Stories


15
Jul 11

THE INCORPORATED – a portion of the forthcoming new edition of A SONG CALLED YOUTH: BOOK ONE, ECLIPSE

by John Shirley on Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 5:13pm

[The following is a portion of A SONG CALLED YOUTH, Eclipse. It was first published in the 1980s by Warner books. Much of this section was also in a short story called The Incorporated that appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It occurred to me as I prepared it for a new edition that it could have inspired some of the movie ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. A little too close in spots. Whatever. Anyway, I do think that it's one of the most prescient things I wrote. The specific-area memory erasure has recently come true; the little flying spybird device has come true; the banking kiosks have come true. We don't have the cool holograms yet however. But I do think we're on the brink of having Technicki. Other aspects, political aspects, also seem prescient. The particular style of corporatism seems to be coming true...So--this works as a short story. But it's also part of the novel...I haven't had time to perfectly format the paragraphing...]

#

His name was James Kessler, and he was walking east on Fourteenth Street, looking for something. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. He was walking through a misty November rain. The street was almost deserted. He was looking for something, something, the brutally colorless word something hung heavily in his mind like an empty frame.

What he thought he wanted was to get in, out of the weather. Walking in rain made him feel naked, somehow. And acid rain, he thought, could make you naked, if you wore the kind of syn-threads that reacted with the acids.

Up ahead the eternal neon butterfly of a Budweiser sign glowed sultry orange-red and blue; the same design since sometime in the twentieth century. He angled across the sidewalk, pitted concrete the color of dead skin, hurrying toward the sign, toward the haven of a bar. The rain was already beginning to sting. He closed his eyes against it, afraid it would burn his corneas.

He pushed through the smudge-bruised door into the bar. The bartender glanced up, nodded to himself, and reached under the counter for a towel; he passed the towel across to Kessler. The towel was treated with acid-absorbents; it helped immediately.

“Get any in your eyes?” the bartender asked with no real concern.

“No, I don’t think so.” He handed the towel back. “Thanks.” The tired-faced men drinking at the bar hardly glanced at Kessler. He was unremarkable: round-faced, with short black hair streaked blue-white to denote his work in video editing; large friendly brown eyes, soft red mouth pinched now with worry; a standard printout grey-blue suit.

The bartender said something else, but it didn’t register. Kessler was staring at the glowing green lozenge of a credit transferal kiosk in the back of the dim, old-fashioned bar. He crossed to it and stepped in; the door hissed shut behind him. The small TV screen on the front of the phone lit up, and its electronic letters asked him, “Do you want Call or Entry?”

What did he want? Why had he come to the kiosk? He wasn’t sure. But it felt right. A wave of reassurance had come over him…Ask it what your balance is, a soundless voice whispered to him. Again he felt a wave of reassurance. But he thought: Something’s out of place…

He knew his mind as a man knows his cluttered desk; he knows when someone has moved something on his desk–or in his mind. And someone had.

He punched ENTRY and it asked him his account number and entry pin. He punched the digits in, then told it he wanted to see his bank balance. It told him to wait. Numbers appeared on the screen.

$NB 760,000.

He stared at it. He punched for error check and confirmation.

The bank’s computer insisted that he had 760,000 newbux in his bank account.

There should be only 4,000.

Something was missing from his memory; something had been added to his bank account.

They tampered with me, he thought, and then they paid me for it.

He requested the name of the depositor. The screen told him: Unrecorded.

Julie. Talk to Julie. There was just no one else he discussed his projects with till they were patented and on-line. No one. His wife had to know.

Julie. He could taste her name in his mouth. Her name tasted like bile.

Julie had been home only a few minutes, Kessler decided, as he closed the door behind him. Her coat was draped over the back of the couch, off-white on off-white. She liked things off-white or gray or powder blue, and that’s how the place was decorated. Kessler liked rich, earthy colors, but she considered them vulgar, so that was that.

She was bent down to the minifridge behind the breakfast bar. She stood up, a frosted bottle of Stolichnaya in her hand. “Hi, Jimmy.”

She almost never called him Jimmy.

Julie came out with a vodka straight-up and a twist of lime for each of them. He’d learned to like vodka. She padded across the powder-blue rug in bare feet, small feet sexy in sheer hose; she was tall and slender and long-necked. Her hair was the yellow of split pine, cut short as a small boy’s, and parted on the side. She was English and looked it; her eyes were immaculate blue crystals. She wore her silk-lined, coarse-fiber, off-white dress suit. She looked more natural in her suits than in anything else. She had “casuals’ to wear at home, but somehow she never wore them. Maybe because that would be a concession to home life, would almost be a betrayal of the corporation family she belonged to. Like having children. What was it she said about having children? If you don’t mind, I’ll continue to resist the programming of my biological computer. When DNA talks, I don’t listen. I don’t like being pushed into something by a molecule. He took off his coat, hung it up, and sat down beside her on the couch. The vodka, chilled with no ice, waited for him on the glass coffee table. He took a drink and said, “There’s seven hundred and sixty thousand newbux in my bank account.” He looked at her. “What did they take?”

Her eyes went a little glassy. “Seven hundred and sixty thousand? Computer error.”

“You know it’s not.” He took another sip. The Stoly’s was syrupy thick from being kept in the freezer. “What did you tell Worldtalk?”

“Are you accusing me of something?” She said it with her icy Vassar incredulousness then, like, I can’t believe anyone could be so painfully unsophisticated.

“I’m accusing Worldtalk. And…you’re theirs. They do as they like with you, Julie. If Worldtalk says it’s not team-playing to have kids, you don’t have kids. If Worldtalk says listen for anything that might be useful, you listen. Even at home. You know, you wouldn’t have had to quit your job—I can understand you wanting to have a career. We could have had the kid with a surrogate or an artificial womb. Gotten a nanny. They don’t want employees, at Worldtalk, they want to own you…’

It’s childish to go over and over this. Worldtalk has nothing to do with my decision not to have children. I worked eight years—”

“I know it by rote: you worked night years to be assistant Second Vice Prez in the country’s biggest PR and advertising outfit. You tell me having children is demeaning! Eight years  licking Grimwald’s boots—that’s demeaning! Going to Worldtalk’s Family Sessions for hours at a time–”

She stood up, arms rigid at her sides. “Well, why not! Corporation families last.”

A “corporate family’ isn’t a real family. They’re using you. Look what they got you to do! To me!”

You got some seven hundred thousand newbux. That’s more than you would ever have made on any of your harebrained schemes. If you worked for one of the big companies you’d be making decent money in the first place. You insist on being freelance, so you’re left out in the cold, and you should be grateful for what they—” She snipped the sentence in two with a brisk sibilance and turned away.

“So we’ve dropped the pretenses now. You’re saying I should be grateful for the money Worldtalk gave me. Julie—what did they take from my memory?”

I don’t know! You didn’t tell me what you were working on and–anyway I don’t believe they took anything. I—goddamnit.” She went to the bathroom to pointedly take her Restem, making a lot of noise opening the prescription bottle so he’d hear and know it was his fault she had to take a tranquilizer.

***

Kessler was in a bar with his attorney, Bascomb. Herman Bascomb was drunk, and drugged. The disorder of his mind  seemed splashed onto the room around him: the dancers, the lights, the holograms that made it look, in the smoky dimness, as if someone was there dancing beside you who wasn’t. A touristy couple on the dance floor stopped and stared at another couple: horned, half-human, half-reptile, she with her tongue darting from between rouged lips; he with baroque fillips of fire flicking from his flattened nostrils. The touristy couple laughed off their embarrassment when the DJ turned off the holo and the demon couple vanished.

Bascomb chuckled and sucked some of his cocaine fizz through a straw that lit up with miniature advertisements when it was used, lettering flickering luminous green up and down its length. Bascomb was young, tanned, and preppie; he wore an iridescent Japanese Action Suit.

Sitting beside him, Kessler squirmed on his barstool and ordered another scotch. He was’t comfortable with Bascomb like this. Kessler was used to seeing Bascomb in his office, a neat component of Featherstone, Pestlestein, and Bascomb, Attorneys at Law, friendly but not too friendly, intense but controlled.

My own fault, Kessler told himself; chase the guy down when he’s off work, hassle his wife till she tells me where he hangs out, find out things I don’t want to know. Like the fact that he’s bisexual and flirting with the waiter.

The bar was circular, rotating slowly through the club, leaving the dance floor behind now to arrive at the cruising rooms. As they talked it turned slowly past flesh-pink holographic porn squirmings and edged into the soft music lounge. Each room had its own idiosyncratic darkness, shot through with the abstracted glamour of the candy-apple-red and hot-pink and electric-blue neon running up the corners to zigzag the ceiling like a time-lapse photo of nighttime traffic. The kitschy design was another annoyance for Kessler.

Bascomb turned on his stool to look at the porn and the live copulation; his mouth was open in a lax smile. Kessler looked over his shoulder. Again in the dimness the holos were nearly indistinguishable from the real article; a drunken swinger tried to fondle a woman with four breasts, only to walk through her, discovering her unreal. “Do we have to talk here?” Kessler asked, turning back to the bar.

Bascomb ignored the question and returned to an earlier one. “The bottom line, Jim, is that you are a nobody. Now, if you were, say a Nobel-Prize-winning professor at Stanford, we might be able to get you your day in court, we might get a grand jury to investigate the people at Worldtalk…” Bascomb was talking without looking away from the intermingling porn and people. “But as it is you’re a mildly successful video editor who makes a hobby of working up a lot of rather ingenuous media theories. Every day some crank or someone looking for attention announces a Great Idea has been stolen from their brains, and ninety-nine percent of the time they turn out to be paranoids or liars or both. I’m not saying you’re a paranoid or a liar. I believe you. I’m just saying I’m probably the only one who will.”

“But I have the seven hundred sixty thousand NB…that shouldn’t be there. That out to be proof of something.”

“Did you request the name of the depositor?”

“Unrecorded.”

“Then how are you going to prove a connection?”

“I don’t know. But I know an idea was stolen from me. I want it back, Bascomb. And I can’t work it up again on my own from scratch—they took all my notes, files, recent research, everything that could lead me back to it.”

“Sucks.” Bascomb said sympathetically. They had rotated into the lounge; people on couches watched videos and conversed softly. Sometimes they were talking to holos; you knew when you were talking to a holo because they said outrageous things. They were programmed that way to ease the choking boredom of lounge-bar conversation.  “I want it back, Bascomb.” Kessler repeated, his knuckles white on the rim of the bar.

Bascomb shrugged and said, “You haven’t been in this country long; maybe you don’t know how it works. First off, you have to understand that…” He paused to sip from his cocaine fizz; he became more animated almost instantly, chattering on: “You have to understand that you can’t get it back the way it was taken. Whoever it was probably came in while you were asleep. Which adds credence to your theory that Julie was involved. She waits up or pretends to sleep, lets them in, they gas you to keep you out, shoot you up with the receptivity drug. They’ve got microsurgicals in the big box they’ve brought with them, right? They look at the screen they’ve set up that translates your impulses into a code they can understand. They get some dream free-association maybe. But that tells them they’re “on-line’ in your brain. Then they put a request to the brain, fed into it in the form of neurohormonal transmitter molecules they manufacture in their box—”

“How do you know so much about this?” Kessler asked, unable to keep the edge of suspicion out of his voice.

“We get a case like yours once or twice a year. I did a lot of research on it. The ACLU has a small library on the subject. It really gets their goat. We didn’t win those cases, by the way; they’re tough to prove…” He paused to sip his fizz, his eyes sparkling and dilated. Kessler was annoyed by Bascomb’s treating his case like a conversation piece.

“Let’s get back to what happened to me.”

“Okay, uh—so they made a request to the biological computer we call a brain, right? They asked it what it knew about whatever it was they wanted to take from you, and your brain automatically begins to think about it and sends signals to the cortex of the temporal lobes or to the hippocampus; they “ride’ the electrochemical signals back to the place where the information is stored. They use tracer molecules that attach themselves to the chemical signals. When they reach the hippocampus or the temporal lobes, the tracer molecules act as enzymes to command the brain to simply unravel that particular chemical code. They break it down on the molecular level. They extract some things connected to it, and the chain of ideas that led to it, but they don’t take so much they make you an idiot because they probably want your wife to cooperate and to stay with Worldtalk. You might not be close but she’s doesn’t need the guilt. Anyway, the brain chemistry is such that you can ask the brain a question with neurohumoral transmitter molecules, but you can’t imprint on the memory, in an orderly way. You can feed in experiences, things which seem to be happening now—you can even implant them ready-made so they crop up at a given stimulus—but you can’t feed in ready-made memories. Probably that’s “cause memories are holographic, involving complexes of cell groups, Like you can pull a thread to unravel a coat fairly easily but you can’t ravel it back up so easily…Look at that exquisite creature over there, she’s lovely, isn’t she? Like to do some imprinting on her. I wonder if she’s real. Uh, anyway…You can’t put it back in. They take out, selectively, any memory of anything that might make you suspect they tampered with you, but lots of people begin to suspect anyway, because when they free associate over familiar pathways of the brain and then come to a gap—well, it’s jarring. But they can’t prove anything.”

“Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.”

“Yeah. I guess it would be better than nothing. But you still have to find out who took it. Even if it turns up as someone else’s project—proves nothing. They could have come up with it the same way you did. And you should ask yourself this: Why did they take it? Was it simply for profit or was it for another reason? The bigger corporations have a network of agents. Their sole job is to search out people with development ideas that could be dangerous to the status quo. They try to extract the ideas from the guy’s before they are copyrighted or patented or published in papers or discussed in public. They take the idea from you, maybe plant some mental inhibitors to keep you from working your way back to it again. If you came up with an idea that was really dangerous to the status quo, Jimmy, they might go farther than a simple erasing next time. Because they play hardball. If you keep pushing to get it back, they just might arrange for you to turn up dead. Accidents happen.”

***

But riding the elevator up to his apartment, trying to come to terms with it, Kessler realized it wasn’t death that scared him. What chilled him was thinking about his wife.

Julie had waited till he’d slept. Had, perhaps, watched the clock on the bedside table. Had gotten out of bed at the appointed hour and padded to the door and ever-so-quietly opened it for the man carrying the black box…

And she had done it  simply because Worldtalk had asked her to. Worldtalk was her husband, her children, her parents. Perhaps most of all her dreadful parents.

And maybe in the long run what had happened to him, Kessler thought–as the elevator reached his floor–was that the Dissolve Depression had done its work on him. For decades the social structures that created nuclear families, that kept families whole and together, had eroded, had finally broken down completely. Broken homes made broken homes made broken homes. The big corporations, meanwhile, consumed the little ones, and, becoming then unmanageably big, looked for ways to stabilize themselves. They chose the proven success of the Japanese system: the corporation as an extension of the family. You inculcate your workers with a fanatic sense of loyalty and belonging. You personalize everything. And they go along with that–or lose their jobs. So maybe it started with the Dissolve Depression. Jobs were more precious than ever. Jobs were life. So you embraced the new corporation as home and family system. The breakdown of the traditional family structures reinforced the process. And you put your employer above your true family. You let its agents in to destroy your husband’s new career…

And here we are, he thought, as he walked into the apartment.

There she is, making us both a drink, so we can once more become cordial strangers sharing a convenient apartment and a convenient sex life.

***

Aren’t you coming to bed?” she called from the bedroom.

He sat on the couch, holding his glass up beside his ear, shaking it just enough so he could listen to the tinkle of the ice cubes. The sound made him feel good and he wondered why. It made him visualize wind chimes of frosted glass…his mother’s wind chimes. His mother standing on the front porch, smiling absently, watching him play, and now and then she would reach up and tinkle the wind chimes with her finger…He swallowed another tot of vodka to smear over the chalky scratch of loneliness.

“You really ought to get some sleep, Jimmy.” There was just a faint note of strain in her voice.

He was scared to go in there.

This is stupid, he thought. I don’t know for sure it was her. She hadn’t exactly admitted it. “That was just  a hypothetical,” she’d said later.

He forced himself to put the glass down, to stand, to walk to the bedroom, to do it all as if he weren’t forcing himself through the membranes of his mistrust.

He stood in the doorway and looked at her for a moment. She was wearing her silk lingerie. She was lying with her back to him. He could see her face reflected in the window across from her. Her eyes were open wide. In them he saw determination and self-disgust, and then he knew she had contacted them, told them that he knew. And the strangers were going to do it to him again. They would come and take out more this time–his conversation with her about the money, his talk with Bascomb, his misgivings. They would take away the hush money they had paid him since he had shown he was unwilling to accept it without pushing to get back what he had lost…

Go along with it, he told himself.

That would be the intelligent solution. Let them do it. Sweet nepenthe. The pain and the fear and the anger would go with the memories. And he would have his relationship with his wife back. Such as it was.

He thought about it for a moment. She turned to look at him.

“No.” he said finally. “No, we don’t have enough between us to make it worthwhile. No. Tell them I said next they’ll have to try and kill me.”

She stared at him. Then she lay back and looked at the ceiling.

He closed the bedroom door softly behind him and went to the closet for his coat.

***

They hadn’t taken the money yet. It was still there in his account. He had gone to an all-night credit kiosk, sealed himself in, and now he looked at the figure, $NB 760,000, and felt a kind of glow. He punched for the telephone and called Charlie Chesterton.

The screen asked him, “You want visual?”

“No.” he told it, “not yet.”

“Sap?” came Charlie’s voice. “Huzatun wushant”

Wake Charlie out of a sound sleep, and he’d talk technicki. What’s happenin’? Who’s that and what do you want?

“Talk standard with me, Charlie. It’s—”

“Hey, my neggo! Kessler, what’s happening, man! Hey, how come no visual?”

“I didn’t know what you were doing. I’m ever discreet.” He punched for visual and a small TV image of Charlie appeared below the phone’s keyboard. Charlie wore a triple-Mohawk, each fin a different color, each color significant; red in the middle for Technicki Radical Unionist; blue on the right for his profession, video tech; green on the left of his neighborhood, New Brooklyn–an artificial island. He grinned, showing front teeth imprinted with his initials in gold, another tacky technicki fad. And Charlie wore a picture T-shirt that showed a movie: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, now moving through the flood scene.

“You went to sleep wearing your movie T-shirt, you oughta turn it off, wear out the batteries.”

“Recharges from sunlight.” Charlie said. “You call me to talk about my sleeping habits?”

“Need your help. Right now, I need the contact numbers for the Shanghai bank that takes transferals under anonymity…”

“I told you, man, that’s like, the border of legality, and maybe over it. You understand that first, right?”

Kessler nodded.

“Okay, neggo. Fuck it. Set your screen to record…But for the record this is on you, I ain’t doing any such transferral…”

***

Bascomb’s office was too warm; Bascomb had a problem with his circulation. The walls were a milky yellow that seemed to quicken the heat somehow. Bascomb sat behind the blond-wood desk, wearing a stenciled-on three-piece suit, smiling a smile of polite bafflement. Kessler sat across from him, feeling he was on some kind of treadmill, because Bascomb just kept saying, “I really am quite sure no such meeting took place between you and me, Kessler.” He chuckled. “I know the club very well, and I’m sure I’d remember if I’d been there that night. Haven’t been there for a month.”

“You weren’t enthusiastic about it, but you told me you’d take the case.” But the words were ashes in Kessler’s mouth. He knew what had happened, because there was not even the faintest trace of duplicity or nervousness on Bascomb’s face. Bascomb really didn’t remember. “So you won’t represent me on this?” Kessler went on.

“We really have no experience with brain tampering—”

“That’s funny, your saying that. Considering you obviously just had first hand experience, pal.”

Naturally, Bascomb gave him that oh-no-don’t-tell-me-you’re-into-that-conspiracy-shit look.

Kessler went on: “And I could get the files that prove you have dealt with the issue in court. But they’d only…” He shook his head. Despair was something he could smell and taste and feel, like acid rain. “They’d tamper with you again. Just to make their point.”

He walked out of the office, hurrying, thinking, They’ll have the place under surveillance. But no one stopped him outside.

***

Charlie was off on one of his amateur analyses, and there was nothing Kessler could do, he had to listen, because Charlie was covering for him.

“…I mean,” Charlie was saying, “now your average technicki speaks Standard English like an infant, am I right, and can’t read except command codes, and learned it all from vidteaching, and he’s trained to do this and that and to fix this and that, but he’s like, socially inhibited from rising in the ranks because the economic elite speaks standard real good and reads standard alphabet—”

“If they really want to, they can learn what they need to, like you did.” Kessler said irritably. He was standing at the window, looking out at the empty, glossy ceramic streets. The artificial island was a boro-annex of Brooklyn anchored in the harbor. It looked almost deserted at this hour. Everyone had either gone into the city, or home to TV, or to a tavern. The floating boros were notoriously dull. The compact flo-boro housing, squat and rounded off at the corners like a row of molars, stood in silence, a few windows glowing like computer monitors against the night.

But they could be watching me, Kessler thought. A hundred ways they could be watching me and I’d see nothing.

He turned, stepped away from the window. Charlie was pacing, arms clasped behind him, head bent, playing the part of the young, boldly theorizing radical. “I mean, I’ve got some contacts on the space Colony, up on FirStep, and they’re getting into some radical shit there—and what is FirStep, man, it’s a microcosm of society’s class issues…”

The apartment was crowded with irregular shelves of books and boxes of software and cassettes and compact disks; Charlie had hung a forest of silk scarves in the Three Colors, obscuring the details like multicolor smoke. “And in Europe—that shit’s getting serious—

Yeah, wars are serious, Charlie.”

“I don’t mean the fucking war, neggo. I mean the side effect. Chegdou, you know what’s happening in Europe, man? The SA is taking over! And it’s all being manufactured over here. Fascism, a fait accompli.”

Kessler groaned. “Fascism! Don’t give me that leftist catch-all cliché. It’s bullshit.”

“How can you say that after what’s happened to you?”

“What’s happened to me is business as usual. It’s not really political.”

“Business as usual is the very definition of politics in a world where corporate identity is more global every second. And anyway—you didn’t used to be so negative about this shit. Maybe they cut some of your political ideas, neggo. I mean: How do you know? You don’t remember—” He grinned. “Remember?”

Kessler shrugged. He felt like throwing in the towel, giving Worldtalk the fight. Maybe Julie was right.

“If you’d just talk to this guy I want you to talk to, man.”

“I don’t need any lectures from any more knee-jerk leftist theorists who’d probably give their right eye to be the rich and corrupt men they whine about.”

“You’re doing a devil’s-advocate thing now, Jimmy. You trying to talk yourself into giving up?”

Kessler shrugged.

Charlie looked at him, then went back to pacing, talking, pacing. “This guy I want you to meet—he’s not like that. He’s only in town a week. He’s not an armchair theorist. He’s not really a…what…I don’t think he’s a leftist exactly. I mean, he came here to get some financial support for the European resistance, and he had to run the blockade to do it, almost got his ass blown out of the water. His name’s Steinfeld, or that’s what he goes by, he used to be—what’s the matter?”

A warning chill; and Kessler had turned, abruptly looked out the window. Three stories down she was a powder-blue keyhole-shape against the faint petroleum filminess of the street. She paused, looking at the numbers.

She might have guessed where he was, he told himself. She had met Charlie; heard him talk about Charlie. She might have looked Charlie’s address up in the ref disk. She went to the front door. The apartment’s bell chimed and he went to the screen. “It’s your wife.” he said. “You want me to tell her you went overseas? Japan?”

“Let her in.”

“Are you kidding, man? You are, right? She was the one who—”

“Just let her in.” There was a poisoned cocktail of emotions fizzing in him: a relief at seeing her, shaken in with something that buzzed like a smoke alarm, and it wasn’t till she was at the door that he realized the sensation was terror. And then she was standing in the doorway, against the light of the hallway. She looked beautiful. The light behind her abruptly cut—sensing that no one was now in the hall—and suddenly she stood framed in darkness. The buzzing fizzed up and overwhelmed the relief. His mouth was dry.

Looking disgustedly at Kessler, Charlie shut the door.

Kessler stared at her. Her eyes flickered, her mouth opened, and shut, and she shook her head. She looked drained.

And Kessler knew.

“They sent you. They told you where to find me,” he said.

“They—want the money back.” she said. “They want you to come with me.”

He shook his head. “I put the money where they can’t get it—only because it’s part of my proof. Don’t you get sick of being puppeted?”

She looked out the window. Her face was blank. “You don’t understand.”

“Do you know why they do it, why they train you with that Americanized Japanese job-conditioning? To save themselves money. For one thing, it eliminates unions. You don’t insist on much in the way of benefits. Stuff like that.”

“They have their reasons, sure. Mostly efficiency.”

“What’s the slogan? Efficiency is friendship.”

She looked embarrassed. “That’s not—” She shrugged. “A corporate family is just as valid as any other. It’s something you couldn’t understand. I—I’ll lose my job, Jimmy. If you don’t come.” She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said lose my life.

Kessler said, “I’ll think about going with you if you tell me what it was…what it was they took.”

“They—took it from me, too.”

“I don’t believe that. I never believed it. I think they left it intact in you, so you could watch to see if I stumbled on it again. I think you really loved them trusting you. Worldtalk is Mommy and Daddy, and Mommy and Daddy trusted you…”

Her mouth twisted with resentment. “You prick.” She shook her head. “I can’t tell you…”

“Yeah, you can. You have to. Otherwise Charlie and me are going out the back way and we’re going to cause endless trouble for Worldtalk. And I know you, Julie. I’d know if you were making it up. So tell me what it was–what it really was.”

She sighed. “I only know what you told me. You pointed out that PR companies manipulate the media for their clients without the public knowing it most of the time. They use their connections and channels to plant information or disinformation in news-sheet articles, on newsvid, in movies, in political speeches. So…” She paused and took a shaky breath, then went on wearily. “So they’re manipulating people, and the public gets a distorted view of what’s going on because of the special interests. You worked up a computer video-editing system that sensed probable examples of, uh, I think the phrases you used were, like, “implanted information’ or “special-interest distortions.” So they could be weeded out. You called it the Media Alarm System.” She let out a long breath. “I didn’t know they’d go so far—I thought they’d buy out your system. In a way they did. I had to mention it at Worldtalk. If I didn’t I would’ve been…disloyal.” She said disloyal wincing, knowing what he would think.

But it was Charlie who said it: “What about loyalty to Jim Kessler?”

Her hand fluttered a dismissal. “It doesn’t matter at this point whether it was wrong or right. It’s too late. They know…Jimmy, are you coming with me?”

Kessler was thinking about the Media Alarm System. It didn’t sound familiar—but it sounded right. He said, slowly, “No. You can help me. If you testify, we can beat them.”

“Jimmy, if I thought they—No, no. I—” She broke off, staring at his waist. “Don’t be stupid. That’s not—” She took a step back and put her hand in her purse.

Kessler and Charlie looked at each other, traded puzzlement. When Kessler looked back at Julie, she had a gun in her hand. It was a small blue-metal pistol, its barrel tiny as a pencil, and that tiny barrel meant it fired explosive bullets. They had given it to her.

“Do you know what that gun will do, girl?” Charlie was saying. “Those little explosive bullets will splash him all over the wall.” His voice shook. He took a step toward her.

She pressed back against the door and said, “Charlie, if you come any closer to me, I’ll shoot him.” Charlie stopped. The room seemed to keen ultrasonically with imminence. She went on, the words coming out in a rush: “Why don’t you ask him what that thing in his hand would do to me, Charlie. Shall we? Ask him that. Jimmy has the same kind of gun. With the same goddamn bullets.” Her voice was too high; she was breathing fast, her knuckles white on the gun.

Kessler looked down at himself. His arms were hanging at his sides, his hands empty.

“Lower the gun, Julie, and we can talk.” Charlie said gently.

“I’ll lower mine when he lowers his,” she said hoarsely.

“He isn’t holding a gun.” Charlie said, blinking.

She was staring at a space about three feet in front of Kessler’s chest. She was seeing the gun there. He wanted to say, Julie, they tampered with you. He could only croak, “Julie…”

She shouted, “Don’t!” and raised the gun. And then everything was moving: Kessler threw himself down. Charlie jumped at her, and the wall behind Kessler jumped outward toward the street.

Two hot metal hands clapped Kessler’s head between them, and he shouted with pain and thought he was dead. But it was only a noise, the noise of the wall exploding outward. Chips of wall pattered down; smoke sucked out through the four-foot hole in the wall into the winter night.

Kessler got up, shaky, his ears ringing. He looked around and saw Charlie straddling Julie. He had the gun in his hand and she was face-down, sobbing.

Gogido,” Charlie said, lapsing into technicki, his face white.

“Get off her.” Kessler said. Charlie moved off her, stood up beside her. “Julie, look at me.” Kessler said softly. She tilted her head back, an expression of dignified defiance trembling precariously on her face. Then her eyes widened, and she looked at his hips. She was seeing him holding a gun there. “I don’t have a gun, Julie. They put that into you. Now I’m going to get a gun…Give me the gun, Charlie;” Without taking his eyes off her, he put his hand out. Charlie hesitated, then laid the gun in Kessler’s open palm. She blinked, then narrowed her eyes.

“So now you’ve got two guns.” She shrugged.

He shook his head. “Get up.” Mechanically, she stood up. “Now go over there to Charlie’s bed. He’s got black bed sheets. You see them? Take one off. Just pull it off and bring it over here.” She started to say something, anger lines punctuating her mouth, and he said quickly, “Don’t talk yet. Do it!”She went to the bed, pulled the black satin sheet off, jerking it petulantly, and dragged it over to him. Charlie gaped and muttered about cops, but Kessler had a kind of furious calm on him then, and he knew what he was going to do; and if it didn’t work, then he’d let the acid rain bleach his bones white as a warning to other travelers come to this poisoned well

–this woman. He said, “Now tear up the bedsheet—sorry, man, I’ll replace it—and make a blindfold. Good. Right. Now tie it over my eyes. Use the tape on the table to make the blindfold light-proof.”

Moving in slow motion, she blindfolded him. Darkness whispered down around him: She taped it thoroughly in place. “Now am I still pointing two guns at you?”

“Yes.” But there was uncertainty in her voice.

“Now take a step to one side. No, take several steps, very softly, move around a lot.” The soft sounds of her movement. Her gasp. “Is the gun following you around the room?”

“Yes. Yes. One of them.”

“But how is that possible? I can’t see you! And why is only the one gun moving—the one you saw first? And why did I let you blindfold me if I’m ready and willing to shoot you?”

“You look weird like that,” Charlie said. “Ridiculous and scary.”

“Shut up, Charlie, will you? Answer me, Julie! I can’t see you! How can I follow you with two guns?”

“I don’t know!”

“Take the guns from my hands! Shoot me! Do it!” She made a short hissing sound and took the gun from his hand, and he braced to die. But she pulled the blindfold from him and looked at him.

Looked into his eyes.

She let the gun drop to the floor. Kessler said, softly, “You see now? They did it to you. You, one of the ‘family’. The corporate ‘family’ means just exactly nothing to them.”

She looked at his hands. “No gun.” Dreamily. “Gun’s gone. Everything’s different.”

Siren warblings. Coming closer.

She sank to her knees. “Just exactly nothing to them,” she said. “Just exactly nothing.” Her face crumpled. She looked as if she’d fallen into herself; as if some inner scaffolding had been kicked out of place.

Sirens and lights  whirled together outside. A chrome fluttering in the smoky gap where the wall had been blown outward: a police surveillance bird. It looked like a bird, hovering in place with its oversized aluminum hummingbird’s wings; but instead of a head it had a small camera lens. A transmitted voice droned from the grid on its silvery belly: “This is the police. You are now being observed and taped. Do not attempt to leave. The front door has been breached. Police officers will arrive in seconds to take your statements. Repeat—”

Oh, I heard you,” Julie said in a hollow voice. “I’ll make a statement all right. I’ve got a lot to tell you. Oh, yeah.” She laughed sadly. “I’ll make a statement.”

Kessler bent down and touched her arm. “Hey…I…”

She drew back from him. “Don’t touch me. Just don’t! You love to be right! I’m going to tell them what you want me to. Just don’t touch me.”

But he stayed with her. He and Charlie stood looking at the blue smoke drifting out of the ragged hole in the wall, at the mechanical, camera-eyed bird looking back at them.

He stayed with her, as he always would, and they listened for the footsteps outside the door.

***

Why should we leave when we don’t know who it was who bailed us out?” Julie asked.

She sat hunched over, hollow-eyed. She seemed to be holding on, in some way.

Kessler nodded “It could be Worldtalk’s people, Charlie.”

Charlie shook his head. “I saw the guy in the outer office. He’s one of ours.”

“Yours, Charlie.” Kessler said. “Not mine.”

They were in Detective Bixby’s office, sitting wearily in the plastic chairs across from Bixby’s gray metal desk. The overhead light buzzed, maybe holding a conversation with the console screen on the right of the desk, which hummed faintly to itself. The screen was turned to face away from them. On the walls, shelves were piled high with software, cassettes, sheaves of printouts, photos. The walls were the grimed, dull green such places usually are. Bixby had left them to confer with the detectives in the new Cerebro-kidnapping Department–the department that handled illegal extractions. The door was locked, and they were alone.

“At least here we’re protected.” Julie said, digging her nails into her palms.

Charlie shook his head again. “I called Seventeen, he said Worldtalk could still get at us in here.”

“Who the hell is Seventeen?” Kessler snapped. He was tired and irritable.

“My NR contact—”

He broke off, staring at the desk. The console was rotating on a turntable built into the desk top, its screen turning to face them. Bixby’s round, florid face nearly filled the screen.

“’S’okay.” Bixby said. “CK’s taking your case. Your video statements are filed, and your bail is paid. That’ll be refunded soon as we get the owner of the building to drop the charges on the blown-out wall. Should be no problem. If you want protective custody—maybe not a bad idea—talk to the desk sergeant. Door’s unlocked.” As he said it they heard a click, and the door swung inward a few inches. They were free to go. “Good luck.” Bixby said. His face vanished from the screen.

“Come on.” Charlie said. “Let’s do this fast before the fucking door changes its mind.”


3
Feb 10

**THOSE WHO COME TO DAGON**

This is a Lovecraftian story I wrote for “High Seas Cthulhu” – hopefully this will promote that anthology, and High Seas Cthulhu 2 which is now in the works. And now:

THOSE WHO COME TO DAGON
John Shirley

The Journal of Caleb Ward

June 21 (?) 1806

Leseur, the Bosun of a lost ship, declares me foolish to expend strength dashing off these lines, for all of us in the launch of the late HMS Feveringale feel the weakness of eleven days at sea without food and little more than a mouthful of fresh water for two days running. I hope that though we perish in the launch, my papers might be preserved and found with my body, if inclement weather does not consign it to the deeps. How I could wish for a rainstorm to bestow drinking water on us, if the storm did not blow overhard; one such gale, rendering but little rainwater, took our launch’s only mast. O for fresh water! The equatorial heat is relentless, and I feel my throat chafe against itself, and burn with salt. Sometimes Tantalus has his way with us, when we scent the greenness of the West African coast, and espy a bit of palm or liana floating in the sea, but the current never carries us close enough to bring hope of a landfall.

The Reverend Mothe, though his voice sounds like a rusty pump, continues to spout of Providence, to be of good cheer, for God will not forget us. I have not succumbed to the temptation to ask him why God should remember us and not the scores of men (and the cook’s wife) who died in the fire, or in the consequent sinking of the Feveringale.

I have long been one of “The Lord’s Stray Lambs”: My regard for His creation was blackened by the knowledge of my inherited fate, even before we few survivors of the catastrophe were cast adrift, for as a young man I watched as my father died of a cancer; his going was slow and terrible. He had not seen forty summers. I know that my grandfather, and his father, died in the same way. The disease is in our blood and I fancy I feel it working its malignity upon me already. So it was that at close to the age my father was when he was stricken, I gave off clerking at the bank and took to poetry and the penning of Observations for the Weekly Journals reckoning that at least I might live out my greatest hopes for myself, for a few months…

And then this! Cast adrift in an open boat! Yet it may be that this death by drowning or thirst is preferable to death by the slow inner consuming of cancer. It may be that this is a mercy after all. I could only wish I had died quickly on the Feveringale.

Any who chance to find this hasty journal will remark that the edges of the paper are scorched. I did manage to snatch a few necessaries from my trunk, even as the flames that engulfed the ship seared the trunk’s right side—I burnt my fingers lightly doing so—and to one whose hope is to write for the Boston Gazette, quill, ink and paper are more necessary than the dueling pistol and compass I snatched up as an afterthought. (I do hope my handwriting is legible, there being more than enough swell and pitch and salty spray to make writing difficult. I fear my ink may dry out and sometimes I am tempted to drink it).

We had survived an encounter with privateers, Captain O’Brian having outrun them when they lost a mizzen, and we had triumphed over a breached gun-room which flooded because a drunken sailor forgot to close a port—we weathered these vicissitudes only to have the ship burn down around us for the misplacing of a candle! Dr Bessemen insists it was not he who left the candle too close to a case of spirits, but the fire commenced in his quarters. His loblolly boy, not having survived the fire, cannot protest his innocence.

In truth, so far as we know, only those of us in the launch survive–dour old Bessemen, Gaddle the squint-eyed first mate, sallow, glowering Leseur (whose presence has always made me uneasy), the sailors Brackin and Milford, Sargeant Sparks of the Marines, and myself. We are all quite burnt and bearded now, looking like people any one of us would have avoided on the street in Boston—or perhaps London, for I am the only American, on a voyage that should have taken us to the Canary Islands, and though our nations are at peace, I have been more than once the object of a fully unjustified suspicion. Would I be so absurd as to sabotage a ship in which I myself am sailing?

There is a strange smell in the air, a foul reek carried on the rising breeze from the south: a dead whale nearby, perhaps. O and this is cruel, the ink is quite drying out. It does not mix well with seawater but I shall att

#

June 25, 1806

I was unable to finish my sentence, at the conclusion of the previous entry, for want of serviceable ink, but I recommence my journal aboard the ship which has picked us up, for here ink is plentiful, thanks to the generosity of Captain Hoek, the stout, bluff Dutchman who is the chief Argonaut of the Burdened Pelican: a brig of two masts, a ship neither big nor small. Only the peeling paint on the bow declares the ship’s true name; her captain and crew call her “the dratted ol’ Pelican.”

Three days I’ve been on this leaky old vessel, recovering strength, as the ship works its way north to Holland. Yet it makes scarcely any headway; “’tis all leeway”, says the bushy-browed Captain—he speaks always around the ancient curved pipe clutched in his teeth, a pipe usually turned upside down and empty of tobacco. “The winds, the winds rush agin’ us and agin’ all natural blowin’, for the should northerin’ this time of year, do ye hear? But they blow southwest and we must tack, and beat and tack again and more, and scarcely any progress do we make. We must find an island to stop for water and meat, soon, if the wind do not change…” And so the time wears away, with little progress in our journey—but at least we are rescued!

The other survivors of the Feveringale, perhaps surfeited with the sight of one another, have largely kept to themselves. I have a cabin to myself, once belonging to an officer now lost at sea. The officer was lost along with the ship’s doctor and several other men during an “unnatural blow”, as Hoek has it, not long before we were picked up. (They were pleased to have a new doctor, in our Bessemen, but when they discover his drunkenness and absence of real parts, they will be less sanguine.) Yet the First Mate, Van Murnk, a heavy-cheeked man with hair so blond it is almost white and a face so sun burned he sometimes resembles a Red Indian—a man, indeed, perpetually sodden with drink—claims that those who went missing, including “even Monsieur Galange…took it on their own to hie to the sea, and have not yet left us, mein herr, but follow in our wake.” He would say no more and I had no wish to pursue his meaning and encourage the fallacies and fancies so common to sailors.

Van Murnk is not alone in his oddity; it must be said that it is, withal, a strange ship. The crew seem sullen and fearful except for discrete occasions when they are caught up in an inexplicable and outlandish glee, their eyes feverish, their mien giddy; they have a proclivity for gathering in groups far aft, whereupon they take up tittering and whispering…

Today is Sunday. Captain Hoek rigged church, this morning, and read from Proverbs, a certain desperation in his voice; but most of the crew remained well apart from the ceremony, staring with hollow eyes in the dull light of the overcast morning; with a cast of face both unreceptive and obscurely ashamed.

#

June 26, 1806

It called for some persuading—they were strangely uninclined—but I have taken a meal with Dr Bessemen, Rufe Gaddle, and Reverend Mothe. The Doctor and Gaddle seemed to share an unvoiced mutual understanding–something dire, judging by their expressions, and the dark glances they exchanged, their resonant silences. The pastor seems to be at odds with them over some matter he does not wish to evince in my presence.

“Have you not heard a sort of droning from below decks and aft?” I prompted, as we sat over our watered-down after dinner porto. “And other sounds I could not identify, a kind of squawking, a squeaking sound that almost seemed to form words? I went to investigate and found the way blocked by Leseur. He turned me back and refused to explain. The fellow was more forbidding than ever—the only one of us not to avail of the ship’s razors since our rescue. A bit of beard is quite natural but he is as shaggy as an old bear. And the look in his eyes! Like a bear indeed—but a bear with a toothache!” Thus I tried to disarm them with levity, to ease the taut atmosphere and perhaps provoke confidences. But my attempts at humor at Leseur’s expense were met with sullen stares from Gaddle and the doctor—who was quite noddingly drunk—and a long sigh from the Reverend.

At last the Reverend said, “Indeed I have heard the noises of which you speak.” He gave the other two a vinegary look of accusation. “Perhaps someone else might share their knowledge of these…sounds.”

“Why,” said the doctor, after a pull at his porto, “they are but sea chantys. And you heard a cat, the ship’s cat. How they do like to tease the poor brute.”

Sea chantys! I most certainly had heard nothing of the sort. But I could draw them out no further, and after some grudging speculation about the weather and hope for a landfall, we adjourned.

I then went to the deck for some air, and met a man there I must describe. I find myself bemused by this most peculiar individual, a man the hue of coal who has only just emerged after several days in his cabin, and who now strides the deck as freely as any of the whites: one Louis Nukanga, an “associate in business” of the Captain.

Nukanga wears a fine suit of clothing, and his head is shaved bald. His only departure from European dress is the copper on his wrists, bracelets that one only sees when he lifts his arms to some task or gesture, and the sleeves fall back. I found myself staring at them as he approached the rail close by me and raised a spy glass to scan the western horizon, just at sunset.

“The island, I feel its loom,” he said (to himself, though I stood close beside him at the rail). “The island…” So he muttered as he peered through the spyglass. He said something more in his own language—I know not what, precisely, but it had the sound of frustrated longing.

It was then that I saw the bracelets, and made out the figures carved upon them. On the underside of the wide bracelet clasping his left wrist was a graven image of a creature I at first supposed some cephalopod of the deep, until I beheld its lower body that was almost like a man’s; the other bracelet showed the image of a thing like a great scaled worm, with the face of a man, and tentacles bristling here and there—rude spirits of the African continent, I’m sure. The images seemed to spring out at me from the bracelets. I seemed to see both too easily, as if they drifted from their metal hosts and floated upon the air. Under each image was writing in a script I could not read; I have seen samples of ancient Sumerian, and while it was not Sumerian perhaps it was not so different. Strange, for that land was far north of the equatorial Africa from whence Nukanga sprang.

I pressed him for an account of his provenance. He hails from the jungles two days march inland of the Gulf of Guinea, a place “not so far south of the Niger River”, so he told me, where he had struck a deal with a Frenchman named Galange who was in partnership with Captain Hoek. A freed slave, educated by his Master in England, Nukanga had returned to a place called, “to freely translate, the Uneasy Mountain.” Here was the home of his youth, but he found the entire village in bondage to M. Galange, who was searching for treasure, commanding a small but well-armed cadre of Dutch and French brigands to force labor upon the natives. At gunpoint, Nukanga’s people dug shafts into the mountain, fruitlessly searching for rumored wealth.

“The search was wont to kill my people,” said Nukanga grinning, “So I showed Galange where he and Hoek could get what they desired, in exchange for a special arrangement for myself…Of course, I have promised them another treasure, in another place, on their return. If I did not, they would have cut my throat as I slept, so that I would not trouble them for my share…but Galange will do no more harm—he has gone from the ship…In a sense.”

I registered his words but distantly; it was his grin that transfixed my attention. His teeth were covered in copper, and each one, I saw in the ruddy gleam of the setting sun, was inscribed with one of the unknown letters of the sort etched into his bracelet. What did his grin spell out?

“You try to read my teeth, eh?” he said, chuckling, lowering his spyglass. “These names you cannot read; their alphabet you are not likely to know. They are names you may yet wish to call out! You may wish to call them… and implore, yes implore for their mercy!” His eyes were glittering with a contained, cruel mirth as he spoke. “But you do not know how to cry out to them, to call for mercy, mercy!”

Stung by his contempt, which he hardly troubled to conceal, I felt constrained to reply, somehow. “I call on no deities, sir, neither yours nor those of my own land,” I declared. “I am a man of the new era, a man who values Reason, and such men, the hope of the world, deny all superstitions—meaning no disrespect to your beliefs.”

“Superstitions? If you meet a god, will you then believe?”

“Yes, if I recognize his godliness! But there are those who claim to bear gods within them—I have heard of such things, in the West Indies, a practice called voudoun—and to meet this ‘god’ is to meet a man deluded!”

“I do not speak of such,” he said, snorting dismissively, collapsing the spyglass with a sharp report of metal on metal. “I speak of…but soon enough, soon enough…” And with that he turned away, muttering in quite another language, and went below. So ended my interlocution with Mr Nukanga!

Only a few heartbeats later I was joined by the captain, who had been drinking with Dr Bessemen. “Your Bessemen cannot hold his liquor—one bottle, or mebbe it was two, and he babbles without sense, and then falls to snore!” He clutched the rail and in his drunkenness seemed to sway in exact counterpoise to the swaying of the westering ship, his upright body like the inverted working of a pendulum. “My friend,” he said, breathing a gust of spirits upon me, the unlit pipe wagging in a corner of his mouth, “what think ye of Nukanga?”

“He seems a strange mix of the learned and the superstitious! And he spoke obscurely of an island…”

“An island? Did he now?” He turned and peered into the gathering gloom, and sniffed the air. “I believe I can smell it. Land.” He removed the pipe and called up to the lookout in the crow’s nest. “Ho! You there! Do you see land to the west? An island?”

“I do not, captain!” came the reply.

“Well watch close! We need the water, damn you!”

He then addressed me, while swaying in place and packing the pipe with tobacco he kept loose in a weskit pocket. “I do not trust Nukanga…he is a Jonah! Since he came on board the winds blow us always west, no matter how we beat and tack, tack and beat. Always west and even south! And our route is north and east!”

“For my part, I am glad the wind has taken you out of your way, for I’d have perished on the sea otherwise. But perhaps you are concerned to protect your cargo, captain? We are driven into the sea-lanes of privateers by these winds…”

“My cargo?” He looked at me suspiciously. “What do ye know of that?”

“Nukanga says he helped you find a treasure, but he did not say what treasure…”

“Aye, if he said so much, it can’t matter if ye know—and you seem an honest man. I would trust you, for I have need of someone to tell my mind. There are few enough—perhaps there is no one—I can trust…Come!”

He staggered away and I followed. We made our way below decks, the captain swearing when he nearly fell going down the ladder. The captain catching up a lantern along the way, we wended a narrow, malodorous corridor, descended two more ladders, each deck’s passageway more noisome than the last, until we came to a locked room. Here a sailor leaning on the bulkhead nodded in sleep, musket clutched against him, keeping some sort of watch.

“Idiot pig!” The captain bellowed, snatching the musket and slapping the hapless fellow so that he stumbled sputtering away. “Ye sleep when I pay you to guard my cargo? Ach, I should hang you!”

Some time a-fumbling later, the captain found his key and unlocked the heavy padlock and bade me come in. Within the low-ceilinged hold were a row of five goodly chests. “In the other hold, below, there is crude tin, copper, and other ores, but here is the real treasure! Now let your eyes feast, Mr Caleb Ward!”

He unlocked the nearest of the chests and flung its lid back. At first I thought it filled with rough rocks of quartz, but when he lifted the lantern over the chest I saw the blue glimmerings, as if from a multiplicity of eyes, shining back from the pure hearts of the gems. “Diamonds!” I cried.

“Quiet! Never so loud, ye hear?” he hissed. “Rough they are, but diamonds right enough. Five chests full! All mine, and Nukanga’s—Galange has gone missing from the ship, I do not like to guess at how it happened. So he will not share the diamonds—so sad! And Nukanga offers four times as many in another place—but only when he is paid, he says, in Amsterdam! It was in Galange’s mind, before we left the village, to make Nukanga tell of this other place—to use ropes and fire to make him tell. But I have no belly for torture, and who knows what friends the man might have, for he has cozened to some in civilized places! So I bear Nukanga, though he sneers and speaks in dark cupboards to the men, speaks things I don’t know.”

He shook his head. “Things…I don’t know.”

He tried to light his pipe on the lantern, and repeatedly failed. In the end I held the lantern for him while he puffed the pipe alight—I was fearful of fire on the wooden ship, after what had happened to the Feveringale. Another kind of fire, a blue fire, glimmered in the chest of rough gems. The diamonds, I confess, made my heart pound. So many! And I was so poor! But I had been raised austerely and was unable to think of larceny, but for a fitful moment.

“Captain,” I said, “I am indeed awed. You will be a rich man! But surely there are mysteries on this ship—there is murmuring, there is something like a chant, late at night, heard in the deep aft…Seeing this treasure, perhaps the mystery is solved. Could not the sounds I heard be a crew in conspiratorial colloquy? Could they not be thinking of making this treasure their own?”

“Eh?” He turned and looked at the door, then hastened to close the chest. “Ye think I would trust them? They don’t know! They think it’s all tin and copper ore. Ye have seen, and Nukanga, and none other! For this crew are not the men we took with us to the interior. Those men wait for us at the village of the Uneasy Mountain.”

“What then, is the trouble with the crew, captain? Is it my imagination?”

“As to that ye have heard— they do something aft, and below, in the orlop! O, aye, there is a sickness on this ship, a slow, infectious madness, like a man crying out in fever…while there is no fever! And something has taken our own doctor, and four of my best hands!”

“But with respect, Captain Hoek, are you not master of your ship? Surely you can penetrate this mystery by demanding an explanation; by entering the orlop where these rites are held, and seeing for yourself!”

“Had I courage… Something about the business affrighted me, so I sent the doctor, that night, as the storm rose…and where is he now? It was that very night he went missing, with them others! The crew say those five was swept o’er board. Myself, I think something…something other.”
“What other, Captain?”

“Ach, my head hurts, I speak strange things when the drink begins to wear off. Have ye not noticed how many crew are hiding below, saying they are sick? How few remain to work the ship? I have almost no one left to turn to–and I say this: if you would find out what goes on below, you would find me grateful.”

He would say no more. But I determined to do as he requested. I shall write a great story for the newspaper—I sense it coming!

#

I wrote out the previous entry two hours ago. It seems an age.

After I spoke to the captain, I went, on deck to stand brooding by the aft rail. A strong wind blew from the east, filling the sails, driving us west, ever west, at about seven knots. I had heard one of the hands say that it seemed if the captain tried to tack, the wind shifted, to continue pushing the vessel west, as if actively, deliberately frustrating his efforts!

The wind in my face, I watched as the failing light seemed to soak into the glimmering white tips of waves, to re-emerge in the luminescence of the Pelican’s wake. Like diamonds!

I beheld something, then, disporting in the seam the ship cut in the sea. Dolphins? Seals? Sometimes I thought so, other times I thought they were more disturbing shapes; I thought I saw a buckle here, upon one, a strip of cloth trailing from another. There were at least three of them, sometimes I thought there were more. Whenever I supposed I had distinguished their shape, it would seem to change, skirled and washed in the dark sea, and I was again unsure of the creature’s form. The thought came that they might be sharks, with bits of human victims trailing from their jaws…

Then a light opened on the stern of the ship, close to the waterline. It was as if a hatch—something I’ve never seen so low on a ship before—had been opened. Lamplight shone on the water and I looked eagerly to try to see what creatures followed in our wake, but as if aware of my scrutiny, they dropped back into shadow…I thought I saw something, before they went—a human face, staring up at me from the water. Perhaps a dead man, caught in some old fishing line…

I thought to tell the captain—but then the chanting began, the sound coming from that same square of light, the anomalous hatch on the stern. I could not make out what was said. Sometimes I thought I heard, repeated amidst the gibberish, “Dagon…thool-hew…dagon…thool-hew…”

And the inchoate shapes in the wake of the ship seem to hiss and thrash in response. I heard a sibilant squeaking from them—like a dolphin trying to form words, and failing.

A chill spread out from the back of my head, to seep corrosively down my spine, seeming to drain all firmness from it, and I clutched the rail that I might remain standing.

“Come, this is foolishness!” I told myself. “Go now and see what is below and do not let your imagination play upon you! You wish a story to tell—here is one waiting to be found out!”

So I made myself go below, in search of the orlop…stopping momentarily at my cabin for that dueling pistol. I once more had to summon strength of will to continue my undertaking, for I had a sudden persuasive desire to lock the door of my cabin from within and sit on my hammock with that pistol in my hand, my eyes fixed on the door, the gun at ready…

No sir, I told myself. You will not hide from adventure. It is what you came to sea to find.
Thence I set out, making my way, lantern in hand, down two ladders and along the passage toward the stern—toward the orlop.

Just a few paces outside the door to the orlop I found my way blocked, once more, by Leseur, who seemed to huddle into the dim shadows of the narrow passage like a tunnel spider in its den. The light from my lantern seemed to shy from him; to quail just short of him. I was determined, this time, that he would not deter me—and a feverish curiosity was beginning to replace the fear that had crawled from that primeval cranny at the back of my brain, my inquisitiveness tugged by the droning chant from beyond the closed orlop door.

“Leseur—move aside, if you please!” I said, trying to keep the quavering in my hands from reaching my voice. “I have this night entered into Captain Hoek’s service and he has sent me to make certain inquiries in the orlop.”

When Leseur spoke, the sound seemed to come, muffled, from the base of his throat, and a sickly reek came with it, something more alien than a man’s foul breath—and it was a smell I thought I recognized. I had caught it once before…

“You may not pass unless Nukanga says aye.”

“Move aside I say! I have a pistol, as you see—and I will make use of it!”

He turned and put a hand on the door—and there seemed a splaying in the spread of his fingers, as if each was melting into the next. I felt a shivering ring out from his contact with that door; it resonated through the damp timbers of the old ship, so that its seams worked in response, oozing with seawater; I was obscurely aware that water was pooling, very slowly, at my feet. Then the door opened; a glutinous yellow light silhouetted Nukanga from behind: a dark figure but for his teeth shining copper-red in the feebler light of the lantern I held. I leaned to peer around him, but could scarcely make out the room beyond; I glimpsed a great coil of rope, the outlines of a group of men seated on it, their backs to me, facing that anomalous hatch in the stern. The hatch, hastily built, had been of recent devising. And there was the smell of compressed seawater and decayed fish and living muck, that distinctive reek from the bottom-most trench of the sea…
I knew then where I had smelled it before—that day in the launch, just before we were sighted by the Pelican.

“So — you have come to us? I thought you would,” said Nukanga. “Come a little closer and look, Caleb Ward…”

Leseur grudgingly pressed aside—there was just enough room to squeeze past him, an inexpressibly disgusting process, to slip into the orlop after Nukanga. I looked scrutinized the semicircle of crew. There were Brackin and Sparks and Gaddle and Milford and Van Murnk and two others, Hoek’s crewmen, I had seen when I first came…and Bessemen.

But Bessemen was lying upon the deck, curled on his side, within the circle of rope on which the others sat, and he was not alone. He was clutched against a being not quite twice his bulk, a thing green-black and wetly slick; a creature with the proportions of a human woman but at its throat were gills, and in place of human eyes were round yellow orbs on the two sides of its oblate head; in place of hair on its head were tresses of slender fins; its mouth…

O it’s hard to write it; for that means I must again invoke the picture; I must once more see that lamprey mouth, that great round fibrous, membranous sucker clapped over Bessemen’s eyes and forehead, sucking, and pulsing; taking and replacing…and Bessemen squirmed in the thing’s grip, struggled to escape, his hands clawing, his bare feet scrabbling at the deck, finding no purchase, no escape. He was like a feeble child trying hopelessly to wrest free even as it was strangled by a brutish overpowering mother.

And Bessemen’s nether parts, too, were entangled with the thing, were penetrated and penetrating, but of this I cannot bear to speak. I stared and choked and turned away, covering my eyes, even as the men seated on the coil of rope persisted in their chant, gurgling and squeaking syllables no human mouth was made to express, invocations interspersed with the litany, Thool-hew eck dagon, thool-hew eck dagon!

“Ho ho, my little friend,” chortled Nukanga as I tried to claw my way from the orlop. “What is the matter? Hm? Do you suppose this man is the victim of a bestial predation?” He locked powerful hands on my shoulders and held me back with little apparent effort. “Not at all! He begged for this! He is but in the throes of transfiguration! And my friend—” He spun me about and looked me in the eye. “He will never die!”

The words struck to the aching quick of me. He will never die!

I wanted to run—but it was as if those words spiked me to the spot. “What?” I rasped. “What do you mean?”

“All men crave immortality–but immortality in this world comes with a price! But wait—what is this I see? For I am a magus of my people, and I see a man’s fate written in his eyes…”

He took the wrist of my left hand, and drew it close between us so that the lantern which I still held shone into my eyes. I blinked and tried to turn away. But with his other hand he took my chin in his big hand and turned my face to him. “Hold! I would look into your eyes…some gaze into a crystal ball to see a man’s living fate but I would look into these soft orbs and see…your death! I see you lying on a hammock of a ship, and I see blood streaming from your mouth! You clutch at your chest and you groan but there is no doctor to attend you! You die the death of your father and his father and his father before him! A cancer eats at you and will take you before this year is worn away! Look—see for yourself!”

And then he struck my forehead with the heel of his hand, and it was as if the vision he had of my death was carried in the blow, from his hand into my flesh and bone and into my brain where it rippled mockingly before my mind’s eye. I saw it clearly, more clearly than I see the paper on which I now scribble this account. I saw myself dying in a hammock, in a small, mold-splashed room; dying as my father had–all the signs of his death upon me. And I saw that it would be soon. And I knew the truth of this vision, as I would know the face of my own father, were I to behold him again. It was the truth of recognition. This was my death.

“But wait!” Nukanga said, as the image dissolved into his coppery grin, his exultant eyes. “That is your death as a man! And there is no escaping your death as a man! But if you were to become other than a man—then the curse of your destiny is lifted, and you will not die that death, you will not die at all…not if you become as those who come to Dagon!”

“No…” My heart shriveled with in me as I began to comprehend.

“Choose! Only choose! Dagon has seen you, from the wake of the ship! Dagon has looked into you from the depths of the sea and Dagon desires you! You are choice, something quite choice to Dagon! Come to Dagon, and live forever…or die alone, spitting blood in that damp, forgotten ship’s cabin…with no one to attend you, no one to pity you, no one to care!”

Then he let go of my shoulders and I staggered away, past Leseur, who was emitting a high pitched bark and a terrible stench—the sound, the smell, of his laughter.

#

June 27, 1806

It is morning and yet it is not morning.

Somewhere in this ashen mist, the sun has arisen. An etiolated light has diffused the mist. But it is scarcely like real day. We stalk the deck, looking to the West. Our eyes are burning and we can scarce see through the murk, but we sense the loom of the land; we smell stone and beach and fire and jungle.

“This is a volcano island,” said Hoek, beside me on the quarterdeck, peering through the mist, wiping his eyes, peering again. “The kind that gives out smoke but never erupts. Just smoke and smoke and it churns with the fog and this soup we have, to choke in, ye hear? So little wind. Hardly a breath! Would I could turn away from this—but we have need water, we have need supplies…” He looked at me as if he wanted to ask what I had learned in my foray the night before. But I shook my head and turned away and he grunted as if in some personal confirmation.
I could not bear to think about it, let alone talk of it. Only with an inner struggle was I able to force myself to make this written account.

One phrase keeps returning to my mind, this morning…

He will never die!

No. I will not listen to that voice. I would rather die than lose my humanity.

I attempted to seek counsel from the Reverend Mothe. But the pastor will not heed me; he kneels, praying—coughing and supplicating—beside the mainmast. He will respond to no one. He prays with the desperate ardor of one who begins to doubt that he is heard.

I feel safer in my cabin, now, scribbling away, though the candle gutters as if it might go out—but it is even harder to breathe here, somehow. I will go on deck, and see if, perhaps, the wind has changed.

#

I have been on deck, and I wish I had not gone. The sky was a little clearer—the wind blows from the east again, and has broomed some of the ashen sky; the island broods nigh, dominated by a dark cone nestled in jungle so green it is almost black; streams that emerge from the hills about the volcano running dark down to the sea, like streaks of blood.

We are still almost a mile out from the rocky cove. And we are moving in, despite all the Captain can do.

For after the voice that came from the sea, the Captain wanted to move away from the island.

It was a feeble voice, a squeak and a hoarseness, but Hoek claimed he recognized it. “That is…that is Galange! One of those who was lost overboard! Ach–do ye hear it?”

“In name of God, arête! Turn back, Hoek.” Came the voice, a French tinge to it. Nom de Dieu! Do not surrender. Do not listen. All here is poisoned! Go back, j’implorer! In name of God…kill me! Fetch a musket and kill me!”

I thought to see a man writhing in the dark waves, about a cable ahead of us, but then again not a man, for he had round yellow lidless eyes, and hands that were not hands. And then there was a great splashing about him, and the man gave a cry of despair as other hands, webbed and clawed—hands so dark-green they were almost black, like the jungle about the volcano—clutched at him from all sides, and dragged him under.

Then he was gone. But we seem to hear him still crying, Fetch a musket and kill me!

The captain, his face gone whiter than his vessel’s sails, turned and shouted orders at the affrighted crew. “You there, wheel her about! We will tack, and turn about! We will lower a boat and pull the ship if we must…but we will not go to that island!”

So the few crewmen still willing to respond tried to turn about—and we had not gotten but a few strakes turned before there was a splashing and crackling from the rudder, and the Captain made haste to the stern. I followed him and looked over the rail…and saw that the rudder had snapped away. Or perhaps I should say, it had been snapped away. Something had torn it off. The ship was now drifting rudderless. And the wind was shifting, as if of its own accord…and driving us in toward the island.

Hoek went about the ship, trying to steer the ship by adjusting the sails—but nothing availed us. There was another force pushing us in: swimmers, many swimmers, not quite seen in the murk and dark water; we saw the splashing of their legs, their finny limbs, as they put shoulders to the hull of the ship and directed it into the dark stone arms of the cove.

“Do you fear this consummation?” Nukanga asked me, as he joined me at the bow of the ship…as the island loomed near. “Do not fear it. You do not wish to die young, alone, coughing blood like your father. Surrender to the god whom my people once knew—who many worshipped, in many places, and knew by many names! Once we were a seafaring people, who lived on the shores. But seeking to end the surrender of certain our children to the dark gods of the sea, the village elders took us inland to the Uneasy Mountain. Yet even in the shadow of the mountain were rivers, and upwellings from the stone. And here Dagon called to us, and said, Where you go, I follow! And so it will be with you, Caleb Ward—with Captain Hoek, and with this ship. Why do you think I brought them here? Do you suppose we were ever truly bound for Amsterdam? No, my friend. I have no interest in diamonds. My mother, my sisters, my only brother—all died in Galange’s mines before I arrived! I swore revenge! And to kill Galange and his men was not enough! Galange has already gone to serve Dagon!”

As he went on, I was aware of a struggle behind us—Captain Hoek and a few others shouting, ordering muskets to be used, weapons to be fired, and then someone sobbing that the muskets would not fire for the ash in the air; I heard the slipping wet sound of slick limbs and flippers on the deck as something crawled onto the ship from the sea; I smelled that unholy reek; heard the sounds of struggle, and claws on wood; I heard Reverend Mothe shrieking as he was dragged to the side…A sudden cessation of the shrieking, with the sound of two large objects splashing into the waves…

I did not turn to look. I simply gazed at the great black cone of the volcano and listened to Nukanga: “But you—you shall have an honored place at Dagon’s side!” declared Nukanga eagerly. “Hai! You amuse the god! And it is your only hope…of life! Choose, Caleb Ward…Choose! For those who do not submit to the transfiguration…will become food! And Dagon, and his minions, they eat slowly, my friend—so slowly! They take many months to consume a man…months of sleepless agony! Choose, Caleb Ward! Transfiguration and immortality—or the slow awful revenge of the people of the Uneasy Mountain! Choose!”

#

June 28 (?) 1806

Can scarcely write. Not sure how long ship aground. Others all taken. Scream in night. Some make other sounds. Soon, myself.

She changed me. Change almost complete. Words come hard. Forgetting old language. H’Beth K’hrauh-sug-uth! New words—yet very old. They come instead. Cthhulu Yog S’hruth Dagon!

Fingers changing. Hard to hold quill. The webbing between fingers; the new claws. My eyes do not focus well, out of water. The sea calls. Must answer.

The horror that is myself, new self—beyond expression. Cannot tell. Cannot say it.

Will seal journal in box with wax. Place this account in boat, set to drift. Perhaps warn others. Tell them: If choice given, choose well. Not as I chose. Choose carefully.

Choose death.

[end}


20
Jan 10

**ANVIL ROCK: Another Lost Story**

By John Shirley

He stood at the window, looking out at the gray afternoon; the chill sea stretched out, waiting  with vast, cold assurance below his cliffside house.

Grigsby had managed not to go to the locked closet for three weeks. He did drugs, he got drunk, he gambled, he chased women. It kept him away from the closet. He knew full well these things were vices; he knew it wasn’t good for him to distract himself that way. But he reasoned that it was better than opening the closet.

Now, standing by the window, his back to the closet—but feeling its pull, which was surely, oh most definitely just in his imagination—he thought about destroying the machine locked within it. But he didn’t move; he didn’t go to the tool shed for the sledge hammer. He simply stood looking out the window. It was winter in British Columbia, and the sea, constrained by the rocky islands of the Sound, shrugged its chill gray body restlessly, thrashing to white spume against the rocks. Very cold, that water would be. Very cold.

Perhaps…he could go somewhere else. Somewhere earlier. But it always happened that he merged with his earlier self, remembering where he’d come from—remembering the future—but able to make only minor changes in the past. So he’d be drawn as if through a sluice to that  Spring day overlooking Anvil Rock, though it took years to get there.

Perhaps he might perfect the machine, to go elsewhere…before his birth. Or to go somewhere after his death. But…

But it called to him now.

Try again. This time you can save her. This time…

Strange phrase, that, ‘this time’. In view of…what he’d learned. “‘This time,’” Grigsby murmured. “This time. This time.”

The phone rang. Stopped ringing. Rang again. Stopped ringing. Rang again. Again, again.

It was Sanguelo, of course. He was always very insistent. He would want clarity on the new mine in Santo Miguel. He would want to know if the proper Brazilian authorities had been bribed. Ring. He would want to know if Grigsby were going to supervise the open-pit mine himself. Ring, ring. If the gold assay was indeed confirmed. Ring, ring, ring. If their legal problems had been dealt with…

“Go the hell away!” Grigsby shouted, never turning from the window; his voice rattling the glass.

As if chastened, the phone stopped ringing.

Grigsby snorted. “First time he’s…” His voice trailed off. He gazed out the window.

The key in his pocket seemed to press against his hip. The key to the closet.

Grigsby felt the shift inside him that meant he was going to give in. He wasn’t going to go to Vancouver to find women, to take drugs, to throw money at a card table; to feel himself slowly burning away, like a slow fuse. No. He was going to do something worse. It was worse because it seemed hopeless. Maddeningly hopeless. Because it meant reliving that day.

He was sorry he’d ever funded Kosinksi’s research. “I can take your consciousness back in time. It remains to be seen if your body can go…”

Anybody else would have sent him packing, after mad-sounding remarks of that kind. Many had, in fact—Kosinsky had already tried over a hundred possible funders. Grigsby had been a long-shot—he was interested in funding research into mine engineering, not quantum theory, not time travel. But Kosinski was his wife’s nephew, and he was sentimental about her memory, so…he’d given him some money to work with. And then, a year later, it had happened and he’d gone desperately to Kosinski and then…

Who knew?

He should have shot the bastard, not paid him. But maybe this time…

He sighed, and turned away from the window, walked across the empty room to the closet, and unlocked it. Inside was…

#

“Hey Dad! Are we going or not!”

Grigsby looked up from his PC to see his daughter,  Maria, smiling nervously at him from the doorway. She was an earnest, deeply tanned graduate student—very nearly always, as now, in jeans and work-shirt — with her mother’s long wavy black hair and her father’s blue eyes; and now she had that “There’s something I want to talk to you about” look. She liked to have these talks, always about something she regarded as deeply serious and epochal, in fine restaurants, on the beach, in the back of a cathedral, someplace that seemed to impart drama to the discussion. Today it was a walk along the cliffs near his sprawling house.

It would be her house, one day, he thought. She was his only child and her mother was five years in the grave. If she would just wait for her time—let him be himself while she waited—

“Coming, dad?”

“You bet. We taking a lunch?”

“No, I’m going to make lunch for you on the deck, after. It’s a beautiful day…”

He looked wistfully at his email. Jose Sanguelo had a very urgent tone—was quite disturbed about the bad publicity, the sudden judicial interference in Grigsby Gold Mines Ltd, when all had been so sweetly copasetic with the Brazilian authorities for so many years. Still, it would keep an hour or so.

He stood and looked for his coat—and then saw that she was holding it out to him, smiling.

#

Yellow crocuses were blooming along the cliff path, waving in the wind amidst  new grass. The grass had a fresh greenness, that seemed the very color of innocence. The breakers below were cottony white, in the Spring sunshine, almost the same color as the few wispy clouds in the turquoise sky. A brisk wind whipped their hair, it was true, but there was nearly always a wind here.

“You still seeing that lawyer kid?” he asked her.

His daughter laughed and shook his head. “Oh my God, if he could hear you call him a lawyer kid. He’s thirty one.”

“Just seems boyish to me, I guess. More like just out of college.”

“Because he’s an idealist?”

“There’s being an idealist and then there’s being silly. He always pushes everything too far.”

“Well…he doesn’t, dad. I mean…I met him when he was working with Amnesty International, in Sao Paulo—they’re very established and serious. They’re not some flaky organization. The UN respects them.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t respect the UN either. What was it you wanted to talk to me about? You had that earnest carrying-the-world-on-your-shoulders look.”

She scowled. That face-transfiguring scowl she inherited from her mom. From pretty to ridiculous in a split second. “It’s pretty serious, dad.” She dropped the scowl and stopped at the peak of the cliff, turning to gaze at him, hair whipping around her face. She brushed a few strands from her eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight. “What I carry on my shoulders is my karma—you’ve paid for everything I have with blood money.”

He stared at her. She’d tasked him about his mines before but never so self righteously, so bluntly. “So—would you like to repay me the college funds? Like me to take away the annuity?”

“I won’t be taking the annuity anymore, actually. And you may need the money, for your own lawyers. Dad—” Maria made a sound that was something close to a moan. “I had to help Joel when he—he’s representing the Santos family.”

He felt like he’d been struck by a baseball bat. “Your fiancé is representing the people who’re suing me?”

“The Santos brothers have moved to Vancouver. And…” She licked her lips. “I think I’m getting chapped up here. Maybe we should go in the house.”

“No! Just stay right there and tell me exactly what you mean by you had to ‘help’ him!”

“I…copied some of your files. The money transfers to Colonel Vega. Dad, you paid those soldiers to murder those people so they’d stop talking about the cyanide from the mine—so they’d keep quiet about your company poisoning the village. What was I going to do? I…look, you’re my dad and I love you. I didn’t want to just…screw you over, even for a good cause, from a…like, from a distance. I wanted to tell you face to face what I’d done. I think you should own up to it and…pay restitution. I mean, up here, you’re not likely to be prosecuted for hiring—”

“I didn’t hire anybody to kill anyone anywhere!”

Of course it was a lie. But he had learned that lies work best when you’re deeply insistent, over and over. And he was never going to cop to having anyone killed—especially not to Maria.

“Dad—I know what you did. You were sloppy about the emails. We have the money trail. You paid to kill those people to keep them quiet. And…it has to end. I mean, Joel told me about it and I…couldn’t believe it. I thought of you as tough and conservative and even ruthless but –not without human feelings. I figure you managed to…to forget they were people too, for awhile. I know you have human feelings, dad. You were good to me and mom. Mostly. But…”

“So Joel poisoned your mind!” (Why was he saying that, again? This time…he must remember. The closet. The closet. The future. He must…but it was so hard to believe it, so hard to…)

“Dad—should we go over the paperwork? You made me an officer in the company and I…on that authority I gave it to the prosecutor. Now like I said he won’t be able to—”

“You gave…you let that boy tell you what to think and you turned your own father in…you….” (No! This time he…but he felt so caught up, so angry, so…) “You treacherous little bitch! I ‘m already under investigation for taxes—” All the blue had sucked out of the sky—it seemed white now, with veins of red. The sea seemed to roar in fury—in demand. The wind whined in pity for him—stabbed in the back by his own child…a child he had given everything to!

“I didn’t know that you were under—”

“And now you’re going to help them destroy me! You already have!” (This time, remember—the closet—but the feeling was so strong, so…)

“Dad—it has to stop! It’s a matter of conscience! Someone has to—to stop people like you! I’m so ashamed of our family, of the way we live of—”

That was what did it. Ashamed of our family.

He lashed out, backhanded her, and she staggered for a moment, teetered, and there was a second when he might have, might have, might have caught her. (Now! Remember! The closet, you–)

But then Maria was falling backwards over the cliff, screaming. Falling, falling. Striking Anvil Rock below…And he was looking over the edge, wanting to throw himself after her, but not having the courage.

Seeing the dark red splash around her head, below, diluting to pink when the wave of high tide  washed over her…

Then the machine in the closet detected the ‘moment of return’ setting and he was caught up in a vortex, screaming, twisting…stopping.

Swaying in the dusty closet. Sobbing in the darkness.

He fumbled for the door, opened it, stepped blinking out into the room, with only moments having passed from the time he’d entered the closet. The winter light came pale through the window of the barren room; the room that had been Maria’s bedroom.

He closed the closet door behind him and went to the window.

How many times is that? he asked himself. He thought about it. How many times have I gone back?

At least three hundred.

Next time. Next time, the three hundred and first time.

Next time he wouldn’t kill her.

[end]


18
Jan 10

*THE CLOUD OF UNSEEING: A Lost Story*

By John Shirley

“No one may leave here,” said the Leader. “We must commune with the great Cosmic Eye. And after–”

“And after,” interrupted Smythe, who had  catalyzed this rebellion against the Leader  of the Sect of the Cosmic Eye, “there will be  more of the same. You will interpret the Eye’s signals in a way convenient to you–as ever!”

There was a murmur of agreement from the sect’s assemblage in the great hall they’d built in the forest. “Wait!” called Luella Fiske, known for her flares of inspiration. “Yes, our leader got lost in vanity and fell into darkness! Let us pray to the Eye and ask if the leader gives us light—or darkness!”

Even as she said it the Eye at the Center of the Cosmos sent its reply: Though bright with noon light, in the next moment the room was plunged into unbroken darkness; an obscurity deeper than eclipse enwrapped them. The Leader yelped in fear,  ran gibbering out of the building—and was blinded by the sunshine when he passed out of the pool of black the Eye had imposed.

The others chose to stay in complete darkness, until the Eye should lift the shadow on its own. As the days and nights passed, their other senses became more acute, as if the darkness forced them to subtler feelings, an exquisite sensitivity that slowly allowed them to see again using a light conducted from within, so that the pool of darkness slowly dissolved, and they saw the world once more. Then they went their own way, none of them ever needing a Leader to tell them about the great Eye again, since they each  looked on the world with the eye of the Eye…

[end]