By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“A shriek ran thro’ Eternity:
And a paralytic stroke;
At the birth of the Human shadow.”
–Blake, The Four Zoas
Camilla wandered through the mirrored hallways of the palace, half fascinated, half terrified. Everything had been the same for so, so long. Now, it was all different. A random element had been introduced, and her world was spinning out of control.
She had woken, for brief moments, on only a few occasions over the timeless eternity since the King in Yellow had arrived to pass judgment on her city. In this way, she was different from the others, with one exception: The Phantom of Truth. Only he was free to change his pattern of movement and speech, and they had even engaged in a few conversations over the years…millennia? Definitions of time were pointless, she knew, but she still tried to measure. She couldn’t help it. She had found him intensely interesting and very wise, once she began to comprehend his odd manner of speech.
Then, quite recently (again, an essentially meaningless word), she had woken, and somehow she knew that her brothers, Uoht and Thale, were also awake, though they had been unable to act, as she had. This had set off a chain reaction, causing a spark of wakefulness to surface in her mother, and in others. For just a moment, she had danced, hoping they would all awake, and stay awake…but the moment had passed for all of them. Except…she had never fallen completely back to sleep since then. (She called it sleep, but really it was more a state of no-mind.) She had felt time pass; she had known that she had no control over her actions, that she was a marionette without strings. She had fought and fought to break free again, but it had been useless. The Phantom had seemed to know what was happening, and had spoken to her many times, his gentle words scoring her heart like a flaming whip, opening her mind more and more to the truth. His kindly torture had been the only thing to make the frustration bearable; even so, she had wished a thousand times that she could just fall asleep again, be like the others, enslaved but unknowing.
And then…something had happened that she still could not understand. There had been violence, some uncouth man, those horrible little satyrs, something dreadful to do with a cat…it was most provoking that she could not piece it together. But after it was over, she felt very queer. She was no longer part of the Tableau.
She was free. Free, but afraid.
She had begun wandering the palace, seeing the guests in the hallways acting out their roles, and going outside and above and under, discovering weird things that she had never seen before. The Gallery of Shades, the Abattoir of the Temple Dancers, the Whisper Labyrinth, the Garuda Aeries, the Great Library, all made her realize that her city really was no more; it had been consumed and absorbed by Carcosa, and combined with a thousand other cities of the past and future. Yhtill, in fact, was only a tiny, almost forgotten part of it. Their palace was only at the center of Carcosa in the sense that Carcosa was limitless, and therefore the palace was equidistant from Carcosa’s borderless borders. Or so the Phantom had tried to explain to her once.
Sometimes, she had to admit, he could be quite annoying.
After many days (again, meaningless, for the black stars never moved), she had found her way back to the great hall to discover that the tableau was in great disarray. By removing herself from it, she had caused it to lose all coherence; like a clockwork missing a gear, it had ground to a halt, twitching here and there in its attempts to continue its purpose. Cassilda kept half-rising from her chair, then sitting again, opening her mouth to say something, but never doing so. Aldones kept trying to seize the musket from the guard, but the guard had wandered off halfway across the hall and was bumping repeatedly against the wall. Her brother Uoht was missing completely, and she wondered if he had become free like herself. And her half-brother Thale was crouched in the corner, crying.
But worst of all, the feast was spoilt, the food rotting and bursting with maggots, the wine befouled and stinking. She heard a splat as a dollop of custard-yellow glop dropped down from the ceiling to spatter the table. She heard a dry rustling sound, as of thousands of fingernails scrabbling against papyrus, and felt the itch in her brain. Slowly, though she knew it was an unwise thing to do, she looked up, and began to scream.
Agent Luke’s alarm went off at five o’clock. He had already been awake for nearly thirty minutes by then; the alarm just told him to give up and get moving. He stopped running brain-videos of the dream through his head and reached to grab the strap above him, grunting as he pulled himself upright.
As he showered, shaved, and dressed, he reviewed as always his actions over the past few days and his plans for the next few, triple checking for any slip-ups that would blow his cover. Organizing every movement into mental lists, he ticked them off one by one, measuring probabilities, cross checking for interference patterns that could get him made. He was on the verge of taking a terrible risk, one of the riskiest moves he had ever made. He knew he would not be able to justify it to Alphonse, so he simply failed to tell him. Luke had decided months ago that it was necessary.
He had of course also not mentioned anything about his dreams, or his plans, to his superiors in the NSA. As far as they knew, he was going off to a science-fiction convention in Kansas City, one of several he had gone to each year for the past twenty years. The conventions were his only vacations, and as they were usually on weekends, he rarely used more than a few of his vacation days each year. Of course he would always cancel these trips if the agency needed him for something special–he prided himself on being a dedicated worker. But the NSA tried to keep him happy.
In an agency filled with people gifted in math, Luke managed to stand out head and shoulders above the pack. If he had chosen the academic path, he could have been one of the top mathematicians of his time. Instead, he had gone into cryptography, and devoted his life to the most shadowy division of his nation’s security forces. He and his INFOSEC team designed secure communications networks and encryption for the NSA and other government agencies. In his spare time, he had also designed Delta Green’s.
He was constantly fiddling with it, improving it, and he chafed at how Alphonse was slow to adopt new changes. Still, he had to admit that, when looked at objectively, it would be prohibitively complex to adopt every change as he came up with them, especially as those improvements were sometimes obsolete almost immediately. So he had created a customized comm system for his own cell, keeping it about a generation ahead of the main DG system, to test for flaws.
His cell. He paused as he strapped the braces on his wasted, unfeeling legs. His cell had been special. Linus and Laura. They had never known that they were not the only Cell L. They hadn’t realized that they were compartmentalized within the structure of a conspiracy considerably more complex than anyone knew, outside Luke, A Cell, and shadowy figures even Luke only guessed at. Luke knew that the whole linear alphabet structure was disinformation, believed even by Delta Green’s own agents. He knew there were at least two D Cells, and that A Cell was more than it appeared. He knew there were large parts of Delta Green that were kept secret from him, in case he was ever compromised, and that different comm systems were used for them, ones he only knew about when their whispers were intercepted by the NSA.
Now, he ran a new L Cell. Linus was out of the game, though likely to come back as a Friendly in some capacity after months more of physical therapy. And Laura was…somewhere. He knew deep in that irrational part of his brain, the place where the magic numbers were born, that she was still alive. Despite his firm grounding in logic and science, he had a great respect for that part of his mind. He knew it was from there that true genius, the hunches and leaps in logic that violated the scientific method while still being scientific, sprang. It was a mystery that he suspected would always remain unquantifiable.
He shouldered his backpack, took up his crutches, and began his journey.
Daniel Villanueva sat in his parked truck, waiting. He checked his watch again, as always staring at his gloved left hand. He flexed it; with great effort and pain he could get about halfway to making a fist. He was wearing black leather driving gloves, but he wore a thin cotton glove over the left hand even when he was at home. Kate, his wife, still flinched from it, though she tried not to. It had put a big damper on their physical intimacy. The kids were creeped out by it too.
He pulled the glove off his right hand and wiped perspiration on his pants leg. He left the other glove on. The left hand didn’t sweat. He indulged in a fantasy of just cutting the damned grey half-dead thing off. He often thought of that.
He had had to do a lot of finessing to avoid being drawn into the investigations into the action in Austin and his sister’s disappearance. With the help of Maria’s mysterious conspiracy friends, the two investigations had stayed separate, as far as he knew. If someone had connected them, they weren’t talking. The killings in Austin remained unsolved, the disintegration of a mini-strip mall a separate Fortean event, and Special Agent Maria Villanueva had officially never been anywhere near the scene during all that. She had taken a trip to Chicago for a week of interagency training and had never shown up. Her record showed a history of cycles of depression and alcohol abuse, along with other poorly explained disappearances of a few days at a time. The FBI continued to list her as missing, and the investigation was presently dead.
She had been gone for one year.
A taxi pulled into the HEB parking lot, letting out a tall black man and a short white woman in front of the supermarket. The man paid; after the taxi left, they looked around the lot. Danny tooted the horn. The red-haired woman spotted Danny’s truck first. She pulled the telescoping handle out of her come-along suitcase/backpack combo and headed toward Danny, smiling and calling back to her companion to hurry. The man quickly picked up his backpack and followed her, carrying over his shoulder by the grip-strap on top.
Danny got out to hug Ruth and Derek, stepping back to look them over after their effusive greetings. He mock-frowned at Derek. “Damn, man, you look like a friggin pirate. What’s with the head full of cigarette butts?”
Derek grinned lopsided and ran his hands across the short dreadlocks before adjusting his black eye patch. “Just trying a new look, Joe Friday. Don’t have to keep it so short now that I quit the Army program. I see you’re still trying to be Miguel Jackson.” He nodded at the glove. Danny grimaced, then smiled to show he didn’t mind the jab.
They got in the car, Danny stowing Ruth’s case in the back, Derek tossing his bag in there. It landed on top of a lot of camping gear. Ruth sat between the men. As they pulled out of the parking lot, Danny said, “So, Derek, did you pick up Ruth on your way from New Orleans?”
Derek looked at Ruth. “Uh, no….”
Ruth spoke up. “He’s, um, been staying with me at my parents’ in Oklahoma City for the last week.”
Derek laughed. “Yeah, and your grandfather.”
Ruth smacked Derek’s leg, smiling. “Shut up! I already apologized for that about a million times.”
“And I told you, you don’t have to apologize. I know he didn’t mean it that way. Long as he keeps pouring me twelve-year-old Scotch, he can call me a one-eyed schwartze every time I beat him at chess.” He was smiling broadly at her. “Which is every time we play.”
Ruth buried her face in her hands, laughing and blushing. “Oh God! I swear, I have the most embarrassing family in the world.”
Derek put his hand on the back of Ruth’s neck, lightly massaging it. “I like your family. And I know your grandpa likes me, even if he is a glutton for punishment. Now, your sister, on the other hand….”
Ruth groaned and giggled simultaneously. Derek pulled onto Highway 90 and merged into the light morning traffic leading out of San Antonio. “You thinking of getting back to work on your Ph.D., Derek?” It was something Danny had been bugging Derek about by PGP-encrypted email over the past few months.
They hadn’t actually met face to face since just after Maria had disappeared. It had seemed too dangerous; if the investigators had connected Danny with Ruth and Derek, they probably would have connected him with the hispanic woman who had repeatedly questioned them and had posed as an FBI agent, and had disappeared with her mutilated partner–just as his sister had disappeared. Danny still couldn’t believe no one had put it together. Even Phenomen X, which had vaguely managed to link the serial killings with the bones found in the crumbled strip mall, had failed to connect the two “MiBs” with Maria’s disappearance–perhaps they weren’t even aware of it. Somebody had to be working hard to squash the evidence. Derek had essentially gone into hiding, hoping it would all blow over. Ruth, who had been institutionalized for three months and was still seeing a therapist, had barely been able to answer any questions in the first weeks of the investigations; by the time she was coherent, the serial-murder investigators were ignoring her claims of flying monsters, and the investigators into Special Agent Villanueva’s disappearance had already been reassigned to more critical cases. She’d wisely avoided the media. Danny suspected Maria’s “friends” had painted his sister as a borderline-suicidal alcoholic so that no one would look too deeply for real answers.
Derek pulled a face. “Well, Mom, you’ll be glad to hear that I’ve been accepted into a new program. No way I’m going back to Austin for a while.”
“Good idea. Louisiana?”
“Nope. University of Oklahoma-Norman.” He was looking at Ruth, who was smiling back at him. “They’ve got a good anthro department, especially Native American languages. Interesting field work, too.”
Danny smiled. “Funny how Norman is pretty much a suburb of Oklahoma City, huh?”
Ruth giggled and slapped Danny’s leg. “Shut up!”
After spending a couple of hours at the SF convention in Kansas City–making sure to get his picture taken with Michael Dorn and Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and casually pass through the field of view of a local news station’s video camera–Luke slipped away, his backpack slightly heavier with the weight of a signed first edition of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and a used copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’sThe Martians, which he hadn’t gotten around to acquiring in the couple of years it had been out. He took a cab to Kansas City International Airport, catching a flight to San Antonio under a fresh, never-used alias he had set up months before. In San Antonio he met the charter pilot he had hired, who helped him board a twenty-year-old Cessna Centurion.
By the time they landed at Dimmit County Airport at Carrizo Springs, Luke was very glad for the air-conditioned, pressurized cabin, but still feeling fairly ill. He had forgotten how much small aircraft can bounce and dip. The pilot insisted on carrying his pack for him across the blazing hot airfield; the glare of the sun didn’t make him feel much better. When he got inside the small building, which was blissfully air-conditioned, he sat down gratefully, setting aside his crutches and leaning his elbows on his thighs, bending forward and breathing deeply to pull himself together. He would rest for a few minutes, then call for a taxi. He couldn’t just rent a car, as he needed specially fitted controls so he could operate the gas and brake by hand.
The pilot was talking with a large, middle-aged woman, who bustled into the back and came out with a tall glass of iced tea. She strode over to Luke and bent down to offer the glass. “Why you poor thing, you look plum tuckered out! Now you just drink this down, precious, an’ you tell Miss Marg’ret where you’re goin’.”
“Thank you,” he said, gratefully taking the glass and drinking deeply. It was heavenly after the oven-like air outside. Her style of speech rankled slightly, but he reminded himself that this was the South; she was being friendly, not patronizing. Probably. “You’re very kind, ma’am. If I could use a phone, I’ll call a taxi–“
“No, no, no! I won’t hear of it! Now where you goin’? And call me Miss Marg’ret; everyone does.”
He thought about how to get around telling her, then decided there was no point–even if he did get a taxi, she’d probably find out where it had taken him within an hour. Carrizo Springs seemed like the kind of place where gossip was the main form of entertainment. “Well Miss Margaret, I’m heading up to Crystal City, to visit a friend. I think it’s about twenty miles north of here?”
“Well, there, y’see? Mah boy Roscoe is headin’ up there to make a delivery in just a little while. I’ll tell him t’get a move on, and he’ll take you hisself. Roscoe!” Her deafening shout almost caused Luke to spill his tea.
Twenty minutes later he was in the cab of a lovingly restored, fifty-year-old pickup truck that, from the bulbous nature of the body, looked like it had been designed by circus clowns. Certainly you could have fit a dozen of them in the cavernous passenger compartment. Luke thought he had just about enough room to set up camp on his half of the sofa-like bench seat. He figured that Roscoe, a rather handsome young man in a country-boy way, found the roominess useful on dates. Despite the lack of air conditioning, with the huge side windows rolled down and Roscoe driving well over eighty, the hurricane blast of the wind kept Luke quite comfortable. However, the complete lack of seatbelts made him a bit jumpy. Attempting to engage Roscoe in conversation, he shouted over the pummeling wind to inquire about that.
“Don’t need ’em. This here truck’s old enough that they didn’t install seatbelts in those days. Fer antiques like this baby, yew c’n get a waiver.”
“I see. But, isn’t it a bit dangerous?”
“Nah. Y’drive like ah do, yew ain’t gonna survive any ol’ accident anyway.” Roscoe laughed hysterically.
Luke counted four dead armadillos by the side of the road before Roscoe spoke again. “So what happened t’yer laigs? If’n ya don’t mind mah askin’.”
“Yer laigs.” Roscoe nodded his head at Luke’s legs. “Polio?”
“Oh…no, not that. I was riding on my bicycle when I was twelve, and some maniac in a speeding pickup hit me.” Luke smiled urbanely.
“Oh. Well. Don’t that beat all.” Roscoe gently eased back on the gas until they were merely doing seventy-five.
They had made good time, and Danny drove around Crystal City for a while, pointing out the sights to Ruth and Derek. He hadn’t been back in a long time; with his mother living across the street from him in San Antonio, he had no family here, and being the Sheriff’s son, he had never had many friends. His best friend, Loi Tre Van Hahn, had committed suicide just before Danny had left Crystal City for Texas A&M.
There weren’t many sites to point out, and after picking up some sandwiches and filling the cooler with ice, they went out to the lake. Ruth kept laughing about the Popeye statue in the town square. After they parked, she went off to use the rest stop’s facilities.
As they unloaded the truck, Derek asked Danny quietly, “So, do you think anything will happen tonight?”
Danny shrugged. “Your dreams been getting stronger?”
“Yeah. Even Ruth’s had a few. And not just the same ones about Ahmed’s eyes and Alan’s guts and the thing in the library, either. She’s been dreaming about the palace and the lake, like us. Kind of mixed together, but they’re there.”
Danny raised his eyebrows at that, but then shook his head. “I’ll tell you, Derek, I’m trying not to get my hopes up.”
Derek paused in lifting the cooler. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But it is the anniversary. And we’ve both felt how this lake is pulling at us. I don’t know.” He stood and looked out at Lake Espantosa. “I just get a real strong feeling that something is going to happen tonight.”
Danny adjusted his service pistol in its holster at his waist. “Yeah, me too. I just hope it’s not anything like the last time I was here.” He kept thinking of the Monkey’s Paw and getting what you wished for. Deep down, he was terrified.
Luke got out at the town square right in front of the Popeye statue and bade Roscoe farewell. Although the afternoon was getting well on, he resisted the desire to ask Roscoe to take him directly out to the lake; it would raise too many questions, and he wanted to minimize the risk that rumors would make their way back to Carrizo Springs, then perhaps back to San Antonio via the pilot, to end up who knows where–maybe even Fort Meade. The less he was talked about, especially over phone lines, the better.
He planned to hire a driver to run him out to the lake, tell the driver that he was meeting a friend, and to hike in on his own from there. The relief maps he had consulted and memorized showed a couple of worrisome spots that he might have trouble crossing, but he figured he could manage. He had a sleeping bag, a tarp, some food, a camp stove, a flashlight, a taser, and a book to read (he would keep the Dick find wrapped up in its protective plastic cover until he got it home)–he would be fine alone for one night. But he changed his plans when he saw Jerry Messer AKA Jerry Smalls AKA Alan Smalls AKA former-Agent Linus park right across the street from him and get out a map.
“Now don’t that beat all,” he murmured to himself as he headed over.
Jerry needed to put in the eye drops again. His eyelids, skin grafts from his fingertips, didn’t work as well as his old ones. Of course they had no lashes, but they also never closed all the way, and didn’t carry the tears across the eye to wash away dust nearly as efficiently as real ones did.
The things you don’t miss until they’re gone. He smiled grimly, feeling the scar tissue pull tightly at the sides of his mouth. He was growing a beard to cover up the long scars on his cheeks that ran to the back of his jaw, but even letting it get long didn’t completely hide them. He wore his sunglasses constantly; his “Man Who Laughs” cheek-scars were bad enough, but his eyelids and the scarring around them had proven positively scary to small children and some adults. Thank God he didn’t need the colostomy bag anymore, but with such a large length of his intestine missing, food went through him like shit through a goose, partly undigested. He needed to eat more often than before, but he had less appetite. He had become rather gaunt over the past year.
A shadow fell over him and he looked up sharply from the roadmap. There was a middle-aged man peering in through the passenger window. His round, pale, doughy face was smiling and friendly. Blonde-gray hair fell lankly over his forehead. He wore an expensive backpack and clothes that looked like he had gotten them from Banana Republic, probably over the internet. He was definitely no local; Jerry slid his left hand down the edge of the seat, putting his hand near a pistol he had concealed there. Then he saw the tops of aluminum forearm crutches. Jerry checked his movement, instead touching the button to slide down the front passenger window.
“Can I help you?” Only it came out “Cah I hep’iuu?” Jerry’s tongue had been reattached, but the front two-thirds, the part that had been amputated, was paralyzed. Jerry could still use it to make back-of-the-throat sounds, and he could twitch it around in his mouth to get others; he had almost had to relearn how to talk over the past months. He was still discovering new ways to make old sounds.
The stranger grinned more widely. “Well, I was wondering if you’d give me a lift out to Lake Espantosa, Jerry.”
Jerry suddenly felt like he was on an elevator whose cable had just snapped. He felt terribly nauseous. He had been made. His hand grasped the gun while he tried to keep his face calm. The way his new acquaintance burst out laughing told him he had failed. He still thought he might be about to die, but the laughter sounded friendly, not bullying. He began to guess who it might be.
“Huu ahh iuu?” He was feeling slightly angry and embarrassed now.
The man smiled again; he seemed genuinely happy to see Jerry, but his expression was mixed with sadness and perhaps even guilt. He quietly quoted, “‘This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall be no sign given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet.'”
Jerry goggled at the man, his mind racing, but suddenly it clicked. Jerry was the son of a strict Minnesota Lutheran minister, and he had had to know his Bible backwards and forwards. Luke 11, verse…30? No matter. He knew who was facing him now. He shook his head in wonder, speechless.
Luke’s smile widened as he saw the recognition.
They walked along the water’s edge, holding each other’s hand. Above them, the sacred garuda gyred silently. They could feel rather than hear the bone-shaking basso profundo of the songs of the lake beasts. It was twilight, as always. Sometimes Camilla pretended it was dawn, but she knew she was lying to herself.
She had always spurned Thale before, even though, looking back, it was obvious that they were meant to be together. As a member of the Royal House of Yhtill, she had few choices for a husband. She deeply loved her full-brother Uoht, but he had been destined for the priesthood, and despite many advances from her father-uncle Aldones, she had never wanted or trusted him. But Thale, her half-brother…they were so much alike. Both fools. Perhaps that was why they were the only two awake.
She laughed at that thought. The echo, like silver bells, came back strangely in the cathedral-like silence. After some time, she spoke quietly. “How long have you been awake?”
Thale shrugged. After a few steps, he asked, “Am I awake? I sometimes dream that this is a dream, and I lie sleeping on the bottom of the Lake of Hali.”
She looked at him, concerned. The words reminded her of a dream of her own. “That…is a strange notion.”
His beautiful face looked drawn. “I dream that we are small and brown, short-lived, inelegant, happy. But we fell asleep, and came here, where we drown forever.”
She shuddered. “Oh, don’t say such foolish things.” She looked down the quay and saw a figure standing in a boat. “Oh look. It’s the Stranger. The Phantom of Truth.”
Thale stopped, gripping her hand tightly, holding her back from her initial impulse to hurry toward the waiting figure. “Please. Let us go away from here. I don’t wish to hear his words.”
Camilla looked at her brother, her lover, appalled. “But why?” As terrible as the Phantom’s words could be, she loved the new vistas of awareness that they had opened for her.
Thale’s face was sweating in fear. “I fear that he will truly awaken me. I fear…I fear that I will awaken to find that I am long drowned at the bottom of the lake.”
His words disturbed her, and she gave in, turning with him to walk swiftly back to the palace. She looked back over her shoulder; the white-masked Phantom was still there, looking in her direction. Waiting.
They didn’t speak much during the drive. Of course, Jerry had his own difficulties with speaking under the best of circumstances, but Luke could feel the tension between them. Who could blame Jerry? They had worked together for well over a decade, going back to the Cowboy Days, and had never met in person. It was all rather sudden. And considering how the last mission had gone…. But he and Jerry had already gone through all the apologies and accusations by email in the past year.
Jerry spoke up, asking something Luke didn’t quite get. He asked him gently to repeat it. He knew the speech problems were the most infuriating thing of all Jerry’s ailments–Jerry had been a teacher, and a witty, eloquent one at that. Now as soon as he tried to speak, new acquaintances automatically assumed he was brain damaged. Much of his therapy these days was in dealing with the anger, rather than physical therapy. Of course Luke received copies of all Jerry’s medical reports. The doctor was a Friendly.
Jerry spoke again, more slowly. This time, Luke understood. “Ah, yes, Henry Nakata. I got the final report just a few days ago. I’ll send it to you.” After Laura’s disappearance, during his recovery, Jerry had demanded every scrap of information to do with the mission. When Hank Nakata’s house had been destroyed in a massive explosion five months ago, Luke had shared the investigation reports with Jerry, not seeing any reason not to do so, only sanitizing them as necessary. “It seems that it really was a small fuel-air explosive. And you were right: it was suicide. We’ve tracked it back to a Thai arms dealer Nakata used to work with, who got it from the Russians. He had it built into the roof of his house–first detonation filled the house with an aerosol of fuel, second sent the whole thing up. The layout of the house was designed for good fuel dispersion. Absolute destruction. The heat levels were incredible too.” Luke shrugged. “I guess that’s why he wanted it.” Luke lifted the beer he was holding; Jerry had given him one out of the cooler in the back seat. “To Hank Nakata–human to the end. You wouldn’t let them take you with fear nor beauty. Banzai.” He raised the bottle in a toast and drank. Jerry held his hand out for it; Luke gave it to him, and Jerry nodded and toasted toward Luke, then drank, too.
Luke took the beer back; there was probably a law against driving with a beer in your hand, even in Texas, and if they got pulled over, Jerry’s attempts at speech would surely land him in a drunk tank. Luke had a Northeasterner’s fear of small-town Texas jails. He had to admit though–the place had its charms. He couldn’t really say why, but the sky just seemed…bigger. Really, really huge. Some kind of atmospheric effect? Maybe it was just the flatness, and the lack of tall buildings.
He realized that he was avoiding a delicate subject: What had brought Jerry out here?
“So Jerry, tell me about your dreams.”
The hike to the campsite seemed longer than it used to be; Ruth was regretting her choice of luggage, which made a fine come-along bag but a heavy, uncomfortable backpack. Derek got whacked in the face with branches a couple of times due to lack of depth perception. And of course it was hot as hell. By the time they reached the site, they were ready to just sit down and have a few cold drinks, but it was getting late. They had to set up the tent quickly.
After getting that taken care of, Danny looked around–it was much the same as ever. The sand castle had been utterly erased over the past twenty-four years, of course, but the place still had a sinister feel to him. There were gang tags sprayed on the “Lake Monster” rock. Danny expressed anger at wannabe gang-bangers cropping up all the way out here; Derek wondered if the illegible scrawls might be meant as protective wards. Maybe others had seen the same reptilian outlines in the large boulder. The thought that others might be carrying on some vestige of his old tradition mollified Danny somewhat, but he got angry again when he stumbled across the pile of broken bottles and used needles. He got out one of their plastic trash bags and started to clean up.
Ruth frowned at the garbage. “You’re not going to try to pack that out, are you? You’ll get stabbed or cut through the bag.”
“Yeah, I know.” Danny kept gingerly tossing rusty needles and glass shards into the bag. “I just don’t want any of us stepping into this mess in the dark. And maybe I’ll take it back down the trail a ways tomorrow–there’s a bin about a mile from here. I can carry it carefully for that far.”
Ruth shrugged, then her brow furrowed. She pointed into the midst of the pile of refuse. “What’s that?”
Danny looked. At first it looked like a syringe, but then it seemed to shift. He blinked his eyes hard. No, not a syringe–a painted, leaden figurine. A man in a ragged-yellow robe, holding a spear with a broken tip. The paint was chipped, and it was dirtier, but it was the same one that had been in the sand castle twenty-four years ago–the one that had stabbed Maria in the breastbone when she fell onto it. He had thought that their rescuer had taken it, but it was still here. Danny felt his blood run cold. Had anyone else slipped into that nightmare world in the years since? Had someone not had an Asian-American James Bond to come out of the night to save them? Danny had a sudden urge to acquire some explosives and come back here to blow this whole cove to smithereens. There was something wrong with this place.
He picked the figurine up, handling it as carefully as he would a rusty syringe, or a rattlesnake. He looked at the bottom of the base–yes, the three-armed, irregular symbol that had haunted his dreams for decades was still there. He set it carefully aside and continued cleaning up. When he finished, he took the bag to the edge of the campsite where nobody would bump into it, then came back to get the figure. He was thinking about whether to throw the thing into the lake, or try to melt it down in the fire, or what, when Derek spoke up.
Danny heard them a moment later: people coming up the trail, talking, struggling to get up the small cliff. He set the figurine down and signaled for Derek to come with him, then set off down the trail, moving fast but quiet. He slowed down a little before, going into stealth mode, placing his feet carefully. It was probably just hikers, but finding the yellow-robed figurine had spooked him. He touched his holstered pistol to reassure himself that it was there.
Derek passed him, on the other side of the trail, moving even more quietly but faster, real Indian-scout material. He had his sturdy walking stick with him. No gun–Derek had gotten kind of anti-gun since the fight when he lost his eye, telling Danny the damn things were more trouble than they were worth, and too apt to let you down in a crunch. Danny suspected that being unable to judge distances might have something to do with it, too.
Derek crept up to the edge of the cliff, peering over from behind a bush. Danny went to his hands and knees for the last few feet, moving extra slowly. He could hear two men grunting with effort. As he looked, he could see a tall, gaunt man with a beard and sunglasses trying to boost a shorter, pale, rather round man up the cliff. A pair of forearm crutches lay on the ground. The short man slid down the cliff, groaning in frustration.
Suddenly, Derek let out a whoop and shouted, “Alan!” He scrambled down the cliff, excited. The short man just sat there, looking confused and a little frightened, while the tall man stepped back in surprise for a moment, then laughed and stepped forward into Derek’s embrace. Danny walked to the edge of the cliff and squatted, about eight feet above the other three people. “Danny!” Derek shouted. “This is Special Agent Smalls! He was Maria’s partner!”
Smalls spoke. “Aish uu mee iuu.” Danny remembered that Maria’s partner had been cruelly tortured and maimed by Colonel Collins or his minions. “Nice to meet you too, Agent. Need a hand?” Soon they were heading up the trail together.
Ruth had gotten spooked out while they were gone and had come halfway down the trail to meet them, then crouched beside the trail and started shaking–she was doing much better these days, but she still couldn’t handle being left alone very well, and Derek had to calm her down for a few minutes until she got hold of herself. Danny was worried that she’d go catatonic on them again, but she was pretty much all right by the time they got back to the camp, and got quite excited when she recognized Jerry–she had had a crush on him from the beginning when he had been investigating the library murder/robbery that had started the whole nightmare.
Danny, not knowing either of the men, paid most of his attention to the man who called himself Matthew, the man on crutches. Matthew explained that he was also a good friend of Maria’s, and that he and “Alan” (after his experiences with the jokers Maria had worked with, Danny was sure they were both using pseudonyms) had both been drawn here by recurring dreams of the lake. Danny, Derek, and Ruth shared a spooky look at that, and Matthew smiled as if their reaction confirmed his guess.
Then Danny remembered the figurine. He went to where he’d left it, but it was gone. He spoke quietly to Ruth, but she insisted she hadn’t touched it, and Danny didn’t doubt her–she’d seemed scared even to look at it. He looked around a bit more for it, then gave up as the night came down. He tried to put it out of his mind as they enjoyed the beautiful sunset and started cooking up some hot dogs and sharing out their sandwiches and potato salad. The song of the coyotes killed their small talk, and they ate in silence, listening to the cries of lost souls and tricksters.
“How long have you waited here?” she asked the Phantom.
“Always,” he replied. His voice was buzzing again, as if something were misaligned in his throat.
“Yes, of course,” she said resignedly. She should have known better than to have asked a question having to do with the passage of time. She had slipped away from Thale to come speak with the Stranger alone. He was still standing in the same boat–she knew it was the same because this one was rather plain and severe compared to the others. It had hardly any carvings beyond a figurehead of a faceless, bare-breasted woman holding a lantern (which was presently not lit), and the purple velvet cushions were tattered and worn thin, with tassels missing from half the corners.
“We must go,” said the Phantom. He held out a corpse-white hand to her.
She stepped back. “Now? But, my brother….”
“He is back in the Tableau. As are you, and all the others. This moment of time-flow was a mere aberration.”
“But–I’m here! I’m still free!”
“That is a matter of incorrect perception. Please.”
Feeling helpless to protest, she took his hand–it was smooth and spongy, and she was careful, not wanting to break off one of his fingers. The boat rocked slightly as she boarded, and she sat on a cushion. The Phantom pushed away from the quay and then took station behind her, working the single rudder-oar.
“Where are we going?”
“You have already returned to the Tableau.”
“Then why am I here? Where are you taking me?”
“Home. All must be returned to their homes.”
“I don’t understand.”
They drifted in silence for a time. She heard the songs of the lake beasts reverberating through the hull of the boat. It vibrated through her chest, focusing on her breastbone, just over her heart. She remembered something her mother had told her once, that the song of the beasts was the universe sighing. She had dismissed it as one of those things that parents tell small children to inculcate a false sense of wonder in the cosmos. Now, she listened more closely.
The pressure at her chest increased. It became pain, a dull ache at first, then sharper and greater. She brought her left hand to her chest, pressing it in a fist there, trying to outpress the pressure, which gripping her seat with the other hand, knuckles white. She gasped, sweat breaking out on her forehead.
“Help…help me,” she barely managed to croak out, as she slipped off the seat and onto the deck. The song grew in intensity, and the pain grew with it.
“The pain is wholly illusory. It is your way of explaining these events to yourself. Unavoidable but ultimately meaningless. In your limited perception of causality, it will appear to pass shortly.”
She screamed and begged, “Ahhh…Mama, please…help…Daddy…Madre de Dios…oh GOD!” She felt her chest crack open, splitting, the ribcage spread out like the shell on a beetle’s back before it takes flight, felt the chill air over the lake flow into her chest cavity and over her burning heart, and then heard the cry of a newborn after drawing its first breath.
As she lay in shock in a rapidly spreading pool of her own blood, the Phantom bent down to gently scoop up the screaming, glowing infant. Its cries were a tiny, higher-pitched echo of the beasts’ song. It was hermaphroditic. Pallid flames licked about its head, and it had its father’s eyes, the yellow eyes of a tiger. Its screams shook the world, churning the waters of the lake into mist.
The Phantom held the infant aloft, under the sky of black stars. “Behold, the Last King!” She saw that the Phantom was no longer wearing a mask. He had olive skin, and hair that fell forward over his forehead. His robes had been replaced by an out-of-date white suit. When he held the infant against his chest, it left smears of blood across the suit, but Stephen Alzis didn’t seem to mind. He smiled, as always.
“Thank you, Maria. You’ve done an excellent job, as I knew you would. You can rest now.”
As her eyesight faded and her heart stopped, Maria thought she heard the half-crazed song of a coyote. Then she closed her eyes and went gratefully to sleep.
Ruth and Derek were asleep in the tent. “Alan” was off taking a leak–he seemed to have to do that a lot. “Matthew” was laying on his sleeping bag under the open sky, snoring lightly. Danny sat on his sleeping bag, arms around his knees, unable and unwilling to sleep.
The lake surface was covered with a thick mist, which made an island out of their campsite and gave an eerie impression that they were perched on a mountaintop rising above the clouds. The sky above was brilliant with stars, the band of the Milky Way standing out clearly. He saw satellites moving across the starscape in their straight lines, easily picked out Mars by its orange color, played at trying to remember all the constellations he’d learned during his astronomy kick when he was in tenth grade.
He couldn’t see the dark shape coming through the mist until it was already about to hit the shore. He stood, his heart thudding in his chest, as he thought of all the times his father had told the story of the Lake Monster coming ashore to drag people to a watery grave. Then it scraped against the sandy mud, beaching itself, and he saw it was a boat. He tripped over “Matthew” as he ran down to the beach, nearly taking a tumble, but he reached the boat and grabbed the side, trying to pull it further ashore. Once he felt it was more secure against drifting off, he took a good look inside it.
He felt hollow inside, as if he were filled with nothing but a cold, cold vacuum. He felt he might implode. There was a woman lying on the deck of the boat, crumpled, wearing a long dress. As the flashlights came down the hill to the beach, he saw that the dress was red, probably silk. Her hair was black. He couldn’t move. It was as if he thought, if he were to jump in the boat and touch her, roll her over to see her face, something terrible would happen–it would all be a dream, or she would be someone else, some stranger. And so it was that Derek vaulted the gunwales first and gathered her in his arms, and sobbed with joy when he saw her face, and when Danny saw her open her eyes and touch a shaking hand to Derek’s shoulder, Danny broke down crying like a baby and slid down the side of the boat, falling to his knees in the cold water, his head against the hull of the boat. It was not until he felt Maria’s hand on his head like a blessing that he could look up and rise and kiss his dear sister and hold her and swear he would never let go.
It was later, when the others were up at the tent crowding around Maria and almost fighting for a chance to do something for her that Luke returned alone to the boat. The wet ground made for treacherous going with his crutches, but he persevered, and lifted himself over the edge of the boat. He almost fell into the boat, but managed to lower himself without too much damage to his dignity. Inside, he looked around, for what he wasn’t sure. He found it quickly, though: a small figurine of a masked man wrapped in a tattered yellow robe. It was holding a spear. The figure was old and dirty, and its paint was chipped. Luke had seen digital photos of this figurine, which had been seized, along with others in a set, by Agent Nakata twenty-four years ago from this very campsite. Last he had heard, all the figurines were in secure storage with other occult artifacts. It looked to be the exact same figurine, but for one difference. The spear was completely intact.
Agent Luke sat down so he could pick it up. He weighed it in his hand. He thought about whether to take it back with him and mail it to Alphonse. Then he decided it didn’t make any difference anyway. Winding up as well as he could, he hurled it into Lago Espantosa, the Lake of Terror. He couldn’t put his hips into it, but he had good upper-body strength, and he was satisfied to see it sail far until it disappeared into the mist. He heard a small splash. Then he laboriously stood and got out of the boat, and went back up to join the others.
“She saw an ancient city, and a quiet river winding near it along the plain, and up the stream went slowly gliding a boat with a merry party of children on board…and among them was another little Alice, who sat listening with bright eager eyes to a tale that was being told, and she listened for the words of the tale, and lo! it was the dream of her own little sister. So the boat wound slowly along, beneath the bright summer-day, with its merry crew and its music of voices and laughter, till it passed round one of the many turnings of the stream, and she saw it no more.”
–Carroll, Alice’s Adventures Underground (an early, unpublished mss. of Alice in Wonderland)
10 September 2000, 2:48 a.m.