We walked that barren land while I plotted. There were no signs of any living thing as far as we could see. Mile after mile of hot sand scourged our feet and an eerie purple sun baked us. Night came and in that warm darkness we reached our physical limit and fell to the ground exhausted. The cooler sand eased our burned skin, but the pending promise of another day of blinding sunlight poisoned the enjoyment of it so we lay restless. I knew that we wouldn’t make it through more than another day or two – the pain in our bodies would only get worse until our organs gave out. We were doomed. But what I didn’t know was what would happen to us after we perished there. Wherever it was that we were then it seemed only logical that we’d both end up back with god and be destroyed as per her arrangement with Ola. And that fear, worse than the pain in every inch of our bodies, made our restless night a dread like no other.
What I didn’t realise though was that the soul of a being goes to the heaven of the god of whatever planet that it dies on. I know this now because that night while we slept native prowlers came upon us. Their jaws and claws had their way with our flesh and in our deepest sleep we fell foul to mortal danger. What we awoke to was not at all like the afterlives we knew of. There was a dimness that is difficult to describe, like a cloud of ash that is thick enough to walk on, or in. Each step was a weightless swimming motion that left no wake. M was with me but she wasn’t M as I knew her. She was a shade of herself that slowly pulsated where she stood.
We hung there in that cloud for a while but it wasn’t long before a clearing appeared beneath us. A dull darkness formed in that opening and both myself and M dripped into it in pieces then reformed inside of it, all in one motion and against our will. It was cold in there. And that chill clung to us like damp on sand until we were met by a flickering shadow that itself floated in the darkness that surrounded us. It was obvious that it was a shadow, even though it was a flicker brightness, almost a negative image of itself. Gloom felt natural in that place, as if light itself was an absence, not a presence. Somehow we just knew it, and just as we realised that fact a chime came from our flickering visitor. But when we tried to speak to it a raw burning grew in our throats and similar chimes came from our bodies in response. The shadow was appeased with whatever it heard and split into many sparks that flattened beneath us and illuminated a tunnel by lining it, into which we swam-walked.
On the other side of the tunnel a rich spectrum of greys and blacks and whites was amassed. Like a colourless, endless cathedral. It was an amalgamation of souls in the same form as ours. A swirling globe of brilliance that grew blander the closer that we got to it, however, in seconds it captured us in its magnetic mass. At its centre a huge spherical blankness concentrated itself into a sphere of blue light that blinked with incredible frequency. We felt drawn to it, but in orbiting the outside of that globe we were swung around and around, kept at a distance from that central point and accelerated to a churning, nauseous pace.
“Don’t let go!!”
“I’m trying, James!! What is this place?”
“I don’t know. But it’s not human. These must be the souls.”
“They don’t have bodies.”
“Neither do we. Maybe they’re more evolved than us. Maybe they don’t need bodies.”
“We’re don’t”, the swirling globe said in a guttural but rumbling voice.
“Baby, did you hear… ”
“Don’t be afraid, friends. We can’t hurt you here.”
“Who are you?”
“We were the Yoyenu.”
“We matured to a point of planetary dominance and built great weapons. But we had not overcome or primitive ways as many thought we had. War turned our world to sand and only the basest scavengers survived.”
“All of you?”
“All of us.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be, we’ve been here many eons. Our emotions are dead now too.”
“We… we need help… to get… somewhere… can… do… do you know how to contact… contact Presti?”
At once the globe inverted and the shades all bunched into the centre, leaving us on the outside, swirling in the opposite direction, while the blue light that had been in the centre burst out and covered the entire giant sphere. All in a blink of time.
“Who are you to question us about Presti!? That whore is the enemy of the my people!”
“Fuck… eh… fuck… eh, eh, Fuck! I’m sorry. I was… I… we were… we were cast away on your world.”
“The god of earth.”
“Never heard of it! Why do you want to contact Presti!!?”
“OH fuck! I… you… are… we… fuck!… ”
“I need to save my daughter. Our god has been corrupted and wants to destroy me.”
“But not yourselves?”
“So why do you need to save her and not yourself?”
“Because my wife has sold her soul to our god in order to hurt me.”
“We don’t care about you or your daughter.”
“You don’t need to.”
“You don’t need to. All we want is to get back to her and we’ll take her away from her mother. I’ll do anything to get her!”
“So be it.”
She was herself again. No ashen clouds of shades or flickering light around us, everything just normal. The blue sphere was gone and M was naked and covered in filth. She was different too. Not quite herself in form, but it was her. I knew it was her, even though my eyes seemed to be lying to me. She smiled with a curious wonder and I smiled back and only then did she recognised me.
“You look funny.”
“So do you.”
“What the fuck just happened?”
“I don’t know but you’re not wearing any clothes.”
“Yeah. And you’re filthy.”
“So are you.”
“James… don’t look!”
“HA! Not bad at all, M!”
She covered herself with her hands as I eyed her with a wicked smile. But a second later the penny dropped when I saw her, more than just looked at her. We were a long time ahead of ourselves. There were no buildings or roads in sight. No signs of civilisation at all, in fact. Then I remembered. I had seen a women who like M did then before, in books in school. Her hair was knotted and her fingernails were chipped and dirty. Her skin was covered in dirt and her nakedness was due to the fact that clothes had not been invented yet.
We were in some era so far back before our proper time that earth was just some wild thing with no imagination. I wasn’t long before that savagery showed itself in the form of large rodent-like creatures that sprang, squealing from the under growth and darted towards us. I screamed to M and pointed at the mass of giants rats as I ran like a madman chasing his sanity. M saw me. Then she saw our attackers. Then I saw her whiz past me in giant strides. I could hear them scratching and kicking the dirt beneath their feet as they swarmed behind us.
I galloped after M and didn’t even notice the salivating jaws clamp down on my shoulder and left thigh. I didn’t feel them slam me into the ground. I didn’t feel the weight of them on me as their claws and teeth ripped me open. All I knew was that M was being overrun and torn to pieces. I could see it happening not a hundred paces away from where I lay. That hurt more, seeing her kick and punch the air as her guts were eaten in front of her eyes. On my belly, I couldn’t even see what was eating me and I didn’t care. All that I could feel was the pain in my heart, pain for my love.
Blankness again. Brightness again. My eyes adjusted and there stood M, a man either side of her holding her arms. The look in her eye was defiant and set and without thinking I nodded and crouched as she ducked and then launched her head back and to one side, burying it in the face of one of the men holding her. Springing into a run as she leaned forward I dove at the man she didn’t head butt and gored him across the throat. The two men dropped solid on the floor as I grabbed M by the wrist and ran like a bull on fire.
People looked and gasped and we shouldered aside those who didn’t step out of our way. Many fell hard and many wept as they saw their loved ones collapse under the weight of our determination. We weren’t running anywhere in particular then. We just ran. Amid screams of guards calling our location to each other, glances to our sides gave glimpses of large men in robes barrelling towards us. They were huge, broad beings. And with a speed beyond human ability they all but flew at us.
The crowd thickened ahead of us as we ran but in the distance we could see the roofs of houses lined up next to each other. I dragged M and she did her best to keep pace, skipping and falling along the way. Our huge pursuers trampled bystanders as they brought other newcomers to their homes. Many young and old and middling were crushed in the stampede and just as those hulking castles of flesh and bone were about to reach us we ducked into an alley between two of the houses and threw ourselves through an open door.
I held my hand over M’s mouth and her hot breath scorched my fingers as we felt the ground shake under us from the thumping bounds of the guards passing by the house. Looking up from our backs we saw three pairs of eyes looking down at us.
“Hello”, I offered.
“Hello”, a child with food on its face garbled.
“Sorry”, M offered.
“Sorry”, echoed the child then turned back and continued to devour its meal.
We stood, brushed ourselves down. Nodded to the gawking parents of the child and quickly exited via the same window through which we had abruptly arrived. The guards had moved on a hundred or so pace and the crowds were concentrated on collecting the wounded in the wake of the giants. There were too many crushed to count. We stepped amongst them and around them and over them and hated the sound of their pains, but Sila was all that mattered. I imagined her sitting with Ola, nodding along as her mother poisoned her mind with a venomous view of me. I pulled M along hard and each time that she tripped over herself or one of the dead or wounded I lifted her up and continued to hurry her as fast as I could. I didn’t recognise any of the surrounding area but the confusion of the stampede made for a great distraction.
I had to get to the room with the sandpits. It was the only way that I knew to Ola and Sila’s home. But of course I didn’t even know where that room was. So I did the only thing that I could do; I sought out high ground. The buildings in that area were short, only a few storeys tall, but it was that all I had to use, so I snuck us around the back of the tallest one that I could find and peered inside to be sure we’d go unseen. Then I climbed through one of the windows and took the stairs to the roof, still pulling M along behind me.
The view from that rooftop clinched my throat. The sky was a different shade of light up there. It shone down on the crowds below and made them seem like a sea of polished pebbles. Each one moved and shimmered in the glow and even at the slightest glance it seemed a mirage of colour and movement was unfolding below us. I could see the rough cut wake of the guards who had chased us and the crowds sprawling and churning in and around that wake while more new arrivals continued to tumble into the fray. The rows of houses that framed those crowds flowed into the distance forever. And there, far out beyond the panicked mass of souls below us, began the queue. It seemed a living thing itself. Like a slithering limb.
From up there I could see the guards turning back and searching for us, having lost our trail. They had slowed and were spread out but they weren’t helping the wounded. I knew that if we just walked down and took our chances sneaking past them then we’d be even more exposed, but there wasn’t much choice. Right then a door burst open on the roof next to the one we were stood on as one of the huge guards struggled to get his enormous shoulders through it. He wasn’t looking in our direction at first and as he began to search the neighbouring roof M dragged me down behind the short wall that lined the rooftop we were stood on.
“Don’t even breathe, James.”
As I nodded the guard’s heavy footsteps echoed in the panicked calm of our held breath as it meandered around the adjacent roof and then shuffled back down the stairs again. The roof was too far from ours to make a jump up to, but only because it was lower. We peered over the wall and saw that it was clear to jump down to. But our senses were ragged and I had to rushed. That’s where I broke my ankle. Apparently immortality isn’t without risk.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey