Day 363 (T minus 2): High Noon agin the Grays

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.”

Day 362 (T minus 3): Middle Earth in Weinberg Station

Paco, a Transit Authority employee, waited for Garbol at the overpass entrance that led to the Weinberg train station. He was a short man, big ears and a mustache, his bright blue uniform and hat making him look like a character out of Mario Brothers.

The wizard drove up in a light blue Chevy Metro with a maroon door on the passenger side, the engine whining like it never left first gear. The front tire bounced over the curb, and he parked on the side walk, the back driver-side wheel still on the street.

Garbol climbed out. He had long brown hair, tattered bluejeans, and an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert T-shirt, pool stick in his hand. He reminded Paco of one of his Dungeons and Dragon buddies after a twenty-three hour run—but with a hint of cray-cray.

Paco looked at his watch. “Is this precisely when you intended to arrive?”

“Everyone’s a wiseass,” said Garbol.

“You… are you a real wizard?”

“Yeah.” He glared down at Paco. “You a real smurf?”

Paco laughed. “I never hear that one before, Mister Garbol.”

The wizard’s glare softened.

Paco started to babble about how much he loved the Lord of the Rings.

“You’ve got something?” asked Garbol.

“Yes, sir.” Paco beckoned him to follow into the overpass. “We never seen anything like it.” The entryway was clear, tall windows on each side gave them clear view of traffic going underneath. “Some kind a dragon thing.”

Garbol stopped and turned to him. “A dragon?”

“Nothing very big. Gandalf could handle them with a hand tied behind his back.”

“Them?” The wizard leaned over, nose-to-nose. “How many?”

“Not sure. Maybe a dozen or so?”

“Fire breathers?”

“Yeah. That’s why animal control refuse service.”

“Anyone down there with them?”

“An employee and some customers. Don’t know how many, but they’re okay. Locked in utility room.”

Garbol straightened. “Okay.” The way the wizard’s eyes blazed reminded Paco when Gandalf lost it in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole in the first movie. “Power and magic are fluctuating like mad around here, so we’re very close to a parallel world. They may have come through a rift.”

As they walked over the highway, a thirteen-foot crocodile belly crawled in from the station entrance, except his eyes were the size of saucers, he had a back fin like a spinosaurus, and smoke poured out his nostrils.

The wizard stopped.

“Oooh, Mr. Garbol. You know what you have to do.”

The wizard looked at him. “What the hell are you talking about? What is this thing?”

“C’mon, man. It’s like the Mines of Moria—you know what I’m saying.”

“What?”

Paco thought Garbol was going to swat him with the pool stick, but he couldn’t help himself.

“You know. Against the Balrog. You… shall….” He held his hand out toward the lizard.

“If I do it, will you stop distracting me with Tolkien stuff?”

Paco smiled and brought up the video camera on his iPhone. “Sure, man, anything you say.” Paco stepped back to get a good side view of the wizard, pointed his phone at the monster, then back to the wizard who held up his arms, waving his pool stick.

“You shall not pass,” boomed the wizard.

The video thrilled him enough, it could even go viral, but when Paco felt the air around him stiffen, he knew this was for real.

The fire-crock snarled and blew fire strait at them, and Paco, startled, fell on his cola, but the flame stopped halfway to them.

Paco picked himself up. “You got to fight the balrog, man.”

Garbol pointed his stick forward and muttered. “Not today, pal.”

“What you doing?”

“Warding the other end of the overpass so that thing doesn’t escape on the north side.”

Garbol walked toward the fire-crock.

“Hey, man—you sure we should do that?”

“Would you question Gandalf?”

Paco grumbled. He sure had him there.

Paco hurried up next to him to keep the wizard between him and the beast. They turned into the turnstyle area. The wizard hopped over it and stepped up to the down escalator. At the bottom a five foot fire-crock tried to high walk up, occasionally lunging to get ahead, but immediately falling behind.

Garbol took the stairs. Four more little dragons prowled around the platform.

“Where are the rest?” asked the wizard.

“I don’t know half of them half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of them half as well as they deserve.”

Garbol glared. “Really?”

Paco cowered. “Do not be so quick to deal out death and judgement. Even the very wise do not see all ends.” He grinned as he winced.

“How many times did you see those movies?” Garbol waved him off. “I feel the nearness of the other world, but I don’t see anything. Something disturbed them. Brought them through.” He looked around the platform and the track, keeping a fair distance from the fire-crocks. He stared at the track and shrugged. “We might as well get the people out.”

Paco took him to the big door at the back of the escalators and opened it. His buddy, Jerry Strickler, huddled in the back with three girls, a guitar busker bulging with muscles in an orange tank top, and a man in a gray suit. They crowded in next to some cleaning equipment and a big barrel of salt.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Garbol. “I’ll escort you out of here.”

“That’s right,” said Paco. “We will not abandon Jerry and Rippin’ to torment and death.” He jutted his chin toward the busker when he said ‘rippin.’ “Not while we have strength left. Leave all that can be spared behind. We travel light. Let’s hunt some pork!”

“You’re out of control,” said Garbol. “Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always good to wantonly display your nerdly passions.”

Paco didn’t care what the wizard thought. He was on a roll.

The wizard turned and took a sudden step back. Paco looked to see what startled him and saw several of the dragons now surrounding the storage room door.

“They don’t look that hungry,” said Garbol. “Why are they closing on us?” He looked at Paco as if expecting an answer.

Paco shrugged.

A demented squawk pulled their attention back into the room at the same time the lizards trumpeted and blew fire. The busker croaked out a vaguely western tune completely off key, his guitar jangling hideously.

“What are you doing?” asked Garbol.

“Garth Brooks.”

“Do they pay you not to sing?”

The busker scowled. “I get a lot of compliments.”

“You’re delusional. That cacophony is obviously what upset them and made them cross over.”

Paco stepped up to him. “Fool of a mook! Throw yourself on the track next time and rid us of your stupidity!”

Garbol clenched his free hand and looked at the sky. “You do realize, little man, I can turn you into a sewer rat with a blink of my eye?” He dropped his fist and turned to the busker. “They’ve got your scent. I have to wrap you in a perception shield.”

The wizard stepped to the salt barrel and pulled off the lid, then pulled out a pocket knife to cut the cardboard around the metal rim. When the metal ring pulled loose, he handed it to Paco.

“I wish the ring had never come to me,” said Paco. “I wish none of this had happened.”

Garbol scoffed and let a wry smile escape. “You are a committed man, and you should be committed.”

He grabbed a handful of salt and sprinkled it into a circle, then grabbed the ring and set it on the salt.

He snatched the buskers guitar, handed it to Paco, and pulled the busker into the circle by the arm. He mumbled something and pulled the ring up and around the busker, over his head, and then twisted it around as if tying off an imaginary baggie.

“All right,” said the wizard. “That ought to do it. You play here again and I’ll turn your tongue into a caterpillar.”

They watched the fire-crocks, which had quieted, their noses smoldering lightly.

One by one they turned and wandered away. Garbol followed the last one, and Paco stayed with him. They turned the corner toward the front of the escalators and watched him belly-crawl just past the elevator, the outside of the shaft covered with green tiling. The fire-crock touched his nose to a tile, and the front of him shrank as the wall seemed to suck him in, slurping him up until he was gone.

Garbol strolled up to the wall and squatted, then ran his hand over a tile near the floor.

Paco went on one knee next to him to get a closer look. A hairline fracture split the tile on a diagonal.

Garbol smirked at him. “It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.”

“Yes!” said Paco. He jumped up and punched his fist in the air.

Day 361 (T minus 4): No City of Light in the Emptiness of Time

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.

“Hold still.”

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.




 

Day 360 (T minus 5): Trapped in the Desiderasha

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.

“It’s okay.”

“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?”

“Soon.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

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!”

Day 359 (T minus 6): My Beloved

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.

“Mallooo.”

At first I thought it was a ghost on the air, but the stagnation inside the Desiderasha allowed no breeze.

“Mallooo.”

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.

“Mallooo.”

“Enta!” I yelled.

“Mallo?”

“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.

“Mallo?”

“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.”

“Can’t.”

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.”

“Can’t.”

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.

“That hurts?”

“Little.”

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.”

“Noooo.”

“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.

Day 358 (T minus 7): Navigating the Universe–A Four Dudes Flashback

“These guys want to help,” said Nate. He tried to sound confident because Jack was in a panic.

‘These guys’ were aliens that looked like tipped over Erlenmeyer flasks, see-through and all. They had a line of sharp looking teeth, each about a foot long, hanging off the back. They might have had many features, but they were so transparent the dudes could barely see their outline. The aliens had invited them through an entryway that worked more like a sphincter, you had to push your way through, and for some reason, maybe flask etiquette, the aliens wouldn’t go ahead of them.

“How do you know?” Jack eyed the aliens warily. “For all you know, they’re leading us into a gas chamber.”

“I’m picking it up from the translator thingy.”

The translator was a blob that looked like putty with colors shooting over its surface, thin hair shooting out everywhere, puffing bladders, a number of slits that burbled and popped, some bizarre looking circuitry, and a blue sea slug crawling all around it. It ejected and retracted rods to hop and tumble after them. Every time they said something it erupted into action, and it spoke to them for the aliens.

Of course, ‘spoke’ was a stretch. It mostly bawked at them, with a few English words thrown in.

Tim scoffed. “How the hell are you picking up anything from that gobble-dee-gook? We understood more from those egg aliens at the depot.”

“Right,” said Nate. “And every alien race we’ve come across has been nothing but helpful. Why would they help us and then send us into danger?”

“A trader always takes care of his merchandise,” said Jack.

Bradley giggled. “Like the time Mrs. Bush sold me at the Bachelor Auction for Homeless Churros Addicts.”

Tim spat. “Are you sure that wasn’t the Dimwit Auction for Stuttering Husbands?”

“I don’t know, but Carrot Top was the only one to get a higher bid than me.”

“Right,” said Tim.

“He was at the height of his career,” said Bradley.

“Knock it off,” said Jack. “Do you really think a creature with teeth that big isn’t interested in eating us?”

Nate put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m not getting that from their tone.”

Tim scoffed.

Nate gritted his teeth. “You got any better ideas, Tim?”

“Yeah.” He stepped into Nate’s face, but Nate held his ground. “I got about a pound of—”

“Knock it off,” said Jack. He leaned on Bradley, who stared blankly, his perpetual stupid smile reminding Nate how much of a liability he would be for them.

“Let me just peak in,” said Nate. “If it looks hinky, I’ll wave you off.”

“How can anything here not look…” Jack exhaled sharply. “Fine. Go ahead. It was nice knowing you.”

Nate pushed through the membrane, it was mercifully dry. Keeping one foot outside, he pushed forward until his head popped through into a brightly lit chamber that sparkled everywhere. After his eyes adjusted he discerned the outlines of dozens of the flask-aliens hanging around as if a chemist just dumped them there.

In the center of the room was a magnificent machine with colors and electricity zipping all over uncountable gadgets, some looking like circuitry, others like biological organs, all tightly interwoven in a way that fed into a quivering, shimmering cloud that displayed some kind of pattern.

Nate pulled himself out.

A look passed between Jack and Tim.

Tim shook his head. “Too easy.”

“It’s fine,” said Nate. “A bunch of them are in there. And some big machine.”

Jack set his jaw and nodded. “All right. Here we go.”

He pushed through first and Nate followed, Bradley and Tim behind him, then the translator popped through.

“Hello,” said Nate to no alien in particular.

“BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK Greets BAWK BAWK BAWK,” said the translator.

Nate supposed the missed words personalized the greeting with specifics that couldn’t translate.

“For what purpose are we here?” asked Nate.

“BAWK BAWK Navigation BAWK BAWK BAWK.”

“I got that one,” said Tim. “Chickens navigating chickens.”

“Shut up,” said Nate.

Jack grabbed Tim’s shoulder, stopping his lunge. “Not now, Tim.”

“What are you navigating?” asked Nate.

One of the aliens touched something on the machine and all of its gadgets went into action and emitted every kind of burp, squeak, and zap that was possible for the human ear to hear. They watched the machine and engaged in a long, bawk-filled, back-and-forth with the aliens, working out the meaning they were trying to convey one or two words at a time. It took three days before it dawned on Nate what they were doing.

“They’re charting a course home for us! Multiple courses.” Nate jumped up and down and squeezed Jack around the shoulders. “We’re going home! We’re going home!”

Over the course of a few weeks, they learned about stargate alignments, spaceflight, nebula worms, and excretory protocols. Nate studied them very hard because they had nothing human-friendly to record the information and he figured he was the best suited for all the technical aspects of it.

“Wait a minute.” Jack interrupted a session. “Just how far are we from earth?”

The alien running the machine cleared the cloud and a few hundred dots appeared.

“BAWK BAWK this place…” The alien made a dot in the lower right side of the cloud zap and flash. “BAWK home BAWK BAWK.” Another dot in the upper left corner zapped and flashed.

“That doesn’t look so bad.” Tim gazed up at the display, jaw hanging open.

“Which one of these planets has the depot we started from?” asked Jack.

“BAWK not planets.”

“Whattaya mean?” asked Tim. “What are they?”

Nate’s scalp went cold and he grew faint. He knew the answer before the flask said it.

“BAWK galaxies in BAWK.”

Nate gasped and thought he heard a moan. “I’ll never remember all this.”

“I got it.” Bradley pointed to his mouth. “It’s all up here.”

“How long is this trip going to take?” asked Nate.

Another moan.

Nate went back and forth with them to approximate earth time.

“Three years and seventeen days,” said the alien.

Nate heard three moans and realized one was his own.

“Why can’t we go back the way we came?” asked Jack.

“BAWK one-in-million alignment BAWK.”

Bradley chuckled. “This reminds me of the year I raced the Iditarod on my Flexible Flyer sled.”

Nate, Tim, and Jack yelled. “Shut up!”

Day 357 (T minus 8): The Voice of the Desiderasha

Many horrors confronted me inside the Desiderasha. Every kind of her spawn patrolled her caverns. Some I’d never seen, like the things with heads made of one long snout full of razor teeth on short and stout bodies with round bulbous muscles that could either march upright or run on all fours. I had to kill one of them, but there were many porous sections where I could stuff a body or two.

I could walk through much of her, but many places I had to explore on my hands and knees or even on my belly, every kind of nasty creature creeping around me like the sewers of Drazhalan. I came across a chamber that emitted a single hollow moan from an unrecognizable creature that was stretched in all directions, attached to the surface on all sides, the red liquid running over it. A shiver ran from my ears to my bowels.

Many rooms had men and other creatures absorbed into the surfaces, half sticking out from random places, slowly flailing, seeming to plead for something through vacant eyes. They mostly didn’t respond to me, but I came across a long, wide hallway with dozens of them all in a row, and something about them twisted my scalp.

I believe they were all men at one time, but they had grown bigger with the wall, though the growth malformed them into garish proportions. They also seemed older, the Desiderasha’s skin joining them all together looked leathery and dry. The biggest difference though, I realized, was their eyes. They weren’t vacant—they were angry.

They yelled at me all at once, so I couldn’t understand them much, but they called upon the Desiderasha and told me to find my place within her. Even with their anger, they could not hide the intense prevalence of misery that was everywhere, oppressing me and thrusting despair upon me. They wouldn’t stop screaming until I left them at the other end.

I felt lost, the search unending inside this atrocity against nature, not knowing if I was getting closer or farther from Enta. I might have been inside the Desiderasha for three days at that point.

I believe the Desiderasha learned of my presence, perhaps from the line of screamers. Maybe they found a body. I had to avoid more and more of her spawn and Children as they searched for something, undoubtedly me, but I would not be prey to these vermin. I hunted them as much as they hunted me, killing whenever I had the chance instead of avoiding them.

A bloodlust grew in me. An overwhelming desire to kill every evil thing around me. I’d been so long without my Enta, and rage boiled stronger with every step that I didn’t find her.

While searching the caverns around the screamers a band of gitchspawn confronted me, thick, furry beasts with giant claws. I pulled off my rifle and picked them off one-by-one as they charged at me, six rounds, all dead center between the eyes.

These were the first shots I’d fired within her, and every kind of howl went up. Behind me came three bigsnouts, much closer, so I pulled my forty-five and took each one down. The heart was more effective for these ones. Ten rounds gone. Six rifle, four forty-fives. Last count had me at forty-one rifle rounds, fifty-three for my forty-five, and nineteen for the small caliber pistol. One hundred thirteen, now down to a hundred three. Enough ammo to trade for a house next to a warlord, yet wholly inadequate for the job ahead of me.

Roaring and yelling erupted from the direction the bigsnouts had come, so I ran the other way, jumping over the massive lumps of gitchspawn. A few more skirmishes with a number of creatures and I found myself in a chamber with fumes that choked me so horribly I fell to the ground.

I pulled a cloth from my bag and tied it around my mouth and nose, but I continued to choke.

Then the room spoke to me.

“Be calm, child. You are lost.” It was soft, but sounded like someone with the flu.

I looked around and almost missed her because she was so big, her form took up most of the wall and part of the ceiling, several armslengths above me. Her mouth and her nose were black, disproportionately gigantic for the rest of her, her arms were two stubs that hung loosely.

“Are you the Desiderasha?” I asked.

“I have her voice.” A sound like a snorting nose filled the chamber. “I can help you find your place. Don’t resist my helpers, they come to help you, not hurt you.”

“I’m not here to find my place,” I said. “I will never join with you.”

A grunt and a hiss came from her. “You don’t wish to participate in the glory of the Desiderasha?”

“There is no glory in you. You corrupt the world and do hateful things to it.”

“You are a sick and stupid child.” A squeaking snort. “By denying the glory of the Desiderasha, you are the one who despises the world. She fleshes out new life—”

“Monstrosities and lies!” I yelled. “You claim you give beauty to the world, but you bring nothing but ugliness and you corrupt all that is good.”

“Who are you?” Red drool dropped from her mouth to the floor. “What do you seek? Why are you looking through the ancient sections of my glory?”

“I seek my heart,” I said.

She moaned, like a ghowat in pleasure. “More light comes through in the upper levels. You will see better to find what you’re looking for.” She wheezed. “But it will be so much better if you would assimilate with me.” She sighed.

“I’ll have nothing of you.”

Her laugh gurgled without mirth. “It’s too late for you, child.”

The walls collapsed at a harrowing pace. I leaped for the entry, but it already closed smaller than me, and the ceiling was down just above my head. I could feel her breath upon my back.

I pulled my knife and stabbed at the closing. She growled and hissed. I pulled my knife through a foot and a half of Desiderasha flesh and pushed my way through, pulling my bag through separately behind.

I took off on a hard run, looking for a conduit upward, seeking the lighter areas she spoke of. I found a spiral ramp and crawled up the spongy floor. The light was many times brighter at the top, a large empty chamber, though many grotesque things twitched and flickered on the walls.

The roof split open with a violent tear. I fell back as one of the Desiderasha’s tubes of death plunged toward me. I turned and scrambled back down the spiral, the tube barely missing me, too big to follow.

I scoffed, realizing the real reason she suggested I go up.

I ran for a while, avoiding rather than killing so I could lose the spawn that hunted me and search again without interference.

Something else she said. I’d been looking unawares through the old sections of the Desiderasha, but an intense feeling took me that I would find my beloved in the newest ones. Every twitch of thought in my mind bent toward finding them.