Pokky Man

January 22nd, 2016

POKKY MAN

A Film by Vernor Hertzwig

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

FILMMAKER

In 2004 I was contacted by Digito of America to review some film footage they had acquired in litigation with the estate of a young Pokkypet Master named Hemlock Pyne. While I have occasionally played boardgames such as Parchesi, and various pen and paper role playing games involving dwarves and wizards, in vain hopes of escaping the nightmare ordeals that infest my soul, I was hardly the target audience for the global phenomenon of Pokkypets. I knew only the bare lineaments of the young man’s story—namely that he had been at one time considered the greatest captor of Pokkypets the world had ever known. Few of these rare yet paradoxically ubiquitous creatures had escaped being added to his collection. But he had turned against his fellow trainers, who now hurled at him the sort of venom and resentment usually reserved for race traitors. The childish, even cartoonish aspects of the story, were far from appealing to me, especially as spending time on a hundred or so hours of Pokkypet footage would mean delaying my then-unfunded cinematic paean to those dedicated paleoanthropologists who study human coprolites or fossil feces. But there was an element of treachery and tragedy that lured me to look more carefully at the life and last days of Hemlock Pyne, as well as the amount of money Digito was offering. I found the combination irresistible.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

POKKY MASTER

To be a Pokky Captor was for me the highest calling—the highest calling! I never dreamed of wanting anything else. All through my childhood, I trained for it. It was a kind of warrior celebration…a pokkybration, you might say, of the warrior spirit. I lived, ate, breathed, drank, even pooped the Pokky spirit. Yes, pooped. Because there is dignity in everything they do. When it comes to Pokkypets, there is no room for shame—not even in pooping. In a sense, I was no different from many, many other children who dream of being Pokky Captors. The only difference between me and you, children like you who might be watching this, is that I didn’t give up on my dream. Maybe it’s because I was such a loser in every other part of my life–yeah, imagine that, I know it’s difficult, right?–but I managed to pull myself free of all those other bonds and throw myself completely into the world of Pokkypets. And I don’t care who you are or where you are, but that is still possible today.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

Hemlock Pyne’s natural enthusiasm connected him ineluctably with the childish world of Pokkypets—the world he never really escaped. The more I studied his footage, the more I saw a boy trapped inside a gawky man-child’s body. It was no wonder to me that he had such difficulty relating to the demands of the adult world. In cleaving to his prejuvenile addictions, it was clear that Pyne hoped to escape his own decay, and for this reason threw himself completely into a world that seems on its face eternal and unchanging. The irony is that in pursuing a childish wonderland, he penetrated the barrier that protects our fragile grasp on sanity by keeping us from seeing too much of the void that underlines the lurid cartoons of corporate consumer culture, as they caper in a crazed dumbshow above the abyss.

 

PITER YALP

ACTOR

I think we knew, and assumed Hemlock knew, where was this was probably heading. And it’s hard to see a person you care for, a friend of many years, make the sorts of decisions he made that put him ever deeper into danger.   It didn’t really help to know that it was all he cared for, that all this danger was justified in a way by passion, by love. And when you saw him light up from talking about it, it was hard to argue. He’d never had anything like that in his life. I mean, he’d been through a lot. Coming back to Pokkypets, sure it seemed childish at first, but he was so disconnected from everything anyway, we had to root for him, you know? But we still feared for him. He never did anything halfway, you know? Whenever he started anything, you always knew he was going to push it past any extreme you could imagine. So it was only sort of…sort of a shock, but more of a dreaded confirmation, when we heard the news. I remember I was in the kitchen nuking some popcorn for dinner, and the kids were watching Pokkypets on, you know, the Pokkypets network…and then our youngest said, “Look, it’s Uncle Hemlock!” Which seemed weird at first because why would he be on their cartoon? But then I saw it was the Pokkypets Evening News, and even though the sound was turned up full, I found I couldn’t hear what the anchorman was saying. I just stared at the picture of Hemlock they’d put up there…the most famous shot of him, crouched in the Pokkymaze, letting an injured Chickapork out of a Poachyball…and from the way the camera slowly zoomed back from the photo, I knew right then…he wouldn’t be coming back to us this time.

 

AUGUSTINE “GUST” MASTERS

SEAPLANE PILOT

I was friends with Hem for years and years, used to fly him out here to the Pokkymaze in midsummer, come and collect him before fall settled in; I’d check in from time to time to see how he was doing, and drop off the occasional supply. He was a special sort of guy, and there won’t never be another like him. For one thing, he was fearless, as you can imagine you’d have to be to try living right here like he did. From where we’re standing, you can watch the migratory routes of about 150 different types of Pokkypets; everything from the super common Pecksniffs, to the Gold-n-Silver Specials, to the uniques like Abyssoid, who comes up out of this here lake once a year for about thirty seconds at 8:37 a.m. on September 9, and only if the 9th happens to fall on a Tuesday.   Really it’s a Captor’s dream, or would be if it wasn’t a preserve. Hem came out here every year, and never once tried to capture or collect a single one of the Pokkys…in fact they were more likely to collect him. He got adopted by Chickapork to the extent you couldn’t tell who belonged to who. Anyway…he made it a point of pride that he never carried a Poachyball, that he was here to protect the Pokkypets, to prevent them from being collected. When he was young he was a heck of a Captor, but once he put that aside, that was it. He didn’t try charming them with flutes or putting them to sleep; he didn’t freeze or paralyze them with any of Professor Sequoia’s Dust Infusion, or Thunderwhack a single one. He came out empty handed, and tried to make a Pokky out of himself, I guess. If I had to pick one thing, I guess I’d say that right there was his undoing. That and Surlymon.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

What others saw as evidence of everything from low self image to schizophrenia, was to Hemlock Pyne nothing more than a kind of dramatic stage lighting, necessary to cast an imposing shadow over a world that considered him but a smalltime actor in a community theater production. It did not matter to the rest of the world that in this tawdry play, Hemlock Pyne had the leading role; but to Pyne himself, nothing else mattered. He had cast himself in the part of the renegade Captor who would give himself completely to his beloved Pets. That it was to be a tragic role, I suspect would not have stopped him. And while he seems to have had premonitions of his fate, he could have asked any number of those who spent their lives working in and around the Pokky Range, and have heard many predictions that would end up remarkably close to the eventual outcome.

 

AUGUSTINE “GUST” MASTERS

Right here is where I came in for my usual rendezvous, at the appointed time, ready to take him out of here. At first I thought maybe I had the day wrong, because usually I’d expect to see him with all his gear packed up and waiting here on the shore. It was later in the year than he’d ever stayed, not our usual date, so I thought it was my mistake, and I went hollering up the hillside trail here toward his camp, figuring maybe he could use a hand packing up his stuff. But halfway up the trail here I got a really funny feeling…not a nice feeling at all. I never travel here without a few extra Poachyballs, and some Coma Flakes—I mean, I’m no Hemlock, I come prepared for anything. And I was just freeing up a Poachyball in case I had to make an emergency capture, when I heard this grumbling in the brush off to the side of the trail, and very clearly I could hear a big old Pokkypet crawling around in there, just saying its name over and over again so there was no mistaking what I was up against. Going, “Surly…Surly…” Like that. Just a nasty old Pokky, saying its name like a warning…that one bad note over and over again.

 

Well, I don’t mind saying it scared me, and forgot about trying to catch it, since that’s a tough one to collect even if you’re fully prepared. I didn’t have any Pokkypets of my own to back me up. So I hightailed it back to the plane, and took off, just cold and sweatin, my guts full of icewater, you know. I tried to get Hemlock on his radio a couple times, but no answer there, and I was starting to believe we weren’t going to get anymore answers at all. I brought the plane in low over the maze, low as I could, and the way Hem would hide his tent in the trees I knew it would be hard to get a clear picture of what was going on there—but as I was flying over, the wind swept over pretty hard. Banked me a bit just as it was parting the trees around his campsite, and I got one clear look that I’ll never forget. Right below me, the tent had been flattened so that the poles were sticking up out of it. Gear was scattered everywhere—clothes, camera equipment, pots and pans. And Hemlock was scattered everywhere too, in and around the tent. I hardly knew what I was seeing. His head staring up at me, on the other side of the site from his chest; an arm here, a leg there. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were open, but I didn’t see how they could be. I figured he had to be sleeping after an attack like that.   I knew I’d need help getting him out of there, so I banked into the wind and headed back to town.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

10 DAYS BEFORE THE END

This is Surlymon. He’s a very old Pokkypet, and we’re just getting to know each other. I’m not usually here in the Pokkymaze this late in the year, but I had a little upset at the airport and decided I was not ready to leave my Pokky friends just yet to return to all the…all the bullpoop and the hassle of…of poopy humans back in the so-called real world. Just wasn’t ready. So here I am, and some of my old friends seem to have moved on, and some new Pokkys have moved in. It’s the migratory time, you see…all a completely natural part of the Pokkypet cycle, and pretty exciting to see it in action. Not to say that there isn’t danger here—there’s plenty of it. But that’s what keeps me going. Nobody else could do what I do…give themselves to the protection of the Pokkypets the way I do. And they respect me for it. They know that I have the best of intentions…that I’d be one of them if I could. But in the meantime, I’m getting to know Surlymon here…getting to earn his trust. Isn’t that right, Surlymon? We’re getting to know each other. Yes we are! Yes we are! Now…hey… HEY! Watch it! Back off! That is not cool, Surlymon. Not cool. Good, Pokky. Okay, good old Pokky. Yes, you’re a good old boy, I know, I know. I love you. I love you. I’m sorry I had to snap at you like that. I’m Hemlock, okay? Hemlock! Hemlock! Hemlock! I love you. Hemlock loves you. Hemlock. Hemlock. … Hemlock.

 

 

AUGUSTUS “JUSTICE” PEACE

HELICOPTER PILOT

I’ve known Gust for years, and through him I knew Hemlock Pyne, though we weren’t what you’d call close. That day he came back with news about Hemlock’s troubles, I could tell he’d seen something that nobody should see. Well we called the Pokky Park Service, which is basically every other person around here, and we got three Captors together and I took us out in the chopper. We landed on Baldymon Hill, which overlooks the Pokkymaze, and they went on down there while I kept an eye on the chopper, ready to light out at a moment’s notice. I could hear them when they caught up with the Surlymon. They had some pretty tough pets with em, but that sonofabitch was tough. It took all three Captors in full Pokkybattle, and each one of them used at least three Poachyballs, setting their own pets on the Surlymon. It took eight—eight!–Pokkypets to wear down that Surlymon. I think the final attack was a full-on Typhon-Crash-Mastery move, and then the Surlymon finally went into slumber. It was only then that the thing was vulnerable and they could poach it. I heard all this, mind, I didn’t see any of it…but I’ll tell you, every time I heard that thing giving out its call, my blood ran cold. “Surly! Surly!” Well, I can’t do it. It was a horrible sound though. When they finally came crashing through the underbrush dragging the Poachyball, with their own poor little pets limping along behind, the Captors looked like they’d been involved in the struggle themselves…and I don’t mean psychically.

 

But then it was over to me and Gust. He led me back down the hill and into the maze, to the campsite, and there was Hemlock Pyne in a dozen pieces. It was weird and awful. Gust called his name a few times, trying to wake him up, because we didn’t really realize the extent of it yet… It was a sleep like nothing we’d ever seen. I had some Sudden Stir powder with me and I sprinkled it in his eyes, but it didn’t do a thing. And I’ve never seen a Pokkypet or Captor yet who could sleep through that stuff. After a while we decided we’d best get him into town to the Pokky Clinic, so we gathered up the pieces. Filled four Poachyballs with the parts. That was all we had to carry him in.

 

MADRONA SEQUOIA

FRIEND, POKKYCOLOGIST

What Hemlock wanted was a way to mutate into a Pokkypet himself. He was very, very uncomfortable being in his own skin, especially when it meant he was a Captor or Master of Pokkypets. He wanted to merge with the Pokkys…become one of them, share in their alchemic process. Hemlock sensed a transformative power in them, and he wanted this for himself. When he was studying with me, we went through the triadic life cycle of the typical healthy Pokkypet, following its course in many, many creatures. When he first went out into the Pokky Range with the idea of studying and protecting the pets, you know, he placed himself in the habitat of the Pigletta. It was a good fit for him, since they are such friendly creatures, but his ulterior motive was to bond so closely with one that it would allow him to stay with it through all its transformations. Of course everyone who adopts a Pigletta feels that theirs is special, and that they have a unique friendship…but in Hemlock’s case I think there is a real argument for this. After all, he had stopped collecting at that point; he never stunned his Pokkypet or trapped it even briefly in a Poachyball to subdue it. He made friends with it as if he were another of its kind, and in his second summer back there, he was witness to its first transition into Chickapork. I know how much Hemlock wanted to see the final change to Boarax…which, sadly, took place in the autumn immediately after Surlymon, so he missed it. This, as I say, was a spiritual quest for him, and he welcomed its transformative intensity from the first, even though in the eyes of other Pokkypet Captors he immediately went from role model to traitor. This was when people started saying he was crazy, sending nasty letters, even making threats. This is when the Missile Kids stepped up their attacks on his character. It got harder and harder for me to bear, but Hemlock said to pay it no mind. It didn’t bother him. The only thing that bothered him anymore was any sort of threat to his beloved Pokkypets.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

At the same time that Hemlock Pyne was alienating his former worshippers, he was winning for himself a new audience that would one day be captivated by his insights and his breathtaking cinematic records of his life among the Pokkypets…a life that few have ever attempted, let alone accomplished.   Going through his films, I found him to have possessed an innate genius—not only for capturing Pokkypets, but for capturing moments of pure cinema. Here, we see Pyne in his early summer campsite, a spot he pitched between the dens of burrowing Chickaporks, so that he could live among the frolicking Piglettas.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

This is Chickapork. My Chickapork. We’re long time buddies, aren’t we, yes we are. Chickapork is my most beloved Pokkypet, and it’s really important to understand that we are mutual friends. I do not own him. I did not capture him. I have never imprisoned him in a Poachyball. So you see, it is possible for us to have a harmonious relationship with these beautiful creatures without have to…Hey! This…this is Pigletta…this is one of Chickapork’s offspring or little sibs, I’m not sure exactly—hey, where are you going with my cap? Come back with that cap, Pigletta! That is a very important cap! That was a gift from Professor Manzanita! Oh…oh god, oh no… A lot depends on that cap, Pigletta! Get…give me back my cap! WHERE’S MY FUCKING POKKYMASTER CAP?

 

PROFESSOR MANZANITA

POKKYPET EXPERT

In the field, it was obvious that he wanted nothing more than to be a Pokkypet. He would act just like them. The simple continual act of stating his identity with such clarity, this thing the Pokkypets do incessantly, Hemlock adopted this behavior. If you want out to visit him in the field, or if you were an unsuspecting Captor who came across him, Hem would act as if human language and human behavior were completely unknown to him. He would just say his name at you, over and over, like a Pokkypet. His mantra, his act of affirmation: Hemlock. Hemlock. Hemlock. He saw the Pokky world as a rare and simplified place, everything streamlined and stripped down to this one act of self-naming. That world had a siren’s allure for him. But that world…simply did not exist. The truth was far more complex.

 

TAIGA MOSS

CURATOR, POKKY NATIONAL WILDERNESS MUSEUM

Well, I’m afraid although Hemlock Pyne might be a hero to some people, to us he seems simply deluded. Our relationship with the Pokkypets goes back tens of thousands of years, to when we believe the Pokkys and people shared this land. We treated each other with respect, and we have done so throughout our history. We created the original Poachyballs, and we captured and collected the first Pokkypets to be captured and collected. We held the first Pokky battles; those rituals are very ancient, the result of the relationship between man and Pokkypet. So there is a very long tradition of understanding between our people and the Pokky people. I would say that what Hemlock did, was the ultimate disrespect. In living among the Pokky, in treating them as cute cartoon characters, he crossed a boundary and paid the price. The ultimate price. There is a reason he will not wake up, and honestly, we don’t expect him to. I think a lot of people are in denial about the sort of trouble he caused for himself…and really for all of us, because I don’t know if it will stop with Hemlock. There has always been this barrier from time long past…and he damaged it. Irretrievably. It’s plain to see if you’ll just look at him. Truly look at him for once.

 

JASPER CHRYSOLITE

POKKY CLINIC

We are here, in cold storage, at the Pokky Clinic, because quite simply this is the only place we have been able to arrest the very strange and terrible processes that have Hemlock Pyne in their grip. In those steel drawers behind me, if I were to open them, you would see Hemlock Pyne much as he was when they brought him in to me for revival. As you already know, I was unable to wake him, even with the finest waking compounds at my disposal. I say “much as he was” because Hemlock did not stay as he was in those first hours. The separate parts of him lost their normal color…some began to swell, others to wither…and there was a terrible odor associated with him, which I would rather not go into. Whatever this process is, some sort of Pokky contagion he caught from Surlymon or elsewhere in the Pokkymaze, I had a sort of hunch that extreme cold might arrest it; and so we arranged for some cold storage, which has indeed seemed to do the trick. We will of course keep trying to wake him as time permits; and if we can devise some other approach to his condition. We also have that Surlymon captive and under observation, in hopes of understanding better what happened…but for all we can tell, it is simply a Surlymon like every other Surlymon. There is nothing special about it. Which makes us think that whatever strange thing happened to Hemlock Pyne, it was purely a result of his peculiar make-up, his particular situation. It behooves us therefore to try and understand Hemlock himself a little better. Really, what else can we do?

 

CRYSTAL BURL

Would I say I was his girlfriend? Why yes, yes I would. I mean, not always, but…but we were always friends. We founded Pokky People together. We were inseparable. We met when we were both working at Mistress Masham’s in the Mall, and Hem was in charge of the Pokky performance. They had a little routine they did where the Pokkys would come out and dance on your table—I mean, various small Pokkys. Nothing large or unhygienic. All the food at Mistress Mashams was served under silver covers, and the Pokkpets would whisk these away with a big flourish. Hem would come out with a half dozen Poachyballs, open them up, and set the Pokkys going. I thought it was pathetic, and I told him so…and he confided in me that he was only in there as a saboteur. I thought he was kidding, trying to impress me, but no…one night right after we really got to talking, he went into his usual routine, but everything was different this time. He’d packed a bunch of wild Pokkys into the balls, and he let them loose in the middle of a little kid’s birthday party. The Pokkys went crazy—eating up the food, tearing into presents, getting underfoot. And out of nowhere Hem kept producing more and more Poachyballs, opening them up, setting them free. He was laughing, we were both howling, and the more freaked out everybody got, the more delighted Hem was. It seemed to feed the Pokkys’ frenzy. They were swinging from the light fixtures, smashing windows, breaking out into the streets…oh, it was on the news that night and for days, and it was really the beginning of Hem’s mystery…because right after that he disappeared. I didn’t see him myself for months and months. It turned out he had made his first visit to the Pokky Range.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

Alone in the wild, Hemlock began to craft his own legend—fashioning himself into a creature as strange and colorful as the Pokkypets he adored. Against a backdrop of untouched wilderness, he portrayed himself an uncivilized man, fearless and ferocious yet as sweet as the creatures he refused to capture. It was as if in liberating the Pokkypets wherever he found them, he was setting free some caged part of himself.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

I used to just dabble in Pokkypets. I captured and trained them like everyone else. I saw nothing but what was right in front of me. I never looked any deeper. And I was troubled. Our world, the world of people, is so shallow…it’s just a thin coat of paint, right on the surface, and that’s enough for most people. The Pokkys are colorful and cute and uncomplicated, and that’s all they need to know. But this wasn’t the truth, and without truth I just…I wasn’t making it. I needed the truth that was under all that. I did drugs. I drank. I lived a crazy, crazy life. Nobody knew me. I didn’t know myself. I was drinking so much, doing so many drugs, it was destroying my mind. All the colors started to blur together. I couldn’t tell Chickapork from Leomonk from Swirlet. It was like when you mix all the colors of paint together and you just get a greyish brownish gunk. And then one day a Flutterflute, I was drinking on the beach, out of my skull, and a Flutterflute landed on the bottle just as I was about to take a swallow. Who knows…it might have been my last swallow. I might have drainked that bottle and thrown it aside and walked out into the waves and that would have been the end. But I watched that Flutterflute there, getting in the way of my drink, and it looked at me and said, “Flutterflute!” That’s all, that’s what they do. So simple. Just that beautiful simple statement: “Flutterflute.” And something in me…I felt something emerge, as if from a chrysalis, bright and clear and strong, and I said, “Hemlock Pyne.” Everything in my life was as simple as that. “Hemlock Pyne.” That is what I was, and it was enough. It was deep. And what that meant was everything else was deep. Bottomless. And everything changed for me right then, right that very moment, saying myself back to that Flutterflute. I say it a lot now. It saves me every day: “Hemlock Pyne.”

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG WITH CRYSTAL BURL

VH: Now please explain to the viewers, Crystal, what it is you have here.

 

CB: What I have here, Vernor, is Hemlock’s last recording…recovered from his campsite…the recording of the Surlymon.

 

VH: Now I understand there is some uncertainty whether the recorder was running already or whether it was turned on during the Surlymon’s attack, and if so whether it was Hemlock himself or the Surlymon that switched it on. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is the contents of the tape, which you I believe have never listened to is that correct?

 

CB: That is correct. Dr. Chrysolite said I had probably better not.

 

VH: Dr. Chrysolite is a wise man and you do well to listen to him, but his prohibition does not apply to me, so I am going to listen to the recording now, the lens cap was never removed during the battle, I am just going to listen to the recording if I have your permission to do so.

 

CB: I give it, yes.

 

VH: If you will please to start the…there now, I hear wind, very loud, and something like a ripping sound…perhaps the tent’s zipper. Actually, yes, it sounds as if the Surlymon is coming in range. I can hear it quite clearly saying its name over and over again: Surlymon…Surlymon… And now clearly I hear Hemlock, much closer. Of course we know he had no Poachyballs, and no other Pokkys with him at the time. He is really alone against this creature. The Surlymon is saying again, “Surlymon. Surlymon.” And occasionally just “Surly,” as if it is too excited to say its full name.

 

CB: They do that sometimes when they’re excited…even add extra syllables…

 

VH: And now Pyne is…he seems to have hit on a desperate strategy…he is saying his own name several times to the creature. It is almost as if they are having a conversation, like so: Surly…Surlymon…and Hemlock says Hemlock. Hemlock Pyne. Hemlock. He’s saying it again. And the Surlymon seems to be having none of it. Surlymon. Hemock Pyne. Surlymon. Surlymon. Hemlock Pyne. Hemlock Pyne. Hemlock. Surlymon. And now a terrible, terrible sound. You…you must never listen to this recording Crystal.

 

CB: That’s what Dr. Chrysolite recommended as well, Vernor.

 

VH: Hemlock Pyne. Hemlock Pyne. Hemlock… Surlymon. And now I hear nothing but Surlymon. You must destroy this tape, Crystal. I think that is the only course of action.

 

CB: I will, Vernor. I will.

 

VH: Surly. Surlymon. Surlymon. Surly.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

We are here at the edge of the Pokkypet Arena, deep in the Pokkymaze. The Pokkys have never allowed me this close before, but I think it is a sign of their acceptance—a sign of how far I’ve come–that they are allowing me to set up my camera here overlooking the arena and film their battles in progress. Remember, these are entirely natural and unstaged…these are not like the Coliseum battles that human captors arrange, which go against the will and the inherent nature of the Pokkypets. What you are seeing here is the source of humanity’s watered-down commercially driven arena battles. This my friends is the real shit.

 

Now it looks like a Scanary is going into the arena, setting the first challenge… Scanaries have three attacks: Wing Blast, Chirplosion, and Tauntalon. This is a fairly good combination unless your Pokkynemesis happens to have natural resistance to more than one of these. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. And now…it looks like…yes, it’s a Pyrovulp. Oh, this is going to be intense! Pyrovulps are extremely vulnerable to Tauntalon—extremely. But if the little guy can get past the Scanary’s first attack, then things could get interesting. And it looks like…Scanary is rearing back, puffing up a little bit…just look at those gorgeous chest feathers…could be Tauntalon coming in first… But no! Wings going out, we’ve got a blast coming in, and Pyrovulp has got its head flame forward. This was a very bad move on Scanary’s part, and I think it’s going to regret…Would you look at that! Wing Blast has fed Pyrovulp’s headflame. The whole Pokky is on fire, just burning up…this lets Pyrovulp bypass an entire part of its normal attack and go straight to Auraflame! The only risk, and I’m not sure he knows it, is that Auraflame can easily feed into Scanary’s own…oh my god oh my god… Auraflame, incredibly powerful and hot, has triggered Scanary’s innate Chirplosion. I am moving away from the Arena, friends, because when this happens, the blast can spread far outside the –WHOA!

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

In his records, Hemlock speaks less and less of the human world; civilization and its pleasures recede into the distant past, remembered only for its discontents. At the same time, the brilliant, colorful struggles of the Pokkypets, seeming so much simpler, become more and more a symbol for the conflict of his soul. Deeply torn, it is as if he battled himself in an arena of his own devising. But no longer a Captor or a Trainer, without Pokkypets to do his fighting for him, every injury cut deep into his psyche.

 

LARCHMONT AND GLADIOLUS PYNE

HEMLOCK’S PARENTS

LP: This is Hem’s Pokkypet collection, much as he left it when he moved away from home. I’m afraid we encouraged him more than we should have, since he was a somewhat lonely boy, and he got such pleasure from them. His first Pokkypet was a gift from my mother, who had an affinity herself with the little things—

 

GP: I thought he won it at a state fair, throwing dimes in Collymoddle bowls; or a prize he won at school

 

LP: —no, it was from my mother, I think he’s still got the card in his room somewhere pinned up on a bulletin board. We knew there wasn’t much of a future in it, but that’s not the sort of thing you can worry about when you just want your boy to be happy…but as he got older and we saw he wasn’t moving on to other things, wasn’t progressing if you will, then we started to get a bit worried. But somehow Hemlock found a way to make a living at it early on, doing his shows and trainings and whatnot; and although we were disappointed that he felt he had to move all the way to the other side of the country to pursue his interests, we did support him in it. It seemed like his Pokky career was really taking him somewhere. Then, well, I don’t know how much truth there is in this, but he tried out for the part of Burny, the Pokky trainer in Chirrs, and according to him he was first in line for the part, but then Woody Harrelson tried out for the role and they gave it to him. Well, really, that was the beginning of the end for our boy.

 

GP: He just sort of spiralled out of control.

 

LP: I held it against Woody for a long time, but…well…

 

GP: It’s hard to keep a grudge against Woody Harrelson. He’s a fine young man.

 

CRYSTAL BURL

We used to go to the Pokkypet stores in the mall, and Hem would get really upset looking at them in captivity, and he always talked about starting a Pokkypet Liberation Front—but that’s not what Pokky People is about or ever was about. Pokky People allowed him to channel his frustration into something positive. You have to understand, the frustration turned so easily into anger. He could be the happiest most joyful person you’d ever met, but the flipside of that was…was also there. He could be very dark at times. I know he felt that if he didn’t have Pokkys, he’d have gone to some very bad places with some very bad people. The Missile Kids, for instance—they tried to recruit him for a while, and I think he was attracted. They could be very seductive. You know, Minny was a real minx, and Sal was sarcastic and cutting but I know Hem respected them as trainers…and then that weird Pokky they had with them all the time, Feelion. In the way that Hem could almost convince the Pokkys that he was one of them, Feelion had a bunch of us convinced that he was one of us. But though Hem flirted with the Missile Kids, he eventually came to believe they were on a bad path—I mean, certainly in terms of drugs they were doing crazy things…I think even their Pokky was on amphetamines.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

If people knew, truly knew what wonderful creatures these Pokkypets are…they would consider, as I do, that to capture them, to try and train them, to force them through their tri-stage transformations at an accelerated pace—that all this goes against nature. Look at little Chickapork here…just look at her. She is my hero. So sweet, so loving, so intelligent…truly a hero. And to think that people want to put her in a ball and give her performance drugs and and and just dump her out in the coliseum to battle against other Pokkys that humans—fucking humans!–have declared her enemies…it’s just sick! And it makes me so angry. Because she’s perfect. The lifestyle they live out here in the wild, it’s perfect. I have learned so much from these creatures, but it’s hardly the beginning of what we could all be learning from them. Our lives…there’s something missing from them that these Pokkys have mastered effortlessly. We need that thing. We don’t even know what we’re missing…but I’ll tell you..it’s something fucking huge. And without it, we’re so far short of perfection it’s not funny. That’s why nobody’s laughing, isn’t that right, little Chickapork?

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

As his differences with reality widened into a schism, Hemlock Pyne fought reality with tooth and claw. If it did not fit his idealized view of nature, it was reality that must be bent and even broken to fit. His insistence that Pokkypets held a deeper meaning does not stand up to scrutiny. Where Hemlock looked at the colorful characters and saw inscrutable depths, I see only crisp lines, primary colors, two-dimensional expressions. Even in this Rhinophantom, which Pyne in his writings calls a juggernaut of disaster, evokes in me no such premonition. It is just a cute, cuddly pet, that has undergone completely ordinary metamorphoses into a brute that is dumb and awkward, yes, but completely without malice.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

…What I found in the bushes here, by the side of the river, is something new to the Pokkymaze. I would like you to study it with me. This is something we have to understand, but I’m not convinced we can. We are so good at missing the point! I discovered this earlier today, just after dawn, and I haven’t touched the scene…I’ve just been waiting for it to get light enough to record. Now in the night there was the sound of a Pokkybattle. This is rare enough, but not unheard of in midsummer. What is unusual is that it took place far from the Arena, and quite near my tent. Just a very weird sound of two Pokkys calling back and forth to one another in solitary combat. I couldn’t hear them clearly, but you can see now that they both cast exhausting spells on one another, and, well, here they are. They show no signs of waking or getting along with their day. You can see the Porphyrops has been trampled down into the mud, and the Glumster is just lying with its eyes open, which is a strange position for an incapacitated Pokky. I don’t want to intrude in their natural cycle, but I’ve made some very gentle sounds and I’ve been getting progressively louder, trying to see if I can wake them gradually. But so far no luck. I have to say, I feel very privileged to see this. To my knowledge no Pokky Captor or trainer has ever observed this sort of behavior. I am the first. These are the sort of secret revelations the Pokkys have granted me now that I have become such a part of their pattern of life. And these are exactly the things that I need to protect from the rest of the world.

 

AUGUSTUS “JUSTICE” PEACE

There were really no poachers in this area. The one exception might be the Missile Kids, Sal and Minny, and their Pokky mascot Feelion. But I don’t believe they went up there to poach anyhow. The couple times we were concerned and apprehended them, there was no sign they’d been up to any actual Pokkypoaching. What they did do, I’m pretty certain, was show up to bother Hemlock Pyne. Tease him. They made a lot out of being his rivals, you know. And I’m sure it drove him nuts.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

I’m here at the shore, this is so upsetting, here at the shore watching those fuckers…those goddamn poachers…Sal and Minny. I know what they’re up to. They’re rubbing my nose in it, that’s what they’re doing. They’ve come in to poach—look at that boat full of Poachyballs! There’s just no question…they know I’m watching even though I’m well hidden here. What kills me, fucking KILLS me, is that they have the full support of the Pokky Park Service. It’s criminal. It’s so corrupt! You just…the lesson here is that you just pay off the right people and you can come in and capture all the Pokkypets you want. Well, I’m not letting them get away with it. They think they can…what’s that?

 

“Feeeeee-lion!”

 

Do you you hear that? They’ve turned their Feelion loose.

 

“FEEEEE-LION!”

 

This is just sick, it’s perverted. They’ve trained their Pokkypet to turn against its kind. This poor Feelion doesn’t realize they’re using it to lure in unsuspecting Pokkypets…to pull them in where the Missile Kids can capture them. Well, we’re not going to let them get away with that. No fucking way.

 

“Can you Feeeeel me, Pyne? Can you Feeeeeeeelion me?”

 

Did you hear that? So much for them calling me paranoid. There’s no mistaking that for…for a threat!

 

“Feeeeee-lion!”

 

The cruel thing is, I can’t even report them. Because I know they are here with the full knowledge of the Park Service. I can’t believe I get grief for coming out here to protect these poor creatures, while Minny and Sal just waltz in, pack their Poachyballs full of innocent, defenseless Pokkys… To think the rangers would actually try to stop me from getting close to the pets, while these guys…I’m sorry, I can’t talk. This is making me too upset. I’m in tears over this!

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

Pyne’s disgruntlement became so great that he finally turned against the people who had given him the opportunity to work in the Pokkymaze in the first place. His associates became, in his mind, implacable enemies. There is a sense in his final days of rage that he no longer saw anything beyond the picket of Pokkys, among whom he counted himself, except an homogenous foe.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

Oh I know who they are, all right…I know they set me up for this those…those goddamn fucking motherfuckers. You know who you are, you fucking shithead mothercockingfucksuckfuckers! I’m out here trying to help these beautiful creatures, while you’re just swimming in corruption…you don’t care a thing about preserving their environment. You people who have sworn to protect it, you’ve become the thing we have to protect it against! Motherfuck! This…it’s just not right. It’s fucked. So very, very, very, very fucked.

 

CRYSTAL BURL, GUST MASTERS, PITER YALP

We’ve come here today to honor Hem, and to pray for him to wake up real soon. We don’t understand what happened to him—what was different this time that he refuses to wake up. We were thinking that maybe if we came out here, to a place that was dear to him, we’d have some insight…we’d get a glimpse of Hem’s thinking.

 

This right here is his favorite camping spot, where he’d come and spend the first part of the summer at the foot of the Pokky Range before heading north into the Maze. He chose this spot because it was right between two Chickapork dens. There’s footage of him playing with the Piglettas, and then of course when one of them made its second stage transformation into Chickapork, Hem and that Pokky bonded real hard. It’s been a year now, and those original Pokkys have gone on and become Peccanaries and Boaraxes; the ones grazing out there in the meadow, one of them might have been Hem’s own Chickapork.

 

I wonder if they miss him. I sure do.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

The irony of Hemlock’s last trip is not lost on anyone who looked at his life. As the days of fall grew shorter, he left the maze as he always did, with no desire to return to civilization, but knowing he could not make himself comfortable among the hibernating and overwintering Pokkys. However, an encounter with an airport Pokkypet vending machine, in which Hemlock tried to buy the freedom of every captive Pokkypet but soon ran out of quarters, sent him rebounding from the crass commercial exploitation of his beloved Pokkys, straight back into the wilderness. Returning to the maze later than ever before, he found his familiar environment had been altered by advancing chill; and his familiar Pokky friends had moved on their migratory routes, while new creatures moved into the maze to overwinter there. Creatures such as the Surlymon.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

I am back, friends. I didn’t know I would be doing this, obviously, and I would not recommend it to anyone else…but frankly, I find it exhilarating. I am overjoyed to be back here. The longer I can put off dealing with the fucking human world, the happier I’ll be. And you know what? This is a part of the Pokky life cycle I have never seen. This is a learning moment! I have never been here in the winter…and though I won’t be staying for the whole season, I will certainly see more of it than any person ever has. Because no other person, trainer, captor or civilian, has stayed even this long. Who knows what I’ll learn, what wonders await?

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

Toward the end of the process of compiling this account, we received access to Pyne’s final recordings. Here we see him with a large grouchy Pokkypet that almost certainly is the Surlymon that finished him off. Of most interest in these studies is that this Pokky appears to have changed radically sometime between the date this footage was taken, and the time of its capture by the Pokky Rangers. Experience gained in a battle is the usual mode by which Pokkys gain sufficient energy to transform into their morpheme. And it is hard not to conclude that it was the battle with Hemlock Pyne that caused this Surlymon to undergo its third transformation. Most confusing to Pokkyologists is that while its form changed dramatically, its name and its song remained the same: Surlymon….

 

Here, Hemlock records the untransformed Surlymon stalking the maze in an endless search for amusement. He seems to be searching this simple creature for a deeper meaning; but whatever it is eludes him, as it eludes us.

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

I don’t know what this Pokky wants. Superficially, it seems to be looking for food and interested in nothing else. But there is something the Pokkys have, something innate in them, which draws me. I feel sometimes so close to them, I almost have a name for it—one I could express to myself, but which might be impossible to communicate to others. There is something…something there.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

But here I must disagree with Hemlock Pyne. The cute cartoon features, so simplistic and round and bright, need evoke nothing beyond the simplest emotional connotations associated with their coloration. He looks for depth where none exists. The Pokkys have no secrets, and nothing to teach us. If anything, this is their entire lesson: They mean nothing, and nothing about their relationship with us is real.

 

JASPER CHRYSOLITE

If I open this door and pull out the tray, you can see the desperate effort we have undertaken to keep Hemlock comfortable in spite of the bizarre process that seems to be having its way with him. Here you see his head, the eyes still closed in an attitude of sleep that for all intents and purposes seems permanent; Here, his hand, somewhat distressed after its short stay in Surlymon’s mouth. The torso, on which the head hardly fits at this point. Part of a leg. The other parts, all gathered from the maze, do not quite add up completely. But this still seems the sort of risk Hemlock stated repeatedly he was willing to take to be one with these creatures, to learn the lessons they carried with them. Lessons, perhaps, that may one day apply to us, as we share their natural world?

 

HEMLOCK PYNE

I know I have felt something like this before, but the shortness of the season sharpens this sense of giving. I have the words now. They have given them to me. I owe the Pokkypets everything I have. Everything. And I owe them completely. I would die for these creatures. I would die for these creatures. I would die for these creatures.

 

VERNOR HERTZWIG

We still have no idea what he means.

 

 

Property of Digito of America

 

 

END

 

“Pokky Man” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 2010 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Classics Mutilated, edited by Jeff Connor, IDW Publishing (2010).

 

 

An Evening’s Honest Peril

January 20th, 2016

AN EVENING’S HONEST PERIL

Sitting at the entrance to the Tomb of Abomnis, dangling her legs like tempting morsels over the dark and moaning stony mouth, Jinrae thought she saw the head of a black-haired man rise into view at the crest of the hilltop behind her. She leapt to her feet with her sword drawn and ready.

Echoing her startled cry, a raven swept up and over her, flapping twice and then gliding toward a distant tumble of faint brownish buildings in the middle distance.

Stop jumping at shadows! she told herself.

Settling back down, she watched the black fleck merging with the evening sky. The sun had just gone down beyond the town of Cowper’s Rest, pulling daylight after it, triggering lights in the villas. The ravenspeck circled and landed somewhere in a farmer’s field. Scattered red flowers nodded in unison, bowing to a breeze she couldn’t sense herself. In the far, far distance, an olive smudge gave little hint of the horrid marsh it heralded.

Groans came from the tomb, groans and the rattling of chains to greet the coming night, but they struck no answering note of fear in Jinrae. Once the sound would have chilled her, a weirdly welcome pang, but these days, even in the worst places, she rarely found anything strong enough to cut through the numbness that enwrapped her. Vague dreads wrestled in the back of her mind, ones she didn’t care to name. She felt she was seeing the seams of the world tonight.

Someone was coming. A silvery glint on polished mail faintly limned a figure stalking across the plain at a pace that would have maddened her if she’d had to tolerate it. Thankfully, they would not be travelling any great distance on foot tonight—although if it came to that, she had sufficient scrolls to quicken even the slowest feet. Aye, she carried boots of speed and hasty syrup and portalismans; besides which, numerous powerful friends would come to her summons, although she intended to rely on no resources besides her own at this point. It was hard, alone, but better in the long run. The last few days had taught her a great deal about her vulnerabilities, skills she had neglected through too much reliance on others. Or, at least, on one other. Hard lessons, late in coming, but not lost on her.

Now here was a fresh face, an adventurer in unblemished silver armor. It was Aynglin, just as she had seen him last, a bright orange plume bobbing from his helmet’s crest. He had not put by his violet trousers, nor the green slippers with curling toes; and she couldn’t fault him for it, since it lent him a quite distinctive (if not distinguished) appearance. She would be able to pick him out in almost any crowd.

His coat, however, was another matter: dark and oily, clearly stripped from a greater gullock, but with patches of long greenish fur still clinging to the seamed hide.

“Hi,” said Aynglin as he came to a stop at the entrance of the tomb. His eyes were the same shade of violet as his pants. “I mean, hail. Hope I’m not late. You said to meet you at twilight, right?”

“Well met,” said Jinrae. “You’re right on time. You’ll have to lose that gullock hide, though. It would only bog you down where we’re going.”

The ends of Aynglin’s mouth turned drastically downward. “Really? I heard this was the best.”

She couldn’t suppress a laugh. “I hope you didn’t pay a great deal for it.”

“No, I…I found it.”

“Well, that should tell you something of its value. Someone didn’t think enough of it to lug it along or even throw it on their mule. A perfect hide is well worth its weight, but that one’s imperfectly tanned. See the hunks of fur, never quite scraped away? It’s the work of a not particularly promising apprentice. In the hands of an expert, this would have made a coat I wouldn’t mind wearing myself.”

He mumbled a glum, “Oh.”

“Anyway, let’s see what I’ve got that you can use.”

She reached into a pack she’d dropped on the terraced hillside, and pulled out a cloak of sheer material, supple as silk but silvery as the scales of some freshwater fish swimming in light. She leapt down next to Aynglin, eliciting hungry moans from the lurkers in the tomb. Aynglin took a backwards step.

“Don’t fear,” she said. “They’re bound within. Now put this on. It’s meadowshark.”

“Really?”

“You can keep that. And I’ll give you matching pants later, if you accompany me back to Cowper’s Rest. They’re not violet, though. They won’t match your eyes.”

“That’s okay! I—these were just temporary till I found something better.”

“Everything’s temporary. Don’t get attached to anything. That way you won’t suffer when you lose it. Which you will.”

“Okay. I guess I’m ready.” The gullock coat lay in a heap on the gravel path. “Is this it? Just the two of us?”

“It’s for the best,” she said. “You’ll progress much faster.”

“But where’s your partner? Isn’t he…?”

“Not anymore. Let me see your sword.”

Aynglin unsheathed his blade and held it out to her.

For a moment Jinrae felt painfully disoriented.

The pommel held a faceted orange gem, inlaid with a rune of fire. The curved white blade was gnarlphin horn, lightly glimmering with imbued magic.

She knew this sword. It was, if not unique, then one of a very few.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“From a stranger,” he said.

“Masked? Anonymous?”

Aynglin nodded.

“May I touch it for a moment?”

Aynglin hesitated, and she couldn’t tell if it was indecision or merely ignorance that held him back.

“I only need to touch it in order to divine its properties,” she said. “You needn’t fear handing it over to me.”

“I trust you,” he said simply.

She put a gloved hand on the hilt, and turned so that the twilight gleamed along the blade. There was no inscription where she had feared to find one. But that meant nothing. Engravings melted away with the proper words muttered over them. Entire histories could be erased that way.

Still, it hinted of something more than chance, and she knew the mystery would haunt her until she solved it.

At that moment, the first star pierced the deepening twilight. A wolflike wind began to wail through the hills and the moaning in the tomb grew louder.

She nodded at Aynglin and took her hand from the sword. “Keep that out,” she said. “You’ll need it. I’ll enter first and make sure there’s nothing nastier than I expect.”

“Right behind you.”

She stepped through the tomb entrance, into darkness deeper than at first seemed possible. Her eyes adjusted slowly to the distant flicker of torches. Aynglin shouldered past her before she could stop him and kept going, blundering on without yet realizing that she had come to a halt. She hurried up behind him in the narrow passage, in time to see him hesitate before turning to look back for her.

“Oh, there you are.”

“Go on,” she said.

At that, he rushed forward. But there were already things rushing to meet him.

They came on in a cluster, sliding and jostling in the passage that seemed too small for them. Wicked yellow eyes abulge, catching the torchlight; flattened catlike faces with venomous fangs and exposed claws like hypodermic needles. Aynglin raised his sword and slashed, first at one, then another. He hardly seemed to feel the claws that tore into him. Jinrae knew that as yet he had no concept of his own frailty. After twenty seconds, he was on the edge of death. By twenty five he would be gone, unless she intervened.

With a quick word, she raised her hands and cast a sphere of healing and protection over him. A second incantation, and Aynglin’s sword flared with a sharp red light. He was like a mercurial spirit now, slashing his way through the denizens of the tomb as if they were wraiths without substance, offering scarcely any impediment to his progress. Jinrae followed in his wake, sidestepping littered limbs and dislodged eyes, continually hurling potent protective devices at her protégé’s silhouette. This close to the surface, they had little to dread. She tried to find a rhythm that would serve her well as the evening’s onslaught grew more dreadful.

It was in a chamber on the second level, where the ceiling was encrusted with encysted shapes of winged sleeping things, that Aynglin, in the midst of slicing through a hoary tomb spider, suddenly stiffened and flared, casting off brilliant showers and spirals of light. When the seething fires had subsided, he seemed to stand taller, fuller and brighter in every detail. He barely nicked the next spider and it curled up instantaneously into a ball of ash, hugging itself with its wiry crisping legs. The arachnid dissolved into ashes and crumbled away.

“Congratulations!” Jinrae called. Aynglin turned and raised his sword, victorious, thereby scraping the ember-colored chrysalis on the ceiling. His upturned face went green, flooded with the sickly radiance of unfolding wings. The hatchling dropped straight down onto him.

Jinrae leapt forward with her blade out, slashing through the larval demonid. It expired with a putrid belch, but not before its myriad kin had been roused from their hibernation.

“What now?” Aynglin asked, struggling up from beneath the crackling membranous corpse.

“This is good,” Jinrae said. “Keep your ground and I’ll watch over you. We’re lucky to have found such a chamber this early.”

“Are you sure?”

But there was no time to answer; the awakening was too swift. She barely had time to form her own shield of immiscibility, which would hold for as long as she remained immobile. From that vantage, she began to cast spells upon young Aynglin.

The first wave of demonids clattered against her hastily erected barrier with the scraping sound of chitinous iron-taloned wings. They swarmed the young swordsman, who stood waving his blade as if carving patterns in the air. In this case, the air was solid with wings and claws, and as he carved he could hardly help but open demonid veins. The room began to fill with a churning bloodcloud, as if he had tapped some atmospheric source of scarlet gore.

While the cries of the awakened demonids were deafening, and grew worse as their injuries increased, Jinrae gradually became aware of another sound. It was sharp and shrill, hysterical—and somehow, she felt, juvenile.

It took her several moments to recognize that a third human had entered the chamber; small and quick. In a manner reminiscent of the demonids themselves, it pounced on one of the flyers and bore it to the ground, tearing off the fanged head in one practiced twist. A gloved hand reached and caught a scaly wing, pulling another demonid from the swarm. And then another. Jinrae suppressed her irritation, trying to keep her concentration on her shield. Even so, her attention had become divided, and she feared that Aynglin would suffer for it if she did not deal with the interloper immediately.

“We thank you for your aid,” she called with forced politeness, “but it is completely unrequired.”

Naught but a feverish laugh was heard in reply.

The air was beginning to thin of the predators, and she sensed Aynglin beginning to falter. He had been close to another metamorphosis, but now he teetered on the brink, disrupted by the new arrival. He was just becoming aware of the newcomer.

“To repeat, we do not require your aid. I am assisting this young one, and I have things well in hand.”

This time, the intruder’s response was more direct.

“Fuck you!”

Unsurprised, Jinrae drew in her shield, exposing herself to talon-blow and wing scourge. She dipped her hand into the wallet at her belt, slipping on a ring she knew by touch. It was highly polished, twisted once along its band: a moebius ring.

She raised her hand and tightened her fist, as if grasping some invisible fabric and twisting it, wringing energy from raw aether.

A violet jolt shook the room, briefly illuminating all the demonid flyers from within. Skin, scale and chitin grew transparent; skeletons leapt out clearly, luridly aglow. The savage skeletal flock swerved and locked its knobbled ends into a single mass, moving with a collective will, a shifting puzzlebeast of bone and fang.

Their exclusive target was the foul-mouthed intruder.

In a shrieking cloud they congealed around him, cutting off the shrill and mocking laughter at a stroke. An instant later they thinned and dissipated, resuming their strident attack on Aynglin, albeit without their scaly hide this time. He dispatched the remainder of the bony flock with something less than his former verve, but before he was quite finished, another lightning bolt of transformation shuddered through him. Jinrae grinned with pleasure to see him climb another notch in stature and in heft. But Aynglin seemed disoriented, odd. Instead of rejoicing over his growth, he shuffled through the mass of demonid bones and corpses, and gazed down at the fallen stranger’s clean-picked skeleton.

“Harsh,” said Aynglin.

“I gave him fair warning,” she said. “I will not tolerate his kind.”

 

An engraved token lay among the bones of the uninvited guest. Aynglin bent and picked it up, scanned it, handed it to her.

“p00ter,” she read aloud. “Alas, I fear poor p00ter won’t be missed. And better him than you, I might add. I expected to perform a few resurrections tonight, but this would have been far too early. I don’t wish to tarnish my reputation as a teacher.”

“But…what did he want?”

“To sow discord. To disrupt your growth and steal what he could of your glory, little though he needed it. You could see how easily he took down the demonids. There are plenty of other chambers deeper down and in neighboring tombs, filled with horrors to keep him occupied…if he were looking for an evening’s honest peril instead of craven mischief, that is. Now, don’t trouble yourself. He’s inconsequential, and we’ve far to go.”

Her pupil shrugged and tossed the token back into the bone pile, then strode on deeper into the crypt. She stood watching him for a moment without following. Something about him reminded her of another swordsman, one not so young but just as eager. She had felt something like this when she’d watched him in the midst of the swarm, slicing scaly wings with an ease that seemed more than natural: practiced.

“Aynglin,” she called, catching up to him, “I never asked this before, but…are you new here? Have you traveled here before in other guises?”

He turned and faced her, his eyes shifting in the torchlight, but unreadable. She realized how little she knew of him. But that had not troubled her until now. Why was she suddenly wary?

“What makes you ask that?” he said.

“You seem too good to have just started out tonight.”

He allowed himself a smile. “Well, thanks, but…I am new here. I’ve had practice in other realms, maybe it carries over. I knew enough to seek you out, or someone like you, and ask for help. Thanks, by the way. I do appreciate it. I’m getting a lot of experience. I wouldn’t say we make a great team, because I’m nowhere near being useful to you, but…it would be nice to get that far eventually.”

She felt herself withdraw from him a little, and a chill set in. “Well, keep at it and I’m sure you can go as far as you want—as far as I have anyway. But you’ll soon reach a point where I’m not much use to you. You’ll want to pick other partners if you wish to keep advancing at speed.”

“Who says I want that? Isn’t it nice to just find a point that’s good enough and forget about forging ahead? Isn’t it good to find friends and journey with them, helping each other, even if it means you won’t get the full glory all to yourself? Didn’t you do that?”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you had a partner. I mean, I heard back in Cowper’s Rest, they said you were always with someone named Venix. Actually, I was expecting two of you tonight.”

Ah. The source of the chill.

“We formally disbanded,” she said. “I travel alone now, when I’m not in great need. And I have plenty of other friends I can call on when I am in need.”

“And the same goes for Venix, I suppose?”

“He no longer inhabits this realm.”

She realized that they had been standing a long time in an open chamber without attracting enemies. The dead time had lengthened beyond the usual bounds. Perhaps that was why she found herself wanting to end this conversation. Her eyes continually darted to the shadows among the splintered beams and stone pillars that seemed to support the uneven ceiling mined of greenish rock.

Suddenly Aynglin laughed. The sound nearly brought her back to herself.

“What is it?” she said.

“It just occurred to me…the reason you’re suspicious. I mean, if he left and then I suddenly showed up out of the blue, you might think….”

Grudgingly she said, “It’s not inconceivable.”

“I know, but…”

“And it doesn’t help that you’ve found yourself a sword the twin of his.”

“I told you, a stranger gave it to me.”

“After you announced your intention of joining me tonight?”

“No. Before. In fact…well, perhaps your suspicions aren’t so unfounded after all. It was the same man who told me to look you up when I was asking about a teacher.”

“Ah, Gods,” she said, and turned away from Aynglin. “Damn it all.”

She didn’t need his help, his patronage, or any more reminders of his presence. He had meant it as a farewell gesture, no doubt, and it ought to have comforted her, since it was a sure sign he had no intention of returning. He would never have given away the sword otherwise. But the end result of his farewell was that he might as well never have left. Because of his damned gift to this beginner, she was stuck with him after all. There could be no more blatant continual reminder.

She felt betrayed, and it didn’t help that her student wouldn’t have known he was being used to get at her. She could turn away Aynglin, but she’d contracted with him for the evening. She must keep her word or suffer harm to her reputation. She might be able to convince Aynglin to discard the sword, but he was unlikely to find a better one at any price, and she had nothing equivalent which he would be able to wield. And she wasn’t yet ready to plead and bargain for her peace of mind.

She was snarled in the possibility of duplicity. More vague suspicions. It was maddening. Nothing was overt enough for her to subdue with any certainty.

“Come on,” she said, shoving past Aynglin, wishing to immerse herself in action. Battle was the one thing over which she could still exert her mastery, a dynamic she completely understood, where nothing was hidden and all threats were in plain sight.

“I’m sorry if I—”

“Just come on.”

But as she forged on, she realized that somewhere along the way, in the last few minutes, she must have let Aynglin lead them around an unfamiliar turning. They had come into a wide chamber she did not recognize, one where the crypts themselves lay shattered, slab lids cracked or cast aside, the open vaults full of broken skulls and scattered bones, completely plundered. She had expected the tomb to be more densely defended; the quiet was ominous. Once again, the rhythms of danger felt strange tonight.

But action was what she needed, and there was nothing here that would take her mind off her troubles. A quick survey showed that of four passages heading out of the room, two led sharply down.

And it was a sure formula that danger always lay deeper.

“This way,” she said.

“Lead on!”

She reminded herself that it wasn’t his fault. He’d been played into this, just as she had. But his enthusiasm now threatened to become an annoyance.

At the bottom of the ramp, the passage forked. The path to the left was unlit, so she headed right. At the next fork, torches lit the left hand path. She chose that one, although she had a growing sense that this was too obvious and could be an attempt to lure them into a trap.

Before she could reconsider, or retrace her steps, she heard whispers and scrabbling, then a sharp squeal. She turned to see Aynglin with a large rat impaled on his sword. Several more were coming down the corridor behind him, gliding along as if impelled by wheels hidden beneath their shaggy flanks.

She didn’t believe the rats would give him much trouble, but it was impossible to be sure. They could harbor unexpected wickedness. She put a warding spell around him, flung some extra potency into his blade, and watched him dispatch them handily. They gave out muffled squeaks as they died.

As the fourth one collapsed with a high-pitched wheeze, something enormous and not very far away let out an answering squeal that was more like a bellow—like something a rat the size of a haywain might produce under duress. She cursed her poor perception. The unlit passages should have tipped her off earlier. Down the corridor, beyond the quivering rat corpses, the torches began to go out one by one, paired with the snuffling advance of a lumbering blackness whose only details were the even blacker gleams of liquid eyes that drank in the darkness as the torches expired.

“Back!” she cried. “Behind me!”

Aynglin barely made it; but once he was behind, he kept on going. She heard his slippered feet padding away down the passage behind her, while she stood fast to face the oncoming horror. She glanced back to see if he was safely out of range, and discovered that behind her the passage forked again. Both paths were pitch dark, hiding her protégé completely.

“Aynglin, stop!” she cried.

Then the rat mother struck her.

She turned to give it her full attention, spinning a swirling shield of stars around herself, and driving ice magic into her blade. The torches behind the monstrous rat were extinguished now. If it hadn’t been for the radiance of her aura, the darkness would have been total. Her blade clashed against bared teeth. A fang fell and hit the stone floor; blood streamed over black rubbery lips. She attempted a sideways slash across the whiskered muzzle, but the cramped passage shortened her stroke until it was a hacking blow more suited to an axe. Resorting to stabbing, she plunged her blade into one of the inky eyes, and this time the rat recoiled with a scream.

Less concerned about finishing off the rodent than with finding Aynglin before he lost himself completely, she turned and ran, leaving the rat hunkered in a pool of blood, shaking its head and wheezing.

“Where are you?” she called.

His reply came echoing from nowhere in particular. “…dark…”

The tomb proved an absolute honeycomb of passageways, dead-ends, claustrophobic cells. There was no point in trying to ask him to retrace his route, especially not in the blackness. She tried to recall if she was carrying anything that might help him—something which would allow her to reach out and pull him to her side. But she had left all such tokens back in Cowper’s Rest, along with her mule.

The horrid wheezing of the injured rat came closer, and she realized that although it posed very little hazard to her, it was potentially lethal to her student. She couldn’t tell at this moment if it was truly near by, or if the acoustics of the tombs created a false impression. She held very still to avoid attracting the rat’s attention, while trying to pinpoint its location.

“Jinrae!” came a panicked call.

“Quiet!” she called back. She wanted to communicate the importance of silence at this moment, but there was no way to explain in detail…not without risking further harm.

“Jin—” And then a scream.

It was horrible but it didn’t last long. Barely enough time to allow her to determine the rat’s location with certainty. She hurried down two short lengths of corridor and burst into a silk-shrouded vault in time to see the mammoth rat burying its bloody snout in the remains of her pupil.

While the rodent was distracted, she plunged her sword into the back of its neck beneath the skull. The creature slumped into an immense slack bag of bloodied fur.

As the creature died, the torches in the room came alight, replacing the faint glow of her aura. With a sigh, and a booted foot, she shoved the carcass aside and retrieved Aynglin’s copper wristband from the gnawed pile on the floor. Apart from his flesh, everything was intact. She held the band aloft and slipped a resurrection ring onto her right ring finger, speaking the words that went with it.

The air churned with diamond light. A shadowy shape thickened. An astral arm materialized inside the battered copper band, gaining density. Jinrae released the band as Aynglin reappeared, now fully fleshed and formed. Her young pupil, completely restored, although far more modestly dressed.

“Whew,” he said, with a dazed expression. “Thanks.”

“I apologize,” she said. “I should have been paying better attention.”

He stooped and reclaimed his gear and weapons. “I didn’t know rats came that big.”

“Oh, they come bigger, but not usually this near the surface.” Jinrae cleaned her sword on a dusty silken tatter that draped the stone wall. “This place seems strange tonight. I have a feeling changes have been made to this tomb since I last visited. I should have scouted a bit before bringing in a novice. Finding our way out again is going to be hit or miss, I’m afraid.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “I have most of the night. Unless you want to turn back now.”

“I think we’d better, at least until we get our bearings again. I’ll need to find something I remember from before…a landmark.”

Her doubts proved well founded. All the passages were fully lit again after the death of mother rat, and they were just as confusing as they would have been in total darkness. She fell back on following the left hand wall, and kept this up for quite some time without encountering any ascending passages. Every intersection led to downward tending passages. It was very strange. She was positive they had descended to this level, but she could find no steps leading up again. It was as if the place had altered since they entered it.

She didn’t think that physical alteration of the tomb was likely, but there were sorcerous ways of making a victim think the world had changed, which had the same effect. But that would require a mage of some power, and who would want to target the two of them with vexing spells?

Who indeed?

As if reading her thought and answering it, Aynglin said, “Uh oh. It’s him again.”

That shrill childish cry, like the laughter of a hyena, echoed around them. They walked forward into a vast room, its dimensions and its ceiling hid in shadow. Directly above the entryway was a broad stone balcony incised with a gruesome frieze. The laughter fell from above, and its maker capered and gestured obscenely in the heights, emoting malice and mischief.

“Looks like p00ter came back with some of his pals,” Aynglin said.

True enough. He was no longer alone. Four figures stood flanking him, wrapped in dark robes, their faces veiled in fog.

At first she saw no reason this should worry her. She took a few steps away from the wall, to get a better view of her adversaries, and at that moment she saw the archway vanish as if it had never been. She ran to the wall but hit solid rock. No seam, no keyhole, no latch, no sign that there had ever been an entrance.

Somewhere off in the shadows, she heard the sound of rusted iron grates and chains, and a ratcheting noise of gears. Skittering footsteps teetered on the edge of audibility, bony and chill. It could have been any sort of skeleton ambling toward them, but instinctively she suspected the worst.

“I’ll show you, bitch!” came the hissing voice above her. “You and your freshmeat are bonefood!”

p00ter’s face fairly glowed with gleeful evil, but his companions betrayed nothing. She assumed they were mages of some skill, judging by how easily she had been befuddled and led into this trap. Only potent mages could have summoned the undead legions now imminent. How p00ter’s ilk managed to gather powerful friends she had never quite understood, but it was not an uncommon alliance. From the fact that p00ter’s associates were unreadable, only barely visible at all, she had some glimmering sense of their power—and the trouble she was in.

As the first of the skeletal stalkers strode into the weak fringe of torchlight cast from the balcony, her worst fears were confirmed. It was a Foulmost Banebone, fully armored but with empty hands—which meant it would rely on magic only, hurling attacks all but impossible to anticipate.

Behind it, in rank and file, were more of its kind. And some similar number was coming upon them from the opposite end of the chamber.

She turned to Aynglin, grateful that she would have someone to watch her back, since she could wrap them both in a spell of deflection and add his power to her own. But it would require some quick study on his part.

“Now quickly,” she said, “you must do exactly as I say.”

But Aynglin wasn’t listening.

“Uh, sorry, I gotta go,” he said. “Later.”

Putting his hands together in a posture of prayer, he vanished.

p00ter’s laughter went up the scale, but she scarcely noticed.

Abandoned, betrayed…what next? She slipped a shortcut ring onto her finger and held it up to see if she could escape that way. It gave off a dull grey light, signalling its uselessness. They had sealed her in. Once she had fallen in battle, it might take hours to win back her remains, and she would need help to do it—especially with Banebones posted above her corpse.

With that thought, she realized what she had to do. As the foremost Foulmost Banebone rubbed its fleshless palms and began to mold a spiral of smutty light, she threw back her head and sent out a Clarion Call. Two answering Calls came almost instantaneously, and moments later she thought she heard a faint third response. But by then there could have been a sympony of Calls and she wouldn’t have noticed. She was too deeply caught up in battling for her life.

The first of the bony attackers sent its whipcord spiral swirling around her, a barbed line of wicked light that attempted to entangle and immobilize her. She stepped free of it, slicing the lines with her charmed blade.

Whiplight wasn’t a terrible spell in itself, and one Banebone was no more than an irritant. It was the sheer quantity and variety of attacks that would soon, inevitably, draw her down. For while the first Banebone followed its attack with another of the same, it was joined by its opposite, who had chosen a completely different attack.

Her motions slowed as the second wave of spells struck her from the opposite side of the hall. This spell was like green glue crawling over her, changing every powerful sword slash into a lazy swipe. She had one ring with which to counter the Viscous Flume, but she’d not had it charged in some time, and she had no idea how long it would hold out—especially if another skeleton flung a similar attack.

As the ring took effect, she tried to make the best of it. She lunged out at the source. Her blade bit deep into bone, but it was like hacking at metal. She managed to throw the Foulmost off its casting for a moment, by sending it staggering backward.

A toothed mesh of spiralwire looped down around her head and arms. As soon as she had freed herself of that, she turned to the second skeleton again, this time barking out a powercry as she hacked at a bare bit of vulnerable vertebrae below its gleaming helmet. Her laugh as the skull cracked against the floor for a moment rivalled that of p00ter, still howling from the ledge above.

This kill had an unexpected benefit, for as the scattered bones hit the floor, Jinrae flared with inner fires bright enough to cast the shadows of the oncoming Banebones onto distant walls of the cavern. The nearest skeletons were scorched by the glare of her new-claimed power. In the accompanying rush of energy, she clove the lead whipmaster through mid-torso, and continued to spin out into the midst of the legions like a raging top, her sword like a scythe slashing dry wheat. But not a single Bonebane actually fell, and those in the rear were beginning to cast healing spells on the advance guard.

The Banebones regrouped quickly. And her rush of gleeful energy had cost her dearly. She had forgotten the need for conservation. What she had just done in a moment she would have to do again ten times over if she wished to survive…and already she was nearly drained.

“Yeah, bitch, I know what you’re thinking. You hit me when I was alone…now how do you like it?”

She looked up toward the simpering figure on the balcony above, and suddenly she realized exactly who stood mocking her from among the safety of his sinister friends.

He had taken on a new name, to suit the regression in his personality.

He had revealed himself to be a vicious vengeful child, striking out in the only way he knew how.

What was worse, she had left herself open to be hurt. She had actually allowed this battle to matter to her.

She didn’t know whether to give up utterly, as Aynglin had done, or perform some explosive suicidal act in order to take him down with her. She had the ability to touch off an intense explosion that would obliterate every creature in the room in a single burst. But have done that, Jinrae as such could never return to the realm in this guise. It would be a truly final exit from this place.

She considered the ploy, then dismissed it.

She would not let him believe his victory mattered to her. She would play the game as if it were only that—a game.

Win or lose, she would not give him the satisfaction of thinking he had made her care.

Jinrae went back to her gory work with a will, counting each blow she gave and received, calculating exactly how long she could still hold out, watching the deadline loom.

In one hand she conjured orbs of buzzing flame and sent them streaming into the healers at the rear. The nearest ones she fended off with her blade. She put her back to the wall, which meant losing sight of the hateful form above her, but that was just as well. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She focused her attention on the skeleton army, and measured her way down the steepening slope to oblivion.

Suddenly she heard a ragged croak with some faint kinship to p00ter’s laugh.

The vile fighter’s form went hurtling from the balcony and crashed down hard in the midst of the Banebones.

Dazed, still holding her attackers at bay, Jinrae watched p00ter stagger to his feet. The fuddled form rushing in her direction, saw her sword swing toward him, then turned and tried the opposite tack. Several of the Foulmost reached lazily to snag him; there were many bony fingers already twisting in the hems of his fringed cloak.

p00ter fell quite still and bowed his head, realizing that there would be no escape by regular routes. He put his hands together in prayer, striving for a swift exit, but an instant before he could pale and vanish, his bowed head was torn from his shoulders. His body exploded in a cloud of smoke and gushing sparks that looked like burning motes of blood.

The token bearing his ridiculous name landed at Jinrae’s feet.

“Farewell, p00ter,” she told it, and kicked the tag across the floor, hoping it would fall into some dark chasm, forever irretrievable.

An instant after p00ter’s death, three figures leapt down to touch the floor where he had fallen. At first she thought them his wizardly allies, but they were not. These bore mace and massive axe and luminous staff. Their faces were bright and clear, well known to her, personas of shimmering power armed with magic weapons.

“Woohoo!” they cried.

With screams of glee they laid waste to the Banebones. Jinrae’s exertions were all but unnecessary in this final melee; which was just as well, since her resources were almost completely drained. Even if she had been fully rested, any one of the three could have bested her easily in single combat. They swung their blades and hurled devasting spells at the skeleton mages. The towering monsters toppled like tenpins, smouldered and melted, pooled into wailing puddles of dust.

In no more than three minutes, the chamber was cleared of even the Leastmost Banebone. As for the wizards on the balcony above, they figured not at all in the final sweep, and made no further appearance. She suspected they had departed the instant the tide began to turn. So much for the friends that p00ter’s sort could assemble.

When they had finished, the rescuers formed a triangle with Jinrae at the center.

“Let’s blow,” said the one other woman, a youthful amazon with tattooed markings that made her look like a feral cat, and pointed ears tipped with a lynx’s tuft. She stood lithe and strong, wearing scarcely any visible armor.

“Right,” said the man to her right. He was completely armored. In fact, there was not the least bit of skin visible anywhere. His entire form was silver metal chased with moving figures.

The third was a short and bearded dwarf, clad in a cloak that dragged on the stone flags. He raised his staff and from its tip emitted a transport field that engulfed them all.

 The dark air of the catacombs gave way to luminosity. Deep purple light with green underfoot, and a swollen orange sun shimmering up from the edge of the world.

They were standing outside, at the crest of the hill the tomb. Red flowers bobbed in the dawn breeze. Lights were just shutting off in Cowper’s Rest, as the sun’s rays groped at the distant brown buildings.

“Well, that was fun,” said the young lynx woman, Nyryx. “Can’t we leave you alone for one night without having to bail you out?”

“I was doing just fine,” Jinrae said.

“Then why the Clarion Call?” said the staunch little dwarf, Bloafish by name.

“We have troubles of our own, you know,” said the completely armored man known as Sir Candham.

“Anyway,” Nyryx pressed, “when are you coming home? You’ve been out a lot longer than any of us.”

Jinrae ignored the insinuation. She had more a pressing matter to bring up with them.

“I hope you know who was behind all that.”

“What?” Nyryx bristled. “Who?”

“p00ter…Venix…whatever he’s calling himself now. Your father hit a new low tonight.”

“What?” cried Bloafish. “No way.”

“I know you don’t like to see him this way, but I’m telling you—it was him. He set up that ambush, and you saw for yourself how it almost finished me. I should have known something like this was coming.”

“Don’t embarrass yourself,” declared Sir Candham forcefully. “It’s totally impossible.”

“I know him well enough to recognize him in any costume.”

“And we’re telling you you’re wrong,” Sir Candham said.

“How do you know?”

“Because,” said Nyryx, “we’re with him right now. We’ve been over here all night. He’s making us grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“What?”

“Well…it’s not like you noticed or anything. It’s not like anyone’s been able to talk to you. What’d you expect us to do?”

“Come off it, Mom.”

“Really. It’s time.”

“We’re telling you, he’s completely out of it. You’re imagining things. Get real.”

Jinrae stood speechless, her mind on the edge of grinding to a halt. She saw the pattern of suspicion underlying everything she’d believed that night. It was like her pain, a constant background to everything she felt. An undertow that continually pulled her in.

But if she was wrong…if her suspicions were unfounded. That meant there was a bottom to the pain. Maybe she had finally found that place. The three of them had shown it to her.

“Come on,” Nyryx said again. “It’s time to get going. Don’t you remember you said you’d pick us up in your car?”

“Oh god,” she said. “I’m sorry. I feel so…”

Sir Candham put up an admonitory silver hand. “Hey. Don’t. Just get going.”

Jinrae sighed. Nodded.

“Cool,” said Bloafish. “See you soon.”

The four of them bowed their heads, put their hands together, and stood very still. The unfelt wind toyed with the bright red flowers of the plain, but there was no one left to notice, and no one to hear the cries of dawn echoing from the mouth of the tomb.

The End

“An Evening’s Honest Peril” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 2007 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Flurb #3, Spring 2007, edited by Rudy Rucker.

AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD:

My first Massively Multiplayer Online game was Asheron’s Call. I played quite a bit of the beta, mostly in league with my friends at Valve, but very little after it went into wide release. They say you never forget your first, and those first few months were quite memorable. I wrote this story originally as a bit of quasi-AC fanfic, and didn’t think it seriously worth publishing. But when Rudy Rucker was spinning up his personal publishing project, Flurb, I thought he might enjoy it. I was surprised when, some time later, it was selected for reprinting in Year’s Best SF #13, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. I never thought of it as science fiction, or fantasy, for that matter. It’s a slice-of-life story from a digital age only slightly ahead of where we are now–or perhaps one that we have already left behind.

400 Boys

January 20th, 2016

400 BOYS

We sit and feel Fun City die. Two stories above our basement, at street level, something big is stomping apartment pyramids flat. We can feel the lives blinking out like smashed bulbs; you don’t need second sight to see through other eyes at a time like this. I get flashes of fear and sudden pain, but none last long. The paperback drops from my hands, and I blow my candle out.

We are the Brothers, a team of twelve. There were twenty-two yesterday, but not everyone made it to the basement in time. Our slicker, Slash, is on a crate loading and reloading his gun with its one and only silver bullet. Crybaby Jaguar is kneeling in the corner on his old blanket, sobbing like a maniac; for once he has a good reason. My best Brother, Jade, keeps spinning the cylinders of the holotube in search of stations, but all he gets is static that sounds like screaming turned inside out. It’s a lot like the screaming in our minds, which won’t fade except as it gets squelched voice by voice.

Slash goes, “Jade, turn that thing off or I’ll short-cirk it.”

He is our leader, our slicker. His lips are gray, his mouth too wide where a Soooooot scalpel opened his cheeks. He has a lisp.

Jade shrugs and shuts down the tube, but the sounds we hear instead are no better. Faraway pounding footsteps, shouts from the sky, even monster laughter. It seems to be passing away from us, deeper into Fun City.

“They’ll be gone in no time,” Jade goes.

“You think you know everything,” goes Vave O’Claw, dissecting an alarm clock with one chrome finger the way some kids pick their noses. “You don’t even know what they are—”

“I saw ‘em,” goes Jade. “Croak and I. Right, Croak?”

I nod without a sound. There’s no tongue in my mouth. I only croaked after my free fix-up, which I got for mouthing badsense to a Controller cognibot when I was twelve.

Jade and I went out last night and climbed an empty pyramid to see what we could see. Past River-run Boulevard the world was burning bright, and I had to look away. Jade kept staring and said he saw wild giants running with the glow. Then I heard a thousand guitar strings snapping, and Jade said the giants had ripped up Big Bridge by the roots and thrown it at the moon. I looked up and saw a black arch spinning end over end, cables twanging as it flipped up and up through shredded smoke and never fell back —or not while we waited, which was not long.

“Whatever it is could be here for good,” goes Slash, twisting his mouth in the middle as he grins. “Might never leave.”

Crybaby stops snorting long enough to say, “Nuh-never?”

“Why should they? Looks like they came a long way to get to Fun City, doesn’t it? Maybe we have a whole new team on our hands, Brothers.”

“Just what we need,” goes Jade. “Don’t ask me to smash with ‘em, though. My blade’s not big enough. If the Controllers couldn’t keep ‘em from crashing through, what could we do?”

Slash cocks his head. “Jade, dear Brother, listen close. If I ask you to smash, you smash. If I ask you to jump from a hive, you jump. Or find another team. You know I only ask these things to keep your life interesting.”

“Interesting enough,” my best Brother grumbles.

“Hey!” goes Crybaby. He’s bigger and older than any of us but doesn’t have the brains of a ten-year-old. “Listen!”

We listen.

“Don’t hear nothin’,” goes Skag.

“Yeah! Nuh-nuthin’. They made away.”

He spoke too soon. Next thing we know there is thunder in the wall, the concrete crawls underfoot, and the ceiling rains. I dive under a table with Jade.

The thunder fades to a whisper. Afterward there is real silence.

“You okay, Croak?” Jade goes. I nod and look into the basement for the other Brothers. I can tell by the team spirit in the room that no one is hurt.

In the next instant we let out a twelve-part gasp.

There’s natural light in the basement. Where from?

Looking out from under the table, I catch a parting shot of the moon two stories and more above us. The last shock had split the old tenement hive open to the sky. Floors and ceilings layer the sides of a fissure; water pipes cross in the air like metal webs; the floppy head of a mattress spills foam on us.

The moon vanishes into boiling black smoke. It is the same smoke we saw washing over the city yesterday, when the stars were sputtering like flares around a traffic wreck. Lady Death’s perfume comes creeping down with it.

Slash straddles the crack that runs through the center of the room.

He tucks his gun into his pocket. The silver of its only bullet was mixed with some of Slash’s blood. He saves it for the Sooooot who gave him his grin, a certain slicker named HiLo.

“Okay, team,” he goes. “Let’s get out of here pronto.”

Vave and Jade rip away the boards from the door. The basement was rigged for security, to keep us safe when things got bad in Fun City. Vave shielded the walls with baffles so when Controller cognibots came scanning for hideaways, they picked up plumbing and an empty room. Never a scoop of us.

Beyond the door the stairs tilt up at a crazy slant; it’s nothing we cannot manage. I look back at the basement as we head up, because I had been getting to think of it as home.

We were there when the Controllers came looking for war recruits. They thought we were just the right age.

“Come out, come out, wherever in free!” they yelled. When they came hunting, we did our trick and disappeared.

That was in the last of the calendar days, when everyone was yelling:

“Hey! This is it! World War Last!”

What they told us about the war could be squeezed into Vave’s pinky tip, which he had hollowed out for explosive darts. They still wanted us to fight in it. The deal was, we would get a free trip to the moon for training at Base English, then we would zip back to Earth charged up and ready to go-go-go. The SinoSovs were hatching wars like eggs, one after another, down south. The place got so hot that we could see the skies that way glowing white some nights, then yellow in the day.

Federal Control had sealed our continental city tight in a see-through blister: Nothing but air and light got in or out without a password. Vave was sure when he saw the yellow glow that the SinoSovs had launched something fierce against the invisible curtain, something that was strong enough to get through.

Quiet as queegs we creep to the Strip. Our bloc covers Fifty-sixth to Eighty-eighth between Westland and Chico. The streetlights are busted like every window in all the buildings and the crashed cars. Garbage and bodies are spilled all over.

“Aw, skud,” goes Vave.

Crybaby starts bawling.

“Keep looking, Croak,” goes Slash to me. “Get it all.”

I want to look away, but I have to store this for later. I almost cry because my ma and my real brother are dead. I put that away and get it all down. Slash lets me keep track of the Brothers.

At the Federal Pylon, where they control the programmable parts and people of Fun City, Mister Fixer snipped my tongue and started on the other end.

He did not live to finish the job. A team brigade of Quazis and Moofs, led by my Brothers, sprang me free.

That takes teamwork. I know the Controllers said otherwise, said that we were smash-crazy subverts like the Anarcanes, with no pledge to Fun City. But if you ever listened to them, salt your ears. Teams never smashed unless they had to. When life pinched in Fun City, there was nowhere to jump but sideways into the next bloc. Enter with no invitation and . . . things worked out.

I catch a shine of silver down the Strip. A cognibot is stalled with scanners down, no use to the shave-heads who sit in the Pylon and watch the streets.

I point it out, thinking there can’t be many shave-heads left.

“No more law,” goes Jade.

“Nothing in our way,” goes Slash.

We start down the Strip. On our way past the cog, Vave stops to unbolt the laser nipples on its turret. Hooked to battery packs, they will make slick snappers.

We grab flashlights from busted monster marts. For a while we look into the ruins, but that gets nasty fast. We stick to finding our way through the fallen mountains that used to be pyramids and block-long hives. It takes a long time.

There is fresh paint on the walls that still stand, dripping red-black like it might never dry. The stench of fresh death blows at us from center city.

Another alley cat pissed our bloc.

I wonder about survivors. When we send our minds out into the ruins, we don’t feel a thing. There were never many people here when times were good. Most of the hives emptied out in the fever years, when the oldies died and the kiddy kids, untouched by disease, got closer together and learned to share their power.

It keeps getting darker, hotter; the smell gets worse. Bodies staring from windows make me glad I never looked for Ma or my brother. We gather canned food, keeping ultraquiet. The Strip has never seen such a dead night. Teams were always roving, smashing, throwing clean-fun free-for-alls. Now there’s only us.

We cross through bloc after bloc: Bennies, Silks, Quazis, Mannies, and Angels. No one. If any teams are alive they are in hideaways unknown; if they hid out overground they are as dead as the rest.

We wait for the telltale psychic tug—like a whisper in the pit of your belly—that another team gives. There is nothing but death in the night.

“Rest tight, teams,” Jade goes.

“Wait,” goes Slash.

We stop at two hundred sixty-fifth in the Snubnose bloc. Looking down the Strip, I see someone sitting high on a heap of ruined cement. He shakes his head and puts up his hands.

“Well, well,” goes Slash.

The doob starts down the heap. He is so weak he tumbles and avalanches the rest of the way to the street. We surround him, and he looks up into the black zero of Slash’s gun.

“Hiya, HiLo,” Slash goes. He has on a grin he must have saved with the silver bullet. It runs all the way back to his ears. “How’s Soooooots?”

HiLo doesn’t look so slick. His red-and-black lightning-bolt suit is shredded and stained, the collar torn off for a bandage around one wrist. The left lens of his dark owlrims is shattered, and his buzzcut is scraped to nothing.

HiLo doesn’t say a word. He stares up into the gun and waits for the trigger to snap, the last little sound he will ever hear. We are waiting, too.

There’s one big tear dripping from the shattered lens, washing HiLo’s grimy cheek. Slash laughs. Then he lowers the gun and says, “Not tonight.”

HiLo does not even twitch.

Down the Strip, a gas main blows up and paints us all in orange light.

We all start laughing. It’s funny, I guess. HiLo’s smile is silent.

Slash jerks HiLo to his feet. “I got other stuff under my skin, slicker. You look like runover skud. Where’s your team?”

HiLo looks at the ground and shakes his head slowly.

“Slicker,” he goes, “we got flattened. No other way to put it.” A stream of tears follows the first; he clears them away. “There’s no Soooooots left.”

“There’s you,” goes Slash, putting a hand on HiLo’s shoulder.

“Can’t be a slicker without a team.”

“Sure you can. What happened?”

HiLo looks down the street. “New team took our bloc,” he goes. “They’re giants, Slash —I know it sounds crazy.”

“No,” goes Jade, “I seen ‘em.”

HiLo goes, “We heard them coming, but if we had seen them I would never have told the Soooooots to stand tight. Thought there was a chance we could hold our own, but we got smeared. “They threw us. Some of my buds flew higher than the Pylon. These boys. . . incredible boys. Now 400th is full of them. They glow and shiver like the lights when you get clubbed and fade out.”

Vave goes, “Sounds like chiller-dillers.”

“If I thought they were only boys I wouldn’t be scared, Brother,” goes HiLo. “But there’s more to them. We tried to psych them out, and it almost worked. They’re made out of that kind of stuff: It looks real, and it will cut you up, but when you go at it with your mind it buzzes away like bees. There weren’t enough of us to do much. And we weren’t ready for them. I only got away because NimbleJax knocked me cold and stuffed me under a transport.

“When I got up it was over. I followed the Strip. Thought some teams might be roving, but there’s nobody. Could be in hideaways. I was afraid to check. Most teams would squelch me before I said word one.”

“It’s hard alone, different with a team behind you,” goes Slash. “How many hideaways do you know?”

“Maybe six. Had a line on JipJaps, but not for sure. I know where to find Zips, Kingpins, Gerlz, Myrmies, Sledges. We could get to the Galrog bloc fast through the subtunnels.”

Slash turns to me. “What have we got?”

I pull out the beat-up list and hand it to Jade, who reads it. “JipJaps, Sledges, Drummers, A-V-Marias, Chix, Chogs, Dannies. If any of them are still alive, they would know others.”

“True,” goes Slash.

Jade nudges me. “Wonder if this new team has got a name.”

He knows I like spelling things out. I grin and take back the list, pull out a pencil, and put down 400 BOYS.

“Cause they took 400th,” Jade goes. I nod, but that is not all. Somewhere I think I read about Boys knocking down the world, torturing grannies. It seems like something these Boys would do.

Down the street the moon comes up through smoke, making it the color of rust. Big chunks are missing.

“We’ll smash em,” goes Vave.

The sight of the moon makes us sad and scared at the same time, I remember how it had been perfect and round as a pearl on jewelrymart velvet, beautiful and brighter than streetlights even when the worst smogs dyed it brown. Even that brown was better than this chipped-away bloody red. Looks like it was used for target practice. Maybe those Boys tossed the Bridge at Base English.

“Our bloc is gone,” goes HiLo. “I want those Boys. It’ll be those doobs or me.”

“We’re with you,” goes Slash. “Let’s move fast. Cut into pairs, Brothers. We’re gonna hit some hideaways. Jade, Croak, you come with me and HiLo. Well see if those Galrogs will listen to sense.”

Slash tells the other Brothers where to look and where to check back.

We say good-bye. We find the stairs to the nearest subtunnel and go down into lobbies full of shadow, where bodies lie waiting for the last train.

We race rats down the tunnel. They are meaner and fatter than ever, but our lights hold them back.

“Still got that wicked blade?” goes Slash.

“This baby?” HiLo swings his good arm, and a scalpel blade drops into his hand.

Slash’s eyes frost over, and his mouth tightens.

“May need it,” he goes.

“Right, Brother.” HiLo makes the blade disappear.

I see that is how it has to be.

We pass a few more lobbies before going up and out. We’ve moved faster than we could have on ground; now we are close to the low end of Fun City.

“This way.” HiLo points past broken hives. I see codes scripted on the rubbled walls: Galrog signals?

“Wait,” goes Jade. “I’m starved.”

There is a liquor store a block away. We lift the door and twist it open, easy as breaking an arm. Nothing moves inside or on the street as our lights glide over rows of bottles. Broken glass snaps under our sneakers. The place smells drunk, and I’m getting that way from breathing. We find chips and candy bars that have survived under a counter, and we gulp them down in the doorway.

“So where’s the Galrog hideaway?” goes Jade, finishing a Fifth Avenue bar.

Just then we feel that little deep tug. This one whispers death. A team is letting us know that it has us surrounded.

HiLo goes, “Duck back.”

“No,” goes Slash. “No more hiding.”

We go slow to the door and look through. Shadows peel from the walls and streak from alley mouths. We’re sealed tight.

“Keep your blades back, Brothers.”

I never smashed with Galrogs; I see why Slash kept us away. They are tanked out with daystars, snappers, guns, and glory-stix. Even unarmed they would be fierce, with their fire-painted eyes, chopped topknots a dozen colors, and rainbow geometries tattooed across their faces. Most are dressed in black; all are on razor-toed roller skates.

Their feelings are masked from us behind a mesh of silent threats.

A low voice: “Come out if you plan to keep breathing.”

We move out, keeping together as the girls close tight. Jade raises his flashlight, but a Galrog with blue-triangled cheeks and purple-blond topknot kicks it from his hand. It goes spinning a crazy beam through his dark. There is not a scratch on Jade’s fingers. I keep my own light low.

A big Galrog rolls up. She looks like a cognibot slung with battery packs, wires running up and down her arms and through her afro, where she’s hung tin bells and shards of glass. She has a laser turret strapped to her head and a snapper in each hand.

She checks me and Jade over and out, then turns toward the slickers.

“Slicker HiLo and Slicker Slash,” she goes. “Cute match, but I thought Soooooots were hot for girlies.”

“Keep it short, Bala,” goes Slash. “The blocs are smashed.”

“So I see.” She smiles with black, acid-etched teeth. “Hevvies got stomped next door, and we got a new playground.”

“Have fun playing for a day or two,” goes HiLo. “The ones who squelched them are coming back for you.”

“Buildings squashed them. The end of the ramming world has been and gone. Where were you?”

“There’s a new team playing in Fun City,” HiLo goes.

Bala’s eyes turn to slits. “Ganging on us now, huh? That’s a getoff.”

“The Four Hundred Boys,” goes Jade.

“Enough to keep you busy!” She laughs and skates a half-circle. “Maybe.”

“They’re taking Fun City for their bloc—maybe all of it. They don’t play fair. Those Boys never heard of clean fun.”

“Skud,” she goes, and shakes her hair so tin bells shiver. “You blew cirks, kids.”

Slash knows that she is listening. “We’re calling all teams, Bala. We gotta save our skins now, and that means we need to find more hideaways, let more slickers know what’s up. Are you in or out?”

HiLo goes, “They smashed the Soooooots in thirty seconds flat.”

A shock wave passes down the street like the tail end of a whiplash from center city. It catches us all by surprise and our guards go down; Galrogs, Brothers, Soooooot—we are all afraid of those wreckers. It unites us just like that.

When the shock passes we look at one another with wide eyes.

All the unspoken Galrog threats are gone. We have to hang together.

“Let’s take these kids home,” goes Bala.

“Yeah, Mommy!”

With a whisper of skates, the Galrogs take off.

Our well-armed escort leads us through a maze of skate trails cleared in rubble.

“Boys, huh?” I hear Bala say to the other slickers. “We thought different.”

“What did you think?”

“Gods,” Bala goes.

“Gods!”

“God-things, mind-stuff. Old Mother looked into her mirror and saw a bonfire made out of cities. Remember before the blister tore? There were wars in the south, weirdbombs going off like firecrackers. Who knows what kind of stuff was cooking in all that blaze? “Old Mother said it was the end of the world, time for the ones outside to come through the cracks. They scooped all that energy and molded it into mass. Then they started scaring up storms, smashing. Where better to smash than Fun City?”

“End of the world?” goes HiLo. “Then why are we still here?”

Bala laughs. “You doob, how did you ever get to be a slicker? Nothing ever ends. Nothing.”

In ten minutes we come to a monster-mart pyramid with its lower mirror windows put back together in jigsaw shards.

Bala gives a short whistle, and double doors swing wide.

In we go.

The first thing I see are boxes of supplies heaped in the aisles, cookstoves burning, cots, and piles of blankets. I also spot a few people who can’t be Galrogs —like babies and a few grownups.

“We’ve been taking in survivors,” goes Bala. “Old Mother said that we should.” She shrugs.

Old Mother is ancient, I have heard. She lived through the plagues and came out on the side of the teams. She must be upstairs, staring in her mirror, mumbling.

Slash and HiLo look at each other. I cannot tell what they are thinking. Slash turns to me and Jade.

“Okay, Brothers, we’ve got work to do. Stick around.”

“Got anywhere to sleep?” Jade goes. The sight of all those cots and blankets made both of us feel tired.

Bala points at a dead escalator. “Show them the way, Shell.”

The Galrog with a blond topknot that’s streaked purple speeds down one aisle and leaps the first four steps of the escalator. She runs to the top without skipping a stroke and grins down from above.

“She’s an angel,” goes Jade.

There are more Galrogs at the top. Some girls are snoring along the walls.

Shell cocks her hips and laughs. “Never seen Brothers in a monstermart before.”

“Aw, my ma used to shop here,” goes Jade. He checks her up and over.

“What’d she buy? Your daddy?”

Jade sticks his thumb through his fist and wiggles it with a big grin. The other girls laugh but not Shell. Her blue eyes darken and her cheeks redden under the blue triangles. I grab Jade’s arm.

“Don’t waste it,” goes another Galrog.

“I’ll take the tip off for you,” goes Shell, and flashes a blade. “Nice and neat.”

I tug Jade’s arm, and he drops it.

“Come on, grab blankets,” goes Shell. “You can bed over there.”

We take our blankets to a corner, wrap up, and fall asleep close together. I dream of smoke.

It is still dark when Slash wakes us.

“Come on, Brothers, lots of work to do.”

Things have taken off, we see. The Galrogs know the hideaways of more teams than we ever heard of, some from outside Fun City. Runners have been at it all night, and things are busy now.

From uptown and downtown in a wide circle around 400th, they have called all who can come.

The false night of smoke goes on and on, no telling how long. It is still dark when Fun City starts moving.

Over hive and under street, by sewer, strip, and alleyway, we close in tourniquet-tight on 400th, where Soooooots ran a clean-fun bloc. From 1st to 1000th, Bayview Street to Riverrun Boulevard, the rubble scatters and the subtunnels swarm as Fun City moves. Brothers and Galrogs are joined by Ratbeaters, Drummers, Myrmies, and Kingpins, from Piltdown, Renfrew, and the Upperhand Hills. The Diablos cruise down with Chogs and Cholos, Sledges and Trimtones, JipJaps and A-V-Marias. Tints, Chix, RockoBoys, Gerlz, Floods, Zips, and Zaps. More than I can
remember.

It is a single team, the Fun City team, and all the names mean the same thing.

We Brothers walk shoulder to shoulder, with the last Soooooot among us.

Up the substairs we march to a blasted black surface. It looks like the end of the world, but we are still alive. I can hardly breathe for a minute, but I keep walking and let my anger boil.

Up ahead of us the Four Hundred Boys quiet down to a furnace roar.

By 395th we have scattered through cross streets into the Boys’ bloc.

When we reach 398th fire flares from hives ahead. There is a sound like a skyscraper taking its first step. A scream echoes high between the towers and falls to the street.

At the next corner, I see an arm stretched out under rubble. Around the wrist the cuff is jagged black and red.

“Go to it,” goes HiLo.

We step onto 400th and stare forever. I’ll never forget.

The streets we knew are gone. The concrete has been pulverized to gravel and dust, cracked up from underneath. Pyramid hives are baby volcano cones that hack smoke, ooze fire, and burn black scars in the broken earth. Towers hulk around the spitting volcanoes like buildings warming themselves under the blanked-out sky.

Were the Four Hundred Boys building a new city? If so, it would be much worse than death.

Past the fires we can see the rest of Fun City. We feel the team on all sides, a pulse of life connecting us, one breath.

HiLo has seen some of this before, but not all. He sheds no tears tonight.

He walks out ahead of us to stand black against the flames. He throws back his head and screams:

“Heeeeeey!”

A cone erupts between the monster buildings. It drowns him out; so he shouts even louder.

“Hey, you Four Hundred Boys!”

Shattered streetlights pop half to life. Over my head one explodes with a flash.

“This is our bloc, Four Hundred Boys!”

Galrogs and Trimtones beat on overturned cars. It gets my blood going.

“So you knocked in our hives, you Boys. So you raped our city.”

Our world. I think of the moon, and my eyes sting.

“So what?”

The streetlights black out. The earth shudders. The cones roar and vomit hot blood all over those buildings; I hear it sizzle as it drips.

Thunder talks among the towers.

“I bet you will never grow UP!”

Here they come.

All at once there are more buildings in the street. I had thought they were new buildings, but they are big Boys. Four hundred at least.

“Stay cool,” goes Slash.

The Four Hundred Boys thunder into our streets.

We move back through shadows into hiding places only we can reach.

The first Boys swing chains with links the size of skating rinks. Off come the tops of some nearby hives. The Boys cannot quite get at us from up there, but they can cover us with rubble.

They look seven or eight years old for all their size, and there is still baby pudge on their long, sweaty faces. Their eyes have a vicious shine like boys that age get when they are pulling the legs off a bug — laughing wild but freaked and frightened by what they see their own hands doing. They look double deadly because of that. They are on fire under their skin, fever yellow.

They look more frightened than us. Fear is gone from the one team. We reach out at them as they charge, sending our power from all sides. We chant, but I do not know if there are any words; it is a cry. It might mean, “Take us if you can, Boys; take us at our size.”

I feel as if I have touched a cold, yellow blaze of fever; it sickens me, but the pain lets me know how real it is. I find strength in that; we all do. We hold onto the fire, sucking it away, sending it down through our feet into the earth.

The Boys start grinning and squinting. They seem to be squeezing inside out. The closest ones start shrinking, dropping down to size with every step.

We keep on sucking and spitting the fever. The fire passes through us. Our howling synchronizes.

The Boys keep getting smaller all the time, smaller and dimmer. Little kids never know when to stop. Even when they are burned out, they keep going.

As we fall back the first Boy comes down to size. One minute he is taller than the hives; then he hardly fills the street. A dozen of his shrinking pals fill in on either side. They whip their chains and shriek at the sky like screaming cutouts against the downtown fires.

They break past HiLo in the middle of the street and head for us. Now they are twice our size . . . now just right.

This I can handle.

“Smash!” yells Slash.

One Boy charges me with a wicked black curve I can’t see till it’s whispering in my ear. I duck fast and come up faster where he doesn’t expect me.

He goes down soft and heavy, dead. The sick, yellow light throbs out with his blood, fades on the street.

I spin to see Jade knocked down by a Boy with an ax. There is nothing I can do but stare as the black blade swings high.

Shrill whistle. Wheels whirring.

A body sails into the Boy and flattens him out with a footful of razors and ballbearings. Purple-blond topknot and a big grin. The Galrog skips high and stomps his hatchet hand into cement, leaving stiff fingers curling around mashed greenish blood and bones.

Shell laughs at Jade and takes off.

I run over and yank him to his feet. Two Boys back away into a dark alley that lights up as they go in. We start after, but they have already been fixed by Quazis and Drummers lying in wait.

Jade and I turn away.

HiLo still stares down the street. One Boy has stood tall, stronger than the rest and more resistant to our power. He raps a massive club in his hand.

“Come on, slicker” HiLo calls. “You remember me, don’t you?”

The biggest of the Boys comes down, eating up the streets. We concentrate on draining him, but he shrinks more slowly than the others.

His club slams the ground. Boom! Me and some Galrogs land on our asses. The club creases a hive, and cement sprays over us, glass sings through the air.

HiLo does not move. He waits with red-and-black lightning bolts serene, both hands empty.

The big slicker swings again, but now his head only reaches to the fifth floor of an Rx. HiLo ducks as the club streaks over and turns a storefront window into dust.

The Soooooot’s scalpel glints into his hand. He throws himself at the Boy’s ankle and grabs on tight.

He slashes twice. The Boy screams like a cat. Neatest hamstringing you ever saw.

The screaming Boy staggers and kicks out hard enough to flip HiLo across the street into the metal cage of a shop window. HiLo lands in a heap of impossible angles and does not move again. Slash cries out. His gun shouts louder. One blood-silver shot. It leaves a shining line in the smoky air.

The Boy falls over and scratches the cement till his huge fingertips bleed. His mouth gapes wide as a manhole, his eyes stare like the broken windows all around. His pupils are slit like a poison snake’s, his face long and dark, hook-nosed.

God or boy, he is dead. Like some of us.

Five Drummers climb over the corpse for the next round, but with their slickie dead the Boys are not up to it. The volcanoes belch as though they too are giving up.

The survivors stand glowing in the middle of their bloc. A few start crying, and that is a sound I cannot spell. It makes Crybaby start up. He sits down in cement, sobbing through his fingers. His tears are the color of an oil rainbow on wet asphalt.

We keep on sucking up the fever glow, grounding it all in the earth.

The Boys cry louder, out of pain. They start tearing at each other, running in spirals, and a few leap into the lava that streams from the pyramids.

The glow shrieks out of control, out of our hands, gathering between the Boys with its last strength — ready to pounce.

It leaps upward, a hot snake screaming into the clouds.

Then the Boys drop dead and never move again.

A hole in the ceiling of smoke. The dark-blue sky peeks through, turning pale as the smoke thins. The Boys’ last scream dies out in the dawn.

The sun looks bruised, but there it is. Hiya up there!

“Let’s get to it,” goes Slash. “Lots of cleanup ahead.” He has been crying. I guess he loved HiLo like a Brother. I wish I could say something.

We help one another up. Slap shoulders and watch the sun come out gold and orange and blazing white. I don’t have to tell you it looks good, teams.

THE END

 

“400 Boys” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 1983 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Omni Magazine, November 1983.

Dreams of a Dead Singer

January 19th, 2016

Dreams of a Dead Singer

Cell Call

January 19th, 2016

CELL CALL

 

He wasn’t used to the cell phone yet, and when it rang in the car there was a moment of uncomfortable juggling and panic as he dug down one-handed into the pocket of his jacket, which he’d thrown onto the passenger seat. He nipped the end of the antenna in his teeth and pulled, fumbling for the “on” button in the dark, hoping she wouldn’t hang up before he figured this out. Then he had to squeeze the phone between ear and shoulder because he needed both hands to finish the turn he’d been slowing to make when the phone rang. He realized then that for a moment he’d had his eyes off the road. He was not someone who could drive safely while conducting a conversation, and she ought to know that. Still, she’d insisted he get a cell phone. So here he was.

“Hello?” he said, knowing he sounded frantic.

“Hi.” It was her. “Where are you?”

“I’m in the car.”

“Where?”

“Does it matter that much?”

“I only meant, are you on your way home? Because if you are I wanted to see if you could pick up a pack of cigarettes. If you have money.”

“I’m on my way home, yes.” He squinted through the window for a familiar landmark, but considering the turn he’d just taken, he knew he was on a stretch of older suburban road where the streetlights were infrequent. There was parkland here, somewhere, and no houses visible. “But I don’t think there’s a store between here and home.”

“You’ll pass one on the way.”

“How do you know which way I went?”

“There’s only one way to go.”

“No there isn’t.”

“If you have any sense, there is.”

“I have to get off. I can’t drive and talk at the same time. I’m driving the stickshift, remember?”

“If you don’t want to then forget it.”

“No, I don’t mind. I’ll take a detour.”

“Just forget it. Come home. I’ll go out later.”

“No, really. I’ll get them.”

“Whatever. Goodbye.”

He took the phone out of the vise he’d made with jaw and shoulder. His neck was already starting to cramp, and he didn’t feel safe driving with his head at such an angle, everything leaning on its side. He had to hold the phone out in front of him a bit to be sure the light had gone out. It had. The read-out still glowed faintly, but the connection was broken. He dropped the phone onto the seat beside him, onto the jacket.

The parkland continued for another few blocks. The headlights caught in a tangle of winter-bared hedges and stripped branches thrusting out into the street so far that they hid the sidewalk. It would be nice to find a house this close to woods, a bit of greenbelt held in perpetuity for when everything else had been bought up and converted into luxury townhouses. If all went well then in the next year, maybe less, they’d be shopping for a house in the area. Something close to his office but surrounded by trees, a view of mountains, maybe a stream running behind the house. It was heaven here but still strange, and even after six months most of it remained unfamiliar to him. She drove much more than he did, keeping busy while he was at work; she knew all the back roads already. He had learned one or two fairly rigid routes between home and office and the various shopping strips. Now with winter here, and night falling so early, he could lose himself completely the moment he wandered from a familiar route.

That seemed to be the case now. In the dark, without any sort of landmark visible except for endless bare limbs, he couldn’t recognize his surroundings. The houses that should have been lining the streets by now were nowhere to be seen, and the road itself was devoid of markings: No center line, no clean curb or gutter. Had he turned into the parkland, off the main road? He tried to think back, but part of his memory was a blank—and for good reason. When the phone rang he’d lost track of everything else. There had been a moment when he was fumbling around in the dark, looking at the seat next to him, making a turn at a traffic light without making sure it was the right light. He could have taken the wrong turn completely.

But he hadn’t turned since then. It still wasn’t too late to backtrack.

He slowed the car, then waited to make sure no headlights were coming up behind him. Nothing moved in either direction. The road was narrow—definitely not a paved suburban street. Branches scraped the hood as he pulled far to the right, readying the car for a tight turn, his headlights raking the brittle shadows. He paused for a moment and rolled the window down, and then turned back the key in the ignition to shut off the motor. Outside, with the car quieted, it was hushed. He listened for the barking of dogs, the sigh of distant traffic, but heard nothing. A watery sound, as if the parkland around him were swamp or marsh, lapping at the roots of the trees that hemmed him in. He wasn’t sure that he had room to actually turn around; the road was narrower than he’d thought. He had better just back up until it widened.

He twisted the key and heard nothing. Not even a solenoid click. He put his foot on the gas and the pedal went straight to the floor, offering no resistance. The brake was the same. He stamped on the clutch, worked the gearshift through its stations—but the stick merely swiveled then lolled to the side when he released it. The car had never felt so useless.

He sat for a moment, not breathing, the thought of the repair bills surmounting the sudden heap of new anxieties. A walk in the dark, to a gas station? First, the difficulty of simply getting back to the road. Did he have a flashlight in the glove box? Was he out of gas? Would he need a jump-start or a tow? In a way, it was a relief that he was alone, because his own fears were bad enough without hers overwhelming him.

He started again, checking everything twice. Ignition, pedals, gears. All useless. At least the headlights and the dashboard were still shining. He rolled up the window and locked the door. How long should he sit here? Who was going to come along and…

The phone.

Jesus, the cell phone. How he had put off buying one, in spite of her insistence. He didn’t care for the feeling that someone might always have tabs on him, that he could never be truly alone. What was it people were so afraid of, how could their lives be so empty, and their solitude of so little value, that they had to have a phone with them at every minute, had to keep in constant chattering contact with someone, anyone? Ah, how he had railed at every driver he saw with the phone in one hand and the other lying idly on the steering wheel. And now, for the first time, he turned to the damned thing with something like hope and relief. He wasn’t alone in this after all.

The cell phone had some memory but he’d never programmed it because he relied on his own. He dialed his home number and waited through the rings, wondering if she was going to leave the answering machine to answer, as she sometimes did—especially if they had been fighting and she expected him to call back. But she answered after three rings.

“It’s me,” he said.

“And?” Cold. He was surprised she hadn’t left the machine on after all.

“And my car broke down.”

“It what?”

“Right after you called me, I got…” He hesitated to say lost; he could anticipate what sort of response that would get out of her. “I got off the regular track and I was looking to turn around and the engine died. Now it won’t start.”

“The regular track? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that I, uh—“

“You got lost.” The scorn, the condescension. “Where are you?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Can you look at a street sign? Do you think you could manage that much or am I supposed to figure out everything myself?”

“I don’t see any,” he said. “I’m just wondering if something happened to the engine, maybe I could take a look.”

“Oh, right. Don’t be ridiculous. What do you know about cars?”

He popped the hood and got out of the car. It was an excuse to move, to pace. He couldn’t sit still when she was like this. It was as if he thought he’d be harder to hit if he made a moving target of himself. Now he raised the hood and leaned over it, saying, “Ah,” as if he’d discovered something. But all he could see beneath the hood was darkness, as if something had eaten away the workings of the car. The headlights streamed on either side of his legs, losing themselves in the hedges, but their glare failed to illuminate whatever was directly before his eyes.

“Uh…”

“You don’t know what you’re looking at.”

“It’s too dark,” he said. “There aren’t any streetlights here.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Maybe I got into a park or something. Just a minute.” He slammed the hood, wiped his gritty feeling fingers on his legs, and went back to the door. “There are lots of roads around here with no lights…it’s practically…” He pressed the door handle. “…wild…”

At his lengthy silence, she said, “What is it?”

“Uh…just a sec.”

The door was locked. He peered into the car, and could see the keys dangling in the ignition. He tried the other doors, but they were also locked. They were power doors, power windows, power locks. Some kind of general electrical failure, probably a very small thing, had rendered the car completely useless. Except for the headlights?

“What is it?” she said again.

“The keys…are in…the car.” He squeezed hard on the door handle, wrenching at it, no luck.

“Do you mean you’re locked out?”

“I, uh, do you have the insurance card? The one with the emergency service number on it?”

“I have one somewhere. Where’s yours?”

“In the glove box.”

“And you’re locked out.”

“It looks that way.”

Her silence was recrimination enough. And here came the condescension:   “All right, stay where you are. I’ll come get you. We can call the truck when I’m there, or wait until morning. I was just about to get in bed, but I’ll come and bring you home. Otherwise you’ll just get soaked.”

Soaked, he thought, tipping his head to the black sky. He had no sense of clouds or stars, no view of either one. It was just about the time she’d have been lying in bed watching the news; there must have been rain in the forecast. And here he was, locked out, with no coat.

“How are you going to find me?” he asked.

“There are only so many possible wrong turns you could have taken.”

“I don’t even remember any woods along this road. “

“That’s because you never pay attention.”

“It was right past the intersection with the big traffic light.”

“I know exactly where you are.”

“I got confused when you called me,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at the road. Anyway, you’ll see my headlights.”

“I have to throw on some clothes. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

It was an unusually protracted farewell for such a casual conversation. He realized that he was holding the phone very tightly in the dark, cradling it against his cheek and ear as if he were holding her hand to his face, feeling her skin cool and warm at the same time. And now there was no further word from her. Connection broken.

He had to fight the impulse to dial her again, instantly, just to reassure himself that the phone still worked—that she was still there. He could imagine her ridicule; he was slowing her down, she was trying to get dressed, he was causing yet another inconvenience on top of so many others.

With the conversation ended, he was forced to return his full attention to his surroundings.   He listened, heard again the wind, the distant sound of still water. Still water which made sounds only when it lapped against something, or when something waded through it. He couldn’t tell one from the other right now. He wished he were still inside the car, with at least that much protection.

She was going to find him. He’d been only a few minutes, probably less than a mile, from home. She would be here any time.

He waited, expecting raindrops. The storm would come, it would short out his phone. There was absolutely no shelter on the empty road, now that he had locked himself out of it. He considered digging for a rock, something big enough to smash the window, so he could pull the lock and let himself in. But his mistake was already proving costly enough; he couldn’t bring himself to compound the problem. Anyway, it wasn’t raining yet. And she would be here any minute now.

It was about time to check in with her, he thought. She had to be in her car by now. Did he need a better excuse for calling her?

Well, here was one: The headlights were failing.

Just like that, as if they were on a dimmer switch. Both at once, darkening, taken down in less than a minute to a dull stubborn glow. It was a minute of total helpless panic; he was saved from complete horror only by the faint trace of light that remained. Why didn’t they go out all the way? By the time he’d asked himself this, he realized that his wife had now lost her beacon. That was news. It was important to call her now.

He punched the redial number. That much was easy. The phone rang four times and the machine answered, and then he had to suppress himself from smashing the phone on the roof of the car. She wouldn’t be at home, would she? She’d be on the road by now, looking for him, cruising past dark lanes and driveways, the entrance to some wooded lot, hoping to see his stalled headlights—and there would be none.

What made all this worse was that he couldn’t remember the number of her cell phone. He refused to call her on it, arguing that she might be driving if he called her, and he didn’t want to cause an accident.

Should he…head away from the car? Blunder back along the dark road without a flashlight until he came in sight of the street? Wouldn’t she be likely to spot him coming down the road, a pale figure stumbling through the trees, so out of place?

But he couldn’t bring himself to move away. The car was the only familiar thing in his world right now.

There was no point breaking the window. The horn wouldn’t sound if the battery had died. No point in doing much of anything now. Except wait for her to find him.

Please call, he thought. Please please please call. I have something to tell—

The phone chirped in his hand. He stabbed the on button.

“Yes?”

“I’m coming,” she said.

“The headlights just died,” he said. “You’re going to have to look closely. For a…a dark road, a park entrance maybe…”

“I know,” she said, her voice tense. He pictured her leaning forward, driving slowly, squinting out the windshield at the streetsides. “The rain’s making it hard to see a damn thing.”

“Rain,” he said. “It’s raining where you are?”

“Pouring.”

“Then…where are you? It’s dry as a bone here.” Except for the sound of water, the stale exhalation of the damp earth around him.

“I’m about three blocks from the light.”

“Where I was turning?”

“Where you got turned around. It’s all houses here. I thought there was park. There is some park, just ahead…that’s what I was thinking off. But…”

He listened, waiting. And now he could hear her wipers going, sluicing the windshield; he could hear the sizzle of rain under her car’s tires. A storm. He stared at the sky even harder than before. Nothing up there. Nothing coming down.

“But what?” he said finally.

“There’s a gate across the road. You couldn’t have gone through there.”

“Check it,” he said. “Maybe it closed behind me.”

“I’m going on,” she said. “I’ll go to the light and start back, see if I missed anything.”

“Check the gate.”

“It’s just a park, it’s nothing. You’re in woods, you said?”

“Woods, marsh, parkland, something. I’m on a dirt road. There are…bushes all around, and I can hear water.”

“Ah….”

What was that in her voice?

“I can…wait a minute…I thought I could see you, but…”

“What?” He peered into the darkness. She might be looking at him even now, somehow seeing him while he couldn’t see her.

“It isn’t you,” she said. “It’s, a car, like yours, but…it’s not yours. That…that’s not you, that’s not your…”

“What’s going on?” The headlights died all the way down.

“Please, can you keep on talking to me?” she said. “Can you please just keep talking to me and don’t stop for a minute?”

“What’s the matter? Tell me what’s going on?”

“I need to hear you keep talking, please, please,” and whatever it was in her voice that was wrenching her, it wrenched at him too, it was tearing at both of them in identical ways, and he knew he just had to keep talking. He had to keep her on the phone.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Whatever it is. I won’t make you stop and tell me now, if you don’t want to talk, if you just want to listen,” he said. “I love you,” he said, because surely she needed to hear that. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’m just, I wish you could talk to me but—“

“No, you talk,” she said. “I have to know you’re all right, because this isn’t, that’s not, it can’t be…”

“Sh. Shhh. I’m talking now.”

“Tell me where you are again.”

“I’m standing by my car,” he said. “I’m in a dark wooded place, there’s some water nearby, a pond or marsh judging from the sound, and it’s not raining, it’s kind of warm and damp but it’s not raining. It’s quiet. It’s dark. I’m not…I’m not afraid,” and that seemed an important thing to tell her, too. “I’m just waiting, I’m fine, I’m just waiting here for you to get to me, and I know you will. Everything will be…fine.”

“It’s raining where I am,” she said. “And I’m…” She swallowed. “And I’m looking at your car.”

Static, then, a cold blanket of it washing out her voice. The noise swelled, peaked, subsided, and the phone went quiet. He pushed the redial button, then remembered that she had called him and not the other way round. It didn’t matter, though. The phone was dead. He wouldn’t be calling anyone, and no one would be calling him.

I’ll walk back to that road now, he thought. While there’s still a chance she can find me.

He hefted the cell phone, on the verge of tossing it overhand out into the unseen marshes. But there was always a chance that some faint spark remained inside it; that he’d get a small blurt of a ring, a wisp of her voice, something. He put it in a pocket so he wouldn’t lose it in the night.

He tipped his face to the sky and put out his hand before he started walking.

Not a drop.

It’s raining where I am, and I’m looking at your car.

The End

“Cell Call” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 2003 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in By Moonlight Only, PS Publishing, edited by Stephen Jones (October 2003).

Jimmy Carter of Mars

January 19th, 2016
“The truth is that the Thern have had — and still have — an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate the green-skinned Thark and copper-skinned humans of Helium. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of Thark and egg-bearing humans throughout the Martian world.”

The Black Bus

January 19th, 2016

THE BLACK BUS

Driver approached the main gates, hunched low against the cold clouds and the eerie onrush of music that crept out over the escarpments of the amphitheater, thin groping notes like the claws of wintry trees made of black sound. Colored lights, auroral, pulsed against the clouds in time to the music, reminding him of something older than memories of childhood Hell-dreams. He imagined his grandfather’s evangelical words driving down at him like a pelting brimstone hail, and thought how the old man would see the theater as a concession erected around the mouth of Hell, into which the damned were lured with music and screams which passage through the gates had transfigured into wild, seductive laughter. He pulled up his collar against the storm of invisible coals, and wished he could have stayed in the bus. But it had broken down completely, the prognosis was terrible, and he needed help.

He glanced back at the old bus, cold now in the mountain moonlight and the distant moth-battered glare of the stadium lights, far out at a corner of the lot among a dozen other buses not quite as full of memories, though equally lurid: paisleys, spirals, fractal swirls in luminous paints. An anachronism, a retrograde voyager, an affront to the new serious spirit of reform. Do drugs! — it seemed to tell all the little children who followed its progress on the back roads, delighting in its psychedelic colors. Run from home and join the circus! Following the Group was the same thing.

Turning back toward the gates, he saw another bus pulling in before the amphitheater, brakes squealing and then a gasping hiss of air as it stopped almost directly in his path. Gleaming black, with a long row of square windows all seemingly cut from warm yellow parchment. Its black surface was weirdly textured in diamond-shapes, oblique facets that turned light back on itself: like a stealth-bus, invisible to enemy detection. He walked around it cautiously, watching it over his shoulder, expecting the front door to open — anxious, in fact, to see the driver sitting up in the high seat at the top of the steps.

“Tickets,” said a voice, and he whirled to find himself in the shadow of the gate. A flashlight caught and held his hands in glare, making the hairs stand out like abrupt shards of spun glass, the blemishes suddenly malign. He jerked his hands out of the light and plunged them into his pocket as if to spare them such scrutiny, but actually searching for the plastic pass that had been his for longer than he could remember.

The torch, its bearer still unseen, waved him in, opening a path into the cement tunnel strewn with torn tickets, broken bottles, pools of piss with cigarette butts disintegrating in them. He hurried, but the beam deserted him. Laughter, and then a low growling that might have been nothing worse than some enormous old man clearing his throat. He walked around the sound of breathing, kicked a crushed can skittering, walked into a solid wall of stench and sound. He didn’t need to see the Group. Their music was everywhere. He brushed cobwebs from his face and stepped out into the amphitheater.

Bodies like an ocean, like a breaking wave of souls caught in mid-curl, rushed away beneath him to fill the vast pool of the theater, curving up and around, reaching to the sky on all sides, energized by the pulsing light. All of them dancing, swaying, caught in the trance of the music. From down here the clouds looked like a vaporous cover thrown over the theater. Looking up made him dizzy, his vision lined with a funnel of possessed faces staring down at him — past him, really, toward the stage. He shuddered and followed their eyes with his own, knowing that was where he could always find his charges.

The Group was so much smaller than its music. Tiny figures, although of jewel-like clarity even in the smoky distances of the theater, they bent above their instruments, hardly moving anything but arms and fingers. He had seen them often enough to know their eyes were closed, their mouths fixed in grave and urgent expressions. So they would remain until some shrieking inspiration bore its way through them, when their heads went back and their eyes bulged and words spirited from their throats in desperate harmonies. — But that was always later. This early on, the concert was a voyage in its infancy, almost plodding still. It was perhaps the only time he would be able to find his riders. Earlier, the place would have been a riot of people vying for position; later it would be a frenzy. Things were relatively subdued.

He found a stairway leading down into the sunken center of the arena; it was covered in bodies, worshipers who hardly acknowledged his presence, barely allowed him to pass. They resented his worming passage, thinking that he sought to put himself closer to the source of the music. If they had known how little he wished this, they would have laughed in disbelief. Often he was forced to halt and wait for a new path to open; and then he would feel himself trapped with the music, suffocating in it. People all around him, eyes rolled back, heads whipping from side to side, and himself deaf to it. Afraid they might recognize that he was not one of them.

Finally he pulled himself free of strangers, seeing faces he recognized just ahead, mere yards from the elevated heights of the stage. They were together there, packed close as if for protection, the eternal pilgrims. No doubt there were other such clusters scattered through the theater, but these were his own. Driver had grown fond of them, if not their music. The object of their devotions — the Group — meant nothing more to him than a steady job, travel, food, companionship. He could as easily have been driving a limousine or a schoolbus, or delivering parcels door to door — in which case, he would never have experienced the strangeness of such nights. The awareness of how close he had come to missing this particular life lessened his dread of the crowd. He felt almost at home here, through familiarity.

As he pushed his way toward Sonora — her blond hair streaming back, metal rivets threaded through the strands, long strips of gleaming tattooed scalp showing above the wildly colored scarves she wore — a fearful face thrust toward him. A skinny young man, bearded and pale, his hair tom into tatters, his eyes wide with horror. Screaming not with the music, which might have been appropriate later in the night, but in time to some sinister rhythm of his own making.

He collided with Driver, who would have fallen if not for the congestion of bodies holding him upright. “It’s happening again!” he howled, staring desperately into Driver’s eyes. “I can’t stop it — make it stop! I always forget!”

Driver flinched away from the apparition, anxious to avoid contact. The kid reached toward him, then drew back himself, his eyes already wandering. “No,” he muttered, and Driver knew he was in the depths of some drug-inspired nightmare. There were people in these crowds whose minds had cracked and would never heal. People who appeared only in this context, screaming prophesy, gripped by visions, having no relation to the outside world, the world of day. This one sank to his knees, forcing the heels of his hands up into his eye sockets, wrenching them violently as if pushing something in or jarring something loose. “No, this is the first time,” he said. Then he staggered upright again and stumbled on, chewed up in the mill of flesh. To Driver he was vaguely familiar; he had probably glimpsed him rushing through the crowds on his stoned jeremiad on other nights, during other shows.

By now Sonora had noticed Driver, and she pointed him out to the others, who drew him into their midst in a sheltered spot they had made of their bodies, a haven woven of flesh and bone. It was difficult to hear them in the din, for the music was building now, cresting toward some peak he did not wish to witness. But they made him welcome with looks and gestures and squeezes on his arms and shoulders. No doubt they thought he was becoming one of them, that the music had finally done its trick and lured him in. In a spirit of companionship, Sonora put her mouth to his ear and said, “Try this.”

She opened her palm under his eyes, and in it was a little foil pack. She opened that, and in among the silver creases he saw a thing like a stylized teardrop the color of blood, a three-dimensional paisley, gelatinous, specks of light sculling through it. She lifted it by the curled tail, like a tadpole, and laid it on his palm. He could sense what was in it, and instantly panicked, gripping the droplet as if to crush it.

“We all did it,” she reassured him. “It’s just coming on, we won’t be too far ahead of you.”

“No,” he said. And then, because it didn’t register, he screamed it.

She drew back slightly to show her amusement. “It’s not what you think,” she shouted. “This is new.”

He shook his head firmly. “The bus is dead. We need a decent mechanic — we need parts, and a ride to find them. We need help. Help!”

While he was shouting, Sonora peeled back the fingers of his hand one by one; he ignored her silly game until he had finished shouting, and then, because she was staring at his palm, he too looked down and saw the small reddish stain where the teardrop had been. Even as he looked, it squirmed away into his skin, drunk in as if the flesh were dry earth touched by rain.

At the sight, he began to forget his errand. He forgot where he was, who he was. “Why” became the real concern, but when he asked it of Sonora and the others — Chad and Parky, Selene and Yvette and Dietch — they stilled him with their hands and buffeted him into the dance, until he no longer questioned anything. He gave up his will, if he had ever had it.

It was merciful, for a time, to escape his dread and innate skepticism, his constant sense of something going wrong. But his anxiety did not end, exactly — only changed, uncurling like the tail-end of that paisley, and left him weaving through the gates again, this time one of a hushed line, holding hands in long chains like human molecules, everyone deserting the theater silently, the entire crowd speaking in whispers or not at all. Something vast slept behind them, and they departed quietly so as not to wake it.

The matter of the bus had already been discussed, he discovered, as with gestures Sonora indicated they were to board not their own defunct vehicle but the black bus that had pulled up by the amphitheater gate. Apparently there was room for them in it, and he went along, though he would not be the driver of this bus. And that was something of a relief, too. It had been so long since he’d been able to sit back and simply watch the changing roadside. He had always felt so responsible for everything. . . .

Inside was pleasant contrast to the inky, angular black exterior. Here it was all warmth and glow, soft pillows and cushions spread everywhere, low bunks overhead for sleeping, plenty of blankets for the cold nights of traveling. He slipped off his shoes and went on hands and knees onto the padded platform, crawling toward the back of the bus, the warm rumbling cave above the engine. In his own dilapidated vehicle, the engine had growled under the hood, always up in front of him. It was less efficient, but he missed it for a moment. Curled against a pillow, eyes shut, he dreamed a clear picture of the other bus as it had been, new and freshly painted, when he’d first hired on as its driver. Years ago, and thousands of miles behind him, that had been. He realized — had known all along, tonight, without admitting it till now — that it would never be fixed. The old bus was dead.

Now the passengers of the black bus, those who had invited them aboard some unknown time during the show (as if their plight had communicated itself osmotically), pulled down black shades, as though no spark of light could be permitted out. Sonora and Chad joined in the effort, but Driver was content not to move.

I wonder, he thought, since I’m apparently not the driver of this bus, I wonder if I get to keep my name.

*

They were all passengers now, Sonora thought, watching Driver, halfway convinced (but never quite) that she was sharing his thoughts. His fear was obvious enough, betrayed by his stiff posture, as he lay among the cushions like a wooden martyr marionette dropped down from a cross to which it was still attached by strings. His mind barked out loud warnings; he felt threatened, but it was easing.

She smiled and put her hand on his breast. “It’s strange for you, not driving, isn’t it?”

“We’re not moving yet,” he said with a wry smile, as if he had seen into her intentions.

“Yes we are,” said Sonora.

Sonora could still remember her name, which was more than she could say of the others on the bus. She wasn’t sure about all of them; and they didn’t seem exactly sure of themselves. Chad she remembered; Yvette, yes — and the one who called himself Neuron. Or did she know Neuron? Hadn’t for long, actually. He’d come up to them during the concert, right after Driver had said he needed help.

“Join us on the bus out front,” he’d whispered in her ear. “We’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

He wore a cowboy hat, which, for a guy who called himself Neuron, was an odd thing. But the crown of the hat was transparent, clipped away and replaced with a transparent dome which crisply replicated the crease down the center of a Stetson. And down in that dome you could see lights moving and pulsing inside a plastic model of a human brain. At least she hoped it was plastic.

“It’s not plastic, you know,” he’d said right away, as if she’d asked audibly. “It’s laminated so you can look right in. Just as tough as my old skull.”

“You go around like that?” she said.

“Sometimes I wear a regular hat, like when I’m working in bright lights. But on nights like this I like to keep the top down and . . . ‘just let the lights shine!’”

The last of his words were a line from a song the Group was singing right at that exact same instant.

“So how do I know which bus is yours?” she leaned and asked him.

“Can’t miss it. She’s black and weirdly angled, as you’d say.”

“I’d say? You said it.”

Now he was putting himself down beside her, his cowboy hat tossed off, and wrapping a black bandanna kerchief around his head. The neural lights had dimmed anyway. She vaguely remembered seeing his brain bobbing along way up ahead in the dark tunnel as they were seeping out of the amphitheater, the last chords of music hanging behind them like a bubble about to burst. She had followed him dreaming of nightlights. “I don’t suppose you have any wisdom pills, do you?” he asked.

She pulled a vaporizer out of her pocket. “Will this do?”

“Hafta.”

When he could speak again, he did so raspingly. “Who’s your friend there? The comfortable one.”

“That’s Driver,” Sonora said. She couldn’t tell if he was asleep or just pretending. The motion of the bus lulled him. She realized it was probably the first time he had ever allowed himself to sleep on a moving bus. My God, she thought. The most basic pleasure of the journey and he’s never experienced it until now, no wonder he seemed so uncomfortable all the time.

Driver opened his eyes and looked at them.

“What kind of bus is this?” he said.

“You’ll be sorry you asked that question,” Neuron said.

Sonora had ominous intimations of an unspeakable horror about to be revealed. No sooner had Neuron spoken his warning than an old man near the front of the bus began to talk, twisting his leathery neck around so the cords twined together.

“This is the only kind of bus there is,” the old man said.

“That there’s Crouch,” said Neuron. “And you just started him on his favorite subject.”

“It’s not my favorite — not by a long shot,” Crouch said, knee-walking toward them. “But it’s one on which I have many opinions.”

“That’s what I meant,” Neuron said.

“They’re not the same thing, what you said and what you meant.”

“Crouch, you make my brain tired.”

“And it makes my soul weary looking at you, Cerebrus.”

“What was that again?” Sonora asked, looking on amazed at this stream of bickering, which suggested old well-worn rots in the relationship between these men, so that she doubted they could ever talk to one another in any other way — had they even wanted to.

“Cerebrus. The Spectacular Transparent Head. The Mind-Body split made manifest.”

“I have many opinions about buses, too,” Driver said. “I’ve thought about them a lot, while I was driving. But this isn’t like riding on any bus I can imagine. This is like moving on waves, just soft little swells over the sea . . . or a big lake.”

“Or a river,” said the old man. “A river’s more like it.”

Then “Look!” said Yvette at one of the windows, peering out through a tiny spyslot she’d lifted beneath the shades. “It’s our bus!”

Sonora turned around and made herself one of the eyeholes. They were coming down from the mountains, narrow curving roads winding around and switching back, wriggling down the slopes. They were out of the cool dark trees, the pines and rivers and rocks. This was the arid desolate place above the foothills, the place where nothing grew but weeds and aluminum guardrails. She had always hated this part of the road — of any mountain road. This was where the dust beat itself senseless, blowing in from the plains; or where the salt fell, whisked in off the sea. Nothing moved here but headlights.

On the switchback below — moving past, under them, and then in the opposite direction — she finally saw their bus. Unmistakable. And there were people in it.

“Hey,” she said. “Driver, I thought you said the bus was broken.”

His face darkened in a scowl. “I know that bus,” he said. “And it died tonight.”

“Maybe it hasn’t, yet.”

Sonora looked over at Neuron, but only briefly. His smile, like his words, puzzled her. She went back to watching the bus below. Headlights vanished around a curve, came out again, continued to weave. The air was full of dust or smoke, so she could see the beams swinging back and forth.

Driver pushed up next to her. “What are you looking at?”

“Just what Yvette said. It looks like

“It can’t be our bus.”

“That’s what it looks like, I’m sorry.”

“It can’t be our bus.”

He looked anyway.

Someone up front switched on a radio and music came out of the scattered speakers. It was the Group, predictably, broadcast from the microsatellite they owned, which all the pilgrim buses picked up with a special antenna. Sonora hardly heard it, it had been background music for so long. But she noticed when the broadcast cut off suddenly.

Suddenly was hardly the word for it.

The tune died with a scream, then a hysterical wailing and clamoring. Voices in panic and terror. “No!” someone shouted. “No, my God!”

“No — no!”

Screams. Then a clearer voice, only slightly stronger than the others, high and nasal, a man: “This is a report — hello, are you there? Anyone? I’m reporting live from the airfield where the Group was just now departing. It’s hard to be sure, but we just saw — everyone waiting out here is afraid of it —”

For a moment the sane voice was drowned out by shrieking that completely overwhelmed everything else. He moved away or somehow regained control — at least of himself, at least for the moment. “Oh my god, yes, it’s apparently true. We saw a fireball — well, heard a horrible sound, first, hard to describe — impossible to describe, I’d have to say — sort of a metal scraping and then a crumpling crash — and then that fireball, an explosion that is now pouring up into the sky.

“Brothers and sisters, I do not want to be the one to tell you this, but I saw them with my own eyes and I have the microphone now, so my voice is going to have to be the one to say it. I saw them board that plane a few minutes before it took off. I would like to tell you that they were not on it, but I saw all of them go in, and then the door closed and the ladder pulled away and the plane started to taxi off down the runway into the darkness, so I could only see its running lights moving across the field. It was very dark out there, everyone. I don’t know if another plane came in out of nowhere or if the Group’s plane just didn’t get off the ground in time . . . or if something else went wrong. But I can see a giant wing or a tail sticking up out of the flames; that’s all I can see through the smoke. That’s all I can tell you now, my friends . . . my poor friends. My God . . . I’m so sorry for all of us.”

Silence in the black bus, indecipherable. Sonora knew that she and Yvette and Chad and Driver were all looking out their windows at their own bus on the road below, but somehow none of this seemed real. What they were hearing, what they were seeing — none of it.

Their crazy, colorful bus’s headlights drove in and around, wove sharply once, twice, and again. In an instant — it happened that fast — Sonora saw the bus speed up and go out of control. The turn ahead was sharp and lit too late, and whoever drove was not thinking of the road.

“You idiot!” Driver said, yelling down at the bus as if he could save it with a word.

But he couldn’t. None of them could have done anything to stop it going over the edge. The disaster had begun when the Group got onto the plane; now it was only spreading, a shockwave, carrying all of them with it.

“Shut those shades now,” Crouch said firmly.

“But — but —”

“I said shut those shades!” the old man insisted.

“Come on.” Neuron was up next to her now, gently taking the shade out of her fingers, sealing it down again. “Crouch knows.”

“What’s happening here?” Driver yelled at them.

It had to be asked, eventually. Sonora was not so sure it would ever be answered.

The speakers shut off and the lights dimmed drastically. Only a few little bulbs remained to show a way through the heaped pillows. For the first time Sonora noticed figures sleeping, wrapped in sheets, on the overhead bunks which lined the interior. There was not much room up there, under the curved ceiling; they were crammed in like luggage, and among luggage. The bus whirred on, and it was as Driver had said: it felt as though they were rocking, but not so gently now. Crazily. With growing violence. She lay down flat on her back, afraid she might be thrown or at least rolled; with arms spread wide, she grabbed onto the mattress, convinced that they too were now going off the road.

A wave of sound roared through the bus, beginning in the pings and creaks and groans and rattles of the engine, the shocks, the brakes and the tires — growing louder and louder, until it sounded like jabbering voices. It built into a storm of howls and crashing as if they’d been caught in an avalanche of souls on the steep road. The sides of the bus felt too thin to protect them. Hail or hammerblows struck the ceilings, the walls, even pummeled them from underneath. She felt a repetitive, dull slamming just under one of her shoulders, a steady beat that seemed to be aiming up deliberately at her, driving toward her heart.

Her mind had room for nothing else. The lights flickered and went out, and she would have screamed except that Neuron was right up next to her, whispering comfort in her ear, and she could see his brain glowing faintly, comfortingly, through his bandanna. She grabbed onto him, wondering for a moment how Driver was taking this — sorry that he had always been so aloof from them. She supposed he would be all right.

Then, some long time before she accepted the fact, the sounds died out and the hammering stopped and even the sickening motion was done. They seemed to be at rest, the motor purring — idling — underneath them; and all around them, otherwise, perfect silence.

A few lights came on again. Neuron sat up and pulled his hat from a hook between the windows, settled it over his head. He looked down at her. “You might want to wait here.”

“For what?” she asked, words that barely escaped her dry throat.

But he was moving on his knees toward the front of the bus, along with some of the others, including old Crouch, who was coughing with a wet, bubbling sound as if the shaking had jarred something loose in his chest. The others from their old bus were sitting against the walls, the masked windows, some curled into fetal positions among the pillows, eyes squeezed shut. Yvette sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, watching Crouch.

Sonora looked over at Driver. His eyes were open but he was staring at the ceiling, looking contemplative, resigned. When he saw her looking, he smiled briefly, a darting flicker.

“Are you okay?” she said.

“I don’t suppose so,” he said. “On the other hand, does it matter?”

Crouch whistled sharply, and she turned to look down the aisle at him. But he wasn’t calling her, or any of them. He was looking up at the sleeping racks. One of them, up there, was stirring.

Just then, there was a loud pneumatic wheeze. A rash of warm air tore at her scarves, as if the bus had gasped out its last breath. A bitter metallic cold replaced the warmth she hadn’t noticed until it was gone. The driver — whose face she had not seen, who was no more than a scarcely registered shape in her memory — stepped from his seat and descended the steps at the front of the bus. Everyone watched him depart through the accordioned doors, his shoulders sharp in a dark, stiffly pressed uniform, disappearing outside. When he was gone, Crouch moved irritably toward the sleeper in the closest bunk.

“Come on,” he snapped, shoving the figure there. “It’s your time.”

There was a crackling sound, something like a canvas sail being unfurled in the confined space, and a creaking groan. What Sonora had thought were sheets slowly unfolded into wings. Pale leathery wings, bald as a rat’s tail, with clawed hinges. The sleeper, at Crouch’s prodding, rolled from the bunk and dropped to the floor, moving awkwardly on thin legs, its long nails catching and tearing in the mattress covers. She had only a glimpse of its face — but that was enough. Sleepy slitted eyes, long white snout, thin ranged mouth. Then Crouch was harrying it ahead of him through the aisle, down the steps and out the door. Only when it was gone could Sonora look away, and then her eyes went immediately to the others still slumbering overhead. They did not all appear to be of the same sort; but there were more like that one up there.

Suddenly the black bus seemed less of a haven than she had imagined. She went on her knees after Neuron, who was sitting at the edge of the platform pulling on tall boots. Her own sandals were below in a pile of shoes.

“Be sure you get the right ones,” he said as she rooted for her pair. “This isn’t the place to go walking off in someone else’s shoes.”

“You and your identity,” Crouch called back sourly from the doorway. Then he stepped off into the night, and Sonora distinctly heard his footsteps crunching down hard into gravel or sand. The sound reassured her. At least they were somewhere.

There was a pile of loose shawls and blankets near the shoes. She dragged a poncho with a mandala pattern over her head and went down the aisle, down the steps, looking over once at the driver’s seat and the dashboard as she went. She didn’t drive, herself; but it looked like any other bus.

Stepping out, she learned instantly where the heat had gone. Sucked up, sunk into the reddish sand, which instantly snatched the last trace of warmth from her body. She stood hugging the blanket around her, cold as alabaster yet not quite feeling the chill. That numb.

Footprints led away from the bus, toward the horizon. At the end of that lengthening trail was the dark uniform of the driver, plodding steadily along. But Crouch, who stood outside, and Neuron, who now jumped down beside her and stamped his feet as if to force nonexistent heat into them, were not looking that way. They gazed straight out ahead of the bus, in the direction it was headed. Neuron pushed back his cowboy hat for a better view of the winged silhouette that was lofting higher by the second against a dark sky with faint stars in it. It was the violet hour, wolf-glow, but lacking qualities she associated with dawn or dusk. Then she realized what it was. At the zenith was a molten orange glow, like a sun without definition; while spreading away from that in rippled waves was steadily deeper darkness, purpling till it coalesced into perfect blackness against the land. It was the exact opposite of sunrise or sunset; here, darkness massed at the horizon, and light retreated toward the center of the sky. Stars burned and flickered close to the ground, like the lights of a desert city. The flying shape, as it gained distance, gradually merged with the darkness that ringed them entirely. Behind them, she noticed, was no sign of the mountains they had traversed; nor of any river, for that matter.

Sonora was grateful to have at least the thick blob of molten light above, though it cast no warmth that she could feel. Even as she thought this, she saw that it was dwindling — that the darkness was not a static thing, a mere wall around them, but continued to grow and seep up across the sky. Blue and violet invaded the orange flare, weakening it while she watched. It was like a foreign cell under attack, dissolving. Stars marked the territory taken by night.

Well, she thought. At least there are stars. For the moment. I won’t take them for granted.

As the orange light faded, Crouch and Neuron grew visibly nervous. They peered hard at the horizon, squinting into the dark, until the old man began to curse.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Another one.”

“Maybe he’ll be back,” Neuron said. “Anyway, there’s more.”

“Not many!”

This, too, had the feel of an old — an endless — argument.

“Okay,” Neuron said, turning toward Sonora. “That’s about it for us, now. You better get back up inside there.”

“What about the driver?” Sonora said, for at the end of that long trail of footprints there was nothing now but more darkness.

“Looks like that’s taken care of,” he said, nodding up the stairwell. Driver himself had taken the seat, settling in with an eager look as he examined the dashboard, tested the steering wheel, and finally tried the lever that worked the door. It sighed shut casually, squeezing the inner light to a narrow slit between its rubber flaps — until even that went out.

“Hey!” Neuron shouted.

“Shit!” Crouch yelled. “Don’t move!”

The black bus was gone. There was nothing now but darkness sweeping in over the empty plain of sand, with the three of them standing there alone while wind erased the tire tracks.

Sonora spun to look around, to see where it had gone; but Neuron grabbed onto her, harder than she had ever been grabbed. “Don’t . . . move!” he cried. She could hardly see his face, it was so much darker now. A membrane seemed to have been pulled even across the stars. There was only a tiny sullen dot of orange being extinguished in the vault overhead. Once it snuffed out, there would be nothing left to see by.

Everything was quickening. Night came on like the wind, which roared out of nowhere as if bent on tearing them from their place. She planted her feet in the sand and knelt, dragging Neuron down beside her. Voices buzzed in the sand, which scoured her flesh, tore at her eyelids. She screamed and the sand rushed into her mouth, caking her tongue, drinking every ounce of moisture — stealing it from her, sucking the life away. Neuron and Crouch had her by either arm, holding her between them, and they were doing something she couldn’t quite see. Waving their arms, pounding the air with a hollow sound.

Suddenly something blocked the wind. As if a wall had been erected behind them and they stood now in a quiet, sheltered spot. Sonora brushed sand from her eyes, tried to look behind her, but something else caught her stinging gaze. The light again, a thin slice of yellow, opened up before them. The steps of the bus were revealed.

“Go!” Neuron yelled, and shoved her in. She stumbled on the steps, clinging to his arm, pulling him with her. Crouch, his face scraped raw and caked with bloody sand, swept the air with open hands, feeling for the door but missing it. Beyond him, something enormous moved toward them at inconceivable speed — like a part of the landscape curling and reaching for the bus. Sonora screamed and grabbed for his hand, and Neuron turned and saw it too, and also grabbed. They caught him by one wrist, but their screams -or the view — had startled Driver, and he closed the door with only that one hand yet inside the bus.

“Wait!” she said. “Open it — open!”

Driver was slow, as if stunned by what he had seen through the door. She couldn’t grab the lever herself, not without letting go of Crouch — and that wouldn’t have been wise. As hard as she and Neuron pulled, she could feel the old man’s arm slipping out of their grasp.

“Driver!” she screamed.

“Go!” Neuron yelled.

“The door!” Sonora cried.

“Just go!”

Driver stamped on the gas and the engine roared. His face was white, stricken. He started to haul on the stick shift, and Sonora could hear gears grinding, could feel the wheels catching in something, jerking them forward.

Yvette rushed up then, grabbed the lever and hauled it back. The door wheezed open again. At first all she could see was Crouch’s hand and forearm. It seemed to end in midair, just below the elbow; but that couldn’t be true. Driver threw the shift the rest of the way into gear. With a liberated growl that quickly became a whining purr, the black bus lurched forward, throwing its passengers back. Crouch flew into the stairwell and the door clapped shut, rubber flaps somehow sealing out the night.

Neuron moved quickly, gathering the old man up in a limp heap from the stairs, carrying him back to the padded platform where he laid him down gingerly. Sonora peered over his shoulder, expecting to see Crouch in rags, shredded and bloody, worse than he had been a moment before.

But he lay breathing quietly, sand covering his clothes, lining the wrinkles of his face, otherwise apparently untouched. He opened his eyes and breathed up at Neuron:

“Got me.”

“No, old man,” Neuron said. “You’re fine. You’re gonna be okay this time.”

Crouch shook his head. “I was out there — for ages. I just barely remember you. . . . “

Driver, at the wheel, still accelerating — though Sonora couldn’t imagine into what, with the windshield showing nothing ahead of them — twisted around to say, “What happened? I only shut the doors for a second — a fraction of a second.”

“To you it was a fraction of a second,” Neuron said, then turned back quickly to Crouch. “But you remember now, don’t you? You’re here again.”

“I’m changed, though — changing. I want . . . I need to lie down.”

“You are lying down.”

“No, I mean — up there.”

Neuron glanced at the overhead racks. Sonora thought she saw his lips move in prayer. Then he put a hand on Crouch’s breast.

“No, old man, you’re not —”

“Damn it, I know what I need. Help me up. I wasn’t asking, I was telling you.”

A few of the passengers moved to his aid, but Neuron was not one of them. Sonora put her arms around him; as much for her own comfort as for his. Crouch hobbled a few feet down the center aisle to the newly empty bunk, and allowed himself to be boosted up into the rack. They put a pillow under his gray head, swept the sand out from under him. Then he closed his eyes and turned his face away. In moments he was as quiet as the rest of the sleepers up there.

Neuron sank down onto the mattress. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “This is bad. I thought Crouch was — if anyone, Crouch was here for the long haul.”

Sonora kept her arms around him. She glanced up at the front of the bus, saw Driver’s face in the black glass of the windshield. What did he see out there, she wondered. How did he keep control?

*

Driver stared down into the headlights, which scarcely showed anything except flat sand unrolling ahead of him, just enough to drive straight into. He drove by instinct, or by trust, suspecting that there were no obstacles in their path — would be none for quite some distance. Thinking, grimly, that even if he ran into a wall — so what?

It was something he reflected, to be up here again, in the driver’s seat, doing the only thing he had ever done for as long as he could recall. He felt relief at being essentially alone. Too many passengers back there — from the old bus and from this new one — brought on that unfocused, troubling pressure he always felt in crowds, as if he were in danger of coming apart or losing himself in their midst. They would know him as Driver now, and he wouldn’t have to know much about them. They would be grateful to leave the driving to him.

It was a challenge. He had never seen a road like this; or imagined one existed. Well . . . maybe he had. On certain nights after days of driving, after weeks of journeying on the endless pilgrimage, following the Group, he would sometimes lie in bed in some motel, or in a sleeping bag on the ground outside the bus, and imagine that he was still driving — but in perfect darkness, with his eyes closed. He would dream the act of driving distilled to its essence — no real mad beneath the tires, only the voyage itself, always leading into sleep.

Sleep, he supposed, if you could stay conscious through it, might be like this. Lucid dreaming, that’s what this was. Or dreaming wakefulness. A drugged kind of —

Squirming memories surfaced; the palm of his hand tingled. Something about a drug, a droplet, a burrowing thing.

He was on the verge of remembering when a white shape flew into the headlights and slammed against the windshield. He hit the brakes, screaming into the face of the thing that had crumpled against the glass — crushed snout, red slit eyes, torn wings as wide as the windshield. When the bus finally ground to a stop, the flattened thing slid backward and fell into the dust.

Sonora and Neuron stood next to him, peering down. In the headlights it was fairly well-lit, and apparently dead. Its wings unfolded the rest of the way, its claws twitched galvanically then stilled. From one of the withered wing-fingers, a bit of colored ribbon dangled, talon-pierced. It was a rainbow paisley pattern, part of a scarf or a pennant. Driver had seen the colors before, flapping over the stage at a concert.

“Damn,” Neuron said. “I guess we are headed the right way.”

“You’re not going out there again,” Sonora said.

“No. You can keep on going, Driver-man.”

Driver sank back into his seat. The engine had stalled, but it started up easily enough. He pulled forward slowly, watching the ruined thing pass under the front bumper. He was careful to drive as straight as possible, but even so, he thought he heard the wide wings crackle as the tires passed over them.

Neuron clapped him hard on the shoulder. “It’s a good sign,” he said, nodding. “A real good sign.”

Not long after that, the stars reappeared. Dead ahead, clustered low on the horizon, spreading slowly apart as the bus sped forward.

He was squinting for a better look when he saw something moving. He wasn’t ready for a repeat of the last collision. He started to brake, hoping to avoid a mess; but then he saw the pale thing waving. A person.

“What’s going on?”

Without answering, he brought the bus to a stop. The person outside — a skinny, ratty-looking kid — came running toward them down the bright twin tunnel of headlights, waving his arms desperately. When he reached the bus he started banging on the door.

Driver looked back at Neuron, as if for permission. “Go ahead,” the cowboy said, and Driver opened the doors.

The kid hurled himself up the stairs, breathless and laughing. “I can’t believe it!” he was saying. “You — you found me out here. I mean, there’s others here? Wow! I thought I could hear them up ahead, you know, I been following just the little sounds in the dark, just those few notes you can barely hear. But I should have known I wasn’t the only one. I couldn’t be the only one. I mean, of the followers who’d do this, who’d come here.”

His eyes were everywhere all at once, pupils enormous, as if he’d been staring into darkness forever. Finally his gaze settled on Driver, and his wide smile froze inside his pale ragged beard.

“I remember you,” he said. “I met you! And you’re really here now. Man!”

Driver started to look away, leaving him to the others. The kid was crazy or high. Then, abruptly, he remembered their meeting in the amphitheater earlier; the kid had come rushing up to him just like this, exactly as crazed, and then staggered off.

“Man, this is great,” he was saying. “We’ll catch up with them now, yeah. You got a bus and everything. How’d you manage that? I mean, on foot it’s tough. I didn’t have much to go by. But — but maybe it’s what you have when you go, right? I mean, were you all in a bus? All of you?”

He looked around the interior of the black bus, but no one answered. The other passengers seemed almost embarrassed by his manic energy.

“I mean, all I had was my own two feet, right? Only way I could think to follow was to, you know . . . walk. I found an edge, like, a real high place, top of a building. A real tall building. It was so tall the lights on the ground looked like tiny faraway stars, you know? Like stars, yeah. And I just went walking toward them, right out into the sky, stars above and below, stars everywhere . . . and I walked through that for a while, till the stars went away and it got dark. But I could hear the Group again, finally. Like they were up ahead just a little ways— they didn’t have much of a head start on me. That was such a relief, right? I mean — I was trying to imagine the world without them. What’s left? Hey . . . you got a radio, why aren’t you tuned in? You gotta tune ‘em in. How else you gonna follow?”

The kid went to the dashboard and punched on the radio. It hadn’t been on since they’d seen their old colorful bus plunge into darkness. It crackled to life now, as if the satellite were still out there orbiting in the dark, bouncing signals to anyone who cared to receive them. . . .

Music.

Driver straightened when he recognized it. The Group was coming in clear, as if they were outside the bus, surrounding it.

“Yeah,” the kid said, ecstatic. He sank down on the steps.

Some of the others began to whisper, in the back of the bus. Yvette and Chad sounded excited. They knew all the tapes, all the recordings going around, being traded; they knew not only all the songs, but all the individual concerts, had heard most of them in person. But this was something new. This was. . .

“It’s happening right now,” Chad was saying. “Can’t you feel it?”

And Yvette: “It’s live!”

“Yeah!” the kid on the steps agreed. “That’s them! We’re catching up! What’re we doing sitting here, Driver? Let’s get moving!”

Driver had already been in the act of pushing the great bus forward. He bent once again to the task of driving, while music filled the black bus and the stars spread out on the horizon, drifting higher now. Not stars at all, he saw, but fires. Scattered fires burning all over the slopes of some dark shape. He sensed that something held them up, but could gain no impression of it. Spires, or simply a wall? The sky was too black to allow a silhouette, and the fires lit nothing but themselves.

The excitement in the bus grew as they approached the lights. The music was getting louder, the signal stronger. It was strange to know that the Group was up ahead playing — but to what audience?

And then, from the passengers, came a cry of disappointment and frustration — even of despair. For the tunes had blurred into a final lullabye . . . the Group’s signature piece, after which they always left in utter silence.

“Hurry!” they were yelling at him, as if he could squeeze any more speed from the bus — as if they didn’t mind crashing headlong into whatever black enormity held the specks of flame aloft. He couldn’t bring himself to drive blindly, though. The closer he got to the lights, the slower he went — he had no sense of depth here. How far had he come? How far had he to go?

The tune crested, tumbled over an inevitable edge into silence.

“Noooooo,” they wailed inside the black bus.

At that moment, the bus passed through a gate, an entrance or exit of some sort, into a tunnel. It was luminous with a deep violet light. They were descending, so he took his foot off the accelerator for an instant — and just then, they burst out abruptly into a huge arena, a stadium or coliseum whose dimensions were almost inconceivable.

They had emerged somewhere in the middle of the field. Ramparts or bleachers rose on all sides; they were like distant mountains, their true size impossible to judge. He had no sense of scale.

The ground was littered with rubbish: chunks and splinters of whitish rock that looked like the shards a mason leaves behind when he chisels a tombstone. Gnawed, discarded bones; soiled take-out containers. Worms and flies crawled and buzzed through the heaps of filth. Glass crunched and burst under the tires. Wide piles of embers smoked and glowed here and there like the remains of bonfires. He drove carefully through the waste, not wanting to be stranded here. Static poured from the speakers; all directions looked equally undesirable, all destinations futile. To head for any one of the surrounding walls would have been equally vain; they were all impassable.

“We missed ‘em,” the kid on the steps said, dejected. “We just missed them.” He put his head on his knees and began to sob. “All that . . . and . . . and . . . ”

Sonora moved over to him. Her eyes were on the desolate scene beyond the window, but she put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Hey, don’t worry. We’ll catch them next time, okay? They’re still out there.”

“But where?”

Sonora fiddled with the radio dial, but all bands seemed equally dead now.

“We’ll figure it out,” she said.

“Not here, though,” said Neuron.

“What do you mean?” Sonora turned to look at him. Driver kept the bus moving slowly, weaving around heaps of smoldering coals, because that was what he knew how to do.

“We have to keep moving. We have to get out now. If we get stranded, stuck here, they’ll pull so far ahead we’ll never catch up.”

“How . . . how do you know all this?” she asked.

“We’ve been following them a lot longer than you,” he said. “You learn these things.”

“But — but all this, it only happened tonight — I mean, if this is still tonight.”

Neuron shook his head. “You don’t see. It didn’t happen tonight, whatever that means. And it hasn’t happened yet, neither. It happened a long time ago — and it’s still happening, even now. It keeps deepening; it keeps moving through all the levels, and that’s where some of us come from . . . from the world before, or another one before that. Just like you, now, hooking up with us. It’ll change you eventually, like it changed me.” He put a finger to his skull. “You’ll become what you are, along the way; but what you are will change.”

Sonora stared at him, irritated. “Just tell us what to do,” she said.

“If I knew that . . . ” Neuron started.

“Let me,” came a rasping voice from above them. In the rear-view mirror, Driver could see someone stepping down from the bunks. It was Crouch, the old man. He hadn’t been there long, but apparently it was long enough. He almost wasn’t Crouch anymore.

He knelt before them, extended his pale, long-fingered hand, and slowly opened his fingers. Driver gasped. From the popping blue veins in the old man’s palm, red slugs were crawling. They wriggled up, dried, curled to a wisp at one end, a rounded blob at the other. “Corpsules,” Crouch said. “I can make my own now.”

It was the first thing Driver had seen here that truly frightened him.

Then he remembered when he had seen them before.

When and where. . . .

The amphitheater. Like this place, only smaller, enclosed, packed with people. Could this be the same place, much later that same night, with all the people gone from it? Had they been driving in a circle all night, and now everyone was home and sleeping except them? But it was so immense . . . had they shrunk somehow?

“Disgusting,” Chad said, his face pressed to a window. “Look at all them fukkin diapers, my god. And the cans, the garbage bags.” Which there were, bursting at the seams, stuffed with rancid meaty stuff, ground worms maybe, that wouldn’t quite ever decay, it was so rubbery and plastic.

“Yea, verily,” said Crouch now, raising two fingers in a peace sign, then making a sign of power over the handful of red drops. “Behold me, that am yet angel.”

And then his wings unfolded.

It wasn’t a good idea, there in the bus. He battered them against the racks and jumped back, hunching smaller. “Jesus!”

“Looks like this isn’t your day, old man,” Neuron said, putting arms around him, helping him pack the wings back in again. In almost the same gesture, he swiped the handful of drops from the white-furred palm. Apparently it was expected. Crouch sucked in his cheeks and, still stooping, hobbled painfully toward the front of the bus.

“Open the doors,” he said commandingly as he passed Driver.

“But —”

Crouch hit the lever himself. The smell that swept in was unbearable. He faced into it, descended with his nose held high, turned and faced the bus and all its company. Seeing him out there, surviving in the emberlight, some of the passengers let up the windowshades on that side. Crouch clicked his heels together, put his hand to his brow in a crisp salute, and bowed stiffly at the waist. Then he sprang into the air and was gone.

“Now we take these,” Neuron said. Waving a corpsule under Driver’s nose.

Sonora also remembered the droplets. She rushed over to Neuron and grabbed it out of his hand.

“This!” she cried. “This is why we’re here!”

“Well, in a sense,” Neuron said with a shy smile. “Or hadn’t you figured that out yet?”

“I don’t mean what you think I mean,” she said. But she wasn’t sure how to put it. Wherever they were — death, a dream, some other kind of place whose name came not quite so readily to the tongue — they wouldn’t have been here except for the drag. They would have been somewhere else completely; perhaps they might have passed through here briefly, on their way to that other place. But instead they had gotten off the road — driven off it almost deliberately — and were now trapped in this . . . she wanted to call it a borderland, but she wasn’t sure it was either a bordering region or a zone between borders. It was more like another planet, that extensive.

“He’s wigging out,” said one of the original passengers, whose name she had never known. She thought he was talking about Neuron, but he saw she thought that and shook his head, nodding toward the ceiling.

Wild laughter from overhead.

They went out, all of them, to see Crouch turning somersaults in the sky above. He was just luminous enough to be visible.

“Come on, old man!” Neuron yelled, clenching his fists. He had dropped the red tears into a vial he wore around his neck.

“I’m not following him,” someone else said.

Crouch hooted at them.

“Where are they?” the bearded kid cried. He sounded mad.

“Right here,” Crouch called down to them. “But not right now.”

“We know that much,” Neuron said. “Should we drop now?”

“Not yet. They’re farther ahead. Just follow me.”

“Good job, old man.” Neuron looked ecstatic, and when the kid saw him, he relaxed, too. “You heard him, Driver! Everyone back on board!”

Sonora went up just before Neuron, who came last. She realized she had smelled nothing outside — not since the moment she stepped out of the bus. As if the decay were only an image of decay, a projection affecting only the eyes. But as she boarded the bus again, she gagged on the stench that followed her in. Driver had his face covered with a monogrammed handkerchief he pulled from the label of his charcoal black uniform. It was a relief when the door shut behind Neuron.

She let him past, smiling broadly when he looked at her, then turned and whispered urgently to Driver: “Don’t take those drops!”

Neuron was looking back at her. She straightened up and walked toward him, feigning easiness. She swayed as the bus moved forward, and Neuron put his arms out to catch her. They went right around her, tighter this time than before. “Whoa, there. Gotcha,” he said.

“You sure did.” Sonora smiled, hands on his forearms, twisting away. She went down to the mattress, scooting back in between Chad and Yvette. Neuron took a lazy swipe at her, let his arm dangle, and smiled sideways sort of regretfully, as if: oh well.

Sonora looked up and saw Driver watching her in the mirror. Concern showed in his face, but she nodded slightly and he looked back at the road, such as it was. Crouch flew on ahead of them, she supposed.

“What is it, Sonora?” Yvette asked, and Chad, hearing the question, looked over.

Chad had bowl-cut hair and a baggy sweater, a long face with the cheeks scooped out of it. One eye wandered. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

“The drug,” she muttered, low, her hands on either one’s knee, so they leaned closer to her. “Those drops. Do you remember taking them?”

“Sure,” Chad said. “Just after the Group came on.”

“It was just before,” Yvette said, with equal certainty.

“But you both took them, right?”

“Yeah. But so what?”

“Something happened to us — and I don’t mean the drugs.”

“I’m not stupid,” Chad said. “I know where we are, Sonora. You’re not the only one who can pick up on these things, and it isn’t exactly all that subtle.”

“I don’t think we’re exactly where you think we are,” Sonora said.

“All right, so is somebody going to say it?”

“We’re dead, you mean?” Chad blurted out, laughing a moment after he had said it.

“If we aren’t, I’d like to know where we are,” said Yvette.

“I think we’re sort of dead, yes —”

“Sort of?” Chad howled louder.

“— but there’s more than that going on. When we died, we were on that stuff, that drug. When you die, you’re supposed to, like, let go of things, come all apart, dissolve back into the universe — at least for a while. But we’re not getting there. We’re stuck somehow, stuck following the Group, just like we did in life. Death is supposed to be experienced with clear, concise consciousness — but we were, are, addled. So we’re seeing all this instead of the Clear Light.”

“Are you saying that even in death, there’s drugs? ” Chad asked. “Whoaw!”

“So we . . . we just let it wear off?” Yvette said.

“I hope that works. That’s why I’m saying, don’t take any more of the stuff. What would it be like, here, to do more of it? What is it? What does it do to you when you’re. . . ”

“Dead,” said Chad, still laughing.

“There’s a peyote paradise,” Yvette said. “Maybe this is like that.”

“This is no fukkin paradise,” Chad said.

“I mean — a drug land. But we’re stuck here in our bodies, or our astral bodies, because we’re dead . . . so we’re free from anything that would pull us back to the Earth plane, like happens when you come down from peyote.”

“Right, baby, I follow that,” Chad said. “But what about this, Sonora? What if we don’t want to come down off this stuff? I mean, what’s up ahead if we do? What are we waking up to, comprende? I mean, the rest of the trip might not be even this pleasant.”

“But Chad, this is unnatural! We’re not supposed to be here this long.”

“Then what the hell are they doing here?”

Sonora looked around the bus at the other passengers, most of them unknown to her, yet with stories and lives as full as her own, hard as it was to imagine.

“No, not them,” Chad said. “The Group!”

“Maybe they were doing the same stuff as us,” Sonora answered. “Or maybe they’re not here at all. The crash could have been like a lure, to get us here. To make our bus go out of control.”

“Jesus,” Chad said. “That’s creepy.”

“Or maybe they died but they weren’t drugged, so that’s why they’re getting ahead of us, going forward while we’re stuck here. So they were on that plane but they weren’t drugged at the time —”

“Yeah, right,” Chad said. “The Group not drugged. Now you’re really stretching things. . . . ”

As if to punctuate his sarcasm, there was a blare of music up ahead, a wild chord sweeping through the bus. It electrified them; everyone crowded to the windows except Yvette and Chad, whom Sonora held back.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “What do you think about Neuron?”

“We should ask you that,” Yvette said.

“I don’t know,” Chad said. “Why? What do you think?”

“I think — he’s here for a different reason than we are. He’s chosen to stay here. I remember him giving us the drugs, in the theater tonight; but we weren’t dead yet.”

“How do you know we don’t have the order of things confused in our memories?” Yvette said. “What if our minds and personalities are breaking up even now?”

“I believe they are, yes, but somehow we got that original drug. Those red drops. What if somehow, someway, Neuron was able to come out to us — out of death, I mean, into the living world.”

“What if he’s meant to,” Yvette said.

“I see what you’re saying Sonora,” said Chad, dismissing the other. “The guy came out and snatched us, sort of.”

“In a way we can’t understand.”

“Oh, I understand it. He saw you, fell in lust, and went for you the best way he knew how. Only to get you, he had to take all of us, since we’re sort of, you know . . . attached.”

Sonora swallowed. “So I’m to blame?”

“He’s to blame!” Yvette said.

“Then . . . what if we’re not really dead? I mean, what if this really isn’t death, but some other kind of world, like you say? What if the Group, playing up there, really is playing?”

“He’s coming,” whispered Yvette.

Neuron ducked out of the crowd at the front of the bus. “They’re playing. You want to come see?”

He put a hand out to Sonora.

“I can hear, thanks.”

“Yeah,” Chad said loudly. “We’re kind of comfortable now.”

Neuron glowered at Chad. He turned away, but took another look at Sonora over his shoulder.

Then the bus stopped, she wasn’t sure why. The music had been brewing, early notes of a concert, the warm-up stage, arrival. She looked out a window, raising the shade above her head, and saw light. It was artificial, drifting down from incredibly tall spindly lampposts that arched overhead and dropped blots of light across a concrete wasteland.

They were in a parking lot. All the garbage they’d passed through was peripheral to this. They had come to another stadium inside the larger one, a relatively tiny arena in the middle of the plain which was itself surrounded by ring-walls.

The black bus was the only vehicle in the lot. Except . . . yes, far off, around a curve of the stadium, she could see a black airplane, sleek and inky, angled something like the bus with a shimmering exterior, half-diamonds and other geometric planes that made the craft look at once velvety and scaly.

Driver had parked within walking distance of the gates. She could see clots of people moving through the dark arches, down the tunnels that led toward the central stage. Not many, though. She had the impression these were stragglers, hurrying in late.

“It’s started already,” Neuron said quickly to all of them, like a teacher explaining to a class. He uncapped his vial. “Okay, Crouch will back me up on this, it’s time to drop. Who’s first?”

Most of the other passengers moved forward. Sonora wanted to stop them, but she didn’t dare. It would have to be enough, for now, to save her friends — and herself. They opened their hands and she said nothing. Neuron laid the red corpsules in their palms as they walked past him, down the steps and onto the cement, heading toward the music. Some licked their hands, slurped up the droplets; but she remembered from a sudden tickling in her palm how easily the things were administered.

She whispered, “Drop yours — I mean, get rid of them — as soon as you can. Don’t leave them on your skin.”

“Why not just refuse?” Yvette said. “I mean, he can’t make us take them.”

“I can’t believe you two,” Chad said. “Dead, and afraid to take drugs. What could happen to you now?”

“What if we’re not dead?” Yvette said.

“Yvette, you are one confused girl. Do what you want. I’m going for it.”

He pushed up from the platform and swaggered past Neuron, who dropped the corpsule in his hand and winked at him. Chad slapped Neuron’s shoulder and popped the drop in his mouth, giving a thumbs-up to Sonora and Yvette on his way out.

“Ladies,” Neuron said. “You coming?”

“I don’t know,” Yvette said.

“The show must go on, right? You’ve got to get off and experience —”

“She doesn’t feel up to it,” Sonora said.

“Really?” Neuron pressed toward them. “Don’t feel well? Now how can that be?”

“I’ve got sort of a psychic headache,” Yvette said.

“They don’t have to go if they don’t want to,” Driver said quietly.

Neuron stopped where he was and turned back toward him. “What’s that ?”

“I said, there’s no reason for them to get off the bus if they’d rather not.”

“But, hey, out here in the parking lot . . . it gets a little scary during a show.”

“I’ll be more than happy to stay with them. I’ve done it many times.”

“Done it many times, huh? Look, Driver-man, you’re just a suit, all right? A uniform, you get me? Nobody’s talking to you. You don’t play a part in this.”

“Do you want to drive?” Driver said.

Neuron paled, while up inside his hat, his brain blackened, emitting a dark bruised light, purple as an injury. “Look here,” he said.

Driver rose as Neuron stalked toward him.

“Hey,” said a voice from outside. “What’s going on in there?”

It was Crouch.

“Good, you’re here,” Neuron said. “The driver is giving us trouble this time.”

“What? Impossible!”

“Get in and help me.”

“I — jeez — can’t. These fukkin wings!”

Crouch tried the doorway but got stuck in it. Driver pulled on the door lever and the partitions began to shudder and flap, first crushing Crouch’s fingers and pinching his wings so he yelled, then expelling him backward onto the parking lot. Soundlessly, but not before Sonora let out a warning cry, Neuron leapt at Driver. Driver caught him, twisted, and simply shoved. Neuron tumbled down the steps, landing directly atop the howling Crouch.

Driver then, before they could regain their feet, shut the door.

The two staggered upright, clinging to each other for support, livid and furious now. They came toward the door, not seeing it, searching the air with desperate hands. Before they made contact, Driver had already thrown the gears into reverse. They stumbled past the windshield, dismayed to find the bus already gone.

Standing next to Driver, Sonora and Yvette looked down at Neuron and Crouch. The men searched an ever expanding spiral, Driver backing up a few yards whenever they approached. Finally they turned and faced each other. Neuron tore off his hat and stomped it flat; Crouch’s wings shot out stiffly to both sides.

“This is unbelievable!” Neuron cried. “I can’t believe it!”

“You?” said Crouch. “I got these outta the deal!” He jabbed a thumb at his wings. “I knew that driver was trouble from the start.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Why should I have to? Oh, I know. Because you’re an idiot!

“How was I supposed to know?”

“He was different than the other drivers.”

“No he wasn’t, he was the same. It’s been the same guy as long as I can remember, and it was him again. You’d notice any little change in that face. It never changes!”

“He was different tonight!”

Sonora put a hand on Driver’s shoulder. “Do you know what they’re talking about?”

Driver shook his head.

“Because, I mean, if you’re something more than what we think, I just want you to know . . . we appreciate it.”

“Really, I don’t have the slightest idea. They’re insane. Look at them now.”

They were tearing at each other, roiling around on the cement. The old man cried out each time Neuron grabbed his wings, and Neuron winced and growled whenever Crouch hammered him on the crown.

“Give them plenty of room,” Sonora said.

Driver pulled away from them completely, starting on a circuit of the stadium’s outer walls. As he drove, he slowly turned his course outward, moving away across the empty parking lot and gaining speed as if they were trying to break away from a planet’s gravitational field, attaining escape velocity so they could fly off into the night.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Sonora asked.

“Getting some distance.”

“What about them, back there?” asked Yvette.

Sonora thought of their friends, the bearded boy, who had taken the drug and wandered into the theater. She hadn’t said goodbye to any of them — hadn’t the chance. “I guess it’ll wear off eventually . . . and then they’ll have to go on. Unless Crouch keeps giving them drugs, and then maybe they’ll be here a long time.”

“No,” Yvette said. “I meant them. In the bunks.”

Sonora had forgotten that the bus was not empty.

“I can stop,” Driver said. “Before we go any farther. We can unload them.”

“What if we need them up ahead?” Sonora said. “What if they really are guides?”

She could imagine them waking in their own time, electing to fly out and scout the way, instead of being rousted irritably and sent half-asleep into the dark on a trivial mission.

“We’ll let them sleep then, for now?” Yvette said.

“I guess. We’re not going back then, are we?”

“I think the bus could make it through, if you wanted to,” said Driver.

“It would have to, wouldn’t it?” said Yvette. “I mean, Neuron got out, didn’t he? He rode this bus in and out between the worlds?”

“But he never stayed out,” Sonora said. “And I think — we only saw him when we’d taken the drugs.”

“I thought he gave them to us, though.”

“Yeah. . . . ”

But that was before she remembered first seeing him. Events were out of order; time did not quite dovetail here. That’s how he did it, she realized — that’s how he gave us what we needed to meet him . . . before we met him. He wasn’t in ordinary time. So he never really reached our world, where each thing follows another, one event gives rise to the next. And we couldn’t really get all the way back there, probably; not even in the black bus, miraculous as it is. We might pull up alongside our old bus and find it crashed on the mountainside, everyone dead — including ourselves. Who’d want to see that?

We can only go forward, she thought. Besides, maybe we weren’t even alive then, in the time before; maybe we were lost in some kind of other place, wandering and vulnerable in a drug-land like the peyote paradise, and that’s how he reached us. We were so used to the sensation of dreaming, with all the drugs we took, and everything seeming so unreal all the time anyway — how would we have known if we’d been dead already?

But we’ve broken that cycle, whatever it was. We’re going on now.

Driver’s foot was on the floor and the bus kept going faster and faster, picking up speed. Ahead of them, against a sky that was slightly lighter than she remembered, she saw not stadium walls but actual mountains.

“You don’t mind driving, do you?” she said, her hand on Driver’s shoulder.

He shrugged. “It’s what I do.” His pained, martyred expression had softened; he looked genuinely content. She realized that she was seeing someone new — not a stranger, but an old acquaintance never seen so clearly until now, and strange because of that. He glanced up into the rearview mirror, meeting her eyes.

“Why don’t you two go in back and try to rest?” he said. “I’m fine up here, alone. I’m not sleepy, myself, and there’s a long drive ahead.”

“All right,” she said. “Come on, Yvette.”

She slipped out of her sandals and crawled back among the pillows with Yvette. They lay down and wrapped themselves in blankets, and she thought of her old companions, forgetting their faces as she had earlier forgotten their names. Soft breathing filled the bus, soothing and hypnotic as the engine sound, but coming from the bunks. Her eyes closed. At the last moment before sleep, she recalled that they had not drawn the shades — and wondered if it mattered. Her eyes flickered open, going to the windows across the way. There were stars now, and suggestions of clouds, high and faintly luminous, or reflecting some distant glow. The sight reassured her; she let go of fear. Then she was a child again, lulled, rocking, asleep.

*

At the wheel, watching a highway slowly appear out of the receding darkness, Driver could feet the insignificant details of his personality sloughing away with every mile, leaving only the essentials, paring him down to a bare-bone surface solid as the hard, flat road on which the tires hummed. He was, had always been, Driver.

Glancing into the mirror at his sleeping passengers, he was pleased they felt safe enough to sleep. The bus was almost empty, but he knew that eventually it would fill again. Somewhere on the road ahead were numberless hitchhikers and wanderers on foot, pilgrims who might be ready for some company, all headed toward something none of them could name.

Driver kept an eye out for them.

The End

 

“The Black Bus” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 1994 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1994. [This version reconstituted from a scan found on the internet and should be considered provisional, with the usual ocr errors, missing italics, etc.]

 

AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD:

 

I might have been a little high when I wrote this. Just a little.

 

Flight Risk

January 17th, 2016

FLIGHT RISK

They brought Foster to the boy by a route of back alleys and parking garages, changing him from car to car several times, until eventually, although he’d thought he knew the city very well, he found himself uncertain of his whereabouts. They were near the airport, he knew that much. Condemned buildings, empty shops, and the rumbling pall of jet trails over all. A massive extension of the runways planned, this part of the city had known it was doomed; the exodus occurred before delays set in. A perfect place to hide the boy without seeming to hide him.

The final car, a black sedan with dented doors and fenders thinned by rust, drew to a stop at the rear of a building that had too many windows to be a warehouse, too few to be a residence. The man riding shotgun stepped out and opened the door. Foster slid from his seat in back, clutching his worn black bag to his gut. Along the alley, tips of garbage poked through humps of snow. There was just enough warmth in the air to carry a threat of the sourness and rot waiting beneath the ice. A black wrought iron gate swung open in the rear of the building, and a third man, large and heavy browed, appeared there, beckoning. Foster recognized features of gigantism, but felt no thrill at the fact that he was seeing his first giant.

As Foster passed inside, the door clanged shut, cutting the rumble of a jet engine to something felt rather than heard. Foster saw a dim hall with access to a slightly brighter lobby just ahead. The giant held back the accordioned bars of an elevator cage. Foster stepped in and waited for the giant to crowd in beside him.

“I’ll meet you up there,” the giant said, this voice thick with menace. “Don’t get off until I let you out.”

“No,” said Foster. “Of course not.”

The giant pressed a button and retreated, letting the doors clang shut. The elevator jerked and began a scraping ascent.

If the illuminated numbers above the door were to be believed, the elevator was skipping floors. More likely the lights were burned out. When the car finally ground to a halt, Foster knew only that he was somewhere above the seventh floor. He waited what seemed a full minute before he heard clanging, and then the giant appeared, hauling open the door and peering in at him. Out of breath and sweating profusely, he made scooping motions with his hands.

“Yes, yes,” Foster said, following him out and down the hall.

The giant stopped at a door with 909 painted on a frosted glass pane. He dug into his pocket until he found a ring with two keys on it. In the giant’s hand they looked like keys to a child’s diary or a toy padlock. He unlocked the door and pushed it open, making it clear to Foster that he should go in first.

Foster heard a hum of voices mixed with the rumble of another jet passing above. They stepped into what had been the waiting room of an office, more recently being used as a residence. The domestic touches were few: a small refrigerator, a microwave oven, a card table and several folding chairs. An old office desk butted up against a sofa bed. Pizza boxes, cereal cartons, dozens of paper coffee cups. A television with poor reception, volume almost inaudible–the source of the muted voices, probably.

There was another door on the far side of the room, frosted glass pane in its upper half. It was ajar, and through the gap he saw a mattress laid flat on the floor. On it lay small thin legs in parachute pants, bony feet in frayed socks.

The giant saw him looking, gave a shrug in that direction. “Go ahead. Look him over.”

The boy glanced up as Foster entered, wary and unsurprised, as if he had already seen many strangers come and go, Foster just another. A movement in the corner startled Foster. A second man stood up, tall and thin, so pale his face might have been a streak of light cast by headlights, sliding along the wall.

“Thank Christ,” the man said. “I can get the hell out of here.”

“He’s not your replacement, Gaunt,” said the giant, coming in behind Foster. “This is the doctor.”

“Doctor? So when do I get a break?”

“When this is all over.”

“When—“ Gaunt cut himself short, glaring at Foster. “What does he know?”

“I don’t know or care about your business,” Foster said. “I am here for the boy.”

The pale man laughed. “You’re not the only one. Wish the others were as prompt, though.”

“Shut up,” said the giant. “You need to learn patience.”

“That’s the doctor’s department. Go ahead with him, Doc. I think he needs a good worming myself. Where he comes from, they’ve got all kinds of crud. Little brat doesn’t know how good he’s got it here. No appreciation. All the toys we bought him, he just sits there.”

“Please,” Foster said.

“All right. I’m going out for some swill. Since the doctor’s here. If that’s okay with you.”

“Be quick,” the giant said.

The two men stepped out into the other room, leaving Foster and the boy all the privacy they were likely to have. The lock had been removed from the inner door. Foster knelt down next to the mattress.

The boy watched him carefully.

“I am a doctor,” Foster said. “Do you know that word? Do you speak English?”

The boy just stared. His hair was as much grey as brown, like the fur of a mangy wolf he’d seen in the zoo. His eyes were almost as feral, and far more aware of being caged. Foster tried to smile, but felt it might be misinterpreted. A smile could just as easily have foreshadowed cruelties in the boy’s recent past.

“Do…do you know if he’s had any inoculations?” he called back into the other room.

“What?” The giant’s shadow swam up beyond the frosted glass. “You mean, like, polio shots?”

“The usual vaccines. Measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus. Kid stuff.”

“They found him in an orphanage.”

“There must have been medical staff.”

“The place was a hundred years old. Rotting wood. A lot of the kids were sick from the same thing, but it was nothing you could catch. That plant in Belarus or wherever…the one where they had the leak…”

“Hell,” Foster said, leaning closer to the boy. “If that’s it, if he’s that sick—“

“No one’s expecting any miracles out of you. We just want to make sure he’s strong enough to make it until we’ve unloaded him. So you check him out.”

“If he’ll let me.”

“He won’t give you any trouble. Never has.”

Foster reached for the boy’s wrist, took his pulse. From his bag he took the stethoscope and listened to the boy’s chest through a thin sweater. The boy’s breath was warm and smelled of sugar and milk and something else, a smell remembered from youth, working on old radios and television sets. It was like the smell of electrical discharge, yet not quite ozone. And it was stronger, closer to the boy. He leaned in, nostrils flaring, and the boy reared back abruptly.

“Sorry,” Foster said. “Didn’t mean to—“

“Well?” It was the giant, having come up quietly behind him.

“He’s well enough. But he could use some fresh air, some exercise. It’s not healthy for a child to be shut up in a place like this.”

“It’s out of the question. He has toys, if he’d play with them.”

Foster hadn’t noticed the box full of jumbled plastic pieces pushed into one corner of the room. Decks of cards, sponge-rubber balls. No cars or planes or anything that would make noise. Nothing such a boy would be likely to have any interested in playing with.

Foster rose and walked to the window for a look at the icy day. He poked a few fingers through the dusty blinds. “Air,” he whispered.

The window ledge was brick, crusted with grime, mortar that had welled up like grey dough. Pigeons milled somewhere nearby; he could hear them cooing.

There was a very small playground across the street, between old apartment buildings, a few bare trees stretching up from muddy snow around climbing equipment the color of rust. Even looking at the iron bars put the tang of cold metal in his mouth.

“Down there,” he said. “There’s a playground. It’s totally deserted.”

“How do you think it would look, this boy, with the two of us?”

“I’ll take him myself. There’s nothing suspicious in that. He’s what…not even school age? No one will question.”

It was impossible to tell what the giant was thinking. His face gave no clue whether he was considering the situation, or had closed himself off to any possibility of compromise.

“I’ll take care of him,” Foster said. “You can watch from up here. And the other, your friend…”

“…eh…”

“Gaunt. He can watch from somewhere closer. In case you’re afraid the boy’s a flight risk.”

The giant made a dismissive gesture. “He has nowhere to run.”

Foster glanced over at the boy, who watched them intently, but seemed unable to decode their conversation.

“He speaks no English?”

“None. That’s another problem. How will you make him obey you?”

“How do you?”

The giant didn’t answer. There was no need. He was an irresistible force, albeit not as malevolent as he seemed. Because now he shrugged and opened his hands, palms upward.

“All right. But I’ll stay with you.”

“Fine.”

“We’ll be his uncles. If anyone asks.”

“Yes, good,” Foster said. “You have some warm clothes for him?”

The giant slipped away and returned with a heavy coat, dark and thick, brand new. The boy was worth that much investment, to someone.

“Don’t want him catching cold,” the giant said with a shrug, and thrust it at the boy. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going out. The doctor thinks you need to play.”

“He’s a child,” Foster repeated. “Of course he needs to play.”

In the deserted hall, they kept the boy between them. His small face was hidden in the folds of the thick hood. Foster started toward the elevator, but the giant shook his head, wagged a finger. “Not that way.”

“You think I might run?”

“With this boy, I take no chances.”

The stairwell was not much larger than the elevator car. The boy went first, down to a lobby of cracked marble that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. The giant opened the front door and looked both ways, then waved them through. There were few cars in sight. He motioned at the empty playground. “Go ahead. I’ll wait in here. I’d rather not be seen if I can help it.”

“Come whenever you like,” said Foster. “It will do him good, I’m sure of it.”

“Go.”

Foster put his hand out, and was both surprised and gratified when the boy took it without hesitation. They needn’t run, there was no traffic, but Foster felt like running all the same. On the far sidewalk, he stopped with a hand on the low gate that opened into the park. He grinned down at the boy and was rewarded with a small smile. A hint of color was coming back to his cheeks. Foster truly saw his eyes for the first time, and they were blue. Blue as the sky that hid somewhere beyond clouds grey as the underside of a trashcan lid.

“Go,” Foster said, swinging open the gate. “Go play. You know play? You know fun?”

He clapped his hands and gestured at the swings, a roundabout, a teeter-totter. No wonder no one played here. The playground was an anachronism, full of archaic devices considered unacceptably dangerous by insurance brokers. The toys of his own childhood, and that of his own children. Fearful mothers and city councilmen conspired to tear these places down.

The boy looked at him in disbelief, like a wild creature that has been caged and finds itself suddenly free. He stood staring up at Foster, then looked back at the ground-floor façade of the office building. The giant had drawn back inside. The boy spun around and ran toward a towering slide of buckled metal, undoubtedly a dangerous, rickety, tetanus-bearing thing. It took Foster a moment to realize the sharp sound he’d heard as the boy took off was a laugh.

The boy hurtled down the slide, sweeping snow off as he went. From there, leaping across the puddle of slush at the bottom, he rushed toward the swing set and threw himself into a frayed rubber seat, the swing chains grating as he began to push and pull himself into widening arcs. On the highest arc, Foster feared for a moment that the boy was about to hurl himself off into the sky. His face and chest and legs, every part of him strained upward, where the sun seemed to promise it would soon tear away the clouds. It was such a visceral certainty that he startled himself by taking a step toward the swing, as if to catch the boy.

Then down he came, slowing, slowing, slipping off. The boy rushed to the next amusement—the roundabout. He pushed it round and round and leapt on, then off, pushed it again and again until Foster grew dizzy from watching.

Methodically, the child extracted every bit of amusement from each toy. After a while, Foster looked for somewhere to sit. The snow had begun to melt and the benches were dripping. Mounds of brown sand revealed themselves through mounds of snow. He began to sweat inside his jacket, and loosened several buttons. The monkey bars clanged with a hollow sound as the boy climbed to the top. Foster had to suppress an urge he had not felt in many years: the urge to call out a warning. As a father, he had developed the less instinctive response: let the boy be. This was the best Foster felt he could offer the orphan child: the freedom to reach to the sky, proclaiming himself master of this small height, at least for this moment. Let the boy have it. It was little enough.

Across the street, the pale man was just returning from his errand with two paper cups. At that moment, the sun burned a hole through the clouds and set the street gleaming. Foster watched the men talking to each other in the doorway of the building, the giant taking one of the cups, then gesturing across to the playground. Gaunt’s confusion turned to anger. He came striding across the street, while the giant snarled something behind him.

Foster put up a hand as if to say there was nothing to be concerned about, but at that moment, he heard fluttering and felt a vast shadow spread over him from behind.

He turned in surprise and growing astonishment as the other men began to shout. Foster saw that the giant, as he came, had reached into his jacket and drawn a gun. But for Foster, that scarcely registered.

The electric smell which he’d whiffed earlier was a strong presence now, but that was the least of it. The boy still stood at the apex of the monkey bars with his hands outstretched, but now he was more clearly signaling, summoning, something. Making a gesture of desperate pleading and abandon, as if he were clawing at the sky, as if he were pulling it down to him, as if it were a curtain he would tear into rags. It was a child’s gesture, grasping and selfish and uninhibited, completely unaware of its strength.

And in response, came birds. Pigeons. Muted greys and browns and patched white, spiraling from their roosts on the surrounding buildings. They circled and swept in, drawn to the boy.

As Foster stared, something hit him hard from behind. The giant shoved him aside. Gaunt leapt snarling at the bars, trying to clamber toward the gathering cloud of wings. The bars were icy and slick. Gaunt immediately lost his grip and went down hard, banging his jaw. With a grunt, he collapsed into slush.

The giant began waving his hands in the air, heedless of the gun.

“No!” Foster said. “Put that away!” And lower, “You want someone to see?”

As if anyone would notice a mere gun.

The boy was barely visible now at the center of the birds. How quickly it had gathered. He was lost in there, all but hidden. However, in glimpses Foster saw his face, peaceful and beaming, eyes closed, grinning. Then the wings closed in again.

“Get down from there!” the giant shouted, and he pointed the gun into the mass of wings. Foster had the delirious impression that the whole swarm was shifting…pulling away from the bars…impossible, but…

“Please!” Foster said. “Let me—“

The gun went off. The sound was lost in another, louder sound that tore the atmosphere apart like a sonic boom, accompanied by a flash like that of lightning. The air seemed to crack and split, like a thin sheet of quartz shattering under pressure, firing sparks as it shattered.

Then the light failed and the sun was swallowed up in clouds again, and the sound was but an echo.

Whether it was the gunshot or the other shock that did it, the birds scattered, exploding from the scene as if flung in every direction.   For a moment Foster saw the boy hanging in midair, several feet above the monkey bars Then he fell. His knees struck the bars with a bang. He went through them like a ragdoll, striking his head once as he went. He hit the ground just as Gaunt was rising to his feet with a hand cradling his jaw.

The ozone smell mixed with the dusty miasma of feathers. Foster rushed for the boy, pushing himself through the bars of the cage, lifting him from the snow. He moaned in Foster’s arms, beginning to shiver, soaking wet.

The giant put out his arms, and Foster carefully fed the boy to him through the bars. The gun was hidden again.

“He needs to get to a hospital,” Foster said.

“No way!” said Gaunt.

They ran across the street, Foster struggling to keep up. “He might be concussed. It is extreme neglect not to—”

“Your fault, doctor,” said the giant bitterly. “If anything happens to him….”

“He needs immediate care—“

“No hospital.”

The lobby door slammed shut behind them. This time the giant crowded into the little elevator with the boy, leaving Foster and Gaunt to climb the stairs. Because of me, Foster thought, not for the last time.

As they climbed, Gaunt stopped once to hold a rail and catch his breath. His teeth were chattering. Foster realized the other man was terrified. He struggled to regain control of himself, then grew rigid as he saw Foster staring at him.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing. I’m sorry.”

“You should be.”

It struck him again: Because of me.

#

The boy had a broken leg, that was the only certainty. The giant made several calls, and supplies arrived soon after, then Foster set the leg himself. If there were other more serious injuries, hidden ones, he had to content himself with patching the ones he could see. He worried about the possibility of concussion, other complications, but there was nothing else he could do about them.

The boy had a mark on his brow which went from bluish black to yellow over several days, as the weather warmed and the snow receded and the streets began to stink. Foster spied the coming of spring from between the blinds, when he wasn’t watching the boy. Gaunt and the giant took turns prowling the outer room. They shared the couch with Foster. They would not let him leave. At this point it was out of the question.

He was glad, in a way, because he would have worried to leave the boy in their care. The blue eyes watched him come and go as he puttered about the room and sorted through the contents of his black bag. The boy lay on the mattress, mostly unmoving, and said nothing, only watched him, or the window. The TV muttered at the edge of perception, but he showed no interest in that—unusual child. He kept gazing toward the sky, his attention growing always especially rapt when the pigeons began to stir somewhere above, and when the shadows of winged things went flickering across the blinds.

When Foster smelled the ozone whiff from time to time, he worried, remembering the cyclone of wings.

At one such moment, the giant came storming into the room, scouring the corners with his eyes, as if searching for some traitor or enemy hiding there. His nostrils flared. He strode to the window and drew up the blinds; and there, startling Foster, was something to feed their apprehension.

The crumbling brick ledge was lined with pigeons. Several dozen of them milled about, curiously mute, staring through the cracked and grimy glass as if looking for the boy. The giant let out a yell. He unlocked the window and pushed it up, shedding flakes of ancient paint. The birds swirled away from the screaming giant. Then he slammed the window down so hard the glass cracked, leaving it intact but looking like a puzzle made of shards.

The giant stormed out of the room, then out of the suite. Gaunt paced about in the other room, his pale face swimming back and forth across the rippled glass of the inner door.

Foster sank down on a corner of the mattress and leaned toward the boy, who had learned to trust him enough not shy away.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I could help you somehow. Do you know what they want with you? What use are you to them?”

The boy stared at him with eyes unblinking and undefeated. So young, Foster thought.

The giant returned less than an hour later, carrying shopping bags. He busied himself in the next room. Foster left the boy and wandered in to watch ominous preparations. The giant had a loaf of cheap white bread. He pinched out lumps of dough and rolled them into balls. The desktop was scattered with flour. The giant dropped a large box back into one of the bags. Not flour, he realized, for the box bore a skull and crossbones.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

“I have to protect my investment,” the giant said. “You don’t know what trouble I’m in if anything happens to that boy.”

“Yes but I don’t see—”

“No repeats of the other day. I can’t allow it.”

Filling his pockets with the dough balls, the giant opened the door to the boy’s room. The boy looked on with blue eyes unblinking.

The giant returned to open the cracked window. It opened easily now. He carefully arranged the balls of dough along the ledge, emptying his pockets. He lowered the window gingerly, and then the blinds.

He turned and saw the boy watching him, and brushed his hands together, smiling.

“Nice birdies,” the giant said.

By the next morning, the cooing above the casement had all but ceased. The dough balls were gone. In their place lay a solitary pigeon which must have died during the night and fallen from somewhere above. Crumpled and stiff, its glazed eye seemed to stare at Foster through the cracked pane. He stared back at the bird, feeling as if his own eye were equally crazed.

Behind him, a thud. An exhalation. The boy had risen, pulled himself from the bed. He limped up beside Foster, dragging his cast. When he saw the bird, the boy collapsed. Foster felt himself crumbling from within, but he found the strength to catch the boy. The boy had learned to cry soundlessly and without tears. Foster carried him back to the mattress, amazed by his self-control. In the other room, the giant had no clue what transpired in here. The rumble of jets masked whatever sounds they might have made.

“There, there,” Foster said, keeping a hand on the boy’s back as he shuddered with dry weeping. “It’s all right.”

The next day was warmer still. The suite began to grow uncomfortable, even suffocating. Foster asked the giant if they could open a window, although he knew the answer in advance. Gaunt and the giant were growing more impatient and nervous; their mood verged on paranoid. Foster gathered that some crucial deadline had come and gone; that someone they were counting on had failed to appear. There were numerous hushed, harsh phone conversations on their countless cell phones, but they were diligent about keeping him in the dark.

“Please,” he said, pleading the boy’s case, “just the one window, just an inch or so, to let some air in.”

“No. Nothing. You saw what happened.”

“Just a crack.”

Gaunt shot up from his chair, kicking it backward, lunging at him. The giant held him back. Foster retreated.

Foster’s only relief from the interior of the room, from the constant haunting of unanswerable questions in the boy’s eyes, was to stand at the window and see what passed outside. But always the bird came to dominate his view; his eye incessantly returned to the increasingly active colony it had attracted. The first flies touched down on the dead eye, then darted toward the rawness of flesh inside the gaping beak, and finally lost all caution and began to explore the carcass thoroughly, inside and out. Sometimes he thought he could smell a faint putrid odor, only as much as would have drifted through the fractured pane. But the one time he started to unlock the window, to nudge the bird out of his view and dispel the flies, he found that the giant had appeared at his shoulder.

“If you even touch that lock, I’ll break all your fingers.”

Foster laced his fingers behind his back and watched the flies touch down on the pale grey ruff of feathers and tap across the glass, tasting everything.

“I want that bird there as a reminder,” the giant said.

That night Gaunt and the giant spread an assortment of Chinese take-out containers across the desk, and sat on the sofa griping. So weary of their vigil that they had begun to betray bits of it, and to discuss it openly, ignoring Foster.

“—have to do something. They’re never coming.”

“We lose the money and the boy, is that what you mean?” said the giant. “Throw it all away?”

“The boy’s nothing to us except money. And if the money’s not coming…”

“You don’t waste something like what he has.”

“What does he have? What use is it?”

“That’s not a question we have to answer. We just have to find someone who’ll make the same deal.”

“You’re dreaming. It was hard enough to get this one in place.”

“There’s interest, believe me.”

“There’s also danger the longer we hold onto him…if he gets desperate or…or who knows what he’ll do. Those birds, they were nothing. What if he pulls down something else?”

“Like what?”

“Like what. How about something heavier than birds? Something to make a crater where we’re sitting.”

“That’s not his talent.”

“How do you know? You’re guessing. No one knows the limits exactly. It’s just potential right now. In Belarus, remember, the cluster of debris? Space junk…all in a small radius around the orphanage…”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“But if it’s not, if he gets upset enough—”

“He likes the doctor. He won’t let anything…”

The giant paused, looked over at the door to the boy’s room, saw Foster standing there watching them. He shook his head and stuffed a forkful of noodles into his mouth.

“It’s stupid to sit here and wait to be picked up. Admit it. The opportunity’s gone. Something happened to them and they’ll never—”

At that moment, one of their many cell phones rang. The giant found it among the scattered take-out containers. Foster watched his glum face shift almost imperceptibly. “Yes? Yes. All right, yes.” Then he switched it off and put it back down and simply stared at Gaunt.

“You’re kidding, right?”

The giant slowly shook his head.

“In the morning,” he said.

Foster sank back into the inner room. The boy was asleep, whimpering softly down in the dark. Foster stepped lightly to the window and peered through the blinds as if some new solution might offer itself. No fire escape. Barely enough room on the ledge for the pigeon’s fly-blown carcass. Even if he dared to unlock it, there was no escape here. If he could, he would have opened the window, he would have raised the boy up, he would have stepped off into space and taken them both away from here.

But he could do nothing. Nothing but watch through the night. The street was rarely busy, except for a brief time in the morning when a flurry of cars passed through on their way to other destinations. The sun came up among TV aerials and satellite dishes and ancient water tanks. The last trace of snow had melted, and the clear sky promised warmth. The flies were already busy, buzzing and bumbling about beyond the glass, nearly as loud as the voices from the other room as the giant and Gaunt roused themselves. Gaunt, in a rare good mood, volunteered to venture out for coffee and rolls.

Foster watched him walk away from the front of the building, nine floors below, and head off on foot. The sun began to beat at the glass, but the boy slept on. An ominous rumble from somewhere above the building made him flinch, then he realized it was only a jet; a tracery of contrails hung in the sky, dissolving. He saw no planes, but he could hear them. It sounded like many of them. With an eye to the sky, Foster traced the web of broken window glass; it was a useless web that couldn’t trap a single one of the flies on the far side of the glass. One of the vermin rose up from the flyblown corpse and lit upon the glass; clung there, separated from his fingertip by the thin pane. The thought of the filthy insect coming near the boy repulsed him, and he tapped the glass to frighten it away. Instead, there was a sharp crack, and a small shard tipped out and fell to the bricks with a sharp sound, shattering into bits of angular glitter. The sound of rumbling grew perceptibly louder, Foster’s hearing rendered hypersensitive by fear. It didn’t help to realize he’d opened the way for flies now; and that the giant might have heard the sound of breaking glass and would come to investigate, disturbing the sleeping boy.

His eye traveled past the ledge, caught by a black car cruising to a stop on the street directly below.

Foster turned away and looked at the boy, wondering if he should wake him.

To his surprise, he found the boy was awake and smiling at him.

“Run,” Foster whispered. It made him sound ridiculous in his own ears. His only excuse was that he knew the boy could not understand him.

The car doors opened, and a small dark figure stepped out, and then another. Men in black suits. From up here, they were not much bigger than the flies that had begun to swarm around the bird in the warming light.

The men walked out of sight below the window ledge. He pushed his brow to the glass, but they were hidden. He turned toward the boy, biting his lips, never having felt more helpless in his life. But for some reason, meeting the boy’s eyes, he felt suddenly released. It was as if he had had done all he could do, and the boy knew it; and although it amounted to nothing, although he had failed completely, still it had been enough.

But there must be something more, Foster told himself. Even if it meant throwing himself in their path, making some extreme gesture no matter how futile.

He put a finger to his lips and gestured toward the other room. The boy nodded. It was the most conspiratorial they had ever been. Foster put his hand briefly on the boy’s head, tousled his hair, then stepped into the other room. He made a great show of easing the door shut.

“No need for that,” the giant said. “He’ll have to wake up soon enough. This is his last day with us.”

Foster pretended surprise. “Really? Well…that’s a relief. It’s bound to be better for him, wherever he’s going.”

The giant looked at Foster as if he were impossibly naïve. “If you say so.”

Foster glanced back at the door. He had thought the murmuring came from out here, but now he realized it must be coming from another floor completely. It was hard to remember they were not alone in the old office building. Hard to remember, at times, that they were not alone in the whole world.

Out in the hall, he heard the elevator creaking. The giant looked perplexed. He rose to his feet and started toward the boy’s room, but Foster stepped deftly toward the hall and the giant had to veer to intercept him.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I thought I heard someone at the door.”

The giant moved between Foster and the hall door. He opened it and looked out. The approaching elevator sounded clear and clangorous. The giant straddled the threshold, as if suspecting that Foster was looking for a chance to slam the door and lock him out.

The elevator stopped. The doors took their time squealing open. Foster peered out past the giant as two men he had never seen stepped out of the lift and looked around in the dimness. The giant beckoned them over and stepped back into the suite, forcing Foster in first.

Someone was talking urgently now in some room nearby. He could almost make out the voices. Foster wondered if the sound was making made the men apprehensive. They did not look like men who were ordinarily nervous about anything, but perhaps they knew a little about the boy—enough to fear him.

It occurred to Foster that he had never feared the boy, only feared for him.

“Where is he?” said one of the new men.

The giant said, “I’ll get him.”

“No,” Foster said.

The strangers turned to glare at him. One said, “Who is this?”

“Nobody,” said the giant.

“I’m the boy’s doctor,” Foster said. “He’s sleeping. He hasn’t been well. He had a blow to the head and he…he needs rest. He needs special care.”

Anger. “Is he serious?”

The giant shrugged. “He’s grown attached.”

They stared at Foster as if this were unfortunate and unnecessary. Foster had been about to plead his own case, to ask if they would let him come along to care for the boy, but he could see now the futility of such a request. He didn’t mind making a fool of himself, but there was little point in wasting his energy. There must be something else he could do.

The murmuring, though still indistinct, had grown louder. Foster realized where the sound was coming from an instant before the others did. He saw the giant’s eyes widen as he turned his massive head toward the inner door. The frosted glass was dark, darker than the room had ever been in daylight, even with the blinds shut.

The giant cast a malevolent look at Foster, as if he were behind this somehow, then he took a step toward the door. The two strangers looked on without a clue what they were witnessing.

At that moment, Foster heard banging in the hall and the outer door flew open. The strangers whirled with guns drawn out of nowhere, as Gaunt hurled himself into the room, gasping and out of breath from rushing up the stairs.

“Stop him!” he croaked, not even seeing the guns. He lunged at the boy’s door.

The giant beat him to it. Foster staggered back toward the hall. The giant hurled himself against the door, but although it could not be locked from within, it seemed to resist his heavy blows.

Gaunt fell in beside him, and the two men threw themselves at the door until the very frame began to crack. The frosted glass pane shattered and the door crashed open in the same instant, unbottling the darkness sealed within.

The room beyond was utterly black and thick and crawling and alive. It was filled with a million seething voices. The giant and Gaunt and the two strangers with their useless guns, all fell back from the demonic cloud with their mouths slowly moving, as if they were trying to mimic or interpret the sounds.   But they were not words, not really. They were meaningless, incoherent yet full of expression.

“Get in there!” screamed Gaunt.

“You get in!” the giant cried.

Then Foster did a senseless thing. He turned on the strangers, about whom he knew nothing except that they were likely to be ruthless, and without a second thought he snatched the gun from the hands of the nearest. The man let out a shout, and they all turned to look at Foster. There were three guns pointing at him. They stared at him as if he were crazy, suicidal.

Foster turned toward the inner doorway. He could see the faintest glow from the far window. He fired into the mass, but it was like shooting into smoke. He was thrown backward, his shoulder wrenched by recoil, deafened by the gunshot, the weapon falling from his hand. Even through the shock of sound he could hear glass shatter, and it was the sound of release. From out of the horrible buzzing came a peal of high pure laughter.

The smoke that wasn’t smoke had already cleared by the time he regained his feet. It had thinned so much he could see the walls again, the blinds hanging limp and tattered, the window completely shattered from its frame, and the open sky beyond.

Foster ignored the fallen gun, ignored the guns still aimed at him, and walked alone toward the window.

He stared out into the morning.

Above the rooflines, still rising, still laughing, he caught sight of a dark coherent cloud that surged and gathered and regathered itself. And persisted.

Foster looked down at his hands, which rested on the ledge among strewn shards of glass. A fly spiralled down and landed on his knuckle. It took several steps, rubbed its forelegs together as if giving thanks, then kissed his skin quite tenderly. Foster raised his hand, meaning to lift it up until he could meet its eyes, wondering what he might find there–but the fly was only a fly after all, and too restless for such formalities. Casting itself onto the wind, it hurried to catch up with the rest of its legion.

Foster turned to face the other men, ready to accept their blame—whatever came.

Because of me, he thought. And was content.

END

“Flight Risk” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 2004 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in SciFiction, April 2004.

AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD:

There’s not much to say about this one. I had the idea and first wrote it in the early ’80s. It was almost exactly the same as the version I eventually wrote 20 years later, except that for some reason I was unhappy with it; it didn’t work. When I came to rewrite it, I used slightly broader strokes and painted in primary colors, as if decorating a nursery: names like Gaunt, Doctor Foster (went to Gloucester). A giant! Broad strokes. As for little details, I remember I was watching Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and there’s a brief scene set in a cramped elevator, and for some reason that elevator ended up in here. In fact, watching that scene might have been the thing that finally catalyzed the whole story finally falling into place after a couple decades of simmering. Like “Jane,” it first appeared in Ellen Datlow’s marvelous, short-lived online fiction venue, SciFiction, which was sponsored by the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel. A lot of great stories appeared there, originals and reprint, but the site is sadly defunct.

Chtherub

January 17th, 2016

1269762785756-1

Sweetmeats

January 17th, 2016

SWEETMEATS

At first little Hugh thought it was rats. Rats in the wall by his head, down low on the floor where his mattress lay. He had seen them often enough, darting down the hall to the kitchen, coming upon their nests in the narrow crawlspace where he sometimes went for privacy. He imagined their curved teeth gnawing away, almost the same stained yellow color as the crumbly plaster they chewed.

His sister had always feared they would come in at night and eat them, but she did not wake to see if her dream would come true. Hugh alone watched and watched the spot where the sound was coming from. He watched until the wall began to tremble, and a piece of it bent sideways and opened like a little door, hinged on the wallpaper.

Out came not a rat, but a little brown man. Very little, very brown. His head barely reached the lower ledge of the windowsill.

“Is this your house?” the little brown man said. “You live here?”

Hugh twisted and looked over his shoulder to make sure his sister was still sleeping. She was. The rest of the house was quiet as well; his parents often fell into a stupor long before Hugh could find his way to sleep. Some nights he never even closed his eyes, but lay awake with his head so empty that the darkness inside him and the darkness outside were exactly the same. That was very restful. But now, except for Hugh and this little intruder, everyone was asleep.

“Who are you?” Hugh whispered.

“I asked you a question.”

“I’m sleeping in it, aren’t I?”

“Right,” said the little man, and turned to peer back at the hole he’d made. “You won’t fit through this.”

“Why would I want to?”

“We need to get you out of here, under the house. Right away.”

“Keep your voice down,” Hugh said, “you’ll wake my sister. And I’m not going anywhere with you. Not…not unless you tell me who you are.”

“No names until we trust you.”

“You trust me? Why should I trust you?”

“Do you know Mbe’lmbe?”

Umbaylumbay? Who’s he?”

“Foo. But it is not your fault you are such an ignorant child. If you knew the name, you would know that you can trust me. We have had secrecy forced upon us for so long, the world has forgotten us. Answer me this, boy. Is there another way under your house?”

“The crawlspace.”

“You get there how?”

“There’s a piece of screen under the porch. I peel it back.”

“Very well. Put on your shoes and go there. I will meet you and then we proceed.”

“I’m not that crazy.”

“You can wear your pajamas–it’s warm enough where we’re headed. But shoes you may need. Now hurry.”

Hugh plucked at the flannel pajamas that had been his solitary Christmas present, his solace on these bitter nights in the drafty little house. When he looked up again the flap of wallboard was swinging back into place. The little brown man was gone.

Hugh’s dilemma. For the moment, he was free to do as he chose. Surely such a little man couldn’t force him to do anything he didn’t want to do. It was up to Hugh himself whether he crawled into the cobwebby dark beneath the porch, or fell back into his pillow and tried to sleep.

A moment later, the pillow was cooling and the sheets lay thrown back. The bed was empty, Hugh’s decision made.

#

“Well done, little man,” the little man greeted him from darkness as he scraped through the wire mesh. Hugh kept a candle stub and book of matches in his crawlspace nest. As the light flared, the man’s pupils glared briefly golden like a cat’s. “Now make haste with me. Our time is short.”

In the middle of the crawlspace floor, the raw dirt had been pushed up in a gaping crater, a mole mound dug up from beneath. Into this, now, the little man lowered himself. One hand thrust up and beckoned back to Hugh. “It’s narrow here, but soon widens.”

It was also dark. Putting his face above the opening, he felt a breeze coming up, strong enough to make the flame flutter. He expected the subterranean wind to carry a tomb smell, something as musty as the suffocating damp beneath the house. Instead, the breeze was redolent of unexpected sweetness. Cinnamon. Mint. The rich, dark, intoxicating scents of coffee, vanilla, and above all else, chocolate. The passage was crudely hewn by pick and shovel, hardly fit for a grave-tunneling ghoul, but the smell disarmed him. He dropped down easily, rock shards digging into his knees and palms. The candle went out during the descent.

“This way,” said the voice in the dark, calling from the direction of the smells. “You won’t need the light. There is no false turn you can make. And soon you will see well enough.”

He followed the scrabbling sounds of toes and knees in earth. It was hard to breathe, with his head tucked low so that he wouldn’t bang his forehead on the ceiling. When he stopped to catch his breath, the vapors that filled his nose and lungs were intoxicating. An intense miasma of candyshop smells: Licorice and lemon, caramelized sugar, a marshmallowy sponginess to the air. It was growing more humid, rich with scents to drown out the raw smell of the earth they stirred up as they scrambled. At last he realized he could see the silhouette of the little man ahead of him. The light was very dim and sourceless, and it stayed that way for the longest time, like twilight in a dream where it is always twilight. Even when it brightened, it could hardly be called bright, being only barely lighter than the palest dusk. And in that subterrene glow, he realized the little man was standing upright now and urging him to do the same. With his hand on his head like a protective cap, Hugh raised himself to full height, and found that the ceiling was now higher than he could reach. Their journey through the narrow passage finished, he wondered what kind of place he’d come to.

“Where are we?” he asked. “Why have you brought me here?”

“We are home.”

“Whose home?”

“Are you not a lonely, lonely child?”

He sensed he was in some kind of sunken forest. As his eyes adjusted ever so slowly to the gloom, he saw looming shadows, blurred shapes like enormous trees that stirred not at all in the gentle sweet-scented wind. He reached out to touch a tall trunk, and his fingers sank into velvety softness until they reached something cold and hard as glass. He put his fingers to his nose, wondering if this was the source of sweetness, but the softness reeked of mildew, rot and mold, a trillion fetid spores disturbed by his questing fingers. He sneezed and stepped away. Was this the source of the velvety light that seemed to emanate from the very walls? Did mold blanket every surface? But what…what had lain beneath the mold before it grew? Why did the shapes cloaked in damp grey matter seem far too complex and convoluted to be explained away as the stalagmites and stalactites of even the most fantastical cavern?

Again, he asked, “What is this place?”

“Not yet, little man. Sad little mad little ignorant little man.”

He sighed, exasperated, ready to refuse to budge. But at that instant, something lurched from the grey folds of moldy dimness. A chuckling sound turned whining and insistent. Sudden puffs of upset spores, far off in the dark, came steaming closer, like the chuffing plume of a grey locomotive rushing at them. His guide let out a muffled shriek and seized his hand and first pulled, then rushed around behind and shoved him forward.

“Run!” the little man hissed. “Run, run, run, run, run!”

The thing behind them advanced almost soundlessly, but Hugh could hear a gathering of soft explosions like puffs from a huge mouth. A blast of mold dust robbed him of sight. He shut his stinging eyes and staggered forward, only to find himself falling. Thick tepid mud enveloped him, acrid and foul, and also riddled with mold. He came up gasping, as beside him his sputtering host insisted, “Swim and we’ll be safe! Push on! It has never yet dared to cross the great river!”

So he swam. Struggling through thickness, he came at last to a crusted slope where the mud had hardened into cracked plates, where he could fit his fingers into crevices and drag himself ashore. It was scarcely a relief when he heard, “We’re safe.”

In the grey distance behind them, that immense puffing came again and again, then settled down as if sobbing itself to sleep. He tried to imagine what could make such a sound: so soft and yet far-reaching; so full of disappointment and dismay.

Now he and the little brown man were exactly the same shade of muddy. The stuff was cold and sticky, as well as foul-flavored, obliterating whatever pleasure the sweet scented air might have brought him. His host, muttering something about making themselves presentable, pulled Hugh to his feet and dragged him on, casting worried glances back at the density of darkness behind them. He thought he heard something sigh, and gather itself. He felt his host’s urgency quicken.

Hugh had lost his shoes in the suction of the river. Now they trod a carpet of brittle grass that crunched and crumbled underfoot; he walked on splinters of broken crystal, but they did no damage, seeming to dissolve as his full weight came down upon them. Each step produced a range of icy tinkling notes.

“So this is your home,” he said, “but who are you?”

“I told you before, we are mbe’lmbe. The last of our kind, and I am our king, although such titles mean nothing in our slavery, for they mean nothing to him.”

“Him? Who is he?”

“The Successor. The Factor. Our Master. Now, in here, quickly.”

His host, the King, opened a door into a place that was slightly less grey and dim than the grim bank they had surmounted. Hugh stepped onto cold concrete and a shiver went through him. One yellow bulb burned blearily, far away down a corridor whose walls were spotted and stained with age and ooze and the salts of the earth, crusted and nitred and yet somehow still smelling sweetly. A corroded fan spun overhead, creaking in the sugary breeze. That sweetness poured from a vent near the corridor ceiling, and the vent was caked with dusty white grit like that which formed on the battery terminals of an old car.

The King tried closing the door behind them, but it was warped and Hugh could see that it was rarely used. Leaning against it with all his weight, the little King managed to slide the latch home, and left the crooked door straining against a darkness that seemed alive enough to ooze around its edges.

The King scurried down the passage, his bare feet slapping the stained cement. Tiles of white and black, chipped and broken, sometimes missing entirely, gave the sense of grander days—an immaculate past, when such things must have mattered to someone. They passed another vent, spilling forth such a richness that Hugh was caught short by it, and hung there gasping and gaping like a fish hooked on the wondrous vapors.

“What…what is that smell?” he asked. “Where is it coming from?”

“From the only part of this place that still functions as it should,” replied the King. “The Factor’s reactor.”

They had left the lone bulb far behind when another door, much smaller than the other, appeared on one side of the hall. The King opened it for Hugh and waved him through with some ceremony. For a moment, it was dark, and then a light sprang on.

This room was strangely prosaic, so ordinary that it struck him as completely out of place.

There was a bed pushed into one corner, a small bureau, and a porcelain sink with dripping taps. A few books sat piled on the bureau, all covered in dust, with gilded titles in Latin and French, some bound in leather, still others in yellowed horn. Above that was a mirror in which he saw himself, completely covered in the filth through which he’d swum.

The King pulled open the topmost drawer, and inside Hugh saw a plain white shirt, a pair of short pants, a rolled up pair of socks. A flattened cap sat neatly atop this pile. The King toed around beneath the bed and pulled out a pair of shoes that seemed as if they probably would fit.

“Whose room is this? Whose clothes?”

“All were his, at one time, but he has forgotten this place exists. Those clothes should fit you, since you are now his age when he came here. I will leave you alone to groom yourself, and then we must make haste.”

The King bowed and withdrew, leaving Hugh alone with the distinct impression that he had better not take a single moment to wonder what was happening to him.

He stripped out of his pajamas and ran water from both taps until they ran clear after twin bursts of rust. The soap was an antique yellow sliver, but he used it sparingly, and it almost lasted till the end. It was quite some time before he felt he was really clean.   He sponged himself with a washcloth that hung from a rack by the sink, then dried with a towel hanging from a peg. A black plastic comb sat on the rim of the sink, and as he lifted it, he became transfixed by the sight of one golden hair tangled in its broken black teeth. He set it down, feeling that to run it through his hair would have been like brushing his teeth with a stranger’s toothbrush.

The clothes smelled of cinnamon and cloves, and were surprisingly soft, although ragged. As the King predicted, they all fit, though the pants were large in the waist. He used a coil of soft cotton rope, discovered in a drawer, to belt them. A jacket hung on the back of the door. Last of all, he settled the cap on his head to hide his bedraggled curls, and found that fit him too.

Curious about the room’s former occupant, he turned to the books on the bureau. Some were volumes of history, dictionaries, and medical tomes.   The horn-bound books were written by hand, as if copied out by monks, yet appeared to be cookbooks of some sort. Flames and loaves of bread were represented there; minutely observed drawings of exotic herbs and berries. Other of the books proved to be journals. One of these sat by itself in the middle of the desk. He picked it up and opened it to a page marked with a slip of gold foil.

The penmanship was neat and disciplined, yet something about it told him it was a child’s handwriting.

—so much responsibility, thrust on me so fast, and I’m unsure I am worthy of it, tho He thinks I am. I mainly worry how I can continue once He’s gone, as He says He soon must be. He says I have much promise and will have many Helpers and will surely discover my own talent though it seems all hidden now. He says the hands and wisdom of all the Helpers are also mine to command, tho really that does not seem right. Why should anyone should have to do whatever I—

“Little Master, we must be off!”

The door stood open. The King waited expectantly. In the interim, he also had cleaned and groomed himself. Hugh, without a second thought, closed the small journal and slipped it into a pocket of his jacket, feeling as if it belonged there, as if the pocket were stretched in exactly that shape from constant carrying.

He was beginning to feel very odd indeed.

The King of the Mbe’lmbe nudged him sideways out of the passage. He tried looking back the way they had come, to the far off door by the muddy river, but it was all black down there now, and he couldn’t tell if lights had gone off or if the tunnel had simply filled up with darkness. A new light winked like a baleful subterrene Polaris from far off in the yet untravelled dark. It beckoned him. The complicated smells of rust and nitre had begun to exert a hold on his curiosity as strong as–and even stranger than–the syrupy fumes that were so much a part of the atmosphere.

They proceeded through what had been a sculpted arch, once no doubt quite ornate, now a sad affair of whitewashed beams and broken plaster that had mostly crumbled away. Dragging his fingers along the wall, he caught a few flecks of the stuff, and brought it reflexively to his mouth and then his tongue. Sweet. It was sweet as sugar yet stale as old pastry, like a sacrificial wafer from a mummy’s tomb.

And thinking mummy thoughts, he was wholly unsurprised when a boat emerged from the cavernous gloom, and he found himself at the shore of a rancid Styx. There was no oarsman, no one to take the helm of the high-prowed ship, and in fact they were not to board the weathered craft. It lay canted against a splintered wharf, tied to stanchions striped like faded barber poles, and so thickly furred with lint and dust that he believed they must be ancient candy canes. The oars lay piled within like broken bones.

“Once, but no more,” the King murmured with mixed regret and relief. “The very essence of efficiency, it took its toll.”

They hurried past the ruined ship and down the dark sweet throat from which the candyshop scents issued, the stagnant river lapping at their side. It was hard to imagine what stirred the river now. There was no wind, no current, yet thick little waves tracked them for a time, as if the boat were rocking to the motion of its hidden cargo, or as if something immense had lowered itself into the scum and begun to swim. Not far along, the little King caught sudden hold of Hugh’s wrist. Hugh wondered why this should be until he saw, in mounds of darkened earth, glittering white crosses running parallel to the river’s course, row upon row like sharks’ teeth layered back into the darkness. Some of the little graves were set with delicate candy skulls, and the crosses themselves must be sugar. So many…a holocaust down here in the darkness…the graves so small and close-set that at first he thought they must all be the graves of children, until he felt the King’s trembling and realized these were all his people. Not a single marker bore a name.

He counted a hundred paces along the river’s edge, with a grave for every pace; and that was only in the nearest row. He forced himself to stop counting, but the graves went on unnumbered. They grew more irregular, spaced farther apart, as if the things they held were increasingly large. The earth looked split and dried, like a cake that had baked too long, the doughy interior swelling up from beneath.

The King had closed his eyes and clung to him, his brow damp, his lips moving in feverish prayer.

Finally they were past that dreadful place, and Hugh thought he might ask a simple question, but the King’s eyes sprang open and stopped him from even considering it.

“Do not concern yourself with them,” he said firmly. “It is my burden alone—I, who brought them here. You are here for the sake of the living.”

“But…”   The question he had been burning to ask. “Why me?”

“Why? It is the only way open to us now. Once there was another way, but in his madness he forsook it. Crazed and companionless, he has forgotten all goodness. He has forgotten life. Sugarbirds once sang here, but they have fallen silent. He has been too long without others. I did not show you all the graves.”

Hugh swallowed, assuming he should be grateful for this mercy. The King’s eyes were terrible.

“Now here,” he said, “say nothing. Do not show pity or contempt or anything untoward. Especially not fear! Keep your thoughts shut up close. There must be no commotion.”

They had arrived at another unexpected door, the appliqué letters pale and peeling. Once they had read SWETESHOPPE, though applied all askew with an unsure hand. The King clenched the knob and opened it into a smell such as Hugh had never imagined.

It was sweetness mingled with sweat, smells of toil and grief, vanilla and excrement, odors of violet and urine, butchershop blood and confectioner’s sugar. He caught himself at the threshold, unwilling to take a single step inside, until the King tugged at his wrist and he knew he must come. He started to put a hand to his mouth, but the King sensed his intent and slapped his hand down. He went forward smiling and bowing and beckoning at Hugh to stay beside him.

All about them towered piles of glazed cooking pots, spiraling copper coils, gauges with needles trembling, steam spouting from high pipes, cages. Everywhere cages. He could not quite see what was in them, apart from the eyes, but that was enough. Eyes like boiled sweets, rolling and watching them, disembodied orbs with bright candy centers that shook and rattled and stared as they passed. That was only for starters. The cages grew larger, the air more rank and humid, the sugary sweetness more cloying and more fetid. There were things in the cages, short and dark, which might have been people once, though now they were little more than enormous mouths with tubes going into them, and rich thick liquors bubbling through the tubes, and even greater richness straining the dark skins to bursting. In some places they had stretched until they split, and raspberry liquors oozed out between the cracks.

“Show respect,” the King whispered, bowing and turning to all sides as they advanced.

“But were they, are they, people?” Hugh whispered in return, although to do so meant he must inhale uncontrollably.

“No…not quite…never. Not these. Not alive, exactly. Without constant irrigation, they would expire immediately. But He…He has not the strength to end their misery. He starts but never finishes. The creator who cannot also understand the need for death should never have been given such power in the first place. Theirs is an endless suffering.”

“If they aren’t alive than how can they suffer?”

“Look at them. Look into their eyes and see if you can still ask such a question.”

But he could not. He couldn’t even be certain where to find their eyes without straining close into the dimness of the cage, which was not something he felt strong enough to do.

“Please,” he said, “I don’t like it here.”

“I’m not sure which are more to be pitied,” said the King. “These, or the ones that have achieved a kind of existence…the ones that have managed to escape.”

Hugh recalled the sound of the soft puffing mouth, the stirring of the stagnant river. He began to retch.

“Now, now. We are almost through.”

At the far end of the room, a door showed through a jumble of nut husks and toppled cages; the floor was deeply grooved and scratched where it had been hauled open countless times. As the King released him to haul on the door, Hugh looked back and saw the caged things watching him, desperately sad, as if waiting to be eaten, wanting it, fearing it, knowing it was never to be.

“Steel yourself,” said the King.

But as the door flew open in a warm waft of wind, it was hard to know how this could be worse than what he’d just seen—how it could be anything bad at all. The buttery smell of chocolate was so intense it obliterated all other odors. Instead of dimness, there was light; instead of cloying humidity, the warmth of a friendly kitchen; instead of screams and despondent sighs, the cheer of sputtering pots and hissing kettles. Blended scents of cinnamon, dark cherry and sweet cream, orange essence and pistachio, rosewater, lime and sugar on the edge of burning but not quite. All these and more wondrous odors came cutting through the chocolate, mixed with it, set his mouth watering. He realized he was ravenous. In the world above it must be morning now—breakfast time. Thinking perhaps the light and warmth had been decanted down through pipes and mirrored shafts from the world above, he squinted up toward the source of that golden radiance, but it was too brilliant to behold directly. He saw the mouth of an immense oven, a furnace that burned his eyes, forging vision into something simultaneously bright and dark.

“Look away,” the King urged him. “It will blind you! Look down low and you will see him.”

Afterimages of the furnace sizzling on his eyes, he scanned the wide expanse of the chamber, searching till he saw movement far out on a distant plain. A man, tall and thin, almost skeletal. Hugh saw a top hat, a long black coat with tattered tails, a face white as chalk with a sharp white beard and sunken eyes.

The face saw him and reeled him in…he felt himself drawn across the spotted, stained and sticky floor. The figure reared up to its full height.

The white face with its stiff goatee gazed severely at him with eyes mismatched, one crazed and cracked like a faded gumball, the other blue as a robin’s egg, bright and quite alert. It whipped swiftly down and sideways to aim a silent reproach at the King, then up it lashed toward Hugh.

“Huh-hullo,” he said.

Stained blueish lips peeled back from teeth so impossibly foul and decayed that Hugh’s jaws began to ache with sympathetic pain. They were broken stumps, ground down to nothing, splintered and eroded. Those that were not entirely grey were yellowed like antique ivory. It was an overly generous grin, most of it gum, and the gums even worse than the teeth because they were so clearly in distress.

“And you are?” said the reedy voice from that terrible, reeking mouth.

Hugh would have staggered back, but the King of the Mbe’lmbe put a shoulder hard to the back of his thigh and pushed him forward. But without abandoning him, for the King held hard to Hugh’s hand and thrust it up as if for that gumball eye’s consideration.

“He is your successor,” stated the King.

“I need none.”

“Master, your time has ended. All who know you know this for the truth. Pass on the work that was passed to you.”

“What I have learned, cannot be passed along. I need no apprentice, and I have no heir.”

“But this is he! There is none worthier! None so pure! None so sweet!”

“Sweet, you say?” The gumball eye, looking as if it had been worn by repeated sucking, spun toward him. “You…boy…you do look familiar.”

“As well he should.”

“Still, he means nothing to me. Why do you say I should know him, eh?”

The top-hatted figure of the old Master thrust forward to catch at Hugh’s collar and cuffs, muttering all the while: “…is sugar…is life…” The fingers, he noticed, were sticky with honey and butter and chocolate. The white beard was stained with chocolate; bright red dabs of jam gleamed at the corners of the awful mouth. Louder now, the muttering, and closer in his ear: “Life is sugar and sugar is life.” The fingers roamed his body, feeling his ribs, “You need fattening up. You need sweets. Nice sweets. You need this.”

Hugh blinked. Beneath his nose, a bar of chocolate appeared as if from the thin man’s sleeves. He started to take it, but the King hauled down his arm by the elbow, with a whispered, “No!”

The thin man laughed down at the little King. “What do you fear? That he will eat and never want to leave?”

“You know that is not what I fear!”

The white face leaned closer to Hugh again, bent down like a jack in the box on a wobbling spring. “Go ahead…take a bite…”

The chocolate so close, beneath his nose, smelled delectable. Only the King’s fear held him back. There was something here he did not understand. He clamped his jaws shut and shook his head.

“Well, then…save it for later…” The long white fingers drifted toward his pockets, pulling them open ever so slightly, dropping the chocolate bar in, patting the pocket to make sure it was safely ensconced.

And then, “What’s this?”

The hand retracted, sticky fingers pinching the bound journal he’d carried with him all this way. “What…where did you find this?”

The brown King looked mystified, as baffled as the old white man.

The old gent opened the book to the page with its golden marker, and his lips began to move. Hugh thought he was reading the journal entry there, but in fact his eyes were not upon the page. He plucked out the golden bookmark and his eyes grew watery and distant. He turned his gaze to the handwritten pages, and flicked his eyes over several lines. His lips trembled. He looked up at Hugh, then gazed with growing rage at the King of the Mbe’lmbe. His rotten teeth gnashed; flecks of spittle sprayed from his foaming mouth. He tore the top hat from his head and hurled it down upon the floor.

“Why show me this?” he began to scream. “Why cast me back upon that shore?”

“I…I…it was a mistake,” the King began. “Please, Master…”

“After all I have done for you? Wretched imp! Is this how you show gratitude? Sacre sucre! I have come too far to be tripped up here!”

“Master! Master, you are forgetting what you put in place! Let me help you remember!”

Hugh found his arm gripped ever more firmly by the King.

“Remember, Master? Remember?”

Looking down, he caught the glimmer of a knife in the King’s hand.

How quickly it had appeared! Where had it come from, and why?

He struggled to move away—so sharp! But the Mbe’lmbe held him tight.

“Do not be afraid,” said the little King soothingly. He found himself unable to resist. He wanted to trust the King. He saw his small white hand held almost tenderly in that much smaller brown one. He clenched his hand into a fist, but the King deftly uncurled his pinky finger and held it so it stuck straight out.

With a sharp swift slice, he lopped off Hugh’s fingertip.

Hugh bit his lip. He did not cry out, both because he feared to show fear before the hungry gumball eye, and because he felt no pain.

The King of the Mbe’lmbe stepped forward with Hugh’s fingertip extended. Hugh looked at that and not his hand. He saw a round pink stub with a soft moonshell of fingernail, still quivering, still unaware it was no longer part of him.

The old Master took the offering and held it up to the fierce oven light, regarding it from all sides, uncertain. He gave the little King a most curious questioning look, to which the King responded with a firm nod.

The old man licked his lips with a dry grey tongue, then popped Hugh’s fingertip into his mouth.

Hugh gasped as if feeling the old man’s rotten teeth in his flesh.

The old Master shut his eyes. He bit down once, and Hugh heard a brittle crunching. He bit down twice, and Hugh heard the juices squirting. The Master’s eyes opened, rapt and delirious, delighted, a broad smile spreading over his face, transforming it in an instant into the face of very old and wizened child.

“My God!” he crowed. He rolled his eyes.

“I tried to tell you, Master,” said the King.

The old man rushed toward Hugh and caught him up beneath his arms—caught him and threw him high into the air. He felt the furnace breathing over him, felt it might gape and swallow him whole.

“Yes, that taste, that wonderful taste…it comes back to me! Oh, sweet victory! Oh, ecstatic sweetness, sacre sucre! The taste of sunlight to the leaf! My boy, my dear boy, what a terrible misunderstanding! Oh happy day! Oh joy to you, joy to us all!”

He set Hugh down, and patted him tenderly on the head. “But…do you not see, my boy?”

He fluttered the golden bookmark, and on it Hugh saw scratches of writing, thin letters incised in the foil and glinting. The lines were short and broken, like lines of poetry, like something else. Like…like…

“The recipe!”

“For what?” Hugh asked.

“When I first drew you from the oven, ah, so small…” He held his fingers to show a mere pinch of boy. “So pink! Yes, yes! Dusted in pink sugar, my marzipan boy…so warm and fresh and sweet, with the raspberry coursing through you. Why, I could have eaten you whole!”

The old confectioner’s eyes gaped, bulged, oozed sugary tears, staring at something beyond.

“Come with me, my boy. Come now…this way…while the mood is upon me, while change is in the air, quickly now, quickly!”

Hugh realized, as the old man’s hands led him firmly along, that the glazed eye was fixed on the enormous oven. Above them burned an orange sun of flame, bright enough to have lit this and a hundred other underworlds; but that was the top of the chimney. At floor level, coming closer, was the door of the oven.

“This way! This way! Right along here! Your heritage, my boy…your birthright, and your birthing place. Exactly as intended, yes, I remember it now. Exactly! You were to take this burden from me when I was too weary to carry it. You were to be raised at my side to continue my work, taught from my books, fed from my fingers… And look what time it is! We must be quick, lad, quick!”

They paused at the gate of the immense furnace. Thick glass barely held back the volcanic fires within. Intense heat caused the oven door to bulge and blister toward them. The old confectioner reached out to twist a silver knob, and just like that the flames died down to nothing, and went out.

“Here, lad, have no fear! It’s completely cool! Put your hand upon it!”

Hugh put out his hand and touched the glass. The furnace roar was less than a whisper, and the heat had died down completely. The flame still burned somewhere in the heights, but down here it was cool.

“You will learn such secrets now, the mysteries of the oven will be yours…come up, come up!”

The oven door drew up like the portcullis of a castle. He reached unbelieving into the cool interior, black walls speckled with grey, long racks that seemed to continue for miles back into darkness, the mouth of a spotless cave…

And suddenly the hand in his back pushed firmly. He lost his balance, tipped and plunged. The King of the Mbe’lmbe shrieked and reached out for him, but they were both lost in that instant. Hugh fell hard on the spotless floor. As he felt the King’s hands on his arms, trying to pull him back, he heard the whirr of oiled hinges and the deafening boom of the oven door sealing shut.

He rose and turned. The King lay weeping on the ground, crumpled by failure and betrayal. Hugh could see the old confectioner, a shadow beyond the tinted glass, something made of smoke. The old man raised his hand to the silver knob by the side of the oven door. Then the glass began to fill with light. It felt to Hugh as if the sun were rising at his back.

He scarcely minded. It was a pleasant warmth, something familiar and almost comforting about it, as if he might melt away with a smile upon his face.

But it was otherwise for the King of the Mbe’lmbe. Hugh only slowly realized what he was hearing, and what it meant.

The little man was screaming.

He turned and hammered his fist on the glass, making a rhythmic pounding to which the twisted figure beyond the glass seemed to dance an antic jig. He was certain he saw the top-hat tossed high into the air and caught again. The old man was dancing out there.

“Please!” he cried. “Please help! Please, somebody, help him! ”

His hands left sticky bubbles on the tempered glass. He could hear the sizzling of flesh behind him, then came a burning smell unlike any that oven had ever known or should have known. Flesh…

Beyond the glowing pane, something greater moved. A spot of darkness swiftly expanded and swelled, glistening, gleaming, becoming immense. Against it, the small shape of the old confectioner stiffened, grew tense, began to back away. The old man retreated until he was pressed against the glass of the oven door, separated only by that thin hot sheet from Hugh’s clawing fingertips.   The old man turned to the glass, his face directly opposite Hugh’s, but all unseeing, blind with fear. Then the old face went awash in blackness, smothered in it. A gluey brown wave drenched the glass, washing over it like a thick and sticky tide that eventually, reluctantly, subsided. In drawing back, it flailed decisively at the silver knob, and the flames abruptly died.

The oven door hissed and opened slightly. Hugh stumbled forward, then stopped and turned back to find the King limping toward him, his hair singed and smoking, his skin a mass of developing blisters.

Together they stared across the sticky waste.

The floor was like the shore of a sea of molasses at low tide. A crumpled top hat floated in the middle of the flood. There was no other sign of the old confectioner.

The doorway to the Sweteshoppe swung ajar, and slowly came to rest.

The King croaked in an urgent hush: “My farewell to you, young master. The sugarbirds again will sing in the rafters, but I will not linger here to hear them. I will not allow myself to come to hate you as I grew to hate him. I have sung my death song already. I go to lay myself among my people.”

The sadness of the King’s words overwhelmed him and Hugh began to weep. Great sugary tears rolled down his cheeks and he flicked them aside with his tongue, trying to take no pleasure in so doing. The King of the Mbe’lmbe, last of his kind, clasped his hand with finality, then turned and walked over the Sweteshoppe threshold. Within, a great darkness gleamed as if welcoming the King. Then the door shut and Hugh was alone.

Absently, he put his severed finger in his mouth and began to suck.

And sucking, tasted sugary sweetness, raspberry jam, a touch of caramel, and the almond softness of marzipan.

Sugar.

The stuff of life.

The taste of sunlight to a leaf.

If a mere man, with all his indigestible impurities, had whipped up such sweet life as he from scratch, then what might he, a boy of sugar, dream of making? What radiant creatures of unsullied sweetness might issue from that titanic oven and soar out to dust the world with powder from their wings?

With visions overwhelming him almost to bursting, he realized he was nibbling the very slightest bit from his finger.

He forced himself to stop, although it was difficult.

No more! He must find other sources of nourishment. He must make himself last as long as possible.

It would be a struggle, a constant temptation.

After all, he was so incredibly sweet.

THE END

“Sweetmeats” by Marc Laidlaw. Copyright 2005 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2005.

 

AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD:

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might have been the first book that made me want to be a writer. But while I spent my teens imitating my later favorites, writing countless Lovecraft pastiches, I never really dared to try honoring my first literary idol until much later. “Sweetmeats” is something along the lines of an unauthorized sequel, an attempt to spend some quality time in the Chocolate Factory. It had occurred to me that although that novel ended with good fortune for Charlie Bucket and his family, the long-term prognosis was not necessarily bright. Did Charlie display the slightest genius for invention, any innovative streak, any predisposition at all for inventing new delights? It seemed to me that the only thing he had done to distinguish himself from the other Golden Ticket winners was…nothing. His qualifications were primarily negative ones. He refrained from causing trouble. He took no risks. That’s not exactly the quality, the mad flair you’d want in your lead chocolatier, is it? And now that job, which he hadn’t even known he was applying for, is to be his forever. It seemed like a heavy responsibility, one that might over the long years take a toll.