The position of the sun remained unchanged as Will and his companion―Buddy, Will had named him in a fit of giddy, flight-induced madness―darted outwards and inwards, first towards The Light, then away from it. The sun and the stars in the background shone steadily, permanent, immovable. Those, however, seemed to be the only fixed points of reference. The planet beneath them, Will quickly learned, was not a constant at all; a few seconds’ journey towards The Light was enough to dislodge it from reality, to leave the two of them floating in empty space.
Will was outbound, face towards The Light, chasing his companion, when Buddy suddenly disappeared from view. Pulling up short, Will was surprised to discover that the stars had disappeared as well. To his left and right, above and below and in every standard compass direction, there was nothing but inky blackness. Even outwards, The Light seemed dimmed. Wow. I can’t see my hand in front of my face. Of course, that’s nothing new...
Back inwards, Will thought. Retrace our steps. Earth’s the only landmark; Buddy will be headed back that way. Of course, to this point, Buddy’s been anything but predictable. That Immelman he pulled back there would have broken my back, if I had a back to break. Still, he’d have lost me long ago if he’d really been trying to…
Will thoughts brought him to a sudden halt. An “Immelman.” It’s named after a German pilot. It’s a sort of midair U-turn with a roll. I know this.
But I have no memories. So HOW do I know it?
His reverie was interrupted by the sight of a dull glow, shining feebly through the dark cloud straight ahead. He pushed forward, grinning inwardly. Nice try, Bud. Tag, you’re it… But as he grew closer to the light, Will began to realize that it wasn’t Buddy he was chasing. This wasn’t a human soul’s light at all, but something altogether new. This glow was sharper than the one in his torso; it was piercing, penetrating, and had the same hypnotic character as The Light itself. It, too, promised peace, serenity, union.
Will felt his senses dulling as he focused on the new glow, his thoughts suffused with a low, droning buzz. The source was just ahead of him, a grapefruit-sized globe, darting about, bobbing and jiggling erratically. What is it? A piece of The Light itself? What happens if I grab it?
As he moved in, Will spotted Buddy in his peripheral vision. He was just inwards, his dim glow growing in the darkness as he drifted towards both Will and the shining globe. Will shifted position to make himself visible to his companion. As he did so, the globe passed directly between Will and The Light. Behind the sphere, silhouetted perfectly, he caught a glimpse of a massive, dark shape.
Will reacted without thinking, darting aside and inwards, as the globe was suddenly yanked upwards and out of view. There was the colossal THUD of something snapping shut just behind him, dispersing the inky blackness in an explosion of force.
Will glanced back and outwards. Six feet’s worth of face stared back at him through milk-white beady eyes. A jaw protruded, gaped wide, dagger teeth lancing upwards preposterously beyond the confines of rubbery lips. In front of the thing, extending on a strand from the center of its forehead, dangled the glowing globe, casting its already frightening features into a harsh moonscape of glare and shadow.
As quickly as he could, Will darted between the creature and Buddy, hoping to draw his friend’s attention to the threat. He needn’t have bothered; Buddy was already away, cutting downwards and outwards at top speed. Unfortunately, the creature had noticed Buddy as well. It thrashed a fluked tail, somehow propelling itself forwards in the void, its massive, bulbous, fish-like form gaining momentum as it chased him down.
With a flash of pride, Will noted that Buddy had picked up some tricks from him in their time together; he was a much better flier than he’d been when they’d met. Nonetheless, he was a newcomer matched up against a creature in its native element, and this was no time to be a fish out of water. The thing was gaining on him, steadily and unmistakably. Will pursued the two of them outwards, The Light full in his face as he flew. It seemed to him that he understood Buddy’s plan―it hunts in darkness, move towards The Light to scare it off―but emerging from the black cloud and into standard space didn’t seem to deter it. The two of them had joined the traffic of eternity; they were among thousands of souls moving towards The Light, and among them Will could see more of the fish-things, feeding. As he watched, one of the monsters easily caught a soul from behind, the soul’s torso light exploding in a violent burst as the creature snapped its jaw shut.
Buddy was quicker, more difficult prey, but the predator was locked on and closing fast. And now it was on him. With a desperate burst of speed, Will closed on the two of them, flashing across the beast’s field of vision just as it was opening its maw. It flicked its head in Will’s direction at the last possible moment; he darted up and aside, then straight down and further out.
Will put on more speed. The thing was tailing him now. He was faster than Buddy―no doubt of that, as Buddy was losing ground of the two of them―but Will was far from sure that he’d prove fast enough. His concentration was stretched to its limit. He did a barrel roll down and right, plunging ever outwards―
―and an entire planet flickered into existence, filling the space below him, and was gone almost as quickly.
Will spun back inwards, The Light at his back. There was the planet again, a massive continent of unfamiliar shape below, green and brown, surrounded by a vast blue sea. The haze! he thought, remembering Earth and the electric, itching mist that had forced him away. The haze will drive it off! He arced into a steep dive, straight down towards the planet’s surface.
Will glanced back. The thing was right behind him, Buddy a dwindling speck in the distance, still chasing. This had to work, or he was done for. He steeled his mind for the hideous itching, crawling sensation that would surely arrive at any minute.
He plunged, amidst the roaring noise from the planet’s atmosphere, a falling star this time.
Any minute now.
He was at the edge of his willpower. His nerves were fraying. He sensed jaws opening behind him, and discovered that he still had a bit of extra speed left after all. He couldn’t have been more than a mile above the surface now, and he could see individual features of the terrain―the wide curve of a river, trees like silver matchsticks.
Through the terror that filled Will’s mind, a sickening realization. There’s no haze here. This wasn’t Earth, but another world entirely; the air was clear, and there would be no mind-burn to drive off the predator behind him. He had to think of a new plan immediately. Below him, the ground was a blur. He caught the shapes of green, grassy hills, bare expanses of flint and sandstone―creeping figures―
Will executed a hairpin turn in an instant, quick as thought―no mass means no momentum―and bought a few precious moments as the creature skidded off at an angle, adjusting. Another dive, desperately searching the landscape for what he thought he’d seen.
And there they were―tiny at this distance, but with a definite shape―unmistakably two-legged and upright. People? No glowing―not souls, but flesh-and-blood people? But there was no time; the fish-thing was back on his tail, descending behind him and gaining. Will angled lower, into a shallow river valley cutting through the hills, and up ahead…Are those huts? Houses? Is that building alongside the river a mill?
Will tried another hairpin turn, but by this time his pursuer was onto his tricks, and it bought him virtually no space at all. He had no more new tactics to throw at it. He was out of time. He was almost low enough now to read the expressions on the faces of the people―and yes, they were recognizably people―he’d seen below. A whole community of them―a collection of ramshackle structures overlooked by a high cliff, atop which a figure pointed in his direction. Will heard the distant, tiny echo of a shout. First several figures, then perhaps a dozen, began scurrying about, antlike.
On top of an otherwise nondescript hill not far down the valley, a sudden fire blossomed. Will fled towards it. At the base of the hill he spotted a wildly gesticulating figure, beckoning him downwards―and towards a narrow fissure in the rock. He plunged.
As Will approached the fissure, two thoughts struck him. The first was that, even if he could get into the crack, the thing behind him would merely turn around and gobble up Buddy. The second realization, as he passed the point of no return, was that the crack―no, not a crack, a cave mouth―wasn’t narrow enough to keep thing from following him inside. He was headed full speed towards a dead end. But he was committed; it was too late to turn aside…
As he flashed through the cave mouth and into darkness, he heard a crashing thump behind him, then a bellowing roar. Making a mockery of inertia, he stopped dead on the spot, and turned.
The fish-thing was grounded, caught in the thick ropes of some kind of net, weighted at the corners with heavy stones. Three figures, two men and a woman, all of them dressed in rough garments of leather and wool, were wrestling with the net’s edges, shouting wildly. The beast was taking no interest in them whatsoever; its beady eyes were fixed upon him. Will was thunderstruck. It’s not made of soul-stuff. The fish-thing is tangible. And they’ve caught it.
As he watched, a powerfully built, dark-skinned young man leaped down into the cave mouth. In both fists he wielded a harpoon, jagged dark metal with a bone shaft. With a roar, he plunged it deep into the thing’s right eye. A geyser of green, inky fluid gushed forth. The monster emitted a croaking, shuddering squeal―such a tiny noise from something that big―thrashed, flailed, subsided, deflated, died.
Outside, in the bright sunlight, Will could barely see the dim glow of Buddy as he streaked downwards towards the cave mouth. Pulling up short, his companion hovered, seemingly uncertain. Will’s rescuers took no notice. After making sure―very, very violently sure―that they had finished off the fish-thing, they hurried into the cave, their eyes searching.
The first inside was the huge figure who’d wielded the harpoon. He blinked, his eyes adjusting to the gloom of the cave after the bright sunlight outside. His eyes scanned the darkness, then alighted on Will. He can see me. Behind the man, Will saw Buddy enter the cave, then move to interpose himself between the dark-skinned giant and Will, as if to protect him.
The muscle-man’s face was hard, his tunic speckled with the fish’s greenish ichor, his hands covered in it. His eyes flicked to Buddy, to Will, back to Buddy, alert, weighing, appraising. He turned and shouted over his shoulder―in perfect English, his accent flat and unmistakably Midwestern American. “Two! Holy crap, two! Frank! Orson! Antonia! There’s two of them! Go get Ben!”
As one of Will’s rescuers sprinted away, the other two moved forward to flank the harpoonist. The one on the left wore a dirty beard, a thin stubble of brown hair cropped close to his head. As he advanced, he wiped a wicked-looking iron knife on the leg of his buckskin trousers, leaving a greenish smear, then tucked it into his belt. The one on the right was a woman―tall, lean, tanned, her limbs all corded tendon, her long dark hair dangling behind her in a tight braid. She displayed a stone-headed maul in front of her, braced diagonally across her body. Each of the three figures had the eyes of a killer; if he’d had to pick, Will supposed the woman was the scariest of all.
The three of them looked Buddy and Will over for a long, quiet moment. They shared sidelong glances with one another―and then, in an instant, all the tension left their bodies. Wide grins split their features, the bearded man’s smile demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that dental care was not a local priority.
The huge black man’s smile was the widest of them all. Now that Will had a good long look at him, he realized that he wasn’t actually a man at all. He was weathered, to be sure, but for all of his bulk, he was far younger than Will had initially thought. He’s actually not all that much older than me.
The man―or boy―spread his arms wide and opened his bloody hands. “Welcome!” he shouted. “Welcome to Elysium!”
Half a mile down the valley, a tall, bony man sat at a workbench, making minute adjustments to a crossbow. His eyes were locked on the device, his brow furrowed in concentration. A heavyset Asian man was addressing him. A casual observer might have thought that the tall man was too focused on his task to be listening. The observer would have been mistaken. The tall man was used to dividing his mind between many tasks and to giving each his full attention simultaneously. He was even more used to being underestimated by casual observers.
“As far as I can tell, Mr. Ammerman sir, that’s the whole story,” the second man explained. His posture was deferential, his voice quiet and low. “The two of them rocketed into the Redoubt, and did not emerge again. Nor did the psychovore. And in the interim, both Ben and all of his key stooges have gathered there. It may be worth investigating.”
Ammerman never looked up from his project. “Nope,” he said. “Believe I’ll bide my time on this’un, Takashi. Thanks for lettin’ me know, though. Yer a good man.”
Takashi bowed low and turned to leave, then turned back for a moment. “If I may be so bold, sir…”
“No need to ‘sir’ me,” the tall man replied. “Prefer if y’ didn’t, truth be. Yer a free man. Don’t owe nothin’ t’ nobody. Remember that. An act th’ part, y’ wanna run with me an’ mine.” He looked up, regarding Takashi with eyes of iron. “F’r a free man, boldness ain’t a may be. It’s a must be.”
Takashi stared for a moment, then stood a bit straighter. “Then it shall be,” he stated. “Mister Ammerman, then. I meant to say…I saw them, on the way in. And the first of the two souls was, by some margin, the fastest that I have ever seen.”
His eyes having returned the weapon in front of him, his hands busy again, Ammerman nodded. “That’s what I been told by others as well, Takashi. Best believe I’ve made note of it. An’ we’ll get around to it. Matter o’ fact, when the time comes, I reckon he’ll come to us.” He paused. “When th’ time’s right. Not b’fore.”
Takashi nodded, and silently took his leave. Ammerman continued his work, his hands moving quickly and surely over the weapon’s every mechanism.
A casual observer would not, of course, have been able to see into the mind of John Ammerman. But if she had, and if she had been able to work her way through the elaborate, trap-filled labyrinth therein, through all the blind alleys and backchannels, to arrive at the very center of his thoughts, she would have seen a single message written there, in letters of fire.
This could be the one.