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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Thursday, September 24th, 2009
3,890 words ~ spooky scale: ••••• 13+

In the Rust ~ Part 2/2

I fell into a bush. Branches and twigs ripped at my arms and legs, my head, my ears. I felt the bush sink under my weight, but then I slid to the side, slowed by the tangle of boxes and bags, and whipped again by the branches as they flipped back upright. And fell onto my injured leg.

I must have blacked out.

I opened my eyes and it seemed no time had passed, the bush above me was still gently rocking.

I untangled my limbs and pushed myself to a seated position. Grain had spilled out of one of the packs and littered the ground all around. My leg reminded me of its presence with waves of pain every time I moved a muscle. I tasted blood in my mouth.

Looking around, I saw I had just missed a row of rectangular rocks. I dread to think what had happened if I’d’ve landed on them.

Then it started raining small rocks or pebbles around me. I felt for the Blunderbuss, but it was no longer hanging across my chest. It couldn’t be far. Probably on the other side of the bush. But that was as good as a world away if I couldn’t move.

I looked around to see where the stones were coming from

Up above, I saw the pathways swinging slightly as they stretched across a sky streaked with orange and purple. I twisted round as far as I could without fainting again, and saw Sarah Epiphyte hanging out of the platform I had just left. She was moving or waving or something.

Something hit me on the side of the head.

She wasn’t waving. It was her doing the throwing. I looked around, still a little dazed. And saw that these weren’t stones. She was throwing nuts, or a fruit with a thick husk, probably from the tree where the platform was. I rubbed my head where she’d hit me.

Sarah Epiphyte broke into a smile and waved.

I pointed at my leg and made a gesture like snapping a twig. She waved again and disappeared back inside the cover of the leaves. I just hoped she understood and wasn’t expecting me to climb back up and join her.

I felt drained. I just wanted to lie back and rest.

I heard rustlings in the undergrowth around me. It occurred to me that we’d never asked ourselves why they’d built these passages up in the treetops. What was there down here that was so terrible?

I sorted through the packs and bags and boxes until I found a knife with a curved blade about as long as my forearm. I pulled it from its sheath. If something was approaching, I’d feel a lot better holding that. I also slipped off the round of cartridges. Until I found the Blunderbuss again, they were just a hindrance.

There was some more rustlings, closer this time. I looked up and back. Sarah Epiphyte was out of sight. I gripped the knife harder and anxiously scanned the bracken and thorn bushes all around. I closed my other hand round a decent-sized rock, and waited.

The bush to my right shifted.

I hefted the stone, ready to flatten whatever was coming.

Leaves moved.

“You better watch that rock.” It was Gramps’ voice. Coming from the bush. “Put it down. I’m a coming out.”

The leaves parted and Gramps’ face, red and brown and white crinkles appeared.

“Whoa!” I called out.

“Ssh! Keep it down!” he hissed.

He shifted forwards and slid round the bush. Bringing the leaves and vines and thorns with him.

He then kneeled over to look at my leg and I saw he was wearing a sort of sacking covered with leaves and stuff. He saw me staring and smiled.

“We’d better fix that leg o’ yours. Here take this.”

He passed me a Blunderbuss. Judging from the bumps and scratches, it was the one I’d dropped. I pulled on the lever to arm it, checked the gauges and sights like he’d taught me to. I checked it was set to spray wide. If something did come after us, I wouldn’t have time to be precise.

“Ow!”

I jerked back. Gramps had been prodding my leg.

“Don’t think it’s fractured,” he muttered. “But it’s swelling up something nasty. Here, bite on this.” He handed me a short branch. “Stop you crying out,” he said by way of an explanation.

I sank my back teeth into the tender wood and braced myself.

He pulled up the strange covering he was wearing and fussed around, finally pulling out one of the boxes he’d been carrying. He set it down. It opened with a faint sigh as if it could breathe. Inside it was a ghostly white like the inside of an eggshell. He pulled out an object like a small twig, except this was white too.

“Ready, boy?”

He looked at me, at the stick in my mouth, at my arms bracing myself against the ground in anticipation.

Then he stabbed my leg with the twig thing, just above the ankle. Pain flashed in front of my eye like the lights in the night sky. My jaw ached where I had bitten down on the stick.

A cold worse than pain crept along my leg.

He pulled something limp and white from the box and wrapped it around the ankle. This time there was no pain, just a dim distant feeling like something half forgotten.

I watched his hands spread this cloth around my ankle. He pulled a smooth shiny pebble from the box and held it against the cloth. He tapped on it, looking hard at it all the time. The cloth stiffened around my ankle, pulling my foot into position.

I tried, but still I couldn’t feel my foot. I couldn’t even move it. Not even my toes.

Gramps put the pebble and the twig back in the box and closed it. The box sighed again.

He reached down and with a knife, cut off part of his sacking. He knotted it tight round my foot and ankle, hiding the bright white cloth.

“You can probably walk on it now, but I doubt you should,” he mumbled. “And get your eyes off of me. You’s supposed to be watching out.”

Guiltily I scanned the woods around us.

He stood up, gripping his Blunderbuss and looked back at the trees where, presumably, Sarah Epiphyte was still in hiding. He waved his hands then pointed at the ground. The leaves moved, and the girl careened down a rope before crouching to hide from sight.

Gramps picked up my large curved knife and with one blow, separated a long straight branch from a small tree nearby. A few more lazy strokes stripped twigs and smoothed rough patches. He passed me what had now become a solid staff.

Sarah Epiphyte appeared, crouching as she moved towards us.

“Still no sign,” she said to Gramps, shaking her head. “I don’t understand how they manage to keep disappearing like that.”

“Harumph,” said Gramps. “I’ve got an idea. In fact, they got us pretty much where they wanted us… C’mon.”

I pulled myself up. I could feel my foot when I tried to walk on it, but it was more like it just wasn’t there. Sarah Epiphyte looked at me with her mouth open. I’d be the first to admit I was astounded by what Gramps had done, but I wasn’t going to show it. I swung the Blunderbuss over my back. It wasn’t possible to hold it and the staff. I smiled at Sarah Epiphyte. She stuck her tongue out at me. And we were off.

We zig-zagged round some bushes and came to a black hole. It was as simple as that.

At first it wasn’t a hole, just a large patch of shadow under the trees, but as we approached it became clear that the darkness extended out and down from where we were standing.

Gramps walked round, pushing at the edges of the shadow with the butt of his Blunderbuss until he stopped and said, “It’s here.”

He stepped into the hole.

I suppose I expected him to disappear and be swallowed up by the darkness. I had already started to cry out.

He turned and looked at us.

“C’mon then!”

He was just standing on a step, leading down into the shadows.

We followed him down.

At first, light filtered down from above, but after a while without us really noticing, a pale blue light seemed to drift down from the ceiling.

It was when we were all bathed in this calm blue light that we had a look at our surroundings. Everything, except us, had the same slightly glowing appearance. Everything was too smooth and regular to be natural. But I had no idea how it could be here. Curiously enough, in this strange light, we appeared as black as moving shadows. Only our nails and teeth flashed like blue-white fireflies. And the cloth on my ankle when it peeked out from behind the sacking.

The stairs disappeared, leaving us to move along a short passageway, leading up to a flat wall. There was nowhere to go. So I was surprised to see Gramps walk up to the wall and place the silhouette of his hand in the middle of a circle that I had just taken for some vague mark in the half light.

There was a noise like some great creature breathing and the wall opened. I felt Sarah Epiphyte holding onto my arm, pinching me. If I’d have had a hand free, I’d probably have done the same.

Gramps made a noise like he was coughing and shook his head. He cocked his Blunderbuss and walked in.

I looked at Sarah Epiphyte. Her eyes were closed as she felt out the way ahead.

“It’s the old one, just him,” she said at last. “But I think Gramps already knows that…”

I lead her through the doorway along the corridor behind Gramps. Lights set into the walls curved into distance, showing the way and blinking as Gramps passed in front of them.

We caught up with him just as he turned off to the right, still following the lights. There was another wall.

I looked for another circle for Gramps to do the same trick but he just stood there motionless as the lights behind us gradually faded, leaving only the wall ahead faintly illuminated.

“Stop buggering around Davey. And open up.” I heard Gramps mutter.

“I was just making sure it was you Charles. After all these years. Only us left. Quite an occasion. And who..?”

The voice came from all around. It was cold, and old. I didn’t need Sarah Epiphyte to tell me who it was.

“They’re young’uns from outside. She’s one of the talented ones.”

“See, we did some good here too, didn’t we?”

“You can believes what you wants. I’ve got a job to finish. Nothing personal, just a job.”

“Charles the Cleaner. Oh yes, I know. So quiet, so discreet. We were 57 survivors and now…”

“There’s just you. I know. I figured it’d be you behind the scenes, pulling the strings like you do so well.”

Gramps knelt on the floor, unpacking the boxes he was carrying. He opened one whose insides glowed like teeth in the strange light.

“So Davey, I’m coming in. Are you going to open up, or am I gonna have to do it the hard way? You know I can.”

“Since you ask, Charles, no. I wasn’t planning on inviting you any further.”

Gramps was holding something from the box to the base of the wall.

“Why’d you bother then?” he said.

Sarah Epiphyte’s nails bit into my arm as, silently, the walls changed place and we were shut in.

“I thought we needed to talk, Charles. Try to understand each other. As the last survivors. Some sort of bond.”

Sarah Epiphyte relaxed her grip, closed her eyes and investigated our surroundings as only she, as only a pig knew how.

“You do enough talking for two, for hundreds even, Davey. Now’s not the time for talking, but for action. For getting things done.”

Gramps now had a hole in the wall, and vines and cods from his box passed into the hole. He could only have placed them there, they couldn’t have grown that quickly.

“But killing and destruction’s no solution, Charles. There has to be another way.”

“So it was fine while you was doing it, but suddenly no longer right when you’re on the receiving end? You destroyed one world, our world, and if someone doesn’t stop you, you’ll destroy this one too.”

Lights flashed and glowed in Gramps’ hands. He grunted.

“Charles, it was an accident. You know it was.”

“It might have been an accident, but it was all part of a general way of doing things that wasn’t. It it hadn’t been this accident, it would have been another.”

“The old one,” hissed Sarah Epiphyte. “He’s all around us now.”

“Yes girl, I know.”

Gramps turned his attention to us.

“Let go your packs. Leave ‘em here. Get ready to follow me.” Looking at me, he said, “If you can’t carry the canon, give it to the girl, and take that big knife of yours at least.”

We shed the packets and ropes and sacks and boxes.

“We need to talk Charles. I’ve been studying the zone since we arrived. The changes, the radiation, the mutations. I’ve got acres of crystal in here. Just data. I need help organising it. Now you’re here you can help…”

“Yep,” growled Gramps. And a slit appeared in the wall opposite. It opened to a hole.

Gramps kicked his box through.

“C’mon!” he called out. “Don’t know how long it’ll last.”

We darted through the hole after him, me bouncing on my stick.

The next room was a series of alcoves. All our size, but like if you’d stepped into a hive or something.

“Look for the strongest signal, girl,” said Gramps recovering his box and preparing to attack a new wall in the same way. “Then point me in the right direction.”

Sarah Epiphyte closed her eyes.

The gap behind us folded itself back into place. But the light in the room remained. It wasn’t strong but appeared to be all around us, surrounding us, bathing us. The voice filled the air in the same way as the light. It appeared to have no direction, no focus.

“Charles, think of all we can bring them. They’re like children—”

“Yep. And with you, they got no future.”

Gramps’ fingers were busy, they’d already peeled away strips from the different lumps and ridges round the room. Sarah Epiphyte was standing, swaying slightly, eyes closed and slowly rotating as she felt for the invisible presence.

The voice around us sighed. For the first time this sound, of breathing, of air being exhaled, seemed to contain a part of humanity.

“But that’s just it, Charles. I’ve been over the calculations a thousand times since, and checked them against star charts and geological records. We are their future…”

Gramps looked up.

“What’s with this nonsense?”

“It’s not. I can show you. But when the black hole — a mistake, I admit — when the black hole collapsed and blasted us away, we didn’t go somewhere else as we suspected. But back, far back into our own time. We sliced away a large part of their world, and replaced it with ours. From the future. That’s why you can’t kill me.”

“We’ll see about that.”

He had pulled the glistening vines across the room and was tying them to small white stones and rocks from his box. Sarah Epiphyte was still turning, humming in a quiet sing-song voice to herself.

“But don’t you see. If you kill me, they’ll have no future. Humanity will be eternally condemned to this absurd loop around the black hole. They’ll evolve, develop, progress, and then ‘Bang!’ go back, and all get killed. And then again, and again.”

“You was always a good one for talking, Davey.”

Gramps sat back, looking at the walls all around. I was just trying to take in, and make some sense of, what I was hearing.

Sarah Epiphyte stopped, pointing ahead. It was the nook to the right of where we’d entered.

“There are lots of them,” she said, eyes wide open now in wonder or fear or both. “But they’re all him. And there’s just him. I don’t know how he does it. But there’s just him.”

“Thanks, girl,” said Gramps. “If we do get out of here, I promise I’ll try and explain how he does it…”

He pulled on the vines and the back of the cranny burst open like a flower, from the middle, disappearing into its own petals until we were staring at a shadow like a black hole in the wall. I wondered if this was the black hole they’d been talking about.

“No reception committee, Davey?” called Gramps and his voice echoed in the darkness. “No lights? No fireworks?”

He stood up and shouldered his Blunderbuss, pointing it through the hole.

“I’m setting it to dispersion, Davey. That should give us a little light.”

“There’s no need…” came the voice. And as he spoke, the darkness faded into…

…into what?

Up to now, the rooms and passageways had been nothing more than some sort of manmade caves or holes. It was clear they weren’t natural, they were smooth and regular. But this was like returning to the forest above, yet it was also so different. Vines like those that Gramps has been pulling from the walls festooned the place, snaking across the ground, climbing round the tree stump like objects and hanging from the branches overhead. The light came from far away in all direction. From under the vines on the ground, from above and around as it grew dimmer under the accumulation of strange foliage.

Gramps shut his pack and carried it into the room.

“Boy,” he said. “Find something to leave in the doorway there. Something that’ll block it if he tries to close it or something.”

His voice startled me awake.

“Boy!” His voice was more urgent. “Wake up now. Get to it. Cut something if you needs to.”

Sarah Epiphyte and I bolted into the gaping mouth, my bad ankle forgotten for the moment. We looked around at the unknown landscape of trees and shrubs. Yet we knew they weren’t trees. The vines around seemed to throb and pulse, as if so heavy with sap they could burst at any moment, as if imbued with some life force. As if all this was one.

“What is it?” asked Sarah Epiphyte slowly.

“It’s vats,” said Gramps. “Where he copies himself. But don’t you go worrying yourselves with that. I’ll find where he’s hiding.” And then more urgently, “Now block that door!”

She started to pull at the stumps and branches, trying to find something we could move. Seeing her moving, I followed, pulling and pushing. As you touched them, some of the vines recoiled, or seemed to shift in your hands.

Sarah Epiphyte was rocking a block about half her own height.

“This one moves!” she called out.

We pulled at the vines, freeing it. Then I hacked away at others, spilling milky liquids and others transparent like water, except it didn’t smell like water as it oozed out around our feet. Other vines retracted when I cut them, and coiled back into the undergrowth like wounded animals.

We pushed and pulled and slid it over the creepers on the ground until we could force it into the entrance hole. We both glistened with the liquids from the plants we’d snapped and broken.

Then we set out to find some more material to block the doorway.

All the time, Gramps had been walking round the clearings peering into the great stumps that littered the place. When I looked up, he was no longer there.

I touched Sarah Epiphyte on the arm, and set my finger to my lips. I remembered the figure hanging from the tree, making the same gesture to me.

We both scanned the glades, looking for a movement. We saw nothing.

We peeled away to each side, making our way through the tangle and trails, taking care to make no noise and making eye contact as we searched.

She shook her head.

We kept searching.

Sarah Epiphyte lifted her head and felt the space around us. She opened her eyes and pointed further on in. Silently we made our way until we rounded a corner to a small alcove and found Gramps perched over one of the great stumps.

“You two?” he said, without looking round. “Come and see this. It’s edu-ca-tion-al for sure.”

We moved over, and tried to make sense of what we were seeing.

The top was translucent, misty, like milk poured into water. Inside we could make out a figure. It seemed slightly smaller than us, but seemed barely human. The liquid cleared, or it moved closer and we saw it as a shrivelled pinkish white body, picked out with blue marbling. Like some sort of cross between a grub and a new born piglet. It appeared to be lying on a bed of the peculiar vines that filled the rooms here. Or the vines entwined it, and held it. And the vines moved ever so slightly like weeds in a stream.

“This is David,” said Gramps. “Once a Master of the Universe, now… You’re not going to say Hello, Davey?”

Gramps kicked at the stump.

“You’re about to make a terrible mistake, Charles.”

The voice had followed us into this place too.

“Like the mistake you made, Davey? I don’t think so.”

“But we can change all that now—”

“That’s what I’m doing Davey. Making sure you lot don’t get another chance to make the same mistake twice. That’s my job, see? I’m just the janitor. Always cleaning up after you lot.”

He swung the Blunderbuss up and fired. The stump melted away, spilling frothing liquid over our legs and feet. The thing inside wheezed and spluttered.

“Gimme your knife, boy. I’ll finish it off.”

#

The Instructor pulled me from the vat and I stood dripping on the floor as the blue liquid oozed away from my body, regrouped and slipped back into the vat, ready for the next time.

The scene I had been watching still danced before my eyes: The body wriggling, twisting and then spouting blood as the knife slid across the throat.

I shivered, even though the temperature was perfectly adapted to my needs.

“Can I access the one they call ‘Gramps’ next time?” I asked.

“I am not authorised to talk about that person.”

“Oh…”

This was the first time I’d met an outright refusal.

“Next lesson you will be studying the person presented as Sarah Epiphyte. You should find her plenty to get going on with for the moment.”

I looked down to where my ankle ached. There was fresh bruising from where the boy had hurt his ankle in the fall. These simulations!

I nodded obediently, picked up a towel and padded out of the History Lesson.

THE END

This was a difficult story. Not to write, but just to keep up with. I knew where I wanted to go, but getting there took so much time. As it was, this is not only the longest story I have presented here so far, but it also took me three weeks to write. Much too long. If I write at that pace, I can never publish a new story each week. Which is also why I decided to cut this one in two, sorry.

The other difficulty was that, with my usual stories I can keep everything in my head as I’m working. With this one, I had to come back and make more than a few changes and corrections, rewrite a few passages, then reread and correct all the changes, all of which also took more time than I’d have liked.

It is not really a spooky tale, but the first side step into speculative fiction. As such, I wanted it to be open ended, and not provide you with all the answers. Feel free to provide your own.

Following this, in August, I started another speculative fiction story that I had to abandon. Oh, I’ll probably come back to it, because I like the world it is set in, as well as the first characters that I met there. But it was a very complex world, and would never do for a short story unless I had great long paragraphs of explanation, which would never make for a sizzling fun story. I suppose that that’s life.

Anyway, thank you for reading, and see you next week.

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Last edited: Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

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