“Nothing to be done now,” Paul sighed. “Last time they emerged after only a day. Twenty-four hours. The paste Alice gave me should be wearing off too. They’ll smell me soon enough and the whole area will become an overturned hornet’s nest. Just like last time.”
The words left his mouth rapidly, as anxiety and excitement welled in his stomach. Absently he rubbed his hands against the rotted planks of Solomon’s front porch, relishing the sensation of loose splinters beneath his fingertips. Paul had always liked the old place. Unlike many of the homes in the area with their aluminum siding and manicured lawns, the log cabin blended in with the landscape, as if Nature had grown the various species of planks, columns and shingles herself from buried Lincoln logs.
“Surprised you’re still here, though.”
“Ah,” Solomon coughed. “I’m stickin’ here for a while longer, son.”
“Right . . . Well, keep your secrets, old man,” Paul smiled, kicking a few loose stone lodged between the roots to the shadows beneath the porch. “But when this is all over. Mom’ll need someone . . . for her to look after. She’s the type that falls apart without family, y’know? Spare her a few minutes when you can, please? She’d like Alice I think.”
“We will. Still, it’s foolishness nonetheless” Solomon spoke, banging out his pipe. “Throwin’ away your life for a foolish old man . . .”
“Ah . . .” Paul coughed. “To be honest after I read that letter, I was aching for a fight anyway. If I’d done nothing . . . if you two hadn’t needed help, I’d be flying out to my dad’s company now, working nine to five punching numbers into databases and kissing some moron’s ass. I tried everything to screw up my interview: even insulted the president’s dog. Ugly mutt . . . a shit-ew, Chinese dog or something. Called it weasel. Asked if it was any good at killing chickens. God, he was pissed. Guess someone pulled a few strings eventually. One of my dad’s pals maybe . . .”
“Still son,” Solomon said, filling his pipe anew and adding fresh flames to the concoction. “Seems you got stuck with the more painful path.”
Paul took the opportunity to wipe the blood and sinew from the end of his club with his shirt, ignoring the cold sensation of fluid on his stomach. He removed a pocket pen-knife and chipped away at the wood, whittling raised notches into the end of the club.
“When I was nine or ten, I contracted this fear of dying,” Paul said, dusting off a seat next to the old man. He winced as the cold soaked through his trousers into his skin.
“I know that sounds sorta weird and all, what with being so young, but it really came down to simple math. In one of the Guinness books at the library, I stumbled on a record of the world’s oldest human, an Italian lady, one-hundred and twenty years old. Thus, life had a time limit. In one hundred and thirty years or so, everyone on this planet will be dead, not ‘cause of some war or disease or even alien attack – which would be cool by the way – but simply because of Mother Nature. Then you factor in the nightly news: some kid my age gunned down in the street, skeletal children starving in Africa, an empty desk in the corner ‘cause somebody’s father had too many drinks the weekend before . . .
“By the time, I reached fourth grade I was convinced that the world was trying to kill me. It’s like someone had dropped me off a cliff at birth, and I was just waiting for the ground to spiral into view. So I locked myself away from everybody. Kids at school mocked me ‘cause I never joined any sports teams. By the time the teachers started calling the house, I had begun to fake illnesses simply to assure myself that I was still well . . .”
“How did . . ?”
“If I faked it, I don’t have it,” Paul shrugged. “It made sense at the time, anyway.”
“So what’d you do?”
“Well, Dad came to me one day after a particularly long parent-teacher conference. I remember sitting in the exact center of the room, the farthest point from windows (my room was on the second floor) and closet . . .”
“The boogieman?” Solomon asked, sending a gust of pipe smoke swirling into the fog.
“Or suffocation,” Paul coughed, his lungs filling with burnt cherries. “Boxes and other stuff were piled thick on the top shelf, one nudge and a kid could be buried alive. Anyway, Dad found me and motioned toward the bed. With some hesitation – the blades of the ceiling fan spun right above my pillow – I sat next to him. That was Dad’s power, his smile always put me at ease. I trusted him completely.”
“So what he’d do?”
“Well, for start, he slapped me.”
“Frank hit you?!” the old man shouted, inciting a fit of coughs that lasted several long seconds.
“No, sorry,” Paul explained. “Not hard. Just a little slap on the hand. He asked me if it hurt, and perhaps out of shock I started crying, which sorta answered the question. So he then told me that pain is nature’s way of reminding you to live. Death numbs your body, your mind and your heart. Corpses can’t feel, can’t think.
“‘Remember the pain, Paul,’ he said. Never run from it. Let it be a reminder that you’re still alive, still breathing and clawing for those last few seconds. Live like your dying, boy! Otherwise you’re just playing dead.’”
“Hmmm,” Solomon mused.
“Cancer took him the following year, you know. Since then I’ve broke my arm, got a few concussions, my heart . . . Cathy Moran took freshman year of high school. But I never regretted anything ‘cause Dad was right, the more it hurt, the more the numbness disappeared.”
“It’s surprising you didn’t turn into a masochist.”
Paul smiled. “When I got the letter the other day, the numbness returned. With like years of interest. It was like Dad had died again, all over, you know? But . . . Mom really wanted this job for me though. I didn’t want to die like that, so . . .” Paul sighed. “I chose another. I chose you and Alice.”
The fog had begun to lift, circulating through the upper branches, a cotton canopy blotting out the sun. Paul lifted himself from the steps, brushing off any loose wood fibers or dirt. He felt mildly self-conscious of the dampness but shrugged it off. It wasn’t that kind of date.
“Anyway, when you tell Mom . . . promise me you won’t mention any of this. I don’t think she another reason to be angry with Dad.
The old man nodded and continued puffing at his pipe, feeding streams of smoke into the fog which whirled and spun around the old trees. Somewhere in the distance the forest had grown silent. The old man hauled himself from the steps.
“You take care of yourself, you hear?” Solomon said, shaking his hand.
“Will do.” A small sigh issued from the house and Paul saw the figure of Alice staring through the screen door.
“Are you running away from home, Paulie?” the small voice shouted.
“Something like that, Al. Take care of your father for me,” he said and with final wave, Paul turned his back and reentered the forest.
After stumbling through the underbrush, he finally came to the waste before the obelisk. Unlike the forest, the cracked uneven earth did not feel dead – patches of wild grass, thorny vines, and skunk cabbage sprouted all around the black spire – but dangerously alive, restless, angry. Rust-crusted generators and the torn remains of tents littered the edges of the clearing, the remains of some hunting party, Paul thought. About the tower, a foul-smelling miasma curled like a mountain storm, the effluvia of death and decay. Hesitantly the young man took a few steps forward, aware all the more of the watchful eyes of the obelisk. His feet teetered roughly fifty yards away from the base, rising thousands of feet into the sky as if a crumbled shard of Babel’s ruin had fallen, imbedding itself into earth and forest.
Suddenly Paul felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle and tense; the air began to buzz; the surface of the obelisk bubbled like hot tar, spitting sludge-filled drops atop the heads of flowers and abandoned machinery. Whenever the sludge collided with the ground a creature roared into life, appearing in all sizes: small as a toad or as large as an elephant. Some appeared as prehistoric horrors, others as hybrids of insects, jellyfish and reptiles; several even appeared fairly human until they blinked or smiled or roared, revealing slit cat-eyes, crocodile teeth, and transparent amphibian skin. Within minutes Paul found himself encircled by thousands of black claws, skittering legs, pulsating stingers.
Paul stood ready, reminiscing. Visions of Christmas mornings, math homework, and Cathy Moran filtered across his eyes. The good, the bad and the ugly. And finally the pain. If he was lucky, he would manage to stun one of the creatures with his club before the claws, teeth and venom finished him off. Two or more of the larger creatures could easily kill him. Of course, he had heard of small frogs which could kill a man by touch alone. Something buzzed his ear, sending him two feet in the air and the creatures laughing.
Paul suddenly felt very frail. He made an effort to breathe, relishing the rise and fall of his lungs, the sensation of air rushing in and out of his body. The exercise however did not calm his hands from shaking. Or shield the hot breathe of the hellish menagerie from his skin. The hive did not attack, only circled Paul, waiting.
Amid this Bosch-ian wet dream, one of the larger creatures – a man-scorpion hybrid – scuttled through the amassed hive and stood before Paul.
“So you decided to come, human . . .” the creature growled. “Few of your kind return for the Trial. Your kind enjoys . . . running.”
The other monsters screamed and stomped; the earth beneath Paul’s feet shook slightly at their jubilation.
“You can speak? I never . . .”
“They call my Chieftain,” the creature interrupted, motioning to the mob. “And there is much you do not know.”
Paul tightened the grip on his club.
“For now, you possess both courage and bloodlust. As you have returned willingly, the Hive offers you a choice. You may choose to fight, to feel the flesh ripped from your bones. And in the wake of your death, your kin as well, who escaped our hunters. Or . . .” Its mandibles clicked excitedly. Paul thought he recognized the hungry glimmer in its eyes.
“Yeah?” Paul asked through gritted teeth.
The creature pulled from its belt a vial, into which stepping to the obelisk, it scooped the obsidian bark of the obelisk. The contents melted into solution like liquid shadow, and the creature gave it to Paul.
“Or drink this and join us.”
Paul took the vial and sniffed it. The sludge gave off no smell, but he knew the experience would not prove pleasant. Then again, what choice did he have? In one gulp, he swallowed the contents of the vial and waited.
Within seconds, Paul lost feeling in his fingers, as his skin grew harder, thicker . . . hollow. He tried to scream when his lungs melted into his stomach, his bones dissolved into paste. When his fingers fell to the ground, bouncing off a growing mound of skin, hair, and blood, air sucked through clicking mandibles passed unnoticed through a complex system of alien vessels, ducts, and arteries. He could feel the sensation in his toes . . . no, legs thin and spidery with tiny barbed follicles that sensed . . . the temperature, the scents in the air . . . The chemical cocktail filtering through unknown pores and sensory nerves filled him with strength and vigor.
“Your new body embodies perfection. It’s immune to the deathly touch of time, granting instantaneous immortality. Only the wounds of battle may end your life, now. None here may die as anything less than a true warrior.”
“I cannot feel . . .” Paul said, slapping his new hands.
“No,” the creature said. “Nature had not been kind to your species, bestowing you with bodies that tremble at the slightest touch; minds that grow anxious, worried; spirits that pine for lost kin and mates. Your pains make you weak, selfish, ignorant to the troubles of the world. A man would murder a complete innocent to free him from the pain of living. This . . . body frees you!”
“. . . I am dead,” Paul whispered.
“Did you not hear me soldier?” the creature growled, hurling bits of spit into the air. “You are evolved. No longer human, but better. You who . . .”
A gunshot cut through the stillness of the valley. Green life-blood trailed from the creature’s left shoulder; amidst the fog the shooter reloaded.
Paul did not hesitate. Whether the chieftain felt anything the moment Paul tore through its abdomen, it never said. The two halves fell away from each other, a crab on the chopping block. The remaining creatures scattered in the waste of the obelisk, like ants uprooted from their nest. Some returned to the obelisk, dissolving into the inky blackness like mercury; others swarmed their chief’s murderer, assaulting Paul with spines, teeth, and claws – none of which he felt. His limbs found their throats, their hearts, whatever passed for organs in these alien bodies, and then with the disinterest of a butcher, he tore them from their living bodies.
More shots rang from the fog as horde pinned him down. Heads exploded, filling the air with visceral mist of alien blood, claws, and ganglia. Paul tore the chest cavities from two of his captors in the confusion, gaining his feet and continuing the assault. After a half-hour, he was alone before the obelisk. Three of his legs had been torn from the socket; his left arm appeared broken, a large crack like an earthquake fault in miniature spread down his exoskeleton; four of his eyes littered the piles of broken bodies. Yet he felt none of it, not even discomfort as he wobbled to a tree stump to await Solomon.
The crack of twigs and dried leaves signaled the shooter’s approach. Paul listened absently, staring at his numerous cuts and holes in his exoskeleton, oozing a yellow slime. He consciously snapped his claws, but sensed nothing in the movement as if his whole body had fallen asleep. The shooter emerged from the clearing and after scanning the area, pressed the muzzle of a rifle against his right temple. Paul wondered if it the barrel was warm to the touch.
“It won’t hurt,” he muttered. “Just so you know.”
“Paul?” his mother asked, confusion danced in her voice. “You recognize me?”
“It feels like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope,” he said, pointing to the half-dozen eyes on his forehead, “but I remember.”
“Huh,” she sighed, sitting down beside him.
The wind filtered through the trees, dispersing the morning fog, bending his antennae like cat-tails. Paul could not feel the cold, but shivered anyway. Guilt and shame warred silently with pride and excitement, which in turn afforded Paul such an overwhelming sense of relief, that he effectively silenced all other emotions. So, he thought, I am not totally dead to the world after all.
“Originally, it began with your father’s cure for cancer,” his mother said finally.
“Dad . . . cured cancer?” Paul had thought of his father as an office engineer, a cubicle dweller, a peon for Starford & Assoc.
“Well, the raw materials came from the site of a meteor crash. This place. Frank had discovered that after the initial mutation, cells exposed to the sludge never die. All infection just vanishes; the cells transcend time. It was . . . amazing and terrifying in its implications.”
“But the mutations?” Paul asked.
“Surely you don’t need an introduction to them,” his mother said, not without a touch of irritation – the tip of the iceberg, Paul felt.
“Of course, the military got involved once they discovered the side effects, the unfeeling monsters the cure created. Most of the subjects lost their minds in the process. Having your DNA rewritten and body . . . altered can do that.”
“Except with me . . .”
“You’re the first exception, I’ve heard. You have to understand, Paul, the elements involved that make up your new body were not found on this planet. Somehow the obelisk merged the bodies of humans with . . .”
“Aliens, demons . . . ,” Paul said snapping his new left hand, “. . . giant crustaceans.”
“Something like that . . .,” his Mom frowned. “Frank was enthusiastic, passionate about finding the origin of the entities that dwelt on the other side of the obelisk. But times were tough. A cure that mutated human DNA could never be sold. So the military invested in the side-effects, the merging of soldiers with the obelisk. A whole battalion was exposed and . . . left here. Solomon has waited for nearly five years for his son to return, to emerge from the ooze alive, sane, and human again.”
“What am I suppose to do now?” he sighed, motioning to his extra legs, poison tipped abdomen, mandibles. “Like this?”
“Work for Starford & Assoc,” she offered.
“What?! As a lab rat?”
His mother shook her head.
“Not their thing. The obelisk is more than just a factory for re-engineered soldiers. It’s a doorway as well. To what, has everyone in the scientific community guessing. It needs exploring, Paul. You’re the only one who has survived the process with your sanity intact.”
“So I just give my life over to R&D and . . . hope for the best?”
“Or claim this valley for your own. Become the next chieftain. However noble your intentions, Paul, you made the choice.”
“To save you,” Paul roared.
“To save yourself from a life behind a desk,” his mother said, stabbing him in the chest with her finger. “Well, you got one.”
Paul was silent. Forty-hour workweeks, Friday meetings, and cubicle communities suddenly seemed more appealing, like root canals once compared to open-heart surgery. Paul stared at his scaly hands through six working-eyes; consciously he adjusted the poison in his abdomen, knowing instinctually which sac would paralyze and which would inflict cardiac arrest on anything smaller than a mammoth; his stomach desired fresh meat, dissolved in catalytic enzymes. Whatever he decided, normal was not an option.
Somewhere above the fog, thunder clapped. The treetops trembled in the mounting breeze.
“Can you guarantee Starford, the military won’t cut open my brain? See what makes me tick?” he asked.
“No,” his mother said, almost whispering. “Honestly, I can’t speak for them. But it’s a hope, right?”
“Right . . .” he said, lifting himself from the stump and stumbling up the slope to the black monument.
“Paul . . !”
“You said it was a gateway. So, there must be life on the other side. Well then, that’s where my body is, my life as a human being, floating in some trans-dimensional Narnia,” Paul sighed, his voice hissing. “You know what it’s like to wait, to reach out for an impossible hope. It’s like a slow death, killing you off day by day. I could never endure that, even in this body.”
“Listen young man!” She was shouting now, louder and more desperately than he had ever heard the old woman shout in his life. Even when his dad had died, she laid in bed silently, pillowing a torn sweatshirt and a tear-stained photo-album. “If you leave, I won’t have a son! I can’t go through this again. If you go, Paul, my son, will be dead to me! Dead!”
Paul could not help but smile, mandibles and all. He knew what she was attempting, and honestly the words almost hurt enough to stay.
Michelle watched her son disappear behind the black veil. Never to return, that much she knew. Not in her lifetime at least.
Slinging her rifle around her shoulder, she picked her way through the field of dead monsters, scanning the remains: pieces of wings, broken bodies bleeding green fluid, claws and legs torn from their sockets. Occasionally, she’d kneel down, studying a head, open slit eye sockets. The more intact bodies she would poke with the muzzle of her gun, fire a round or two into the chest before turning the creature on its back. Gingerly, she danced between the corpses until she arrived at the body of the largest, the chieftain. Falling to the ground, she closed her eyes as if a child in prayer.
He had saved Paul’s life and mind, sacrificing his own in the process. And she never told him.
But then pain was one thing. Insanity . . . well now, that was whole other monster.
“I couldn’t do it, Frank,” she said, kneeling beside the body. “Lord knows, he should have been told. It might have hurt him enough to stay . . .”
And as the rain fell to earth, she dug the grave, clawing at the wet soil until all feeling left her.