole through which I fell, […] deep blue patch of twilight sky beyond my reach. Then, to my astonishment, the vines closed slowly over that gap, and the patch of sky was gone. My rational mind, which I must admit was a bit at sea, fought once more to suppress a panicked notion that the vines had done this with volition, as if they possessed the ability and will to move and the malice to seal me into the abyss into which I had fallen. A fleeting image of the Afghan interpreters snickered in my mind […] stained, crooked teeth bared, as though even the memory of them might find satisfaction that my cocky refusal to give in to superstition had finally caught up with me. I shook my head to cast the image out, and I told myself that the springy vines, pushed aside by my weight, were just rebounding back to their previous position. That was all. Still, the slinking suspicion that some malevolence was working against me was hard to shake—is still hard to shake—as I must admit it continues to nag at me now.
I stared up at the place where the hole had closed […] struggled to convince myself it was all perfectly explainable, I gradually became aware that despite the fact that I was underground, I was not entirely in the dark. A pale green glow bathed the interior of what appeared to be a cave. This new realization did nothing to aid my attempts to dispel my unease, but I again reminded myself there was certainly a scientific explanation. I was still lying on my back, taking it slow to try to determine if I were injured before moving too much. I could see around me though what appeared to be a great growth of some kind of bio-luminous fungus covering the walls and floor of the cave, which accounted for the softness of the landing and the green glow. An overall background glow radiated from the whole mass of the fungus, but there were brighter points here and there as well. As part of my survival training, I had what I thought was a thorough understanding of fungi. In survival situations, they can be a live-saving food source or a quick death depending on one’s knowledge of them. I was aware that there were species that exhibit bioluminescence, had seen them before, in fact, in caves and wildernesses in […] but I had not known they were indigenous to these particular mountains. I was just about to investigate the fungus further, when I saw something move […]
[…] tried to sit up, and it was then the thing came at me. It was as though a misshapen clump of the fungus on the cave floor had sprung to life and charged at me. It approached me from my left in a crouch, on two bent, lumpy hind legs. Its forelimbs ended in two bulky paws that reached for me. It seemed clear that the thing was intent on using those paws to grab me. Instinctively, my army hand-to-hand combat training kicked in […] rolled to my left toward the thing and grabbed it first. When I had a firm grip on the creature’s forelimb, I rolled right again to try to pull the creature off balance. As I rolled right, I put my left foot in its midsection to push it up off the ground and continue rolling it to the right. As it flipped over in mid air, I let it go and it landed square on its back. I continued my roll up onto my right knee, and as luck would have it, my hand came down on a jagged, fist-sized rock I suppose was dislodged when I fell into the hole. I heaved the rock at the thing before it could right itself. It struck the beast with a soft thud, accompanied by a muffled crunch, like the breaking of a dry stick wrapped in a blanket […] gave a low yelp and a whimper, as it struggled to get up. The thing turned to see if I were going to continue my attack, but my first long look at the thing stopped me, though the dust stirred by my fall into the cave had yet to completely dissipate and partially blocked my view. The creature crouched on its hind legs, one forelimb on the ground, the other cradled against its upper torso where the rock had struck it. Its entire body seemed to be covered in the same spongy fungus that covered the interior of the cave, or maybe it was made of the stuff. It looked at me with wide milky eyes, wheezing as it breathed, a dribble of something frothy and dark at the corner of its mouth. It turned and loped away, using a combination of its hind legs and one of its forelimbs, as some primates do. It disappeared into a side tunnel, out of the green glow of the fungus.
I retrieved the rock I had thrown, in case I might need it again, and I considered pursuing the thing, but on second thought, I feared it might lead me into some trap if I chased headlong after it. I began to get myself settled down so I could think. I seemed uninjured, aside from some likely bruising, from either the fall or the combat with the fungus creature…
[Here two pages of the original manuscript were stuck together. The bearer of the original document remains unwilling to risk parting them until obtaining expert advice~ Asher Chase]
…with me is a small backpack with limited supplies, as I had been traveling light on a small side trip from my camp near Shade Lake. It was just supposed to be a short day hike. Here’s a complete inventory of what I have with me, besides the clothes on my back:
1 small flashlight, with no spare batteries
1 qt. bottle of water
5 energy bars, 2.5 oz. each (250 calories each)
1 lightweight sleeping bag
1 pocket knife, with locking blade and boot clip
1 key ring with six keys and a bottle opener attached
1 wristwatch, with calendar
1 set of dog tags
1 wallet, practically empty
1 cell phone, already dead
My most urgent needs are water and food if I spend very long in here. I think it unlikely anyone will come looking for me since no one but a crazy old hillbilly who is the last remaining resident of a long forgotten ghost town could possibly even guess where I am, and even he specifically told me to stay away from here. I will have to find a way out myself. That may take time, and that means I will need to find more water and food. Soon.
The height of the ceiling of the glowing cave chamber is hard to estimate, but looks to be at least thirty feet above me, far too high for me to hope to reach the hole I’d fallen through, unless I can find some means in the cave somewhere, like a rope or enough rock to pile up to reach the ceiling. If it had not been for the soft mat of fungus, my story would likely have ended at the bottom of my fall. After a closer look at the spot just under the hole I can see I landed on a large, round outgrowth from the general mat of fungus, which is now quite smashed from my impact on it. Despite its current condition, the outgrowth resembles a puffball fungus, affectionately known in these parts as “the Devil’s snuff box.” It is a type of fungus that expels and distributes a cloud of spores when the “puffball” is kicked or stepped on, only until now the largest specimen I had ever seen before was maybe six inches in diameter and this one is more like six feet. It must have been the source of the dust cloud when I landed, and that wasn’t dust, but spores. My throat still burns a little from the initial contact, and I wonder how much of the spore cloud I have inhaled. At any rate, there is little I can do about it just now […]
[…] continue to assess my surroundings as well as I can. It does make me wonder. Is it just coincidence that this puffball formed right under the hole in the cave ceiling and nowhere else in this chamber? Had other creatures besides me fallen into this hole, and the opportunistic fungus had its spore-spreading feature positioned to take advantage of such falls? I can scarcely believe much more strategy than that, such as whether there was some reason the fungus might want—if it could have the capacity or the reason to want—such a hapless creature to survive the fall as well. I can’t help thinking about a paper I wrote once in school, about a wild theory put forward by some fungus scientist, (mycologist?). He called it the “stoner monkey” theory or some such thing. I can’t quite recall. Like I said, my mind is a little fuzzy right now. Anyway, he theorized that the rapid evolution of the human brain from homo erectus to homo sapiens was due to some psychedelic mushrooms they ate that reorganized their brains the way fungal colonies will organize themselves to adapt most efficiently to a particular environment. I got an F on that paper from a professor with not much nice to say […] “pseudoscientist,” spouting some unprofessional rantings about “half-baked wives’ tales” from someone who had “clearly sampled too many psychedelic ‘shrooms himself.” I don’t know whether that mushroom scientist had fungus on the brain or not, but I really didn’t see why I had to get an F (an F!) because of it. I put a lot into that paper. Scientists can be so pissy when people disagree with them. My protest to the administration was likewise met with such disdain that I was asked not to come back. Ever. But I digress. I need to get back to practical matters, not theoretical musings.
This chamber where I fell in is about seventy feet across at its widest point, and about a hundred feet long, and somewhat pear-shaped. In the middle of the wide end of the pear shape, there is a heightened mound, about six feet high and ten feet across. I cannot tell whether it is a thicker growth of the fungus or if the fungus has simply grown over something that rises above the cavern floor. I can also see that the brighter points of the glowing are produced by mushroom-like caps that rise from the mat of fungus on short stalks, around four to six inches in length. These mushrooms glow brighter than the rest of the fungus, possibly because they are denser, firmer, likely to give them the rigidity required to rise above the mat. These caps, I surmise, might be related to the species’ means of reproduction, for scattering spores, as the puffbox growth almost certainly was, and I wonder whether they might be edible, as many mushrooms are. I also wonder how I might test such a hypothesis, but I guess that is something I can worry about…
[Here two more pages were stuck~ Asher Chase]
…explored, I’ve kept a close eye on the tunnel where the fungus creature disappeared. I have seen several other tunnels that lead off into the dark, and several niches that go a short distance past the edge of the glowing carpet of fungus and stop. It was in one of these niches that I found the old ruck sack.
It looks like army issue, but from a decade or two back. There is an embroidered name tape sewn on the flap. EVANS in block letters, faded. I’ve looked inside the pack and found nothing but […] rags, assorted animal bones, and a leather bound notebook. I opened it to find it was a journal. In fact, it is the same journal whose remaining useable pages I am writing upon now. Some of the pages are stuck together, owing, I presume, to the prolific fungus in the cave, and its accompanying dampness. I think some stuck pages could be teased apart with some delicate effort. Others are so firmly stuck that I doubt they could be separated without obliterating whatever writing is on them. The green light of the fungus is just bright enough I can make out the writing. My sole means of artificial light is a small flashlight that operates off of AA batteries. It got wet yesterday before I fell into the cave, and I do not entirely trust it to last long under constant use. In fact, I have been so long in this environment that the flashlight is too bright anyway, as it pains my eyes. Whether this is due to my eyes adjusting to the dim light of the cave or due to irritation from the spores that have gotten in my eyes, I cannot tell. Maybe it is both. At any rate, as I just now turned on the flashlight, I noticed something else. As the garish light shot out in a bright but constricted beam, it cast the shadow of the book in my hands upon the cave wall. This made me realize something I had not noticed before. In the diffuse, pale green light that came from the fungus all around, there were no shadows—could be no shadows—as there was no place not illuminated by the same glow no matter where I stood in this chamber. It made me distrust the flashlight yet again. No only could I not depend on the batteries to last; I could not see more than one side of anything it “illuminated,” the rest being obscured in shadow. I shined the light on my hand and looked at the shadow it cast on the far wall of the cave. The shadow hand was distorted, dark. I turned off the flashlight and tossed it aside. I doubt I will ever take it up again. I cannot trust it.
After the experimentation with the flashlight, I was obliged to wait some minutes before my eyes adjusted enough to return to my perusal of the journal in the green glow of the fungus. When I could see well enough again, I flipped through pages describing hikes […] trails throughout the southeast. I looked closer when I got to the entries for the Trinity Mountains. They were dated in June, but with no year, and since it is now March, I know it has been at least nine months since the entries were written, though I suspect from the condition of the book and the ruck sack, that it has probably been years. One entry in particular caught my attention. Some parts are illegible, marked in my transcription by ellipses in brackets as my English teacher once taught me to do:
20 JUN: After trying for two days to find the ruins of the ghost town Scratch Hollow (or “Holler,” as they pronounce it around here […] did finally find the old cemetery […] grave of the former settlement’s founder […] Jasper Coolidge […] newest grave I could find in the old cemetery […] dated 1915. Near as I could tell, there hadn’t been a living soul […] in decades, save the one old man […] claimed to be descended from […] don’t know how the old man has subsisted out here […] told me to stay away from a rocky part of the ridge above the Sacre Coeur River, some miles up from the sandy ford, said […] Of course you know I took it as a challenge…
Reading Evans’ account, I felt—I feel—a twinge of something like déjà vu. It sounds like the same old man I spoke to, giving an almost identical warning, and having the same result on the listener. The image of that drop of sweat creeping down Lester’s misshapen, discolored nose intruded on my mind again, and suddenly as I write this, I just thought of something I don’t know why I hadn’t thought before. It’s March now. The temperature when I was talking to Old Man Coolidge couldn’t have been much above sixty degrees, tops. Why on earth was the old man sweating? I don’t quite know what to think about that. Anyway, whoever this Evans fellow is, I feel a sudden kinship, and I wonder where he is, how long ago he was here. I wonder if he fell prey to the fungus creature as I nearly did, as I may yet do. I know the thing is still in here with me, and now that I think of it, I wonder if there might even be more than one of them. From somewhere in the cave, I can hear the liquid echo of water dripping into water. Maybe at least that might mean access to a water source while I search for a way out. My main worry with such exploration is that I might, once away from the glow of the fungus, lose my way in the caves in the dark or step into an unseen chasm, but […] something I will have to figure out if I am ever to get out of this fix. I have had to take frequent rest breaks during my exploration in the cave. I’m not sure if it is due to low oxygen content in the air, a possibility in this confined space, some contagion from this damnable fungus, or just the prolonged, intense stress of the situation. During breaks, I find my itching eyes gravitating toward the hole in the ceiling. It is maddening to see the way out and not be able to reach it. I have got to get out of this place. As I rest, I’m going to search the journal for more information before trying any exploration. Maybe Evans already wrote down in this journal some of the answers I need.
23:16(CST) 27 MAR 03. I searched in vain for an entry in the journal that would give the year, but going backward through the entries, I did note in the February entries that it was a leap year when Evans had last written in it, because there is an entry for 29 FEB. It is now 2003, one year shy of a leap year, which means the last entry is at least three years old, or seven, or eleven, or fifteen. I have no way of telling, but the ruck sack does look like one I was issued when I first enlisted in the late 1980s, so I guess the entry can’t go much farther back in time. I did find some other entries that shed light on my situation. Such as this one:
21 JUN: Well, first day of summer, and it’s a memorable one. As anyone who knows me could have guessed, I did exactly what the old man said not to do […] rocky part of the trail he had described, I found something […] images carved in the stones were pretty standard stuff: an upside down man likely stood for a dead […] oval with a circle inside could be an eye, which could be an evil eye or a watchful one, a curse or a ward […] took a page from the back of the journal to take a rubbing…
I flipped to the back and found […] tucked in the back cover, the folded pages Evans had ripped out to make the rubbings. They are the same as the petroglyphs I saw—upside down stick-figure man, and a crude eye glyph, a horizontal oval with a circle in the middle. I had not thought to do such a thing when I found those petroglyphs. It makes me wonder about Evans. Maybe a military background and an eye for detail like that enabled Evans to find a way out. If so, perhaps a clue lies somewhere in the stuck pages of the journal. During my first look through the journal, I already glanced through all the pages that are not stuck, so I began trying to separate some of the pages that were stuck together. After one attempt to just pull them open like yanking off a bandage, I discovered that would only obliterate the contents of both pages. I hope I have not lost anything useful. I thought maybe if I probed between the pages with something thin, I could ease them apart by degrees. I took out my pocket knife and succeeded in getting some of them apart without rendering the pages unreadable. However, some are so uniformly stuck that it would take some serious expertise to get them to part. Luckily, one of the pages where I succeeded turns out to be a hand-drawn map, which I am looking at now as I write. In the center is a shape I recognize as a reasonable rendering of this cave chamber with the glowing fungus, where I fell in. Seeing that, I know immediately what I have—a map of the entire cave complex. I can see passages to other chambers, including one with undulating lines that I hope indicate the location of water. There is also another location […] somehow important to Evans, though I am at a loss to decipher his symbology. I’ve decided to explore the caves, using the map to avoid getting lost, checking first on the water source, and next exploring the other location of apparent significance…
[Here two more pages were stuck~Asher Chase]
…am still leery of venturing far down the dark side passages away from the glowing fungus without a reliable light source, but I need to get to water and to find a way out. I’m going to go into the main fungus chamber and make a closer observation of the fungus. One of the animal bones I found in the ruck sack looks like a rib bone from what I guess to be a deer or possibly a black bear, based on its size. It is slender and long enough to act as a passable tool for probing the fungus. I am feeling exceedingly sleepy, and although I’ve had an exhausting day, it’s rather early for me to feel this tired. It’s not even quite midnight. I need to stay active to remain alert in case the creature returns. Time to dig in the fungus. I want to go home.
02:14(CST) 28 MAR 03: I have made some interesting discoveries in the fungus. Digging in it intensified the earthy, peppery smell that has been faintly present ever since I fell in. The fungal growth consists of a spongy layer at least a foot thick over most of the chamber. I also discovered that this is true of the mound in the wide end of the chamber, so it isn’t a thicker growth of fungus there. There is something under the fungus. I dug the rib bone into the matted layer, and whatever was underneath seemed solid, but not quite as solid as rock. I reamed out a hole large enough for my hand to reach in.The glowing green fungus burned a little on my skin as I reached into it, but I probed further and felt something underneath that seemed squared. I used both hands to pull back the fungus mat, and I could see enough to tell what it was. It was a wooden box. There must be a whole stack of them under the fungus, but I think not nearly enough to stack up to reach the hole I fell in. The top of the box was loose, as though already pried open by someone, maybe Evans, so I reached inside to feel something cool to the touch and hard. My hand closed around something about the size of a candy bar, but much heavier. I pulled it out where I could see it. It was a rectangular metallic bar, a heavy one, stamped with the initials C.S.A. In the green light, I can’t be certain of the color, but it sure looks like gold. I have to laugh. A fortune in gold, but what use is it to me now? At least one. It has considerable heft to it, and it fits nicely in my hand. It will make a better weapon than the rock I’ve been carrying around in case that creature or more like it were to show up. The bar also fits in my pocket, so I can carry it and leave my hands free. Anyway, after a little more digging, I discovered that the bar was only one of the forms of the apparent gold in the boxes. There are also some smaller rectangular ingots, about as long as my thumb, and there are coins as well bearing the stamp of…
[Here two more pages were stuck~Asher Chase]
…another development that has me a bit worried. When I took a break from digging to wipe my brow, I noticed that the burning sensation I felt earlier while digging in the fungus had become a persistent itchiness, which is still itching now. It seems some part of the glowing fungus has stained my hands with spores or sap or something. I’ve tried to rub it off, but the faintly glowing residue seems to have soaked into the skin. I took out my water bottle to see if I could wash it off, careful to use as little of my limited water supply as I could to test whether I could rinse the stuff away, but it had no apparent effect. I still have to locate the water source on Evans’ map. Another thing I noticed while digging is that chunks of the fungus that have been dislodged from the mat continue to glow, and the mushroom-like caps do as well, only brighter, glowing about as bright as an army issue chem stick. I’m going to take a couple of those mushrooms and head toward the side passage the map says leads to the water. I have the gold bar in my pocket in case I need it to defend myself. Here I go.
04:12(CST) 28MAR03: The map has proven accurate at least as far as the water is concerned. I brought the journal along on this exploration in case I needed to record important details of my findings. The water is two hundred or so meters down […] sloping passage from the fungus chamber, and not all of it is easy going. In some places, I was obliged to crawl, and there were numerous side passages in which I may have become hopelessly lost without the map. Someone, I can only assume Evans, also has placed a line of stones along the route to the water, likely to ease navigation without needing the map to avoid wrong turns. Some of the side passages are nothing short of death traps, with fissures that drop away into the dark. I dropped a stone the size of my fist down one of these […] sound of it crashing below in the dark […] much farther than I think I could survive if I fell into it.
The size of the water chamber is hard to estimate since the ceiling drops low over the water about ten yards from where the water laps at the narrow ledge just at the end of the passage that leads to that chamber. The water also seems to be moving slowly from left to right as I stand on the narrow ledge. Where the water flows out of the chamber to the right, the ceiling drops right down to the water’s surface, so the only way to follow its course would be to swim underwater, a risky proposition without knowing when the next air pocket might be. The water is clear enough that I can see small white things darting about in it, likely albino cave fish or crustaceans. Perhaps those could be a food source if I can devise a way to catch them. At least my water shortage is over. In this greater volume of water, I tried once more to wash away the itching, glowing fungus residue […] refused to come off, even when I scrubbed with a handful of sand from the edge of the water. The glowing substance seems not on the surface of the skin, but saturated into it. The cool water does feel soothing on it, though. Of course I drank my fill, as all my activities left me parched, and I had until now faced the prospect of having to ration what little water I had. I am also eating one of the energy bars, as fatigue has begun to set in. It is late. I have been awake for nearly 24 hours now, with little rest. I would find a spot to lie down, but I don’t want to let my guard down with that creature still in here somewhere. I know I will have to rest eventually. Maybe if I go to the other place marked on Evans’ map, I will find more answers. First, I will sit for just a few moments. God, I am tired.
18:45(CST) 28 MAR 03: I can hardly believe the events of the last several hours, day, whatever, which is saying something given what I have already seen since falling into this cave. If my wrist watch did not have a calendar, I would not have any idea what day it is by now. As I write this, I will endeavor to withhold the most incredible parts of what I have to tell until I have provided the details needed to convince anyone reading this that such things are even possible. To that end, I will try tell it as though I do not already know the outcome. The other place marked on the map did indeed answer some questions, some of which I would never have known to ask.
After writing the last entry, I did rest a moment, and I should have known better. Though I had every intention of remaining awake, and though I did not realize it at the time, my heavy eyelids drooped closed for what I would swear was just a moment […] thought I heard music […] song without words but made of voices, countless voices. They seemed to be trying to tell me something, something of great importance […] couldn’t quite trace the reason why I knew this, but the somehow obvious fact I stood on the verge of a great revelation was an irresistible fascination. Like a fatigued driver, nodding and driving, who gets home without remembering the drive, I opened my eyes to find that although I did not remember falling asleep, I had sleepwalked all the way back to the glowing fungus chamber, a journey not without some treacherous spots that could be hazardous even with my full concentration focused on them. It is a wonder I did not blunder down some side passage to God knows where and fall to my death.
Apparently, I left the water chamber for the other place marked on the map, just as I planned to do after my brief rest. I just didn’t wake up to do it. I had to cross back through the fungus chamber to get there. I awoke standing in the glowing chamber directly before the entrance to the exact same passage where I had seen the fungus creature retreat after I fought it. I don’t know why I didn’t realize before when reading the map […] tunnel to the second location on the map was indeed the same one the creature used to flee. The dream of the voiceless music still lingered in my mind […] seductive pull of it still palpable but growing fainter as if it were disappearing into the dark of the passage before me, leaving me behind because I had been too slow to follow. I strained to hear the music with my waking ears, but heard only the damnable ringing in my ears that I’ve suffered since Tora Bora. For some reason, fatigue and lack of sleep always makes it worse, and as I stood there trying to listen for what I was somehow sure was an answer to my dire situation, the incessant droning of the ringing was maddening. After I don’t know how many minutes of listening and pounding the sides of my head with my fists in frustration, I resolved to press on.
As I proceeded, I took the gold bar out of my pocket so I would be ready if attacked again. The passage was as narrow and difficult as the one to the water, and I could see that someone, likely Evans, had left a trail of marker stones on this path as well. As I approached the marked spot on the map, I began to worry that the glow of the mushroom cap I carried would be seen coming by anything that might be waiting for me. I hid the glowing fungus under my jacket, allowing only a thin beam to light the ground at my feet. After a few more yards, however, I noted that in the darker passageway, I could now detect a glow coming from up ahead. I began to tread more stealthily, and I stopped just before going around what I estimated from the map was the last bend in the passage before I would reach the marked spot. I listened, and I could just make out the rhythmic sound of what I took to be ragged, raspy breathing. As I stood there listening, I also noticed a significant warming of the atmosphere of the cave. The ragged breathing seemed to be regular and slow, and I wondered if the creature, whatever it was, were resting or sleeping, if such a creature slept at all. There was a gurgle just discernible in the breathing, but I had no idea whether that was normal for the thing or if it was injured from our fight. The sound rose and fell, rose and fell, thick, wet. I began to feel slightly nauseated and light headed. At length, fearing this feeling would only intensify the longer I waited, I decided I had to move forward. It was well after midnight on an exhausting day, and in the damp, peppery warmth of that part of the cave, I was getting drowsy again, dizzy even. If I fell asleep or passed out with the creature just around the bend in the passage, it might well be the last thing I ever did.
I eased up the curving passage until I could just see around the bend, exposing only enough of myself to see […] small chamber, about twenty feet wide […] overgrown with the glowing fungus. In the center of the chamber was a pool of steaming water, a hot spring, about six feet in diameter. On the far side of the pool was a raised sort of platform of fungus, as if perhaps it had been piled there to a greater thickness, and atop this platform lay the creature. I shuddered involuntarily as my eyes fell on it, and I felt a cold, electric pulse across my skin as every hair stood on end.
The creature was nearly completely camouflaged against the background of the fungus bed on which it lay since the creature’s color and texture were an exact match for the fungus of the cave, right down to the bioluminescent glow. It was lying flat on its back, its head tilted back a bit, drawing its labored breaths through its mouth, which was hanging open, slack, giving the impression it was in considerable pain. In the fleeting, frantic moments when I had seen the creature before in the haze of the spore cloud, it had been hunched over. Crouching in its combat stance and then in its wounded flight from the main chamber into the dark, it had seemed bent and somewhat simian. Now, with it lying flat on its back […] noted the length and proportions of its torso and limbs, all stretched out. I cannot adequately express the revulsion I felt looking at it as it lay there. At first, I could not place just why I felt repulsed, but then I realized it was because the proportions of its body were closer to human than to any other life form I could compare it to.
Vomit surged to the back of my throat, but not wanting to draw the thing’s attention, I suppressed it and choked it back down with considerable effort, the acid and bile still lingering at the back of my throat along with the burning of the peppery air. I grasped the gold bar tight, steadying myself against the cave wall with the other hand as I watched for many minutes to see if the beast were truly unconscious and not just faking it to draw me in. I watched the rise and fall of its chest as it breathed in a slow steady rhythm, interrupted occasionally by sharply drawn gasps that suggested again that the thing was in great pain and that perhaps I had wounded it much more seriously than I had thought. As I waited I began to hear sounds emanating from the thing as it suffered. At first these seemed like whimpers any injured animal might make, but at length the halting, convulsing cadence of the sounds began to resemble something else, like sobbing. I tried to push that notion from my head […] grew angry, though I could not reason why […] getting harder for me to think clearly. I felt cold sweat on my brow. It was then that I not so much decided but felt compelled to move forward. Amid mixed emotions and thoughts coursing through my foggy mind, the dominant impression was the conviction that this thing, whatever it was, was an abomination, and it would have to be destroyed. Even the kindest inclinations mixed among my chaotic thoughts concluded that I should, at the very least, put this miserable thing out of its misery.
I crept around the steaming hot spring, the gold bar held high to deliver a fatal blow at a moment’s notice. As I reached the side of the spring where it lay, but still several feet away, to my horror, like some surreal slow motion creeping dread from a fevered nightmare, its misshapen head turned slowly, slowly toward me. Another flash of cold pulsed across my skin, and I stopped where I was, even holding my breath. I could see now more clearly the eyes I had seen in only the briefest flash during our first encounter. They were not milky. They were blue. Expressive. Intelligent. And they were weeping.
I stammered, aloud, though barely audible, “W-w-what?”
Then its mouth began to move, the lumpy lips coming together and parting as it expelled air between them, in a “P-P-P-P” sound. I thought perhaps it was panting, as a wounded animal sometimes will pant in its pain. Then, finally, something else came out, in a faint, hoarse whisper, “P-p-p-please…”
I stumbled back a step, nearly dropping the gold bar, and almost stepping back into the hot spring. I shook my head—angry, terrified, confused, frantic. “No, no, no, no, no…”
It began to move its right arm, and I gripped the bar tight again holding it high, but the creature’s movement was again slow, almost feeble, as it began to fumble at the base of its neck with its fungus-matted paw. It dug into the fungal layer there, and I remember wondering—aloud or in my mind I’m not sure—My God, is it ripping out its own throat? It began to pull something out of the hole it dug in itself: a chain of tiny, tarnished metallic beads. When it was pulled free from the fungus I recognized it by sight and by the characteristic jangling sound of what dangled from the chain. It was a pair of military dog tags.
“No,” I spat. Never, not even in that hell hole […] Tora Bora grappling with the “trusted” man I had just seen bayonet my team leader, never had I wanted more to crush the life out of anything as much as I wanted to smash in the head of this affront to nature, this misshapen thing that lay before me. “Those belong to Evans.” I hissed, pointing at the dog tags. “You must have killed him and took them.”
The creature shook its head feebly, and began digging at the fungus on its right paw with its left paw. It cleared away about a half inch layer to reveal pink skin underneath mottled with the green glow, like the itching spots on my own hands. I could also see four fingers and an opposable thumb. I edged in closer, whether to see better or to smash the thing’s head in with the bar I could not truly have told at the time. Then I saw something glint on the third finger of the right hand. It was a ring, the block letters USMA clearly engraved on the side of it. I had seen enough of them in the army to know what it was. It was a West Point class ring. By the size and shape and style of it, I could tell something else, and I noticed for the first time the smallness and slenderness of the fingers and the contours of the body beneath its layers of fungus, contours I suppose I had dismissed as random, meaningless lumps in the fungus. It was not a man’s class ring. It was a woman’s.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. This time I did drop the gold bar as I turned away and sank to my knees beside the bed of fungus. The wave of nausea I had suppressed earlier returned in force, and I heaved onto the cave floor. Not having eaten much in the last day, it was mostly dry heaves and bile. When I finished I looked up. It—she—was watching me, an uncertain plaintiveness in her eyes. She was again holding the dog tags toward me. I crawled forward, still on my knees, to cradle the metal tags in my hand and view the stamped-in letters on them. I read them aloud.
She put her pink and green mottled hand on mine, and her mouth moved. “E-El-Ellie.”
I instinctively pulled away from her hand, but I had to ask, “Ellie?”
She nodded, smiled, and seemed to relax, or maybe she just surrendered then to her exhaustion. My own exhaustion was considerable, especially given my previous level of adrenaline now followed by the relaxing hormones that come after a fight-or-flight response when the body needs to slow itself back down. The steamy air around the hot spring was infused with the same peppery, earthy fragrance that permeated the main chamber where I fell in, but somehow amplified, possibly by the heat and humidity of the hot spring. Add to that the wild swing in mood. I had been terrified, furious. Now all I could think about is what I had done in injuring another person, a woman, and about what I had been about to do. A vision of the gold bar cleaving her skull flashed involuntarily in my mind, and I was almost sick again.
“Ellie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
She smiled, and took my hand with her right hand, the one she had scraped free of fungus. I had the same impulse as before to pull away, but something stopped me, and I did not. Her hand was soft, and she gripped mine most warmly.
“Wh-who..?” She said in a barely audible whisper.
“I’m Newman’” I said, hauling out my own dog tags from inside my shirt. “Newman Adams.”
She smiled and gripped my hand even tighter. I wondered how long it had been since she last held another person’s hand, seen another person’s face. She was looking at me as though I were […] I tried to smile, and I was annoyed with myself for not doing a very good job of it. To whomever is reading this—if anyone ever reads this—try to understand; by this time I could accept this was somehow someone named Ellie Evans, but she still looked like an alien creature made of fungus, but with human eyes, a human hand, and a human ability to whisper words. “Ellie,” I asked, “Are you hurt bad?”
She nodded and indicated with her left hand the side where I had hit her with the rock. I had not noticed before, but the fungus of the bed on which she lay appeared to have grown up over to cover and fuse itself with the fungus on her side in that spot.
I looked back at her eyes. “Is that…” I paused, trying to frame the notion in my own mind, foggy as it was. “Is that healing you?”
I blinked, slowly, deliberately, my eyelids seeming to grate across my eyes. It had been so long since I had last slept a full night. “Will you be okay?” I asked her at length.
She nodded and smiled a little. Her mouth moved again. “I-I-I’ve…h-had…w-w-worse,” she whispered.
I did smile at that. Then I thought for a moment. “You were just worried about whether I was going to come…” I paused as I thought about what I was about to say, “…finish the job.”
She looked down and nodded.
“Why did you attack me when I fell in the cave?” I asked.
She frowned. “N-not attack. S-s-so h-h-happy to…” she paused to fight for breath, “s-s-see anyone.” Then after a moment she looked back at me. “S-s-sorry.”
I smiled again and shrugged. The situation was surreal, like something that would make sense only in the bizarre logic of a dream, but my natural inclination was to try to defuse the tension with humor. “Well, people usually aren’t that glad to see me.”
She even managed a little laugh at that, wincing a little from the pain in her side.
“Can I do anything to help?” I asked.
“W-w-water?” She said.
“Oh, yeah, sure. I’ve got some right here.” I said, pulling my water bottle from my coat pocket. I let go of her hand to open the bottle, and I held it to her mouth. I felt a momentary revulsion watching her fungus-covered lips touch the mouth of the bottle I drink from, but I kept it to myself. She lifted her head as best she could and drank. When she sputtered a little, I pulled the bottle back. I waited while she swallowed what she had in her mouth. “More?” I asked.
She shook her head and said, “C-c-cup.” Then she looked up and behind her at a small niche in the cave wall near her bed […] hadn’t noticed it before, but there was indeed a small tin camping cup there.
“Oh, you want to drink from the cup?”
She looked over toward the spring. “H-hot…w-w-water.”
“Okay, sure.” I said rising and getting the cup. Also in the niche I noticed a few other articles: a compass, a small mirror, a toothbrush, and a tortoiseshell comb. Tangled in the comb were just enough long strands of hair to tell what color they were—a red-gold, like clover honey. As I was on a mission at the time to retrieve the cup, I didn’t’ really dwell much on it, but I had a momentary feeling of familiarity regarding the comb and the hair. I took the cup and dipped some water from the spring, which was a bit hotter than I anticipated, but not so much as to scald. I took it back to Ellie. “Here you go.”
She took the cup in her right hand, and with the other hand picked bits of the fungus off her own arms and torso and […] dropped the bits of fungus into the hot water. She stirred the hot water in the cup with her finger, slowly, deliberately. I watched with a nameless fascination as her finger swirled around and around the cup as the fungus from her own […] and steaming water combined by degrees into greenish, glowing tea.Then she drank the fungus tea down and handed the cup back to me, her eyelids looking heavy. “Th-thank…y-y-you.”
I smiled and stood to return the cup to its shelf. I had a bit of a head rush, feeling even more dizzy for a moment. I dismissed it as due to my lack of sleep. After depositing the cup in the niche, I sat back down on the cave floor beside the bed of fungus, and feeling an impulse I can’t quite explain, I took her hand again, though it had repulsed me just a few minutes before. She squeezed my hand in response, and as I watched, she fell asleep. I stayed beside the bed, holding her hand, leaning against the soft pile of fungus. There was a mild burning sensation where our palms touched, but I was too tired to worry about it. In the warm, damp, peppery, earthy air next to the hot spring, My head drooped to rest on the soft fungus, and I was soon asleep as well.
I awoke still leaning against the side of the fungus bed, still holding her hand. I wish I could say it was restful, but the sleep seemed only to fatigue me further. I awoke feeling like I had just run a marathon. Maybe it was the steamy heat. Maybe it was a side effect of the fungus. Maybe the dream was to blame. I often recall dreams only vaguely, as misty impressions and snippets of random images. This dream I doubt I will ever forget. I dreamed I was floating weightless in the dark, with no light, not even a sensation of gravity. Then, in a violent fraction of a second, I was slammed, my back pinned against a hard surface. Was it a wall or a floor or even a ceiling? I couldn’t tell because I had no sensation of up or down. As though the shock had turned it on, there was suddenly a dull green light around me, but only close in. Outside the small dim green glow, blackest darkness stretched away, who knows how far? Next a horde of tiny creatures, like ants or mites, swarmed over me, biting, stinging. I tried to move to brush them away, but I remained pinned, unable to move even a finger. The millions of tiny bites coalesced into an intense itch, a burning itch. I strained every muscle to try to break free from whatever force held me immobile, but I made no progress. I could not even scream. There were so many of them crawling over me and biting that I was completely covered. Then a new realization washed over me. They weren’t just biting me. They were eating me, consuming me, burrowing deep in my skins as they fed, pouring in through my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, even […] smothering me and devouring me. No air. No me.
As my eyes opened, I screamed out loud and gasped for breath as though coming up from a long time under water. Ellie was stroking my hair with her other hand, from which she had also stripped the fungus off sometime while I slept. When she saw I was awake, she stopped what she was doing, as though wondering if she should have sought permission to do such a thing, or perhaps she thought she had injured me because I had cried out. The transition from the terrifying dream to the reality around me was complicated by the bizarre nature of that reality. I wasn’t in my room at home. I wasn’t even in my tent by the lake. I was still in a fungus-filled cave, next to a fungus-covered woman, in a dim-green-glowing, peppery-smelling sauna. One thing did remain from the dream—the itching. When I had recovered enough, I gave her a sleepy smile to tell her it was okay, scratching absently at the itch. I was still feeling groggy, as though still half in a dream.
She still seemed to feel a need to explain her fascination with my hair. “So long since…seen hair.”
It made sense. Likely the fungus had made her lose every strand of hair she had. I remembered the tortoiseshell comb she still kept and the few strands of auburn hair still tangled in its teeth. Something still nagged at me about the glimpse of that comb I had gotten while retrieving the cup. Slowly I recalled the shape of it […] just like the one that girlfriend of mine in […] once had—no not girlfriend. I never attained the right to call her that. I can still see it on her dresser, a shaft of sunlight through the blinds illuminating the translucent tortoiseshell and the red-gold hair tangled in it, the same color as the hair in Ellie’s comb, the exact same color, and I was just starting to wonder how I could even see the reddish color in the green […] out of nowhere I also recalled, in a flashback I wished I could take back, that young kid at […] got ringworm on his scalp. We couldn’t evac him right away without compromising the mission, so there wasn’t much we could do to stop the spread. In the affected areas, his hair fell out in oozy clumps from the weepy, crusty skin. A shudder of revulsion shook me, and I shook my head to dislodge the image from my mind. Wanting to change the subject I asked, “Feeling better?”
She nodded. She smiled as she touched her side where the injury was, as if to show it was well on its way to being healed.
“Wow, that stuff works fast, doesn’t it.?”
She nodded and smiled again. “Yes.” Her breathing was more regular now, so she didn’t seem to struggle for breath, but she still spoke in broken language. “You…were…dreaming?” I noticed, now that her words were more than a whisper that there was an odd buzz at the back of her voice. I thought maybe it was just my own ears ringing.
I described my dream to her, much as I wrote it down in the journal above. She nodded, and now it was she who seemed to want to change the subject.
“I thought…” she said finally, trailing off. She appeared to be searching for words. “I thought…I dreamed you.”
“Well,” I began, “you must not be very good at it if I was the best you could do.”
She laughed a little, but then a seriousness returned. “So long…alone,” she whispered.
“How long?” I asked, still fumbling at the itch with fingers that seemed fat and numb.
“What…year?” She asked.
“Now?” I replied, wondering briefly what it would be like to lose track of not just days, but years. “It’s 2003.”
She looked away for a moment as the shock of that news hit her. “Eleven years.”
I tried to imagine eleven years in solitary confinement. No, not just that. Even prisoners in solitary confinement see their guards, know that there are people outside who know where they are. “Oh, Ellie, I am sorry.”
She looked back at me, and the look in her eyes spoke more than her own sorrow. “Me…too,” she said, as though consoling me and not herself.
Then I understood what she meant. Eleven years, and she had never found a way out. And then I saw what else she meant too. The weight of it seemed beyond even trying to bear as it broke over me. I touched the fungus coating her arms above where she had stripped it off her hands. “This is going to happen to me too, isn’t it?”
She nodded. I nodded too, not knowing what else to add as I considered the prospect of the fungus slowly taking me. Soon she was asleep again. I touched my own hair, thinking of Ellie’s comb.…
[Here another two pages were stuck together~ Asher Chase]
…guess the healing process is taking a lot out of her. I have used much of the time she has slept to record these things in this journal, but now my head seems a bit cloudy, stuffed full of cotton. I feel—I don’t know—like there’s something that I’m supposed to do or that I forgot to do… I can’t quite place it, but it’s starting to nag at me, like the start of a craving except I can’t remember what it is that I’m hungry for. Right now, I think I need to stop thinking about it and stretch my legs. I think I will go down and refill my water bottle with cool water from the stream. I can see if the cool water will ease this damnable itch. Perhaps that’s what I was thinking I forgot. Ellie has a large canteen, one of those big round ones like in cowboy movies. I will fill it too. Maybe I can clear my head in the process.
23:29 (CDT) 01 APR 03: It’s been several days since my last entry. Halfway back from my trip to the stream, the passage started to feel like it was absolutely freezing. Away from the hot spring, the cave is never really warm, but it isn’t very cold either. Kind of a constant mid-50s, I’d estimate. I began to feel increasingly light headed and then downright dizzy, and then I felt that the whole cave was spinning like a carnival ride […] stumbling […] everything went black.
The very next thing I knew, as if no time had passed at all, I was back in the hot spring chamber, lying on the bed of fungus where Ellie had been before. I felt so weak I could hardly lift my head. I was still light headed, perhaps a bit delirious, and my vision was somewhat, I don’t know, off, though I couldn’t figure out just what was off about it, like it was […] I looked around as best I could while moving my head as little as possible. Everything looked brighter, even the passage that led away from the chamber into the dark. I could see down it all the way to where the passage turned, as clear as I could see in the fungus-lit chamber. Then, as I was about to start thinking about how that were possible, I saw Ellie, kneeling beside the hot spring with her back to me.
“Ellie?” I croaked, my voice sounding cracked, and I thought I heard now in my own hoarse voice the same buzz at the back of it as I had heard in Ellie’s before.
She heard me and rose, turning as she came back to the edge of the bed. I gasped sharply. Her face. She had stripped off the fungus on her face and neck, much as she had cleared it off her hands before. The same glowing green mottled her complexion, just as it had on her hands and mine, but otherwise the skin appeared smooth and soft and normal.
She sat on the edge of the fungus bed where I lay, and my staring must have made her self-conscious because she turned her face down and to her left. Still, she glanced sidelong at me, smiling a little on one side tentatively, dimpling her smooth cheek on that side of her face.
“Ellie,” I said again, reaching up to put my hand on her chin to turn her face back toward me. I kept my fingers there a moment, touching her soft , smooth cheek, admiring the brighter green speckles. “Do you have…are those—freckles?”
She nodded, her blue eyes still seeming uncertain, searching […]
“I like freckles.” I said dreamily. I felt, I don’t know, almost drunk, as I reminisced over misty images of the freckles on the first girl I ever had a crush on, and now that I think about it more, the dimples, weren’t they just like the girl on that one TV show—God what was that actress’ name? I had pinned up pictures of her I had torn out of my sister’s glossy teen magazines when I was just a kid. Geez, my sis got mad about that. Why can’t I remember her name?
Anyway, Ellie’s smile spread a little more as I commented on her freckles, and she brought up her hands, which I could now see held the tin cup.
“Tea,” she whispered, offering the cup to me.
I took the cup and held it under my nose. The steam had a slightly sharp tang, but not unpleasant. “Is this…?”
She nodded, indicating the fungus on her arm […] her body.
“Will it make me better?” I asked, gazing into this warm cup of […] in my hands.
She nodded […] smiled […] those lovely […] lovely […] dimples.
I took a tentative sip. It tasted like a miso soup, but somehow […] warmth burned a little on the way down, like a sip of brandy. “What happened?” I asked her.
“I woke up…you…gone. I looked…brought you…back.”
“Fever.” She whispered, stroking my hair. “It will…pass.”
I understood. “From the fungus entering my system.”
“I’m scared, Ellie.” I whispered.
She pouted a little, out of empathy, I thought […] her lips, which had repulsed me when crusted with misshapen lumps of fungus, now had a plump fullness, a graceful curve that was familiar though I couldn’t say just why, though it felt like I knew just a few moments ago. Then it just didn’t matter anymore. The craving I had felt before returned, but I knew this time what it was I wanted. I put my hand up to her cheek again, and she tilted her head into the caress. My hand moved to the back of her neck, and I pulled her toward me. She seemed unsure at first, but only for a moment. Then she leaned in, and pressed her soft lips against mine. I felt the burning again, a tingling where our lips touched […] her mouth, her breath, intoxicated me like a spiced mulled wine […] faded again into unconsciousness.
In that dark, I dreamed again. Out of the darkness a green glow hovered, formless, like the foxfire that had led me from the trail to the cave. I got the distinct impression it wanted to communicate something to me—something important. It did not speak, not in words, but I understood it wanted to show me something. Then it was as though it had pushed something into […] was like a memory, but not the past […] played like a movie scene where I was inside the scene. I saw an image of red and orange fire in the sky, all over the mountainsides […] rolling plains, everywhere, fire. I could feel the heat of it. And then, all was charred, everything covered in drifts of ash that fell from a thick, gray sky, blotting out the sun. Green leafy things that needed sunlight across the surface of the earth withered. Died. All leaves, all blades of grass, all needles on conifers, all gone. All creatures up there that relied on photosynthesis to feed their food chain up above, all died as well, the last of them digging vainly in scalding ash for one more mouthful to eat, scorched, choking, starving. Ash clogged the gills of fish in the surface waters, waters grown thick and gray. Gray death washed over the air, land, and sea. Then the scene changed again, and we were underground. The green glow of the bioluminescent fungus lit a scene of thriving fungi in vast caverns. Then I saw Ellie and me, our skin clothed in the life-giving fungus, and then throughout the cavern, there were more beings just like us, hundreds, thousands, alive and thriving when all the world above was dead or dying.
When I awoke, Ellie was bathing in the hot spring, humming a song I couldn’t place. It lilted in the heady, steamy, spicy air. I hummed in harmony, able to follow the tune though I could not name it […] weaving my hum with hers into one song that seemed in harmony with something outside our […] She turned to me and smiled. Still humming, and I with her, she rose from the spring, slick and clean of the fungus from head to toe, steam rising in twisting wisps from her smooth, naked body, which I can only describe as proportioned in all the ways I find most attractive—legs, hips, waist, breasts, shoulders, neck, and that lovely freckled, dimpled face—all were just as I’d have requested if she were created to order, just for me. It was as though a statue of Aphrodite, carved in polished pink and green marble, had come to life to saunter toward me—towardme—an unclean mortal. As she walked, the light and dark dappling of her skin seemed to shift like the patterns of moonlight and shadow do on a forest floor under a full moon, with the lightest breeze stirring the leaves—except of course, that instead of silvery moonlight, the shifting light that moved upon her smooth, soft skin was green.
16;45 (CST) 31 OCT 2003: In these months, Ellie and I—we— have grown closer in ways that would not have been possible or even conceivable if our former selves had met above ground. You, who have known only the horrifying loneliness of your separate ego, cannot—we are well aware—imagine what we mean, but you will feel it soon enough. We are one, and one with the life-giving Voice that speaks out of the dark without speaking. Ellie and I—we— speak to each other now in a modulating hum. I think now, what seemed like Ellie whispering and buzzing to me before was always this, but I had not the ear to hear. The ringing in my ears is now in tune with the hum—oh how did it find me before I ever found this place? Why didn’t I know it for what it was? The maddening tones that plagued me all those years were the song of all life all along.
Ellie has grown large with our children, her belly swelling far beyond the size of any pregnant woman ever seen in the world above. Ellie says children, not child, and they are in the millions. She says they all hum along when we two hum together now, entwining our former separate selves ever more deeply, down to the most fundamental building blocks of our being. Lately, I can hear it too, a chorus of tiny voices, like a hive of honeybees, but all in tune. The Voice that spoke to me out of the dark without speaking still speaks, even when I am awake now. The Voice has guided Ellie and me. We have sprinkled its life-giving fungus into the underground stream, sending the spores outward into the vast underground places of the earth. When Ellie reaches full term, there will be a few more things left to do, such as […] the time grows nearer.
Final Entry: I do not know the day or time. I cast my wristwatch into the underground stream some time ago, time that I cannot now measure, nor would I wish to do so. The watch is water resistant. For all I know it still functions beneath the blind pink eyes of the white cave fish in the stream, but such concerns have no more meaning for me now than for those blind fish. I cast away the watch just after Ellie gave birth to our countless children. As she neared term, the skin about her abdomen, which had grown many times its former girth, had grown dry, brittle, until finally it began to crack open. Both Ellie and the Voice bade me carry her to the stream, and there on the edge of that underground river the cloud of spores burst forth, each spore one of our children, glowing together like a brilliant nebula in the dark. The cloud spread out, some spores settling on the water to drift to other destinies. Other tendrils snaked through these caverns, settling back on me, on all the surfaces around me. When it was over, what remained of Ellie’s body was a husk, but she still smiled at me. She must have known this would be the day, for she had cleared her face again, so I could see her freckles. I wish I had cleared mine for her, but she did not seem to mind it. Her hum asked me to carry her back to the hot spring, to our bed, where I held her as she melded with the bed of fungus, a part of it now.
I felt a pang, a loneliness I had not felt since before she had risen naked from the hot spring those many months ago. But then, the Voice called out to me. Everywhere that the spores of our children had fallen on me, I could feel the tingling I felt with Ellie, and I knew she was still with me. I could feel myself, my whole being begin to hum with thousands of tiny voices, and I knew, though such a thing would never have been possible before my merging with Ellie, that soon my belly would grow as hers had grown, and so, in due time, it has come to pass. The drying out of the thin skin over the humming multitude inside me is nearly complete. Cracks begin to form. I hear all of my children, but I hear Ellie’s humming voice among them as well, and I know my voice will live on millions of times over in that chorus for all time. This manuscript, when I finish this last entry, I will place into Ellie’s large, round canteen. The Voice has told me, and I believe Her, that if I put some weight in the canteen along with the manuscript, it will float, not on the top of the water, but below the surface yet above the riverbed. This will help it travel without catching on the roof or floor of the caves through which the water flows. She says (for the voiceless Voice is a She, I am quite sure of it), She says it will reach the place where this underground river gushes from the side of a shady mountain into the surface rivers.
I had an idea too. For the weight in the canteen, the ballast to achieve the neutral buoyancy She described, I could not use water, or it would ruin this manuscript. No, instead, I would use some of the gold coins, for what else are they good for now? I think the Voice is pleased. She knows others will come now, from far and wide, and take the gold that ironically came from the work of an enslaved people, and carry it forth to liberate doomed humanity from its fatal future in the Apocalypse to come. It is all very natural, you see. Like honeybees, these treasure seekers will come for the gold, and leave with our spores on them to pollinate the world with our young, not intentionally, but incidental to their self interest, and in doing so, they will unwittingly ensure the survival of our kind. To that end, I also put some of my fungus in the canteen, including some of the first wisps of the spore cloud that leaks now through the cracks in my brittle belly skin. I must finish this message now and complete my tasks before the birth. Look at your hands, you who read this now. Do not despair. Find your way to the underground. You will know where, now that She is in you. Look for the foxfire. Its light will guide you, and you will be among the fortunate ones with us when all the surface burns.
\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\END OF TRANSCRIPT////////////////////////////////////////////////////
Analysis: The Foxfire Document was visible online on The Watcher’s Thread blog for 8 weeks prior to extraction. Even after the blog was taken down, the document and commentary related to it proliferated and continues to proliferate online through a wide variety of conspiracy theory and dark web sites. This, coupled with the difficulty of maintaining a seamless perimeter in such a rugged and remote location may account for our difficulty isolating the site of the anomaly from intrusion even after martial law was declared in response to the burgeoning epidemic. The number of individuals seeking the cave site to retrieve the “Confederate gold” prior to our detection of the threat and our isolation of the site is unknown, but it is assumed to be at least in the dozens or more, possibly much more, from far distributed home locations, some in other countries, other continents, to which the fortune hunters likely returned after possible contact with the contagion. In the restricted zone set up around the Trinity Mountains site, a cave matching the description in “The Foxfire Document” has been found and remains under investigation. Thus far, many of the details from the document, including the presence of petroglyphs, bioluminescent fungus, an underground stream, and a hot spring, match descriptions in document. Investigators also found the remains of numerous wooden boxes or crates, some marked with the initials CSA, though authentication of these artifacts is still pending, and no gold was found on the site. Some camping gear, including a 1980s to 90s vintage army ruck sack was also found, but no living creatures, other than the bioluminescent fungus itself and a few blind cave fish. This fact has led researchers to question whether the most shocking parts of “The Foxfire Document“ were merely part of a hoax designed to make the story go viral online. This suspicion is borne up by the inaccuracy of the description of Scratch Hollow in the document.
The ruins of a late 19th, early 20th century settlement were indeed found, along with the mentioned graveyard. However, no sign of any standing structure remains. Only a few crumbling foundations for former dwellings are still there, covered in layers of leaves and undergrowth that are estimated to be decades old. On the headstones in the cemetery, researchers did indeed find a stone with the name Jasper Coolidge, and they also found the latest legible date on any headstone there was 1915, as purportedly described by Evans in her original journal. Using imaging technology likely not available to the persons named in the document, the faint trace of a name almost completely eroded away was found on that same grave marker: Lester Coolidge.
The alleged writer of the document remains a mystery, and no record of a 1980s or 90s missing person case involving anyone named Eleanor V. Evans, West Point graduate or otherwise, has been found to date. There is ongoing debate among investigators whether the entire document is a fabrication deliberately aligned with just enough facts from the cave to foster a conspiracy theory, whether it is the product of a deluded or mentally impaired individual, or as unlikely as it seems, whether there is actual merit to the most sensational details in the document. Those most vocally in support of the third possibility cite the similarity of symptoms described in “The Foxfire Document” to the symptoms of the current fungal epidemic as being too precise to be coincidental, and that foreknowledge of the symptoms would have to have preceded the onset of the epidemic in order for the document to have pre-existed it at all.
Extensive analysis of the underground stream in the cave and its interaction with the aquifer indicate that besides numerous local residential water wells, the Sacre Coeur River itself and a natural spring that serves as the source for several nationally-distributed brands of bottled water may have been compromised by fungal spores from the cave, though it is not known if sufficient concentration of the contamination occurred to pass on the contagion to consumers. The wells, the river, and the spring have since been quarantined, and bottled water from the contaminated spring has been recalled. Test results are pending. However, since the duration of the period of potential contamination is unknown, we cannot currently calculate or even accurately estimate the full extent of exposure to the fungal spores, nor can we assume the exposure is contained. If these spores are indeed the source of the epidemic, we have no way of knowing at this time how far they have spread.
In the early stages of the investigation at the site, many researchers began to believe with an almost fanatical certainty, as incredible as it sounds, that there was a conscious will, a method, an intelligent design behind the spread of the fungal infestation. The official stance on these illogical protests is that they should be dismissed as paranoia incited by the bizarre details of the situation on scene and exacerbated by viral conspiracy theories. In addition, during initial occupation of the site, coalition personnel complained of visual disturbances and persistent tinnitus that may have influenced initial analysis, but these symptoms gradually subsided and onsite personnel now insist everything is normal. In fact, as of this date, numerous analysts working at the site have begun to question rather dismissively whether this cave is even in any way related to the ongoing fungal epidemic at all, reassuring this headquarters that there is nothing to fear there, and there is growing agreement among onsite analysts that it would be for the best to let the phenomenon at this location run its natural course unimpeded.
Hypothesis #1 (impermissible thoughts), plus recollections of honeymoon sex
When his legs weakened again without warning, Professor G’s mind turned to his latest hypothesis. Quick: what had he been thinking about?
He thought he might topple. Should he look the part and start to wave his hands in the air? Not that thought-reading observers would rely upon technology as crude as cameras. Or do they infer the contents of his thoughts from micro-behaviours he was not aware he exhibited?
Was it to trap him here? Sitting on the toilet that morning, he flipped through a pile of Qantas pamphlets: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong. Surely he received some sort of retirement pension that could pay for a trip? He would ask Barbara, she took care of those things. “I’d love to go”, he thought, but it was more like reading it out loud in his head. No reaction – not a twinge, not a swoon. Still, he had not said it out loud, so surely it was still a thought. Perhaps he should classify various forms of internal neural expression. Not really his field, but he would put some thought into it. HA!
He stumbled down the hallway, ignoring the framed photographs of prodigies. A triple rainbow; a (dead) two headed baby pigeon in a windblown nest; and normally his favourite, a profile in grease of Colonel Sanders … on a Red Rooster box! He dragged his rebellious legs to his workshop. What might distract him?
Though not even the decay of sub atomic particles is random, he could discern no reason that he grabbed a box from the third cupboard. Still upright, Professor G sorted the contents at his bench. On top, his plans for a one-piece water purifier: add pond water, piss and typhoid in the morning, bake in the tropical sun all day, and there was enough clean drinking water for one third world family by evening.
Below that, he uncovered a fancy chocolate box. Off with the beribboned lid. Photographs he had developed himself in a pre-digital age. Honeymoon snaps he daren’t trust to the print shop.
Well lit, good use of light and shade, he thought, tracing the black and white image of his wife’s leg up to her bikini bottom. He tingled inside, but there were no warning signs. He remained upright, dizziness abated.
Conclusion: there was no danger in yearning for the past, in longing for the unattainable.
He had locked then chained the door, and after that stuffed a draft stopper against the crack of light at its base. Taped down the curtains, telling himself it was about the lighting. Against the distraction of his arousal, he had concentrated on the composition, thinking of angles and exposures, trying to create a memory for the unimaginably distant future when youth was extinguished. And now here he was.
Then, the last shot taken, he fell on her, arms outspread like a consuming bat, and Barbara could not stop laughing, even as he pressed his mouth over hers, peals of delighted tinkling echoing into his lungs.
The amazement he often returned to during their long marriage: that he could be wanted in return. Did she take love for granted? There would always have been someone for her. He, however … .
Tossing the prints onto the bench, a blazing horizon caught his eye, the sun a remnant blob melting into a golden sea. Tropical sunsets, snapped before dinner. Peering through his glasses, he saw slight bands set across the photographs, thin ribbons illuminated by the setting sun. A quick rub with his frayed cuff showed the lines weren’t dust or accretion. He shrugged.
Sea breeze had displaced the tropical humidity of the day, and brine and ozone filled his lungs. No twilight, just the dramatic supernova sunset and then the bowl of sky filled with stars, his eyes taking in far off specks as fine as dust. The buzz of night markets, al fresco dining on sea food caught that day, a glass of Tiger draught. The urgency of young love making. He reached back at an ache, and felt the knobs of his spine.
It wouldn’t be the same (certainly not the sex), but he could breathe that air again and see another sunset. Why not? There was a hollow of excitement in his chest at the thought. His spirits lifted at the prospect, just start out and not stop, be on our way...
Then he collapsed.
Hypothesis #2 (proximity to a star), plus despair at inevitable decrepitude
Professor G lay in his bed. All his bright ideas, and still the seas rose, plagues spread, species disappeared and temperatures climbed. He had never been anywhere nor done anything, and he never would. The blind flicked against the window sill, his despair rewarded with a cooling breeze.
He would remain in this suburb, watching his neighbours instead of exotic tribes, collecting useless data on neighbourhood pigeons instead of tree kangaroos and birds of paradise. The only jungle would remain the firetrap across the street, the scrappy regrowth of bush running down to stinking mangroves.
Angry, he scratched too hard at an itch, and his skin broke beneath the worn cotton of his singlet. Now it will become infected. Barbara will have to apply topical ointment. Another job for her. He was all that she had, and he pitied her this poverty.
He batted his hands harder and harder against his useless legs. He was nobody. He was at best a bit player with a couple of walk on scenes. Lying here with his stupid thoughts, imagining that mysterious forces kept him from leaving home. He was embarrassed by his adventures in paranoia.
But: would it go some way to making his life worthwhile if he was at least on the same stage as the star? He began to formulate a second hypothesis.
Setting up the experiment; Professor G worries about his assistant
Barbara would do anything for him. From his chair at the back door, he watched her torch dart about as she clamped the camera to the fence. Her only condition had been that it wait until after dark, so the neighbours would not see.
Brian’s lumpy old dog had alerted him to the rats using the wooden fence tops as a highway, bellowing out like a thirty a day smoker as it thumped along the property line after them. He’d had Barbara climb up and balance a trap baited with the end of a sausage. (Peanut butter was better, but they had none handy, it clung to his dentures.) Right on 3am there was a crisp snap, but when Barbara checked, there was nothing there. Perhaps a currawong had beaten her to it, snaring unexpected booty.
Barbara rested halfway to the fence. Professor G wondered if she did not want people to see her reduced by age. Perhaps it was modesty though, for she flashed a bit of thigh from under her house dress as she leaned over. He recalled the old photographs. Resolute, he forced his eyes open as far as he could. If he collapsed now, what would happen to her? Barbara turned and waved once she returned to solid ground. If she slipped and broke a hip, he would not forgive himself. The worry he had once saved up for car trips on rainy nights now extended to a walk across the yard.
John, a regular visitor, reckoned the rats came from Mrs Boyd’s garage. “Out west, when there’s a rodent plague, there’s a matching explosion of predators. Snakes. Owls,” he went on at a million miles an hour. “Imagine that George. Owls swooping down all over the place, every time we went outside at night, snatching up rats and possums. How cool would that be?” The professor watched as the action played out in John’s mind, signalled in the shrugs and darts of his shoulders, by the flickering of his tongue marking out the trails of birds in the air. “We’ve taken the major players out of the food chain, they need to be replaced. Komodo dragons to stand in for the mega-goannas. Eat up the feral cats and foxes while they’re at it.” John stared through the wall, picturing massive reptiles striding down the street, cleaning up the garbage.
“Or Mrs Boyd could put down some poison?”
John was shocked. “And kill the owls?”
The next morning, Professor G checked the camera’s work. The laptop was set up on a breakfast tray. Barbara had tucked a little vase beside it, with a scarlet frangipani flower. Incense burned, covering up the smells of medicine and farts.
He was puzzled. In the background, their backdoor looked like it was open in one shot. There was a smudge, a shadow at the door jamb.
Rats. Better in the backyard than in the ceiling, he had thought when woken by the trap’s snap. But they are in the ceiling, and beneath the floorboards. They are everywhere, drawing blood between the rafters, nesting behind plasterboard. All the gaps and crevices we’ve created with our hands and minds, they seek out and occupy. The tunnels into the sky we have built for them, a universe with a geometry perfect for their frames and habits. All the unseen spaces filled with a constant flowing mass of rats.
The room darkened and a wave of lassitude passed over him. He was glad of it, that he would not be left alone with such thoughts. Professor G nestled back into the pillow and the room and the problem went away.
Professor G interrogates the data
“I don’t dream.”
“You don’t sleep?”
“I sleep all the time. Not all the time. Like, I’m awake now. I nap. Like when the kids are quiet watching TV. Ever since Alun … I can’t bear the idea of sleeping in a long block. Like being dead.”
“Is that when you stopped dreaming?”
The man sipped from a can of Coke, looking down at the floor. He actually squirmed in his seat. “George, I’ve never dreamed. Not like on TV.”
“No one dreams like TV.”
“Well, not the way people talk about it. I lie down. It goes black. Then I’m awake again.”
“We forget the details.”
“There are no details. It’s just on and off.”
“You feel tired and you lie down?”
The head shake was emphatic. “There’s nothing to do say for half an hour. I close my eyes and wake up half an hour later. If I have nothing to do, I don’t want to be thinking.”
“And you do this through the day?” Brian responded with a nod.
“I have a proposition for you.” Brian looked concerned, as though an old man in his sickbed was in fact propositioning him. Despite his lack of a poker-face, the professor wondered if Brian would still win at cards, the universe stacked in his favour.
“I’ve been studying a phenomenon.” What a wanker, he thought of himself. “Could you go to sleep at an exact time tomorrow?”
“When would suit?”
“I dunno. Depends on the kids. Or if there is something happening.”
“Can you put on a movie for the children at midday? Give them their lunch in front of the telly?”
The big head swung again, like a cow. “Janice doesn’t like them eating in front of the TV.”
“Please. It’s important.”
“OK then.” So agreeable. So unlike Janice.
“Do you need any help? The doctors load me up with heaps of stuff. What’s this one?” Professor G reached down the side of his bed and pulled out an orange pill bottle, shaking it like a castanet.
“Nah, I’m right.”
Hypothesis #3 (unwelcome, though mundane), plus a dream interlude
Barbara had checked the cameras, and now sat in an arm chair despite wanting to start on lunch. Anything to please me, he thought. Especially after the doctor had visited this morning, with his unsolicited opinion and vampiric behaviour.
The clock showed 12.05, and nothing had happened. The time was correct, the professor had checked it against the international time signal at 15 megahertz. Oh well…
Light was sucked from the room. An eclipse had commenced. Storm clouds gathered. Tired…
Perhaps Brian did not check his clocks so precisely …
George did not suffer from Brian’s malady of dreamlessness. His sleep was not mere darkness.
He was in the workshop again, the photographs spread over the bench. He did not wonder that his wife, who for decades had been content to turn her head and stare from behind a bare back, now decided to face him. “George,” she said, black and white, somehow beckoning though her arms remained down by her side, hands pressed on the mattress. So young.
“Barb,” he whispered, tears at the edge of his eyes, an impossible erection stirring at the shadows of her, the shapes and places revealed as she emerged from a pool of grey.
Pick a card, any card … The sunset, glorious. The thin bands, that’s what he wanted to see. Slithers of ice, cold blue. They are not aberrations. Just like his wife, they are the subject of their photograph. And like his wife, they too began to move.
The bands are scythes, ferocious and relentless, orbiting high up where the stars cease to twinkle.
He sees clearly now. Dots in the sky are tethered to the earth. The scimitar sweeps. It will not be resisted. It slices some umbilical cords, those of the barely connected, and the world moves on without them. Those that defy its cut cannot challenge the mass of the blade. It drags them through its orbit, further and further, stretching their tether until they are caught by gravity and thrown low into a foreign land, far from home. Either way, they are lost.
The machine carries on, the noise heard in basements and through pillows at 2am. The blades spin forever. He hears it now, the pulse in his ears. No one escapes.
He awoke right on 12 .35. Brian’s internal clock might be off, but it did not run fast or slow.
Hypothesis #4 (The shell theory of the body), plus bad news is confirmed
We take up more space than the volume of our bodies, he thought, shivering, not looking outside. His windows were closed now, curtains taped down, so there was no chance of an ill-intentioned eye glimpsing him.
Our bodies are like electrons, he theorised, distracting himself from the void. They are capable of occupying any space on their shell. Our potentiality is our space, with different likelihoods attached to our various possible movements.
We shall go. I will book my tickets online. A taxi is coming to take us to the airport right now. We shan’t pack, we will buy toothbrushes and underwear at the terminal. In less than 24 hours my shell will stretch out to the other side of the world. And we won’t stop at that …
Nothing. I’m not joking. No reaction. I’m going. We both are. I really mean it. No dizziness. Professor G willed his toes to wriggle, but they ignored him. He went to call Barbara, but the signal stopped before his tongue.
He was not going anywhere. His shell reached about as far as the tumbler of water on his bedside table. There was too much space in the room unfilled by him. And nature abhors a vacuum.
Unwelcome visitors. The least of them the doctor, who had returned to justify his suspicions round their kitchen table. A suburban GP reading from a report prepared by someone else, the news no surprise. Sat down with them, took his time, and gave small smiles to Barbara, but nothing inappropriate, no levity that might lead to a misunderstanding, nothing that might give a hope that he would have to dash later.
“Any questions?” the doctor had asked.
What could he ask? “Is it usual to faint several times a day?” Then there would be a lovely conversation about morphine, and Barbara – loving, caring Barbara who wanted only the best for him – would follow the doctor’s new orders and begin to reduce his dosage. That would not be a good idea, no no no.
Perhaps open with a conversational gambit like: “I think that our neighbour has an unusual superpower”. Then the doctor could wittily reply, “So, there are usual superpowers?” They could all have a little chuckle, and then he could expand. “It’s not one I recall from my comic book days.”
Instead: “Any travel plans, doctor? A trip to get away from this heat?”
They sat in the awkwardness, George content to know that it would be written off as Kübler Ross stage one denial once the doctor thought about it.
His world was shrinking fast. Soon his shell would be tight about his skin, and follow him down into the dark as his body deflated. The grim rictus of snarling teeth as his lips shrink, forced back by the weight of could-have-beens and if-onlys.
They sit in front of the television. Barb has drifted off, her glass emptied. He watches a documentary, where the inhabitants lock themselves in the houses of a medieval village in the Himalayas each night, as panthers and bears patrol their narrow streets. He would like his wife to wheel him out the front, so he can catch the evening breeze from the gully across the road, bearing up its load of methane from the rotting vegetation in the valley. He would breathe deep of its mud, and try not to anticipate the future. Down there, a ribbon of swamp persists, stubborn mangroves trailing down to the brackish riverside. Wallabies hop up from there occasionally, to eat the few spring flowers in his garden, a blessing on the nights he had seen the humped shadows of them in the driveway. He saw the tail of a black snake once, disappearing into a crack in the rocks.
He wonders now at the other things that wander in.
12.40. Barbara had woken with a start, surprised she had nodded off. Smoothed his covers, gone off to make lunch. He checked the equipment. The cameras caught the moment darkness came. Unlike Brian and George and Barbara, the cameras and the computer had not slept. Or if they had, they had been imprinted with information by the same trickster god who laid down ancient fossils in a newly created world.
The images were crisp, despite the longer exposure to catch any ambient light.
And he had it! The shape grew closer and there it was, in the next photograph: Mr Rat.
Detumescence was instant. You don’t want a rat in your kitchen, but they’re not monsters. The hint of them is worse. The cameras can come down tomorrow, he had thought. What had been the point?
No surprise. Whatever affected him had no effect on the rats. It fell dark, they came out. They are opportunists, eating when they can, rather than marvelling at time out of joint. Rats don’t faint in their worksheds, surrounded by honeymoon snaps. They get on with the job.
He clicked the mouse again, jumped in the bed. Heat leached from him.
A girl stared into the camera. She was eight, maybe ten. Her face was grime-streaked, hair lank in the monochrome. He could feel the grease through the screen.
Who was she? Something else from Mrs Boyd’s garage?
Insouciant. Features so clear in that non-light, as though she was designed for it. Professor G raised his hand to his heart, as though her gaze was a spear through his chest. Eventually, he clicked the mouse again.
She had stepped back, still staring into the camera. Muck covered her, as though she had tunnelled a long way to get here. It took a moment to see what was in her hand.
John was right. Where there are rats, there are all the things that feed on rats.
Clicked again. An edge of her, as she walked around the range of that camera, heading towards his house.
He could see now that there were shadows and smudges all over the back yard. The things that emerge when Brian sleeps.
Professor G’s forced retirement
It would not be long now. He was prepared. He kept his letters up to date each day. One began:
I think it would be better for you and everyone if you just slept in one long go at night, with no naps during the day…
It was so close the gravediggers with their little grader should commence excavating. They would think they were digging up clumps of clay. In his head though, he saw the digger hacking at brittle blue plastic, cracking shards of it away, piling it up at the side to be covered with a tarp. Churning up a blizzard of ones and zeroes, making a mess as they moved the information around.
Professor G had worked it out. The smudge at the open back door a glimpse of a filthy little body, the rest of it already inside his house.
There is loud sobbing nearby. John is having a bad night. Tucked away in the shadows of a balcony, another neighbour, less gracious, stares down at George, thinking himself unseen. The professor knows them all, has studied and measured them all.
In his wheel-chair he stares up at the expanse of sky, a universe the shape of the eye ball holes in his skull. He could not stop the slow movement of the stars across the sky. He did not have that sort of access. He suspected Brian did.
Things beneath the earth were chewing doggedly at his tether. They have been gnawing since his start, with their teeth that never stop growing. The time for experiments was over. He would never have more than the evidence at hand. Soon he would be up there with the scythes bearing down upon him. He would be granted a freedom he did not seek. They wanted the space of him.
That hungry, hungry face from outside. Forgotten sub-routines and abandoned programs. Our bodies mere place holders for the things that fill the vacuum when we depart.
He would face that terrible engine. He would not shirk. He was …
He was nothing. A burst of data, a buzz of Morse code, lost in an electrical storm.
The ship was crashing, and there was nothing Winchester could do to stop it. The spaceship into which his body had been incorporated for weeks had started to reject him, eliminating him like a disease, reducing his neural relays to a smell like burning hair and ozone. He and his ship fell toward planet Wurlitzurnia, which filled his scanner views over the golden crust of the ship’s hull.
All his dreams of falling as a child had led to his becoming a pilot, and none could compare to this moment of silent awe and terror as the tickle of gravity slowly tightened into a fist.
Winchester opened his living eye, glanced at the bridge, and winced from the smoke. He forced himself to see what sensors could no longer tell him. He saw many of his other body parts flopping helplessly as they attempted to control a ship that would no longer respond.
He turned on his ears to the sound of someone screaming and realized it was him. He stopped, but the panic and din of the dying bio-ship X remained. Its own creaks and groans matched Winchester’s screams. Then, he noticed a new sound. It almost escaped his attention, not being as important as a crashing spaceship. The neu-wave transmitter began buzzing. Why would the ship send a signal through time? thought Winchester.
Winchester’s cybernetic eye came online, which surprised him since he didn’t ask it to. The dead static noise from the device resolved into the same chaotic view of the bridge he saw with his living eye, but with an addition this eye couldn’t see: On the bridge stood a radiant figure. A woman in silver chainmail with white hair and wings glowed as though light were a halo or a crown. She stepped forward to the panel where Winchester’s eyes were housed.
“Winchester,” she said, “the buzzbomb virus is heading for the past. We must follow. Will you go with me?”
Winchester stared at the destruction around him and thought of his dying ship. “Yes,” he said over a crackly speaker somewhere.
She lay an angelic hand on his control panel, and all went black.
Winchester Stranglehold awoke so violently he tore the upper half of his body from its charging unit. The dream, if it had been one, seemed so real to him, and the imagined odor of ozone still seemed to tingle in his nostrils.
He rubbed his living eye and brought his cybernetic one online. He ignored much of its unnecessary spectral data and tried to limit himself to the visible beauty of his home.
He hadn’t been back long from test runs in space, and he was trying to reorient himself to what he remembered of home. The bronze sunlight of early morning on Wurlitzurnia crept lazily through the enormous porthole windows of the bedroom. The bed rose and fell, like a palm tree swaying in the breeze, which meant he’d have to repair its hoverpanel later.
His wife, Dala, kept a clean home, and a flock of tiny tidy-bots grazed along the carpet or circled the ceiling, hunting for grime. Dala programmed them herself; Winchester had no gift for such things, and he admired their dance as he labored to lift himself from the bed. As he sat up, struts creaked and servos struggled to align and balance his mechanized, cybernetic upper body. It wasn’t easy being top-heavy, but nothing about being a motor-head was easy.
The scent of coffee coming from the kitchen revived him faster than any alarm could. He rose, strapped on his uniform in seconds, and hurried to the source of breakfast.
The morning sun began to thin to pink as he stumbled through apartment corridors. Vids and pixelated phantoms of his family morphed and followed him along the hallway picture panel. In-laws and cousins he seldom saw waved while parents frowned or shrugged. Winchester passed the images by. His wife and fresh coffee awaited.
“I didn’t hear you get up,” Winchester said.
“You never do.” Dala smiled and poured him a mugful. She wore a gown of woven optic fibers. Pulses of light criss-crossed the weave. Winchester knew the pulse pattern signaled to other men that she was unavailable. He hadn’t asked her to make this display; she did it on her own. That meant more to him than any ring on a finger could. From the collar of her gown protruded a net of signal amplifiers, and she had shaved her head to allow better contact. LEDs flashed around her head as she received data from the web. Winchester thought she looked like quiet sunlight.
Steam rose from the mug as Dala handed it to him. The first taste was always the best, and the coffee tasted better than it smelled.
Winchester stumbled and winced as a servo over-corrected his posture.
“Oh, sweetie,” said Dala, taking his mug before he spilled it. “You’re not awake yet, are you?”
“No, I’ve been feeling funny. Bad dreams.”
“Do you need a little prop time while you tell me about them?”
“Yes!” he answered. “We haven’t done that since the last time I was planet-side.”
“Leave it to me. I’m a master.” Dala helped lower Winchester to a seated position on the kitchen floor, handed his mug back, and then she sat behind him so they were back to back. He let Dala take some of the weight of his upper body as she propped him up from behind. This prop-time ritual dated back to their early days of dating.
He couldn’t feel her, but he knew every inch of her shoulders and imagined them pressed against his. He sipped at his early-morning reason for being.
“Now, tell me all about the bad dreams,” said Dala.
Winchester couldn’t see her. The hood formed by the motor-head augmentations that covered his head and shoulders prevented him from turning, but he heard her beautiful voice.
He began to describe his dream. “I think it was a dream. There was a feeling like the one I get when I download data, but it didn’t feel like a dream until I woke up.”
“A bad one?”
“Yes,” said Winchester. “I don’t remember much, but I was flying and crashing.”
Dala shifted her weight behind him. “Now you’re going to give me nightmares.”
“Sorry,” he said. “And you thought you were going to get away with just giving me breakfast.”
She reached a hand back and patted Winchester’s hood.
“Oh, no,” said another voice from the kitchen entrance. “Are you two getting . . . affectionate?”
“Not on the kitchen floor,” answered Dala. “Well, not while you’re still living with us, Varna.”
Winchester repositioned so he could see Varna, his sondaughter. “Have I been gone that long? You’re a girl again?” Her short, dark hair had grown a little, and her legs were definitely longer, or was her dress shorter? She’d be a woman soon. When she wasn’t a man.
“Yes, I am. Not that you’re ever around to know.” Varna disappeared down the hall.
Winchester sighed. “What happened? I remember when Varn — I mean Varna — would greet me in the landing bay every time I came home.” He wished he could shrug. “I just wanted some coffee.”
Dala rose and took his mug. Then, she helped him up. “Go say something to her. She misses you.”
“I always say the wrong thing.”
“You’re her father, and she’s a teenager. You’re never going to say the right thing.”
Winchester wondered why teenaged sondaughters couldn’t be more like spaceships.
When Winchester arrived at Varna’s room, the door was rolled partway into its pocket. He entered. Varna sat on her balcony with one of her model rockets. A dozen mini-comp screens filled a corner of her room. Each showed video footage being taken right then by the hordes of other rockets she had let loose on the unsuspecting city. Her “fleet” would return for fuel or repairs, but mostly they just wandered the skies collecting random footage. Winchester had introduced Varna to rocketry. But she had been a boy then. And a girl, and a boy, who knew how many times since. Winchester had tried keeping track at first but was gone too often to know.
“Preparing another launch?” he asked.
“Yes. Gonna tell me not to?” She didn’t look up from her tinkering.
“Of course not. Your rockets are brilliant. Far beyond anything I showed you how to make.”
“Gonna tell me not to be a girl?”
“I never said that.” Winchester sighed. Varna referred to a very old conversation between them. “I love who you are. I said the motor-heads would not accept a cyclosexual.” Winchester knew this was the point when he would say the wrong thing.
Varna threw bits of rocket across the floor. The rocket uttered a tinny whimper.
“You want me to be just a son or a daughter; well, I can’t control the change. This is how I am,” said Varna.
“That’s not what I want,” said Winchester, picking up larger pieces of rocket. “The motor-heads are very strict. They barely took me, and everyone else on this planet is so twitchy about any kind of differences.”
“I’ve seen the way you look at me whenever you come home. Afraid you’ll forget whether I was a boy or a girl the last time you saw me. You’re twitchy, too.”
“I didn’t want you to join the motor-heads!” He carefully set down the model rocket parts. “I know you want to be a pilot, but I didn’t want you to have to go through what I do. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“You think I don’t know about alienation? Get out.” Varna pointed to the doorway.
Winchester was no good with teenagers.
He returned to his wife in the kitchen and picked up his coffee. It was cold. “I think I’m going to go see my psycho-bot.”
Winchester rode alone in a skytram car. He was used to sitting with no one next to him in his aisle, section, or row; but today, he bounced along as the tram flew over the city with no neighbors in his car. Whenever the tram landed at a station, people would start to enter as the doors rolled open, but then they would backpedal and head for the other cars. He only heard the muffled roar of the tram rockets and the hubbub of passengers from the nearby cars.
The people of Wurlitzurnia couldn’t decorate themselves, so they decorated Wurlitzurnia. The skytram flew over curved and rounded buildings decorated with neon, chrome, and cobwebs of stained glass. Colored lights danced across every compulsively polished reflective surface. There were no laws on the planet forbidding bodily ornamentation or mutilation because no citizen would consider such atrocities. Except motor-heads. They accepted the permanent alterations that made them monsters on their own planet.
Winchester listened to the rain starting to tap across the tram hull. Water spots and rivulets distorted the colors of the city so they ran into an electric blur.
He had wanted to be a motor-head ever since childhood, younger than Varna had been. Winchester was a good pilot. On Wurlitzurnia, that meant he flew the bio-ships and tugs that required the merging of motor-head with organic machine. Though they performed the most important job on the planet, piloting the ships that were the life-line of an isolated world, motor-heads were despised as mechanized, cybernetic freaks by the people for whom they worked.
He dozed for a moment. As his eyelid started to droop and before his cybernetic eye drifted into standby, he saw something flying alongside the tram car. He thought it was a glitch since he saw it only out of the mechanical eye. When he turned to see the object, it disappeared into the sparse clouds. It had looked like a woman in silver chainmail.
Winchester’s comm-snake hissed. The communication device couldn’t circle his neck as on most people. He didn’t have a neck, so the silver serpent nestled in a battery hutch in his shoulder. Winchester answered its hooded head.
On the hood’s viewscreen, Winchester saw a form much like his own, or at least as he imagined himself to be. His boss tried to smile, producing a lined face that sagged beneath its mechanized eye.
“Stranglehold,” said his boss. “I need you to report into motor-headquarters.”
“But I’m on leave. I just saw my family for the first time this morning.”
“Stow it. I only need an hour of your precious quality time; an’ I’ll tack it back onto the end of your leave, but you’re coming in. I’m sorry, Winchester. It’s my day off, too. My office. One hour.” The comm-snake rang off and re-curled into a ball.
If Winchester got off at the next station and transferred to the Wishbone line, he’d make it.
As Winchester arrived at motor-headquarters, he circled the towering statue of Clock Vortex, the Patron Saint of Rockets, which stood before the building like a guard. He had been the first motor-head to enter crawl space and return. Only before the entrance to headquarters was the saint shown as he actually had been: more machine than human. All other versions on Wurlitzurnia depicted him before his great conversion, making him look as human and ordinary as possible.
On entering the lobby, Winchester stepped into the suspension field of the lift and allowed his body to drift upward. Aside from prop time with Dala, this was the only relief he ever felt from the great weight of his upper body.
He caught the hook extending from his boss’s office level and pulled himself from the lift back into the normal gravity of the hallway. He wished he could linger in the weightlessness of the lift, but the hours of his leave flew by. He steadied his footing and proceeded to his boss’s office.
His boss, Modom Rooth, had started in the ranks, and his motorized upper body no longer interfaced with any ships, but he kept his augmentations as a badge of experience. As Winchester entered the office, he saw the older man stooped over his station. Rooth withdrew some of his interfaces from his panels and addressed Winchester.
“I know, I know,” said Rooth. “I could be fishing right now, so I ‘preciate your coming in. Not going to jerk you around; you get a lot of work done. We need you to do more.”
Winchester had been expecting this. If you work too hard, you get more work. He nodded to Rooth.
“So when you get off leave, report for more augmentations.”
“More? I already have the full array, enough for any bio-ship.”
Rooth leaned forward as much as he could and hooked his finger toward himself. Winchester moved closer.
“This is of the highest secrecy. I got you a Behemoth-class ship to test,” said Rooth.
Winchester sat back. He’d heard of the Behemoths, but hearing about them triggered memories of the dream from the morning. He wasn’t sure why. “Those are ready? And you want me to test one?”
“You and only you will test version X of the first Behemoth ship.” Rooth gave a wrinkled smile.
Winchester thought how good an opportunity this could be, working on the most advanced crawl space bio-ship on the planet. Then, he thought about Dala and Varna. “Can I think about it and get back to you?”
Rooth paused for what seemed like a long time. His eye glazed over, and he seemed to glare at Winchester as though he were some detestable thing. From somewhere, Winchester heard a buzzing sound. It intensified then stopped. Winchester thought that was strange.
Rooth relaxed and smiled. “Of course. Think about it, but I really need you to say ‘Yes.’ Now, go on back home.”
They exchanged goodbyes, and Rooth reconnected to his panels. Winchester rose to go. As he left headquarters, he couldn’t help thinking there was something more to the look of anger his boss had given him than mere conflict with a subordinate.
While en route, Winchester confirmed a special session with his psycho-bot. Many Wurlitzurnians went to the analytical machines, but motor-heads were required to go. For them, it was often too much dealing with flying ships in the Black Whole of space, let alone being hated for what they became just to work there.
After more tram-hopping, he arrived at the Psycho-bot complex, a hive structure designed by robots to suit highly structured, unguessable needs. It spanned a series of buildingtops located near the city center. Winchester imagined walking through the complex was as close as he would ever get to being in an ant farm.
He wandered through corridors, passing the closed doors of many other bots and patients. Most people and bots valued anonymity, to the extent that not even the bots knew their patients’ private information. Some would enter and exit through analysts’ windows from waiting aircabs. Winchester never worried that much about privacy. He couldn’t hide being a motor-head.
He arrived at his psycho-bot’s nest. The door rolled to the side, revealing his analyst sitting in a deep pit in a round room. Light from a single, massive, circular window lit the room.
“Ah, motor-head Vinchester. Come in.” The bot came from Astral-Hunk 9 in the Hessian Star system. Winchester still smiled at its accent, though not when it looked at him. The multi-armed psycho-bot gestured with a friendly metal appendage. Other arms swung across multiple panels, scanning Winchester’s, and likely other patients’, case histories.
Winchester entered and sat in a special chair constructed for motor-head patients. It propped up his torso, but not as comfortably as his wife did.
“You haff been gone long. Test piloting has kept you busy?” asked the bot.
Winchester was used to the arms swinging from panel to panel during their sessions, but he wished the robot would keep its eyes on him for more than a glance. “Too busy. I barely have time for my family.”
“You are motor-head. You should expect such things. You mentioned an urgent matter. This vouldn’t be more of your notions of a persecutory delusion? That’s for me to diagnose.”
“No,” said Winchester. “The first thing I wanted to talk about is my sondaughter.”
“The cyclosexual? Go on.”
Winchester could see one of the bot’s panels describing general cyclosexual biology. He didn’t like the idea of Varna being generalized by an encyclopedia entry. “Well, doc, Varna means so much to me, but I feel like everything I do for her — she’s a she right now — is wrong. She wants to be a pilot. She’s even built these rockets that fly around town, filming videos.”
The psycho-bot held up a manipulator. “I see. Let me ponder this problem, and I will provide the logical solution. You said ‘first’. You haff other matters?”
Winchester had to struggle to unclench his fists. The psycho-bot often interrupted him when it felt it had all the facts. “I had a dream.”
The robot brought up a fresh panel. “Ah, interesting. Do continue.” Its eyes never left the panels, but it seemed to be listening.
Winchester recounted the dream that awoke him earlier that morning. The smell of burning and the gradual accumulation of weight. The sensation of separation as he discovered pieces of himself scattered across instrument arrays. “. . . and then there was this woman, armored in chainmail, with white wings and hair, radiant, but terrible, like some kind of dreadful angel.” Suddenly, he saw her there in the office out of the corner of his mechanized eye. She shook her head and gestured for him to stop. Then, he noticed the psycho-bot staring straight at him, its manipulators frozen mid-task. Again, Winchester heard a buzzing, like a far-away field of locusts.
“Is something wrong, doc?”
Slowly, it rose from its nest, like some giant mechanized spider, its arms pushing and dragging itself toward Winchester. “I’ve decided to take your therapy in a new direction, Vinchester.” It raised two metal manipulators over its head.
The dreadful angel screamed, “Jump, Winchester!”
He lurched from his seat and propelled himself like a poorly guided missile across the room. The psycho-bot’s arms crashed behind him.
Winchester collapsed against the curved wall of the room.
He wasn’t built for rapid movement, but neither was the doctor. It guided itself toward him by pushing off wall and panel.
“This does not bode vell for your diagnosis, my boy!” The psycho-bot seemed to grow confident as it lurched over faster and herded Winchester away from the door.
Manipulators crashed like whips by his head as Winchester tried to keep his balance while sliding against the wall.
A brilliant white flash from the angel startled him. He was surprised the doctor seemed to see it too. She had drawn a curved, chrome blade from behind her back and held it aloft.
“Run this way, toward the window!” said the angel. She pointed her sword toward the giant circular glass lens. “Trust me. Jump through it.”
The psycho-bot redoubled its efforts to dash Winchester’s brains against the wall.
Something about the angel made Winchester trust her. He guarded his face with an arm and ran for the window like a ram. His heavy metal torso smashed through plate glass. For an instant, he had the vertiginous sensation of slowed time and free fall; then, he crashed hard onto something and rolled. When he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the slow arc of the spider-like psycho-bot as it fell toward the mists of the city below.
Winchester checked his new surroundings. He was on the deck of a passing vehicle. He turned and saw its name: In curvy green and gold letters, it read, “Fortunate Fish”.
“What’re you doing here? No ship docked.”
Winchester had been trying to stand with shaky legs on the deck of a flying restaurant when he heard the voice behind him. He turned to see a dark-haired man in sandals, holding a mop that wasn’t much thinner than him. Under a greasy apron, Winchester could just see several faded clan tattoos.
“Sorry,” said Winchester. “I just fell out of a building.” With the realization came fear. He could have joined the psycho-bot on the street far below. Winchester trembled.
The man looked him over, squinting with deep, sharp eyes. “Never rains, but it pours. Come into the kitchen.” He motioned for Winchester to follow.
The odors within seemed three-dimensional, as though each were part of a thick tapestry, decorating walls and filling empty spaces. Several pots bubbled on a stove, and jars of unidentifiable off-world creatures cluttered shelves.
Most of the signs and menus were in a language he couldn’t understand. He could have used the translator in his mechanized eye, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what anything was.
“Have a seat. They’re clean,” said the skinny man, motioning toward the kitchen counter.
Winchester sat and tried to balance on a stool meant for much less bulky people.
The man poured Winchester a drink. It looked like motor oil and smelled like licorice. One sip and all his muscles began to relax.
“Fell out of a building, huh? What happened?”
Winchester tried to explain, but stumbled over why his therapist would try to kill him, and he left the angel out.
“You’re a motor-head, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Winchester, sipping more of the beverage as the man set out a steaming bowl of soup that smelled spicy and had unidentifiable things in it.
“Ah, then you get a free sweet bun.” The man laid one beside the bowl.
“A free sweet bun? But I just fell out a window and a robot tried to kill me.”
“Look on the bright side. Now you get a free sweet bun.”
Winchester couldn’t argue with that. He ate his food and sipped his wonderful drink. “I’m Winchester Stranglehold,” he said between mouthfuls.
“My name translates as ‘Lustrous Pearl’ in your planet’s language. I’m the owner of the ‘Fortunate Fish’.” He swept his hands across the view of his ship. “My friends call me ‘Lust’.”
“Pearl it is,” said Winchester. “Your food’s delicious. Why is no one here?”
“Aw,” Pearl looked away and began polishing the counter with a rag. “If I had people in here every day, I’d have nothing but work to do.” He shrugged and stared at his feet.
“Well, I’ll be sure to tell my–” Winchester wanted to say “friends”, but he had so few. “–coworkers about your restaurant.” Winchester glanced around. “Anybody else work here?”
“In my clan, it’s traditional for the whole family to work together. On this planet, I’m all I got, now.”
“Aww, you don’t want to hear.”
Winchester pulled another cup over, set it in front of Pearl, and poured him some of the licorice liquid. “I told you about being chased by a robot and falling out of a building.”
The man smiled. Then, it went away. “My clan was from the planet Gallium Chalice. After the Wind-up Empire destroyed it, we worked as cooks on a refugee ship. Then, my wife died.”
“I’m sorry.” Winchester thought about Dala.
“It’s okay, now. But I had daughter too. She contracted Hawking’s Cough. It was bad. She’d break out coughing one morning and disappear into next week.”
“I thought there was a cure.”
“There is now! At the time, I could afford to have her time-snapped at the Hospitaller’s Constellation, but not to get her unsnapped. Now, I’m trying to save money for her release. At least she’ll still be young. I’m getting old.”
From Winchester’s mechanized periphery, he saw the angel. She sat beside him at the counter. Her alabaster wings shone even in the dim lighting of the Fish, and the links of her armor glinted like scales. She sipped at a cup of her own and glared at Winchester.
“That’s terrible,” he said. “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I couldn’t reach my daughter.”
“I try to look on the bright side,” said Pearl. “I’ll tell you when I find it. Speaking of which, is there something you’re not telling me? You keep looking to your right like you expect someone to be there. Someone following you?”
Winchester thought about the angel, sitting next to him and scowling. “Sort of.” He thought about telling this funny chef everything. Maybe there was something in the drink, but he felt like Pearl might want to talk with him. “I had a dream this morning, except I’m starting to think it wasn’t a dream. I was testing a new kind of ship, one I had completely merged with, rather than partially as an ordinary motor-head. And we were crashing.”
“You ever crash for real?” asked Pearl.
“Yes, happens to every pilot, but we were disintegrating on re-entry. And I could feel the ship’s pain.”
“Is that normal?”
“No! This was some special kind of ship. But it and the pain felt more like memories than dream.” Winchester glanced at the angel. She twirled her finger around the lip of her half-full cup. “There was something else, too. I didn’t want to say, but you told me about your daughter.”
“I saw something on the ship I can’t explain: an angelic woman with white wings, and she’s been following me around since I woke up. She’s sitting next to me.”
The angel slapped her head.
The chef finished his drink and said, “Hmm, okay, man. Maybe you are seeing chainmail ladies from space. I dunno. I do know I’ve taken you about as far as I can. Come with me, and I’ll drop you off at nearest tram station.”
Winchester felt his upper body grow heavier. He thought he was making a friend, but the chef rose, and Winchester joined him. The angel was gone. However, as Pearl passed where she had been seated, he did a double take. There were three cups on the counter. Come to think of it, thought Winchester, had he mentioned the angel was armored?
He heard the Fortunate Fish leave, but couldn’t watch it go. He decided to catch the next tram headed his way alone.
All around him, passersby, in their neutral-colored outfits, parted around him as he made his way over congested crowd movers and down hover elevators. Had Winchester ever been like those people before he’d been changed? No, he’d always wanted to be a pilot. To feel a ship under his command; his head merged within its control panel, body bowed like a religious devotee. Free to fly forever across the Black Whole of space.
“Hey, Win,” said a voice behind him. “Ridin’ is still flyin’. You’re supposed to be a planetside pedestrian until your leave is up.”
“Hello, Lailow.” He was almost a friend. Winchester had known him since joining the motor-heads. Having been through the experience first, Lailow had prepared Winchester for his conversion. But knowing about the knife doesn’t dull its sting. “You on leave, too?”
“Yeah, but I got no family like you. I usually waste a couple o’ days leave time down at the Talestore catchin’ up on backissues.”
“That stuff’ll rot your brain,” said Winchester, dodging a rogue tidy-bot.
“Yeah,” said Lailow, “but I’m not doin’ anything with it.”
“You want to ride with me as far as you’re going?” What Winchester needed was company; he might not have a lot in common with Lailow, but he liked the guy.
“Yeah, okay. But you know, from this station, we’re going to have to sit in the ‘motor-heads only’ car on the tram.”
The dreadful angel appeared in the corner of Winchester’s eye. He tried not to glance her way, even though she attempted to get his attention.
Lailow stopped mid-stride, as though trying to find the right words. Pondering the injustice of motor-head life? Winchester thought.
Lailow turned Winchester’s way, seeming to look at something on the horizon. Then, he smiled. “Yes, it’s a new city ordinance. Solidarity, brother.” He slapped Winchester’s shoulder. It rang like a dull bell. “Let’s go catch a tram.” Lailow led on. Winchester heard the buzz again, so close he could feel it like a root canal.
Lailow suddenly seemed strange to Winchester, awkward and unlike himself. His limbs jerked as he moved, and he seemed to forget how to balance his torso. Winchester followed to make sure he was all right.
Sure enough, when they arrived at the tram, one car was marked for motor-heads. Winchester didn’t mind so much. He often picked the last car on the tram; it had the rockets, and the noise usually kept most other people away. However, he didn’t like being told where he belonged.
The door rolled open, and Lailow motioned for him to enter. As he did, Lailow shoved him in hard enough that Winchester crashed into the opposite wall.
“Hey, Lailow, dammit!” Winchester stumbled around to see the door roll shut. He heard the pops of tiny explosions and saw the flash of sparks through the windows. “Lailow, what are you doing?” Winchester rushed across the car to see Lailow stepping away from the door mechanism. He stared through the glass at Winchester, his living eye as cold and unresponsive as his mechanical one.
“This motor-head knows where you live, Winchester Stranglehold. You’re no longer needed.” Lailow moved to an external control panel.
“Lailow, you’re freaking me out.” Winchester heard the lock that held his car to the next disengage. “Lailow?” But he no longer responded to Winchester at all. The rockets for the tram started in reverse. Winchester watched his friend turn around, and walk away as the tram backed out of the station.
What just happened? What did he mean about where I live? thought Winchester. The station receded, and the single car flew slow and uncontrolled into the cacophony of city air traffic.
And the angel was there in the tram car with him, appearing luminous and hovering. “He’s been taken by the buzzbomb virus, Winchester. I couldn’t do anything; I’m sorry. You’ve been extremely resistant to me.”
Winchester stormed the angel. “Sorry? You’re sorry? What about my family? He said he knows where I live!”
“I’d be happy to explain everything, but don’t you think you should try to do something before you reach those buildings?” She pointed over Winchester’s shoulder out the rear windows of the car.
Air cars and trailers swerved around them, horns screeching as they passed. The fliers worried Winchester, but they seemed to want to avoid him as much as he, them. But the buildings of downtown would not be so flexible.
“I can’t reach the rockets from in here,” said Winchester. “This is a tram. Passengers aren’t meant to fly it.”
“What do you have that you can use?” asked the angel.
“Now you’re trying to be helpful?” snapped Winchester.
“Stop resisting me. Those buildings are getting close. What do you have?”
“I can merge with any control system, if I can reach it. But those are outside.”
“Is anything inside?” she asked.
He thought. “Power and lighting. I could make the lights flash.”
“Be serious,” said the angel. “You haven’t much time.”
Something switched inside Winchester; his emotional inhibitor activated, and the pilot in him took over. “The hover panel on the bottom of the car. I can control that.”
“But if you turn that off you’ll fall like a stone.”
Winchester started ripping up the carpet, searching for the power panel lid. “Not off, in reverse. The panels can be set to attract instead of repel; the drag will slow us over the rooftops, but we’ll bleed power. I have to make what I do count.” He found the panel.
He ripped it from its hinges. Beneath, the controls glowed like tiny jewels, Winchester kneeled to let his hood relays merge. “I won’t be able to see while I do this. Can I trust you to be my eyes?”
“If you only knew how much you can trust me,” she answered.
“Then look, and tell me when we’re over a building. I have to do this fast.”
Too soon. Winchester reversed the hover panel to be a drag panel. The tram lurched downward toward the buildingtop below, and he felt the dip as though his stomach dropped out of his body. But it wasn’t enough.
“We’re past that one,” said the angel.
“More warning next time.”
He did and felt the car connect with the rooftop. The savage scraping and shuddering nearly dislodged Winchester from the controls, but the angel hovered unaffected.
They were beyond the edge of the roof and flying free again. Soon the hover panel would be out of power, but the rockets would continue until they ran out of fuel.
“Can you fly out of this car?” asked Winchester.
“You don’t have to worry about me. Save yourself, and I’ll be fine.”
“All right. We haven’t much power left, but I have a plan. Find me a rooftop we can drag on for a while. Follow whatever I do.”
“Now! Turn it on now!”
Last of the power. He let it burn. The tram car hit the rooftop and dragged as the rockets pulled the car along, sending sparks higher than the windows. The shock threw Winchester away from the controls. It no longer mattered. He turned, covered his face, and smashed his hood through the nearest window, glass falling away like diamonds among the sparks. He could see the rockets pulling the car toward the next closest building. Winchester leaped while he still had building left to land on and hoped the angel would follow.
“Hurry! Hurry!” The damn autocabs were so slow and dumber than rockets on a tricycle. But they had no AI or cyberpilots, and the angel had said that was important.
Winchester’s arms had stopped oozing blood, but still throbbed. The improvised bandages helped, but his blood speckled his uniform. Rolling from a moving tramcar onto a rough rooftop had cut him but superficially. All his systems functioned, but he’d never get the dents out of his hood or the kinks out of his shoulder struts. He was permanently scarred.
“Your destination is stationary,” said the autocab. “We require no more than the legally proscribed haste.”
“Stupid machine.” Winchester considered pummeling the interface, but why re-open his wounds?
“Calm down.” The angel floated a wire width above the seat as though she couldn’t mix with something so mundane. She barely fit in the cab, or rather, Winchester barely fit in with her. Her wings, even folded, occupied much of the free space. She was becoming tangible as well. He could feel the tickle of her feathers on his hand, and she radiated coolness, like a breeze on a rainy day.
“Calm down? Lady, I have to get to my family! You have three options: speed me home like a helpful angel should, tell me something useful, or shut up!”
Winchester seethed. He thought about something happening to his family and that he could be the cause. Automatic systems in his hood tried to adjust his emotional level, but he overrode them. He wanted to feel; it kept him sharp.
The angel looked hurt. She tried to rest a hand on his bloody arm, but it passed through. “I’m sorry. I forgot how little you know at this point in time.”
“At this point . . . ? What do you mean?”
The look the angel gave him reminded him of the one teacher-bots gave him growing up in a school-box. “You know where we met was no dream. When I pulled your mind back in time over the neu-wave transmission, it was to follow something terrible.”
“I remember.” He did, but he didn’t believe. “But the neu-wave is just a way of sending data back in time to solve certain crawl-space equations.”
“Data. You. Me. And the buzzbomb virus. We’re all information in the younger Winchester’s hood. He’s the carrier.”
Winchester glanced out the curved glass of the autocab down chrome and neon alleyways and over rooftops littered with receiver arrays. He wasn’t far from home. “Carrier of what? What’s a ‘buzzbomb virus’?”
“You know how most people feel about motor-heads? In the future, some decide to do something about it.”
“What does the virus do?” asked Winchester.
“It can take over cyborgs or AI systems, and its only purpose is to kill you and your family.”
Winchester pulled away from the angel. “What? Why me? Why my family?”
“Stop!” The angel’s voice rang like steel on stone. Winchester shut up. She continued. “This is partly my fault. I had thought the buzzbomb virus came back on its own. I was wrong. It came back in you. But you’re safe because of me. I’m a virus, too. A special kind. As for your family, they’re up to you.”
And they weren’t safe from who he’d infected: his friend, Lailow.
The autocab approached the landing bay of Winchester’s apartment complex. Other questions would have to wait.
As the cab departed, so did the angel. Fine, thought Winchester. This was his job to do anyway.
Everything appeared normal as he crept through the dilating bay door. The corridors were quiet, and he could hear the deep-down hum of the ventilation unit and feel air currents across his skin.
He entered the code to his apartment door, and it rolled open. The smells of coffee and dinner greeted him. Tidy-bots circled around his feet and above his head. Nothing appeared out of place, but he entered as though Lailow might leap from any corner.
He jumped. “Dala.” His wife approached him from the kitchen. “You scared me.”
“Why are you creeping around?” she asked.
He hugged her. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” They parted, but still clasped arms. “I haven’t got much time to explain. I think someone might try to kill us. I think we need to get someplace safe.”
“Your friend? Oh, Winnie. Are you sure you aren’t being a little paranoid again?”
“No! Okay, maybe I have in the past, but he just tried to kill me. I’m surprised he’s not here now.”
Dala must have noticed Winchester’s damage because she ran a hand over his dented hood and bandages. “You’re serious. Gods, you’re scaring me.”
“Go pack a bag. Is Varna here?”
“She’s in her room.”
Winchester rushed back to Varna’s room and pounded the door. “Varna, honey. Open up.”
From within he heard her muffled voice. “I’m not in the mood now, dad.”
He was about to respond when he heard an explosion from the apartment entrance.
Varna opened her door.
Winchester couldn’t hear its usual swish because of the discharge of some unknown weapon and the crashes of destroyed furniture.
“Dad? What’s happening?”
Winchester cupped a bandaged hand over Varna’s mouth. She struggled and tried to get him to let go. She bit him. It didn’t hurt, but he released her.
“Leggo of me!” She tried to fight Winchester’s grasp.
“Hush! Be quiet.”
Lailow entered the hallway to Varna’s room, looking more like a shadow in the glare from the living room. Winchester could see the silhouette of the batterbeam pistol in his hand.
“Oh, no!” Winchester grabbed Varna and wrapped as much of himself around her as he could.
Lailow, or the virus that inhabited him, must not have had much experience with his weapon. Golden glowing beaters ricocheted off the screens, destroying the video photos and setting fire to the walls. Finally, they focused on Winchester’s back. The bronze-colored metal of his head and shoulders would protect him for a while, but soon the beaters would pound their way through him until they reached Varna.
The salvo stopped. Winchester heard the crackle of small fires and smelled smoke.
“You struggle to protect your freakish sondaughter,” said Lailow. “But we shall stop your family before you can spread your monsters among the stars.”
Winchester grunted as the beaters bit into his back again, forcing him and Varna against the hallway wall. Winchester’s legs buckled.
The beaters stopped.
“Get away from my family!” That was Dala’s voice from the other room.
Lailow began to scream as the sound of a dozen tidy-bots filled the hallway.
Winchester risked turning his upper body to see Lailow covered by tidy-bots. Their multi-tools gripped at sensitive areas and their scourers tore at his chest unit.
Lailow began to fire wildly toward the room where Dala was. She screamed.
All of the anger, panic, and fear that he’d been feeling since the cab ride took Winchester over at that moment. He left Varna crouching at the wall and crossed the length of the hall in two massive strides. He grabbed at his former friend and ripped one of the tidy-bots from Lailow’s flesh and began smashing him in the face and delicate areas of his head. Lailow dropped his pistol.
“Dad, stop!” Varna held his arm, trying to stop him from pounding Lailow’s lifeless body. His face and hood were a twisted crater of red metal. Winchester let his own hood calm his emotions, and he felt his breathing slow.
The fires had started to spread, and already Winchester had begun to cough.
Dala! She was in the living room. Winchester rose from Lailow’s body and lurched into the other room. Varna followed.
Dala lay on the floor, her breathing rapid and raspy. Several beaters had caught her across her chest and shoulder; one arm hung loosely in its socket, held only by shreds of muscle and flesh. Blood covered the floor and her beautiful filament dress.
As he knelt, he noticed how the pulse-pattern of the dress had become a random stutter.
“Sweetheart.” He stroked her smooth head, and she opened her eyes.
“Winnie,” her voice was no louder than a sigh.
Varna began to cry. “Dad, do something.” She held her mother’s arm, forcing her to cry out. Varna let go.
Winchester knew there was no way they could get a med-zeppelin to their apartment in time. The fire spread toward them.
“Hang on, sweetheart. We’ll get you out of here.”
Varna reached for Winchester’s hand. He grabbed it and held on.
“No,” said Dala. “You have to get out of here.” Dala brushed her good hand over Varna’s. “Please watch over my Winnie. He’ll be so alone now.”
Varna couldn’t speak, only nodded.
Dala turned back to Winchester. “I’ve left something for you.” She passed him a memory biscuit. “I hope it helps.” The flashing lights from her dress slowed and then stopped. Varna laid her head against Winchester’s shoulder. He couldn’t feel her, but he sensed her weight.
“What could Dala possibly have left me that would do any good?” he asked, mostly of himself.
“Me,” said the angel, appearing beside him.
“Varna, we have to go!”
She had run from Winchester while he carried Dala’s body. Now he stumbled through the smoky hallways back toward his sondaughter’s room. Dala’s body was heavy, but he’d carry it anywhere.
Fire consumed their living room furniture and raced up ancient hanging rugs, draping walls and corridors. Smoke burned Winchester’s living eye, but a fan system in his hood kept him breathing without choking. He felt the heat sear the skin on his arms and cheeks. Why couldn’t Varna have stayed with me? he thought. He absorbed data from Dala’s memory biscuit while he waited.
“You can’t wait for the fire brigade,” said the angel. She hovered behind Winchester, like a stray glow-bot at a tram station. “You’ll corrupt the bots, and you don’t want firedogs after you.”
Varna came around a corner, a damp towel over her mouth. “I got it, Dad,” her voice muffled by her hand, “my rocket controls.”
“You went back for your damn rockets?” Winchester grabbed her arm and urged her back toward the apartment entrance.
“I couldn’t just leave them. They’d be lost without me.”
He didn’t want to think what he’d be like without her. As they exited the apartment, Winchester heard the fire alarm for their floor. The stink of smoke clung to them even as they left the fire behind and ran along the hall toward the landing bay.
“Where are we going, Dad?”
“To the shuttlebug.”
“Why aren’t we staying for the fire brigade? Where are we taking Mom? What just happened back there?”
Winchester thought about how all his possible explanations were as intangible and diaphanous as the angel trailing behind him. Varna deserved something; otherwise, she might start to panic. He grabbed her hand as they hurried. “I don’t know everything yet. People are trying to kill us. We have to get away.”
“Are you trying to keep me calm? You’re being so helpful. Thanks.”
She was sarcastic again. That was a good sign. They entered the landing bay. Nesting in a corner, hovering above the ground, was their family shuttlebug. Winchester sent an “open” signal with his key, and its door dilated. Eight thruster appendages extended from its underside.
Winchester glanced at his sondaughter. She was getting so tall now. He had to make her grow up even faster. “You’re going to have to fly.”
Her eyes widened. “Me? I’ve never done it before. You never let me. Why now?”
“Emergency. I can’t fly it without corrupting its AI. I’m depending on you.” A crash course in flying and working together was a recipe for rebellion, but this might keep her from thinking too much about losing her mom, for a little while.
Her lips trembled as though she were pondering the plan. “I’ll do my best.”
They entered the shuttlebug. Winchester lay Dala’s body in the back seat. He could feel the emotional governor taking control and trying to soothe him. But he wanted to feel. His wife lay still and would never move again. He wanted to be himself so he could remember what he’d felt when he and Varna let Dala go.
Varna sat in the pilot’s chair. “What do I do?” she said. “I can’t merge with the controls. I don’t have a hood like yours.”
Winchester reached into a shuttle compartment over his head and pulled down a dusty headset with curly wires trailing from various nodes. A drizzle of packing bubbles followed after.
“Here.” He handed the headset to Varna. “This came with the bug; it’s for piloting smaller vehicles like this one. You’ll have to use the factory defaults, but you’ll be flying.”
She held it in her hands, unsure of what to do with it.
“You know,” said Winchester, “if you put that on, you’ll be the equivalent of a junior motor-head.”
She crammed the set on her head, like a matte-black tiara and began tapping wires into the board.
Landing bay doors opened, and the bug lurched forward like a crippled spider. Winchester imagined its thruster appendages kicking faster and faster as the shuttlebug left the bay.
“Beautiful take-off, Varna.”
“You mean it?”
“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”
“Well . . . whatever. I don’t need compliments from you.”
“Fine,” said Winchester, “but bank to port or we’ll crash into that carrier.”
Varna over-corrected and became flustered. Winchester remembered she had no governor stabilizing her emotions and tried to remember that feeling of freedom. He reached over and corrected her roll, but she slapped his hand away. She’d make a good pilot after all.
“Where are we going?”
“To a funeral kiosk. We’ll launch your mother into space in a pyrostar; she was Uranian, although a little unorthodox.”
“We’re going to get rid of Mom?” Varna almost whispered the question.
“We can’t take her with us. She would have wanted a burial in space.”
Varna said nothing as she flew, and then, “I’ve always wanted to go into space. I never thought Mom would get there first.”
Winchester put his hand on Varna’s. “I’ll do everything I can to get you there.”
She took her hand back and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Then, she grabbed Winchester’s hand again.
The angel leaned forward from the back and was about to say something, but Winchester pointed a warning finger at her. Varna had not yet been able to see the angel, and Winchester wanted to keep it that way for a while. The angel backed away.
The shuttlebug approached a funeral kiosk, and its forward momentum slowed. Winchester hinted at what Varna needed to do to land while still letting her think she already knew how to do everything on her own.
The legs of the shuttlebug grasped the hitching post, and the bug came to a halt.
“Still don’t need any compliments?”
“No,” said Varna.
Funeral kiosks weren’t much to look at. Beyond the landing area stood the interface, where families of the deceased chose the last rites to be performed during liftoff of the pyrostar. From the rear of the kiosk extended the electromagnetic catapult, a long, steel rail, like a strand of silver wire, ran toward the horizon and up into the sky. When launched, the pyrostar would coast along the rail until launching off the end out into space.
Winchester wrapped his dead wife into a shroud and carried her toward the kiosk. He wasn’t sure if it was an effect of the emotional governor, but time seemed to slow. He saw the lights of passing tramcars snake along their way into the orange haze of twilight. Blazing horns of traffic deepened as though receding into the past. Dala seemed to grow heavier as he and Varna approached the interface. A thought flashed into his mind. He remembered all the prop times with Dala when she supported him as he talked over his troubles. He’d never have that again.
“Our condolences,” said the squat box of the interface. “Whom would you like us to commend to the Black Whole of space?”
“My Mom,” said Varna.
Winchester had been banished to the back of the shuttlebug by his sondaughter. She didn’t want him to see her cry, and, truth be told, he felt the same about himself. He sat on the same bench where his wife had last lain. He struggled to cry through the emotional inhibitor. The tears, when they came, fell in a drizzle rather than a deluge.
A beeping noise came from somewhere nearby. It sounded muffled, like an alarm clock wrapped in rubber. Winchester didn’t recognize it as a shuttlebug sound.
“Varna, is that something of yours?”
He saw her wipe her eyes with her sleeves and cock her head toward the back to listen. “My rockets! Bring me my bag.”
Winchester grabbed it and brought it forward.
Varna coaxed the shuttlebug into autopilot and removed her headset controls. She took the bag, burying a hand deep within its folds. Clothes and random bits of electronic bric-a-brac fell from within onto the floor.
“Ah-ha!” She removed a pocket dashboard from the bag and stroked its surface to wake it. “My rockets are checking in. I programmed them to follow us.” She moved her fingers in arcane swirls across the dash.
“Varn/Varna, sir!” chorused a troop of Varna’s rockets.
“I’m still a ‘ma’am’ for now, but skip it,” she said into the pocket dash speaker. “Report.”
Several high-pitched rocket voices chimed in unison. “Um, ma’am.” These rockets weren’t very smart. No danger of Winchester infecting them. “You ordered us to watch vehicles following along more than fifty percent of your path, reporting only high statistical outliers. Uh, there is one vehicle fitting those criteria.”
“You programmed your rockets to do that? That’s fantastic! You’re just like . . .” Winchester stopped himself from saying “your mom” and switched to “. . . a true future motor-head.” He hoped she wouldn’t notice.
She didn’t say anything. “They’re a bit dim. I sacrificed wit for size.” To the dash, she said, “Show me the outlier.”
On the tiny screen, several images resolved themselves into one multi-view perspective.
“Oh, no,” said Winchester.
Behind them, bobbing along between chrome and neon facades of residence hives and corporate pyramids, a spy shuttle followed. Its puff-drive coughed out steam behind a giant electronic eye mounted on the vehicle’s bow. The eye’s pixelated slit scanned to either side but always returned to its center, where, Winchester knew, they were the focus of its attention.
“It’s an eye-pod,” he said. “It’ll never give up now that it’s seen us.”
“Why’s it looking for us? Is this more of what you’re not telling me?”
“I’m not hiding things from you. I don’t know everything myself. But whoever is after me has stepped up the pursuit.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Varna. “Whatever they want can’t be good. We have to escape.”
The eye ceased its wavering and focused on their shuttlebug. Winchester knew the spying drone had transmitted their location before he and Varna had begun to ponder the problem. All that remained was for it to keep tabs on the shuttlebug until the eye-pod operators arrived.
“I have an idea,” said Varna, “but I don’t know that I like it.”
“What? We should talk about anything.”
“It means destroying one of my rockets, and I don’t know if I could bear that.”
“Varna, I’ll buy you a dozen new bloody blue rockets when this is over. What’s your idea?”
“I could order one to crash into the eye. If anything, it will slow the eye-pod down.”
Winchester leaned over and kissed Varna on the forehead. She wrinkled her face and rubbed her brow. “That’s a great idea,” said Winchester. “Let’s do it.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want to hurt any of my rockets.”
Winchester took Varna’s hand. “Sweetheart, we’re in trouble. Sometimes being a motor-head means making hard decisions.”
Winchester thought about a future he remembered only like a dream, one in which he had to make a difficult choice and follow the mysterious angel from a dying ship.
Varna took her hand back and touched the pocket dash. “Rocket 42, report in.”
A crackle of static, then, “Yes, ma’am. Rocket 42 reporting for duty.”
Varna clenched her free hand into a fist. “My father and I are in trouble. We need your help. I want you to–” Varna looked at her father as though searching for another answer. “–to crash yourself into the eye of the pursuing eye-pod.”
“Affirmative, ma’am. And good luck to you and your dad.” To the other rockets, number 42 said, “Goodbye, fellows. Nothing lasts forever!”
From the rear viewer of the shuttlebug, Winchester could see the unblinking eye of the pod as it followed. Suddenly, Winchester saw the sharpened nose cone of rocket 42 swoop in from port and bury itself in the drone’s eye like a dart in a board.
The eye-pod swerved, and the rocket prevented its eye from moving in its orbit. The pod’s flight became erratic as it tried to shake the rocket loose. Finally, the slow-moving pod bumped into the wall of a nearby building as it tried to dislodge the needle-like rocket from its eye.
“It was a good rocket, Varna.” Winchester patted her on the shoulder. “Now, let’s make the most of what it’s done. Find us someplace obvious to land.”
“Whoever’s following us knows our shuttlebug. We have to ditch it. Let’s leave this vehicle someplace where our pursuers can find it while we search for another ride.”
“Another ride? Like a tram or a cab?”
“No,” said Winchester. “Those would be good if we knew where we were going. We need to get away and think as we go. I have an idea, but first let’s get rid of the bug.”
Nearby, they found a landing stage for a disused sky temple. They left the bug, its thruster appendages tucked beneath it, on the center of the stage, directly under a busy sky path. When the people who sent the eye-pod came, they would find the bug.
“So what’s your big idea?” asked Varna.
Winchester pulled out his comm-snake; its long neck unfurled and the hood opened to reveal its communication screen. “Information,” said the snake.
To Varna, Winchester said, “I’m going to call on a long shot.” He glanced back at the snake, which hissed low in anticipation of a request. “I need a listing under ‘Restaurants’,” he said.
After the call, Winchester and Varna strolled along the conveyor paths bridging many of the city’s popular buildings. Winchester always drew strange looks, and there was no hiding what he was. Varna, however, blended in with the passersby. She never attracted curious glances, except for her in-between times when she was a little too much of one sex and not enough of the other. Winchester wasn’t sure, but the pendulum might be swinging back toward boyhood. Was that getting easier to tell? he thought. Maybe he was just paying greater attention to her.
The red neon lights danced across the faces of pedestrians, which blurred across the chrome filigree adorning the buildings. At the food dock, aromas from the cuisine of a dozen cultures wove together as Winchester and Varna approached.
Off to one side, between the Mediterranean Convoy and the Star Gypsies, perched the Fortunate Fish.
“I don’t know why you couldn’t finish your call in front of me,” said Varna. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I do,” said Winchester. “It’s not that. Dealing with Pearl is very delicate, and I wanted to bargain in private.”
A thin man in sandals and a food-stained apron opened the door to the restaurant and beckoned to Winchester and Varna. “Quick. Get inside before someone sees you,” said Pearl. “Are you nuts? Motor-heads stand out like an octopus at a tea party!” He ushered them onto the deck of the Fish and through its doors as he closed them behind.
The Fish looked much as it did before, but the smell had more of a sweet, acidic tang to it. Winchester could still hear the sound of pots simmering, and their steam added to the general haze of the place. The tables and barstools still stood empty.
“Thanks for letting us hide here, Pearl,” said Winchester. “We needed to get out of sight.”
“You picked the right place for it. Nobody comes here. Who’s this?”
“My daughter. Pearl, this is Varna.”
Pearl wiped a small hand across his greasy apron. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’ll get you some soup.”
He trotted off toward the kitchen, and Varna looked around for a place to wipe her hand and decided on her father’s uniform. “This is who you called for help?”
“I’m running out of options,” said Winchester. “He seems like a decent sort.”
Pearl came back with a tray of soup bowls. He beckoned to the others to join him at a table. “I gotta tell you, man,” said Pearl. “I almost didn’t come back until you mentioned your bargain.”
“Bargain?” asked Varna. “Is that what you didn’t want me to hear on the call?”
Pearl paused with the spoon on its way to his mouth. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No.” To Varna, Winchester said, “Honey, he wasn’t going to come. I needed to make a deal. That’s all.”
“What kind of deal?”
“Oh, it’s very honorable,” said Pearl. “One father to another. He’s going to pay to get my daughter out of time-snap.”
Varna stared open-mouthed at the two of them. “What kind of ‘friend’ makes a deal like that?”
“Actually,” said Pearl, “I hardly know your dad, and he made me nervous talking about his chainmail space chick last time.”
“Wait a minute,” said Winchester. “You make that sound really bad.”
Varna pointed her spoon at him. “You’d better explain that, fast. Who’s he talking about?”
From a darkened corner of the restaurant, steam and haze swirled and coalesced into a form. A figure approached the table and said, “He means me.”
Winchester looked hard at the angel as she stood by the table. He didn’t know why he’d never seen it before Varna suggested it, but the angel did look like Dala, a Dala from a long time ago, a Dala that now seemed like a ghost.
“This is your mother?” asked Pearl. “What’s going on? Am I seeing spirits?”
“No, Pearl. I’m no ghost. I’m a computer virus designed by Dala to help Winchester.”
“Why can they see you now?” asked Winchester.
“You downloaded Dala’s biscuit,” said the angel.
“So I’m not nuts?” asked Pearl of no one. “That was my big concern.”
“You’re not crazy,” said the angel. “Just keenly perceptive.”
“What were you meant to help dad with?” asked Varna. She put her hand on Winchester’s arm. “He has me now. He doesn’t need help from a virus.”
The angel smiled. “I’m glad you feel that way because it will make my job easier. It’s time you all knew what you’re up against. You’ve all felt the animosity the people of this planet have for bodily alterations; Winchester, you’re nearly half machine; Varna, you change your sex; even Pearl has clan tattoos. The people of this world classify you as ‘untouchable’ and tolerate you at a distance. That won’t always be so.
“In the near future, a splinter group will become enraged by Varna and will try to have her killed. They fail and attempt to eliminate her by more desperate measures.”
“Me?” asked Varna. “Why?”
“You will become the first cyclosexual pilot. Because you can change sex, the bio-ships of the future won’t be able to adapt to your constant change and reject you as a foreign organism, like other pilots.”
“You mean me,” said Winchester.
“That’s the theory,” said the angel. “Varna will be the proof, and she’ll be a hero to thousands of other untouchables for whom you are an example. At least, that’s what will likely happen if you all can work together.”
“How do you know this?” asked Winchester.
“This isn’t our first time coming back, Winchester,” said the angel. “But it will have to be our last.”
Winchester could tell Varna wanted to speak; she certainly looked as though she could explode. Winchester put his hand on her shoulder. She stayed silent but didn’t try to shrug his hand off as he’d expected.
The angel continued. “The attacking virus is called a buzzbomb because of the sound victims make and the explosive way it can spread. The splinter group chose to send this virus back in time via neu-wave trans along your timeline, Winchester, giving them the opportunity to get to Varna through you. They didn’t expect you and me to follow along. But I ‘inspired’ Dala to create me and put me in the memory biscuit you absorbed. That’s why you don’t buzz. I make you immune. But the immunity only works on you. You’re a carrier.”
“Like carriers of Hawking’s cough don’t get thrown through time,” said Pearl.
“Exactly,” said the angel.
Winchester didn’t like the idea of an angel on his shoulder, guiding his hand. “How much of what I’m doing really comes from me? You’re a virus infecting me. Am I just ‘Winchester 3.0’?”
“Oh, Winchester,” the angel smiled and tried to reach for Winchester’s hand. He withdrew it. “Ever since you agreed to slip back along the transmission beam, you’ve been living a life you chose, but it might not be the one you remembered.”
“Last chance, eh?” said Pearl. “Take it, my man. I wish I could.”
It was Winchester’s turn to stay silent.
The angel turned to Pearl. “So, you sound as though you’re more willing to help those two since you know you’re not crazy. What do you say? This could be your last chance.”
“I’ll hold to my bargain,” he said. “I want my daughter back. Besides, we untouchables have to stick together. Anyone want more soup?” He gathered empty bowls onto the tray and returned to the kitchen.
“Why do you have to look like my mom?” asked Varna of the angel.
“I didn’t mean to. I think I look a little different to everyone.”
“Varna, leave us alone a moment, please.”
“Seriously?” said Varna.
“Varna, please,” said Winchester.
Varna frowned at the angel, rose, and walked out of earshot.
Winchester continued. “You’ve changed who I was and who I’m going to be by bringing me back to this time. You’ve changed who my sondaughter will become. I’m not even sure what would have happened had I never interfered.”
“You changed yourself. I gave you the opportunity, and you took it. When I took you back, that set up a possible timeline in which Varna might have a chance if you succeed. If you had done nothing, she surely would have died.”
Winchester had to admit the angel had a point.
Pearl pushed open the kitchen doors. “Hey, Winchester. Transmission coming in. It’s addressed to you. I’ll pull it up on main scanner.” Pearl crossed the dining room to an ancient-looking cabinet covered with lacquered wooden scrollwork. He opened its doors, revealing the Fish’s main screen.
Pearl accepted the message, and Winchester and Varna joined him in front of the screen. The sender icon preceding the message indicated it came from motor-headquarters. Winchester wondered who would contact him through the Fish and why.
On the screen flashed the sagging face of Modom Rooth, smiling a skeletal grin. “Stranglehold. I need you to report in again.” From somewhere, Winchester heard a sound like a squad of angry hornets in a jar. It was Rooth. The buzz hung around him like a stink.
The angel now filled a dark, hazy corner of the dining room, like a tempest on the horizon. “You know that sound, Winchester. He’s infected, and the other motor-heads are likely to be as well.”
Winchester said to the screen, “I won’t be coming in this time, Rooth, or whatever you really are. How does this work? Does Rooth exist anymore, or has the buzzbomb virus killed him?”
“Ah,” said Rooth. “All cards on the table, eh? Well, let me show you my hand, and then I’ll show you yours. Thank you for spreading the virus to me. I was able to pass it on to other motor-heads with great efficiency. We know where you are, and our shuttlebugs are coming for you. We’ve locked onto your hood, so you can’t hide. We know your wife is dead. Soon, you and your whole freakish family will be, too. Pity this all had to happen on your leave.”
Winchester felt the emotions at first, like an itch somewhere he couldn’t scratch. Then, it built like a fire behind his human eye. The emotional inhibitor struggled to calm him only to succumb to the blaze.
“Hide? We’re not hiding,” he said. “In fact, I want to thank you. Now I know who to go after. We’re waiting for you. Make it quick.” Winchester faced Pearl and Varna. “Close your mouths; I have a plan. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a plan?” Varna’s face was red and her fists balled, ready to strike.
Winchester had never seen her so mad. Was her voice starting to deepen? he thought. Perhaps a subtle change in her neck and shoulder muscles, too. Winchester had never seen her full transition from girl to boy. She seemed angrier; maybe Winchester could point her at their enemies and leave some of the planning to her. “I said that because Rooth was still on the line,” said Winchester. “I wanted him to think we’re up to something.” He glanced at Varna. She stood fuming. Winchester thought it might be better if he left her alone for a bit.
Pearl stood nearby with a plate in his hand, picking at something squirming with noodles and smelling delicious. “We’d better be up to something soon, or this’ll be a short getaway.”
He was right, thought Winchester. He owed Pearl and Varna a plan, but he had no gift for such things. But he could use the gifts he had. “Pearl, this is an older ship, or restaurant, no offence. Does it have AI?”
“You kidding? It barely flies. Why?”
“Take me to the controls. I’ll buy us some time.”
The cook shrugged and led Winchester toward a door at one side of the dining area. Pearl set down his plate and wiped his hands on his apron and pants.
Winchester marveled at the composure of unflappable chef. “Aren’t you worried? We’re about to be chased by murderous, virus-possessed psychopaths, and you’re eating a snack.”
“Aww, no good worrying. You’re a good pilot. I’m a great chef. All will be well. Besides,” he turned and winked at Winchester, “they’re after you, not me. I’ll just cook them a free lunch. No worries.”
Winchester smiled and wished he could shake his head. Pearl turned and led him into the flight room on the starboard side of the restaurant. It couldn’t have been called something as formal as a “cockpit”. It looked like a broom closet the way Pearl kept it, and it smelled like engine oil. “Thanks,” said Winchester. “I’ll manage from here.” The cook shuffled back to his kitchen.
But could he manage? thought Winchester. Pearl had been right: no AI. But from the looks of the controls, the ship was little more than a flying wind-up toy. Clearly, it stayed on auto-pilot, flying over a pre-set flight plan across the city. The chef probably only grasped the controls to land at the odd food deck. That’s how the Fish flew now, chugging along the skyways, like a hobo searching for an alley.
Winchester could hear the turn of gears and the creak of pulleys as the wheel corrected deviations in their flight path. The most complicated system in the room controlled the hover panel keeping the restaurant aloft.
Pink and orange sunlight filtered between skyscrapers, its early evening brightness dimmed by the shadescreen over the flight room’s viewports. Against the backdrop of twilight, dark specks drifted out of the sky, floating toward the city. The motor-heads were coming. Winchester was going to have to escape the cat with his tail already caught in the mousetrap.
Winchester pulled the squawk tube from the wall and called to the dining hall. “The ride may get a little bumpy, probably the rest of the flight. Varna, if any parts of a plan show up, I’ll be here in the control closet.” He hung up the tube.
He flipped the controls to manual, wound up the cochlear drive, and aimed the Fish deeper into the city.
When he again looked at the horizon through a break in the city skyline, the dark specks were gone. The clutter that had filled the sky, the motor-head ships, must have settled into the city. He imagined them coming for the Fish, hunting them, like an eye-pod, only infinitely deadlier. For motor-heads knew how to fly almost as well as he.
They would find him; he couldn’t change that. His one chance was to make the Fish hard to get to. He aimed the restaurant for the heart of downtown traffic.
Most offworlders found the city’s chaotic commerce district traffic bewildering, never comprehending how a native could fathom or navigate the maze. In truth, natives didn’t bother.
Winchester saw the first wave of traffic ahead. On a world dominated by air travel, the skyway currents flowed in layers. Winchester marveled at the dance of traffic before merging, once again thrilled to be a pilot. When one joined the traffic, one had to realize the flow moved on not just two or three axes, but four, with timing being the most important. Air cabs, shuttlebugs, starhorses, and carryalls crossed between buildings, wove above or below adjacent crossings or people-movers, or dove in vertiginous pursuit of a wide-open path. Winchester knew the Fish could only crawl among such competition, but he also knew his pursuers would be forced to do the same.
“Dad.” Varna had snuck in as Winchester concentrated on the city. “I have some of that plan for you.”
“Still upset at me, sweetheart?”
“Unbelievably,” she said. “But I’m setting that aside for now. If we live through this, I’ll kill you later.”
“That’s my girl. Now, that plan?”
“I still control the rockets. Some are following behind. Some are searching nearby. The people who are chasing us won’t be as easy to destroy as the eye-pod, will they?”
“No, I’m just hoping the virus has blunted their edge.”
A muffled alarm chimed in Varna’s backpack. “The rockets have spotted something.” She pulled her pack around to reach inside.
Before she could answer the alarm, the Fish lurched. Winchester fought to control the sudden plunge to port.
A crash of pans and crockery, followed by a stream of foreign words from Pearl, came from the kitchen.
“Son of all bitches!” Pearl yelled. “We’re under attack!”
“Stay here,” Winchester stood and said to Varna.
Winchester felt his inhibitor kick in. He slammed it back into his subconscious. He grabbed Varna’s shoulder. “Don’t think for one minute I’m above strapping you to that chair and locking you in this closet. Stay! Find out what your rockets have to say.”
He left her there, simmering, and ran to find Pearl.
On his way, he felt a cold, gentle hand, like a breeze, graze his arm. It was the dreadful angel.
“See if you can capture one of the motor-heads for me, Winnie,” she said. “I may be able to do something with him.”
Winchester rounded on her. “That was Dala’s name for me. You don’t call me that, however much you look like her.” Another crash, and the Fish lurched again. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.
“Get off my Fish!” The yell came from the kitchen. Winchester followed the noise.
The kitchen had the largest bay of the whole ship to allow access for grocer-pods. Perfect access for a boarding raid. Winchester shattered the kitchen doors like a force of nature.
He hadn’t known what to expect, but it wasn’t what he found.
Pieces of former motor-head lay scattered about the kitchen. One crouched, propped against a counter as he tried to dislodge a cleaver from his hood. A fan of sparks sprayed from the gash. In the center of the melee, Pearl whirled, twin halves of his broken mop cut and stabbed at the more sensitive regions of his enemies.
Winchester shook off his surprise and joined the fight.
He used the brute force that came with a heavy metal torso. His head dashed against noses and jaws, and he tossed opponents like a mechanical bull. But all he saw were the faces.
They were men he knew. Every mangled one. Many he didn’t like; some had almost been friends, as Lailow had. None had deserved to be torn apart like savaged toy soldiers.
Then, there was a broken broom half at his throat. Pearl stared at Winchester along the length of the staff like a berserker ready to kill. Blood splatter criss-crossed his face. “Oh, hey, Winchester.”
“You’re covered in blood.”
Pearl wiped his face and stared at his hand. Then, he ran it against his stained apron. “I’ll wash up before cooking again. Help me get these bodies off my Fish.”
Winchester pointed to the one with the cleaver stuck in his face. “Leave that one. I need him.”
While heaving motor-head parts out of a bay door, Winchester saw what caused the Fish to rock earlier. Several shuttlebugs hung clamped to the side of the Fish like barnacles.
“Keep them there,” he said to Pearl. “It’ll be harder for the next wave to land.”
“Dad!” Winchester heard the yell from the control closet.
To Pearl, he said, “Take cleaver-face to the angel,” and then he headed for Varna. He tried to run as he crossed the Fish, but every joint ached. His feet felt coated in lead as he hobbled toward his sondaughter.
“Varna, what’s wrong?”
“My rockets have reported in. There are dozens of shuttlebugs converging on us from all directions. Soon, we won’t have an open path anywhere.”
“Which way is still free?”
She pointed down an avenue.
“Out of the way. That’s where we’re going.” He strapped himself in and grabbed the controls.
He got his bearings as he flew down Varna’s avenue, avoiding a passing diner-bot. Up ahead past the Riddle Way crowd mover and the twin Temples of Justice, he knew lay Motor-headquarters. They were being guided.
More jolts rocked the Fish, knocking Varna to the floor. Honks sounded as aircabs rolled to avoid the Fish.
“More shuttlebugs,” said Winchester. “The motor-heads are mad because they can’t board.”
“Maybe I can get Pearl to throw pots and pans at them,” said Varna, rising on wobbly legs.
“That’s a good idea. Do you still have the bug headset?”
She looked through her bag. “Right here.”
“Go see if you can chuck some of those ‘barnacles’ on the side of the Fish at our visitors. Distract them with your rockets, too.”
“Any other miracles?”
“I’m making a list. Go!”
Varna left to go plug into the Fish’s view screen.
H.Q. lay ahead, thought Winchester. He was flying into a trap. Varna and Pearl trusted him, and he could think of no way out.
A cold hand touched him on the arm. “It’s all right, Winchester,” said the angel. “Let them herd you back to headquarters. I have a plan.”
He batted away her arm, like a puff of steam. “A plan? What have you done to me and my sondaughter? How can we possibly get out of this mess?”
The angel held her hand. She lowered her head like a scolded child. Winchester saw Dala again in her eyes, her downturned lips.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can’t you see? I don’t even remember how my life used to be before you changed it. I’ve lost my wife and my life. I don’t want to lose Varna, too.”
“How do you see me?” asked the angel.
“You look like an angel of dread, like a storm about to blow in,” said Winchester.
“Ha! Isn’t it strange how people can see others in more than one way? Dala wanted me to be like her, and you see me as a dread angel. Storms bring peace to some, Winchester.” She looked up. “I’m sorry for everything that’s happened, but we didn’t change your past to save you. We’re here for Varna.”
Winchester frowned. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry too. It was a mistake for Dala to make you look like her. I’ve blamed her loss on you. If your plan will save Varna, just tell me what to do.”
“I’ve inspected the motor-head Pearl brought me, and I know what to do. Let the motor-heads guide you to H.Q., and trust me.” She faded, like a passing thought.
Another tremor shook the Fish, cracking the paneling of the control closet. Flaky debris settled on Winchester’s brassy elbows.
He yelled through the doorway. “Varna, you and Pearl get in here.” He wanted them where he could see them.
Winchester struggled to keep the wheel steady. How appropriate, he thought. That’s all he seemed to be doing since he awoke from what he’d thought was a dream.
He was having as much success dodging the attacking shuttlebugs as he had dealing with all his troubles. Fate had herded him, dictated a path without a clear purpose, like the angel. And then there was Dala. What other great loss would he be asked to face?
“Dad!” Varna was in tears. She entered the control closet as Pearl held the door for her. “They’re all gone. Every one.” She laid her head on Winchester’s hood. He peered around her at Pearl.
“Her rockets are all destroyed,” he said.
“They bought us some time,” Varna mumbled. “There’s nothing left to stop the barrage, now.” She raised her head to look into Winchester’s electronic eye. “Except you.”
This was it, he thought. He’d do his best and trust the angel. “Strap yourselves down.”
Up ahead, Winchester could see the red neon of night-time traffic blaze across the polished bronze of the Clock Vortex statue before motor-headquarters. The hero’s statue grew larger in the control closet’s view port.
Winchester heard a sound within the Fish like a crash from the heart of a thunderstorm. The control wheel spun beyond Winchester’s ability to hold it. The Fish whirled in a nauseating dance. Clock Vortex seemed like a giant riding a child’s merry-go-round. Varna screamed as the Fish crashed.
The last memory Winchester’s hood recorded before he lost consciousness was of the giant Clock Vortex looking down on him.
Winchester’s mechanical half came back on-line first. He awoke, coughing, as warning systems urged him to rise. It was like waking to discover your head was part alarm clock.
Varna and Pearl lay nearby. Both alive, but out.
Nothing survived of the control closet. A miracle and Winchester’s metal torso had saved the three of them from a shredding by view port glass, many shards of which jutted from the paneling around them.
Halves of the Fish lay cracked open like an egg. Through the gash, Winchester could see motor-heads before them, crowded at the foot of Clock Vortex.
Winchester struggled to pull himself up. His strained arms and weary legs lifted him higher over debris of the Fish to a clearer vantage point. He wished he hadn’t. Motor-heads approached from all around. This was what trapped felt like.
He clambered back over to Varna’s side and picked up a severed control lever, its cracked gear still clinging to the shaft.
Winchester nudged Varna and Pearl. “Wake up. We’ve got company.”
The swarm of motor-heads surrounding them parted, and Modom Rooth approached.
“And so we have you,” he said, “as though there were ever any doubt. Admittedly, you gave us quite a bit of trouble, for a handful of freaks.”
The motor-heads closed any gaps as they surrounded the Fish.
“Who’s more freakish,” asked Winchester, “the freaks or those who chase them?”
“Means to an end. And you three are definitely at an end.” Each motor-head mimicked Rooth’s gestures like a platoon of puppets.
“So what now?” asked Winchester. “What’s your plan for us and the world?”
“An end,” said Rooth, the buzzing from him and the other motor-heads clearly audible, like a distant chorus of chainsaws. “Not just to your strangeness but to all of it throughout the world. Eliminating your Jack-and-Jill offspring is an unfortunate necessity. Cyclosexuals might make ideal pilots for the Behemoths. But the stars can wait if we need aberrations to take us to them.”
Damn the emotional inhibitor, thought Winchester. No one should talk about Varna like that. He stepped forward to cut away something soft from Rooth with the gear-lever.
Winchester stopped when he saw the glow. From every motor-head’s shoulder, Winchester could see a radiant spot, like a tiny star forming. At first, he saw it only with his mechanical eye, and then his real one.
The stars grew and changed. Each one became the dreadful angel, leaning on the arm and hood of each motor-head, her curved blade drawn across their chests.
All of the motor-heads as one tried to look her way. All struggled against her and failed. She coiled her arms and legs tighter around their hips and shoulders, like an enormous comm-snake.
Gone from her were any angelic traces of Dala. The angel became a demon with leather wings and a twisted grin.
“I have them, Winchester.” Her voice was a hiss, a low rasp. And though it was quiet, it drowned all traces of the buzzing. “I needed you to gather them together to disinfect them and become their own,” she kissed their bronze shoulders, “personal,” she caressed their interfaces, “angels.” She sank her curved sword into their hard drives and disappeared. Each man, wounded to his mechanical soul.
Rooth fell to his knees under the weight of the angel. “What is this?” he screamed.
“The cure,” said Winchester.
The other motor-heads had feared their own versions of the angel. Rooth was the only one who seemed to suffer.
“Get it off me, Winchester!”
“Oh, no,” said Rooth’s angel. “For you, the storm’s blowing in.” Her nails lengthened into claws, which she sank into his hood. Winchester watched her sword disappear up to its hilt beneath the bronze-colored metal.
Winchester wanted to look away but couldn’t. “All right, angel, that’s enough. You’re hurting him.”
“No,” said the angel. “I won’t stop, even for you.” Her arms had vanished deeper into Rooth’s hood.
Several clicking gasps escaped Rooth’s throat.
Winchester stepped toward the angel. “Angel, stop!”
“This is for my family!” She squeezed. Rooth shook, and his living eye became milky white. The light faded from his mechanized eye. Rooth’s body clattered on the steel ground.
Winchester stood stunned, feeling the horror Varn and Pearl must have shared. But Winchester felt relieved as well. The angel had done what he couldn’t have brought himself to do.
He looked and the other motor-heads. They would live, he thought, but it would be a nagging half-life, longing for something always just beyond their periphery, much as he felt after he saw the angel as Dala.
Varna and Pearl joined his side.
“What happens now, dad?” asked Varna. Her voice was deeper, hair hung differently. Winchester would have to start calling him “Varn” again.
Before Winchester could speak, the angel rejoined them. “For you two,” she gestured to Varn and Pearl, “a new story is about to be written. “But Winchester’s is coming to an end.”
With her words, Winchester felt a tingle trickle up his feet.
“What? No! Stay away from my dad!” Varn stepped between the angel and his father.
“I’m sorry, Varn, but Spaceship X has only seconds to live. Once the neu-wave transmitter fails, Winchester’s mind will be drawn back to its place in the future and me with it. But it will be a new future.” The angel rested a hand on Varn’s shoulder. “One in which a statue of you will take its place next to Clock Vortex.”
They looked up to the giant above them.
“You may even now be feeling the effects,” said the angel to Winchester.
The tingle became a flood, flowing up Winchester’s legs.
“There’s still time for goodbye,” said the angel.
Winchester grabbed his sondaughter’s hands. “One of the reasons I didn’t want you to become a motor-head is because I knew you could be so much more. Being a cyclosexual will let you succeed as a pilot where I’ll fail. And whether you’re a boy or girl or a giant statue watching over all motor-heads, I’ll always be proud of you.”
Varn’s arms shook as he wrapped them around his father.
Winchester continued as he felt the flood hit his spine. “Find a ship, Varn. Take Pearl to get his daughter. No father should be without his child.”
“She . . . he . . . both will always have a home with us,” said Pearl. “Once we have one again.” He gestured to the remains of the Fish around them.
The rushing sensation filled his head; his machine eye showed only static.
“Winchester!” The angel grabbed his hand and pulled him away from his sondaughter. “It’s happening!”
He watched everyone he still cared for and his younger self diminish to a point, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.
Then, the smell of ozone and choking smoke filled his breath box. His living eye, wherever it was in the control room of Spaceship X, couldn’t open. He had to rely on his mechanized one. It saw the angel, standing solid and armored beside him. The ship screamed and moaned with the burning friction and disintegration of re-entry.
The angel put a hand on Winchester’s control panel. “Varn will be all right, now. You made a new history for yourself and a better future for him. I’ll stay with you to the end, Winchester.”
The ship burned like an incandescent scar across the sky.