I have assembled the Mallocrest flashes in chronological order here (also see in menu), for those who are interested.
The dudes had been dreading this part of the journey home. It was the most dangerous stretch according to the aliens who’d helped them plan everything out with their intergalactic GPS gizmo. The danger came from one primary issue. Space zombies.
Nate rested in the reclining fixture used by the ship’s previous owners, basically a vat of brown Jello. The ship was gigantic, but only that room had human life support. The merchant had rigged the roomed with the piloting controls and an airlock, so it was a lot like a space blimp, except the cabin was on the side. Windows gave a limited view to outer space.
It was an old ship with unused and obsolete pipes, conduits, and gadgets hanging loosely from the walls. The important stuff was colored blue, or so they were told.
Nate daydreamed about fighting off the zombies, steering the ship to safety, and looking good in a white suit, while Jack, Bradley, and Tim hailed him as their hero.
“Wake up, butthead.” Tim flicked him on the back of the ear and shook the vat.
“What do you want?”
“We’ve hit zombie space.”
Nate hopped out of the vat with a slurp. “Why didn’t you just say so.”
“I believe I just did.”
They crowded around Jack at the controls. The displays were visual, almost like a human’s computer screen, but everything had a green tinge. A thin yellow line demarcated zombie space, and it intersected the blob that represented their ship.
Jack kept repeating a song he’d made up, which wasn’t entirely unlike a reggae tune. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh. Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”
Tim blew air between his teeth. “I think a half hour is long enough to be singing that song.”
Jack grinned wide and sang louder, adding hand motions, twirling his fists around each other and swinging his arms out on alternating sides. “C’mon, guys. Join me.”
Bradley joined him for a verse. “We should take this to Vaudeville.”
Nate studied the screen, but didn’t see anything worrisome. “Can we take this just a little more seriously?”
“What do you have to worry?” said Tim. “You ain’t got no brain.”
“Haha.” Nate noticed a shimmer on the screen close to their ship’s blob. “Hold on, guys. Look here.” He hovered his finger over the shimmer, and it grew more distinct as they watched.
“Damn,” said Tim. “It’s a whole fleet.”
“Just keep it steady, guys.” Jack bopped his head. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”
“Seriously, Jack.” Tim frowned at the screen. “Can it.”
Jack sang louder. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”
“Oh, come on,” said Tim. “It’s like the stupidest song ever.”
“He’s got to deal with things in his own way,” said Nate.
“When I trained in Dao Ling, we used song to focus our chi,” said Bradley.
“Well focus your ass on that screen. You remember what to do, right?”
“Yeah,” said Jack. “What do you think I’m doing? I cut to medium thrust, I set course for a hop trajectory that should bounce us away and around, but keep us in opposition, and I increased the air cycle in the cabin.”
“The air cycle’s not part of the procedure,” said Nate.
“I farted,” said Jack.
“No shit?” said Tim. “I thought someone was cooking rotten broccoli.”
They watched as their ship took an arc that would put them in parallel opposition.
“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains…”
“Kill me now,” said Tim.
“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.” Nate pointed at the back edge of the fleet. “Part of it’s breaking off.”
Tim spat. “Shit, he’s right.”
“Okay. Don’t panic.” Jack’s eyes darted everywhere, wide and terrified. “Nobody panic. Stay cool.”
“It’s okay,” said Nate. “They gave us a procedure for this. We’ve got to navigate through them according to their flight configuration. We can confuse and avoid a lot of their sensors. Get a close-up on the break-away ships. You ready for some maneuvering?”
Jack looked at Nate. “Maybe Bradley should do this. He’s the best pilot.”
Nate nodded. “Good idea.”
Jack and Bradley changed places. Bradley cracked his knuckles and fiddled with the controls.
Nate puzzled through the zombies’ flight configuration and instructed Bradley in some complicated flight patterns, taking them right into the ships. Jack sang the ‘oh-no’ song quietly next to him. They had a few maneuvers left to get out when Jack gasped.
“Wait,” he said. “The other way. The other way!”
“Just do it. They’re directing you straight into a trajectory with the other fleet, and it’s turning. We’ll lose opposition.”
“Holy shit, he’s right,” said Tim.
Nate sputtered. “I didn’t see that. Do it, Bradley!”
Bradley took them out the side of the smaller fleet, but one of the zombie ships broke off and followed.
“No!” said Nate. “They’re coming.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” Tim bent close to Bradley. “Pull off this way. Lead him away from both fleets so we can deal with him alone. Drive like it’s the Daytona 500.”
“I once subbed for Jeff Gordon in—”
“I’m sure you did, Bradley. Focus.”
Bradley smiled stupidly and worked the controls. The ship and their pursuer got farther and farther apart.
“He’s doing it,” said Nate.
“Now we’ve just got to shake this last guy.”
Their ship stopped turning and went in a straight line.
Tim grabbed Bradley’s shoulder. “Why aren’t you turning?”
“The controls stopped working.”
“What do you mean?” asked Nate.
Tim pushed Bradley’s hands away and worked the controls. “Shit. I’ve got nothing.”
Bradley shook his head. “Not good.”
“Damn,” said Nate.
“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brain. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”
The zombie ship zipped up next to them, a rust-colored mass of cobbled together technology. A loud clang sounded as they attached.
“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”
“We’ve got to get the controls back,” said Nate.
“Oh, really?” said Tim. “Cause I thought we should break for tea.”
“You’re not helping,” said Nate.
The warning light for the outside airlock turned on.
“Knock it off, guys.” Jack pulled an orange pipe off the wall. “Tim and Bradley, figure it out. Me and Nate will hold them off.”
Nate grabbed another piece of pipe, and they both held them up ready to swing.
“Got it!” said Bradley.
The inside airlock door lifted.
“Too late,” yelled Jack.
An Incredible-Hulk-sized alien that looked like a mushroom with distended bellies on his stalk and five legs rotated out. Several mouths with vertical teeth snapped and drooled from the side of the mushroom cap, and a horrible snort came from the top, which seemed to have some kind of opening that spat green stuff. Behind were five more just like him.
The translator sputtered and snapped. “BAAAAAAWK braaaaaaains!”
Tim shot past Nate and propelled himself into one of the zombie’s distended bellies, hitting it with a forearm and taking him down back into the airlock.
Nate grabbed Tim’s ankles and pulled him back in as Jack hit the button to close the airlock.
“Go,” yelled Jack.
The vessel shuddered and separated from the zombie ship. Tim sprang up and hit the button to open the outside airlock, and the zombies tumbled out into space.
“Get us out of here,” yelled Nate.
After a tense hour hovering over the screens, getting farther and farther away from the zombie fleet, Nate allowed himself some relief.
“Good job, Bradley.” Jack patted Bradley on the back and chuckled. “Not a lot of people are going to believe this one. But we’ll know.”
Bradley grinned wide. “Not since my brothers in arms in Vietnam have I had such comradeship.”
Tim scoffed. “You’re not old enou… Ah, hell. Take a break, Bradley. I’ll drive for a while.” They traded places.
“Thank you, Tim. I can practice my Blues Clues meditation techniques now.” He tugged on Jack’s shirt. “You want to try?”
“No, thanks, Bradley. I’m more of a Sesame Street guy. I’m gonna take a nap.” He went to his usual corner, wrapped himself in a blanket, and snored.
Bradley went to the middle of the room and assumed the lotus position.
Anxiety squeezed Nate’s chest as he thought about the many galaxies and empty space they still had to travel through to get home. “I hope this really is the worst of our trip.”
“Hey.” Tim gripped Nate’s shoulder. “If we can get through this, we can get through anything. Go sit in your Jello. I promise you’ll feel better.”
Taken aback by Tim’s kindness, Nate plodded over to the tank and sunk in. The cool comfort soothed his nerves. His mind drifted to pleasant thoughts of home as the sound of Tim’s voice drifted softly through the cabin.
“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh. Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”
Damien ran into the cafeteria and squeaked his sneakers to a stop where Al and I ate lunch, plopping down on the bench next to me. He looked at me, then at Al, breathed out sharply and nodded. “The Men in Black are here.”
Al dropped his sloppy joe.
“Where?” I asked.
“Palm Street, just off Main.”
“What are they doing?” asked Al.
Damien threw up his hands. “No idea. But they’re all over the place.”
The clock on the wall said twelve sixteen. Nine minutes left of lunch break. “Gonna have to play hookey,” I said. “Let’s grab Harry.”
We intercepted Harry coming up the west wing and filled him in. We had a well-established escape route down the street side of the gymnasium and across through an antique store’s parking lot, then down a back alley.
Damien was right. Literally dozens of men milled about Palm Street, almost all of them in black clothing. Black shirts, black pants, black shoes, even black hair. They chatted in groups smoking cigarettes, sat alone, or went in and out of the local businesses. Some of them wore cowboy hats. We walked by and stopped in front of the thrift store.
“It must be a big happening for so many to work openly like this,” said Al.
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Damien.
“I thought they’d all be in black suits,” said Harry.
“Yeah, they’re probably lower level operatives,” I said.
A lot of them went in and out of the Golden Recording Studio. Two of them spoke quietly and leaned on the mailbox in front, as if they were guarding the place, but trying not to show it.
I tapped Al on the chest. “Hey, you guys think that’s a temporary headquarters?”
“Maybe it’s permanent,” said Damien. “Right under our noses this whole time.”
“Let’s talk to them,” said Al.
“They’re not going to tell us anything,” said Harry.
“Can’t hurt, though.” I was pretty keen on talking to them. Our UFO Hunters club could really use some contacts in the organization, and—who knows?—maybe we could get involved. “Let’s try the guys by the mailbox.”
The man on the left was taller than most and smoked a cigarette. No hat.
“Hey, mister.” Damien walked up to them. “I’m Damien Scorelli. May I ask your names?”
“Johnny Stone.” The tall one held out his hand and Damien took it.
“Is that your real name?” asked Harry.
“Of course not.”
I exchanged glances with Damien and Al.
The short one extended his hand to me. “Jason Ghostrider.” He smiled. “Mine’s not real, either.”
“You… you’re men in black,” said Harry.
They both nodded and smiled. “Yeah. That’s right.”
“You know Johnny Cash?” asked Jason.
“Huh-uh,” I said.
Damien let go of Johnny’s hand. “Was there some space alien activity around here?”
Johnny straightened, a funny look crossing his face. “There’s been a lot of activity around here.” He furrowed his brow. “Who wants to know?”
I stepped forward. “My name’s Jimmy Dickerson. This is Harry Crawford and Al Kaiser. We’re UFO hunters, and we’d like to get involved with your organization.”
Johnny chuckled. “My organization?”
“Yeah,” I said. I wasn’t happy the way he didn’t seem to take us seriously. “We do investigations all the time. You’d benefit from our experience and resources.”
“It’s dangerous work, hunting aliens,” said Johnny.
Jason scoffed. “Johnny, you shouldn’t be telling them that.”
Al stepped up. “We can handle it.”
Johnny pursed his lips. “I believe you could.” He leaned over, hands on his knees. “Okay. Here’s the thing. There’s an initiation for joining our team.”
“Johnny!” Jason pushed him in the arm.
Johnny glared at him. “Leave it alone, Jason.”
Jason shook his head and walked off.
“You want to be part of us, go inside there.” Johnny pointed to the Golden Recording Studio. “Ask for an audition, and do whatever they ask you to do.”
I looked at my pals, and we all nodded to each other solemnly.
“You know any Johnny Cash songs?”
“My parents listen to him sometimes,” said Al. “But I don’t know any.”
“That’s all right,” said Johnny. “You know ‘This Land is Your Land?’”
“Yeah, of course,” said Harry.
“Just sing that.”
“They want us to sing?”
“Don’t question it,” said Johnny. “If they let you join, you’ll understand then.”
It didn’t make much sense to me, but, who knows? Maybe singing could be used as a way to paralyze aliens.
We walked into the studio. It was dim, but pleasant. I grabbed Damien and pointed to a poster on the wall that said ‘Man in Black Retrospective, Coming this Summer.’
“Is it code?” he asked.
A big bald man sat in a chair in the reception room. He looked up from his tablet.
“Hello, sir,” stammered Damien. “Can… can we have an audition?”
“You all together?”
The man reached onto the counter next to him and grabbed a clipboard. After examining it for a minute, he handed it to Damien. “You can have the last slot in ten minutes.”
Damien wrote on the clipboard and handed it back.
After seventeen minutes, baldie ushered us into the recording booth. Two men sat in the dark on the other side of the glass.
“What is this?” asked a voice.
“We’re here for the audition,” I said.
They murmured to each other. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“On my count,” I whispered. I counted to four, and we all sang ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It wasn’t bad.
“Thank you. You may leave now.”
“Did we pass?” asked Al.
“We’ll let you know.”
When we got outside, the Men in Black were gone. Whatever the happening was, it must have cleared up.
All four of us were as excited as we’ve ever been.
“We could be real UFO hunters,” said Harry.
I scowled. “We are real UFO hunters.”
Harry frowned. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”
I smiled. “But you’re right. This could be really good.”
I don’t know how long it takes to process this kind of thing, but I was stoked. I went home and started a page for case number five. At the top I put “Unknown Happening.” In the middle, I took notes about our initiation audition to be bona fide Men in Black.
That was about two years ago, and I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that they were never calling back. I stopped in the studio several times, with the guys or alone, but whenever we asked for the Men in Black, they claimed no such people worked there.
Yeah, right. Had it been temporary? Did they vacate after we found out they were there? We’ll never know, but it was the closest we’ve come, so far, to the real Men in Black.
I thought it was finally time to close the case. Underneath the notes about the initiation I wrote ‘Rejected.’ At the bottom of the page for the happening, I wrote ‘Unsolved.’
Ty, Will, and Doc, galloped toward Greenstown, their black dusters flapping in the wind, the Men in Black spurred on by Mabel’s missive that said band of gray off-worlders scarified the town, taking over Cal’s tavern and demanding audience with their leaders.
Ty would have to deal with Will’s ‘told-ya-sos’ later. Will had been a bit skittish about antagonizing the off-worlders, but Ty’d reckoned on them attacking the underground hangars where the third brigade hunkered down for a surprise counter.
The town looked like any other, though they built it to support the hangars and all the federales inquisitioning the captive grays.
They road onto Main and dropped their horses at McGavin’s on the end.
“It’s a trap.” Will straightened his hat and adjusted the strap.
“Course it’s a trap,” said Ty. “Ain’t no gray gonna play fair.”
Doc pulled his rifle from his saddle. “What makes you think we can understand the first thing of what they think is fair?”
Ty shrugged and unhooked the lanyards on his holsters.
“They understand bullets.” Will checked his revolvers.
Ty appraised their circumstances. None of them were proper gunslingers, not even Will, but then neither were the off-worlders. They had all kinds of doodads for capturing and immobilizing a man, but they were always ill-prepared for any kind of battle.
They swaggered up to Cal’s tavern and stood in a row. The hotel down street from the tavern was quiet and the barber shop up street was locked up. On the other side, the general store’s door was open, George Harlan in the doorway, his shotgun in hand. Next to the water trough sat an empty manure wagon.
“Come on out!” Ty thumbed his duster back on each side and rested his hands on his guns.
The off-worlders flooded out the tavern door, a jostling mob of white and gray, fifteen strong. They all had the white protective cocoons on their bodies, but also on their heads, arms and legs. They looked like walking pussy willows. A metallic mesh clung to the side of each cocoon on their heads.
They stopped in the middle of the street, and the Men in Black positioned themselves in opposition to them, forty feet away. The tallest stood in the middle of them, two bumps on his neck making Ty wonder if it was the one of Will’s acquaintance.
“Time for y’all to leave,” said Will.
“Return our people and our ship to us.” The metallic mesh on the tall one jiggled as the words seemed to echo on the air, so Ty figured he was the talker.
“Ain’t no way,” said Will.
“They violated our law,” said Doc. “They’ll be tried and penalized.”
“We don’t understand law,” said the gray.
“Laws is the rule of the land,” said Will. “And we don’t take kindly to outsiders absconding with our people.”
“Nature is our law,” said the gray.
“Well, you better be respecting ours here,” said Ty.
“We will overwhelm you,” said the gray. “Return our people and our ship.”
Some of the townspeople trickled out brandishing guns and rifles and falling in behind the Men in Black.
“Get off the earth,” said Ty.
The gray chuffed and the ones around him huddled closer and dipped their heads to hide their faces. He brought up a yellow contraption the size of a summer squash, and a brilliant green line of light slashed through the air next to Ty.
Will lurched, his duster aflame and smoking.
Ty pulled both guns and shot at the off-worlders. Several of the townsfolk fired at them. It didn’t disturb the ones with their heads down, their cocoons absorbing every shot, but the tall one ducked behind them.
“Never seen that.” Will slapped the flames out and shot a few times with his free hand.
The tall one came up again along with two others holding green-fire pistols. Ty fired several times and Doc’s rifle went off. The gray’s face on the left splattered yellow and dropped. The other two went down.
A black tube appeared between two of the front off-worlders. Ty’d seen one of them before.
He dove backward to the ground. “Stunner!”
A big woosh passed over him, followed by a thump. He crawled away on his belly and forced himself into a stand, his muscles resisting, but working. He turned to see Will, Doc, and several townsfolk standing frozen, and the off-worlders advanced, shooting their green fire at those still moving. Jeffers, the barber, took a shot on his shoulder and went down, a bite of arm disappearing, smoke coming from the wound.
When the left gray pointed the yellow thing at him, Ty dove for the ground and rolled, catching the green light passing above him from the corner of his eye.
When he rose to his feet, Will and Doc stood between the off-worlders and him. Ty ran to the street side so the grays wouldn’t try to shoot past his friends to get him, then hid behind the manure wagon.
The off-worlders pressed forward, still huddled tightly, almost to Ty’s friends.
Ty gritted his teeth, holstered his guns, and picked up the wagon traces, pushing it toward the grays, digging in hard, and picking up speed. In their huddled group, the grays didn’t maneuver out of his path, and he rammed the wagon into them, knocking several down and scattering them. The wagon wheel rolled over one, and Ty tripped on him. He let loose of the traces and stumbled.
Ty stopped his fall with his hands, spun up into a stand and turned around to see the tall gray pull himself out of the pile of off-worlders. He looked at Ty, and they both went for their guns. Ty brought his up and fired, the green fire zapping by his ear. Yellow juice spurted from the tall gray’s eye. He shuddered and fell.
Ty grabbed the yellow contraptions from the other two before they recovered, then pulled the third off the dead gray’s body. Any that tried to get up, he pointed his gun at their faces at point blank range. They understood enough to lie back down. He threw the fire guns into a pile in front of Will and Doc, who both stirred with small lurches.
“Ye got ‘em,” croaked Doc.
“Yep.” Ty removed his hat and wiped his forehead. “They may have some mighty fine machinery, but earthmen still rule a good shootout.”
Here in the emptiness of time, where nightmares never end and the unthinkable confronts you day after day, there is no room for myths like the City of Light. A world ruled by a monstrous atrocity grown bigger than a city, her physical elements spread throughout the lands by her ceaseless hoard of servants, doesn’t allow for such a delusion.
Intensely aware of Enta harnessed to my back, unable to tumble for fear of crushing her, I dove forward along a crease of the Desiderasha and scrambled between two nodules the size of porgrents, knife and rifle in hands. The surface of the Desiderasha shuddered, and I turned around to see one of her giant siphons pulling back from where I’d stood.
Like a flea on a dog I jumped between her grotesque tumors, bouncing off their sides to get to the next one. We came across a smooth surface the size of a warlord’s court, one of the shimmery ones that looked toxic, a red ooze at its edge. The air rising from it stung my eyes, burned my nostrils, and made us both choke. I spat on it causing it to sizzle and smoke, so we had to turn back and find a way through the tumors to get around it.
We rounded the first nodule and nearly collided with a red Child of the Desiderasha. He reached for me, grabbing my shoulder as I plunged my knife deep into his throat and wrenched it back and forth. He let go and fell, but I heard many more growling, howling, and gibbering in their incomprehensible language.
I climbed a tumor shaped like a ghowat’s head and observed hoards of creatures coming our way, some just on the other side of my perch. I set my rifle and started shooting, the closest one’s first. I lost count, but I spent about thirty precious rifle rounds, and they kept coming.
“Dive!” Enta pounded my back as she yelled.
I launched myself to the side where the two largest tumors gave cover. The surface shuddered and bounced, a glance back showing me the Desiderasha’s siphon pulling back, a mouth full of her own flesh.
The hoard was close. I could hear them, and I caught flashes of color between the nodules. For a second I thought of cutting off a siphon for a bridge across the toxic area. Such foolish thoughts are born of desperation. Some desperate thoughts, however, bring new life. The hoard was very close.
I crept back to the red one I’d killed, dragged him to the side of the poison, and pushed him onto it. He slid easily over the surface.
I looked across, estimating the thrust it would take, and thought I could do it. I pulled him off and pulled him up from under his armpits. He was immensely heavy, a bolder his size would be easier.
I picked him up and took several steps back, then ran forward, thrusting hard at the edge to propel us across the toxic substance. I pulled my arms from under him and gripped the top of his shoulders. He hit the ground and we landed on top of him, though the toes of my boots scraped the surface. I pulled my knees up and dug my toes into his thighs.
His flabby skin crackled and popped as we glided toward the other side. I quickly realized we wouldn’t make it all the way, so as we slowed, I pushed with my boot, but it only slid, and my sole grew hot. We slowed to a stop a few strides from the edge. The underside of the red’s body melted into the Desiderasha. My toes were on fire.
I stood up on his chest, visualized my three quick strides, and stepped onto the surface. My foot slipped, pulling me forward. I lurched to keep my balance, horrified that I might fall on my back and push Enta into the poison. Sliding my feet to keep my balance, I glided slowly toward the edge, and stepped off.
Both feet burned and smoked. I pulled off my boots, melted through and ruined, my right foot already blistering.
Across the way, the hoard assembled along the edge, watching us. Several pursued around the edge. I crept up one of the nodules to look around. The end of the Desiderasha was only a pistol shot away. I picked a path between two siphons that would be difficult for either to reach. I slid down the tumor and ran as fast as I could, bouncing between the growths.
Toward the edge, the nodules smoothened out, and I sprinted toward the end. I saw the siphon coming this time, dodged it, and kept my stride, turning and sliding feet first to the edge, stopping on my stomach. I dropped down and surprised a few of the breadloaf creatures, sending them scattering.
I sprinted through the crowds of feeders, watching for the Desiderasha’s Children, but I saw none. I laughed. I’d drawn them off after all, if not as intended. I sprinted up the hill, and dared a look back from the top.
I sucked air, my legs shook, and I let out a dry heave.
“You okay, Enta.”
“Yes. Are you okay, Mallo?”
I laughed. “I think so.”
I noticed the red streams had thickened, and even as I watched they broke into more rivulets, seeping faster up the hill. The Desiderasha’s tunnels that extended over the hills swayed and stretched as if searching for something. My scalp twisted, I turned, and I ran.
It was well into the night before I found a spot far enough away from Children, spawn, and feeders for my comfort. Any I came across would be ignorant of the mayhem behind us, but I wanted a manageable distance in case a messenger got to them while we rested.
I expected they would hunt for us for days to come, but out here in the bleak wilderness they would soon discover the folly in it.
I unharnessed Enta, untied the blanket, and prepared the ground. I then lay Enta on the blanket and sat next to her. I tried to count my rounds three or four times, but dozed off during each attempt.
I sat cross-legged until sunlight woke me.
Enta stirred and looked up, and though her thin smile warmed my heart, I dreaded what I had to do next.
“Let me look at you,” I said.
I picked at the Desiderasha’s flesh, still clinging to her legs and middle. I pulled it away from her waist. She winced and frowned, her eyes glistening, but she didn’t complain. It peeled away, but some of the veiny worms reached down from the flesh and bored into her legs. I cut away the larger portions of Desiderasha flesh until only the worms going into her body remained.
I took off my tattered shirt and folded it twice, then draped it over her middle, covering her belly and upper legs.
She squirmed when I pulled on her breeches.
The worms formed dense clusters, boring into her feet and calves, then grew more sparse, ending just above the knees. I chose one higher up and pulled.
Enta squawked. “No, Mallo, no!”
“Be brave, Enta.”
She squirmed. “Nooo!” she screamed. “Leave it! Leave it!”
She sat up and pounded her fists on my arm as I held her leg firm and pulled. She screamed and pushed.
The worm released and I pulled about a finger length of it out of her and threw it on the ground a few feet away.
She stopped screaming and looked at me, eyes wide and mouth open.
“Okay?” I said.
She nodded. “Get them. Get all of them. Please, please, get them.”
Little by little I removed the invasive flesh, pulling carefully, each going tight, then releasing and coming out. I only had to dig out one of them, but it was shallow. Her lips quivered tightly, tears falling from her closed eyes, my Enta was so brave. She didn’t cry out, trusting the point of my knife.
She is too small a child to have to bear such things, but she will heal. Even now her wounds reject the poisons of the Desiderasha.
I was wrong about there being no room for anything like the City of light. For my beloved Enta, that beautiful girl who fills my heart with hope and nearly crushes it under the weight of my love, is my City of Light. She is the shining light in this world that makes all other things worth enduring.
With Enta tucked under my arm, all my fears, all my doubts, all my rage became intense determination.
Scrabbling through the filth of the Desiderasha’s viscera, I made a little distance from the beasts behind me. When the space widened and gave more light, I turned to get a better look. The Desiderasha’s Children, a blue, two reds, and an orange, crawled our way, the blue in the lead. I set Enta down and pulled my rifle from my back, but it was covered in torn flesh, some clogging the barrel. I slung it back onto my shoulder and pulled my forty-five.
I waited for a good shot to the blue’s throat and fired. He thrashed, then quieted, dead. The others put their heads down, hiding their vital throats, and continued crawling. I hoped to gain a good head start from the kill, but I would be lucky to get out of their eyesight. I picked up Enta and crouch walked until I found the edge of the low space and a way back into the corridors. The Children reached the widened area as I turned the corner and ran.
Two kazhashas sprang from an adjoining conduit, and I shot each one in the eye. One fell and the other reeled. I shot him in the other eye and ran by him, untouched. I recognized a tunnel and turned down it, hoping to get back to my pack. A green Child of Desiderasha appeared from a chamber and charged us. I shot him in the neck with the forty-five and he fell.
After I killed several more spawn and reloaded, I found the tiny alcove with my pack and the dead blue.
I was loathe to put Enta on the floor where she would touch the abomination, but I had nothing to put under her. I gave her a drink from the water skin.
I used a wooden needle to clean out the barrel of my rifle, pulled the small gun from the blue’s mouth, and collected the rest of my ammo, weighing down another belt pouch. My pack ruined, I made a quick bundle with a blanket. I folded in my ground treatments and a few supplies, tied it into a role, and strung two loops of rope on each end.
I picked up Enta, and she squeaked as the floor clung to her, releasing with a splatch. I grimaced and tried to stand her up. She wobbled as I supported her. Chunks of Desiderasha flesh, some thicker than her arms hung from her, her breeches punctured or in tatters where it had broken through and grown into her.
“Can you stand? Can you move your legs?” Her lips thinned and her eyes narrowed.
I let her go, and she wobbled, but stayed on her feet.
“I’m sorry, Mallo. They’re not mine anymore.”
I winced. She spoke as if they were traded-away seashells.
“Can we play lolly-loo?”
“Later. I promise.”
I created a harness from the rest of the rope, incorporating the blanket bundle as a seat for her, and I strapped her to my back.
The howls and screams of the Desiderasha’s beasts grew louder.
I holstered my guns, hoisted my rifle, and stepped into the passage. Two longsnouts trotted from one direction and three Children, two reds and an orange, howled from the other. The longsnouts being faster, I pulled my forty-five and shot each in the head, then holstered it and turned my rifle on the Children. Three shots in the neck. Three kills.
I ran past them, looking for one of the conduits out of this hellish monster. More and more of the Desiderasha’s creatures appeared, and after spending twenty or so rounds I started thinking about conserving them again. Instead of killing every one I encountered, I fled and reacquired them as I could, killing and picking my way around to find a way outside.
The beasts covered all the passages that way, and I knew it couldn’t be an accident.
I withdrew deeper into the Desiderasha, my prevailing thought to create a threat and draw them away from the entrances. I found the ancient halls and searched for the line of angry men, imbedded and grown large. When I found them, they scolded me as before, and Enta twisted my shirt and wailed.
“It’s okay. I’ve been here before.”
She quieted, but her grips held tight.
I worked my way to the gigantic woman who spoke as the Desiderasha, her lurid nose and mouth black as tar. I took the light kits from my pocket and dumped several of my small ammo into my hand.
A gurgle and hiccup came from the mouth. “My Children are coming.”
I could feel Enta trembling on my back, her face buried in my shirt. I bit open the bullets and poured the powder into a pile at the base of the wall in front of the Desiderasha’s voice.
“They will kill you.”
I emptied the oil from the light kits, splashing it up the wall.
“You cut out my flesh. You burn my voice. These do nothing.”
I spread the substrate along the base and around the powder, made a line with the filaments out from it, then squeezed the last bit of oil in the material close to the pile.
“You cannot harm me.” Her voice crackled. “Even if you killed this entire body, I am everywhere. The feeders and my children have spread my presence throughout the world, and it belongs to me.”
I picked up my rifle and checked to make sure everything was in place. I snapped the flint and jumped back. The filament flamed, the powder flared.
“Why did you invade me for a mere chunk of flesh?” She made a high-pitched growl.
The flame climbed the oil on the wall and the substrate burned, spreading both ways.
The voice shrieked. “Stupid man. You can’t kill me.”
I looked at her for the first time, her lips twisted into a diseased rictus, her eyes bulging and her stubby arms flailing.
“I don’t care,” I said. I threw a few more rounds in the fire and fled.
Outside, I shot several of her spawn and Children. They swarmed from every direction, forcing me to run as much as fight. I’d drawn them out too fast, or I’d misjudged everything. Either way, they would overwhelm me and wear me out soon. I found one of the spirals going upward and scrabbled about halfway up, not daring to go clear to the top, where the tube could grab us, and loathe to go back into the swarming corridors below.
Many creatures passed beneath, but the spiral gave me some respite, and I got my wind back.
“Can we go, Mallo?”
“I want to go.” I felt her playing with my hair.
“A little while longer.”
A longsnout’s head appeared around the bend below and snarled.
I shot him with my forty-five and he tumbled backward. Howling and roaring came from below. I scrabbled to the top of the spiral, hoping the fire had the Desiderasha’s attention so one of her giant crushing tubes wouldn’t find me.
The upper chamber was round and small. Two openings provided exits, one up to my shoulders and a smaller one to my waist, but I could hear sounds of many beasts approaching from both. I shot a red Child that came around the spiral’s bend, but I knew it was almost over. I had nowhere to go, and there were too many.
“Thanks for cutting me out, Mallo.” Enta’s arms spread across my back, giving me a hug.
“You’re welcome, Enta.”
I would go through three hells like the one I’d been through to cut her out again. I suddenly realized we weren’t done.
I stepped to the lowest part of the chamber where I could just reach the roof. I drew my knife and plunged it into the flesh, tough and as thick as my entire leg. I sawed an opening.
“Enta, when we get outside, watch for giant siphons, like the long nose of the rocomant, but bigger than… than a gobahr. Bigger than a sea worm. Understand?”
I turned my rifle on a stooped red Child approaching the larger portal and shot him in the neck. He kept coming and I shot two more times, but another appeared after he fell. More came on the other side.
I stopped cutting, went to a knee, and alternated shots on each side, then pulled my big handgun and shot two longsnouts coming up the spiral. More approached, and a hundred howls surrounded us.
“If one turns toward us, yell ‘dive.’” I cut a gash just wider than my shoulders, then cut a cross-line. I shot two more orange Children at the larger door, but another came in the smaller. I swung my rifle around, but he was too close. I ducked his swinging fist, brought my forty-five to the side of his neck, and fired. He staggered, and I shot him twice more in the front, then kicked him out of the way.
Children of the Desiderasha came in from each side. I grabbed the lip of the opening I’d cut, and with Enta on my back, I pulled myself up and through. The bright light of the sun nearly blinded me. I surveyed my position and located the closest edge of the Desiderasha, a hundred deformations obstructing the way.
I ran and picked my way between them as the giant hand of a red came out of the gash in the monster’s skin.
“Dive, Mallo. Dive!”
I’d just killed three sleemerins, Children of the Desiderasha with skin like tree bark. Spent three rounds on them, and I was down to eighty-seven. I rested in a tiny chamber, walls oozing yellow as if the Desiderasha’s own wound festered. I dared not sit down lest the wound consume me.
The Desiderasha’s mind haunted me less in the new sections, but they were in ways far more horrible. The eyes of the men knitted into the walls weren’t so vacant, aware of their demise, some with a look of bliss, some with a look of dread and despair.
At first I thought it was a ghost on the air, but the stagnation inside the Desiderasha allowed no breeze.
It was soft and distant, but it was unmistakable. My beloved Enta. The sing-song way she used to call me when she was too afraid to arise from her sleep bundle alone.
I stepped into the outer room toward the corridor, then stopped breathing to listen, but I couldn’t discern its direction.
“Enta.” Barely a rasp, like failing to speak in a dream.
“Enta!” I yelled.
“Enta, where are you?”
“I’m here, Mallo. I’m here.” Her voice carried excitement, but also confusion.
I still had no sense of her direction. I peeked into the corridor and the massive fist of one the blue Children smashed me in the face and sent me flying back into the small room into the wall. The puss splattered and covered me, my pack stuck in the surface, holding me, my rifle pinned. The blue was upon me before I could unclip, smashing me again on the nose and chest, targeting my arm with the knife, which I dropped.
I brought my forty-five up, and he caught my forearm with his fist, jamming the gun into my stomach and gashing the skin through the leather.
He came in for the bite—they always do—and I pulled my small pistol and jammed it between his teeth, shattering them, then fired six times. He bit down on the pistol and staggered pulling it away from me. I unclipped my pack, then bent to pick up my knife. He smashed me on the back, slamming my face into the muck. He fell on top of me and held me. Slime filled my nostrils, and I couldn’t breathe.
I flailed back with the knife, striking something, little time left before strength would ebb and I would be finished. I grabbed his wrist behind me, but couldn’t budge it. I lurched and jabbed with my elbows, but didn’t connect.
This close to my Enta, I couldn’t fail her. I put my hands to the ground and pushed, focusing all the strength within me to my arms I raised my shoulders and then my face out of the filth, then gave a final shove and a spin, twisting my body sideways. His massive hands slid to the ground, and I swung the knife back slicing through his jugular, his yellow blood spraying down upon me. He gurgled and grasped at his neck. I shoved him off me and finished him.
I could barely hear above my own panting, but Enta’s faint calls still came, more insistent now.
“Mallo, Mallo, Mallo, Mallo, Mallo.”
“Keep calling, my love! I’m coming to you. Keep calling!”
The bag was stuck too firmly to waste time with it. I cut it open, filled my belt pouch with the rest of my forty-five rounds, collected some light kits, and grabbed my water skin. I pulled my rifle out of the wall, picked up my forty-five, and sheathed my knife.
I searched corridors and rooms, her voice growing fainter, growing stronger, but I couldn’t get a sense of direction. A dark recess led me to places too low to walk. I progressed on hands and knees, soon having to crawl on my belly through distorted flesh, sour breathed beetles hissing and feeding upon it. A hand grabbed my arm, but didn’t hold, I could see no owner of it.
My breath became short, in fear for Enta in this despicable hell, but also for the stifling air. The darkness was almost complete.
“Mallo, Mallo, Mallo, Mallo.”
I sucked air sharply. Her voice came clearer, and I could follow it.
“I hear you, Enta. Keep calling.”
“Mallo, Mallo, Mallo, Mallo.”
Barely visible in the darkness, the shape of a small head lifted as she called out.
I rushed forward, scraping my head upon the spongy mass overhead, clawing and scrabbling. When I reached her, she raised her head.
“Yes, my love. It’s me.” I cupped her head to support it. “I came for you.”
“Of course you did.” She announced any counter thought as profoundly foolish as only the voice of a child can.
“I’m getting you out of here.”
I pulled a light kit from my pocket, squeezed the oil out into the tiny receptacle and snapped the flint. The filaments caught fire and took hold of the substrate, which glimmered, and for the first time in many long months, I saw her face. My insides glowed, and I couldn’t help a smile.
“Mallo, your face is wrecked.”
I laughed. “It’ll heal. Let’s get you out of here.”
I moved up alongside her and saw the worst. She lay almost half buried in into the surface, the familiar skin of the Desiderasha grown around her. I pulled at it and she squeaked.
The abhorrent skin adhered to her, boring through her clothing and into her.
“Be brave little one. I’m going to separate you.”
“Noooo, Mallo. I can’t.”
“I have to.”
“Be brave, my beloved.”
I’ve told you about the unthinkable things I’ve had to do in this abject hell we’ve wrought in the emptiness of time. This was the most unthinkable. I cut my beloved Enta out of the Desiderasha while I listened to her scream.
I cut gently at first to get close to Enta, but avoid her own flesh, but it seemed only to worsen her agony, so I dug into it farther away from her, with stronger and faster slices. Under the first layer the monster sent many thick, wormy lines into her, like tough veins, and they snapped like cutting through a brogwar’s tendons. Blood ran yellow and red. I cut without ceasing, afraid her screaming would harm her throat and rob her of oxygen, but too afraid to stop and not have the heart to start again.
I made the last cut under her foot and she came loose. I pulled her into my arms, my back on the spongy flesh of the monster. I held her and pet her hair, whispering to her that she would be okay. That I had her. That I loved her. She stopped screaming and quieted into sobbing.
We didn’t have long. Something big crawled toward us. Many somethings. I smothered the light.
Enta could not move her legs, covered in the Desiderasha’s flesh as they were, so I tucked her under my arm and scrambled to look for a way out.