When they had been boys, David had always been the one on whom their mother had doted. Not because he had any special quality that drew their mother’s favor, but simply because he had been the one who needed, while Daniel would have been content had he simply awakened from the eternal stat of nonbeing one day, somewhere surrounded by trees and with the scent of game on the air. David had been thin and of ordinary height, while Daniel was nearly their father’s height by the time he had reached eleven. Daniel had never bullied David, but, there were occasional paroxysmal moments through the years when David would be carried off on one of his brother’s adventures. These irrational lapses always ended with their mother drawing David’s blood up into a piece of cotton, and Daniel receiving a scolding that would leave him glowering down on David for weeks after.
Their mother had been dead for a long time now, and David had coped by retreating to the safety of menial resignation, seeking out that station common so to those boys whose physical prowess falls too far below that of the other boys for them ever to be accepted. So, in a way, he became something more like a girl. He spent all of his time around girls, keeping their company, disappearing with them to whatever secret places young girls disappear too. In spite of his apparent wealth of that secret knowledge, none of the other boys had ever had any misgivings as to the truth of David’s status. He saw that the adults looked on him with suspicion for the company he kept, especially the fathers, and he even caught a singular glint of pride in the eye of his own father. But, adults are blind to the ways of the young, and his best attempts to mislead the other adolescent males were only ever worthy of their jeers and laughter. Indeed, his apparent in with the girls which already so interested them had only, in the end, served to deepen his exclusion, and in turn his shame.
All in all, though, he was happy enough. After all, he did have friends, and he didn’t mind if they were all girls.
But, then, as it will, nature took its course. The girls all matured, and lost any trace of interest in being his friend. They began instead to divert their attention toward Daniel and the men with whom he surrounded himself. David could not understand this. They did not listen to the girls, or pay them much mind at all, unless it were to advance their own personal drives, and that attention was only advanced at all because it was entirely beyond the boys’ control.
Then, stuck at last in that in between place, David had simply degenerated into nonexistence, atrophied like an unused muscle. He simply became no one.
He and Michael found each other because nature dictates that a weaker personality find a stronger personality, a host personality to carry them along. Michael clung to David’s underside, and was accepted warmly, while David, from indelible nostalgia, clung to Daniel, to be quietly disregarded as one tries to ignore any natural discomfort about which they can do nothing.
“Shhh!” his brother hissed through cold, dry teeth.
David hurried to catch up, “Daniel? What are we doing out here?”
David’s boot caught in a branch hidden in the dark of the ground. He tumbled forward, plowing up leaves and dirt as he waltzed in frenetic terror, trying to shake loose whatever monster had him. When at last he stopped the early morning air echoed its disapproval to the trees, and David grinned sheepishly, glad his brother could not see the color of his face. Daniel glared across the darkness, shook his head, and began walking again. David gave the slain branch a meek kick before following after.
“Daniel?” he sounded miserable now. Daniel stopped again, turning on him. His brother’s eyes were so dark that even now David could see the irises, furious and disapproving. He ventured cautiously, “At least tell me what we’re looking for.”
Daniel lifted his arm and pointed in the direction they were walking. Ahead of them the trees thinned abruptly, and a road sprang up, running across their path, raised shortly from the ground, with a steep embankment on either side. Free of the burdensome trees, the moon poured down on the raised road with apotheositic blue light, a sacred embrocation pouring out of heaven and sweeping the dark forest into infinite oblivion.
Daniel began walking again. David raised his hands to either side in disappointed frustration, then dropped them, letting the palms slap against his thighs. Jogging again to catch up with his brother, he panted, “The road? Why are we going to the road?”
Daniel had finally had enough, “Dammit!” Even whispering, the man could muster enough force to stop David in his tracks. He rolled his eyes and twisted around on his toes, as if the whole movement were being controlled by wires running through the length of his body, through his pupils and up to some cruel puppet master above, “Shut. Up.” He was as calm as a bellows poised to be pressed, still standing on his toes like a fighter. David collapsed in on himself, unable to raise his eyes again, though he could feel Daniel still watching him. Daniel stood quiet for another moment, staring disapprovingly at David, then turned again, walking more quickly now.
David followed, feeling like a bit of debris floating in the vacuum behind a cannonball, still pointing his rosy cheeks at the ends of his shoes as they shuffled through the frosty dead leaves that scattered away as if coated in glass.
Daniel made an irritated gesture toward him, and David hurried to close the gap between them. When he was near enough to hear, Daniel spoke in a more sympathetic tone, slowing his pace a little, “They caught a van on the cameras.”
It took everything David had not to stop walking again.
“A small one, coming slow as piss down the road. We’re supposed to stop them.”
“What? Running?” Daniel nodded. “And they seemed..?”
“Okay, I guess. Slow and straight.”
David felt like there were other questions he should ask, but nothing came to him and Daniel was already walking again. He stood for a moment, staring into the dark with pointless awe. There was a strange battle within him, torn between fascination and fear. When he caught up to Daniel, a question which seemed right had finally occurred to him, “Do we know how many people are in it?”
Daniel shook his head, but the sign was invisible to David, for no moon was reaching them now, “No. At least one. Michael and Thomas are down the road, in case the van passes us.”
David could feel his brother’s eyes roll, as if to say, “which, it probably did, thanks to you.”
“So keep an eye out. If they don’t see it they’re going to double back our way.”
“Michael? Michael’s out here too?”
Daniel shrugged, “He heard you were coming.”
David sighed; at least with Michael there he would not feel so alone.
They walked on in silence, David’s uneasiness now shifting away from anything that Daniel could help him with. Instead he thought of what horrors the van might hold, what monsters were in the world. As he imagined these things, the fear began to grow, to rise up within him. He felt suddenly short of breath, and as if his testicles had drawn up uncomfortably. He felt that he had to turn back, had to turn around, to run. If he made that decision now then he could deal with its consequences when they came, but at least he would be safe from this.
He was so wholly consumed by his nightmare that he had lost track of his feet, and suddenly found that they had already reached the edge of the trees.
They paused, watching the road silently. On their right, the road continued into the distance, smaller and smaller until it shrank away beyond perception. On their left, less than a quarter-mile away, a sharp curve turned it away from them. There were no old machines, no signs of life, no monsters. Just the quiet. The quiet, the road, and that pale moonlight laid out over it like silk ribbon. They hurried across the short distance to the embankment, moving onto the incline and crouching so that they could drop out of sight in an instant.
There was a rustle from the other side, and David panicked, trying to step down the embankment, but misjudging the slope. There was a brief, vertiginous moment, in which he hung, suspended, the whole world seeming to drop away beneath him. His foot, when it finally did come down, came down hard, far below where he had expected. His knee twisted and his foot slid backward, throwing him into a wide, twisting split, sliding down the hill. He hadn’t even come to a complete stop when a large, cruel hand took hold of his collar and pulled him back up.
Daniel spat into his face, “If you don’t pull it together, right now,thenI’m going to shoot you myself.” He let go of David, dropping him like a sack of rope. He hit the embankment, and began to slide, but caught himself in a runner’s stance, clawing desperately with the tips of his fingers to keep from going over. Carefully rising back into his crouch, he was embarrassed to see Michael and Thomas standing on the other side of the road, peering over at them from the shadow of the trees.
Michael was chubby, a red cap floating like something lost on a large body of water on top of his head. He stood a little behind Thomas, looking nervously from side to side. He flinched and turned around, peering into the dark, his rifle hanging loosely and meaninglessly on his back, then turned around again. He looked at David. There was a moment of recognition, and he started to lift a salutation, then brought the hand to his mouth, and dropped it back down.
Thomas was a man almost the size of Daniel, though very much without Daniel’s quick temper. Indeed, he was known most for his cool-headedness, looked to as the great mediator whenever there were small disputes to be settled, particularly among the gambling men. There were always plenty of small disputes to keep him occupied. He raised his hand, the fingers splayed out, and jerked it from side to side by the wrist. Without pause, Daniel returned the gesture shortly, then crouched low again; David hadn’t dared to raise his head too high after Daniel’s warning. Having seen the affirmative sign, indicating that all was well, Thomas crossed to the road and huddled down against the cold bank.
Michael stood there blankly for a moment, then started as Thomas hailed him with a low, sharp whistle. He shuffled over to the man, pinwheeling enormous circles with his arms as he tried to gain his balance on the hard slope, flapping like a bird on a blowing branch, then settled down into a squat. His head never stopped turning fretfully from side to side, and David found himself wondering if his friend more closely resembled a startled owl or a weathervane in a high wind, and deciding that the bird metaphors were lost on so fat a man. He almost snorted aloud at the thought of Michael as a bird, so much fat on a creature so dependent on its delicacy; the branch nearly touching the ground, the poorly balanced weathervane orbiting so much extra tin about its axis. The worst was the idea of the owl standing at the base of a tree, frightened because it could hear noises in the dark beyond, little feet hopping with panic, and too fat to get up into the higher branches. David placed one palm very, very firmly over his mouth.
Many long years ago there had been asphalt on the road, but, with no one to tend it, the vegetation had quickly overtaken it, torn it apart in stop-motion pieces, and now only the keenest eye might pick out the little black pebbles intermingling the dirt and roots that now comprised its surface. Perhaps, with a little digging, the obstinate archeologist might unearth, still intact, the rare strip of old tarmac, like a bolt of black lightning, all but the faintest traces of yellow paint long washed away. Now, carpeted with grass, the road ran through the forest as a long, continuous mound, as if something huge had just burrowed past, just beneath the surface. The thought of a mole the size of a shack making its way blindly beneath the earth made Michael shudder, and tug downward on his red cap to better cover his ears.
The four hunters had only to wait for a moment before they began to hear the faint sound of earth turning beneath something heavy (or, above something heavy, thought Michael). There was a flash of yellow light, low in the dark mouth of the trees, panning across the road, then sweeping away. The sound grew louder, nearing that half of the curve which was visible to them, and the dim, sallow light flashed across the opening two more times. Soon the light came into view, sweeping back and forth over the road, and stayed there as something like an enormous, hideous rodent emerged obstetrically from the trees, the hazy light filling, stretching the opening between the pines. The thing that had emerged, bearing that light, had the look of a possum, sick and oversized from radiation poisoning, sniffing the night road for something to eat, creeping along on hobbled legs, only small patches of its fur remaining, the rest worn away in neurotic fits of scratching. The figure of a man stuck out of the roof, leaning on one elbow and lazily swinging the light over their path as if it were the animal’s nose. Having no way to communicate with the driver over the van’s death rattling, the man with the heliograph swung it carefully from side to side, pausing at the edges of the roadway. The van swayed a little with each sweep of the light, like the head of a drunk, following and correcting, following again, correcting again.
Silence from over the hill. Daniel, unnecessarily, from an old protective instinct formed of habit, pushed David further against the embankment. The van was within a hundred yards now. He set his pack down between them, and pulled a long thin torch from a series of loops along its side. Resting the torch between his leg and forearm he struck a flint and the thing took off on the first spark.
His rifle was over his shoulder as he rose with the flames and stepped out into the roadway, like climbing out of a war trench like David had seen in some of the old books. Daniel stopped directly in the path of the van, waving the torch overhead. The light from the van swung instantly upward and onto Daniel, spotlighting him, and now, ladies and gentlemen. The van rolled to a stop, still a good way ahead of Daniel, who stood now like a shadow puppet in spectral stage light.
The night was quiet. Cemetery quiet. So quiet that David swore he could hear the sound of light passing around them, running over them from the moon, burning out of the torch, and swinging through the air, anchored to the man on the mount.
A guttural noise erupted from the cab of the vehicle, then a shout from the spotlight man, indistinct. The van stood for a moment, thoughtfully, then lurched forward, the engine revving into a hard, overstretched whine, like a forest of tree limbs all about to snap under too much snow. The tires spun, kicking off grass and dull black rocks, striking the undercarriage in a series of rapid, dull pings, sounding as if they would go right through the metal made soft by long years. The van lurched forward ten feet, and the driver let off the gas tentatively, as if he had startled himself. The brakes didn’t seem to work, and it lumbered to a stop. To Michael it looked like a large animal collapsing from exhaustion, and for a moment he really thought that it would lay its head down in the grass and go to sleep, or die. But then it began to move forward again, more carefully this time, but accelerating eagerly. The light on top froze over Daniel, still holding up that torch, then disappeared into the cab. Then they were riding on nothing but moonlight now, careening from one edge of the road to the other, and the driver doubled down on the metal with terrible, mortal finality, the pained whine of the van growing into a high-pitched battle cry.
Then there was a new light coming from the man on top, a horrible light, and a sound so obtrusive that David thought it would knock down the trees. The new light flickered out in two hard bursts, paused, and then a third before David realized what was happening. They’re shooting at us, he thought with immeasurable fascination, They’re shooting at us.
Then it hit him, with ugly, sickening force, and he didn’t know if he wanted more to vomit or to shit; it wasn’t them they were shooting at, it was Daniel. “Oh, God.” At some point he had risen, and now he stood there, stunned, the world slowing, hardening in time, freezing in the blue amber of the moon. It was like some drunken row in which you know what to do, everything seems perfectly clear, but every effort goes empty, as if there were a veil between you and the world.
The van did not move as if on the attack, but rather danced between the embankments like a kitchen rat, dodging malicious boots. But that flash kept coming in spite of it all, throbbing in the night air. Daniel dropped the torch, taking up his rifle. His shoulders squared as he lifted it into position, but before he could press the butt into his shoulder, he stopped suddenly and shuddered, like he’d just gotten hold of the biggest chill in creation. A huge tremor moved from his feet all the way to the top of his head, like a charge had passed through him. He lowered the rifle down to one side, letting it hang in his hand, his finger on the trigger, the barrel flicking blades of grass as it swung in concentric circles. Another wave of seizing tremors came over him, but he just kept standing right through it, like a scarecrow staring down a storm. Finally, he clutched his side, stumbled back a little, and, turning ever-so-slightly on his heels, crumpled to the ground. The torch dropped but kept burning, reaching out hot tongues like scavengers already come for Daniel. The firelight poured over him from one side, and the moon from the other, and David thought that that was what a mountain range must look like on the exact meridian between the day side and the dark side of the earth. And that was where his brother was standing, between two sides of a single coin, between the day and the night, between life and death.
David’s rifle was suddenly in his hands, and he was standing up, what are you doing, you damned fool? His rigid form teetered a little on the brink of the embankment. He paused, soaking it up like dry earth with the drought finally over. And that was what he felt like; like wet earth, like so much mud, swollen beyond his holding. Numbly, he watched the van, the false image superimposed onto his eyes, too weird to be real. It seemed as if it were moving through gelatin, too much purpose in the mindless gestures of the wheels, too much intention. And they were going to run right over Daniel. David could see his brother’s body turning under wheel, ground against the gravel, exaggerated spirals of blood twisting blackly away from the broken body. Every gory detail came to him at once. The world wavered, ran together, and he thought that everything under that baleful moon (and it, too) would be condensed into one, and soon the whole of existence would be reduced to an eternal singularity.
Some sound, some sound he could not interpret, and then the sensation that a tidal wave had rolled up behind him, rolled up until it was against his back, and hardened there. It had become a glacier, cold, inevitable, and heartlessly pushing him forward.
Then the soppy sensation was gone; he had vitrified. The world crystallized, as if it were not the real world but a vivid and living impression of the real world carved into glass; every line became perfectly distinct, as if every edge had been gone back over with a heavy piece of charcoal. Even sounds took on a physical form; the wind moved through the air like monstrous spirits, gliding around David, gawping and laughing with cavernous grins as they passed him; Little devils leapt from behind the van’s tires like sparks, jeering as they bolted off into the free world; the soft, broken moans that Daniel made, sound which he could not even hear, rolled across the ground, spilled over his boots like viscous fog, fast-moving moss, full of tiny voices. He felt that he was seeing something, these creatures, these animals, that had always been there, just beneath the surface, hidden from view, though you had only to know to look.
Suddenly he found himself standing beside his brother in the middle of the road, his rifle against his shoulder, it’s long, sleek line ending against the image of the windshield. The moon was in that glass, like the face of a mad demon king, beaming maniacally as he worked at the van’s controls. David fired at that moon. BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… the invisible thunder, soundless except for a throbbing sensation he could no longer distinguish from his own pulse, filled the air, a tsunami to wash away the spirits.
The windshield shattered with a low, hard chink like the crash of an icicle, and the moon was gone, only its light still remaining, only it’s ghost.
The van, however, kept coming. The engine cranked up, whining in its case, the whole body of the van lurching forward, then losing momentum. The sound of the over-revving engine went on, but the van was now rolling without propulsion. Something within it caught suddenly and it shot forward again, hard, out of control, swerving sharply to the left and nearly leaving the road, then straightening out, the passenger side wheels hanging half on and half off of the road. The engine was going harder than ever now, howling and revving impossibly high, and the van jerking from side to side as everyone held their breath, waiting for the moment when the wheels would leave the road. But the old somethings, layered over a thousand times with battered pieces of hide, held on against all explanation. The van jerked away from its perch on the embankment, turning so hard that David was almost instantly looking at its side. It had turned away from the edge of the road only to end up facing the opposite bank directly. The driver tried to continue the turn a full 180̊, to turn them back the way they had come, but hesitated early in the pirouette. Realizing he had missed his chance he tried turning toward David again, but too late. First the front driver’s side was over, cocked helplessly sideways, suspended above the blue-black forest floor and turning from side to side, uselessly obeying the driver’s commands. Then the rear tire was over too, and the path had been irrevocably set, the hulking concert of noise and steel twisting away into space.
As the van and everything thing in it hung in the air for a single, delirious moment, the engine quieted to an idle thrum, until at last the vehicle’s 0wn weight brought it into parallel with the embankment. The engine screamed back upward as first two, then all four tires made contact with the steep bank, scarring deep trenches into the dirt. The engine died down again as the first tire hit the flat at the bottom of the embankment, and the van nosed up on the corner of its front bumper, as if to burrow into the soft earth for refuge. The weight was too much for the cartwheel to continue, and the van balanced for a single mad second, then twisted, and keeled over on its side, the frame twisting as it smashed to the earth and shattering the few remaining windows. Then there was quiet, all but the sound of David’s rifle clicking impotently into the cold.
Realizing that the sound was coming from him, he stopped. Everything was quiet now, and the change made it seem that something vital had been drained from the world. The spirits, or the sight of them at least, had vanished. David was panting white exhaustion into the vast emptiness of the world, suddenly aware of how much heat was trapped beneath his shirt. His eyes were taking in light as if it were filtered; cleaner and purer than he had ever seen before. His mind, his body, seemed to absorb all that the corporeal could offer. There was a space now where the lifelong fear had been, and he tried distantly to remember of what he had been afraid, and how the absence of something could create the sensation of fullness.
Without warning, there was a hand on his shoulder. Instinctively, he swung the empty rifle in a high, wide arc, resting it over his elbow, and striking Michael’s lower jaw at an oblique angle, closing his teeth down around his tongue. Michael dropped, wincing and cupping both hands over his face as if to hold in or put back the fresh torrent of blood.
He bawled, twisting on his knees, “Mhh-mmm! Mhh! Mhn-hn-huh. Mhn Tng. Mhh!”
David looked down at him blankly, the rifle hanging idly in his hand. Michael was twenty-six, but looking at him now, David couldn’t believe he was a day over twelve. “Are you-“ the hollow sentence broke off as some thought struck him. He spun on his heels, the tip of the barrel barely missing another across Michael’s face, and darted toward the embankment. Michael watched him go with deep consternation.
David leapt from the road, landing with his knee too stiff, causing him to jerk his forward leg at an awkward angle. He fell sideways, almost knocking the wind out of himself as he crashed into the grass and dead leaves.
Rolling immediately onto his knees, he crawled the remaining few feet to where Thomas was already kneeling over Daniel. Thomas was holding Daniel’s head up and pouring the dark contents of a flask into his mouth. Daniel drank wincingly, and jerked away with weak violence when he could take no more. Thomas wasn’t fast enough, and some of the fluid spilled over Daniel’s closed lips, running down his cheeks and settling at the back of his neck.
David panted, “Is he–”
“He’s fine,” Thomas was pressing a bloody rag into Daniel’s thigh just above the knee, while Daniel held a hand over his ribs where some unseen gash was seeping blood into the gray cloth around it and turning it black.
David examined his brother anxiously from one end to the other, “Daniel…”
Daniel laid his head back down, and sighed weakly, turning his jaw to the stars. “I’m fine,” he said shortly. Then, attempting to assure his younger brother, “I’m alright.” With his head back, the moon caught in the beads of sweat, glass beetles crawling over taut wax, accentuating his sickness of his complexion. The mouth hung open, his eyes wide but relaxed, straining only at the edges. When he was forced to move at all his whole face closed up from every direction, as if something had just exploded beside his face.
David’s eyes continued to dart anxiously over his brother, taking snapshots, and examining each for a change, as if he might catch some wound they had missed.
The strange silence between them was broken by a call from the road, “Hehhhh!”
Michael was standing now, his tongue sticking out between his lips. He was pointing past the van, into the woods. There, moving between the tufted auras of moonlight, a large shadow stumbled from tree to tree, bumping against them. Occasionally the figure paused with one shoulder on a trunk, glanced back, then fell despairingly again into its trudge, like a fugitive soul with the devil on its heels. Thomas reached for his rifle, but by the time he turned back, David was already on his feet, running wildly after the figure in the trees, his shoulders stiff, his gun in hand.
David sailed through the blue and disappeared into the shadow of the trees. Thomas watched, glancing at the dark figure and searching for David. Soon he appeared in a swatch of blue light, the shadow of his rifle raised above the level of his hips, the disappeared again. The small black cutout passed from light to dark, with each passing his image changing slightly, the rifle rising in his hands. Thomas saw with strange clarity a memory of his grandfather, holding a tiny stack of papers in his dry old hands, hands made and turned by toil. As the pages flipped through, an image formed and moved across their fanning edges: a mouse approaching a trap, set with cheese, sniffing. The work was so fine that the little charcoal nose twitched, the tail swept from side to side. No matter how many times he watched, he was always filled with the same anxiety, the same doubt, the same hope, that this time the story would end differently, until, in the final seven panels, the little paws, so much like grandfather’s hands, clutched the sides of the piece of cheese, and the thin shadow of the fatal wire fluttered almost imperceptibly by, closing over the delicate throat of the rodent. Thomas had counted those seven pages, fascinated by the idea that death could be captured in so few leaves, such sparse and narrow lines.
David appeared again in the fan of pages, the black stanchions of trees, disappeared. The wire snapping shut. When he next appeared his rifle was in line with his jaw, rising.
The figure took another of its worn backward glances, not leaning but fully laying against a tree, then pushed away with all of its available force, stumbling desperately, dragging its feet in hurried shuffles. David reappeared, the rifle above his head, disappeared. The unknown figure wheeled forward, nearly falling, and landed against a tree, pushing away immediately, ricocheting, trying to overcome the uselessness of its legs. David appeared again, almost in reach, arms stretched above his head, and the rifle in his hands, the stock pointing downward at a merciless, inevitable angle. Thomas watched as the old familiar wire snapped shut, the heavy end of the rifle descending in a huge, angry arc. Both shadows fell out of view at the base of a large tree.
Thomas looked at Daniel, who had propped himself gingerly up on one elbow, wide-eyed, seeming for the moment to have forgotten his own pain. Thomas believed he could see a bit of pride in Daniel’s face. Quickly, though, Daniel was reminded of his injuries, and cringed back into prostration, offering meager, hollow breaths up to the night air.
Thomas listened to the sound of David’s feet returning through the cover of leaves. When he came into view there was a heavy streak of red across his vest, and a longknife, sheathed, hanging loosely from one shoulder. Thomas followed him with his eyes as he walked with by them absent intention, and disappeared over the road. In a moment he returned, carrying his own pack over one shoulder, and Daniel’s over the other.
“That’s nice,” Thomas pointed to the longknife.
David didn’t bother looking at it as he hunkered down beside them, carefully lowering the bags. He raised his chin in the direction he had come, toward his abandoned prey, “It was his.” He began too root indifferently in his bag, pulling out a large bandanna, and thick brown twine, Thomas watching warily all the while.
“I jugged him,” David replied evenly.
Thomas knew that, he’d watched the whole thing, but he didn’t think that had been what he meant to ask. He was searching David obliquely, hoping to accidently come across an answer to the unspoken question, as if to ask it directly were to invite capricious and unknown horrors. The kid was making him nervous. He knew, from all prior evidence, that that was foolish, but, still… Something was different in the boy. The man. Something had changed powerfully within him. He was now stern and spry, while, before, he had been hyperactivated and subdued through fear. Before, he had fluttered nervously, like a mammal in a world of monsters, but now he was like a mountain cat, agile, austere, imperturbable. Thomas looked at Daniel, who seemed not to be paying any attention, then back at David, who was now ripping the bandanna down the middle. He opened his mouth to ask something else, but there was nothing else there. He wanted to change the subject. Perhaps if they went about their business, then this episode would pass. “Did he have anything else on him? Other than that, I mean?”
“No. He must have left the rest of his things in the van with the other… oh, shit.”
Both of them froze, sharing the epiphany. In their confusion they had all forgotten that there was at least one other person still in the van, in some unknown condition, quite possibly trying to un-jam their pistol at this very moment, or already poking the muzzle through the warped frame of a window and waiting for someone to pop into view.
David was packing a fresh clip into his rifle, “Stay here and tend him.”
“Maybe I should…”
But he was already up, the soles of his feet seeming not even to touch the earth, “No. I got the other, I can get this one. You just take care of him.” He took a moment to regard his brother again, knitting his brow. “Where the hell is Michael?” He glanced perfunctorily in either direction, not really caring to find the man, then turned.
He turned back around, and Thomas threw him a torch. David took it indifferently, and jogged away.
It was not far to the van, still within sight of Thomas and Daniel, though they were nearly invisible in the shadows.
Under the sallow castings of the torch David could see that it was brown, rusted, lying over on its ribs like a slain animal, a beached calf, its bowels clicking with irregular constancy as it cooled. A few rare patches of stubborn luster clung to the skin here and there, like small puddles suspended in Dali canvas, untethered from time and space. David approached from the thing’s belly, his rifle poised. Looping the toe of one shoe into an intestinal coil of pipe, he lifted himself atop. He sat on his knees, on the doors, passing the torch over the openings of the windows, gaping like the empty eyes in the skull of a long-dead monster.
Laying directly below him, between his legs, a crumple of baby blue, yellow hair sticking out of one side, and a pair of threadbare trousers pulled in defensively against the other. Motionless.
David passed the torch over the other windows. In the front of the cabin the bottom part of the passenger seat was still bolted in, comprised entirely in this age of sticky-looking yellow foam. The driver’s seat was mostly intact, missing only the headrest. All of the seams were broken like stitches in poorly tended wounds, that same yellow foam suppurating from the openings. An overstuffed backpack had been jammed between the two seats.
David set his rifle aside, sweeping away bits of glass, and leaned through the window of the driver’s door with his torch leading the way. The tip of the flame turned to noxious black smoke against the insides of the doors, the smoke quickly filling the cab. He hurried his survey along, anxious to escape the smell, the smoke burned his nose and throat, watered his eyes. There were mountings where a backseat had once been, but now were long gone. There were all kinds of hardware scattered throughout the cab, all rusted into place, all long out of use. Everything else was empty, silent, motionless. His light brown hair hung like moss about his reddened face as he reached for the bag, his shoulder bearing painfully against the window to keep him from bowling forward. He could barely reach it, finally lacing his fingers under one of the straps, then struggling to raise himself back up. It was heavy, and when he finally got it to the sill of the window he had to roll it against the edge, simultaneously pressing his body up and away until he was on his knees, and the bag had rolled over the boundary of the roof, falling to the dry husking of leaves.
Michael, standing forgotten on the road, had watched David cross the distance between the others and the van. For a moment he considered joining him, but decided against it. Friendship or no, David would have to take care of himself on this one. He went over to the others, pausing to regard Daniel as if he were a dead thing stumbled upon during an afternoon walk. He checked the soles of his shoes, then went and sat down in the leaves, not realizing they were damp until he felt the cold seeping through his backside. He moaned resignedly, and began rummaging through his pockets for forgotten bits of cake as he watched his friend at work. David was on his knees, on top of the van. He’d just dropped a bag over the side, when he began to wave to the party, beckoning them over. Michael had begun to rise, then realized that he was not being called at all, only Thomas. Turning red, he watched Thomas gathering up his rifle. A splinter of jealousy ran through his spine, and he sat back down, resigned to the cold discomfort of his damp seat.
“Michael, stay here with Daniel. I’ll be right back,” said Thomas as before jogging off, leaving Michael to sulk and begrudge the needlessness of the order, lifting his feet onto his knees to check their bottoms.
When Thomas had reached him David was again holding the torch overhead and moving his head like a bird as he tried to see inside. He had a kind of holy appearance, David, sitting on the altar, bathed in the blue light, the halo of the torch held over him.
“Did you find something?”
“There’s one in there,” replied David, turning to Thomas. He brought the torch down closer to his face casting eerily harsh rays and shadows into the pool of placid blue moonlight there.
David nodded, “Yeah. Unconscious, from the looks of it, but he’s still breathing. I think we can get him out through that hole there,” he pointed in the direction of the roof, to where the man with the light had stood not long ago. “He’s out cold.”
“You say he’s still breathing? Are you sure he’s out?”
David shrugged carelessly, shouldering his rifle.
Thomas walked around and peered into the darkened hole in the roof. Lying just below it was the baby blue mass. “Yeah,” he resolved, “C’mon and give me a hand. Let’s get him out.”
David jumped down, and together they pulled him through, the stout body of Thomas almost crowding David inefficacious in the small hole.
When they had him through, the ball of blue falling to the ground and sprawling defenselessly, they stood, panting over the lifeless man. In his early thirties, blonde, a slight stubble over his ashen face. His coat was a pillowy sack of bird feathers, but they could see that he was thin underneath it.
“Why-“ David sucked, hands on his knees, “Why is he so damn heavy?” he released an open-mouthed moan, throwing his face to the sky as he tried to catch his breath.
Thomas wasn’t panting, but his chest rose and fell with visible intensification. He shrugged, “Bad angle? He’s heavier than he looks.” Looking over his shoulder he called out quietly, “Michael!” then began scooping his hands from Michael to them in jerky, emphatic motions.
The chubby man stood up, twisting to try and see how damp he was from the ground, checked his shoes, then began to waddle eagerly in their direction, constantly wiping at the seat of his pants, and several times twisting back for another glimpse.
“Give us your coat,” Demanded Thomas when Michael stopped before them.
Michael looked confused. Then, spotting the outstretched figure on the leaves, his expression changed to pleading doubt. “My… coat?” he asked, as if hoping the question might change their minds. He twist his ankles outwardly, one at a time, trying to see the soles of his shoes.
Impatiently, Thomas reiterated, “Yes. Your coat. C’mon with it,” and made that scooping gesture again.
As Michael began pitifully to tug at his sleeves, Thomas added, “And go find us a couple of branches. Long ones.”
Michael handed over the big, dark green coat, big enough to be a blanket, with a desolate expression, letting his shoulders hang sadly and with poignant theatre. “Is he... dead? How long? The sticks, I mean. Is he dead?” he had gotten over his coat already, now excited by the pale, outstretched stranger.
Thomas answered hotly, “About ten feet or so,” and stretched his arms out to either side of his body in an indefinite gesture.
Michael hesitated, “How big? Like, around?”
Thomas’s frustration was obvious, and it made Michael blush and look down at his feet again.
“Big. Strong. Now go.” Thomas turned back to David and the stranger, listening for the sound of sullen footsteps.
This time Thomas ignored the question. Michael was either trying to avoid the work or trying to avoid going into the woods alone. He stared at Thomas’s back for a few moments, then, understanding, finally moved away, intentionally dragging leaves with the toes of his shoes. He’d only gone a few feet when he turned around, “David? Can David come with me? To help me look?”
Thomas didn’t even turn around. He’d begun to lay Michael’s jacket next to the stranger, “You can do it yourself. I need David’s help with this. Now get!” Michael paused, then dutifully went away, still dragging his feet.
As they rolled the pale man onto the jacket, Michael wandered aimlessly through the leaves, mostly watching the others work, occasionally swiveling his head in jowl-shaking spasms over imaginary noises.
When they had their charge sufficiently secured, they checked on Daniel once more, then went and found the branches themselves, giving up on Michael.
They found their boughs, and breaking off the slender, weaker ends, tied the sleeves of Michael’s jacket to them, winding the ropes tightly around. The stranger’s pallid complexion made him the look like a cadaver, and they like two gravediggers setting off for long night’s work
After a short struggle, Daniel was on his feet, clinging to Michael. Michael looked disbelievingly at the man, as if he’d just been saddled by a horse. In truth, being back on his feet again, a stubborn resilience, and the early onset of delirium, had left Daniel almost energetic, and he shuffled along without much dependence on Michael.
The trees ended suddenly, their line breaking like a wave against a solid green wall, rising from the earth and stretching out for the whole of either visible direction. It blocked the climbing sun, casting a long slat of warm morning shadow over the four of them. A glaucous ambience had begun to fill the air, rich with birdsong and the scent of frost melting over dry leaves. They were panting, sweating, miserable in the gathering wet of the morning. Daniel had taken on the clammy pallor of an old piece of white fish, his head now lolling heavily with feverish each step. Michael, under Daniel’s gradually increasing gravity, had developed a new way of dragging his feet through the leaves, as if traipsing through quicksand. He emphasized the weight of the leaves, the pain of each step, by contorting his face dramatically. Even Thomas, a man who was known to chase game over a mountain mile without losing his breath, stopped at the wall and placed both hands on his knees. He stared between his feet as a faint began turning his peripheral vision to pearlescent gravel, swelling inward, and then retreating again. David stood, a little sideways, his branch still clutched in his hands, a thin film of perspiration on his face. He looked at the others curiously, his own breath deep, but controlled, and he felt no such exhaustion as the others, no wish to lie down. Thomas looked back at him, shook his head, then rose up off his knees and set the group moving again.
To come upon the wall this way, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest, was like coming to the end of the world. Through the years moss and vines had worked their way over every inch of the wall, taking root in every crevice, invading every hollow. It was one of the few vestiges of man left in these woods, and it, like the road that skirted it, was being swallowed back by mother nature, the withering bud being consumed by the parent plant. Now the wall ran through to nowhere, like a train for the spirits, passing through eternity, rising from the earth with the finality of regret. And they, like waiting passengers, moved along intently, as if choosing a car. They stopped together, all knowing the right place by heart. David approached the wall, pushing aside a curtain of moss growing down it’s face, and hung the ends over a piece of old metal protruding from the wall, some rusted bracket whose purpose was long behind it. Beneath the moss was a door, a green door, distinguishable from the wall in which it was set only by the sterility of the old paint that colored it. There were no knobs or handles, but a single black hole, waist high, into which David inserted his index finger, pressing so deeply that it nearly tore the webbing between his fingers. He gnashed his teeth, screwing up his eyes, until, finally, there came the sudden click of an internal mechanism, and the door was set loose in its cradle, sliding away to the left, into a slot within the concrete.
The battered primitives shuffled in, pilgrims in eternity, and the door closed behind them. They were left inside of a short dark tunnel, lambent daylight flooding in through the opening on the other side, the sun glittering in their eyes as it climbed down over their side of the mountains, throwing auroral timbres that wavered and danced across roofs of black crystal.
Coming out of the canal they stepped onto a swathe of blacktop. On their right the square of blacktop narrowed into a long stretch of road. Across from them was a large tan building, square on their side, rectangular where it ran parallel to the road. A short patio with tin roof yawned at them from the face of the building, the cool shadows holding an old green bench of metal coated in rubber. Michael let out a yawn of his own, and considered going over and lying down.
Opposite the long side of the building, on the other side of the street, were a series of more modest buildings, all of them dilapidated, most with large holes forming in the walls and roofs, some having collapsed in on themselves completely. They appeared to have once been shops, or quaint village inns, transported here from some old bucolia beyond the sea. Now they slumped in place like bitter, forgotten elderly, watching disagreeably from their porch. Most of them had been painted darkly long ago, but were now peeling, grayed, white filigrees still visible at the edges, but cracked, and yellowed; balustrades and window sills showed dark old wood where the paint had pulled away; the rickety constructs of gutters sagged and toppled, rust had traced irregular lines along them like varicose veins, crackling the old white paint. Graveyard Villas, starting in the low, low nothings… Behind each building was a brief expanse of lawn ending unceremoniously against the southern wall of the base. The roofs were shingled in wood on their northern sides, and, on the southern, the same black, crystalline panels common to every building in the base.
The road itself, mostly intact, ran abruptly into the wall from which the group had just come. In the center of the road, half of a faded yellow line stuck out from under it, as if the wall had been set down on top of the road as soon as it was finished. Above this line rose a perfectly vertical striation, now a narrow, rust-red seam where two halves of a great gate had once opened. On the outside it was a tightly knotted rope of green moss, but, on the inside, where they kept the walls cleaned, the seam could still be made out plainly. The two halves of the gate had been long since closed, and left that way until bound together like twins by vegetative ligaments and the rusted marrow of their inner steel cores.
They crossed the black pool, Michael cringing at the sound his jacket made as it was pulled over the pavement behind Thomas and David. And, to make matters worse, he was sure that he would soon wear the soles from his boots with the way his feet were now dragging under Daniel’s added weight. He looked up fearfully at the load. The man had grown ghostly, and the listless bobbing of his head had worked its way into the rest of him; he was lurching forward with every step now, and Michael practically had to catch him with each move forward.
“What are you doing?” Thomas shouted, trying to catch himself. David had crossed into his path and the two men nearly tumbled over one another, wrapping the stranger up like a sausage between them.
“What am I doing? What are you doing?”
Thomas looked at the cocoon behind them, then at the road, then at David, “We can’t drag the poor bastard all the way there on the road.”
David backed up as if to raise his fists, a gesture which left Thomas bewildered. “’Poor bastard?’” he retorted, “Are you mad? He shot Daniel.” David motioned toward his declining brother, “There’s the poor bastard. God! Look at him!” he dropped his branch and rushed over to Daniel, looking uneasily into his face, their noses nearly touching. “Daniel,” he gently slapped at the man’s cheek, “Daniel. Daniel!”
Daniel’s head rolled, then locked into a mostly upright position, and he opened his eyes with pleasant stupidity. He set his jaw obstinately as reality crept back in, “Fine. I’m fine. I’m alright,” he let out a low grunt, “Just tired. Ge’me home.”
David sighed, turning back to Thomas. “Jesus,” he said to himself, then to Thomas, “For Daniel’s sake, and for Michael’s damned jacket,” he said with finality, “I don’t have time to argue with you.”
They turned into the grass, pulling the stretcher through dewdrops each now pregnant with a million tiny suns, galaxies unto themselves. They turned away from the graveyard villas, passing one now no more than the recently burned bones of its former monster. What was left of the frame swayed without the help of the breeze, creaking in mortal horror, each limb clinging to the next hopelessly, as if together they could still be what they once had been together.
The tan building was nearly half a mile long. Half a mile of high black windows marching in rectilinear double columns. Many of them had been boarded over from the inside. At the building’s end, a new road branched off to the left, around the rear. They skirted this, setting a line across a broad field of grass. When they were out of the shadow of the tan building the centerpiece of the base came into view: the main building, once and always the heart of this place.
The main building stood as a final tribute to the greatness of peoples passed. Standing like an altar abandoned at the height of ceremony, it was a monument as much as it was a building, seeming to stand in salutary grandeur and say to every subsequent generation, “This is what we could do!” The message was clear, and it had been written in brick, red bricks by the millions encased in mossy, green mortar, the whole of the building’s form trimmed in white balustrades and columns and gutters and frames.
A single central building with three rows of twenty-foot high windows, nine windows across, was buttressed on either side by two identical wings. The wings were comprised of two sections of twenty-foot windows three across, sandwiching a wall of ten-foot tall windows stacked four high, and seven across. And every window was framed in white and set into the brick. Ivy grew up the walls, clinging to anything it could grasp, drawing itself up and over the old monument with tiny, invisible hands, reaching into every cleft. The building gazed like a red-faced old judge with an ill temper, finding all who came before him wanting.
By the time the little party had reached the door to the west wing, the sun was an incandescent blot suspended perfectly above the mountains, and the sweat ran freely down their faces.
David blinked, trying to remember where he had fallen asleep. It was dark. Everywhere the pervasive scent of age, cool, musty air. Something cold was against his face, or… perhaps it was the other way around.
“Hello?” the voice insisted in the darkness. “Can you hear me?”
He tried blinking again, and this time the darkness scattered away like living dust, retreating to the edges of his vision. He groaned.
“Awake at last.”
There was a strange glow in the room, something distantly familiar. A handsome face with near-brown hair was leaning over him, a serious look on his face. His posture was relaxed, and in spite of his grave look he had a quality of remote indifference, as if things had all long ago ceased to have any meaning for him. Cole tried to sit up, but it felt like someone was rolling all the ribs on his left side together into a tight knot. He fell back, sighing because his throat was too dry to groan.
“Your ribs are broken. Do you remember anything?”
Cole didn’t answer. Didn’t feel that he could.
“My name’s Gage.” The sound of someone rising from their seat. “You’ll be all right. C’mon. Let’s get you up. You’ll feel better once you’ve got your bearings.”
The words were genial enough, but again his manner seemed so remote. Suddenly Cole felt an arm under his, and he was being lifted and scooted backward. He let out a wretch of agony.
“Mmm,” hummed Gage, with only token sympathy.
The pain subsided, and images began to have meaning again. He realized that the cold on his face had been tile, and that he had now been leaned up against a wall of the same tile. The whole room was yellow tile, walls floor and ceiling, cigarette-stain yellow with age and moisture. All of it was cracked, and near one of the walls he could see where roots from some tree outside had begun to push up the floor, and press the wall inward. Some roots had even begun to come through in places.
“That looks nasty,” he motioned with his eyes. “Can you tell me your name?”
He looked to where Gage had alluded. His ribs were purple and black, all the way from his shoulder to his waist. “Cole,” he said after a long time. His mouth felt sticky from long sleep.
Gage kept looking at him as if he were a dead cat. “Where’re you from, Cole? Ah. Here,” he handed him a ladle of water from a nearby bucket, then raised his eyebrows in anticipation of the answer.
It hurt to speak. There weren’t any windows in the room, and that made him nervous. Rooms without windows always made him nervous. The only thing besides the tile was a series of equidistant pipes, encased in rust like hypercalcemic bones, sticking out of the walls all around, just high enough for a man to stand under. Some dripped water impotently onto little neon orange stalagmites that had formed beneath. All Cole could think about was how long it would have taken them to form there.
“Can you hear me?” Gage asked, looking at him placidly.
“South. South. From the outlands,” the words sputtered, coming so weakly they almost caught in his teeth.
The host man raised his eyebrows in disbelief, “The outlands?”
Cole put the top of his skull against the tile, looking at the ceiling and letting his jaw drop open. He shifted his lower jawbone from side to side, stretching the aching muscles that held it in place, then lifted his head back up, “I’ve been traveling a long time.”
“How’d you come here?”
“Someone must have brought me here. I don’t remember anything,” his voice remained hoarse with atrophy.
“I mean to the area. To the base. How’d you find us?”
Cole grinned with sly deference, “We weren’t looking for it, if that’s what you mean. Like I said, I don’t remember anything. So, if that’s what this is about, your secret’s safe with me. You can just slap a blindfold on me, take me a way down the road, spin me around a few times, and I’ll be on my way. Just don’t point me back where I came from.” They looked at one another placidly for a while, then Cole grinned again.
Gage didn’t respond, “The outlands?” he repeated. “That’s a long way to travel. Where are you going?”
His grin evaporated, “Nowhere.”
“That’s a long way to go without anywhere to go.”
Cole simply shrugged.
“What about your man? The guy that was with you.”
Cole closed his eyes tight, thinking. When he opened them again he did so only slightly, looking suspiciously at Gage, “Hey, yeah. Where is he?”
“Dead,” he replied unflinchingly. “He didn’t survive the crash.
The last image of the man Cole could remember was the look on his face as he fled the crippled van, leaving Cole to his fate. The grin returned, with greater significance, “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you, but don’t worry about it. The last thing I can remember is the bottom of his boots. He stepped on me on his way out of the van. Cut tail and ran. But, my guess is that one of your guys was the one doing the cutting.” They paused, something occurring to Cole, and the staleness of the room crept back in, unfettered by the prior activity. “And you’re man?”
“I think he’ll be all right.”
Cole remained tense, “How bad?”
“Fairly good shot to the leg, and a serious gash in the ribs. He was lucky. The ribs seem to be the Doc’s biggest concern.”
“I guess I was the lucky one. If I’d killed him I don’t think I’d be sitting here, would I.”
“Probably not. But don’t be too optimistic just yet.”
Cole went rigid, an animal come upon suddenly in the night wood. “What do you mean?”
Gage faced his palms to the ceiling as if making an offering of spoiled truth, an indifferent Cain, I hope this’ll do. “Daniel’s a popular man here. Well liked. He’s tough, and I don’t think he’s got anything against you, but there are a lot of others around here who are calling for… retribution. His brother especially.”
Gage shrugged, “I don’t know. I think it’s something of a fear-word than anything. We’ve never had any kind of ‘retribution’ here that I’ve seen. Even if I let them get ahold of you, I don’t think they’d know what to do next. But, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t extemporize. If I’m going to keep them off of you, then you’ve got to give me something to tell them.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“See, that’s not good, that’s not going to work. Where are you from? Where are you going? Who are you?” he craned his neck forward in a prodding gesture.
“I’m nobody from nowhere. I’m from the south. The Outlands. I’ve been traveling for years, and I don’t have any reason to want to be here, much less to stay here. I had a bandanna on my pack that you are more than welcome to use as a blindfold.”
Gage nodded, ignoring the last, “Which way are you going?”
“North… ish. A little east, too, I guess.”
“How did you come this way? Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“Nothing. I just roam. I’ve heard that if I head east I’ll eventually reach the ocean, and that if I head north it gets colder and colder until you won’t want to go north any more. That second parts proven out so far, but I still haven’t seen any ocean. Anyway, I ended up here by pure chance. I just follow what’s left of the roads. I think that if they built them where they did then it was probably for a good reason, and that that reason was probably there before the road. The path of least resistance,” he showed Gage his own palms now, as if the path were written in them.
“Why do you want to get to the cold?”
“Cool. Not cold. I want to get to the cool. I’ve ended up here from a long way far down south. Through the desert. I’ve had enough of the damn desert.” Briefly he turned his eyes toward the corner of the room, as if the personification of some long begotten grudge were standing there, smoking a malodorous cigar and grinning mockingly to himself. Cole shook his, rubbing his hands together, and his eyes refocused, “I don’t much want the cold, either. Why go from one extreme to the other,” he shrugged obviously. “I think it’ll be all east from here, friend.”
“Why the ocean?”
The man seemed wholly impervious to normal human conversationalism. It was, Cole thought… impolite. “Why not the ocean? Have you ever seen the ocean? Well, me neither.”
“Where are you from originally?”
“I got that. Care to elaborate.”
Something about him, it fascinated Cole. He was so very plain, and, yet, he wasn’t boring. It was almost as if an unfair portion of the common store of life had been gifted to this man, and yet he refused to let any of it show. It was like watching an inconceivable show of lightning too far distant to hear the thunder.
“A village to the south. Beyond the desert. If you keep going into the sun then, eventually, you’ll hit a wet green paradise. Water, trees, wildlife.” He was quiet for a second, remembering something privately. “Hardly any roads, though. Nothing like it is north of the desert. Like it is around here. But that was a long time ago. It’s been a very long time since I last saw that place.”
“How long?” Gage shifted his shoulders where he was leaning against the tile. His shirt was a sort of cream color under a charcoal vest, and he seemed to be carefully avoiding the glowing orange streams that ran down the walls.
“Long. Who can tell? Ten years? Fifteen?”
“Not exactly a straight line, then. From the best I can understand It’s only about nine-hundred miles through the desert. And only about another six-hundred from here.”
Cole looked at the tile between his legs, smiling and scratching the back of his head, “Jesus. Is that really all? Well, we can’t know things the way people once did anymore.” They took a thoughtful moment of silence together, pondering the old world.
“Who can tell?” Gage agreed, again turning his palms toward the ceiling like a guilty child and shrugging. “That’s more or less the agreed estimate. Why’s that seem so strange?”
“It’s strange to me for the same reason it’s strange to you: it took me ten or fifteen years to travel fifteen-hundred miles,” he laughed slightly, “That’s a long time. A hundred miles a year.”
Gage stood quietly for a moment, arms crossed, measuring the claims of his captive guest. He spoke out suddenly, as if the thought had struck him like an arrow between the shoulders, “Hey. Something bothers me, though.” He lifted himself away from the wall.
Cole wrinkled his forehead, “What’s that?”
“David brought back your bag, or your partners bag, there was only one. In any case, I saw that you had a compass.”
Cole laughed a little, nodding, his smile mildly embarrassed, “Yeah.”
This time the faint trace of a grin crept onto the corners of Gage’s stoic mouth, “It’s no wonder it took you fifteen years.”
Cole’s smile broadened, “I’ve had that compass all of those years, too. It’s practically useless, but I watch it nonetheless, keep a track of it. It’s not any good for navigating, to be sure, but, you know, I have learned things from it. I’ve noticed it doing strange things during my time traveling. Interesting things.”
Gage was listening intently. The secret inflection at the corners of his mouth had receded again.
“You see, the needle still does as they all do, swinging back and forth stupidly, but, no matter where I’ve ever been, it always focuses on the same spot. That is, even though it swings, it always maintains the same point as the center of its arc. Fifteen hundred give-or-take miles, and it never once wavered, the arc never growing or shrinking.” He paused, then added, “Except…”
However reserved Gage may have been, Cole could see that something in the topic had peaked his curiosity, and this excited him. For the company he’d kept of late had been concerned, if something could not be eaten then it need not be spoken of. It had made for lonely travel.
He went on hurriedly, before the opportunity for conversation could escape him. “Well, I have noticed something else. You see, the farther north I’ve come, while the arc of the needle has always remained the same, gradually it’s turned just… a little bit… farther… west.” Cole set his right hand perpendicular to his left palm, and illustrated by moving it back and forth, and indexing it in growing increments with each swing. “By such a small increment that at first I wasn’t even sure that it was really happening. But, I started marking the point at which the needle was the farthest it could go in either direction, checking every morning and every night, and, I was right.”
Gage had, before coming down here, opened the compass, and he now recalled the little geometric notches etched gently around the face, like some Zoroastrian calendar.
“Sure enough,” continued Cole, “the farther north I’ve come the needle’s retreated from the northern mark, and advanced on the western.”
Cole sat quiet, letting the man think it over. Gage regarded the floor at his feet sternly, then, without looking up, said, “What do you think it means?”
It was hard to tell if it was a question, or if the man were merely thinking aloud, but Cole responded just the same. “Well, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve thought of two possibilities. You know that the needle is supposed to point north?” Gage nodded, and Cole was relieved, “Well, you know more than most, then. Anyway. Theory One:” he raised a finger, “The poles have shifted. Nobody really knows what happened, but for every group of stragglers still dumb enough not to fall on their swords there are a thousand disjointed legends. It’s possible that the poles have shifted, or are shifting, and maybe that shifting is what’s causing the fluctuation, like the needle’s stuck somewhere between the memory and the truth of it. Hell, maybe the poles flopping around on each other is the thing that set the world moving on in the first place.”
He paused again, seeing if the other would say anything. When the other did not, he raised two fingers and went on, “Theory Two: it could be mechanical. The one thing that all of the old stories; legends, myths, whatever you want to call them; have in common, is that the fall of,” he now made a peace sign with both hands, winking then simultaneously to mimic dual marks of quotation, “`civilization’ was due to a lot of very bad things happening in succession. Rapidly worsening succession. I find it hard to believe that one of those very bad things wasn’t war. Probably war on a scale that you and I can only imagine, if even so much as that. If there’s anything I believe about the old world, it’s that they had a hunger for killing each other. I think it’s possible that whatever’s pulling all the compasses off is the fallout from some kind of weapon, some kind of… I don’t know… residual energy. Maybe like… static or something. I don’t know. Maybe the thing just let off so much juice at once that the air’s still charged with it.” Cole searched Gage’s face, unable to tell what was meant by the deep furrow in his brow.
Gage met his eyes, then looked over his face as well, before at last holding up three fingers and saying, almost defiantly, “Theory Three: It could have been something useful. I don’t know enough to say anything about your poles theory, but the technology theory in general, I believe. But, maybe it wasn’t destructive, maybe it was something constructive. Maybe the magnetic charge was part of it. Maybe they didn’t need the poles to navigate. It could have been some kind of a generator. Maybe. It’s also possible that the magnetic charge is due to the breakdown of the thing, in the absence of people, the scientists or whoever would have run it, maybe whatever power it once held is getting out into the air. And, maybe, one day it’ll breakdown completely, and the compasses will all work again.” Something struck him, “Speaking of which, how can you be sure that it’s not just your compass that’s changing?”
“No, no. I know that it’s not the compass. I’ve come across others during my travels, and the arcs always match mine. Invariably.”
Gage considered for a second, “Well, interesting as it may be, it doesn’t matter. I say let the old technology alone. Let it rot where they left it. It won’t do any better for us than it did for them.” He ran his palms down either side of his jaw, the faint scratch of stubble sounding on callused skin. The gesture seemed to be the closing of any matter. “Well,” he blinked the way a man does when they haven’t slept enough for a very long time, “you don’t seem like any malignant traveler, or whatever it is the Religios say. I think I can stem the violence on your behalf, but you’ll have to keep your head down for a while. Can you stand on your own? Can you walk?” he reached one hand out and grasped Cole’s shoulder, levering him away from the scummy tile.
“I think,” he paused, blinking in a way specific to his own kind of weariness. The pain was agonizing as he stood, and he leaned against the wall with one hand for a while, eyes closed tight, holding his breath. He let it out at last in a single, long expulsion, then moved away from the tile, tottering.
“I’ll have a room set up for you upstairs. I’ll have your dinner brought in, for tonight at least, until things calm down.”
“I think I’d rather just be on my way. If I can just have my bag and my rifle, then I…”
“You’re not badly hurt, but you are too hurt to travel. At least for a couple of days. The Doc says you’ll be fine, but if you’re bleeding internally or something, you could get out there just past the point of no return, and drop out with sepsis.”
Cole tried to take a step toward the door, and offer some reassurance, but as soon as his weight was over his leg his whole body knotted up in protest. He froze, wincing, and as the pain receded again he nodded finally, “Maybe just one night.”
“I’ll have your pack brought to you. They didn’t find your rifle, but I’ll send someone out to look for it. If they find it, though, I’ll have to keep it. At least until I know you better. It’s not personal I hope you’ll understand.”
Cole nodded empathetically, then shook his head, “It didn’t come in with me?”
“No, but it was dark when they picked you up. I’m sure they’ll be able to find it easily enough.”
Cole nodded again, allowing himself to be led out. “One more thing,” he stopped, still just within the frame of the door.
Gage looked at him rather concernedly, “Yes?”
“Can you bring me a compass?”
They smiled together, and Cole let himself be led out.