I dreamed of dragons,
their canines like sugar.
My parents say dragon
lost in black muck clouds.
Still there are dragons. They drop
to come closer.
Helena Bell lives in Carbondale, IL where she is working towards an MFA in poetry at SIU. Her work has appeared on Strong Verse, Strange Horizons, and her grandmother’s refrigerator. You can learn more about her at www.cuimhne.net.
This poem was inspired by a passage in Sheck Exley’s book Basic Cave Diving: Blueprint for Survival as well as personal cave diving experiences.
“My Daniel’s out there.” Mother Beet crossed her stick-thin legs, lit a cigarillo, then offered me one. I shook my head, staring into the black hollows where her eyes should be. Black hollows that held my measure, nonetheless, and stared back. Tiny brown cockroaches nested in the right orbit. They bubbled and hissed, irritated by the smoke perhaps. “I can feel him, sure’s the memory of spittin’ the bastard, bloody and blind-eyed, out of me womb.”
I sat, and her smoke-bound mutterings washed against me. Folk like that, their words are weighty. You listen and not without fear.
The plastic chair of her hospitality dug into my legs, and the cave’s stale air closed round me, stung my failing eyes – the nubs of my cataracts burned. I’d seen too much, and this day lacked any assurance that such sights were done with me. I hungered for my city, grand old Wish, and that bone-cruel hunger cut deeper than any centuries-hardened chair.
Shaky and without my fix of Wish, I still managed a smile when she finished.
Mother Beet pursed her lips. “What the hell you think’s funny?”
She snorted and swatted, claw-like at my knees. “Got the cancer scares in ya? Frightened of this witch’s ganga?”
A shudder ran through me, at the touch of her fingers against my knees, but I held her gaze. “Maybe I am. But then again, maybe I’m not.”
“Mother Beet knows you are. Killed plenty of men, but you’re scared of an old Lady. I know it, just like I know Daniel’s still out there.”
I bowed my head a little. “I’m respectful of the old ways. I know which Powers to fear, and my city’s more miles from here than I care to think of. Here a man should be afraid.”
“But not too much, eh? Too much can eat your heart. Like it swallowed my boy’s,” she said pointedly. “Mr. Grieve, Daniel ain’t no man any more.”
“We both know that.”
I drove the car down that winding mountain road, Mother Beet’s laughter ringing still in my ears. “You better be careful, Mr. Grieve. Better be damn careful.”
She hadn’t laughed after that. Didn’t scream, though. Most of them scream. She’d just stared, the cockroaches hissing, till the piss had run down her legs and her breath rattled in her throat.
I felt sick; my hands shook. I had never wanted to kill any of them. But I’d made my deals. Wish had me now. And I did what the grand metrop demanded.
Such a long way from the city, and the further from Wish the more terrible it grew: the shivers, the craving that’s all burn and emptiness. There’s ways of settling that hunger, or if not settling, then reducing it. All of them are worse — cost too much spiritually, physically. But I’d got what I’d come for — a piece of Daniel’s caul. I could race back across the shattered land.
Every mile homeward was a salve to my ache and a whip stroke across my back.
My nose burned with the old woman’s reek, and the smell of her death. Cloves and tar. Her lungs must be ash; her skin knitted together with spider webs and nicotine stains. That eye socket boiling with hissing cockroaches.
Hardly human herself, but her son. He scared me.
Daniel was a killer; all he was good at was wrapped in death and blood. But there were many like that, in city and out. I’d only gotten involved when he ate a nun’s still beating heart in Gaskel. That kind of thing has too much power. Gets the city involved because Wish holds its power to itself jealously. Daniel had finished his tucker, then torched Gaskel’s convent, burnt it to the ground, and shot anyone who tried to escape or help the screaming folk caught inside.
I drove up from Wish a week later, the devastation everywhere. Not just the buildings, but in the people’s eyes.
Daniel had grown bored. Done with his killing, he’d just upped and left. Does a community no good to know they couldn’t have done a thing to stop him. The Sheriff and one of his deputies were dead. The other, a thin, reliable man, if a trifle cowardly, told me what happened.
“Daniel took two bullets to the skull, Mr. Grieve. I put one there myself; he just shook them off and shot Sheriff James in the eye. I thought it was time to get distant then myself.” He grimaced. “You know, not all folks are like you. Not all of us can face the bleak ones, and I’m all that’s left of the law round here. I’ll most probably be suckin’ Death’s teat ‘fore the year’s done.”
I shrugged. “You did all right. You’d be sucking Death’s teat right now if you’d done otherwise. Now stop that shit, I ain’t your counsellor.”
The erstwhile deputy, now sheriff, regarded me sourly. “My counsellor’s dead. Half Gaskel’s rotting in the ground. You gotta find him. Find him and kill him.”
I nodded my head, distracted, and waved the sheriff away. My time here was done. Wish called, nay she screamed and howled, and I was set to answer it with my presence.
I am an addict, yes. But a peripatetic one. Suitcase and sweats. I could still travel, despite its agonies. Those that can leave the city find themselves its agents and guns. Better suited to anything else, I’d become a lawman, because Wish demanded it, and I hungered for her.
I’d scarred myself in all the right places, and to the right gods, and was afraid enough to dance with the right devils and to worship the appropriate Wrongs.
And I got by.
Icabus picked his teeth and farted through the window at the clamouring city. His black corpse-eyes considered me from above a terrible grinning mouth. He pointed after the sun. “West is where you’ll find him, past the shattered mountains, past the Heave.” The demonkin’s tiny hand shook. “Round Gunneda. Have you cartography?”
I took the caul back from him. “I know the area. I was raised out there.”
Icabus shook his head. “Ha, I would have never taken you for a country boy. You stink of Wish, city addict.”
“There are more things about me that you do not know than there are stars in the heavens,” I said and blew smoke in the demonkin’s face. For a moment Icabus wavered on the air, his existence grew all tenuous, then steadied as the smoke thinned.
Icabus glared at me. “Once, Mr. Grieve, long ago, before cities made addicts of folk, that would have been a considerable number of things, for there were indeed, many, many stars. Now but Seventy grace the sky. Makes horoscopes easier, though.” He nodded heavenwards, squinted, and intoned, “He’s gonna eat you up, because you’re already weighted with Death. It’s put a bend in your spine and painted shadows on your eyes. Those cataracts keep tumblin’ and soon you’ll be blind or washed up on Death’s shore, and it’s a bleak coast for the likes of you.”
I swiped at him, caught a handful of flapping pallid skin and threw the creature against the wall. “I’ll drag him with me.”
Icabus’ breath came fast and hard. “That shore is his. She’s already there, waiting and hungry. Can you afford such a hurt?”
“I’ve got no choice.” I could already feel the city pushing me, forcing me along another road, an outbound road. The highway stretch and slide that led to Gunneda. “As for the cataracts. They’ll be mine to fix once this job is done.”
Icabus nodded. “Then be sly, wickerbones. Be all that is cruel, all that is sly.”
I smiled tightly. “How do you think these bones got so old?”
It’s a long hard drive to Gunneda, past the Whispering’s Holdings with their flaming ramparts, and Keepit’s Thirst, and I was tired of my cds almost before I began. My Wish-grown car could run a thousand years. I could chase my vicious prey a dozen lifetimes without needing to refuel, but surely I would need new-old music for the cd stacker.
I chain-smoked on the way, as much to confound any demons that might take it upon themselves to manifest inside my cabin as to still my nerves. Out here you learnt the little tricks, the small magics that tripped up the big. You learnt such or you died. I knew most of them, not all, because something new always came along, and I hunted these down almost as voraciously as the murderers and haunts Wish assigned me to.
But there was no small magic to aid this hunt. Which scared me because the big stuff always came at a cost, as demanding as any city.
I chewed the caul and let it guide me. The caul piece, dry and bitter, ate up my spit, but I kept chewing. It was all I had, and I needed it soft and wet and supple. Done long enough I might fix it to my will.
I drove the car into the Golf Course Hotel, passing down into the bunker-bowels of its car park, the air cool and damp, stinking of sweat and spoiled concrete. My boots crunched on the powdery floor. There were no other cars, so I took the time to light up another fat cigarette: burning cloves and tobacco that soothed and shielded.
The hotel was run down, but cleaner than most of the places I used in Sydney or Melbin — those cities were old, cockroach-cloaked, and fog-decked rotten. Only Wish did not display the gaudy marks of time, fresh as a newborn babe and as clinical as the hospital that caged it.
A man in a cracked brown leather jacket waited behind the counter. “Nice car,” the hotelier said, rubbing his thick beard, the growth another demon foil.
“Not so nice if someone steals it.” I breathed out a plume of smoke, shaped it into a skull. “There’s magics there. Dark and venom-toothed to all but me.”
The man just grinned. “How many nights will you be staying?”
“As long as it takes.”
Silver exchanged hands and the man pushed a key across the counter.
“Second floor. Room 24.”
Three hours and I was done.
Crosses put up, rightwise and reversed-silver, platinum, and plastic. The tooth of a demon — whisper-thin and as sharp as death — glued above the window. The hair of an angel above the door and two mirrors beneath the bed, with all the incantations said, and a handful of dust thrown before the entrance to the room.
None of these precautions were for Daniel, just a little peace of mind. In the field, you were prepared, or you died.
I walked back to the front desk, the hotelier looked like he hadn’t moved.
“Where can I get a drink?” I asked.
“There’s a bar off Whisper St. Name of the Jiggered Spit. Sells okay piss. So does The Stoned and Flaming Crow.” The man’s eyes flashed. “You’re spoilt for choice, I reckon.”
Daniel comes in here and you will be screaming for my help, I thought. But then, Daniel comes in here, and we’ll most likely be both screaming.
I lit up and walked outside.
Sunset pulled my shadow thin and long before me. Even so, I pushed my hat down and gathered my coat around me: out of habit and out of respect. Sun’s a cruel master, but the nights were crueller still. My footfalls rang loud on the road. Not a single car passed me, nothing but a few dour-faced travellers, smelling of spirits, stumbling back to the hotel. These days a lot of people liked to get their drinking in early, before it got dark.
The Jiggered Spit had life in it yet that night; raucous laughter spilled from the doors, heavy with the smoke of cheap cigars and the blusterings of even cheaper hoodlums. I did not take off my coat, just strode to the bar and ordered a shade of Bourbon.
“You new here?” the Barkeep said, pouring his shade.
I smiled. “Old new.”
The Barkeep squinted at me. “Why’d you leave?”
The Barkeep chuckled. “We all leave somewhere, but not all of us come back.”
“It isn’t permanent. I don’t intend staying here all that long,” I said. “Got business to attend to. Powers to redistribute.”
“Oh, so you’re a Wish man. The city got its hooks in you, got that monkey on your back. Should’ve took you for one of them. Don’t see your kind here that often.”
“Not much happens here to warrant it,” I said and ordered another drink. Just finished that when I saw him, and was glad I’d taken some bravery to my gut. Daniel sat at a table across from me, smoking a cigarillo; if he’d noticed me, he’d made no sign of it.
“Two more,” I said, sliding the money across the counter, when the drinks came I took them over to Daniel.
“I know you,” I said.
Daniel looked up, his nostrils flared, and his pale face creased and darkened. “That makes two of us, I know me as well. But who are you?”
I placed the drinks on the table, casual, careful, and sat down. My heart, which had quickened, slowed, until it seemed to beat, maybe twice a minute. Boom. Boom. Deep loud beats that were painful as they were strong. “You want a drink?”
“My ma said, don’t talk to strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger; I know you, and I know your Ma. She was a fine lady.” I put out a hand and Daniel ignored it.
“You reek of Wish,” Daniel said. “I don’t want that stink on me. Not here, where I can’t do anything about it.” But he didn’t have any trouble taking my drink.
Daniel swallowed it down, eyes narrowing. “You know I went to Wish once. All them pleasures, all that lassitude. Thought I could make a killing there, but I saw through my hopes and dreams, saw through to the city itself. It traps you, holds you.” He shifted in his chair. I could see emotions fluttering across that heavy face. Fear, anger, then a sly cruelty.
“You’re here to kill me, ‘ain’t you?” His tone mocked me, and that hard face. For a moment I didn’t believe I had a chance, that he had me beat before we’d even begun.
“Maybe,” I said, in a way that made no trick of it not being maybe at all. “I got a piece of you, Daniel.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow, his muscles tightened, his lips twisted. “Then you’ll be seeing me anon, I reckon.”
Daniel got up and pushed his way past. His arms thick and hard. Where he touched me, I bruised. I watched his broad back and tried to imagine him ever sliding bloody and blind-eyed from anybody’s womb.
I took a tincture of sobriety from my pocket. Not that I needed it, but then, sometimes when you don’t think you need it is when you need it most. It went down sharp and bitter, and I had to piss. At the trough, I shivered and choked up, thinking of what I’d come here to do, thinking of what that had already required. The urine finally came, pale as my skin, and I pissed for a long time, cursing all the while.
A long piss is unlucky, but to break the flow’s unluckier still.
I yearned a moment for Wish. A moment. Hah. I yearned for my city all the time, but this rose above the levee banks of my discipline.
All that wonderful machinery, the settling of inclement justices, the prayer maps, and the croissants hot and jam-bloodied. There was no ozone burn here, no verities that remained, just desperate hopes and awful cruelties. I looked in the mirror, as I washed my hands, and saw little to give me hope. I flashed a smile, but it was a monkey smile, a false, fearful thing that made me all pissy again.
I left the bar, walked into the night, the shadows grown watchful and jagged — though not sharp enough to pierce the smoke I wreathed myself in. I slid the caulpiece back into my mouth and chewed. It stung my gums with a nasty electricity. But the caul was softer now, quick to take up my spit and my will.
I felt his presence through the smoke. The prick of magics, and the weight of terrible eyes.
Because running only prompted hunters to speed — encouraged a steady, predatory lope — I strolled.
Halfway between the Jiggered Spit and the hotel stood a solitary streetlight, haloed in bugs, pitching out its circle of dusty brilliance. I waited there, lit up a darker, heavier smoke. Special smoke, the stench of which I knew he’d recognise.
“Heh, heh, got the cancer scares in ya, frightened of this witch’s ganga?”
Maybe, but not now.
I could taste her blood on the cigarillo, thin, bitter, dreadful. I could hear her dying breaths. Blood of the dead.
“You coming into the light, Daniel?” I asked of the shadows. “You coming to get me? I’m a patient man; I can wait a long time.”
And there was a silence as long and cruel as any I had ever known, contaminated with dust and insect flight. But it ended. As I knew it would.
“You killed my Mama!” Daniel lunged at me, out of the darkness. And he was quick. Quicker than I’d dared to fear. I dove to the left, and still his fists found me. I felt a rib break.
Then he was clutching me, hugging me bear-like, his breath washing over me, his eyes dark as hell, and I saw death in them, and the cruel, horrible joy he found in such killing.
“You killed my mama,” he repeated, and squeezed, till wraiths danced black in my vision. I struggled in that grip, thrashed and bucked, slammed my forehead into the bridge of his nose, his cold blood splattered against my skin, and still he did not loosen his hold.
I felt the distant drumming of a distant shore, the chill place Icabus had spoken of. Against my will, because all things have a limit, my muscles relaxed, my eyelids closed, as though to speed on death and that crashing shore.
And then I was choking; the caul stuck and burning in my throat. It came back up, washed with bile and my lost hope. It came back up, and with it a moment’s breath.
I opened my eyes, he was near enough, and me with that new breath in my lungs, and blood still pumping in my veins.
So I spat the caul in his face.
“I killed her,” I said. “Yes, I did.”
The caul stuck to his brow, a flap of accusatory skin, and, for an instant, he was stilled. Just an instant. His hands fell away, he stumbled backwards, fast. But I was faster, my gun already out.
I shot him, aimed point-blank at caul and skull, and released a bullet into his brain.
Daniel stopped, swatted at the tiny hole in his skull like it was a fly. He even stood up, and I thought I was done for, that even my magics, my slyness wasn’t enough. Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he crashed back, broken, to the dusty ground.
I pulled out my chopper and separated head from neck; better to be safe than sorry. “I killed your mama, and I killed you,” I said to Daniel’s corpse. “Got a lot of blood on my hands.” I brought the head in close, I was feeling chatty. “But you’re the last one, I promise you that.”
Daniel’s eyes flicked open, and his lips pulled back, and he spat a burst of bloody spittle into my face. Bloody magics, magic of blood, and a dead man’s blood at that. Poisoned, and that was just the beginning.
I dropped the head, rubbed at my eyes, and my cataracts tumbled, and I tumbled with them. I fell, and the shadows swallowed me whole. For a while all was dark. No thought, just night.
Until a foot buried itself in my ribs.
I coughed. Spat out blood.
Opened my eyes. Nothing. Blind, my fingers gripped chill, wet sand.
Waves crashed in nearby. I could hear them. In and out, like breathing. But there was no breathing here. Not on this shore.
“He’s dead,” I cried into the darkness. “It’s done.”
And there was no answer.
“Where is he? I’ll hunt him through hell if I have to,” I said, because that is what people like me say, and that was all I had left.
Mother Beet cackled. Her rank breath washed against my face.
“Why, Mr. Grieve, this isn’t dear Daniel’s hell, it’s yours.”
I felt the darkness then, felt its infinite chill, and its great emptiness. Just her and me. Just my guilt and me. And something so much worse. Something I’d never considered. I howled my misery into the void.
Wish was so distant it roared in my bones. I yearned for it across the endless space. My teeth clamped with agony; my lips ran with the spit of my hunger.
Fingers brushed my cheek.
The city called.
Lips pressed against mine, then pulled away.
The city called.
Cockroaches hissed and spat.
The city called, and I could not answer.
“Welcome to eternity,” Mother Beet said.
Trent Jamieson lives in Brisbane, Australia, with his wife, Diana. His first collection of short stories Reserved for Travelling Shows is due for release by Prime Books in November 2005.
I love cities. Absolutely adore them, even though I grew up in a small country town. The idea of people being addicted to a city appealed to me. The idea of fusing it with the imagery of a western was doubly appealing.
Death comes in all forms for this issue of Ideomancer. Trent Jamieson breathes a last Wish with his tale, “Tumble”. In “Whale Falls”, Steven Mohan, Jr. takes a closer look at deaths in the oceans and what meaning that holds for surface-dwellers. In “Wall”, Brett Savory transfixes us with the seamy side of death. Our poets this issue, irving and Helena Bell, visit the stars and the bottom of the oceans with their own glimpses of eternity. Our classic offering depicts the death of a sailing vessel, for what else is it when a ship never sails again?
In addition, Sean Melican goes into overdrive and gives us five book reviews.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue!
Vol. 4 Issue 4
“Tumble” – Trent Jamieson
“Whale Falls” – Steven Mohan, Jr.
“Wall” – Brett Alexander Savory
“The Dutchman’s Children” – irving
“Why I Learned to Cave Dive” – Helena Bell
“The Ship That Saw a Ghost” – Frank Norris
Five Reviews – Sean Melican
To anyone else, the dim green ghosts that haunted Maryanne’s facemask would’ve been imperceptible, but she’d been down in the darkness and silence a long time. She’d grown accustomed to the eternal night of the abyssal plain.
Her suit’s onboard computer remembered the new whale falls and painted their dusky picture in three dimensions. It was just VR, of course. There was no way to know if the two immense corpses had shifted while she slept, or if they’d attracted an Architeuthis which even now waited to take her in its arms and tear through her armor with its beak.
She stopped, drew a deep breath of oxygenated perfluorocarbon, and savored the sensation of liquid filling her lungs. God, she’d been down here a long time.
A giant squid wasn’t the only potential threat. The falls could’ve attracted anything. It just wasn’t smart to blunder around in the dark. She should’ve turned on her external lights, bathed her suit in the deep’s feeble green glow.
But these were stage one falls not even a month old. Crabs and fish would come to feast on the flesh, and Maryanne was tired of sulfur-tainted clams. She stepped forward without turning on her lights.
The alchemy of death had transformed the whales into giant hills of flesh. They were California grays, the larger about forty tons, the smaller a quarter of that. The placement was unusual, the bodies had fallen side-by-side, separated by only sixty yards. Maryanne couldn’t avoid the conclusion that this had been a mother and her calf.
She leaned against the baby’s head and felt the soft, rubbery flesh through the molded substrate of her suit.
What killed you, little one?
When she’d been at 9° North, she had occasionally heard the deep, mournful call of a whale far above. Living grays never dove down to the abyssal plain, but sound traveled far in the cold, dense water and sometimes their whistles and groans filled the blackness. It had been an eerie sound at first, the keening of unseen behemoths, but after a time Maryanne learned to draw comfort from it, like the familiar creaking of a house settling for the night.
But 9° North had been a long time ago. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a whale song.
Maryanne placed one gauntleted hand over her facemask, secured the VR display, and slowly raised the brightness of her interior light until her eyes adjusted to quarter power. She dropped her hand and blinked on her external lights. Dozens of ghost crabs, colored pale green by the abrupt light, darted away. Her hands drifted forward (even after all this time she still felt like she was moving in slow motion) and snatched them up, dropping crabs in the sample bag clipped to her belt.
Her hands closed around a large specimen and she held it up. The crab was a foot across if it were an inch. Its legs thrashed madly and one claw grasped impotently at her armor. She traced an index finger across the crab’s pale green carapace.
“My, you’re a big fellow, aren’t you?” she whispered.
The crab turned bone white, as if the green were an illusion washed away by the sea. Maryanne started and dropped the crustacean; it scurried to safety.
Light stabbed through the Stygian darkness. She blinked back tears. It wasn’t the green phantasmal glow of the deep’s living things. It was a bright halogen beam, white and pure, fashioned by the hand of man.
She’d lingered too long, distracted by the beauty of her garden. They had found her.
It was the nausea that finally got to Maryanne as she sat in her darkened stateroom staring down at a chart of the East Pacific Rise and the ugly grease-pencil “X” someone had drawn through 9° 50′ North. She’d learned to endure the tension headaches and the sweating (heat pushed through her body like a wave, even when she wore the slimmest bikinis modesty allowed), but she wasn’t used to an ocean that rolled.
She went to the lone porthole in her stateroom. R.V. Maurice Ewing bobbed on an ugly, frothing sea. Angry waves crashed over the ship’s bow, and the darkening sky heralded a storm. Maryanne staggered to her desk, put her head down, and focused on not throwing up.
Someone rapped on the door. (She could never bring herself to call it a “hatch.”) It opened a crack. “Maryanne,” said Robert softly. “You’re not trying to sleep are you?”
He stepped into the stateroom and closed the door behind him. “You wanted to see me.”
He looked at a section of the wall above her right shoulder. Doctor Robert Ng of Woods Hole was a big man, easily six three and two twenty. He wore his glossy black hair short in front but long in back. She saw his face clearly in the darkness, but there wasn’t enough light to pick up the hazel-blue mix of his eyes or the spray of freckles across his nose.
For a second, her hands fluttered in front of her until she forced them to her sides. “Have you thought about my proposal?”
At the sound of her voice, Robert turned a little so he was almost looking at her. He fiddled with the zipper of the windbreaker he wore over his sweater. “I’m sorry about the smoker.”
The tension in his jaw told her everything she needed to know.
“Not sorry enough, I see,” she said softly.
“Have you downloaded Soto’s most recent paper?” he snapped.
Maryanne refused to be maneuvered into another discussion on global climate change. “There’s another smoker further north.”
“He’s documented a six-degree rise at McMurdo.”
Unfortunately Robert refused to be maneuvered out of another discussion on global climate change. That was the problem with being bull-headed: if you met someone equally determined you tended to talk past each other.
Maryanne sighed. “No, I haven’t read Soto’s most recent paper.” She’d been working twenty-hour days, trying to document everything she could before they pulled out.
Before the smoker died.
“Look, Soto’s research doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to-“
Robert exploded. “Increased temperature means increased rainfall. The Ross Ice Sheet is melting. That much fresh water dumped into the Southern Ocean will disrupt the thermo-”
Maryanne held up her hands. “I do have a doctorate, Robert.”
He drew a deep angry breath and visibly calmed himself. “Then you know what it means if we lose the thermohaline circulation. Everything from plankton to the organisms that feed on them will be impacted. A rerouted gulf stream means Europe freezes. Warmer water in the IO will cause plague in south Asia. That’s why Soto’s research matters.” Robert shook his head. “NOAA’s pulling all grants for deep sea research so they can focus on climate change. Can you blame them?”
“Robert, this is my life,” she shot back, “so don’t ask that question.” She had no friends except those as obsessed with marine biology as her (and no one was as obsessed with marine biology as her). There was no place for a lover either, not when a man’s touch felt like fire on her skin.
He took a step back and concern shaded his features. “Look-”
“No, you look.” She took a deep breath. “You have a strong marriage and two beautiful children, and I…” What? Six years before the only family she’d ever known had arrowed into the Colorado plains four miles short of DIA’s foul-weather runway. “I don’t,” she finished.
He moistened his lips. “The smoker’s not my fault, Maryanne.”
“No, but-” She’d known this might happen, had even planned for it, but it was bitterly disappointing still. “Would another three days make that much difference?”
“Hurricane Dora is moving in. We need to leave.”
“It’s early for cyclonic storms,” she said.
“Yeah, ain’t global warming a bitch.”
Maryanne looked up at him. “How long?”
Robert’s eyes must have adjusted to the darkness because his gaze seemed to meet hers. “Seven hours.”
Seven hours. That couldn’t be right. “W-what? You can’t-“
“It’s a category five, Maryanne.” His voice was gentle. “Alfred‘s already locked down in his cradle. You’ll recover the blind. We’ll launch Antoine as safety backup. Once we have the second Alvin and the blind locked down, we’ll set course for San Diego.”
Seven hours and then San Dog.
She’d known the smoker was dying. The Earth was healing the wound that pumped life-giving heat and sulfides into the ice-cold water of the deep. But this was so sudden, so brutal.
“I made myself a freak to be here. Robert, I don’t think-” she swallowed. “I don’t think I can-”
He knelt and placed an impossibly warm hand on her arm. “I know it’ll be hard to undo the mods. But we’ll all support you, everyone on the team.”
Undo the modifications. She hadn’t thought about that.
She’d gone through too much to give up her mods.
Gut-wrenching sickness when they reshaped her genes to express an antifreeze-building protein. Spells of fever chills punctuated by hot flashes as they coaxed her body into accepting a new, lower core temperature. And the PFC. No matter what clever stories her cortex devised, her reptile brain knew that breathing liquid was drowning.
Robert assumed she was worried about the long, painful process required to reverse the modifications. But it wasn’t pain and discomfort that frightened her. No, her terror grew out of the realization that they’d never let her come back.
She drew a deep, shuddery breath. “Let’s get this over with.”
The light winked out. Maryanne stared at where it had been, unsuccessfully trying to calculate distance. It’d been four years since she’d last seen real white light and there was nothing to provide scale.
But they were close.
Suddenly she was running, loping across the sea floor in giant, slow-motion strides that kicked up clouds of red clay and calcareous ooze. She had to get to the blind. She had to get away.
She ran for a long time, fleeing headlong into the near-perfect darkness, pulse pounding in her ears, lungs struggling to extract oxygen from PFC. Then she tripped and the abyssal plain came up to meet her.
Pain pulsed in Maryanne’s temple, dragging her back to consciousness. She groaned and pushed herself up. What happened?
She was on her feet again, turning in a circle, scanning the darkness for the threatening light.
Where was she? She’d been running and… Maryanne screwed her eyes shut. She’d tripped.
She studied the sea floor. She saw it then, a large, familiar jawbone, half-buried in the muck.
Of course. There was a stage three fall a couple miles from the blind. In her panic she must’ve stumbled into it. She dialed her exterior lights to full power, blinked them on, and it was there.
The spinal column was twisted into a graceful S. The vertebrae retained their processes and the ribs formed a recognizable cage braced against the seafloor. She licked her lips. This skeleton looked Saurian to her, as if it were a refugee from the Jurassic rather than a simple whale. Hagfish swarmed around bones encrusted with clams, mussels, and limpets. Maryanne walked slowly, careful not to crush the ubiquitous brittle stars that coated the ocean bottom. Her passage kicked up a cloud of amphipods: tiny crustaceans the size of fleas.
Maryanne dialed her exterior lights back down to quarter power. A constellation of dim green lights appeared in the darkness: organisms trying to see or be seen.
Her onboard told her the blind lay 2.2 miles away. It represented safety if she got to it in time. If not…
At full speed, the blind only made a fraction of a mile per hour, not fast enough to outrun an Alvin. If she led them to it she was done.
A six-foot gulper eel wriggled toward her, attracted by her lights. Its long, stringy body supported a huge head with a hinged jaw. The eel’s tiny eyes sat all the way forward on its snout. Maryanne waved at it, and the jaw shut with the clap of a wooden box closing. It turned and was gone in aninstant.
Here in the garden, with the creatures of the fall going about their business, it was hard to believe men were hunting her the way she’d hunted the crabs.
She heard a distant, uncertain sound. It might have been the whisper of water on water, the burble of current, but…
She was instantly on her feet. The voice was garbled, twisted by distance and growler technology, but it was real and there was something familiar…
“Maryanne, answer. Are you down here?”
They were getting closer. She looked around for some avenue of escape. The barren plain offered nowhere to hide and since she couldn’t go for the blind she had nowhere to run either.
She would have to be clever.
That was all right. She’d been clever before.
A flicker of motion caught her eye and she turned. Scorching white light blinded her. Maryanne shielded her eyes with her forearm. She made out a pair of shadowy figures.
“Maryanne, is that really you?”
SONAR comms was an imperfect science. Converting a human voice into an electrical current and back again severely distorted it. The result was so garbled early submariners had called comm sets “growlers.” For all that, Maryanne instantly recognized the voice.
It was Robert’s.
The ocean’s disquiet buffeted her as she drifted down. Forty feet below the surface and she felt the coming storm. This one would be a monster.
She looked up. Antoine rocked just below the surface, manipulators folded beneath its gleaming white hull like arms.
A heavily distorted voice said, “I have a green board.” That was Josef. He and Ibrahim had drawn Alvin duty.
“Begin descent.” Robert’s voice sounded almost normal. Ewing‘s growler employed a compensation algorithm that used sound velocity profile data to adjust its signal.
The submersible slipped beneath the bright surface. Its orange conning tower was the lone flash of color in the blue sea.
Maryanne glanced down. Darkness lay below her. She’d set her fall rate at eight feet per second, which was pushing the edge of the safety protocols, but Robert would hopefully attribute the fast descent to her concern over the storm.
A minute passed. Another. Maryanne checked the depth readout. 1079 feet. Fourteen percent of the way down. Not nearly far enough. She bit her lower lip. She couldn’t change her fall rate without it showing up on telemetry. She hugged her knees to her chest and tucked her body into a ball to minimize drag.
She checked her depth. 3470. That meant Antoine was near three grand. That should’ve been enough.
She had adjusted the breaker in Antoine‘s main bus to trip at half the normal current. As the submersible descended, it’d draw more amps for lights and heaters until the breaker went. The submersible would go dark and quiet. And it would fall.
Eventually emergency power would kick in, Josef would order an emergency ascent, and that would be that. No big.
Except it should’ve happened by three thousand feet.
Maryanne clenched her jaw. If she’d miscalculated, and the Alvin sank much farther, there might not be time to recover before it hit bottom. Antoine was a tough little customer, but if the submersible slammed into the seafloor systems would be damaged and leaks would form.
And if she knew Robert, he’d deploy Alfred. If people were trapped on the bottom, Robert would put the second Alvin in the water, even with a hurricane bearing down on them.
How many lives was she gambling? Josef and Ibrahim, the second Alvin’s crew, everybody if the storm caught Ewing.
She looked at the depth readout. Based on her own depth and assuming Josef was descending at the standard seven feet per second, Antoine had …
How long would it take to recover after the breaker tripped? Emergency backups should come on automatically, but would Josef have the presence of mind to immediately blow ballast?
She looked up. Antoine was a lonely blue star in the deep’s eternal night.
“Come on,” she whispered. “Come on.”
Her gaze drifted down and then back up. Eight minutes. Maryanne tasted bile at the back of her throat. She couldn’t let this happen. “Ewing, this is Evans.”
“Go ahead, Maryanne.”
She swallowed. How was she supposed to tell him? “I don’t-“
The light winked out.
“What is it, Maryanne?” asked Robert sharply.
“I’ve lost visual contact with Antoine.”
“Josef? Are you there, Joe?” asked Robert. “Ibrahim? Antoine, this is Ewing. Respond.”
Maryanne bit her lip.
“Antoine, this is Ewing. Please Respond.”
“We’re here, Robert.” The growler signal was twisted and gravelly, but Maryanne heard the edge of panic in Josef’s voice. She looked up and saw the blue light far above her.
“Status,” snapped Robert.
“Lost power,” croaked Josef. “Took a sec for backup to come on.”
“Emergency ascent,” said Robert.
“Thank God,” whispered Maryanne.
“Storm’s getting worse,” said Robert. “Recovery’s going to be a bitch. Maryanne, how much-” He paused. “You’re still descending.”
She started. “What?” She tapped the emergency hover button on her left wrist. The hiss of pressurized nitrogen and the sudden jerk of neutral buoyancy signaled that she’d stopped.
“You violated safety protocols,” shouted Robert. “During a submersible casualty the diver immediately goes into emergency hover.”
“I’m sorry,” she said honestly. Maryanne owed him that much at least. “I was worried about Josef and Ibrahim.”
Robert’s voice softened. “We’ll discuss it later. Begin your ascent.”
Her eyes flickered to the depth readout: 5637. “Are you sure that’s the right call?”
“We don’t have time to preflight and launch Alfred, not with the storm coming and Antoine waiting to be recovered.”
“I’m seventy percent down. I’ll be on the bottom in five minutes.”
“That’s a negative.”
“Robert, if we don’t recover the blind now, we won’t get another chance.”
“We’ll come back after-”
“They won’t let you come back,” said Maryanne bitterly. “Not when every penny is needed for climate research.”
“I won’t compromise your safety.” Robert’s voice was hard.
“It’s fifty-six hundred feet to the ship and only two thousand to the blind. If safety’s really the issue you’ll send me down.”
She knew she’d won when he paused. “Be careful,” he whispered.
Maryanne closed her eyes and resumed her descent.
Robert? After all these years. “What do you want?”
“My God, you’re really alive.”
Maryanne felt a twinge of guilt. She hadn’t been prepared for the mixture of sadness and relief that broke in his voice.
“So this is her.” said the other man. His voice was as thin and dry as paper. Maryanne wondered if he were the muscle.
“Yes,” Robert whispered.
“Can you cut the light?” asked Maryanne. “It’s a bit bright for the abyssal plain.”
The second man sighed, but the light cut out, leaving Maryanne blinking away red spots. She dropped her arm. “Who are you?”
“Aaron Cardif,” said the second man.
“But what do you do? Psychiatrist, security, what?”
“I’m an accountant.”
Maryanne’s laugh was skeptical. “Really?”
“It’s true,” said Robert.
“What’re you doing here?”
“Penance,” said Cardif.
Her eyes readjusted and she realized the men wore what looked to be wet-suits and facemasks, hardly appropriate attire for an environment where thirty-four degrees was balmy and pressure was several hundred atmospheres.
They must’ve undergone more severe mods than she had, and seven years ago hers had been state of the art. They couldn’t be here just to find her. “You never answered my question.”
The men glanced at each other. “We’d like to ask you to come back,” said Cardif.
“We’re here to look after your best interests,” he said.
She studied the eyes behind his facemask. Wrinkles radiated from the corners. Was he old or were the wrinkles a result of his mods? “That sounds vaguely threatening.”
“I’d be happy just to know why,” said Robert gently.
“I tried to explain it to you once before, Robert,” said Maryanne sharply. “You didn’t get it then. Why do you think you’d understand now?”
“You owe it to me to at least try.”
“I don’t owe you a damn thing.”
“Good to see you haven’t lost your charming personality,” muttered Cardif.
She turned on him. “Do you have children, Mr. Cardif?”
He flinched. “No.”
“Then you wouldn’t understand.”
“Because no one’s ever experienced loss but you.” The bitterness in his tone surprised her.
“Who are you?”
“That’s enough, Maryanne,” said Robert, anger tightening his voice. “There’s a lot you don’t know.”
“What? Did Soto publish another paper?”
Robert’s head jerked back as if he’d been slapped.
She folded her arms and waited, but neither man spoke for a long, uneasy moment. “How’d you find me?” she finally asked.
“It took two years, but when I got the resources together, I sponsored another expedition to 9° North.”
“You mean Woods Hole sponsored another expedition.”
Robert shook his head.
“But that-” She stopped. “That must have been thousands of dollars.”
“I had to find out what happened. Especially after I almost lost Josef and Ibrahim.”
The twinge of guilt became a stab. “Yeah. About that. You know-”
“I know.” Robert’s voice was hard.
“You shouldn’t have come.” Her tone answered his.
“But we did,” said Cardif. “Once Robert realized you might be alive, he scanned the ocean bottom until he found the blind.”
The blind. Could they really know where it was? Her heart hammered in her chest. No. Cardif was bluffing, trying to draw her out. “How clever.” She fought to keep the uncertainty out of her voice, hoping the growler would disguise what she couldn’t cover up.
“It’s time to come back,” said Robert.
“Wait. Listen first.” She knelt in the ooze and placed a hand on a bunch of vesicomyid clams. “This fall is technically a stage three, Robert.”
He pointed to the fuzzy orange caterpillars swarming over the bones. “Polychaete worms are characteristic of stage two.”
“Stage two?” asked Cardif.
He clearly wasn’t there for his biological expertise.
“Whale falls pass through three stages,” said Maryanne. “Stage one falls attract large scavengers: crabs, fish, even deep-water sharks. There’s thirty tons of organic material in the average fall and they get the better part of it.
“Second stage is smaller scavengers,” she nodded at the worms, “cleaning the bones of all traces of flesh. This generally takes a year.”
“It has to be stage two if there are polychaetes,” said Robert.
Maryanne shook her head. “Robert, this fall was well into stage two when I first surveyed it three years ago.”
“That’s not possible.”
“See for yourself. There are plenty of stage three organisms: tubeworms, vesicomyids, Idas washingtonia.”
“I hate to be obtuse,” said Cardif, “but…”
Maryanne glanced at the chronometer readout painted on the inside of her facemask with green photons. It had been an hour since she’d first seen the light. How long could they stay down? “During stage three, the bones themselves are dissolved for the sulfides they contain.”
“This is what makes the falls so critical,” said Robert. “Vent organisms cluster around black smokers, but eventually the vents close and the ecosystem dies.” He carefully avoided looking at her. “Because they may be separated by hundreds of miles, there is no mechanism for organisms to migrate from vent to vent, except-”
“Whale falls,” said Cardif.
“That’s right,” Maryanne said. “Falls provide the only other extant source of sulfides on the ocean bottom. They serve as stepping stones in the dispersion of vent organisms.”
“But this…” Robert shook his head.
“This is something new,” said Maryanne. “Last time I surveyed this fall it supported a quarter of a million animals of 400 species.”
“Twice the number of species and an order of magnitude more animals,” said Robert. “How can that be?”
“Let me get this straight,” said Cardif, “you’re seeing a lot more biodiversity than you expected?”
Maryanne ignored him. “This is a garden, Robert. Can you explain what’s happening here? I can’t and I’ve been here three years. There’s some factor that has caused life to blossom.”
“You must come back.” Cardif’s voice was colder than the icy waters in which they stood, and there was strength strung through it like the carbon chain embedded in the crystalline structure of polysteel.
Maryanne turned on him. “Everywhere we look we see the signs of man’s hand on the Earth,” she said savagely. “Science documents the holocaust sweeping through the ecosphere. I’ve found a place that’s unexpectedly alive, and I want to study that for awhile.” She turned to Robert. “I’m staying.”
Robert shook his head. “Please, Maryanne.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” she said bitterly.
Her eyes flickered to the chronometer. Seventy-one minutes. If she could stall them, convince them to leave without her, she might have time to move the blind.
“We need you,” Robert whispered.
“It’s obvious we’re not going to resolve this quickly,” said Cardif. “Perhaps we could discuss it somewhere more comfortable.”
“I-” Maryanne began. He was fishing for the blind’s location. His face was perfectly blank behind his clear mask, but his eyes pierced her. If she agreed to discuss the situation there, they’d just outwait her. No, she had to keep the blind’s location a secret. “I have work to do. We can talk as well here as anywhere else.”
Cardif nodded. “You and Robert talk as long as you like, but I’m an old man.” He pointed to the southwest. “You don’t mind if I borrow your blind do you?”
He was walking in the right direction.
Cardif stopped and turned.
If he got to the blind without her, he’d lock her out. Her choices were rapidly dwindling. “All right. Let’s talk.”
Maryanne settled to the bottom and glanced up. She prayed that Josef and Ibrahim had survived her little trick.
Then she flicked on her light and looked around.
There are places on the ocean’s bottom where the Earth is wounded, where tectonic forces have torn away her skin and blood seeps from her body. Water superheated by magma pours from these wounds and mixes with the frigid water of the abyssal plain, precipitating great billowing clouds of iron sulfide that drive the engine of life.
Unfortunately, like any living organism, the Earth eventually heals herself.
She knelt and buried a palm-sized disc in the ooze. A red LED display synched to her onboard started counting down. She had fifteen minutes.
The magma cooled as it rose, leaving behind a complex structure of interconnected chimneys, a bizarre pipe organ crafted of stone. Sulfur deposits tinted the structure dirty orange. Smoke rose haltingly from the chimneys, reminding her of candles guttering out.
A forest of worms surrounded the smoker, their scarlet bodies peeking out from pale white tubes. Hidden among the worms, blood-colored shrimp with glowing eyes mingled with colorless crabs. Tiny siphonophores nicknamed dandelions for their golden color and flowery shape drifted on the mild current.
It was beautiful, unique.
No smoke meant no sulfides, and sulfide-based chemosynthesis was the food chain’s anchor. Without it there could be no worms and dandelions, no crabs and shrimp.
Maryanne turned her back on the vent and walked toward the blind. It crouched in the darkness, a rock-encrusted mechanical crab the size of an RV. She placed a hand on its polysteel hide and felt the hum of electricity. The blind was coated with a piezoelectric paint. The crushing pressure of the deep provided an endless power supply.
She pulled herself up and into the lock, secured the door, flipped a lever made of stainless, and waited as the blind’s computer pumped the water out.
The inner door clicked open.
“Link to the blind’s computer.”
Her onboard flashed “DONE” on the inside of her facemask.
With a blink she downloaded a very special program into the blind’s computer. The software put a timer up on the polyglass of the forward port and slaved it to the disc’s time index. The program flooded the maintenance bay, dumped selected spare parts into the deep, and hid its actions from Ewing. The telemetry the ship received would show the blind in normal standby mode with one critical exception.
She initiated the suit removal procedure. Her onboard drained PFC from her helmet and replaced it with air. Equalizing pressure hissed when she undogged the helmet and pulled it off.
The blind’s interior wasn’t much more than her bunk, a closet-sized bathroom, and the status board. All she needed was a place to eat and sleep between forays into the deep.
“Ewing, this is the blind.”
“I’ve got you, Maryanne. Status?”
“The air’s a little stale.” She glanced at the board. It looked exactly like it had when she last left it: an unbroken sea of calm green lights. “I’ve got a red on ballast two.”
“Specify.” Concern tightened Robert’s voice.
“No prob,” Maryanne said. “Just the strain gauge.” The strain gauge warning light on ballast two was perpetually illuminated by a ground fault. She glanced at the timer.
“I thought you fixed that short.”
“I did, too. We’ll get it when we get her back up.
“Maryanne …” Robert’s voice was faint, as if he’d turned away from the pick-up. He was studying her telemetry. “You have your helmet off.”
“Yes.” The counter showed thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.
“That light indicates a sizeable deformation of the ballast tank, if it collapses-”
“It’s just a short.”
“What if it’s not?”
She snorted. “You try wearing armor twenty hours a day.” Ten seconds left.
“Damn it, Rober-”
The roar of detonation interrupted her. Simultaneously, the Trojan horse she’d loaded into the blind’s computer cut all comms with Ewing.
Maryanne bent over the panel and grasped the joystick. The blind rose on its legs and slowly skittered away from the dying smoker at 9° North.
They crowded together in a space designed for two. Maryanne took the chair in front of the status board. Robert glanced around and finally sat on the bunk. Cardif stood.
Maryanne took her helmet off, but left the armor on. The men pulled off their hoods and masks. She frowned. They weren’t breathing PFC.
Robert’s face was thinner and more angular than she remembered and he wore his hair in a crew cut that was graying on the sides. He looked older.
Cardif was older still. His watery blue eyes were set in a wrinkled face and his hair was stringy and white. His face was drawn.
Robert shivered. “It’s cold.”
“Not much warmer than the ocean,” Maryanne said. But, she thought, how can he be cold if he’s been modified to survive on the abyssal plain in a wet suit?
Cardif wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”
Robert looked at him. “If you eat clams and shrimp from falls you have to expect sulfur.”
“Are you hungry?” Maryanne asked.
She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“Doesn’t sound like a balanced diet,” he managed.
“I have supplements.”
“The supplements will run out,” said Robert. “So will your spare parts. Especially since you dumped most of them at 9° North to make us believe the blind imploded.”
“I’ll manage,” said Maryanne tightly.
“All of which is beside the point,” said Cardif.
“Then what’s the point?”
“That you’ll want to come home.”
She shook her head. “I am home. There’s nothing for me up there. Robert should’ve told you I have no family. I was an only child and my parents died in a plane crash ten years ago.”
“I know about your parents,” said Cardif softly.
“Then you should know nothing matters more to me than my work.”
“Nothing matters more to you than the sea,” corrected Cardif. “You abandoned your work when you risked the lives of your colleagues and stole a multi-million dollar piece of equipment.”
Maryanne said nothing.
“That’s why you’ll want to leave.” Cardif tossed her his hood.
She caught it. It was cool and pliable in her hands.
“Some new kind of Gortex. So what?” Even as she said it, she knew it couldn’t be true. Nothing as insubstantial as Gortex could protect a man from the abyssal plain unless he were no longer a man. And here Robert and Cardif sat, shivering from the cold, gulping air, behaving like men.
Cardif shook his head.
“It’s woven from carbon filament and embedded with nanites,” said Robert. “It expels CO2, admits oxygen, and blocks water. It’s perfect at the molecular level so it’s incredibly strong.”
“Strong enough to withstand tremendous pressure,” Maryanne guessed.
Both men nodded.
“And Maxwell’s Demon keeps the cold out,” said Robert.
She closed her eyes. “Anyone can come to the deep.”
“And anyone will,” muttered Cardif. “There are going to be tourists. Perhaps even theme parks. Disney on the abyssal plain.”
Maryanne scowled at him. “You’re trying to manipulate me to get the blind back.”
Robert shook his head. “Woods Hole wrote it off two years ago. I’m sure there’s an insurance company somewhere that cares, but I don’t. I didn’t spend all those sleepless nights worrying about the blind.”
Cardif jerked his head towards the hood in her hands. “Don’t you get it? Even without the blind you can stay.” He paused. “But you shouldn’t.”
She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. “None of this makes sense. Why would tourists come to the bottom of the ocean?”
“Because.” Robert’s voice creaked with pain. “There will come a time when only the abyssal plain-” He stopped, drew a deep breath, and looked down. When he looked up his eyes were shining.
“Don’t bother,” said Cardif gently. He turned to look at her and his voice hardened. “Dr. Evans already knows the answer to her own question. She’s too good a scientist not to understand what’s causing this explosion of life on the abyssal plain.”
Maryanne found she couldn’t speak.
“You said stage two organisms were scavengers,” said Cardif ruthlessly. “Scavengers need something to scavenge. Something above has to be dying. We mapped this area while we were searching for the blind. Would it surprise you to learn that there are seventy-four whale falls within a twenty mile radius?”
“No,” Maryanne whispered.
“The tourists will come here because there’s nowhere else for them to go. The ecosystems above are dying.”
Maryanne shook her head.
“We’re working to save everything we can,” said Robert. “We could use your help.”
“You won’t save much.” She couldn’t still the tremor in her voice.
“I can’t go back.” Her throat closed around the words, making it hurt to talk.
“It can’t last,” said Robert softly. “The abyssal plain lives off carrion, but when the oceans above are,” he hesitated, “sterilized-“
“I know,” she snapped. She looked down. “I know.”
“You’re just putting off the inevitable,” said Cardif.
She looked up at him. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Cardif said nothing.
“Aaron is an old friend,”said Robert.
“Or more precisely, my wife was an old friend of Robert’s wife.”
“But not anymore,” she said.
“Oh, I imagine they’re still friends.” He glanced at Robert. “Though I don’t know for sure.”
Robert said nothing.
“May I tell you a story, Dr. Evans?” asked Cardif.
“A long time ago, so long that diseases were still uncommon enough to have names, I had a little boy. His name was Samuel. He was four.” Cardif’s voice was clear and mechanical, each word chosen with unflinching precision. “My little Samuel contracted myelodysplasia.”
Maryanne shook her head.
“It’s a rare form of leukemia that is always fatal.”
Maryanne flinched at the word fatal, but Cardif went on without pausing, his voice cold and hard.
“When Samuel first got sick, I fought for him like a lion. I put him in the best hospital, got him the best doctors, the newest experimental treatments.
“Nothing worked.” A hint of anger grew in his voice. “He got weaker and weaker and nothing worked. Nothing. I started finding reasons-” his face twisted, and then all trace of emotion disappeared. “I started finding reasons not to go to the hospital. It hurt too much to watch Samuel die.” He swallowed, looked down. When he went on his voice was hoarse. “I wasn’t there at the end.”
“Your wife left you,” she said softly.
“Of course. I abandoned her son.”
Unable to meet Cardif’s eyes, she looked over at Robert who peered at her intently.
Maybe there came a time to leave the garden and return to the wider world. “All right,” she whispered. She turned and looked at Cardif. “How-” She swallowed. “How did your wife learn to live with the pain?”
“I don’t know,” said Cardif softly. “But I suspect it’s easier if you find the courage to say goodbye.”
She went to the forward port and snapped on the external lights. A finned octopod recoiled from the sudden brightness and released the small hatchet fish caught in its tentacles. A gulper eel threaded its way between a pair of ribs.
She placed her hand against the cold glass.
Tourists. Theme parks. This place was stillness and quiet. Reverence. The falls were sacred-monuments, cathedrals.
She winced. The idea of a Disneyland in the darkness was obscene. She couldn’t live with that.
A pale white crab skittered across the mud.
Life here was opportunistic, feeding off bones in the darkness. Finding a way to survive, even in this vast marine desert.
Maryanne picked up her helmet. Yes, she’d go back, help Robert save what could be saved. Find a way to survive. How could she not?
She, too, was a creature of the whale falls.
Steven Mohan, Jr. lives in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife Jo Anne, their three children, and, surprisingly, no cats. When not writing he works as a manufacturing engineer. His fiction has appeared in Interzone, Polyphony, On Spec, and Paradox, among other places. His stories have won honorable mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
The inspiration for “Whale Falls” was a National Geographic photo of a gray whale skeleton resting on the ocean bottom. These bones, which looked like a fossilized relic from the ancient past, were a banquet to the life of the deep, dark. I realized then that the abyssal plain was an alien world–but one we humans could touch.
Staring at a blank wall. No pictures, no paint, no nothing.
And it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.
Little cracks sneaking down. Wandering veins of grey. Dim light in the corner shining on the sneakers, watching them sneak.
I suspect little bugs hide inside these walls. What are those bugs called? The ones that live forever? The ones that’ll be around long after the human race is dead and gone?
I stare so long at these cracks, they seem to get wider as I watch. Optical illusion. Drug-induced haze. I wobble. I waver. I wonder how long before I see those little black bug-heads peeking out. Squirming. Quivering for release. Spotted with grey drywall. Plaster.
Scurrying. Unlike the sneaking cracks.
Insects do not know stealth.
This thought leads me to another, but I promptly forget what it is, because my eyes water, tear up, spill over. I cry and stare at the widening cracks in this wall.
I’m in my apartment. I’m in someone’s apartment, anyway. Someone who shares the furniture I remember buying, the TV I remember hauling up five flights of stairs, the bag of au gratin chips I stopped off at the store for last night, on my way home from a meeting with a woman, a woman who-
I see a bug poke its head out of one of the cracks.
I see you, you little fucker, I think.
I see you, too, you little fucker, it thinks.
Antennae probe the air, deciding whether it’s a good idea to venture out into the light; dim as it is, it’s probably more than this fellow likes.
Wish I could remember what they’re called.
These bugs, they’re shiny, scuttling, nervous, perpetually on edge.
My earlier thought comes to me again, and I-
It slips away, faster than last time. Not even a synaptic morsel for me to mull over.
Which reminds me of the woman I was with last night, because we went to see a cheap magic show. I knew how he did all his tricks, this magic guy. This non-magic guy. Every time he did a trick, I saw a knife slicing across his throat, saw… something gush out. It pumps through you, this something. Engorges your cock. Washes your sins away. Gets infected, makes you sick, makes you die. Like the woman I was with last night, just like-
What’s it called?
Fuck. Can’t remember.
Anyway, I wanted to kill this no-magic motherfucker. I wanted to shout out all his dumb tricks to the audience. We’d charge the stage, demand our money back, and even when we got it, we’d cut off his head, parade it around town as a warning to other so-called magic-men. We’d show them that you can’t just-
That stuff is called blood. I remember. I actually remember.
The little… whatever it’s called-bug-pokes its head out again, antennae probing. This time I hear a crunching noise behind it. More bugs waiting to get out, no doubt. More magic-men for me to kill. I’ll slit all their fucking throats.
Another crack appears in my blank wall. More crunching, more scuttling, more scurrying. Hurrying.
To be let out. To take over my life, to take over my wife. Or at least the woman I was with last night.
I don’t know. But it’s time to go for a walk.
Nasty streets. And I live on the nastiest one in this city. This city that I moved to so long ago, I’ve forgotten its name. But then, that’s no surprise. I’ve forgotten so many things.
But not my wife. I haven’t forgotten her. We went to the magic show last night. But I’m sure I’ve already said that. Though I’m not sure I said it was my wife I went with. I might have said it was some other woman, some woman I can’t remember. But I’m not to be trusted when I say things like that, because it’s clear I have a wife, and that she loves me very much. We have a house together. We share the household duties. Sometimes we even switch them, just so no one gets bored.
Because it’s far too easy to get bored. If you’re not paying attention, things slip away from you. You keep looking behind you to make sure they’re still there, and you keep going, then you look again, and again, and then you find that you can’t see what it was you were supposed to be looking out for, and something is lost from your life forever, something you’ll never get back.
That’s what I’ve heard happens.
When you get bored.
When you stop paying attention.
These nasty streets are brighter than my apartment, but full of many more shadows. The faces that pass me are blurred, streaked with black paint. But I see smiles through the blackness; I see gleaming shark teeth.
The sidewalk is gritty. The curbs are sharp, squared off. Chalk from little kids playing hopscotch. Baby blue. Neon orange. Stark, biting white. The colours of a child’s world.
But white’s not a colour. I know. I know. But that’s all right, because you know what I mean.
The sun is going down. The soles of my sneakers get sneakier as the light fails. When the sun dips below the horizon and the streetlights come on, I can’t hear my feet at all. It’s as if I’m floating around. After a couple of minutes, I stop walking completely, but continue to move along somehow.
Drifting from shadow to shadow.
I sniff the air, and it’s corny as fuck but I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s true: I smell fear. Up around the corner, pushed back against the brick of an alleyway. It’s crisp and strong in the still evening air.
No children playing hopscotch here, just a junkie, needles stuck into his arms, his neck, his feet, sprawled out on the ground, two teenagers kicking him.
Hello, junkie, pleased to meet you. Hello, bored teenagers. I understand. Really, I do. Kick him for me, would you, please? I can’t seem to move my feet; all I can do is float around. So kick the hell out of that useless bag of shit. Make him sorry to pull in his next breath. Make him see that his way of life is an embarrassment.
Magic-men drip from his veins as the boots are laid to his skull. I hear a splintering sound, like an axe into thick tree bark. The junkie stops moving. The teenagers stop kicking. They back away from the junkie’s body slowly.
The smell of fear is gone.
There’s a woman somewhere in this world who once loved this man.
There’s a woman somewhere in this world who once loved me, too.
I drift away from the scene, back toward home, floating a little closer to the ground.
“Honey, I’m home,” I say when I open the door.
There’s no answer. Just the crunching from my wall.
I close the door behind me, drop my keys on the hall table. Step over the body in the hallway. It’s slumped against the wall, floating four inches off the ground. I know because I measured it once. A long time ago.
Funny that it’s still here, actually. You’d think someone would have come to take it away by now, but maybe some people just float around outside like me, unable to direct their motion, always meaning to come by and pick it up, but never quite able to stop at the right doorway, to turn inside.
Sometimes I wonder who it is, how she got here. Her hair’s hanging in front of her face, and I haven’t the nerve to move it aside. So I just let her hover there.
I putter around the kitchen for about half an hour-I always do at this time of day. It’s a ritual of mine. I can’t go to sleep if I haven’t puttered around, slicing this, dicing that, frying up whatever, tossing salad, grating cheese. Half the time, I don’t even eat what I make; I just leave it to sit on the spotless white Formica island. Untouched. Pristine.
When I wake up in the morning, the meal is gone, and the dishes are washed. The dead woman in the hallway always looks a little bit plumper in the belly those mornings.
But I don’t say anything; I don’t want to embarrass her.
Scuttle. Churn. Scurry. CRACK. And I don’t know how much longer that wall’s gonna hold.
Where shall we float tonight, my dead hallway girl and I? Another magic show? More dead non-magic men, their cut throats yawning, so tired, so full of blood and fake charisma. Spilling all over the audience.
But it’s not only me. Other people must want these fakers dead. I mean, all the magic in this world, and these cowards make livings faking it.
But no, no shows tonight; I’m not in the mood for entertainment this evening.
I feel like going back outside, finding that junkie, bringing him home, putting him in the hallway-just to see how far off the ground he floats in my magic kingdom.
More cracking, and that’s all the wall can take; it splits near the bottom. Bugs spill out, clamber over each other, pour out into the living room.
I walk into my kitchen, put the kettle on.
I call to my wife to ask if she’d like a cup. There’s no answer. I’ve come to expect that, though.
Perhaps the dead woman in the hallway would like a cup. But I’m afraid she’ll speak if I ask her.
Blood and bugs all over the floor. Cracked plaster. Cracked drywall. Even the cracks are cracking now. I always knew something like this would happen.
The kettle boils; I let it whistle. Walk into the hallway. The woman slumped there, hair hanging in front of her face, she just hovers at her customary four inches, apparently unalarmed at the blood and bugs swilling under her, sloshing against my front door.
Chittering, splashing around in the frothy red. Swimming about. A bug’s delight in my apartment tonight. Fun, fun, time to party. Suck it up, you little fuckers. You caused it. You formed the cracks. You planned it all exactly like this. You knew the moment, the second it would crack. A million little bugs with tiny digital wristwatches. Waiting, just waiting behind the wall. Waiting for me to-
And the junkie drops out of my wall, followed by another rush of bugs and blood. Flopping across my living room, turning, turning like someone unrolling a carpet. A carpet full of needles.
The kettle whistles, froths at the spout, spews boiling water all over the stovetop. I look again at the woman in the hallway. A black-red stew bubbles under her, but she remains motionless. Then her arms reach slowly up to her face, fingers splayed out, about to draw the curtains of her hair.
She’s grainy, like a turn-of-the-century silent movie, little pops and flickering dots coarse through her. Forearms purple, bruised. The skin looks ready to fall off, loose, sagging. Fingers touch hair, pull to either side. Blood burbles beneath her.
The junkie’s body is pushed into the mouth of the hall, gets stuck against a wide, soft chair, set low to the ground, just at the edge of the living room. It flops in the torrent. Undecided.
I see white skin as the dark hair-curtains pull aside, but I can’t stay to see her face. I don’t want to know.
Back into the kitchen. A cup of tea for the three of us. That will make everything all right again.
I get three cups out of the cupboard, take the screaming kettle off the burner. Pour, pour, pour.
More bodies fall out of my wall. A fat man is dumped onto the leather couch. A too-thin woman in high heels spins out, twirls in the air for a second, thumps hard to the floor. Side-by-side, two naked men tumble out, and there’s barely anything left of my wall now.
More tea. More cups. Better put more water on.
What is this all about? What will my wife say when she comes home? How will I explain the corpses falling out of our walls?
Another body drops out-a shrivelled old woman wearing a black dress and sun hat. When she falls out of the wall, near the top, her head smacks off a tall lampshade in the corner of the room; her hat comes off, lands on the fat man’s belly. Her brittle bones snap as she crumbles to dust onto the cross-legged Buddha next to the coffee table.
I put the kettle back on the stove, ankle-deep in blood and bugs, reach for more tea bags to put in more cups. Then I hear something soft, whispery. My name. Whatever my name is. I have no idea, but this sound is familiar in the same way that your name is familiar.
I turn toward the doorway that leads into the hallway, the last place I want to go now, what with all the dead junkies and skinny whores and fat businessmen and the floating woman with hair in front of her face, hair that’s no longer there, pulled aside. And it’s magic time as she walks toward me, black holes in her face, burning my skin, boiling my blood. She stares at me, grinning, floating four inches off the kitchen tiles.
Whispering what must be my name, though her lips do not move. Nothing moves except her body as a whole. Stiff, arms at her sides, pristine, pure, untouched by the blood, the bugs, the days and nights of wanting nothing more than someone to share tea with.
The deluge from my wall has nearly stopped; it’s merely a trickle now. Those immortal black bugs scurry everywhere, crawl on everything. Wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling chitinous carpeting.
The floating woman’s arms come up from her sides as she nears; her grin falters, slips from her face. She tilts her head.
Embraces me gently.
My wife, my love.
Silence, and the beating of no one’s heart.
She leans in, whispers in my ear, asks if we can go to the magic show again.
I say, “Yes,” and smile.
Even before we’re out the door, I feel my feet lift up, float higher, higher still, more than four inches, five, six, the highest I’ve ever been. Blood and bugs follow us down the apartment building stairs, close on our heels.
But we glide faster, hover out into the street, holding hands.
Drift up and into the night.
Brett Alexander Savory is the Bram Stoker Award-winning Editor-in-Chief of ChiZine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words, has had nearly 40 stories published in various print and online publications, and has written two novels, IN AND DOWN and THE DISTANCE TRAVELLED. In the works are a third novel, RUNNING BENEATH THE SKIN, and a dark comic book series with artist Homeros Gilani. In early 2006, Necro Publications will release a signed limited edition hardcover of THE DISTANCE TRAVELLED. When he’s not writing, reading, or editing, he plays drums for the southern-tinged hard rock band The Diablo Red.
David Niall Wilson, editor of the now-defunct anthology COCK-ROACH-SUCKERS, asked me to write a story for that book, in which both vampires and cockroaches were to figure but never be explicitly mentioned. “Wall” is what resulted, although I didn’t really involve vampires, per se, but instead went the only slightly more subtle buckets-of-blood route. The story turned out far stranger than I’d expected. Which is to say, a good deal stranger than my usual strangeness.