Regular attendees of these lectures may recall our conversation a couple of months ago regarding the horror collection Gathering The Bones, in which I enthused over the understated and careful manipulation of the readers reactions, the care taken over the writing, and the skill and craft of the writers involved.
Welcome to the other end of the spectrum.
Exit The Light is a collection of stories self-published by Walt Hicks and a fellow who would like you to call him ‘Horns’, (or to give him the name his Mum did, Terry Erwin). The guys are to be commended for the way they’ve gone about their business: this is a tome of almost 500 pages in an age where horror doesn’t sell well, and self published books average something like 88 sales, and its production values are quite high.
The reader is left in no doubt as to what they’re getting into here: the book has two sections, titled ‘Invocation of Terror’ and ‘Ceremony of Terror’, and starts with a Benediction (Not Introduction, Benediction) which quotes HP Lovecraft and invites us to “walk a mile in their hooves and be chilled, changed, and delighted”. Hey, one of these guys calls himself HORNS, fer chrissakes! Subtlety is not likely to be the point here.
Sure enough, it isn’t. Whilst Gathering The Bones was an exhibition of craft, highlighting writers who attempt to challenge the boundaries of the horror reflex, Exit The Light shows two writers concentrating on art with all the glee of small boys jumping in puddles. The stories display all the delicate cunning of a sledgehammer manicure.
The collection begins with “Showdown At the One Way Café” in which Dr Stiletto arrives at a greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere entirely populated with serial killers (A Clown, a guy in camouflage gear, etc etc, which I’m guessing are meant to be John Wayne Gacy, Denis Neilsen and friends, although it’s never made exactly clear) and proceeds to brutally murder them for no apparent reason other than it seems to be the sort of thing he does. The payoff? The good Doctor Stiletto was once known as Doctor Josef Mengele. Why? Damned if I know, other than the writer thought it would be cool to have Mengele knifing bad guys to death. By the time we plough through 32 more stories to reach “Last Exit”, the last tale in the volume, in which a trucker and his dog help a young girl escape from a roadside café full of undead, the reader is so woozy, so battered around the head by a ceaseless barrage of adjectives and nonsensical images of bloodiness, that the only respite is a lie down and a cold handkerchief across the forehead.
Don’t get me wrong, visceral horror has its place, and the truly good exponents of it can raise a gorge like it’s supposed to be raised. Go read Barker’s The Books Of Blood, or Straub’s Koko and you’ll see what I mean. But those writers did not sacrifice their craft simply in order to present a series of ugly images. Horror, especially horror that relies on the readers’ repugnance to certain tropes and images, can only be effective when there is a reason for the reader to subject themselves to that kind of brutality. Generally the reason lies in the characters, or in the facility of the writer to draw us into a believable world before turning that world against us. Erwin and Hicks don’t do this. In film terms we are not watching a Lewton movie here, or Whale, or Browning, or even the kind of gore that Argento or Bava created, with the kind of thematic and spiritual underpinning that made the gross blood-letting seem a natural extension of the philosophical core of the movie. What we get are the lowest moments of a Halloween movie, when it’s obvious to all but the most dedicated hockey mask-wearing teenage popcorn-muncher that the script has run its course and the director has run out of ideas to fill the extra hour of running time left.
Exit The Light is a grossly overwritten book in dire need of a damn good editor. The stories within are amateurish, and while the authors have an extensive range of credits in the non- and semi-professional horror markets this collection is difficult to recommend to the Ideomancer audience.
Benjamin Johnson had a thing for spoons. Not just any old spoon, like the kind you keep in your house by the dozen, but the collectable kind, with fancy lettering and interesting shapes. He especially liked the kind with holes in the bowl that couldn’t be used as a spoon should. His Romanian girlfriend Lenuta suspected that he had a fascination for objects that were of utilitarian design but had been appropriated for artistic purposes. She suspected this was why he loved her, with her peasant shape, as opposed to thin, aristocratic American women.
Benjamin worked in the coffee shop beside the railway bridge while she worked as a seamstress two blocks over. They lived in an upstairs apartment across from the coffee shop. Many nights, Benjamin would work late. Lenuta sat on the window sill, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to East European albums on a phonograph she inherited from her aunt. When business was slow, he went to the window and watched her. She would lean out into the light of the street lamps. Passersby would glance up at her and frown, for the music as much as her smoking. In those moments, she wanted him to run out into the street and yell at them, to tell them not to disapprove of his girlfriend. She wondered how she would react if he ever did.
They had been together for two years, and over that period of time, their lives had fallen into an unbreakable rhythm. He would come home from work, smelling of exotic beans and whipped cream, and they would make love. She left the phonograph playing when they did. “Do you do that because you don’t want the neighbors to hear us?” He asked her once. “No,” she said, and smiled mysteriously.
In the mornings, they made breakfast together, surrounded by display shelves of spoons. At last count, Benjamin had accumulated 563 individual spoons and sixty complete collections. Lenuta knew that he didn’t like the complete collections as much as the truly unique and bizarre individual spoons. He lost interest in the sets when he completed them.
On Saturday they drove around the state in their bondo-colored station wagon. They bought newspapers in every town and village, and sought out every antique store, every garage sale, and every auction. Benjamin hunched over the newspaper. It stretched across the massive steering wheel, and he read in quick bursts between glances at the road. Lenuta painted her toenails and practiced her Romanian. “I don’t want to forget my words,” she explained to anyone who cared to ask
On Sundays, Benjamin polished his newfound collections and touched up anything that showed signs of tarnish. She listened to the radio, read fashion magazines, and made clippings of clothing she thought she might like to try to copy some day.
When Lenuta and Benjamin had first met, and after he had revealed his collection, Lenuta had asked if he wanted to be spanked with a spoon. “My interest isn’t sexual,” he stated firmly. Lenuta laughed and shook her head. She couldn’t imagine having that level of devotion for anything that couldn’t devote itself back to her. Their relationship nearly hadn’t happened, but Benjamin had pursued her like he did his spoons, demanding dates. He always brought flowers. She refused him every time until he asked her in proper Romanian. He had to be dedicated, she reasoned, to teach himself a language, even a small part.
One Friday evening, after he returned from a long shift making cappuccinos for the tourists in town to celebrate the Fall Festival, Lenuta decided she had had enough of scouring the countryside for utensils. “Just this once, let’s stay in and play cards. We’ll make spicy drinks and finger-paint in the nude.”
Benjamin turned pale at the suggestion and refused to speak to her. He locked himself in the bathroom and moaned unintelligibly for several hours. Lenuta waited for him at first, but finally fell asleep. When she woke up, Benjamin was gone. She didn’t think much about his absence, just then.
After a cold shower, she hurried down to the street and unchained her bicycle. She hadn’t ridden it much since she had met Benjamin, and it seemed like a day to ride. She took off at a run, hopped on, and down the street she sailed, leaves in the gutter crunching under her tires. When she was a little girl living in Sibiu, her greatest delight had been riding a bicycle through large, cold puddles of rain water, or through dry piles of leaves. Now, she rode in search of puddles.
On the other side of the rails, she found an empty field of gravel, spotted with murky pools left by a storm from three nights before. The wind whipped through her hair as she peddled furiously. She hit the puddles one after another sending up huge waves of muddy water. By the time she had emptied them, her hair and clothing were soaked with rainwater. She stopped to wring out the mud and noticed a man standing in the weeds next to the tracks.
He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and a loose gray suit. Either he had shrunk in size or the suit had grown since he had purchased it. It hung loosely, and could use a good alteration by skilled hands, she mused. The sleeves obscured his hands, and what skin showed was pale, leathery almost, and pulled tightly against the bones of his face. His eyes, she could not see under the brim of the hat. He held his arms loose at his sides, and she stared at the sleeves, wondering if they hid a weapon. When he noticed her watching, he slipped off into the weeds. A train blew its horn and passed, bringing a fierce breeze. Lenuta walked her bike closer to the tracks and closed her eyes. The train shook the earth beneath her. She felt as if the old man was watching her. She didn’t let it bother her. It was not often that someone paid her square shape any attention.
Benjamin sat at the kitchen table and stared at three new spoons. One was red, the second yellow, and the third blue. “Romania,” was all he said. Lenuta took another shower, and when she was finished, he had already mounted the spoons in his Countries of the World collection. His color had returned, and he spoke with her finally.
“I understand that my spoon hunts are boring. From now on, you can stay home and I’ll go out on my own,” he said. She felt hurt, but didn’t know why. She didn’t argue.
On Sunday, he ignored the bulk of his collection and spent hours carefully polishing his new additions. He smiled when he held them up in the sunlight to check his work. Lenuta made her clippings, and tried not to think about the spoons. That had been her whole point; to not have to think about them, just once.
Benjamin didn’t come home from work the following Wednesday. When she walked down the block after her shift, their station wagon was gone. She waited for several hours and fell asleep with her records playing and the window wide open. Benjamin came in after midnight and shuffled around the apartment, tidying things, and closing the window.
“Where were you?” she asked sleepily.
“Estate sale,” he said, and slipped under the covers beside her, then rolled away and went to sleep.
He didn’t come home Thursday night until after midnight.
“Auction,” he said, and turned off the light.
The next Saturday, Lenuta ran noisily down the stairs to her bike. She was surprised to see the old man with the gray suit standing outside the coffee shop. He held a ceramic mug of steaming liquid under his nose and inhaled deeply, sleeves pushed up towards the elbows and dangling like loose skin. The difference in size between him and his clothing had grown even more, she thought, and wondered if he would even be visible through the polyester the next time she encountered him. She rode around the block four times, dodging the occasional car, eying him suspiciously. Even after four passes, she never saw him take a drink from his mug, but he paid her no attention. She shrugged and rode away.
Lenuta pedaled back to the gravel field in search of puddles. The sky was gravel-colored, and she imagined being trapped in a gray bubble. Unfortunately, the puddles had dried up. She rode towards the park, but city sweepers had taken care of most of the leaves. The trees had shed their pelts and had become sharp, multi-pronged pitchforks jabbing at the clouds overhead. Lenuta hoped that a cloud would brush against the trees and tear open, spilling down enough rain to fill the shallow spots. After several hours, she became too cold to wait any longer and pedaled back.
The door on the street stood open. She hurried up the stairs, but Benjamin was not home, and the door to the apartment was open also. She felt certain she had closed it. In the two years she had lived with Benjamin, she had never forgotten to close it.
She searched the house. No major appliances had gone missing. They didn’t own a TV, and her jewelry was worthless — a child’s baubles. The only things missing were Benjamin’s newest spoons.
Lenuta stood in the doorway to block his entrance, determined that she somehow ward off the coming catastrophe. “Someone stole my spoons,” he said in an even tone.
She nodded and stepped aside. “Just three.”
He put down a brown paper bag of groceries, and then took from his coat pocket a tarnished soup ladle with impractical curlicues sprouting like flower buds from the handle. He stared at it for a moment, and then hung it from an empty hook above the microwave. “You left the doors unlocked?”
“We always leave the doors unlocked,” she said. Crime was rare in their community. And Benjamin had never made her a key.
He walked to the window, and faltered halfway there. He had become ghostly again, and his hands were shaking. Lenuta reached out to touch him. His skin felt cold and damp, like a puddle of autumn rainwater.
“I’ll find them,” she said.
Benjamin didn’t go to work the next day, or the day after. He sat in his green-upholstered chair and stared unblinking at the space where his spoons had been. He refused to eat, and Lenuta never saw him use the bathroom. He grew paler every day, until she began to catch glimpses of things behind him. On the second day, one of his coworkers shouted up at their window, asking about him. Lenuta told him that Benjamin had the flu. That night, in the dark, she could no longer see him. The only way she could tell where he sat was by his ragged breathing.
The man in the suit had to have taken the spoons. It couldn’t be a coincidence that she had seen him the day they vanished. She asked people in the shop if they knew him.
“That’s Pierre,” Charles said. He was the owner of the shop, and Benjamin’s boss. “He’s a bit eccentric. He’s from France.” Charles winked, as if he explained all there was to know about the man.
“Do you know where I can find him?” she asked.
Charles explained that Pierre lived on a pension check mostly and worked as a security guard for the railroad property on the west of the tracks. He lived in a utility shed next to the old smokestack. The railroad had never torn it down, even though the glove factory was long gone.
Lenuta walked across the foot bridge and down the dusty, empty road towards the monolithic smokestack. She did not feel like riding her bicycle anymore. The railroad had painted its name on the concrete in big yellow letters, top to bottom. A fence lined with barbed wire encircled the area — she had read in the paper that a local teen had fallen to his death from the top of the tower. Ever since, it had been the subject of numerous dares and challenges among the community’s youth, and that didn’t surprise Lenuta. She herself had once climbed to the top of an abandoned Soviet construction project because a neighborhood boy believed she would not. If not for the stack, the area wouldn’t have needed a security guard. She guessed that Pierre did more to scare people away with his appearance than for any other reason, but she also wondered if he had been on the job when the teen had climbed to the top, or if he had gotten it because of the incident.
After shuffling along the fence for a dozen yards, she discovered a man-sized hole. Rotting railroad ties littered the ground, and the remains of tracks peeped from the soil, as if the earth had decided to reclaim the metal.
Refuse and leaves drifted on the cold wind. White smoke puffed from a chimney in the rear, and stacks of wood were piled under a blue tarp on the north side. A snowflake landed on the tip of her nose and melted into a drop of water. She wiped it away with the sleeve of her sweater, and knocked on the door.
She heard rustling within, and a dark shadow appeared behind the opaque green fiberglass door. It swung open just a crack, and a bright blue eye stared out. He spoke with a raspy voice, with hints of whispers and birdsong around the edges.
“You’ve come,” he said. The door opened wide. He wore the same gray suit from before, but he did not have his cowboy hat. His head was completely bald and covered in red and blue splotches.
Behind him, Lenuta could see all manner of objects decorating the shack. Teak cuckoo clocks, cheap hippy tapestries, picture frames with faded black and white photos, the antlers of a seven point buck, and indecipherable knickknacks hung from the wall. Furniture of wood, cloth, and wicker had been squeezed into the little shack, leaving only six inch wide paths between them. She imagined him squeezing between them on his thin bird-legs, touching the objects with an obscene fondness.
“Give me the spoons,” she demanded. She felt like crying.
“Come, sit down.”
She obeyed and collapsed on blue sofa with white trim. He perched on top of a leather footstool, bony knees in his chest.
“Are you sure?” He asked.
“They don’t belong to you,” she spat back. “Benjamin needs them. He fades away without them.”
He frowned. “He must have them?” He withdrew the spoons from his jacket pocket and held them out to her. “Take then….” He trailed off.
“Why did you steal them?”
“I steal that which is, how do you say…surrogate?” he said with a sad smile.
“He loves me,” she said, her voice firm and unwavering.
Pierre shrugged, and looked around. Instead of pleasure, she saw sadness in his eyes. “He did. No, he does, without,” the old man whispered. A clock chimed from somewhere in the depths of junk.
“Take the spoons,” he urged her. When he opened his mouth, she saw he had only four teeth. The rest of his mouth was purple tongue and pink gums. “I didn’t know about…the other thing.” He winced.
“If I don’t?”
He muttered something in French that she didn’t understand and closed his eyes. She leaned forward to hear his muttering better, and he snapped out with his right hand and grabbed her wrist. With his left, he forced them into her hand. She examined his eyes, wanting to see a madness that wasn’t there.
“The spoons, or you. I tried to stop, but this time, no good.” He sighed. “My help is never asked for, and always needed.” He waved his hands at the contents of the shop. “Always something to fill the void, but I take.”
She tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go. She wanted to drop the spoons, but the cold metal stuck to her skin, bit into it as if they had teeth. Pierre laughed at her, and then her anger took over. She hadn’t hit anyone since she was a small child. His eyes grew wide before she hit him on the temple. He fell over and groaned. “Vous fille folle!”
She ran through the snow with a fistful of spoons pulled against her chest. She paid no attention to the cold metal burning through her sweater, into her skin.
She got as far as the gravel lot before she allowed herself to cry.
“I couldn’t find them,” she told the space where Benjamin sat while shaking the snow from her coat. She could just barely see him now, even in daylight. He looked at her with no expression. She turned away, to where the spoons had hung before and imagined them, buried under stone shards and snow. She imagined them digging their way out like tiny shovels.
“Do you still love me?” she asked.
“Will you always?”
“Yes,” he said in a dead voice.
Sally MacLean laid a hand gently on Yen Ming Chen’s forehead. She almost recoiled at the heat of his young body.
The white room stayed immaculate by virtue of surfaces that repelled dust and dirt, and by a system of small ‘bots that scurried the floors, picking up whatever fell and disinfecting as they went. But no device could keep the human body sanitized: Yen Ming’s fever testified to that much.
As she waited for the boy’s vital signs to register, Sally looked through the large, armored glassine window, at a fine, chilly morning shot with brilliant color from the microscopic debris that still floated in the planet’s atmosphere. The war technology that had rendered the Gotchas’ ancient home so profoundly inhospitable had also made it beautiful.
Sally scanned the readout, which confirmed the obvious symptom of fever. They’d taught Sally about febrile illness, of course. In theory, she knew how to treat it. But this was the first case of the pre-Biological Convention illness that she’d ever seen.
“Geez, Doc, I just don’t know,” said Yen Ming’s father as Sally helped the seven-year-old boy out of the scanner chair. “He’s been so subdued. It’s not like him to pass on visiting the digs with his mother and his sister.”
Sally nodded: troubling that the boy had passed up a chance to visit his mother’s workplace — the digs where human archeologists and technicians unearthed artifacts of the long-dead Gotcha race.
Yen Ming smiled sweetly at her, his eyes slightly glazed.
She said to the boy, “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, Yen Ming. How is your menagerie doing? Is Mr. Iguana still getting out of his cage?”
Again, Yen Ming smiled faintly. But he only shook his head.
“Please,” said the father, trying to laugh but looking at his son with worry in his eyes. “Between the duck, the iguana, the mice — I hadn’t realized how much work the kid did feeding and taking care of his pets until we had to stand in for him.”
He paused a moment.
“Do you think this could be…serious?” he asked.
“This is almost certainly just a minor illness that will pass as his immune system and his symbiotes adjust to it,” she said. “In the meantime, I’d like to keep him overnight for observation — just to be on the safe side.”
Chen nodded as he stood. The worry on his face hadn’t cleared. Sally knew what was coming next.
“Doctor?” he asked. “Do you — do you think this could be something my wife brought home from the digs?”
Sally thought carefully before framing an answer. “It’s extremely unlikely, Mr. Chen. Let’s just do a few more tests, and work from there.”
Sally and a tech set Yen Ming up in an isolation unit in the infirmary. She ran down the visiting hours with Chen, excused herself, and returned to the lab to process Yen Ming’s samples.
With the analyzer running, she grabbed a monomolecular pliers and peeled away the film that — hopefully — protected her from whatever Yen Ming had. Then she sat for a while at her desk, just thinking.
Chen’s worry that his wife might have brought home a nasty bit of alien handiwork wasn’t entirely unfounded. To call the aliens of G0-TC-239-alpha4 — nicknamed “Gotchas” by the humans who combed through their remains — paranoid would have been an understatement. Humanity had discovered mostly dead races in its explorations, and almost all of these had gone extinct without developing interstellar travel. But the Gotchas had learned how to tunnel between the stars. They also wiped out every race they met — including themselves. Fortunately, they’d committed universal suicide about 3,000 years before humans explored their neighborhood.
Worse, their bellicose ways had become personal for the humans assigned to analyze the ruins of their home planet. The first expedition suffered a staggering casualty rate encountering the ubiquitous weapons, traps, and automatic killing machines that peppered the alien habitations.
For a people who spent less than two centuries in their interstellar period before self-induced extinction, they built to last.
By the time Lieutenant Sally MacLean, Medical Corps, had shipped to Gotcha to serve as the colony’s physician, the UN had partially militarized the project. Spacearm combat engineers and their ‘bots now preceded and accompanied the archeologists, and the work was less dangerous.
At no point, though, had the humans ever detected evidence of biological warfare on Gotcha. Score one for them over us, Sally figured, although no one knew for sure whether the Gotchas had developed such technologies or not. People also didn’t know whether any biowar agents the Gotchas may have used would be capable of harming humans, especially after 3,000 years.
“So let’s go through this again,” Jitendra Malek said to Sally as he waved to bring the lights up in his quarters and shuffled over to his little dry bar. “We’re talking flat-out negative? Even with the sputum samples?”
“Spit, urine, blood: nothing,” Sally answered, plopping down onto a locally manufactured framework-and-film chair, then reaching up to accept the single-malt he’d known, without asking, to pour for her.
Ji knew how to treat a girl.
Sally adored Lieutenant Jitendra Malik. Balding, developing a spare tire, and a bore at parties, Ji was objectively no great catch. But he was sweet and attentive and treated her well. He made her happy, and after a turbulent young adulthood Sally had realized that happiness was what she wanted.
Ji didn’t reply, so she elaborated: “Negative for all known human pathogens. Of course, any Terrestrial mutant that can make its way past the engineered symbiotes and the enhanced immune system would be profoundly mutated compared with its progenitor — nobody knows what it would take to detect that kind of bug. I’m trying not to panic here.”
She watched Ji take a deep breath, then let it out, pursing his lips. “I suppose — just as a hypothesis — we might check out electrolytic and fluid properties,” he said. “I’m talking like specific gravity, conductivity, optical properties: whatever you don’t usually test for. If there were anything…alien there, we might expect it to affect the basic physics of the bodily fluids.”
“But we don’t really know what to look for, do we?”
“No, I guess we don’t,” he said. “What little we know about Gotcha physiology indicates that any natural pathogen they produced wouldn’t be able to infect humans, correct?”
“I hate to rule anything out. But yes, the biochemistry would be so different that the pathogen couldn’t reproduce. It would be like you or I trying to eat the organofilm on this chair.”
He nodded, and they were back to their central, unspoken problem again. As colony science officer, he had at his disposal the United Nations’ full technical library, via the same FTL linkage that Sally could use to access the medical library. Sally also had learned to respect his quick — if peripatetic — intellect.
But he was a chemical engineer by trade, not a bioscientist. They’d picked him for his expertise in photochemical triggering agents — a Gotcha specialty — not in the discredited, largely dormant science of biological warfare.
She spoke carefully, not wanting to hurt his feelings: “At what point would we want to bring in some help, Ji?”
He shrugged. “Damned if I know. But I know not yet. ‘Mass is expensive, information cheap.’ I need a damned good reason to tunnel live specialists four-hundred-odd light years. You might have better luck through Medical Corps.”
Sally choked a laugh. “I can try. Well, let’s make our requests any way. The old man will be putting this into his own report, but we should probably make separate reports up the parallel chains of command. I don’t want to hit the panic button yet, but there’s nothing wrong with letting people know we’re concerned.”
She put the half-emptied glass down, and leaned toward him. “Now, I believe we have other business on the agenda….”
Yen Ming’s condition worsened on his second day in Sally’s infirmary. The AI monitoring his vital signs shrieked a warning as his respiration became labored, too fast, too shallow to keep his blood oxygenated. The boy’s fingertips, nose, lips, and ears were blue when Sally reached him.
Sally and her team fell into the drill of emergency resuscitation silently and efficiently. They’d never had to do it for real before, but they trained frequently. Each member had a rehearsed role that he could perform half-asleep. Which was exactly what they were doing.
As Sally ran the artificial lung assembly through its preinsertion diagnostic, the techs threaded a self-forming airway down his throat, the long tube wiggling and lengthening gently to conform with his upper lung passages. The automatic ventilation system inflated his little lungs with oxygen, an automatic feedback adjusting the volume and rate of ventilation as it did so.
With the oxygenator ready, Sally glanced up at the blood oxygen level readout.
“Shoot,” she said — the first word anyone had uttered.
The boy’s oxygen levels still read frighteningly low — too much mucus was blocking Yen Ming’s lung passages, he was so deep in respiratory shock that they couldn’t pump enough of the gas into his lungs to keep him alive.
Sally glanced down at Yen Ming’s legs, the heads-up display of her visor superimposing a magnetic resonance scan display that charted out his major blood vessels. She chose a vein, held the oxygenator’s business end to the skin over the vessel, and felt the device wiggle as it threaded its way up the vein toward his vena cava.
As the device unfolded, parasol-like, to deliver oxygen directly to Yen Ming’s bloodstream, Sally glanced up at the readout again. Only now did she realize she’d been holding her breath.
Ninety nine percent oxygenation. For a moment, she relaxed. But then she saw the metabolic readout: not great. For some reason, the boy’s physiology was still depressed, as if he were oxygen starved, even though he clearly wasn’t.
But it was enough to keep Yen Ming alive. For now.
“Christ, Doc, what the hell is wrong with this poor kid?” asked Tomas, her senior tech. “That oxygenator should be able to support me, and I’ve got at least forty five kilos on him.”
“I know,” she said. “Obviously, something is interfering with oxygen utilization at the level of the erythrocytes. Whatever this thing is, it’s attacking the blood as well as the lungs.”
Sally hardly recognized the child, for all the apparatus now sprouting from his face. She caressed his forehead through the membrane that — again, she could only hope — protected her and her team from his illness, and collected her thoughts. First, a call to the old man to fill him in; then Ji, to warn him that they had a whole new mechanism of toxicity; and then an FTL to Med Corps Central….
“Uh, Doc? I think you’d better take this,” another tech called from a vid screen across the infirmary.
Sally put the feed into her visor; it was Yvonne, one of the techs on roving duty tonight.
“Medical Command, we are en route with a three-zero-year-old female suffering from respiratory arrest, uniformly blocked lung fields, minimal oxygenation upon ventilation. Core temp four-one, uploading other vitals…”
Sally looked at the patient’s address. She lived next door to the Chens.
So the damned thing was infectious, too.
Sally had met Yen Ming Chen on her first day at the Gotcha colony. The quartermaster had assigned her a billet and she’d taken about 30 minutes of her allotted day to unpack. With no assigned duties until the next morning, she’d reported for work any way — but Captain Vellacott, the colony commander, kicked her out of his office with orders that she take a day off.
Exploring ruins that had been cleared of hazards was a major entertainment for Gotcha’s colonists, she discovered. Ten minutes after visiting what passed for a planetary tourism office, she was on an all-trac as it whined its way through the deserted streets. Sally had seen vids of alien ruins before, but this was her first real-time visit to an extrasolar planet.
She didn’t quite buy the idea of architecture mirroring a species’ psychology, but she had to admit that the Gotchas’ dwellings reflected their brooding, hostile nature. Their buildings were squat, solid, and looked like they could withstand a nuclear blast — which, in fact, many of them had. The dark stratum of dust that lay over everything, the blood-red skies, and the terrible howl of the wind only enhanced the impression.
The Chens had been on this trip as well; Yen Ming, exploring as always, crossed the length of the all-trac’s passenger compartment to introduce himself solemnly.
“You’re our new doctor, aren’t you?” he said, holding out a small hand.
She shook it, wondering how he knew. Then she realized he must have known how to read the insignia on her pale green Medical Corps uniform shirt. An observant boy.
“Yes, I am,” she replied. “Or I will be, beginning tomorrow morning. I’m Sally.”
“I’m Yen Ming,” he said, smiling, and sat next to her. He leaned in close, and said, “It’s OK if you’re a little scared. I was when we came here too. But I know how everything works; I can help.”
Sally had made her first friend on Gotcha.
Two patients led to four, and then to seven. Soon new cases were hitting one or two per day, the epidemic spreading from the Chens’ apartment outward. About one out of three people exposed to a case developed it themselves, although many of those affected didn’t develop respiratory crash.
Still, Sally didn’t have big enough numbers or a long enough observation period to nail down either the infectivity, incubation period, or typical prognosis. For all she knew, the disease could be 100 percent infectious. Her only consolation was that it hadn’t killed anyone yet.
But the epidemic was young.
Captain Vellacott was supportive enough. “Get on top of this,” he’d said. “I’ll get you what you need.”
Sally made use of Vellacott’s blank check: she set up lines of quarantine immediately. But the disease hopped right over them. She was keeping people alive, but she wasn’t keeping it contained. Finally, she resorted to an overall planetary quarantine in addition to sector-by-sector measures within the colony; nobody was leaving Gotcha until she had this figured out.
She was starting to wonder what she’d missed.
“OK, we’ve just about tapped out the hypothesis that this is purely a respiratory-acting agent,” Ji said, swirling ice cubes in a glass of plain orange juice. “The lung tissues aren’t the only target, we know that. We also know it’s unlikely that we’ve got anything like a natural virus, with molecular receptors that home in on specific target molecules in the host — otherwise, how could it be affecting us? We’ve got a different biochemistry, and the Gotchas never knew we existed.”
“Thank God,” Sally said, nursing her single malt. There wasn’t much of this stuff on the whole planet, and she was not going to rush through it, no matter how much the temptation to belt it down. “What really gets me is the idea that they designed something that could cross interstellar species lines in the first place.”
Ji raised an eyebrow, and she explained: “We know they hated everybody, wiped out several intelligent races. But if you want to kill off all the Mushroom People at N457-B, you design something to specifically target them — not a bug that can skip around and get just about anybody, yourself included. Heck, specificity is one of the few selling points of biowar agents.”
“You’ve cleaned up the consequences of their little traps,” he said. “You know as well as anyone how vicious they were. But what I was saying is that maybe we have to break our preconceptions here. Maybe it’s something vastly different from pathogens as we know them.”
“You sound like you have something specific in mind.”
“Yeah,” Ji said. “I’ve been thinking: What’s the one thing that all life forms we’ve discovered have in common? Everybody has to metabolize highly reduced molecules and transfer that energy to an intermediary energy carrier. For us, it’s ATP. For the ironworms at Tau Ceti, polyvanadates. In every case, you’ve got a highly conjugated chain of inorganic atoms saturated with double-bonded oxygen. Very similar chemistry at that one metabolic chokepoint….”
Sally understood. “That could make sense. If you affect polyphosphate chemistry, you’d get a generalized failure to metabolize, you’d get fluid transport dysfunction leading to thick mucus, even overactivity of the brown fat cells to up the body temperature — all the symptoms we’ve been seeing!”
“So what we need, maybe, is to look for something that can reduce polyphosphates? You think that would be a good avenue?”
“Hell, it’s the best we have so far,” she said. Then a thought hit her. “Only…”
“Well, I wonder if we should be letting the folks back on Earth in on this quite yet. Maybe we could look into it ourselves.”
“I don’t understand, Sally. You’re killing yourself in the clinic — you’ve got eleven people on life support, and about thirty more on close-watch isolation in their homes last I counted. You haven’t slept more than a few hours in the past week. Don’t you want to take advantage of all the support we can get?”
“I do, but let’s think this through. If we let the folks back home in on this, even if we’re wrong we may be giving them ideas …”
“Ideas?” Ji asked, looking at her uncomprehending.
“Ji,” she continued, thinking in for a penny in for a pound, “I don’t want to see this become a bioweapons project.”
“Sally, this colony’s primary objective is to analyze and develop alien technology. And on Gotcha, that means weapons. That’s why we’re here, aren’t we? Our duty?”
That stopped Sally in her tracks.
Now that she thought of it, she had never spoken with Jitendra about why she’d signed up for Gotcha. Why the prospect of taking care of families and children, and escape from the military life that had been such a colossal mistake for her, had drawn her voluntarily to the worst assignment in the Medical Corps.
It had never occurred to her that Ji was so loyal to Spacearm that he’d help it improve its biowar technology. Since the mutual disaster that ended the West/Islam Wars, the weapons had been clearly proscribed by law, by ethical consensus, even by the post-Biological-Convention Physician’s Oath. But people whispered that Spacearm kept an embryonic research effort going anyway, to keep biowar defense technology alive against a future change in attitudes….
It all depended on who you owed your allegiance to: humanity, or Spacearm. In a brief few words, Jitendra had become as alien to her as the Gotchas.
Ji shook his head finally, saying, “Listen, I can’t keep this under hat. Not indefinitely. I suppose I can justify a few preliminary experiments before I report. Maybe I can give you a day or two, but what good would it do?”
Grasping for what she could get, Sally said, “I’ll take it anyway. Just give me a little time. Maybe I’ll come up with something from the clinical data.”
“My duty has to come first, do you understand?”
“I understand,” she said, feeling like she was falling.
Metabolic death comes as an anticlimax. After weeks of heroic efforts to save a patient, he simply slips away, his system too worn out to carry on. No last minute rally. No great drama as death claims its inevitable prize.
Sally had seen this happen numerous times with the very old. This was the first time she’d seen it happen to a child.
With Yen Ming’s entire family on life support, she realized, she had no idea of what to do with his body. There were no relatives to release it to, and nowhere to store it — in any case, it would eventually have to be disposed of as biohazardous waste.
But for a little while, at least, she would let him rest. She laid a gentle hand on his face….
She was on the verge of a thought when the com screen blipped. She waved it on; Tomas was at the other end of the link.
“Patient incoming, Doc. Same deal. Only this time, sector epsilon.”
“Sector what?” she demanded. It didn’t make any sense. Epsilon was clear over on the other side of the colony. She was sure she’d contained the contagion better than that.
As the datastream came in, she pulled the patient’s name out and fed it into the tracking program that the folks back on Earth had compiled for her. It fed into the colony’s security program, combing back through the records to determine whether and how an individual had been exposed to the now 87 known patients of the epidemic.
“Received, Tomas. Are you on top of this?”
“Standard treatment, reasonably stable at present.”
“Good. If you need me, shout. Otherwise, I need to make a call.”
She rang Ji. Bleary-eyed, he popped into life before her, twisting a bathrobe.
Sally fought down a surge of anger. A wall stood between them now, a wall that made calling him up in his bathrobe awkward. A wall that distracted her when neither of them could afford distractions.
“Ji, we have a big problem,” she said, diving in. “We have a patient whose separation factor from the Chens is very high. I’m reading nine point eight relative.”
“The routine transport that left for Earth just before Yen Ming got sick had six people on it with lower numbers. And Ji, there’s worse news. Yen Ming Chen just died — so we know it can be fatal.”
Ji stood there, clutching his robe, his mouth wide.
“Oh Christ. How long ago did the transport leave? Two weeks?” He was punching at a data input link.
“Oh Christ,” he said again. “Their interstellar ferry tunneled two days ago. They’re in the Solar System now.”
Sally took a deep breath.
“All right,” she said, “Let’s not panic. I’ll get on the FTL to Med Corps Central — we’ll get that ship intercepted, so it can be quarantined. It’s a couple of weeks from Triton Base to Mars — so we still have something like twelve days before they make their first stop on a fully inhabited world. It may be that only the Triton Base has been exposed.”
“Unless another ship left in the meantime.”
“So get on it,” he told her. “I’ll let the old man know.”
She cut the link, and raised her bosses on Earth. Via a coherent microwave beam threaded through a fragile interstellar tunnel, she gave a duty officer the bad news. He looked at her as if he were gauging her for a messenger-sized noose. But he sounded the alarm.
By the time she’d worked through the call, Tomas was at the door with the new patient. Nearly an hour passed before she had a moment to herself.
In an unexpected lull, she found herself alone, and absent-mindedly wandered over to Yen Ming’s body, to stroke his face again.
You keep at this they’ll be psyching you for necrophilia, she thought in one of those moments of black, hysterical humor that hit you when someone was dead because of your mistake. She doubled over with shudders of suppressed laughter, lowering herself to the floor as they transformed to bitter tears.
Yen Ming had been more than a patient; he’d been her first friend here. She was going to miss his visits, chatting about him with his animals….
“Shoot,” she said aloud. “Who’s been feeding them?”
Unable to face the possibility of a roomful of dead pets alone, she called Ji.
When she asked, at first he looked angry. Calling him with business was one thing, she realized. But what right did she have to turn to him for something as silly as this?
She had to admit, she wouldn’t have blamed him if he just cut the link and went back to sleep. In that moment, she understood that he, too, was having trouble sorting out what he felt. But then his frown softened.
“It’s OK, Sally,” he answered wearily. “I was up anyway. I’ll get an isolation suit on, and meet you there.”
She shook her head as he signed off. Since when did a chemical engineer keep an isolation suit in his quarters?
Since the epidemic, she thought. That’s when.
The automatic lighting came up as they entered the apartment. Sally surprised herself by making a direct line for where Yen Ming kept the pets — she’d listened to his stories about them so many times, she realized, she knew where he kept them without once coming here.
Luckily, Yen Ming had set up a fail-safe autofeed mechanism, so they all had food and water — although the supply was low, it was lucky she’d remembered. At the mouse cage, she paused to watch the little beasts scurry around. Something about that bothered her, but she couldn’t place it.
She made the mistake of opening the iguana’s cage, netting her a sharp, painful whip from the lizard’s tail.
“How’s the duck?” she asked Ji.
“Dead duck,” he joked hollowly as he examined that cage. Then he started and backed away.
His reaction snapped her attention to what was bothering her. If an alien contagion could kill humans, had struck down every member of this family, why were these pets alive?
She took a closer look at the duck. Its nostrils were clogged with a thick, green pus, full of the opportunistic bacteria that grew up when a primary disease caused mucus accumulation and a depressed immune system. She hadn’t seen this in her patients, because their systems carried the engineered symbiotes instituted in the massive genetic cleanup after the West/Islam Wars….
“Oh my God, Ji, we’ve been all wrong.”
He looked at her, his face uncomprehending through the layers of clear plaston.
She said, “Why would an alien bioweapon attack a mammal like humans, skip over another mammal, like the mice, and hit a bird? It’s a suspicious pattern.”
She nodded, and said, “What if we’re dealing with a natural, multi-host pathogen? It wouldn’t care about how closely related its hosts are — only whether they interact in a way that lets it hop from one to another. It follows webs of behavioral interactions that allow it to hop between intermediate hosts. Darwin with a vengeance.”
“And ducks and humans make sense to you?”
“Sure does. Leaping between humans and fowl? I need to do some tests to prove it, but I’d bet that we’re dealing with a Terrestrial virus. What we have here is a case of the Gotcha flu.”
The pathogen was vastly different from its influenza virus progenitor. In retrospect, it had to be: facing an enhanced human immune system and a deadly host of engineered symbiotes, the new virus had had to mutate so profoundly that it was hardly recognizable.
It infected cells only from the inside, spreading through cell-to-cell interactions and seldom existing as a free virus. In that, it was more like a retrovirus than a conventional RNA virus. It had evaded the initial analyses by mimicking the tag sequences that allowed the symbiotes to tell friend from foe. Along the way, it had learned how to hobble red blood cells by infecting them, too, from the inside.
But the new flu bug retained one characteristic of its progenitors — it incubated in avian species, developing new mutations, occasionally making the trip to the human host to test out each new set of tricks. Eventually, it had what it needed and exploded into an epidemic.
Influenza. The alien killer bioweapon was just a breakout mutant of the old-fashioned, nearly forgotten flu bug. Admittedly, a virulent, dangerous one. But one that could be attacked with off-the-shelf human technology.
It took less than 24 hours for a message tunneled to Earth to net authorization from the Biological Convention Committee for Sally to engineer a somatic-cell mutation procedure to counter the virus temporarily. And back in the Conference’s laboratories, they began work on a germline alteration that would allow all humans to fight this virus and its most likely descendants.
Which only left the question of Ji.
Sally ran into him at the canteen one night. He did a double take when he saw her, and she wondered if he were fighting an urge to walk the other way. She certainly was.
“Hey,” he said. “I hear they’re going to promote you.”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m going to head an epidemiologic crisis center. Really should have thought about this before, but we’d been too successful at preventing infectious diseases. We’d let ourselves forget that the other side was evolving along with us. You’re doing well, too, I hear…”
“Yeah, that’s me. Hero among heroes.” Then, without warning, he touched her arm gently, and said hesitantly, “Sally …”
“I know,” she answered, pulling away slowly, awkwardly. “I’m…uncomfortable too. I…we need some time to sort it out, I think.”
He smiled, not at all reassured or reassuring, and nodded. He said, “Well, I’ll be around. Maybe we can get together some time.”
“Maybe,” she said as he left.
As she watched him go, she wondered whether they’d get a second shot or not. Epidemics left their mark, on the population and the individual. They brought out unlooked-for defenses — and unexpected vulnerabilities. In their wake, nothing could be the same.
Nothing except the dance of life, the struggle to survive. In that struggle, who knew what was possible?
Robin laced his boots and tried to ignore the red sky and the clouds writhing over the forest like things in pain. The air smelled of runny bowels and, faintly, of cinnamon. I am ever caught between gagging and delight, he thought.
Robin stood and placed his hands behind his back, stretching. His spine rattled off a satisfying series of cracks and pops. Robin looked past the trees, over the vast plain, to the black castle. A single dark spire, the color of a bat’s wing, seeming to tower over the distant mountains.
Robin thought about his dream.
He walked to the nearest tree, a white pine with colorful glass spheres hanging in the high branches. He kicked the tree trunk, and the glass jingled. “Cheshire Cat,” Robin said. “Last night Maid Marion visited me in a dream. She told me to keep faith, for we can still rescue our companions and defeat the king.”
The Cheshire Cat lolled indolently on a low branch, just waking up. His voice contained equal parts laziness and self-satisfaction. “I had a dream as well, of the Duchess. Or was it the Queen of Hearts? She told me much the same.” He licked his paws contentedly. “So of course, I won’t do any such thing.”
Robin kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire, trying to forget the images he’d seen in the flames the night before. His friends, tortured by red-haired apes wielding straight razors. Babies with too-big heads and mouths full of needle teeth, crawling relentlessly forward. Yesterday Robin and the Cat had returned from a scouting expedition and found their campsite deserted, the Merry Men gone. Robin suspected ambush and abduction.
“Come, Cheshire Cat. We’re both Englishmen, and gentlemen besides.”
The cat’s tail faded and disappeared. “I am neither gentle nor man, and only my name is English.” The Cat hopped lightly to the ground, sending up a puff of dandelion fluff. “Since you mention it, do you see England anywhere?” He made a great show of lifting a leaf and peering underneath it.
Robin picked up his leather pouch and hung it from his belt, refusing to rise to the Cat’s bait. Once Robin restored Marion to her rightful place as queen, all would be well. The shifting forest would change into the Sherwood he remembered. His dreams assured him so.
Robin checked his bowstrings. The Cheshire Cat’s tree abruptly sprouted apples, which grew to pumpkin-size and fell, splitting rottenly. Robin wiped the splattered mush off his arm. “Cheshire Cat, we must free the Merry Men. We must defeat the king.”
The Cat sighed. “Must we? Well, if we must, then I suppose we must.”
They marched toward the black tower. The sky lightened to a sickly green, the clouds wispy and yellow. The air smelled sharp, and stung Robin’s nose. When Robin commented on the odor, the Cheshire Cat rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Chlorine,” he said, a word Robin didn’t recognize. The trees thinned out, and Robin and the Cat walked over long, flattened grasses. White steam rose here and there from holes in the ground. The tower remained mockingly distant.
Robin sent the Cat ahead to scout, wanting time to contemplate, and to make plans if he could. First, he must save the Merry Men. They didn’t all come from the Sherwood he remembered, but each had proven himself brave and worthy. Next, he would storm King Torrance’s black castle and overthrow his tyranny. Robin shaded his eyes to look at the tower. It remained unchanged, though the lands behind it had shifted. The mountains were gone, replaced by towering green mushrooms covered in diseased-looking white spots. Far off, something like a gargantuan caterpillar raised its sinuous body, and Robin touched the arrows in the quiver on his back instinctively, a chill of revulsion and fear rushing through him. The monster lowered itself, and a moment later a few rings of gray smoke rose lazily into the air, spreading out and dissolving.
Torrance is a powerful wizard, Robin thought, not for the first time. The world changes at his whim.
The Cat reappeared, materializing in mid-air, floating before Robin’s face. Robin didn’t stop walking, and the Cat sailed along with him. “I found the others,” he said. A meadow of wheat sprang up in the distance, between them and the tower. A man in a black cloak appeared, wielding a scythe to mow down the waving stalks. He raised a hand in greeting, but disappeared before Robin could decide whether to wave back or loose an arrow.
Robin fixed his eyes on the Cat, trying to ignore the changing landscape. “You say you’ve found them?” Robin prompted. “And?”
“Oh, that’s all. Did you want to hear more?”
Robin kept his voice level. “You found all of them?”
“All, or part, or parts of all. Imprisoned, by the way.” The Cat turned lazily in the air, floating upside-down a foot from Robin’s face, his legs waving slowly.
Robin nodded, pleased despite the Cat’s less-than-straightforward reply. The Merry Men lived, and the fight would go on. “Did you try to free them?”
“I did not. I scouted. If you wanted me to do things you didn’t say, you should have said so.”
Robin sighed. “You did well, Cheshire Cat. Lead the way.”
They continued toward the castle. The grasses gave way to reddish dust. Pillars of rock rose from the ground with a great rumble, and Robin ducked, covering his ears against the thunderous noise. The Cat only hovered, a half-smile on his face, his whiskers twitching. The sky became a dusky pink, with great v-shaped birds gliding high on the thermals. When the pillars stopped rising and the noise subsided, Robin uncovered his ears. A ringing sound, like a thousand church bells tolling for the dead, filled his head.
The Cat drifted close and said “See exotic places, eat strange creatures, try not to die. But is there an ocean view?”
Robin stood, ignoring him, and walked on.
The sun, now a white disc hidden behind red dust, remained high in the sky. Robin did not tire or hunger, though it seemed he walked for days. The dry, hot air burned his lungs, and dust coated his tongue. He drank often from his canteen, clearing his mouth and spitting. The cracked earth sucked up the moisture eagerly. The tower grew closer, now looming in the middle distance.
They reached a rocky gash in the desert. A wide ravine, full of metal spikes and looped thorn-vines, stretched as far as they could see in both directions, surrounding the king’s castle like a dry moat. A curious domed enclosure, made of silvery metal, stood just across the chasm.
Robin pointed. “Is that where the Merry Men are being held?”
“Yes,” the Cat said. “Only the dome was crystal before, and I saw the men inside.” He gnawed at a rock, which turned into a frightened mouse and scurried away. The Cat snorted. “They had potatoes there, with pepper. I hate potatoes. With pepper.”
“How did you make it over the ravine?”
“I did not, because the ravine did not exist at the time.” The Cheshire Cat contemplated the pit, his stripes undulating like ripples in a pond. Robin looked away, dizzy. “Throw a rock over,” the Cat suggested.
Robin picked up a fist-sized stone and tossed it over the chasm. It turned into a dove as soon as it left his hand. Lightning streaked. The dove fell, blackened and fluttering, to land among the spikes.
“No sense crossing, then. We’ll wait for the gap to vanish,” said the Cat. “We might eat, in the meantime.”
Robin nodded and strung his bow, waiting. It never took long for something living to appear here. In a few moments a plump doe ran from behind a boulder, and Robin loosed an arrow, aiming for the neck. If he didn’t kill the deer cleanly, it would have time to change. He’d seen too many rabbits turn into shrubs, and cows to offal, as they died.
The deer fell. Robin never missed. His arrows sometimes behaved strangely, bursting into flame or trailing thin wires or exploding, but he always hit his target. He never ran out of arrows, either. Great magic, doubtless a gift of Maid Marion’s. He hurried toward the carcass, pulling a knife from his pouch.
“I hope it tastes like cherries,” the Cheshire Cat said. The last deer had been sickly sweet, a flavor the Cheshire Cat referred to as “white gumdrops.”
Robin drained the deer’s blood. The Cat gnawed the animal’s guts, and looked up, grinning with bloody chops. “Tastes like lobster, my good woodsman.”
Several twisted trees grew along the pit’s edge, leafless and dry to the point of crumbling. Robin stripped them of limbs to build a fire, and they roasted the meat as night fell. Robin did not look at the sky. The alien constellations unnerved him. What land was this, and how far from England? Even the Holy Land had familiar stars.
“Look,” the Cheshire cat said. Robin tilted his head back, and smiled despite himself. Shooting stars filled the sky, blue and red and yellow.
“It’s beautiful,” Robin said. “I think it’s an omen, heralding Torrance’s fall —”
The full moon, impossibly large on the horizon, cracked. Black lines zigzagged down its center, and a thick substance, red as arterial blood, dripped from the crevices. Robin swallowed and looked away, back to the ravine, which stubbornly refused to vanish. Robin threw a rock into it. The rock didn’t change, but lightning still flashed it to a cinder.
“Damn this pit,” Robin said. “Nothing ever stays unchanged so long.”
“We have remained unchanged much longer than the ravine,” the Cat said, stretching in the dust.
Robin looked moodily into the fire. “We’re not like everything else.”
“Really. I wonder what we’re like, then?”
Robin chose not to think about that. “We may as well sleep. Will you take first watch?”
“For what am I watching?” The cat’s tail bobbed about, detached from his body, doing a dance in the sand.
“For anything out of the ordinary.”
“Everything is out of the ordinary, and therefore ordinary. I may as well go to sleep.”
“Just wake me if we’re attacked or if the ravine disappears,” Robin snapped.
“Very well. Since dinner was lobster and not gumdrops, I agree.”
Robin rolled over, his face turned toward the ravine, and slept.
Robin dreamed the usual dream. He sat in the receiving room of a great castle. Dust and cobwebs filled the corners. Faded tapestries covered the walls, depicting great battles and cavalries clashing. Torrance’s black tower, huge and upthrusting, loomed in every tapestry’s background.
Marion sat beside him, her dark hair in braids, her hands restlessly smoothing her dress. “Robin,” she said, “You are the greatest bowman who ever lived.”
Robin nodded. She spoke simple truth.
“I have given you magic arrows, to better serve me.” Her dark eyes roved across his face, and she blinked often.
“You will defeat King Torrance?”
Robin took her delicate white hand. “Lady, I will personally deliver him to your justice, and your pleasure will be my reward.”
She shook her head, and her face changed. Her eyes shifted from brown to cloudy blue and her hair lengthened, becoming blonde and oily. This strange sad woman spoke in Marion’s voice. “Just kill him, Robin. Use your magic arrows, and kill him. He murders my sleep.” Her face melted into a shapeless mass, and Robin pulled his hand away, revolted and afraid. Marion shouldn’t shift like the things in Torrance’s kingdom. Surely the king’s power couldn’t touch her? The woman’s features became Marion’s again, but he did not reach for her.
“It is murder you speak of, Lady,” he said at last.
“It is an execution.” Her voice refused argument, and Robin nodded, reassured by her confidence, though her orders disturbed him. Her face flickered, as if viewed by firelight. Robin remembered the Cheshire Cat’s dream of the Queen of Hearts. Who did the Merry Men dream of? Surely they saw Marion, as he did, and only the Cat’s madness made him see otherwise.
The sitting room vanished suddenly, and Robin gasped, startled. His dreams never went beyond the sitting room and Marion’s orders. Robin walked, against his will, through a dark city. Slick brick walls rose on all sides. He smelled rain, smoke, and garbage. Robin tried to breathe through his mouth, but couldn’t exercise any control over his body. Mist hung in the alleyways. His eyes moved down, and he saw a pale white dress and a woman’s bosom. I’ve become Marion, he realized, surprised, and that realization seemed to give him control of the body. He stumbled in the strange shoes, almost falling. He paused by a trash can, wiping sweat from his forehead. Only a dream, he thought. I’ll wake soon, and —
Rough hands seized Robin and shoved him against the wall. His head bounced on the bricks, and black spots swarmed into his vision. A slug-white face appeared before him, bald and yellow-eyed. Robin struggled, but his head hurt, and his arms didn’t respond properly. The pale man pressed a silver knife to Robin’s throat. “Don’t scream. Terry’s going to have a little fun. You’ll have fun, too.” He fumbled at Robin’s dress, tearing it open. Robin tried to scream, but couldn’t draw breath with the man’s weight on his chest. As Terry snatched aside his clothes, Robin’s limbs lost all power, and he woke from the dream long after the grunting and tearing became unbearable.
Robin sat up, sweating in the cool air, his shirt and tights soaked. He felt like the victim of a killing fever. He wrapped his arms around his body, shivering. Only a dream, he thought. Of a strange place, and an evil man. It means nothing.
The first traceries of dawn lit the sky.
Robin stood suddenly, reeling on his heels. His head still throbbed. The Cheshire Cat lay in the dust, batting his detached tail back and forth. “Cat! I told you to wake me if the ravine vanished!” He couldn’t keep the fury out of his voice.
The cat replied, bored, “Look behind you.”
Robin turned. The ugly gap scarred the earth behind them now, cutting them off from retreat.
“It didn’t vanish,” said the Cat. “It only moved.”
Robin strung his bow, forgetting his dream in his eagerness to fight on. “Now, Cat, we free the Merry Men and bring King Torrance to justice!”
“I remember the Queen’s justice. It involved severed heads, as I recall.” The Cat licked his chops.
Robin flushed, reminded of Marion’s order. To kill Torrance, not just capture him. Surely such a tyrant deserves death, Robin thought uneasily.
He hurried toward the domed enclosure. The Cat trailed behind, still without his tail. Robin pounded on the dome’s wall, but heard no response from inside. He went to the heavy door, but it had no latch to turn or lock to pick. “Cat, can you open the door?”
“Most likely.” The Cat crouched before the door and stared.
Robin shifted impatiently from foot to foot. After some moments he said “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for the door to turn into a mouse,” the Cat said, “which it seems quite likely to do. Then I will eat it, and we will go inside.”
Robin resisted an urge to kick the Cat. He took a deep breath. “Can you materialize inside, and see how the men are doing?”
The Cat blinked. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He faded from sight, his stripes going last. A few seconds later the Cheshire Cat’s head appeared, bobbing like a tethered balloon.
“Are they all right?” Robin asked anxiously.
The Cat frowned. “One wonders. The door latches on the inside, you know.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Why don’t they free themselves?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” the Cat said.
Robin gripped his bow. “Open it.”
The Cat vanished, and the door swung open. Robin ducked his head and stepped inside. The Cat hovered near the top of the dome. The Merry Men leaned against the wall or sprawled on the floor, unmoving.
Fear tightened Robin’s chest. “Little John!” he cried, approaching his longtime friend. “Are you all right?”
The big man shrugged, leaning against the wall with his staff across his legs. His blunt-featured face showed no expression.
Robin did a head count and frowned. John and Friar Tuck were there, and Mr. Holmes the detective, and Sinbad, but no others. “Where’s Will Scarlet? And Galahad? And Bruce, the bat-man?”
“All gone,” Tuck said, rubbing his bare head. “Faded like the Cheshire Cat, only they never came back.”
Robin glanced at the Cat, who still had no tail. “That is sad news indeed,” Robin said, thinking of Will Scarlet’s laughter, and Galahad’s bravery. Bruce of Wayne kept to himself, but he’d been a stalwart fighter. “We will storm the castle and defeat Torrance in their names.”
Little John shook his head. “We’re done in. Holmes sniffed too much of his white powder and he won’t speak anymore, and Sinbad can’t see. Something wrong with his eyes.” John wiped his hand across his mouth. “I think they disappeared.”
“Then you and Tuck,” Robin said, forcing himself to sound confident. Men needed a strong leader.
Tuck raised his hand. His fingers flickered, vanishing and reappearing. “We’re fading, Robin.”
“My feet are gone already,” said Little John. “These are just empty boots.”
Robin looked at the remaining men, Holmes lying on his back with blood crusted around his nostrils, Sinbad curled and whimpering on the floor. He could find no words to rally them.
“If they were mice, they’d be worth a farthing,” said the Cheshire Cat, not unkindly.
“I have to go,” Robin said, squatting next to Little John. “For Marion’s sake.”
Little John frowned. “I dream of my wife, Robin, and Tuck thinks God sent him. Bruce of Wayne said Torrance killed his parents. I don’t know who we’re fighting for.”
“Marion,” Robin said fiercely, grabbing John’s arm. John closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.
“Let’s go,” the Cat said, unusually gentle.
Robin rose. “Wait,” Tuck said. “Bruce of Wayne’s strange belt didn’t vanish. It may help you.”
Robin examined the belt, with its unmarked canisters and odd weapons. He took the bat-shaped grappling hook with its coil of thin, strong rope. He clasped Little John’s hand. “Fare well, old friend.” John’s grip had no strength, and he didn’t open his eyes.
Robin and the Cheshire Cat ducked out the door and started for the castle.
“Robin,” the Cat said. “I’m sure it’s not important, but I can’t seem to get my tail back.”
Robin didn’t answer. He trudged on, watching his feet kick up clouds of red dust.
“I’ve been trying to find it for some time now,” the Cat said. A moment later he sighed. “There go my back legs.” Robin looked back. His companion’s entire rear half flickered, then vanished. The Cat rose into the air.
Robin stopped. “Cat. Not you, too.”
“It’s all the same to me,” the Cat said, his forepaws fading. “If I’m neither here nor there, then where?”
Robin watched the cat’s body gradually disappear. One of his ears went, and his nose. His whiskers popped off one at a time. Tears welled in the corners of Robin’s eyes. He resisted the impulse to blink them away, afraid the cat would vanish if he closed his eyes.
The Cat rolled over onto his back. “Good luck, Robin. When you go, leave with a grin, would you?”
Robin nodded as the Cat disappeared entirely. The smiling teeth lasted the longest, hanging like a scythe blade on an invisible string. When they vanished, Robin walked on.
The tower was very close now.
Robin circled the tower’s doorless, windowless base. He touched the stone and found it warm. It pulsed against his fingers like a living thing, and he withdrew his hand, disgusted. A narrow ledge spiraled up the tower, like the whorl of a unicorn’s horn. Robin threw the grappling hook. It caught on the spiraling ledge, and Robin climbed hand-over-hand. When he reached the ledge, he threw the hook and climbed again. He gave no thought to what he’d find at the top, only throwing and climbing, trying to ignore the warm tower’s pulses, as if a great heart beat somewhere within.
He finally reached the top, and hauled himself over the parapet. He flopped to the stones and lay panting for a moment. A man in a black coat leaned on the far wall, his back turned to Robin.
Robin stood, arms and legs quivering with fatigue. “Torrance.” He waited for the king to face him, unwilling to shoot anyone in the back, even Marion’s mortal enemy.
The king turned, and Robin’s weak legs threatened to give way. Torrance had the mushroom-white face of Robin’s dream-rapist.
Torrance looked amused. “Robin Hood. Complete with feathered cap. She always liked the old stories best.”
Remembering the humiliation and pain from the dream, Robin took aim and fired.
The arrow missed Torrance by two feet, sailing over the castle wall. Robin lowered his bow, stunned. He never missed.
“You can’t kill me.” Torrance’s forehead looked as moist and vulnerable as a soft-boiled egg. “I’m a stronger dream than you are.”
“What do you mean?” Robin readied another arrow, determined not to miss again.
“All this.” Torrance waved his hand. “It’s her dream, the one you call Marion. That’s not her real name. She’s not royalty. She isn’t even very pretty.” He smirked. “But she was good enough for an alley romp.”
Robin frowned, remembering Marion’s shifting face. “Liar,” he said, but without much heat.
“Look at her castle,” Torrance said, pointing. Robin looked, and the sight filled his heart with longing. Far off, a white castle gleamed in a pool of sunlight, yellow banners flying from the towers.
“It’s a little gaudy,” Torrance said. “She likes the old romances, which explains why you’re here. I’m surprised you’ve lasted this long. You are just a fiction.”
“I dreamed of you.” Robin could think of nothing else to say.
Torrance’s bland face betrayed a flicker of surprise. He growled. “Impossible. You might receive orders from the woman, but that’s all. Even I don’t dream, and I’m the king of her nightmares, the strongest dream here. All the lesser dreams fade, eventually. Only I remain, to marshal the nightmares, and storm her bright castle every night.” He shook his head. “Every single night.”
“Terry,” Robin said, wondering if a knife could hurt this man. He feared it wouldn’t. “I will kill you.”
“Don’t call me Terry. Terry was a man, probably a stupid man, a rapist. I am Torrance, the master of night terrors. Do not confuse us.”
“Whoever you are, your reign ends now.” He lifted his bow.
“Not that again. She didn’t dream you very smart, did she?”
Robin lowered the bow, at a loss. “I could shove you off the tower.”
Torrance shrugged. “It’s high enough, and empty. That’s about all it’s good for, shoving people off, though you wouldn’t manage it.” He gazed at Mary’s castle. “It’s tiresome, sometimes, living in a giant phallic symbol.” He glanced at Robin. “Still holding that bow? There’s a legend, you know, that just before you died you fired an arrow into the air and asked to be buried where it fell. There won’t be anything to bury, this time. Oh, there goes your ear.” He sounded pleased.
Robin felt a tingling on the side of his head and touched it. He found only smooth skin where his left ear had been. His throat closed with panic, then relaxed. It’s true, he thought. I’m fading.
I’m sorry, Marion.
On impulse, Robin pulled his bowstring back. The arrowhead gleamed, a purple crystal. He loosed, and the arrow arced high, then curved toward the ground far away. “I fire an arrow into the air, and where it lands —”
“I do not care,” Torrance said. “Vanish, bowman.”
“That arrow was for me,” Robin said. He didn’t know where the words came from. Perhaps God, or even the Queen of Hearts. He took another arrow from his quiver. This one shone silver. “This is for Galahad.” He fired, aiming a little to the left of the first arrow. Red lines streaked the next arrowhead. “For Will Scarlet.” Bone-white. “For Holmes.” Brown. “For Little John.” Iridescent. “For Tuck.” He turned in a slow circle, counterclockwise, speaking the names of his fallen companions. A black arrow for Bruce of Wayne, and a blue for Sinbad. “For the Cheshire Cat,” he said, firing an arrow with a single gleaming tooth for a head. He’d turned almost full circle, firing to all the points of the compass.
Robin drew a last arrow. “For Marion.” The arrowhead glowed like burnished gold, the same yellow as Marion’s banners. He loosed.
Torrance watched the last arrow fall, hands in his pockets. “Feel better? You’re a symbolic creature making symbolic gestures. It’s funny, in a way, but I don’t —”
A great sound rose from all sides, like fabric ripping, and Torrance dropped to his knees, looking around fearfully. A fiery pillar sprang from the ground where Robin’s last arrow had landed. Gouts of flame erupted around the tower, one after another, rising from the places where Robin’s arrows had landed.
Robin’s left arm disappeared up to the elbow, and his bow clattered to the stones. Torrance whirled as lines of fire arched and met over the tower. Fiery lace connected the lines, forming a spiderweb-dome of flame. The lines darkened to opacity, changing to wrought iron, a cage completely enclosing the tower.
“A prison,” Robin said, understanding now what he’d done. “Like the one you put my friends in. I can’t kill you, but I can seal you off. You’ll trouble Marion no more.”
Torrance clenched his fists and bared his teeth. “Do you really think repression is the answer?”
“It’s the only answer I can manage. It will have to do.” Robin’s feet vanished and he fell backward, his bones jarring on impact. The vision in his right eye went dark. Torrance beat at the cage with his fists, uselessly.
Robin rested his head on the stones. He tried to grin, feeling his body below the neck disappear. “It’s worth smiling for, Cheshire Cat,” he whispered, and then said no more.
July sees Tim Pratt join us as Featured Author for the next three months with the fantabulous “Robin of Wonderland Wood.” Kenneth B. Chiacchia delves into the world of pathagens and contagins in “Epidemic” while Jeremiah Tolbert looks at love and obsession in “Spooning.” Our classic this month is a ghost story from MR James.
Lee Battersby changes his white gloves for rubber ones as he thumbs through Exit the Light.
Ideomancer will be closed for submissions over July, reopening on August the 1st.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue.