Shane stared at the door. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring at it, but he thought it was a long time. Days, maybe. Years. He had no idea.
Nothing changed in this place except the place itself. He’d walk through a door, and almost immediately something would try to kill him. Sometimes he would evade it through sheer luck or skill. Sometimes he would get past the murderous devices by just… knowing they were there.
But how did he know? He glanced back at the corpses of the three cyborg wolves that he had killed after he came in the room. The moment he came through the door, he had started shooting, and every shot hit. When the lead wolf changed direction and charged at him, it was like he knew where the wolf was going. Within ten seconds, the wolves were dead, blood oozing out and electronics sparking, and he’d cleared another room. Like he’d done it all before, and this was just rote for him by now. The wolves were giant things, horrible hybrids of flesh and metal, but he had dispatched them with the ease of hundreds of hours of practice.
He had never seen them before.
Both of these things were true, and Shane was having trouble dealing with that.
This whole base seemed designed to kill him, yet he had so far been unkillable. He had evaded every death trap, known every doorcode by heart, been perfectly aware of where he should step and where he shouldn’t. He thought for a little while that he’d been knocked out when he applied for the job, maybe had some kind of microchip put into his brain. But that seemed a little too far-fetched.
Not quite as far-fetched as the idea he was entertaining at this point, though.
He stared at the door. It was old and decrepit. The varnish had started peeling away ages ago, leaving large swaths of bare, stained wood to be eaten away or turn to dust, but every door he had encountered so far had been more solid than he’d expected. Every one looked exactly like this, too. Down to the pattern of wear on the brass doorknob. Dozens of identical doors.
What’s more, those were the only doors he could go through. Some rooms had windows that faced out into soil and rock, others had doors that might have led into other rooms. He couldn’t go through them, though. For all that he pushed and pulled and beat at them, the other doors may as well have been painted onto the walls. Only the doors with the brass knobs would open, and each time he got a tingling sensation and the absolute certain awareness that he was about to die.
But he didn’t. Somehow.
This door looked like all the others. He’d been a Marine for six years, a soldier for hire for ten. He’d seen things that would make those action heroes from Hollywood soil their hundred dollar boxer-briefs and done things that would make those cheap novelists hang up their pens. Shane Grodski was not a stranger to death or pain or horror.
This door terrified him.
Sooner or later he would have to open it. Something beyond that door would try to kill him, and somehow he would survive.
He wished to God he knew how.
Shane’s hand shook as he reached for the doorknob. He started to turn it to the left, then stopped himself. His hand wouldn’t move, but trembled as it held the knob and started to turn it right as if the hand knew what it was doing better than he did. “For the love of God WHY?!?” he shouted as he pulled open the door.
On the other side was a lush garden. High, glass ceilings were nearly covered with thick vines. but the sun came through where it could. Its light was watery and weak, but it was sunlight indeed. The first Shane had seen in what felt like a lifetime, and he nearly didn’t feel that familiar door-shiver over the way his chest tried to squeeze out a sob. He took a deep breath, letting the rich scent of earth and plant life get deep into his lungs. It was a welcome change from the musty, ancient rooms he had been walking through, and if he could find a way out, he would take it.
He started climbing up one of the great vine plants that had rooted itself by the windows. The stalk was woody and strong, thick enough to support his weight at least high enough that he could get to some of the windows. Once there, he would probably be able to break one or two of them, shimmy out and leave this place far behind. He had never given up on a mission before, but none of the missions he’d been on before had ever been like this.
About ten feet off the ground, Shane decided to give a window a good hit with the butt of his gun. The glass looked old and filthy, fragile from years of being hit by sun and rain. There was already a thin crack rising up from one of the corners, so he thought it would probably be the best place to start. He hit it, then hit it again. And again. And one more time.
Like the doors throughout the base, this glass may as well have been stone. He could see the light coming through it, the shadows of clouds drifting across a far away sky, trees waving in a wind he would never feel again. But as much as he pounded, the glass didn’t give. Didn’t crack or spider or splinter. He didn’t notice he was weeping until long after he started, and only a sharp pinprick on his inner thigh brought his attention away from the window.
The stalk had sprouted a thorn, and it had given him a good jab. He looked back along the way he came, and more of these thin, needle-like spines were emerging from the plant. Another one stuck into his hands, his other leg, his chest. He would have been bothered by them, but he could already feel his temperature rising. By the time he realized what was happening, his throat had swollen shut and he could taste blood in his mouth. As he fell, he felt the seams on his clothes burst and watched as his hands boiled and sprouted billions of tiny tendrils and vines.
Shane looked up at the high glass ceiling and thought for a moment that it would be a good way out. Then he remembered the doors all throughout the building. Any door but the brass-handled ones had been a dummy, and he was willing to bet that the windows were as well. He knew this, but he didn’t know how he knew it. He stood in front of the door and flinched when it clicked shut behind him.
The garden was gorgeous, and unlike any other area of the base he’d been in so far. He took a deep breath of the rich, earthy scent and began to follow the subtle yet unmistakable path that wound its way through the vegetation. There were trees that brushed the high glass ceiling, plants that ran along the ground sprouting tiny blue flowers that seemed to shimmer in the dimness. The garden was warm and comfortable and utterly silent. He felt his chest unknot a little, the tension start to leave his shoulders and his back. Through the green light and shadow, he could see a familiar door some ways off, but he saw no reason to hurry. The garden was there, the flowers were in bloom, and nothing was trying to kill him.
After a few steps, he just… stopped. A pale mist was rising from the grass at his feet. The tiny blue flowers seemed to be waving in a thin haze, and Shane thought they might be waving at him. He laughed and waved back at them. Cute little flowers. He crouched down and felt a wave run through his body, like all of the stress he’d been carrying was flowing out through his boots.
“Think I might just sit down,” he said.
And he did.
And it was nice.
Shane looked out at the garden as the door clicked shut behind him. Thin sunlight was streaming through the windows, barely illuminating the shadows cast by reaching vines, tall trees, and countless plants that he could not name. There was a path through the garden. It was subtle, but he could make it out, and he was willing to bet that there was a door at the other end of it.
And probably some kind of flying monkeys or poisonous man-eating flowers along the way as well.
He took a step and then stopped.
“No,” he said. “No. I’m not doing this anymore.”
He sat on the lush grass, his back to the door, and waited.
The shadows between the trees looked nearly as menacing as any of the rooms he’d been through already. He didn’t know what was in there, but he could guess. Danger. Torment. Another door.
“No,” he said.
He sat down.
The door clicked shut, and Shane spun around, trying to open it again. The door wouldn’t budge, though. None of them ever had, and he wasn’t sure why he thought this one would. He yelled and screamed and pounded, and he could feel the garden behind him. It was the only way out, he knew that. But he would rather die than go through it.
“NO!” he screamed, and fell to his knees. He could have stood up, but he didn’t want to.
“No no no no no!”
Shane didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, his back against the door. He thought something should have happened by now, though. Maybe the grass would reach up and suck him into the ground, or great ravenous birds would swoop out of the trees. Whatever was going to happen should have happened.
But it didn’t.
He found himself humming a song, but wasn’t sure what it was. Something he’d heard a long while ago. “Is it that time again?” he sang quietly. “Wasn’t it already then? So does it have to be – The time it was again?“
He wished he knew the rest of the song.
Shane’s head whipped up and he scrambled to his feet before he knew what he was doing. His gun was in his hand. He didn’t remember drawing it. The voice had come from everywhere, rattling the leaves on the trees.
SHANE, it said again. The voice was almost… fatherly. It reminded him of pipe smoke and black and white television.
“Who are you?” Shane yelled.
AH. GOOD, the voice said. I WAS BEGINNING TO WORRY.
There was nothing to point his gun at, but Shane couldn’t put it away. “Worry about what?” he asked. “Who are you?”
The voice chuckled, and it was a deep electronic baritone. I THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW WHO I AM, SHANE, it said. AFTER ALL, WHO ELSE IS IN HERE WITH YOU?
It took Shane a minute, but he eventually lowered the gun. It wouldn’t have done him any good. “You’re the AI,” he said.
VERY GOOD, it said. I ALWAYS KNEW YOU WERE CLEVER.
“All right,” Shane said, holstering his gun.”What do you want?”
The AI was silent for a moment before answering. I WANT TO KNOW, it said, WHY YOU’RE NOT MOVING. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN INTO THE NEXT ROOM A LONG TIME AGO.
It was all Shane could do not to break out into hysterical laughter. The question was so nonsensical, so ridiculous, that he wanted to just scream at the AI. “What, so you can kill me again?”
His words echoed against the glass walls and were eaten by the trees. The silence seemed to wrap around him.
AGAIN? the AI said.
Shane let the AI’s words get lost in the same organic darkness that had swallowed his own words, and then began to cry.
TO BE CONCLUDED! (I hope)
Lyrics to “Am I Awake” are copyrighted by They Might Be Giants
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab, one that the Government had closed down rather than clean up.
It wasn’t on any maps. It didn’t, officially speaking, exist – and if it did exist, well, he sure as hell hadn’t been there. That was in the briefing, a short speech overseen by a man who said nothing, but who stared at Shane the whole time, with ice-blue eyes and contempt practically painted onto his face.
His mission was straightforward and uncomplicated. He was to penetrate to the inner labs and retrieve the central AI core if possible, destroy it if necessary. The whys and wherefores were for the bureaucrats and the politicians as far as he was concerned. This was a hefty payout. If he survived.
“There may be…resistance,” the man who’d hired him said. The blue-eyed man just smirked. “We have reason to believe the AI is expecting you.”
Shane nodded at that. “All right,” he had said. “I’ll just have to be unexpected.”
He pulled open the door in front of him and looked out into the hallway beyond. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. He took a step forward and felt a tugging at his foot. He had just enough time to look down and see the thin tripwire before the explosives on either side of him went off, killing him instantly.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. There were old metal lockers that had fallen to the floor and torn posters on the wall, bearing information and announcements that no one would ever need again. He reached out for the door in front of him…
And hesitated. Something didn’t feel right.
The guy who’d briefed him had said that there might be resistance from the AI. He hadn’t gone into any detail as to what kind that would be, but he was pretty sure it would do its best as soon as it could.
He pulled open the door and looked down the hall. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling that flickered and trembled. In the low light, he took out his sidearm and turned on the laser sight. A red dot flicked into existence on the floor. He swept it up and down just in front of him, watching the dot until…
A tiny flash of red light confirmed what he suspected.
There was a tripwire stretched about six inches above the floor. It was hair-thin, and he probably would have missed it if he hadn’t known what to look for. He leaned out through the doorway and looked at the walls. “Very nice,” he muttered. There were patches of plaster about head-height that looked newer and cleaner than the rest of the wall. That was probably where the explosives were.
“Nice try,” he said. He stepped carefully over the tripwire and patted the wall. “You can’t get me that eas-”
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He hadn’t been there more than a moment and already he was starting to feel tense and frustrated, but he couldn’t say why.
He checked his handgun – it was ready to go, as it always was. The rifle he’d slung across his back was loaded and ready when he needed it. He had his flashlight, some water, first aid kit. Everything he should have had was right there. But he still felt… uneasy.
He pulled open the door, very slowly. Nothing happened. He turned on his laser sight and ran the beam along the floor through the doorway. Almost immediately, there was a tiny flash of light. A tripwire. Shane’s mouth twisted in a grin. He kept the laser moving forward, towards the end of the hall.
There were glimmers of light everywhere, all along the floor, crossing at chest height, head height, and they were all damn near invisible. Any one of them would be his death, of that he had no doubt. He directed his flashlight to the walls.
All down the corridor, there were sections of plaster that looked newer than the rest of the wall. “Hell,” he said.
Shane looked around the room. There were no other weapons that he could use, and getting close to the door would be a death sentence. He could try to shoot out one of the tripwires, in the hopes that one explosion would set the others off, but shooting something that thin, that invisible, would be a huge waste of ammo. His gaze fell on the old lockers that were strewn across the floor. “Gotcha,” he said.
He opened the door as wide as it would go and laid one of the lockers down, pointing down the corridor. Then another behind it, and then one more. The three lockers, end-to-end, were maybe eighteen feet, and he had to hope that was far enough away. He took the remaining two and set them between himself and the doorway, in the hopes that they would absorb some of the blast.
And then he pushed the lockers along the ground.
The explosion was deafening. Each charge by itself was small, but there were so many of them planted in that hallway that they just kept going off for what seemed like forever. It was a thunderous cacophony of noise and smoke, and when it cleared, it took him a few moments to come out from his makeshift bunker.
The corridor was a wreck. Great divots had been torn out of the walls where the explosives had been. He flicked on his laser sight, the beam now perfectly visible in the smoke and the dust, and he ran it along the length of the corridor, floor to ceiling. There were no more wires.
“There we go,” he said to himself. He checked his gun again and carefully, slowly, made his way down the corridor.
It went on a lot longer than he thought it would, turning a few times as he went. At every corner, he would run the laser up and down again, but the debris and the dust told the tale. He started to hear things, though, and he wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, or if it was hearing damage. Or something else, of course. It sounded like metal groaning. Like the hum of a speaker that’s ready to start playing really loud music. Like an idling engine.
There was another door at the end of the corridor, and it looked exactly like the first. He pulled it open, checked for wires. There were none. When he clicked on his flashlight, he was stunned to see the breadth and vastness of the room beyond.
The floor was white marble that seemed to glow where the light hit it. Great pillars reached up to a ceiling that was hidden in the darkness. There were windows, tall and ornate, but they were blocked by stone and soil. When had he gone underground?
As he stepped through the door, he felt a shiver. The door slammed shut behind him, and he had his pistol at the ready before he knew it. There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. He turned with his flashlight, just in time to see the gleam of the great metal blades before they sheared off the top of his skull.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor before he even knew why.
There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. A moment later, two bright steel discs came spinning out of the darkness and lodged themselves in the door, right where his head would have been.
“What the hell?!” he shouted. He had been told to expect resistance, but this seemed less like an AI protecting itself and more like some malevolent bastard that enjoyed killing people. Did AIs enjoy murder? The briefing hadn’t really covered that.
He crawled along for a few yards until he reached a pillar. He used it to stand up, straining his ears for that metallic breath again. Which was why he probably didn’t notice the twisted wire noose until it dropped down, coiled itself around his neck, and pulled up, hard and fast.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor.
A moment later, there were twin THUDS in the door behind him, but he didn’t pay them any notice. He was cursing under his breath as he stood up and started walking through the pillars, making sure to stay as far away from them as he could. There was a… wrongness that he felt from them. He cocked his ears left and right, hoping he could hear the sound of those flying blades when they were launched. The laser on his sight didn’t show any more wires, but still, he walked with tiny, careful steps.
Off to his left, he heard a low rumbling, and stopped. His flashlight caught the low, spiked roller as it came at him, tearing up chunks of marble as it did.
Somehow, without even thinking about it, he jumped. The roller went right under him and kept going, its rumble fading in the distance. He continued forward, along the paths marked out by pillars he dared not go near. There was another roller that came out of the shadows to his right, and one that was directly in his path. He jumped each of them and moved on, his confidence growing as he did so.
He didn’t want to say anything – “I’m on to you,” for example, or “Is that the best you can do?” That way lay death, something he believed even if he couldn’t prove it.
He reached the door at the end and grabbed the handle. The electricity kept him moving until he fell.
Shane was on the floor before the door was shut, and was crawling forward before the two blades hit the door. He walked confidently between the pillars, keeping his ears out for noises from the shadows. When a roller came, he stopped, jumped, and moved on.
At the door, he reached out, but froze before he touched the handle. He looked around the door, and was surprised he hadn’t noticed the keypad right away.
It was small, but certainly not hidden, and it had a small diagram stuck to the wall above it. Shane stared at it for a while before he figured out what it meant.
There was an arrow and a dot that said, “You Are Here.” Beneath that was a double row of circles – ten in each row – that stretched towards the bottom. Five of the circles were numbered with 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Shane looked at the keypad. The display was big enough for five digits. He turned around and trained his light on the columns and counted under his breath.
He took out his little digital camera and took a picture of the diagrams. Then he started going to the columns. In order.
The first column would have sprouted spikes if Shane came close. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but the best way to avoid them was to set them off from far away. A single gunshot seemed to work, though he was loathe to waste the ammunition. The number carved into it was 7.
The second column spun in the opposite direction that he walked around it, keeping the number out of his sight. It didn’t have quite the reaction time that he did, though – if he got it spinning and then changed direction really fast, he’d be able to get in front of the number. It was good he had the foresight to stay low, however, because the laser that was embedded in the circular part of the 9 came pretty close to putting a hole in his head.
The third column had a drop-away floor around it. The marble around the base just looked strange to him, and as long as he didn’t get within three paces, he was fine. Its number was 1.
Four was the column that tried to noose him if he stood still for too long, and the number 8 that was carved into it was really tiny. A quick dodge to the left without even thinking about it, and he barely avoided being strangled.
Finally, the last one. He was lucky that he’d been holding his breath out of sheer anxiety, because he was pretty sure that the gas that jetted out from it was poisonous. It made his skin itch in any event, and he had to grab a salve from his first aid kit. The number on this column was 2.
He made his way back to the door and the keypad and entered “79182.” The display burned a steady red for a moment, and then turned green.
Carefully, gingerly, he took the doorknob, waiting for something horrible to happen. It didn’t. He opened the door and felt that shiver pass through him.
His last thought before the machine gun bullets tore him in half was, “There is something seriously wrong going on here.”
It was well past midnight when the king finally died.
His last breath was a foul and extended one, a long, rattling sigh that stank of the cancer that had devoured him from the inside. He lay still under the thin blanket that had been all he would keep on, his bed surrounded by flickering candles and the remnants of the Royal Physician’s tools. Ceramic bowls filled with grey and cloudy water; wet cloths in a pile by the bed; small pots with creams and powders, tinctures and salves and pastes and oils; a thin-bladed knife and a covered bowl containing sated leeches.
The doctor himself, an old and exhausted man, let out a breath of his own. Carefully, gingerly, he reached under the blanket and took the king’s thin and frail arm. He put his fingers to the bony wrist and waited. Then he pressed his fingers under the sharp line of the king’s jaw and waited. He pulled up the eyelids and blew a gentle puff of air into each eye. Finally, he took a small mirror from the ice on which it had been sitting and held it under the king’s nostrils, resting gently on his thin, reddish-grey mustache.
A moment passed. Then another. The doctor looked up at the two Royal Clerks who stood on the other side of the bed and he shook his head. Gently, carefully, he pulled the thin blanket over the king’s face and began to pack up his equipment.
The clerks watched him as he worked. The doctor had brought a special case that had compartments for everything, and he put them away with the ease of a lifetime’s work. He snapped the latches shut and lifted it with a little effort – many long nights of work had taken their toll – and then nodded to the clerks. They nodded back. The doctor left the king’s chambers, and a moment later a wailing could be heard from the sitting rooms beyond. The ladies of the court had gathered there to pray for the king’s well-being, and they were distraught to learn that their prayers had not been enough.
The clerks remained in the royal bedroom. The elder clerk pressed her lips together and took deep, deliberate breaths. She had worked for this king since she was a girl, and had learned everything about how to run a kingdom. Over the years, the king had shown her nothing but kindness and patience and respect, and even though his death had come as no surprise, it still cut her to the bone. The shape under the blanket did not look like it could have been the king. It was too still for a man of such energy. Too small for a man of such greatness.
The younger clerk held himself still and quiet, with words building within him to get out. He had been sent to the castle by his father, who hoped that his son would learn to read and write and better himself. And he did, earning a place among the vast army of palace clerks. He had only made it to the level of Royal Clerk a few years ago, and had not spent enough time alone with the king to feel that he knew the man. But he did know that while the death of a king was a tragedy, there was the succession to be considered. And that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, if you – and the king – were lucky. As much as the younger clerk regretted the death of his king, he was looking forward to watching the internal workings of the kingdom as it prepared for his replacement.
The elder clerk touched the younger’s arm, causing him to jump a little. The elder nodded to him, and he nodded back. They straightened the sashes that crossed their chests, shook out their voluminous sleeves, and lifted their heads high. They had a duty to perform, and it was important that they be seen to do it. Let the ladies of the court weep and wail and lament. The king may have been dead, but it would be the clerks who saw to it that the kingdom continued to function.
The younger clerk opened the door and then stepped to the side. The women in the other room fell silent as the two walked out of the king’s chambers and, without a word to anyone, continued through the waiting-room and out into the hallway. None of the ladies called out for news. They already knew, and the face of the elder clerk was enough to tell them that they were right. They knew, just as everyone else knew, what was to come next, and that this was no time to be wasting breath on questions that everyone knew the answers to.
Someone would be along to prepare the king’s body for burial soon enough. The clerks swept through the warm and bright corridors of the Royal Apartments, their feet silent on deep-pile carpet that seemed too bright for the occasion. A pair of guards stood by the doors that led out to the common section of the keep. Tomorrow they would be dressed in black, but for now they both stood in their blue-and-silver uniforms, swords by their sides. The guards were supposed to be impassive and utterly unshakable. but there were tears running down their otherwise blank faces.
The clerks continued through the keep, going from staircase to hallway to staircase, always going down. Through the family quarters to those of the high staff and then to the lower. Past the kitchens and the storehouses and the vast rooms where the quartermasters stored everything that a castle needed in order to function. Down past the laundry rooms and the ever-burning boilers that kept hot water running through the castle, an advancement that made them the envy of every other kingdom.
They stopped by a heavy door that was guarded by a heavy man. His uniform was dark leather and wool, to keep out the chill of the stones now that they were underground. He nodded at the clerks and removed a key from his belt. The key, made of black iron, unlocked the three locks with a dull thud, and then he was able to swing open the thick oaken door on well-oiled hinges. The clerks continued down, each one holding a brightly burning torch.
At the bottom of the stairs was another guard, in the same black-and-grey as the man at the top. This one stood up when they entered, a long corridor of blackened and barred doors stretching into the darkness behind him. The guard presented them with a paper to sign, a system of the elder clerk’s own devising. The form asked for their names, and the name of the person they needed to talk to. When they left, they would sign again, and the guard would affix his stamp to the whole affair. There would be no interfering with the prisoners, no secret visits and murders under cover of darkness.
The elder clerk handed back the form. The guard looked at the name she had written there and then back to her, his eyes welling up as he did so. His mouth moved with the words he couldn’t bring himself to say, and he turned into a quietly blubbering mess when she nodded. The guard tried to breathe, but tears overcame him each time, and the younger clerk had to bring his chair around for him to sit on. They waited there for a few moments until the guard could get himself under control. He finally took those deep breaths, cleared his throat a few times and wiped his eyes and his nose. His face was red with the emotion and embarrassment, and he tried to look as official as he could. He stood straight, his feet planted and his arms behind his back, staring at the foot of the staircase they had come from. Except for the gently trembling lip, he looked like a wall that would keep out the world.
The younger clerk gently tapped him on the shoulder, and the guard started. His face flushed again as he opened the cabinet by the door and took out a brass key. The key had a leather tag attached with the number five burned into it. The clerk took it with a smile, and nodded to the guard, who resumed his impassivity.
They walked as quietly as they could on clean, cold stone. They stopped at door number five. The younger clerk handed the key to the elder, and she paused a moment before unlocking the door. They held their breath. Then they opened it.
All of the cells were swept out once a week, and the waste buckets were taken every day. There was still a wooden plate on the small table that was bolted into the wall next to the door. The bed was a mattress in the corner. It, too, was clean – or at least clean enough. They were taken out once a month and replaced. The king had made himself very clear many years ago – it may be a dungeon, but the prisoners were still human beings and would be treated as such. There had been murmurs of disagreement from his court, but there were few times when his determination to do the right thing could be swayed by mere murmurs.
The clerks stood in the doorway, casting a long shadow on the man lying in the bed, his heavy wool robe wrapped around him and his hood pulled up to hide his eyes.
He looked up when the elder clerk cleared her throat. He had a red beard and his eyes glinted blue through the squint. Red hair poked out of the hood, falling on his forehead and curling out past his neck. He was pale and tired, but healthy. He sat up and rubbed his eyes again, resting his elbows on his knees.
The elder clerk opened her mouth to speak, but closed it when she realized that the prisoner was laughing. Quietly, yes, but the noises he was making – the way his back shook – they were laughter. And when he looked up at them, the dark humor in his eyes was enough to confirm it. She shut her mouth, and her lips twisted as though she had tasted something foul.
When he spoke, the prisoner’s voice was raspy and dark. “So,” he said. He looked from one clerk to the other. The younger one actually stepped back. The elder didn’t move.
He reached up and stretched, slowly and languidly. Then he leaned back and sat against the wall, examining his long – but clean – fingernails as though he wasn’t locked in a cell deep beneath the castle.
“I suppose this means my father is dead.”
This summer, a mountain lion was hit by a car in Milford, CT, and killed. Later investigation revealed that it had walked thousands of miles from South (I think) Dakota, much farther than mountain lions usually go. My sister, who works at WNPR in Hartford, where the story got a lot of coverage, wanted to find a way for the story to have a happy ending. This is my stab at it.
The great cat trudged through the undergrowth. His feet hurt. His legs hurt. Everything hurt. Every step was painful, but so very necessary. He didn’t know where he was going, he didn’t know where he had been. All he knew was that he had to go far, far from his home, towards the sunrise.
Always towards the sunrise.
That’s what the Eldest had told him: Walk. Walk to the sunrise as far as you can, to the great waters at the edge of the world. The farther you go, the better your sin will be expiated. The farther you go, the more powerful the cure will be. The farther you go, the greater the curse will spread and the freer our people will be when you die.
And so he walked. Farther than any of his people had walked before, through the lands of the invaders, the people of stone and metal and death. To walk in their lands was to risk oblivion – even the smallest cub knew that. Those who came back – and there were precious few – came back wounded in body and spirit, telling tales that none would believe if they hadn’t been told over and over again. Places where there was no green, or so little that it made no difference. Places of great openness that smelled harsh and bitter and made you sick to your stomach. Great beasts that moved at impossible speeds over endless black rivers of stone that covered all.
And they spread, these people. Every generation there were more of them, covering the land with their stone and tearing out the trees and emptying the lakes, moving the rivers and carving great wounds in the hills. Places where their fathers and grandfathers had hunted were now forbidden lands, devoid of prey and cover. To enter their lands meant death, and not just for the ones who trespassed.
This cat, the long-walker, had gone out into their world, knowing the danger to himself. He had explored and eaten what could be eaten, and he was seen. The people of stone and death must have seen him, and chased him in droves, using the terrible powers at their command.
They did not catch him, but they did not stop, either. They came into his woods, hunting the hunters with their sticks that threw stones that killed. His brothers died. His sister died. He and an elder escaped alone of all his people, finding a hole in the earth where they could wait until the people of stone and death passed them by.
The rain followed their disappearance, and it was cold and relentless. The hole flooded quickly, and they scratched their way out, just the long-walker (who had not yet started his walk) and the elder of his people. They waited out the rain, silently. When it stopped, they found their way home, which was not their home any longer. Their dead had been taken away, and there was nothing of their home left.
“You did this,” the elder said to the long-walker.
They sat for a long while. The long-walker spotted a rabbit and gave it chase. The rabbit was easy prey. He brought it back, gave it to the elder, who left him some bones and a little meat.
“What do we do now?”
The elder lay down under a tree and thought for a long while. The night came, and tiny lights flitted through the trees. The long walker watched them for a little while and remembered how he used to chase them along the edge of the river. With his brothers, his sister.
“You are cursed,” the elder said. “Others have gone out and died. Others have gone out and come back, without bringing death. You are cursed.” He was quiet, without malice. “Take your curse and go.” He stood up and stretched. “Bring your curse back to the people of stone and death. Walk to the morning. Walk among their dens and their rivers of stone. Leave your curse with them as you go. In your blood. In your piss. In your scat. With every step, bring to them the death they brought to us.” The elder lay down again. “But do not come here again.”
The long walker had never heard his elder speak so much. Not at once. He lay down beside him and licked his paw. “When will I be free?” he asked quietly.
“When you are dead,” the elder said.
“Then shouldn’t I just sit on their river of black stone near here, wait for one of their beasts to run me down?”
“No,” the elder said. He put his head down and seemed to think for a while. The younger cat continued to groom him in the darkness.
“There are waters,” the elder began. “I have heard it said that there are waters where the sun rises. It is water that you cannot drink. Water that surrounds the world, that births the sun anew each day and drowns it at night. Go to the birth-waters. Bathe in them, and you will live free.”
They sat in silence all night, sleeping and waking and sleeping again. When the sun rose, the long walker stood to greet it. He turned to the elder, who lay sleeping in the undergrowth, and started walking.
He walked for many nights, and spread his curse as he could. He learned to stay on the outskirts of the places where the people of stone and death lived and traveled. He found that night was the best time to avoid them. Stay away from the light, and you will find safety, for these people carried light everywhere with them. He met others on his travel, his kind and not his kind. He didn’t keep to them or offer to bring them with him. “I am cursed,” was all he would say, and that would be enough. No one needed his story. The world got cold and hot and cold again, and he kept walking.
Now, so many nights later, he still walked. He could smell something on the air, something that smelled like the great waters he had encountered long before, but different. It smelled like blood. Perhaps, he thought, this is it. Perhaps these are the waters that birth the sun. The other waters had been vast, but drinkable. Perhaps these would not be.
He sniffed the wind. The waters would not be far away. He turned, and stepped onto one of the small rivers of black stone, one of countless that he had stepped on before. He sniffed the air again and sneezed. The bloodwater smell was still there, under the horrible smell of the stone river. He sneezed again but knew he was on the right path. The curse he was under would be erased. The one he had set would begin. The people of stone and death would find themselves hunted as he was hunted. Murdered as his people had been murdered. Hounded out of their homes as -
One of the great beasts of the river slammed into him, and the long walker cried out in pain. He flew through the air and felt bones break as he hit. His breath felt slow and painful and wet.
The great beast stopped with a terrible screeching sound and the smell of the river. Its burning eyes were trained on the long walker, and he wanted to run. But his legs wouldn’t move.
One of the people of stone and death was there, coming off of (out of?) the great beast of the river. It was yelling and chattering and moving about. Celebrating, no doubt. Celebrating one more murder at its hands.
The person – the soft, murderous person – leaned down over the long walker, chattering away. The long walker felt every break, pain that stabbed in every part. Blood filled his mouth, his nose, his eyes. He would not reach the waters of the sun. He would not bathe and be free.
But that did not mean he would fail.
“My curse,” he said to the person, who did not hear him. “My curse is your curse now.” He breathed as deeply as he could, until the pain was too much to bear. And then, in one long sigh, he let it out. His own curse would take hold, flying back to his homeland on his last breath, and taking root in every place he had touched and marked. The people of stone and death would know his fear and his pain and his solitude.
His vision dimmed, and his hearing faded. The smell of the bloodwater, the waters of the birth of the sun, lingered long in his nose until he was gone.
Randall took off his tie and slumped into a folding chair in the back of the parlor. The house was filled with people in black, milling about with little paper plates, warmed-over finger foods and expressions of sympathy on their faces. The casket was at the far end of the room, open to the world and surrounded by a magnificent display of flowers. No one was standing there now, paying their respects or remarking on how lifelike Dominic looked. They just chatted and gossiped and every now and then looked his way to see if he had broken down yet.
After this funeral, he thought he might. He didn’t after Wally’s. Or Ari’s. But this one, maybe. Three funerals, three brothers in as many years. This might be the one where he finally got the chance to drop out of grad school, curl up in a ball and go to pieces.
The crowd shifted and he saw Calvin sitting next to the casket, and Randall’s heart broke. Cal was still a teenager. Still skinny and lanky, and he looked utterly fragile and alone over there. Tears welled up in Randall’s eyes. Cal should have brothers. He should have brothers to show him how to grow up, how to become the good man that he should be. He could see it all in his head, the life that should have been. Ari would have been a model husband, a great example of how to find the right woman and make a relationship work. He and Keisha would have been married by now, if it hadn’t been for the car accident. They would have been beautiful together.
Wally was the risk-taker, the one who knew what he wanted and how to get it. So unlike Randall, or their parents. Wally saw opportunities everywhere and was not shy about chasing after them. Before he died, before the heart attack, he was poised to start his own company. A risk management company, of all things. Their father was ready to put his money in, which was proof of just how good Wally was. His parents had plenty of money, but neither of them was very fond of taking chances with it. Golden-tongued Wally convinced him.
Randall shook his head. A heart attack. Who the hell has a heart attack at thirty-five? That still angered him, but his father said there had been an uncle or two, one grandfather, who’d had heart problems young. “He just got unlucky,” he said. No one was sure if it was a blessing or a tragedy that it had hit him at home, after a big Thanksgiving meal. At least he was surrounded by family, instead of lying out in some godforsaken wilderness somewhere.
And now Dominic. Randall’s stomach clenched. Dom was between him and Cal, just starting college last year. He had graduated with honors, got into Aurelius College with ease, and everyone agreed that he would probably be President someday. He was easily the most well-liked person anyone knew. He somehow managed to bring people together who would have just as soon killed each other and lead them to work together before they knew what they were doing. He never told people what to do, never tricked them or lied to them or pitted one against the other. He just talked to them as if they were reasonable people who wanted the best for everyone. Somehow, against all odds, that worked. His service was the best-attended of the three.
He was closest to Cal, of course, so it hit hardest when he was mugged and murdered for his watch. A Rolex that their parents had given him as a graduation present.
Randall wiped his eyes. Three brothers, all of them better than him. He was studying business, learning how to be a middle-manager in some faceless corporation somewhere. He was single, and had been for a long time, and lived a life of remarkable mundanity. All he had going for him was his writing – he’d sold a couple of short stories in the last few years and had a novel he was working on. If anything would get him out of the shadow of his brothers, it would be that. Randall buried his head in his hands and started weeping quietly. Of all of them, why had he lived? The world wouldn’t miss Randall D’Amato very much at all.
“Hey.” Randall looked up through bleary eyes and saw Cal standing in front of him in the same tailored suit he’d worn for the last three funerals. He was starting to grow out of it, too. “You okay?” he asked.
Randall let out a half-laugh and wiped his eyes clear again. “No,” he said. “Not really.” He looked at his brother. “How about you?”
Cal shrugged and sat down on the sofa next to him. The kid was still young, about to enter high school, and didn’t know what he was going to be yet. He played the guitar really well, and was the lead in the drama club’s last production. But he also had a thing for machines – airplanes and cars mostly. He got an old-school chemistry set from their grandparents and went through every experiment in the workbook within a week. He took care of stray animals, drew pictures, and excelled at math. Randall patted Cal’s knee, and the boy looked over at him. “We’ll be okay,” he said.
Cal nodded. “I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he said. His voice cracked, a hint of who he would be someday.
“Yeah, kid. Me too.”
They sat in silence for a minute or two. “You know who I feel really sorry for?” Cal asked. Randall looked over. “Mom and dad.” He looked around until he spotted them and Randall followed his gaze. His mother was sitting in the antique rocker, the one she’d nursed all five of her boys in, and looked burned out. People kept coming over to say how terrible they felt, what a tragedy it was, and she just nodded like a mechanical doll. She was already gone. Their father was a little better. He stood next to the chair, weakly shaking hands and making sure people didn’t linger too long with his wife.
Randall nodded and felt the shame run down to his toes. He had been feeling sorry for himself, worrying about his own insignificance, when these two people had just done the unthinkable a third time – they had buried a child. When Wally died, they had fallen to pieces, but they vowed to be strong, to carry on in his name. When Ari died, they were confused for a while. Depressed. Their father started to drink. Now Dominic’s death had broken them.
“Jesus,” he said.
Randall shook his head. “I was all wound up in my own problems. I wasn’t thinking of them. God, I’m an ass…”
Cal put his arm around his brother and pulled him close, a gesture of kindness that drove Randall back into wet, quiet sobs. They sat that way for a while, until Randall was able to compose himself. “It’s okay,” Cal whispered. “You don’t have to be the strong one here.”
Randall looked over. “Huh?”
Cal waited until his brother’s eyes focused on him and then leaned in. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you are too wrapped up in yourself.” He reached up and wiped away tears from Randall’s face. “I can’t blame you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe you should just… go.”
“What?” Randall sat up straight. “Go? Go where?”
Cal looked around and hushed him. “Look, Randy. It’s you and me now, right? Mom and dad, they’re in their own world now, and I understand.” Cal’s face was close to Randall’s now, and his voice was stronger than he’d expected. He kept their gazes locked, and it seemed that Cal blinked a lot less than he should. “You’re off studying to be, what, a cube-dweller?” He shrugged. “If that’s what you want to be, then fine. If that’s what you want to do to honor our brothers…”
The shame that Randall had been holding on to flared into rage. “Now you just wait right there, Cal,” he growled. “I have a plan. I’m doing what I want to do with my life.”
“Are you?” Cal’s voice was flat and even, and Randall knew the answer immediately.
He slumped back in the chair and stared at the far wall, at a point just above where Dom’s casket sat. “No.”
“There you go,” Cal said. He patted Randall on the back. “Mom and Dad are in a bad place right now. I’ve been there this whole time, I know what they’re going through. I can take care of this.” He patted him again. “You’ll probably just be in the way.” He stood up, took Randall’s arm, and lifted him to his feet. “C’mon. Why don’t you go home?”
Randall let himself be led by his brother out to the parking lot. They passed his parents on the way out, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He just stopped there and took his mother’s hand. It was cold and still and dry, and she didn’t look up at him. She just glanced over at Cal, took a shallow breath, and went back to staring straight ahead. Cal and Randall went outside, and the brisk November air was a relief after the stuffiness of the funeral parlor.
Randall got into his car, but didn’t start it. Cal stood there, holding the door open and looking remarkably adult for his age. “I’m really sorry, Randy,” he said. “I know it’s hard to hear, but on a day like today we really have to say what’s true. Not just what we think is true.” He leaned in and kissed his brother on the forehead. “We don’t need you,” he whispered. “Go home.”
Cal closed the car door and took a few steps back. He leaned on their parents’ Mercedes and clasped his hands in front of him. He didn’t wave. He just waited.
He was right. Randall twisted the key and the car started. They didn’t need him. And home? A single man’s apartment, no more than a dorm room. No girlfriend. No pets. He blinked a few times. Cal was right. They didn’t need him. Nobody needed him. And nobody would.
Randall swung the car around and lowered his window. Cal stood up straight. “Thanks, Cal,” Randall said. “Take… Take care of mom and dad for me.” Cal smiled, a tight, grim smile, and Randall rolled up the window.
It was a long drive home. He had some important decisions to make.