Havoc sat next to Cordell on the edge of the high hill. The whisperings of a storm gathered in the distance; one that would miss them this far beyond the mountains. It was a dry season this far south on the plateau; only patches of trees thrived near groundwater in between the bromegrass and prickly pear and scattered chaparral. The stars and the arm of the galaxy were ripe and apparent.
Remy had hunched down a short distance off, building a fire and cursing to herself.
The dog broke the silence.
Cordell chewed on some leaves from his pouch as he checked his ammunition. “Yeah. Wearing these… these things,” he said, nudging his Rig, “hurts. Sometimes.”
“Woman not care pain.”
Cordell chuckled. “Seems like you know what’s up.”
Havoc cocked his head. “Up? No. Sense only.”
“Yeah, well…” Cordell rocked back and sat on the ground. “We just had to deal with a… you say ‘dark thing’? Not easy to… uh, understand. You follow?”
“Many of…” Havoc snorted “… many things not follow.”
“But you sense things better than me.”
Havoc glanced at Remy’s fire. “Anger. Old.”
Cordell plucked a blade of grass. “Might not be wrong about that.”
The wind moved in little eddies over the waves of the field.
“Human-Prime. You all worry. Anger. Why?”
Cordell looked at Havoc. “Huh?”
“Odd. Other dog, sometimes hurting, beaten, have bad. Many times. I see this. But human, bigger thinking. Build. Command. Rule. Try to sense…” he shook his head “…hard to. Take pain, carry around, carry on back. You. Her. Why?”
Cordell sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t have a good answer, boy.”
“You worry of before? Or later?”
“Maybe both? Jesus, I don’t know. Bigger thinking isn’t all it’s… isn’t good all the time, Havoc.”
“You worry death?”
Cordell’s gaze locked onto Havoc. Havoc continued staring at the distant storm, smelling the air.
“Not want to die. Same. But worse for you. Much why.”
Cordell sighed. “This is way too complicated… like… too much to explain. To tell. Too big… thinking? You follow?”
Havoc turned his head to meet Cordell’s. “Cordell, Human-Prime. Think. Me. I have… thing? Inside. Inside-rain? Wind… moving-on?”
Remy swore in triumph as the fire grew.
Cordell’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”
Havoc sighed and snorted. “Inside. Inside me. Not-touch. No dying.”
“Are you… what…” Cordell turned towards Havoc “…are you asking if you have a soul?”
“Not sure. I die.” Havoc cocked his head again. “Then what? Humans speak worry. Odd.”
Miles away, the low thunder rumbled on.
“Havoc… there’s… I don’t even know the answer to that. I’m sorry. Look… I…”
“OK. Not sure?”
“Well, no. Does it matter? I think… whatever the case…” Cordell looked back at the storm. “… you’re like me.”
Havoc’s tail started wagging. “Yes?”
“Humans are animals too. Remember that. Just… bigger thinking.”
Havoc grinned and panted. “Too big!”
“Ha! Pretty much.”
“Not worry then?”
“Shit. I wouldn’t.”
“OK good.” Havoc looked towards Remy’s fire. She watched now as the storm skirted the mountains. “Work to do. Die later.”
Squaring off with the Flayer, Remy brought up her guns as the creature shook itself, spitting bright green droplets of acid from its pores. It growled low, fuming and expanding its torso in and out, the sensory bulb where its eyes should be locked on to her position.
Carried by the breezes, sand and dust wafted between them.
The Flayer’s growl changed into a hacking, guttural staccato of unnatural noise as its stance shifted, subtly. Its maw opened in a flash of sizzling drool and rows of shifting razor-teeth that seemed to burn in the setting blood-red desert sun.
Remy didn’t need a translator to understand being marked for death.
She released the safeties and emptied both SMGs into the beast, moving forward, concentrating the fire on its upper body. Knowing the bullets wouldn’t make a dent in the Flayer’s exoskeleton, she was merely buying a few seconds in order to gain the upper hand.
The beast hissed defiantly, spraying weak acid in front of it as it stood to absorb the shock of 900 rounds per minute. The acid arced through the air in little streams, splashing on Remy’s forcefield harmlessly.
It was the much stronger acid, inside the thing’s… stomach(?) …that worried her.
Close enough to close in, she dropped her guns right as they spent their clips, gathering forward momentum, hands dipping for the hip-sling that held her wakizashi & tomahawk.
The Flayer had other plans, it seemed.
Forcing the side of its right appendage to split open, the beast disconnected some of its own tendons. Remy’s lip curled to the sound of organic twisting and cracking as the tendons emerged and snaked into the air, weaving together and then apart. It, too, was buying time- trying to find a weakness. If it wrapped one around her tight enough, exo-forcefield or not, it could pull her in and attempt a killing bite, flooding her insides with caustic juices.
The crimson sunset deepened as a coyote’s howl pierced the desert gloaming.
A stuttering snarl escaped the Flayer’s seething maw as the tendons launched out towards her approach, splitting in disparate directions, searching for a hold.
Swiftly, abandoning caution, Remy exposed herself fully to the front, shifting all energy to her feet in a wave of centrifugal propulsion, bursting forward in a rising spin, using the momentum to help her draw her axe. Dust and rock kicked and spun out behind and to the sides in puffs of red.
Its prey having closed in much too quickly for the tendons to be effective, the Flayer shot its head forward to bite, bracing its frame for the fight.
Its head came in to meet the end of Remy’s dance perfectly. The axehead cracked exoskeleton just to the side and rear on the neck, biting through into the strange flesh below as she concentrated all the Rig’s energy into her blades. She could feel the shock- and purpose directed at her -from the Flayer’s sensory bulb as it fought between the opposing objectives of pulling free and sinking its razor-teeth deep into its prey.
The fight paused for a moment. Just long enough.
Redirecting energy to her trailing foot, she slammed it into one of the creature’s lower appendages, throwing its balance forward.
Flowing the energy back to the blades, she pulled down hard with the axe, drawing her shortsword out and up in one fluid motion. Remy snarled in defiance as the blade pierced through the upper maw and straight inside the sensory bulb.
Her face came to within inches of the creature’s.
Its life brought to a sudden end, the Flayer stiffened in ancient reflex, falling backwards as Remy’s growl heightened to a piercing cry. She yanked the blades out to a spray of internal liquids, kicking her foe down violently as she did so. It smacked into the dust as the crown of the red sun descended below the distant mountaintops.
Remy stood over the body, watching the desert drink up green acid and dark purple fluid, wondering not for the first time what would happen if these things existed- or came through -in greater numbers.
Sensing eyes on her, she turned to see Cordell standing some distance off, his grip relaxing on his gunsword. He hadn’t figured on testing her patience again by butting in, but just in case…
Havoc came trotting up around a patch of scrub, back from running down a smaller scout-beast, and sat next to Cordell. His eyes darted from Remy to the body of the Flayer and back. Remy watched Cordell radio Hector’s backup perch, confirming a final sweep and cleanup.
Little eddies of dust moved between them in the coming dark, and in the last vestiges of clear light Cordell saw Remy silhouetted in burning crimson, her eyes afire from the kill, her body bathed in battle.
Never taking her eyes from Cordell, she distributed her energy evenly, shunting a light propulsive blast outwards in all directions, cleansing herself of acid and blood in a hellish mist that caught the long and final rays of the setting sun.
Cordell nodded, he and Havoc turning to walk the distance back to the truck.
Night came on quietly, slowly turning to a moonish twilight as Remy followed them. She stopped only to mark another small notch near the base of her axe handle.
The hours of the night were approaching as the waters of the Mississippi crawled past the grassy river-edges west of town. All 70 lbs and 10 years of Chet Zalinsky sat barefoot on the bank, absentmindedly chucking rocks into the rolling and fluid maw.
His town was not rich enough in immediate land for regularly-hiring farms, nowhere near big enough for thriving business. Many men & women drove truck to get by, and they said Oqwuaka’s population had dwindled close to 700 this year. He had a rough idea this was a bad thing from the way the adults talked of it, but hadn’t the context to figure out exactly why – and didn’t want it. He’d just heard that his oldest sister had gone off to one of the Havens in Colorado with her boyfriend, and right now he had bigger fish to fry. Bigger rocks to throw.
“Y’know,” he sighed, flicking a pebble into the water, “I’ll probably never get a girlfriend with a name like Chet.”
Amberiah Martin squinted, shaking her head and looking up from the novel she’d been reading, partially assisted by flashlight. “What?”
“Like, it just stands to reason. ‘Specially if I stay here and take over the mechanic shop like Dad wants.”
“Stands to reason?”
“What he says when something’s dumb… but it kinda makes sense. So ya just gotta swallow it. Anyway, like. Think about it. I gotta go to college, or Chicago or Des Moines or whatever. If you stay in a small town, ya gotta have a cool name. Like… Brock. Or… Magnus. Small town, dumb name, no girlfriend.”
Amberiah’s tone was scolding. “You were named after your grandpa!”
Chet scoffed. “Yeah, so? Probably a cool name back then. Grandma must’ve thought so.” He raised his voice to a feminine falsetto. “Oh, Chet! You’re so handsome, Chet! Let’s go for a drive in your pick-em-up truck… Chet.” He shuddered.
Amberiah rolled her eyes. Generally speaking, men were way harder on themselves than women were- a mystery she figured to spend the rest of her life puzzling over. If she decided to care that long.
She looked at his eyes, clear and bright in the twilight as he stared across the banks of the Mississippi towards Iowa. “Well I don’t think it’s a dumb name.” She stood up, tossing her book into her backpack. “I think your worrying is what’s dumb.”
Chet looked up, scowling a bit. “It’s not dumb if it’s true.”
“What’s in here,” she said, point the flashlight’s beam at his head, “isn’t true half the time.”
“Hey!” he protested, throwing a hand up to block the light.
“Well it’s not! That’s what my dad says. And I think your worries are just a bunch of bulls**t.”
Chet stood up quickly. “Jesus! Don’t swear!”
“Well don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” she countered in a mocking tone.
They stared at each other for a moment as the river swept by, a force unimpeded.
She pointed the beam at his chest. “You should listen to what’s in there. Instead.”
Chet groaned, shutting his eyes and bouncing his arms against his sides. “Yeah. Ok. Sure.”
Amberiah clicked off her light and went for her bike. “Trust me,” she said, turning her head to glance at him before mounting, “I think the only people who ever left… that’s what they did. Not what you’re doing. Like a dummy.”
He flung a pebble at her backpack as she started to ride away. “See you tomorrow!” she called. “You can show me that dead deer!”
“OK!” he shouted after her. “IT’S PRETTY COOL!”
“DOUBT IT! SOUNDS GROSS!” she called back before disappearing down the dirt road into the approaching night.
Chet sighed again, glaring up at the early stars, daring fate for a sign.
His holowatch beeped at him. 8:00 PM. “Ah s**t.”
Throwing down his handful of rocks, he ran over to his own bike and mounted up, taking one last glance at the river.
He pedaled about a mile in the opposite direction his friend had taken, thinking to check on the deer carcass. If it was already gone, he’d have to think of something else cool to show her.
Maybe we could go look for arrowheads or something.
His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a long-unused mailbox, signaling his memory’s milestone for the unfortunate deer- a young buck, a four-pointer.
He’d already been toying with the notion of sneaking some of dad’s tools out here to remove the horns- of course, for what purpose, he wasn’t quite sure. Pretending to be a war chief with a hunting trophy was pretty much the beginning and end of Chet’s line of reasoning. He smiled at the thought of lashing them to his bike handles- a smile that was quickly erased at the thought of his mother’s potential reaction. Oh well. Worry about it later.
Night was upon the town now, having swallowed most of the daylight save for a thin, hazy line on the Iowan horizon. Cicadas sang incessantly alongside crickets and peepers, a bright but waning moon just starting to show as little breezes rustled the thickets and taller grasses.
Noticing the smeared trail leaving the main road from the deer’s impact site, its blood-remnants already disappearing to the dust and gravel, he dismounted.
The doomed buck had, somehow, staggered across the road to a smaller, overgrown path leading to a long-abandoned farmhouse. Treelines flanking the path- planted generations ago -now rose above the boy, their leaves and branches whispering in the dark.
Chet shuddered again, but for more immediate reasons.
He steeled himself, pressing on. Just a quick look. Make sure. He hummed to himself as he crossed the road, pausing briefly next to the rusted and bent mailbox, its names long faded out. “Quick look. Then home.”
He was only about 100 feet in when he recognized the spot. Moonlight filtered down on the bloody patch of earth, giving it the appearance of a druidic altar. He’d read about druids in school. He let out the breath he’d been holding in, realizing the deer had fallen closer to the main road than he remembered.
His breath caught again as he approached.
There were no antlers.
Chet frowned, curious. Had it been a doe? This whole time? No.Come on. I know better than that.
He moved quietly, angling himself around so he could see the front of the carcass.
Suddenly, the summer night seemed noticeably colder.
You needed to have a head to have antlers.
He quieted his breathing, feeling his pulse quicken against his will. The treelines seemed oppressive as he crouched, gazing down the path to the old farmhouse.
“Stop it,” he whispered to himself. “Animal got to it. Or older kids.”
Looking back down at the body, he squinted in the moonglow, leaning towards the neck. A thin trail of viscera ran out of it, fresher than the dried blood on the dirt.
The head had been cut clean. Chet was no expert, but he’d read enough books to know something didn’t add up. The line was too neat. A single, clean cut, with the hair all around the outer edge singed darkly. “Lightsaber,” he mused out loud.
Chet suddenly wished he’d followed Amberiah home.
Trying his best to remain cognizant of all his angles of visibility, he stepped as quickly as he could across the gravel while remaining as quiet as possible back down to the main road.
A staccato clicking and alternate deep thrumming emanated from the darkened grove of trees to his left. Chet stopped in mid-stride even as instinct pushed him to run.
His pulse quickened further, and a slight ringing tinged the edge of his hearing as his senses sharpened. He found himself involuntarily breathing through his mouth, not daring to make a single unnecessary noise.
It’s a bird. It’s an insect. It’s night. It’s normal.
One of the thrums changed to a reverse-sucking noise that ended in three drawn-out organic clicks.
It’s normal. Click-Click. Something thumped in the dark. Click.
Click. Behind him.
In the center of the sputtering, pounding, ungodly terror building inside him, Chet sensed a tiny point of calm. Well, he thought, forget college. No girls when you’re dead.
He forced his eyes open and spun around. Gravel crunched under his sneakers.
Nothing was there.
He could see his bike across the main road, past the mailbox. He swore through clenched teeth.
Three quick, queitish steps were all Chet made before the loud thumps behind him, towards the house, made him stop again. He felt a residual anger building as the adrenaline coursed through him.
He spun around in a fighting stance, ready to speak or scream.
His mouth dropped open.
The creature was unnatural.
A looming, darkened bulk of organic mass balanced between two thick appendages that seemed to serve as both arms and legs. It had no other limbs, standing on knuckles as big as Chet’s head underneath its backwards-jointed trunks. Rivulets of bone-shaded exoskeleton ran up and down the limbs and across its body, to a smaller mass- where a head, by all rights, should have been. Three bulbous growths joined together there, angling towards Chet. Three large slits reminiscent of gills ran down either side of the creature’s body on its lower sides, expanding and contracting slowly and rhythmically.
It was twice as tall as Chet’s oldest brother.
Chet said the only thing that came to mind after years of American television.
“Come. In peace. I-c-come-in-p-peace,” he said, managing to squeeze the words out of his panic. He turned his hands over and opened his palms.
The creature’s bulbs followed the movement.
Chet held his ground. Maybe this was his Iron Giant moment.
A vertical line suddenly appeared at the top of the creature’s chest, running down slowly to the bottom of its front mass. It took a couple lumbering steps forward, body swaying in balance, a massive and logic-defying aberration. Gills hissed as its chest split open.
Chet’s mouth dropped open again as lines of pulsing purple bioluminescence ran along the ridges of its exoskeleton.
Numerous, smaller snakelike appendages shot out of its chest, making more organic sucking sounds as they wrapped around the sides of the chest cavity, forcing it to open wider.
Two larger tentacles terminating in hard, edged structures as large as his dad’s arms emerged, slowly.
One was wrapped around the antlers of a deer’s head.
Presenting the head to Chet’s trembling form, the creature waved the other tentacle close to it. The blade-edge of the free appendage glowed a fierce orange, and it swiped it back and forth underneath the deer’s head.
Holding the head steady and pulling it back a bit, the creature opened a small hole underneath its head-bulbs. A thin, singular, darker tentacle snaked out, heading for the bottom of the deer’s neck. The creature paused for a moment, trying to find purchase on the spinal chord.
It jacked in and the deer’s head came to life, eyes rolling and tongue flashing out of its mouth.
To Chet’s credit, he didn’t go from insanely terrified to scared f**kall s**tless until that moment. His mind blank, he ran for his bike, not looking back; just hoping to make it home.
No one would believe him.
Well. Maybe Amberiah.
Chet wondered if there were monsters in Seattle. Or Canada. Or Antarctica.
Or the Haven his sister had gone to.
The creature waited until the sounds of Chet’s bike stopped making patterns in the atmosphere before lumbering back to the deer’s carcass. Leaning forward, it analyzed the body again, then leaned back and held the severed head up to its bulbs. It shifted, turning in the direction of the road again. Its bioluminescence faded in the dark.
Sucking its tentacles- and microphone -back into its body, it sealed up its chest before thundering off through the thickets into the grove.
There was a deep hum, a sound somewhere between a whoosh and a large tearing, followed a second later by an immense, localized gravitational pull. Thickets cracked and trees bent, only to reassert themselves an instant later as spacefabric normalized.
And then there was nothing but crickets and owls and a late summer breeze drifting over the Mississippi river.
The meeting-place beckoned up ahead, the setting sun embracing the giant tree in the coming twilight.
Small eddies of dust and cottonwood puffs danced in the rays.
The ground and the grass smelled lush, full of memory. The scent invaded him, goaded him, kissed him.
His blood continued to drip onto the dirt as his boots scuffed along the road.
In front of the word ‘dead’ is a decent place to put the word ‘almost’, he thought.
The lacerations would heal in time. The defeat, at the very least, could be learned from.
His vision blurred as the tree got closer.
He slowed his pace, slowed his breath. Vision returned. Mostly.
The tree waved its arms in worship of the sinking sun.
His breath caught.
There was a note tacked to the tree.
He steadied himself against the trunk and pulled the note off, wiping the sweat from his eyes with his forearm.
He looked around, and saw the desolate peace of nature staring back. Nothing else.
He read the note.
>Take care of yourself.
>You need to heal.
He looked up, nodding at nothing in particular.
She hadn’t bothered to sign it. No need.
He spat into the dust with force, and almost crumpled the note before creasing it delicately and sliding it into the only pocket that wasn’t spattered with a mixture of bloods.
He slept there until sunrise, bandaged himself as best he could, and continued on the western road.
Having the rug pulled out from under your feet is one thing.
Waiting in a place such as this, he reckoned, amounted to suicide, which is another thing entirely. If the bandits didn’t blow your face off, the echoes and whispers from the path behind would surely drown you.
The cottonwood waved in the wind, and bid him farewell.
“Well?” she asked, green eyes smiling under a mass of white hair. “Do you want the story… or the truth?”
The boy blinked. He hadn’t prepared for anything… profound. Most of the time, an adult (even a great-grandparent) had sat him down with the notion of “Alright now, listen to this and GO TO SLEEP.” He knew, for instance, that B always came after A; and that the hero was generally allowed to kill or break whatever got in his way, and that the girl was always waiting for him since she had nothing better to do.
But this? The story? The truth? He tried to concentrate as he nursed his glass of milk.
“Um… which one is more exciting?”
She pursed her lips and sucked at her teeth for a few seconds.
“Well now… that all depends on what excites you. There is Dark in the story. We revel in it. The Dark is engulfing, and comforting. It fills in the cracks and holes of life. When we sink into darkness, in sleep, our minds create and live in stories.
Yet there is Light in the truth. It illuminates and cleanses, and sometimes is uncomfortable. When we are awake, we argue the Light; especially our own version of it.
It is said that Light travels fast, little one. Faster than anything. But wherever the Light goes, the Dark is there. Waiting. This is not a battle, so much as a… balance.”
His eyes were wide as he contemplated the universe at large for the first time. He felt as though he was vaguely in trouble for something he couldn’t remember doing.
“So,” she said, “choose.”
Her mouth turned up the wrinkles in its corners.
“Which one? The story… or the truth?”
The boy looked at her for a few seconds, testing invisible waters.
“Why can’t we have both?”
Her eyes widened slightly.
Her head cocked back as she laughed.
“Oh!” she said, still chuckling. “There may be hope for you yet.”
He grinned and sipped his milk.
“I’ll do you one better than the story or the truth.”