Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The Furge personality had remained fairly subdued since the accident on the river, but it was beginning to reassert itself as Decker grew more tired. He wondered fleetingly if, somewhere in a parallel universe, Furge was contending with similar intrusions. Such thoughts were chased from his mind by the burning ache in his head, legs and back, and the downward pressure of an impending bowel movement. He hoped they'd soon see an end to the infernal stairs, or he'd be forced to do something terrifying and rude. He almost wished Aida hadn't lost her great-great grandmother's hat.
Another twenty minutes of monotonous trudging and they could see an end to the zig-zagging row of lights, if not the end of the stairs. Decker had started counting steps as a distraction, and now he couldn't stop. He couldn't tell if he was repeating numbers, either. At least it kept him from being quite so aggravated at Aida's constant prattle, though. Degren hat tried to engage her in less banal conversation, but she kept slipping back into commentary about decolletage and decor, decorum and debutantes. Decker imagined how completely comfortable Tut was becoming now that his beloved conversationalist was absent.
The stairs terminated in a small platform that straddled the narrow creek it had followed, tucked into a near-straight chimney that sloped into the stone bluff of the river. Here the creek veered about forty five degrees to the right, becoming much more horizontal in its path as it swirled lazily in a smooth trough that wandered a hundred feet or so along a widening ledge before it issued from a high tunnel. There were several other tunnels that opened on the narrow shelf behind the deck; Decker made his apologies for temporarily deserting the party and chose one. He followed it to the bitter end of reflected light before he stopped to take care of business.
He'd just decided not to sacrifice any of his attire to the cleanup, but instead take a brief dip in the creek, when he heard a scuffling noise from further up the tunnel. Hastily scraping away what remainder he could with his fingers and wiping them on the rough stone, he yanked up his trousers and pressed himself into the shadows of a narrow crevice in the cave wall.
He peeked out on a strange apparition; limned in the light of a rusty red hurricane lantern held aloft in dirty, bony fingers, came a wildly-bearded, squint-eyed rustic miner. He was muttering under his breath about the "dad-blamed awful steenk" when he stepped squarely in the very source of his olfactory distress. He froze at the soft squelch his dusty Wellington made. "Awwwww, shee-hut!" he declared loudly, "What dad-blamed two-bit greenhorn laid down sech a prize, right in the middle of the dad-blasted tunnel?"
Decker was in spasms. He reached up to cover his mouth, hoping to block the strangled guffaw that lurked there, too late realizing which hand he'd raised. This was too much; an emu snort fired out of his nostrils, causing his concussed brain to throb mightily and stars to explode before his eyes. When he opened them, he was looking down the barrel of a wickedly long, large six-shooter.
"I spose you was the culprit what laid that rotten egg in the middle of my tunnel, funny guy?" Up close, Decker could see the grimy sweat lines on the miner's ruddy neck, the dusty nose hairs weaving themselves into the man's unruly mustache. "Yuh got no respeck fer another man's rightful claimed property?"
Decker was near complete delirium. "I-I'm sorry," he choked out, "I-I h-had no idea...." He couldn't hold it back any longer; the laughter burst forth in a cascade of echoing mirth. He raised his hands and slowly emerged from his place of concealment, completely palsied with laughter. His only rational thought was to sidle around slowly, hoping to get the fellow facing up the tunnel so he wouldn't see Decker's companions coming if they heard the ruckus.
"You are plumb loco, aren't you, pardner?" There was a tinge of humor slipping into the miner's tone. "Guess it is pretty funny though, hey?" He burst out in a wild barrage of laughter, spurring Decker into breathless tears, then cocked the big pistol and pressed it into Decker's left nostril. "Not that funny, though." The leathery face was suddenly dead serious, and only inches from his. "I got yer shit all over my boot, ya fuzzy wacko. That's gotta cost ya."
Decker wasn't feeling so much like laughing anymore, either, though the bright edge of hysteria vibrated at the edges of his vision. He tried to compose himself, stammering, "Um, um, I got nothing, I-I'm really sorry! How c-could I know this was somebody's cave? I had to go so bad..."
"Aw, shut up, you quivering nincompoop!"
Decker had managed to make a sly semicircle of movement, barely missing the squashed pile. He thought he saw Degren's silhouette against the cave wall a short way down; at least he hoped that's what he saw. "L-look, mister, um, look here, mister!" For some reason he was falling into the miner's curmudgeonly drawl. "You ain't got the cave posted, so how could I know it were yours? I just figured it was a nice, outta-the-way place to do my business and get on. Ain't my fault you didn't put yer brand on that hole!"
"Cletus McKettle don't gotta take that kinda lip from nobody, specially not a pants-draggin' coyote like you! I oughtta blow yer nose fer ya right here and now!"
Fatigue and discomfort had frayed Decker's patience to little white-hot tungsten curls wriggling in the back of his brain. Ignoring the pain of the barrel pressing against his nose, Decker leaned forward into the lanky miner. "Look here, you sap-suckin' yella crumb-snatcher! I tol' you I was sorry, so if'n you need to fill my head with lead, you jest go ahead and yank that trigger!" He found himself striding forward, while Cletus was stumbling backward, pulling the gun out of Decker's nose so he could wave his arms for balance. As he approached the place he thought he'd seen Degren's shape. he thrust his palms into the already-overbalanced fellow's chest and toppled him like a dead-rooted tree. As Cletus' dusty, rawhide-clad back struck the cave floor, his pistol flared with a deafening report and the bullet struck the ceiling, sending a spray of rock chips in every direction. Decker dived on Cletus' writhing form, grabbing for the gun and successfully wresting it from his grasp. He turned it on the wrathful miner and drew back the hammer with his thumb. "Sorry, bud," he grated, offering his best fish-eyed glare, "you jest pushed me too dang far."
Degren stepped out of the shadows with a confused but admiring look on his face. "Hey Furg-uh, Decker, you handled that guy really well! I was afraid I'd have to step in..."
"Step in what, Degren?" The hysterical laughter was rising in Decker's throat again.
"Now, dang it, don't nobody got no respeck fer a man's rightful property?" Cletus moaned disheartened-ly into the fetid air, but tapered off when his captor swung the eye of the pistol to point at his Adam's Apple. "Look here," he quavered, "we can be reas'nable about this, cain't we...gennlemun?"
"We'll be reas'nable, as you say," Decker replied, kneeling on Cletus' chest, "when you quit squirming and start acting like your life matters to you. I'm in no mood to toy around; my ass crack is on fire, my hand is full of shit, and I'm sitting on just about the smelliest reject from a 'B' western that I've ever imagined, never mind that he's got my shit on his boot! Clete, my boy, if you stop squirming RIGHT NOW..." (he did) "...I'll get up off of you. Then, when I've had a chance to back away, you can get to your feet nice and slow. I promise not to shoot you anywhere permanent if you follow these orders to the letter."
The disgruntled miner got to his feet, hands in the air. Decker motioned him down the tunnel; head down, he pigeon-walked toward the light while fuming under his breath. When they broke out into the light of the deck, Aida was standing there making noises that oddly resembled Cletus' grumbled tirade.
"Degren, you take the gun while I get washed up. Make old Cletus here take off that boot and rinse it in the stream, too." Decker handed off the pistol and immediately started stripping down. He spied a nice eddying pool about thirty feet up from the deck. He stuck his toe in the water; it was medium bath temperature. "Aahhhh, nice..." He slipped into the water and found the perfect spot to recline. After he'd rinsed off, he laid back and stared up at the newly-expanded group. Suddenly, a notion sprang into his mind "Say, Cletus! I made the assumption that you are a miner, but it didn't occur to me until just now that you might be able to help us find what we came here for. If you can, we'll be happy to give back your gun and leave you alone here. You wanna listen?"
"Yuh got the drop on me, so talk away."
"First off, let's not be strangers. This is Aida."
"Uh, pleasure, ma'am."
"The pleasure is all yours, I am certain."
"Now, Aida, no need to be haughty." Decker squinted up at the irate duck, then pointed to Degren. "And this is Degren."
Cletus stood silently until Decker glared at him and shot eyes toward the pistol. "Um, Good t'meecha."
"Okay, here's the deal," Decker said, feeling his head was near exploding with pain and fatigue. Cletus, we're looking for an old rusty key that's sitting on top of a powder keg in a mine somewhere near here. Know anything about it?"
"Degren, just point that thing at his kneecap and pull the trigger. Yeah, that thing in front of the handle, inside that little metal oval."
"Wait! Ayuh, I do kinda recall that I found an old key a few days ago. Not worth anything I'm sure, but I figgered it was like my lucky charm. It was right in front of a sweet little vein."
"Well, it's actually our lucky charm. Degren, come on over here and give me the gun now. Okay, here's how it works. This little lever on the top has to be pulled back, just like it is, for it to make the nice boom like it made up in the cave when you pull that trigger. Every time you pull the trigger, you have to cock the lever back again so it will fire again. This one will do that five more times before you have to put more bullets in." He kept an eye on Cletus while he checked the chambers. "No, we're not going to worry about what bullets are right now. After a while, Cletus is going to lead us to the key. Then he's going to walk back to where we're sure we can find our way to the stairs, and he's going to stop. We'll leave his gun in the cave I first went into, and if he's good, we'll let him have his bullets back, too. Right now you have to search him for bullets and other weapons. Cletus, strip."
"In front of the duck?"
"In front of the duck."
They went through all of the embarrassed miner's possessions, then let him put his clothes back on. The search yielded two straight razors, a bowie knife, what appeared to be a Confederate bayonet, a folding Barlow knife with half the blade broken off, a pouch full of silver dust and nuggets, a few odd coins, and thirteen bullets.
"Guys, I really need to rest now. Keep a good eye on him, and wake me up in about, er, well, let me sleep until I wake up."
He was dreaming of a fiery sunset on the red desert bluffs. There was a warm breeze; the blast-oven heat of the day had already tempered down to a comfortable state, though he knew it would soon become uncomfortably cool.
It had been a wonderful day. They had spent most of it in the cool waters of Snake Creek, cavorting like children, catching forearm-length trout, skewering them on a small fire by the stream bed and roasting them for lunch. He didn't think he could ever be happier than he was right then, looking into that magnificent sunset with his eternally pledged Degren at his side.
He awakened in the warm pool, and Degren was there. He was pointing a strange metal stick at something that looked only marginally human; the fur on its face was long, dull and straggly, not smooth and shiny like human hair. It's eyes, too, were more the animal than the man. He wondered what Degren was doing with this strange creature.
At Degren's side was another odd creature; a humongous duck. Furge's heart thundered in his chest. "I must be dreaming again," he thought, "but I liked the other dream much better."
The duck glanced over at him. "Decker is awake," the duck said. This was obviously a dream. Ducks couldn't talk, and it had called him by a strange name.
"Degren, love, am I dreaming?" His own voice sounded strange, as though he were speaking from someone else's throat. "Degren, what's going on?"
Degren's head swung back and forth between Furge and the strange man-thing. "Decker...." There was a flush of unease on Degren's face, as though he didn't recognize Furge, or didn't want to.
"Degren, please! What's happening here? Oh, wake me up if this is a dream, it is just too strange!" There was a voice rising up inside him, a voice that was not his own. For a moment he fought it, but when he raised his eyes to Degren again in a silent plea, his lover's face was a stone mask.
"Decker, you must wake up." Degren's voice trembled as he spoke "DECKER!"
Furge, fervently hoping this was only some terrible nightmare, let his consciousness submerge as though into a deep, death-like sleep.
Decker swam up to consciousness as though through thick gelatine. He could hear the muted echo of Degren's call; he could distantly sense the urgency in his tone. It was tempting to remain submerged in the warm, embracing fluid. Regretfully, he let his mind's eye open into a reality that was almost....his. There were shades of someone else's panic still surging in his body; a coppery taste at the back of his mouth, a heartbeat that was far too rapid for his resting state, and the ragged edge of adrenaline thrumming in his tautened muscles.
He was awake. "DECKER, WAKE UP!" Degren's face was less than a foot from his. His eyes opened to see Cletus inching toward them, his gaze locked on the pistol. Decker raised his arm out of the pool and pointed, looking at the approaching figure. Degren caught the apprehension in his eyes and lurched up, swinging the gun toward Cletus. The barrel cracked against the miner's cheekbone, throwing him toward the edge of the precipice. Decker lunged out of the pool and grabbed for an ankle, just getting a grip, then hauled back on the scrawny leg, inadvertently sending him flopping into the pool.
"Consarn dang-blasted mule lovin' dirt monkey!" Cletus sputtered and choked on the warm water, flapping his arms and staggering for footing.
"You asked for it, you sneaky little weasel," Decker thrust his foot into the miner's chest, pushing him under the water. He came up coughing and cursing in bad movie cowboy-ese. Decker scrambled out of the pool, laughing and pointing at Cletus. "You've probably been in need of a bath for a year or two, anyway!"
"I had one last time I was in town, no more'n nine months ago!"
"Well, you're having one now, and you're not getting out until I say. Too bad about the cheek"
"Whut? Yer joshin' me, right?" Cletus pawed at his cheek where the gun barrel had struck him, then stared at his bloody hand. "Aww, yuh cracked my cheek wide open!"
"Nope. You shouldn't have tried to pull that dirty little trick on my friend here, so now you're gonna get clean. Wash, boy!"
They each munched on another one of the foil-wrapped rations, and offered one to the scrawny, soaking wet miner, who crinkled his nose at it but scarfed it down as though he hadn't eaten for days. They were thirsty, but hesitant to drink from the stream. Cletus told them the stream water was fine, so they let him take a long draught, then watched him while they ate. When it seemed obvious that he'd suffered no ill effects, they all quenched their thirst with the warm water.
It was only a twenty minute walk to Cletus' stash of blasting powder, and there on one of the barrels, just as the printout had predicted, was a rusty old key that looked as though it might fit an old treasure chest. There was scrolled engraving on both sides of the grip end, which was shaped like a club from a poker deck. The key shaft itself was quite complex, with spurs and grooves on all sides of its 3-dimensional configuration. Even with the rust it seemed to be intact, though it was impossible to know for sure until it found its slot.
Once they'd gotten to familiar territory, they left Cletus behind. They left him everything except the gun and bullets in the first cave; they decided that it would be wise to have some form of self-defense in case of any other such encounters along the way.
Monday, February 22, 2010
The boat was an interesting affair; something between Huck Finn's raft and a European sport convertible. The control center, resembling the cockpit of a Lear jet without a ceiling, was half recessed near the front of the flat metallic oval that made up the deck. A handrail of some dark, polished wood ringed the deck, supported by matte black metal posts that raked aft at a jaunty angle. There was a gate on either side. There was no “below deck” on this vessel; it was obviously designed for shallow water, drafting only about six inches. As it turned out, it had the capacity to act as a boat or a hovercraft, which Decker thought might come in handy if they encountered any rough water. Tut had cautioned them to use the hover feature as little as possible, as it used much more fuel. He had seemed nearly as elated as Aida, though he did his best to conceal his exuberance from her. Decker and Degren were beginning to understand Tut's joy. They both hoped for a quick, uneventful trip to Cradsell 4.
It seemed they were likely to get their wish; the sleek craft hummed along almost silently, devouring the distance while leaving only a few small swirls as a wake. They had left behind the gas lamps within a mile or so of their departure, but the boat's lights were bright enough to illuminate the stone on both sides of the river. They took turns driving, though it almost seemed that the boat would steer itself. Tut hadn't been entirely comprehensive in his description of the controls, so even if there were an auto-pilot feature, they were unaware of it. All the knobs, buttons, dials, instruments, and levers were labeled in the same diagonal script that had been on the computer printout. Decker asked Aida what the inscriptions meant. “Oh, don't ask me, dear,” she replied, “I never bothered to learn Tut's written language. And I always let him drive.”
Degren smiled resignedly. “So we know how to go forward and back up, and we know how to go forward fast. Give me a horse any day!”
For the most part, the river's width stayed about the same, though there were a few areas where the walls jogged outward, creating either swirling pools or stone platforms that disappeared into shadow. They swung into each of the pools, thinking they might be looking at a tributary; each ended abruptly with no sign of water descending from above. Decker thought they might be doing about fifteen miles an hour, though their small detours into the occasional cul-de-sac slowed them down considerably, and the constant darkness surrounding their little moving island of light made time seem irrelevant. Aside from the occasional flash or streak of light in the water, monotony reigned. Aida eventually ran out of trivia to reminisce about. Decker wasn't sure whether to be relieved or not; the silence allowed new echoes of foreign thought to careen about unimpeded in his mind. He tried to fight back Furge's memories by delving into his own mental history, but pictures from his past were ghostly and fleeting.
Aida was at the wheel. She was humming rather loudly and gazing fixedly down the river. Decker and Degren stood at the aft rail, out of the main pool of the boat's glaring light. Degren had found fishing gear in a recess under a sliding panel in the deck, and had set out an odd little glowing spinner plug to troll. The line thrummed softly with the vibrations of the lure. Decker was feeling pretty sleepy, but the flashes and streaks of light in the water (bioluminescence?) held him mesmerized. Unthinking, he let his hand reach out to touch Degren's. Their fingers wrapped together, and soon they were chest to chest, struggling softly against each other. The touch of Degren's lips on his felt so perfect, so incredibly right as he let his fingertips graze a velvety ear, a soft, furry cheek...
“Well don't let lil' ol' me interrupt anything!” Aida was craning her long, feathery neck around and squinting into the semi-darkness. “It's just that I'm getting really eye-weary, not from watching you of course...” Her protests were cut short by grating and a sudden, banging jerk as the nose of the boat grazed and caught a rocky outcropping of shore. The two men were thrown apart, and Decker nearly overbalanced over the rail, barely getting a foot around a post. Degren stuck his arm through the fishing line and windmilled, tangling himself and bringing the fishing lure hurtling up out of the water and straight for Aida. She ducked just in time to let the plug go by, but it's momentum caused it to orbit her head as the line tautened alongside her neck. She tried to watch it spin as it came closer and closer, then she went cross-eyed as it struck her squarely on the top of her beak.
The boat lurched and pivoted as its bow dragged against the sharp rock ledge, then it wrenched free, sending it stern-first down the river. Decker, still stunned by all that had just transpired, managed to right himself and lurch for the wheelhouse that Aida was staggering out of, wings flapping and quacking tremulously. He grabbed the throttle lever and the wheel simultaneously, yanking downward on the first and spinning the other in an attempt to right their course. His first instinct with the wheel seemed to be dead wrong; the stern of the boat now bashed into the ledge, throwing Aida over the side and tautening the line that tangled she and Degren.
The part of Decker that was now Furge saw the fishing line wrap around Degren's neck; saw the surprise and panic in his eyes as the incredibly tough filament started cutting into the big man's neck. Degren flailed at the line, trying to disengage himself, then wrapped his fingers in it, trying to alleviate the tension on his throat. Furge soared to the fore of Decker's mind; he dove for the compartment where Degren had gotten the gear, desperately hoping to find a cutting implement there. He fumbled through the clutter of rods and boxes, tubs and floats. It had to be here! Ah, yes! At the very bottom of the compartment was a long, slender knife in a black rubber sheath. Decker's eye was caught by the logo on the handle; in white letters, the word “Rapala”. Shaking his head, he grabbed the handle, yanked off the sheath, reached up and cut the fishing line. There was a little line of blood around Degren's neck, and the line had bitten his fingers deeply, but now that he seemed to be safe and was unwinding the line himself, Decker was able to push the surging Furge persona back down.
Aida's quack had turned into a horrifying screech. She had been fishtailing in the current, trying to swim back to the boat. Her strokes were panicked and erratic; Decker thought some of the line might be wrapped around her legs. She'd drifted between the boat and the shore, and the bow of the boat has impending toward her. She was so panicked, she only seemed able to focus on the boat itself; she didn't see that she was about to be crushed between. “Aida! Look out!” He waved his arms frantically, but she was too dazed to see him. There was no time to consider. Knife still in hand, he dove over the rail and under the frightened duck, grabbing for where he thought the line would be. He was right; her legs were wrapped together tightly. Buffeted by the current, he did his best to insert the blade between her legs without cutting her. No help for it. He pulled the blade back toward himself sharply, and her legs flew apart. The flapping of her wings roiled the water's surface and her feet disappeared above him. He tried to follow, but just as he dropped the knife and tried to reach for the boat's bow, he felt his head strike a rock. Now it wasn't bioluminescence he saw, it was fireworks. His shoulder grazed rough, hard stone. Suddenly he was crushed against the shore, and his breath was being ground out of him. Mercifully, the bow of the boat made contact with his skull; the fireworks flashed anew, and that was all.
He was floating, slowly tumbling in perfectly translucent marshmallow creme. The sun, the moon, and the stars were shining in the royal blue sky that surrounded him. Bright vignettes of life erupted lazily around him like sideways flames; thought balloon bits of his own history in random scenes; a pleasant pageant of memories which he applauded silently and serenely from his blood-warm bubble. It seemed he'd been here forever, and forever stretched before him like a sunny sky full of warm breezes and perfect kites.
Then strange visions slipped into the pageant. Still pleasant, they had a brilliant edge that
over-lit his sentiments. In these new visions, Degren stroked his sun-warmed fur and pressed parted lips to his, pulled him to the sand as they locked together as one. He wasn't sure why these new dreams made him uneasy. His gentle tumbling in a soft, welcoming sky turned into a roller coaster of vision flashing by, driven by too many memories; the memories of two souls instead of one. He was Decker and then Furge, and the dreams began to collide and fuse, melting into a life he did not recognize. The marshmallow breezes he'd blown upon became smothering mattresses; the serene visions became harsh flashes on his eyes. Suddenly, he was staring into one blinding light that was not the sun, and it was pulling at him with a force he couldn't resist. He knew this was supposed to be a scene of pleasant surrender, but panic charged him like electricity. The roller coaster became an icy luge, battering him as he descended into the cold, blinding eye. He was being shaken, shaken and screamed at by the vengeful fates....
He came to with thudding pressure on his chest and a geyser of water spewing from his mouth. The visions of Degren pressing down on him melded into the present; Degren, haloed in the harsh arc of the boat's light, straddled him and was thrusting his palms into Decker's chest and screaming his name. "Decker! DECKER! Come on, man, wake up! COME BACK!"
There was a hot iron exploding behind his eyes; exploding with sufficient force that it nearly eclipsed the raw, stinging aches that seemed to come from everywhere on his body. He coughed, and excruciating pain seemed to wrench his ribs apart. It was all he could do to cast an acknowledging glance into the shadow that was Degren's face before the rictus of agony forced his eyes tightly closed. Spasms of coughing wracked him for what seemed an eternity, but finally he could take shallow, shaky breaths between groans.
"He's alive! Oh, thank the sun and moon, Decker is alive!"
He could hear Aida quacking dazedly from the cockpit. Degren was still straddling him, and Decker raised an arm feebly in an attempt to push him away. "De...hrunh-hunh...Degren, get off..." He choked out the words as a meteor shower sprayed across his eyes. The pain was ebbing slightly. He was pretty sure he had a concussion and some cracked ribs, and the sharp stinging he felt from various parts of his head and body seemed to indicate cuts and abrasions. It hurt badly, but he willed each of his limbs to move in turn. It didn't seem like anything was broken or badly sprained. There was some pain in the left center part of his back, but moving his arms and legs didn't seem to stir up anything too terrible in his spine.
Degren crouched next to him. The boat's light now revealed his face; relief seemed to be the predominant emotion.
Decker summoned his breath. "Am I bleeding badly anywhere?"
"Ah, wait....no, not that I can see."
"Help me turn over so you can have a look at my back."
"Decker, are you sure that's..."
Aggravation added to the agony. "Dammit," he grated, "help me turn over!"
There were no ominous crackings or grindings, though he had to bite back a scream as he and Degren worked at getting him rolled. Finally he lay on his belly, his shirt pulled up as high as it would go. "What do you see?"
"Um, there's a pretty nice gash across your ribs, and it's bleeding a good bit."
"See if you can find a first aid kit on this tub."
"First aid kit?"
"Shit and shit! Um, a medicine bag, some bandages, tape!"
"Holy fuck! Ask Aida!"
Aida had no idea. They ended up tearing some of her clothing into strips and wrapping Decker's wounds with that.
"I read somewhere that you're not supposed to sleep for a while after a concussion. You guys have to keep me awake for at least two watches to make sure there isn't some brain injury or something. Degren, help me try to stand up."
They managed to get him in a standing position. The shock was starting to wear off and the aches became ragged throbbing, while the lacerations stung sharply and deeply. He leaned against the rail as Degren gave him a thorough going over. It wasn't nearly as bad as it had initially felt, but Decker knew he was going to be very sore for quite a while. Climbing a canyon creek bed sounded like the worst sort of purgatory, but he steeled himself to the notion. Now to deal with the immediate situation.
"Degren, I've been thinking. Our little um, scene at the back of the boat had serious consequences. Plus, I must tell you, I'm very attached to being me, being Decker. I won't lie; when the Furge personality sort of took me over back there, being with you felt good." He took a deep breath and continued. "Really good. You guys have something special. No, let me finish. But it wouldn't be right. Furge is off somewhere, probably turning into me or someone else. We can't do that anymore, Degren. We can't be distracted in our attempt to put things right. I think Fate or something like it caused this little accident as a warning. Swear you'll stop me if I try something like that again."
"Decker, I..." Degren's voice was choked with emotion. "I was going to say something very similar to you. I will do my best, and so must you. Now you must stop troubling yourself with that. Aida has had the helm for too long; I must relieve her. She blames herself for the accident. Perhaps you can talk to her. It will serve two purposes; to keep yourself awake and, hopefully, to console her."
"I've lost my hat. Oh, this is terrible, just terrible!" Aida, relieved from the helm, was flapping her wings and pacing the deck, making the little boat rock from side to side. she glanced up at Decker, who was struggling with concussion-induced nausea. "It was a deep burgundy pork-pie with silver spiderweb filigree, and it belonged to my great-great-grandmother. Oh, I must find it! Perhaps it's in the river. We have to turn back! Mother would disown me if I lost it. Degren, do turn this craft about at once!"
Decker struggled to his feet and was nearly knocked back down as Aida raced to the rail, having caught a glimpse of something in the water. "Aida. Aida!" Remaining steady on his feet while attempting to apprehend a giant, rampaging duck was proving to be a significant challenge for Decker, especially when those little lights were flashing before his eyes. He made a grab for her wing, barely caught hold, and was almost pulled off his feet by her adamant flapping. "HEY!" He gave a solid tug on her wing bone. "AIDA! Stop a minute. Damn, duck! Get a clue here! I almost died!" He got his other hand wrapped in her feathers and shook her soundly. "AIDA! STOP!"
"Decker! Oh, my, I am so sorry. My hat...no, it was you that I nearly lost..." Her knees buckled and she slipped to the deck. Decker followed shakily, somehow managing to descend into a cross-legged sitting position. The lights in his eyes were becoming more insistent. Was he passing out? Aida's voice came clear to him, though, as did Degren's.
"Decker! Aida! Look! It's another staircase, just there on the left! See the lights flashing?"
It wasn't a theater marquee, but it was plenty obvious. There were handrails and cleats set in the stone, which had been worked into a smooth quay. A small stream slipped out of a long cut in the smooth rock of shore. The steps followed its bed up into a steep canyon, where the water played downward over rocks and through basins, splashing in narrow chutes and falls.
"This must be the first tributary," Decker said. "I wish Tut had mentioned how easy it would be to find. Must be a newer installation than the other stairs. It all looks pretty shiny, and those look like electric lights instead of gas. Hope the next two are this easy to spot!"
"And so easy to ascend," Degren added. "Are we all okay? Aida?"
She was wracked in the throes of a sobbing breakdown. "Oh, I should never have burdened you with my presence," the distraught duck moaned. "I'll be nothing but extra work and trouble for you, and every delay might cost Decker his identity! I am a selfish boor, a self-centered, blind pig of a person. Leave me here; I shall find my own way to my dear mother's house or die alone in the attempt, not taking good men with me!"
"Degren glanced at Decker questioningly. Decker, his head throbbing and his stomach churning, let her suggestion tumble around in the muddle of his mind for a good long time before replying, "No. We may need the extra, er, hand at some point. I assume that you're a pretty good diver, right? Searching for shipwrecks should be right up your alley. You're coming along."
She seemed almost disappointed by the decision. "Are you certain you want a hindrance like me in your midst, jabbering and stumbling everywhere?"
"You know more about where we are than either Decker or I, even if it doesn't seem so to you," Degren said. "It's settled; you're part of the team. Now I suggest we take a meal before we continue. I'd suggest a rest, but it's still too soon after Decker's injury for him to sleep."
They went ashore to share a spartan repast of foil-wrapped rations that made Decker think of old war movies, then made an inspection of their boat. It seemed little harmed by the beating it had taken, so they got aboard and continued downriver.
It wasn't long before they came to the second tributary. This one wasn't lit up at all, and it was some distance up a narrow estuary. The water burbled and roiled. There was no walkway, only sparse footholds carved in the stone walls. When they reached the tributary's ascent, they were daunted by its precipitous rise. There were no stairs here. Thankful this was not their path, they still wondered what tributary number three would look like.
Halfway back down the estuary, they heard the echoes of music. Degren was at the wheel; he turned off their light and eased the boat slowly toward the mouth. A soft kaleidoscope of light flashed on the river, like police lights but less frenetic and more colorful. Looking upriver, they watched a large stern-wheeled riverboat, riotous with nightclub noise and slow-pulsing chromatic beacons, disappear into the darkness.
But not quite darkness, they noted as their eyes adjusted. The water was actually fairly well lit by various bioluminescent sources. It was much like the Northern Lights, Decker thought, but more active. There were some areas of soft, pale green glow that seemed to cling to the bottom, highlighting the few rocks and non-uniform features that lay on the smooth riverbed. Then there were the glowing streaks that shot through the water like slow lightning or shooting stars; their colors tended toward oranges and reds. There were also dull yellow swatches of light that seemed to swirl and bloom like algae in the sedate river current.
They decided to run with the light off for a little while. Now that they knew there were other travelers on the river, it seemed less than wise to reveal their presence. They did, in fact, manage to avoid contact with two other craft by ducking into handy coves. One seemed to Decker to be either a submarine or a spacecraft, he wasn't sure which. It's appearance seemed threatening; there were odd projections that could have been weapons pointing in every direction from its jet-black hull, and the front windows of it formed an angry yellow glare, like predatory eyes. The second could well have been Huck Finn's raft; a dim, smoky lantern hung from a center post over a ragged tent. There was no one on deck.
"Seems like the further downriver we go, the more populated it's becoming," Decker observed. "Hope we get to the third tributary soon!"
As though in answer to his wish, a row of bare bulbs appeared ahead. As they got closer, they could see a broad wooden platform set on heavy timbers hulking up out of a widening in the river. The bulbs were strung from tall posts at the edge of the platform, which formed a semicircle some ten feet above the water and perhaps eighty feet across. Under the deck, the bioluminescence was chaotic and bright, and a number of small boats plied the waters there, seemingly chasing the glowing darts through the water. Beings of various kinds occupied the boats; some distinctly human, some animal-like, and some completely alien in appearance. They all seemed intent on hunting whatever was making the glow. The sounds of excited voices mingled with the roar of another waterfall, which seemed to emanate from behind the deck.
"Shit and double shit!" Decker was at a loss. "What the hell do we do now?"
Degren scratched his head. "Well, we could...no,that won't work, um, how about....no...."
Aida piped up. Look! There's a marina just at the end of the deck, and steps leading up to the platform. Let's see if there's an employee that can help us."
Sure enough, at the foot of the stairs was a sleek little guard house where an oversized otter sat looking out a reception window. They pulled the boat up to the window, and Aida asked, "Do you have an open slip for us? We want to hike up this tributary for a while."
"'Betcha we do, pretty lady!" The otter flipped open his register and donned a pair of reading glasses. "Hmm....the public docks show two openings, or if you want full service..."
"The public docks will be fine," Decker asserted. "Which way?"
The otter, a bit put out by Decker's brusqueness, cast owly eyes over the glasses. "Sirrrrr....slips twenty three and thirty six are available. Straight back past the row of porta-biffs, turn right at the purple flag, twenty three will be on your left, thirty six on your right a little further up, both well-marked in large, glowing numerals. I'm sure you'd be impressed with the quality of service, sir, should you wish to use one of the, um, upgraded slips. No worries about such things as petty pilferers or vandals, you know, sir...very reasonable prices, I might add...."
"Thanks all the same, fellow, but we're on a pretty tight budget. See ya!"
"Don't blame me. sir, if anything happens! The public slips are not covered by our insurance. By the way, good people, the real attraction here is not the tributary, but the nightclub. There are river tours from there, replete with every distraction you might imagine. You could buy tickets from me, at a significant discount."
"Again, no thanks," Decker offered as politely as he could. The otter's paw was outstretched as though a gratuity were expected; Aida dug her beak into one of her bags, retrieved a small, dull coin and dropped it in the otter's paw as they passed.
"On my mother's memorial mud-slide, a quarter-Quatroon!" The otter's tone was deeply ironic. "I'll be able to afford to have these terrible bunions removed now!"
They docked the boat, stowed their extra gear as well as possible, took a small bag of subsistence provisions, and headed for the tributary. There was a drinking fountain mounted into the stone cliff next to the stairs; they all took a long drink before they began their ascent.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
“Yeah, you...right. Sorry, I...”
“No, never mind, no, um, it's nothing. You thought, well, we know what you thought.”
Mercifully, the doors opened almost immediately, and the giant turtle, still glowing like a disco light show, stood centered in a smooth, well-lit white corridor. “Gentlemen! Regained our senses, have we? Questions writhing like worms in a worm farm in our slightly foggy minds? Step this way, please. Oh, and you may call me Tut.”
Decker, feeling a little shameful and aggravated, burst forth, “So what the hell's-”
“Tut tut; I say, sir!” Tut glared back at Decker over his huge, semi-opaque glasses. “All in due time, no need to randomize everyone's cogitation with your negatively charged mental chaos waves!” He continued in a more conciliatory tone, “Fear not, good fellow. Here at the Nexus we are well-equipped to process your complaints, and perhaps even to help you ameliorate your present, er, difficulties.”
Decker was feeling a nearly-uncontrollable desire to sidle up to Degren and slip his arm around the big man's waist. There were vague memories oozing into his consciousness that didn't trigger any of his own recollections; images of Degren and other soft-furred people, but mostly of Degren. He experienced sensations and situations that made him want to shudder in ecstasy and loathing at the same time. He forced them down into the depths of his psyche. “Well, we'd better hurry, Tut, my 'good fellow'. I'm just not feeling myself right now. Less and less so, in fact.”
In short, quick steps, his flipper feet smacking, his turtle claws clicking and echoing on the smooth granite floor, Tut led them down a maze of smooth, slightly arcing hallways. The first doors they passed (they were few and far between) were of the same stainless metal as those opening on the river. As they went further along the halls, stainless gave way to bright tropical pastels, and doors broke the smooth monotony with more frequency. The walls, too, took on airy shades. Now the occasional window revealed auditoriums, equipment rooms, offices, cafeterias, living quarters, and other undefinable spaces.
Decker strode up next to the psychedelic turtle and wondered out loud, “Where is everyone? This is like an underground city! There should be people in all these spaces.”
Tut seemed to struggle internally before replying, “Ah, I suppose there's no harm in informing you now. It's been so many years....” His glasses seemed to get darker and more opaque as he spoke. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Ra Sol Research Facility, established in the eighty fifth millennium after discovery, or just about the time your Egyptians, Decker, built their first pyramid.” Tut shot the two men a challenging glare, as though expecting them to voice disbelief, When neither man responded, he continued, “We've been monitoring your species, you see, since you got the damnable idea to tie stones to sticks and use them as weapons. This was our state-of-the-art facility, built in anticipation of the complex machines you'd soon design. We knew we had to go deep underground, or you'd discover us before we felt you were ready.”
"Wait a minute," Decker said. "I this facility was built in anticipation of high technology developments on my world, why is it in Degren's?"
"The, um, barrier, if you will, between your 'worlds', is less substantial than you might imagine. Having our monitoring station in an alternate reality, one where developments are less technological and more, er, philosophical, as it were, offers us better odds of going undetected, while having an excellent perspective on you via our, um, dimension-spanning instruments. I'm sorry I can't make this more clear to you, but if I tried you would just think me obtuse and condescending. Regardless, we have reached our destination." He threw open a lilac-stained, zebra-grained wooden door with a flourish. "Good sirs, this is where we keep what you might think of as our 'oracle'. Let's get you some answers and get you on your way!"
"Just a minute, Tut," Degren said, "Decker's question was about the notable lack of other sentient beings. Where are all the people who should be here?"
"Oh yes, dear me. Terribly sorry." Tut rubbed a scaly knuckle along the top of one eye, visibly discomfited. "My mind tends to wander away from that question. A bit painful, as it were. Now, where were we?"
Seeing that this line of questioning was going nowhere, and spotting his furrier-by-the-hour reflection in the silvered glass of what appeared to be a two-way mirror in the wall in front of them, Decker decided to forgo an answer. "Okay then. Where's this 'oracle' you promised, Tut? This looks more like some kind of interrogation room."
Indeed, the space was barely large enough for the four chairs and table that furnished it. The walls were bare and painted a drab dove gray; the ceiling disappeared into the gloom behind a single bare bulb below a reflective hood. The only other object in the room was what appeared to be a thin blue laptop computer situated at one end of the table. Tut parked himself in front of it and lifted the lid. Degren and Decker took chairs opposite the computer.
"That's your oracle?" Decker sneered in disbelief. "No, wait. You're going to key something with that little notepad, and we'll be transported to some funky Greek cave, right? There will be a giant painted eye on a stone above a geyser or something, right? Then we'll hear the deep, booming voice of some forgotten demigod, mouthing platitudes in a very convincing way and telling us to pay no attention to the turtle behind the laptop, right? What the hell's really going on here?"
"And we thought it was time to really start monitoring these savages," Tut muttered to himself, keying the laptop with a dexterity belied by his paddle-like appendages. "Fear not, friend Decker, you will have your 'oracle'. This little keypad and screen are connected wirelessly to more computing power than all the crude thinking devices of your entire civilization. Now fellows, please gather your equilibrium. Shall we phrase our concerns in the form of questions?"
"C'mon, Tut!" Decker was at the end of his patience. His knee kept brushing against Degren's under the table, sending little lightning bolts of distraction up along the inside of his thighs. Degren kept looking at him hopefully and then apologetically. "You already know our situation. Get us some answers!"
"I'm ashamed to tell you that this is one area where our 'oracle' will thoroughly meet your expectations," Tut replied sternly. "It is up to you to formulate your queries. I can accept no liability for the results you receive; therefore you must take full responsibility for the clarity and purpose of your inquiries, and thus for the quality of the network's response. Take a minute if you must. Take all afternoon, in fact! I am in no rush." Tut's aura of hauteur grew perceptibly as he finished his speech.
"Yeah, but we are," Decker fired back. "Okay, let's see.....um, how many questions do we get?"
"One less if you ask that. I am authorized to forgive one aberrant question per inquirer. Decker, will you use this question?"
"Shit and shit! Degren, what do you think? Is it worth wasting a question to know how many more we can ask?"
Degren shrugged. "What if each gets only one? I think not."
"Right. Okay." He turned to the turtle. "Degren and I are going to discuss this a bit. We're going to be asking each other questions, but not you. We will address you by name when we wish to pose our questions."
Degren; how's this? 'What is the exact and complete course of action Degren and I must take to best ensure that I return to my original body on my original planet, and Degren is reunited with his, er, friend Furge?'"
"Furge is my mate."
"Um, right. With that change, does that seem to sum up what we want to know?"
"I can't think of anything to add."
"Right. Tut: What is the exact and complete course of action Degren and I must take to best ensure that I return to my original body on my original planet, and Degren is reunited with his mate Furge?"
Tut keyed in the question. "It'll just take a minute to process. While we wait, I must ask a favor of you." Even through the hockey puck lenses, they could detect a furtive cast to his gaze. "My own, um, mate has been irrepressibly, er, requesting of me that she get to go visit her mother. I believe you will most likely be passing quite near her home. Would you allow her to accompany you that far, if that is indeed the case?"
Degren grimaced wryly. "You aren't going to give us our answer until we agree, are you, Mister Tut?"
"Er, well, I'd really prefer...."
"I'm trying to reunite with my mate, and it seems he wants to be parted with his. Poetic, eh?" Degren turned to Tut. "What's she like?"
"Oh, um, she's loaded with..personality, yes. Very entertaining if you can find the right mood. Ah, she'll certainly fill those awkward silences, yes. Um, truly a fine girl, certainly. You-"
"Hell's crapper, fine!" Decker was squirming in his chair like a schoolboy just before recess. "We'll take her, Tut, if it's on our way!"
"Oh, excellent! I-er,um, I mean you won't regret it. Probably. Maybe. Thank you!" He looked as though he wanted to throw his flippers around both men. Composing himself as the laptop spit out a wide ribbon of pale blue paper, he said, "Well then. Here's the oracles instructions." He tore off the half-yard of paper, quickly scanning the inscription then handing it to Decker.
"What the hell is this?" Decker stared at the orderly rows of odd characters that proceeded diagonally across the long, narrow page. "I can't read this goddam Sanskrit or whatever it is! What are you trying to put over on us, Tut?"
"Tut tut tut," the bespectacled amphibian stuttered nervously, "Ah, oh, yes, I see....you don't read Carkozinguan. Not a problem, g-good fellows! I can translate this for you quite expeditiously. Your written language is of Arabic lineage, no? Alpha-phonetic, twenty six characters? Clumsy but effective, yes? Not more than an hour or two, I assure you."
"An hour or two?" Decker's face reddened and his voice rose in both pitch and volume. "I'm turning into a queer furball as we speak! I don't know where the hell I am, I'm lonely and afraid, and I'm fighting back the urge to strip off my clothes and go put my tongue in Degren's ear! WE NEED TO GET GOING!"
"Yes, well, er, you fellows must be quite famished by now, eh? Everyone is monstrously famished after drinking from the river, and you'd had quite a trek of it before that. I'll get Aida to fix you a bit of a snack while you wait." With that, Tut slipped out the door with deceptive alacrity, taking the laptop with him.
Decker leaped to his feet, banging his knees on the table edge, then lunged for the door. The handle held firm; the door was rock steady in its jamb. "Shit piss bloody asscrack! The sneaky bugger's locked us in!" He tried to dig his fingernails in along the edge of the door, to no avail, then he began hammering away at the adamant portal with his fists. "Let us the fuck out, you leather-necked stewpot!"
Degren put his hand on Decker's trembling shoulder. "Decker. There's no point wasting our energy. Tut will be back. He'll keep his bargain. Calm down. He said he'd get us some food. We can't go far if we don't get some sustenance."
Somewhere in the wall above the door, a hidden speaker echoed Degren's words. "Decker. I'll be back. I will keep my bargain. Just calm down!" After a brief pause, the speaker issued forth again, "I'll open the door if you promise to restrain those violent primitive urges, gentlemen. Degren, I'm counting on you to keep that...er, to keep Decker calm."
Degren glanced over at the red-faced, quivering Decker, bald query plain on his face.
"Yessssss...... I'll be a good little savage!"
"I will try to keep him calm."
"Very well; the door is now open."
Decker suddenly had a flash. "So, how many more questions do we get?"
"Yours are used up, Decker," Tut's reproduced voice replied, "Degren has one question on account."
"I'll keep that reserved in case we can't follow through on the oracle's directions to Decker," Degren said.
"Good plan," Decker commented.
"That is allowable," the speaker replied. "Now go left out the door, and we will be in the fifth door on your right."
They were soon at a bright purple set of French doors. There were powder blue curtains on the inside, foiling Decker's attempt to see in. Degren knocked softly and a six foot tall, pale golden duck with an abalone-sheen pillbox hat raked over one eyebrow greeted them. She spoke out of one side of her beak to Tut, who was notably out of sight. "Dearest, the two, um, gentlemen you told me to expect are here." She addressed the pair. "That is, you are Degren and Decker, are you not? Yes, you are as my dear husband described. I would offer my hand, as I believe is your custom, but well... anyway, he has informed me that you will be requiring lunch. Please come in. I shall endeavor to see to your needs." She turned once again to speak to Tut. "Dear, what do these, er, what did you call them..hominids, I think... eat?"
She led them into a luxurious apartment, elegantly but busily done out in deep fabric colors and rich woods and metals. Brocades and tapestries lined the walls. They wended their way between lustrous bookcases, intricate standing lamps, and artistically carved side tables bedecked heavily with all varieties of precious artifacts. It was as though the place had been decorated by a pack rat with exquisite taste. The two men followed nervously; they were quite relieved to be seated at a large parquetry dining table on patina-ed copper flamingo legs. The chairs matched the table legs; their backs were two flamingos touching bills at the head, while the cushioned seats were done in an ostrich fan motif.
She brought them drinks and aperitifs which, though strange, seemed quite delicious to both of the hungry men. “Our larder is somewhat depleted, I'm afraid,” she offered, a little over-loud and with a petulant edge that was obviously addressed to her absent mate. “We'll be reduced to standard emergency rations if supplies don't arrive soon!” Her manners toward Decker and Degren were perfect, though Decker caught the barest breeze of condescension in her tone. Mixed with that, however, there was an eagerness to her mien; she was glad to have company, no matter their species or social station. Once dinner was on the table, she sat with the men and engaged them in light conversation.
“Tut, dear,” she broke off and addressed the silence of the hallway, “as much as I am enjoying the company of these delightful individuals, I feel I mustn't be selfish of their attentions. Will you kindly honor their presence with your company?”
“Just a few more minutes, Aida my love,” came the muffled reply. “I have obligations to fulfill for these same gentlemen which must be completed posthaste.”
“I'd advise you to hurry, dear. The...gentlemen ...seem quite ravenous, and even should they deign to allow you a portion, it will soon be quite cold.”
“Yes, yes, heart of my heart, I will hasten to your side!”
Tut handed the men two neatly hand-scribed sheets of paper, then mumbled apologies and set to picking at the remnants of the meal while they read. Decker noted that Degren's page was written in some sort of caricature-based symbology, with stick figure animals and men in various poses making up most of the script. There was the occasional representation of what looked like geographic legends; simplified rivers, seas, mountains and the like. On his own page was neatly block-printed English. He found himself disoriented at times by the script; some part of his mind could not understand it at all. At those moments, he would glance over at the pictographs on Degren's page and find they made perfect sense.
“Follow the river down to the third tributary,” Decker read aloud, “and ascend the stream into an old silver mine. Tut, will the silver mine be on my world or Degren's?”
“Neither. At no time should you assume to deviate from these instructions, Decker. There are many realities in close proximity to yours, especially in the area of the Great River. Your chances of finding your way home and regaining your old form on your own are nearly incalculably low, so please refrain from entertaining any such assumptions or ideas.”
“How far down the river is this 'third tributary?”
“I can only tell you that it is beyond what I have explored. I have seen, er...” Tut paused to calculate. “....perhaps ninety of your kilometers down the river. In that space, there was but one tributary.”
“Ninety kilometers! SHIT!” Decker saw Aida cringe a bit as he hurled the earthy expletive; he determined to try for a more courteous tone. “An d we have no idea how much further it is to the third tributary! Tut, how the- er, how in the world are we supposed to cover that much ground? I'm betting that boardwalk doesn't go real far down the shore!”
“You would be wagering correctly. To my understanding, the river remains placid and relatively deep for quite a distance. WE have a modest launch that you may employ to cover the distance to your tributary.”
“Tut, dearest, would you rob me of one of my few joys?” Aida's voice was full of consternation. “Why, many's the time that an afternoon sojourn on the river was all that stood between me and...well, I hardly dare illustrate!”
“Aida my dear, but listen a moment. You'll be pleased to know that you will be accompanying them on their journey, at least as far as Cradsell 4.”
“Dear, you mustn't tease me so. Cradsell 4 is where I was raised, where my mother resides! You know how I've longed to visit the old estate!”
“So you shall, my sweet. It is only a modest detour for these gentlemen to escort you to your very ancestral gates.”
“How modest?” Degren glanced from Decker to Tut. “It seems we are approaching a tipping point for my...traveling companion here, and as much as I'd like to be reunited with my dearest Furge, I'd rather it wasn't at Decker's expense.”
“No more than an hour or two's stroll, I should think,” Tut said as he assessed Decker's reaction.
“If it gets us on the way, I agree,” was Decker's reply.
They went over the rest of the directions quickly; they would find an old rusty key on a barrel of explosive in the mine that adjoined the tributary's cavern, return to the river and retrace their steps to the first tributary, and ascend to the surface. They would then find themselves emerging through the bottom of an earthquake-wrecked swimming pool at a deserted beach-side hotel in yet another reality. This was Cradsell 4. They would accompany Aida to her ancestral home, then return to the hotel and dive the coral reefs off the coast near the hotel to locate a shipwreck wherein there lay a trunk that their key would fit, inside of which would be their means of resuming their original realities.
“What will be in that trunk?”
“Decker, the Nexus gave no further information. I assume you will know what to do with what you find. Shall we make preparations for your departure? My dear,” he turned to the wildly exhilarated duck, “May I suggest that you bring only the most minimal accoutrement. It may be a rigorous climb, and I would cringe at the notion that we were adding to our friends' burden on their difficult journey.”
“Yes, yes, love, only a few of the barest essentials. An hour, then?”
Decker groaned, and Tut cast a warning glare over his heavy lenses. “Fifteen minutes, dear, no more.”
Sunday, February 14, 2010
At first every step was torture; the see-through gratings of the treads crackled and pinged, the rust-scaled handrail gave just enough to make his stomach do flips, and the endless blackness beyond the gas lamp glow sparked with persistence-of-vision flares that Decker fervently hoped were hallucinations. To Degren's exasperation, Decker would stop at every landing to close his eyes and catch his breath. After what felt like the hundredth flight, things got gradually easier; he was able to maintain a slow, smooth rhythm, ignoring the subtle complaints of the stairway and his new-found acrophobia. As long as he concentrated on the next light post in front of them, he was alright.
Degren had become quite conversational as they descended. Mostly he spoke of his "friend" Furge with fondness in his voice, often finding some similarity between Decker and Furge that evoked a rush of reminiscence. "He doesn't like heights either, you know," he said. "The shaman suggested that he take the peyote while meditating on top of Hawk Bluff. Poor Furge tried to go up there before he took the buttons. I tried to help him out onto the Talon, which is a place of great spiritual energy at the very end of the bluff. He was shaking so badly when I put my hand on his arm, but he couldn't bear to have me touching him for fear I would overbalance him. He was still at least five arm's lengths from any edge! He just couldn't do it. We went back to where there was flat ground all around us and he collapsed in my arms like a frightened child."
"So why did he decide to have his, um, spirit quest inside the shack? Seems like your people are more the 'commune with nature' types."
"Furge ate the cactus on one of the flat rocks outside the shack. I was gathering stones for a cooking fire when I saw him go in. It seemed curious to me, too. I followed him in just in time to see him disappear through the wall."
"Guess that explains some things."
The rushing of water had become loud enough so they had to shout. Both men were getting quite thirsty, so they went on without further conversation. They could see occasional glimmers of water as they descended, and the air around them was becoming misty and moist. The steps were growing slippery, and there were sections of the stair and rail that looked more and more degraded by rust. They tended toward the cliff-ward side of the stairs, careful not to put too much weight on any one spot.
Finally, a picture resolved itself out of the blackness. They had gotten close enough to a great cataract of water for the gas lamps to illuminate it. It extended upward into infinity, but they could just make out a great cloud of roiling mist, gilded by gas light, below.
"It seems we were proceeding up the river after all," Degren roared. "Not that that stands in our favor."
Decker glanced toward his fellow sojourner, noting the strong lines of his cheeks, the firm straight ridge of his brow. He saw the anguish there too; the desperate worry for a companion that Decker now understood was more than just a good friend. He was drawn to the big man's depth of feeling, the nobility of his passion. This was the sort of guy that he'd always hoped to befriend in his life.
He ran his fingernails over his scalp and a large clump of damp hair rolled onto his cheek, then tumbled onto his shirt. "What the..." He rubbed his hands over his scalp and a lot more hair came free between his fingers. "Fuck and fuck! What's the deal?" He showed his hands to Degren, who immediately brushed at his own soft pelt, to no effect.
"Decker, are you ill?" Degren took a step backward, bumping into the railing. The corroded metal pipe crumpled outward and the big man teetered. Decker, clenching his jaw and hyperventilating, reached out to grab his arm. His balance partially restored by Decker's grasp, Degren stabilized himself and retreated. "I cannot... without our fur, we....you know, it wouldn't be wise, um..."
"Ah, hello? I just saved your life?" Decker was outraged. He held forth clumps of his hair to his squeamish companion. "Ya think we can worry about THIS for a minute? Why the fuck is my hair falling out?"
"Decker, I don't know, but the pelt is a crucial protective coat for our people. Without it, we die. So you see, I can't afford to risk contact with you, for fear it is a disease you have contracted."
"Oh. Um, okay. I guess I see your point. But it's scarin' the shit out of me, man! We gotta DO something!"
"Do you feel able to go on? There don't seem to be any answers here."
"You're right, brother. "Decker took a long, rueful glance at his hair-smothered fingers, then started rubbing them clean. "Let's get going. Maybe there's a clinic down by the beach."
"Why did you call me 'brother'?"
"Just something guys say to each other then they get to know and respect each other. Sounds more manly than 'honey'."
Suddenly uncomfortable, Degren turned to the next flight of steps and carefully proceeded down, his back a ramrod-stiff accusing shadow.
"What did I say?" Decker asked as he followed shakily, scratching his head and coming away with another handful of wet hair. "What the hell did I say?"
A half hour of stairs, a few rusted-through steps and a treacherous handrail or two later, the pair found themselves stepping off the staircase onto a glassy-smooth, slippery slate outcropping. They were drenched by the cloud of spray from the monstrous waterfall. Degren sidled close to the lip. "It's only an arm's length to the water," he shouted over the deafening roar and pointing to his right, "and there are steps into the pool just over there. Let's get a drink!"
Decker stood his ground at the terminus of the stars. "How do we know there's nothing dangerous in the water?"
"You're starting to sound just like...." Degren clamped his mouth shut.
""Just like who?" Decker's voice was a shrill rasp that would have been quite painful if it weren't nearly drowned out.
"Never mind." Degren slid his legs over the edge, then turned and lowered himself into the pool. Standing with his waist against the slate ledge, he called to Decker. "See, it's only ankle deep here. Come on!"
They both sat in the bath-warm water, savoring its sweet flavor and rinsing themselves clean. Decker noted that he was now quite bald, including his eyebrows. He reached into his shirt and under his arm; he found the same baby-soft skin there. He didn't bother checking further down. He'd gotten some ideas about Degren's relationship with Furge, and he didn't want to stimulate any unnecessary attention. Not that Degren was unattractive...wait, what was he thinking? He'd been a committed hetero hound dog all his life!
He was broken out of this odd reverie by a big hand on his shoulder. He started upward, but the pool bottom was as slippery as the ledge, and his feet went out from under him. Degren caught him just before the back of his head struck the ledge. "Easy, brother! I just wanted to see if you were ready to head down the river. Seems like our only choice unless you feel like crossing and climbing the other side."
The slate ledge stretched out as far as they could see away from the pool. Refreshed, they strolled along as though on a perfect sidewalk. Here the gas lamps projected from the stone canyon on poles of varying lengths, depending on the pitch of the canyon wall. There was an occasional bench carved into the stone.
It was only a matter of a few minutes until they were clear of the spray, and not much further before the smooth slate was dry beneath their feet. The roar of the waterfall was distant enough so they could converse without shouting. The river had tumbled out of the pool and cascaded over rough chutes and scattered boulders for a few hundred yards, and had now leveled out into a glassy-smooth flow that was hard to assess the speed of.
Looking up along the wall, they could see regular recesses that appeared to have been chiseled from the living rock. The lamps weren't bright enough to cast light into the recesses, so they could not discern what the purpose of the recesses was. They started at least thirty feet up from where the men walked and repeated in rows some fifteen feet apart vertically and ten feet apart horizontally.
"Looks like apartments, but if anyone's home, they don't have the lights on," Decker commented.
"Um, rows of homes in the same building where people pay to live. But they don't own them."
"Um, yeah. Forget it."
"You say some strange things, Fur...er, Decker."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Are you noticing how the sidewalk here is starting to glow? Rainbow colors?"
Degren glanced down quizzically. "Now that you mention it, it is looking rather strange to me. And the, um, what did you call them...apartments up there are shedding some weird colored light, too."
"Shit yeah! Maybe there is someone home, and they can tell us which way is out!"
They were so intrigued by the hypnotically scintillating colors that swept beneath their feet, they almost passed the stainless steel double doors. Each had an elongated oval window of iridescent glass centered in it. The doors puffed softly in and out as though a fair pair of lungs thrust great breaths behind them.
Decker attempted to peer in through the watery, swirling glass. He found himself swaying back and forth in time with the doors, disoriented. Degren watched him and swayed in a similar fashion.
"Whoa, this is strange," Decker said. "I feel like the buttons have kicked back in."
"I feel like I've eaten some, too."
They were startled by a harsh buzz, then the doors sprung open, nearly knocking Decker over. A chromatic, almost kaleidoscopic swirl of light spewed from inside, at the center of which stood what appeared to be a giant, bespectacled desert tortoise, the flat of whose shell was the source of all the coruscating light.
Decker shook his head. “Man, shades of Elton John! I am definitely flippin' my frikkin' cork! Beam me up, Toto, there's no place like this!”
“Um, Decker, I think what you have is definitely catching,” Degren said as he ran a hand over his fur, checking to see if any hair was falling out, “I don't know what you're talking about with the elfin Sean, or whatever, but I am definitely feeling awfully funny.”
The turtle glared at them through hockey-puck lenses. “Will you two, er, gentlemen cease your puerile babbling and state your purpose? I'm very busy at the moment, and quite without patience for fraternal foolery.”
Hysterical laughter welled up in Decker's chest. “Professor Juke Box light show turtle wax here is impatient with us! HahahaHA! WOW!”
Degren, too, was quivering with barely-contained mirth; it exploded forth as Decker ranted. “Whoo hoo hoo HOOO!” He slapped his hands to his temples and doubled over, craning his neck sideways so he could continue staring at the turtle's belly. “Oh, GODS! What's happening to me?”
“Ah, I see,” the turtle scoffed, turning its desert-drab back while maintaining a steady, Fresnel-lens eye on the disoriented pair. “You've been imbibing of the river water, haven't you? Come back when the effects wear off; an hour or two, I should think. You are obviously in need of guidance, which I will not waste on you in your river-addled condition.” Its head turreted around and a cobalt blue flipper/arm slapped at a big mushroom-shaped button inside the doors. As they closed, he said, “Ring the bell when you return. I shall answer forthwith.”
Both men collapsed on the stone, laughing uncontrollably. Through rictus grins they spewed random nonsense at each other, eliciting still more spastic mirth. Shortly the hilarity turned to awe as they became distracted by subtle roils in the river's surface; iridescent swirls spread over the water, parting for glowing, transmogrified water creatures and psychedelic naiads that emerged to dance in hypnotic processions over lamplight-sprinkled riffles.
“This. Is. Some. Good. Shit,” Decker mumbled. “Wish I had a bottle to put some in!” He absentmindedly reached for Degren, putting a hand on his companion's wrist.
“Fur- um, Decker,” Degren stuttered, “I think, um, I see, you, ah, your fur, I mean your skin...” He pointed to Decker's arm, his head, “...it's growing. I see it growing. Why do you look like Furge?”
“What? I Dunno what you're...um, must be the trip.”He tore his gaze away from the chromatic parade on the river. “Whoa! It does look like I'm starting to grow fur! Crazy shit! I gotta find something to put some of this water in.”
The colors on the water gradually ebbed, and the odd creatures disappeared into mist. Both men felt limp and hungry, but their surroundings had returned to something vaguely resembling normalcy. The shadow of fine hair now covering Decker's body, however, remained. He stretched out over the smooth water of the river, attempting to see his reflection. “Oh, man, I'm still not myself. I recognize me, but I look different!”
Degren agreed. “You have changed since we met. You look more like Furge,” he said wistfully. I wonder if the two of you...”
“What? The two of us what? Spill it, Degren!”
“Well, Furge vanished from my world as he was entering his spirit quest, which started at the same time yours did, right? Then you entered my world. Perhaps he's in your world. Perhaps the cosmos is trying to rectify the imbalance by altering each of you to resemble, even become, the other.”
“Oh, man. Oh SHIT!” Decker's heart thudded in his chest; his breathing came in ragged gasps. “No wonder I've been seeing you, um, like that! I'm NOT gay! I don't WANT to be gay! I want to be ME! Shit oh SHIT, we've got to figure this out. Let's go talk to the turtle, if he wasn't just a hallucination. He said he had some answers.”
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Degren's strong hand caught his collar and yanked him to the far end of the cave as a pterodactyl's head shot through the opening, blotting out the light. It made a deafening scream as its shoulders hit the cave mouth, bringing its jagged beak up just short of Decker's face. It snapped and writhed, trying to inch its way into biting range.
His eyes had adjusted enough to make out the creature's face when it shot backward out of the hole, allowing the now-blinding daylight to ray in. Its hungry scream turned into a surprised screech; one of the giant mastodons must have grabbed it. Degren clapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the other side of the cave. There was a black void in the wall; another passage! They dived for the new hole, hoping the pterodactyl wouldn't wrestle free in time to maul them while they crossed the cave.
The blackness in the new hole seemed perfect. Decker reached out to touch the sides and stumbled into emptiness, then banged into Degren's back, drawing a sharp grunt out of the big man. The noise of it echoed back at them, seemingly from great distances. The screams of the pterodactyls and the bellows of the mastodons were muffled and distant. As his senses began to acclimate and the thunder of his heart ebbed slightly, he noticed a sound like rushing water. Staring into the darkness at his feet, Decker thought he could make out a sort of dim neon glow. He crouched, reaching downward. His hand brushed the stone floor near his left toe, then brushed a pebble before its questing path. His hand struck a hard ridge and then nothing. He heard the pebble strike something lower and he overbalanced forward, barely catching himself. As his eyes learned to gather the faint luminescence of the rushing water far below, he saw that he and Degren stood on a wide ledge over a subterranean canyon. It was hard to judge the distance, but he noted the rattling of the falling pebble for a disconcerting length of time.
"I wonder when this crazy trip's gonna end," he muttered under his breath as he scrabbled back from the precipice.
"Trip?" Degren, a muted shadow in the darkness, slipped forward into the low phosphorescent glow. "Are you going somewhere?"
"Yeah, um, no," Decker turned to stare into the hollow voids of Degren's eyes, "I mean, this little hallucination, my peyote trip."
"The duration of your hallucinations I could only speculate on," Degren said, "but rest assured, the place you are now in is no figment, nor am I."
"You would say that. Anyway, what now? Is this someplace you've been before?"
"I have been in the outer cave, where we first escaped the monsters. There were no openings in its walls then, save its entry. I suggest we take a look back the way we came."
Decker peered up the short tunnel back to the first cave. He could see the light shining in from the outside, and hear the sounds of a gargantuan struggle. "The monsters are still fighting outside. Let's wait a while and see what happens."
Degren grunted and settled down against the wall. He seemed most interested in taking a nap, but Decker was too antsy to sit quietly. He dropped down next to Degren, trying to make out his expression in the soft, slate-gray shadows"So your friend, um, whassisname. He got jacked up on cactus before he disappeared?"
"Furge. Yes, he was seeking the wisdom of his ancestors. It is strange; no one has disappeared in this way for many dozens of seasons." Degren scratched his head. "No one has ever told of a thing such as this; that one person replaced another."
Decker noted that the chromatic trails before his eyes were losing their vibrancy, and that his companion's words were becoming clearer in his ears. "I still think this is all part of my little peyote dream, but if it weren't, I might think that this was the first time two people from alternate universes sat down in the exact same spot at the exact same time in their relative worlds and went on a spirit quest. The fabric of each universe might then become permeable, due to the matched perception shifts of the two people." He was really starting to feel like he'd gone off into some warped, Castenada-esque alternate reality.
"Your words are strange to me, but I think I make out their meaning," Degren said. "You are saying that worlds stand next to worlds, but may not usually see each other? Like the world of the living does not usually see the world of the dead?"
"Yeah, some people where I come from like to speculate on such things. I guess it's like all that other metaphysical crap; I'll believe it when I see it."
"Are you not seeing it now?"
"Debatable. Could be the effects of the drug."
"I have seen it. I did not partake of the cactus."
"You are a hallucination."
Degren thumped Decker's chest with a thick finger. "I felt that. Did you?"
"Ouch! Yes, I felt that. Your point is..?"
"Never mind." Degren sat silent for a moment. "I would like to find my companion, Furge. Our life together is full and good."
"If I'm right, I'll come down soon. Then everything should go back to normal."
"I do not think you are right, but I am willing to sleep on it for a little while. I don't know why, but I find I am very tired."
"Makes sense to me. I'm pretty bushed, too. I'll just wake up back in the cabin and this will all be over."
"If you wake up here with me, will you help me find Furge? It seems that your fates might be entwined."
Decker, certain that he'd wake up back in the shack, agreed sleepily. "Sure thing, bub. See you never."
The soft, distant rushing of water awakened him. At first he feared his eyelids were stuck shut, then he realized that the light was actually so dim that it seemed as though he still held them closed. His back and shoulders were stiff; his neck ached all the way to his eyeballs. The cold of the cave wall he leaned against permeated his being; he shivered uncontrollably. He staggered to his feet and tried to shake off a bout of dizziness, stumbling forward until his left foot met empty air. With a shock of memory, he realized that he was about to tumble into a dark chasm, the bottom of which contained a (probably freezing cold) raging underground river. He wheeled his aching arms backward, letting out a wild, mournful, "Shhhiiiiiiit!"
A familiar sensation jarred his awful reality; a strong hand grasped Decker's collar, yanking him back from the edge. "You're not getting out of our agreement that easily," Degren growled.
"Okay, this is absolute bullshit!" Safe at the cave wall, Decker shook himself free of the big man's grip. "What kind of a twisted fucking pseudo-science fantasy dream is this? I want to wake up!" He was gesticulating wildly, occasionally banging his knuckles on the stone of the cave. A manic spark of resolve fired in his mind. "This isn't fucking real. I'm going to prove it. I'm going to jump off that fucking cliff!"
He barely saw the shadow of Degren's impending hand before it struck a mighty slap to his cheek, rocking him back against the cave and bringing a whole fireworks display to the inside of his eyeballs. Degren's shadowy face was in his; both his hands were balled into fists and woven into Decker's collar. He was speaking slowly and intensely. "This is real. Do you understand? I care less if you live or die than that I find my Furge. But I think I need you to help me find him, and I do not think you really wish to die. That is what would happen if you leaped from that cliff. Do you believe me?"
Decker stared into that intense face as the fireworks in his eyes slowly faded, leaving only a throbbing headache. "Okay, I believe you. A guy could probably die in a dream, but he probably wouldn't get a headache." He shook his head and pulled his arms in across his quivering chest. "You can let me go now. I'll behave."
Degren went to the cave mouth this time. Decker watched him disappear up the short tunnel, then quickly scramble back down. An ear-rending screech followed him, then a squawk of pain. There was a muted rumbling from the tunnel. Decker felt a slight shuddering in the stone beneath his feet, and a cloud of dust blew in behind Degren as he rolled to his feet. Bits of rock skittered down to their feet, and the light from outside vanished entirely. Degren motioned Decker back from the cave mouth. "Must have started a landslide out there with their fighting. We'd better give it some time before we check it again."
"Oh for....shit." Decker scratched his head and slid to a sitting position against the wall. "Do you think we're trapped?"
Degren squatted next to him. "We'll wait until the rumbling stops, then we'll take a look." Something in his voice made Decker less than hopeful.
Several minutes later, Degren emerged from the nearly-clogged tunnel. "Looks pretty bad. Must have been a major crack in the shelf over the outer opening. The whole roof of the cave we started in seems to have come down in one piece. We'll have to find another way out."
"Then we're completely screwed, right? No food, no water, stuck in a big hole in the ground like some fucking trapped mice!" Decker sagged further down against the rough stone while rubbing roughly at his face with his hands. "I should have stayed in Scottsdale. I should have sucked up to all those pasty old RV hags. What the hell!"
Degren gave him a look of pity mixed with dismay. "Why don't we take a look around? Maybe it's not as bad as we think."
Decker glared up, ready to spit out some more vehement self-pity, but then he saw how close to cracking the bigger man was. "Ah, shit, maybe you're right. Let's go for a little mosey, see if there's anything to see."
It was impossible to tell for sure which way the water below them was flowing, but they decided to try their luck in the direction they thought was upstream, on the idea that they'd be getting closer to the water that way. They went left along the ledge, which initially threatened to narrow so much as to strand them. They had to creep along single file, backs against the stone, for what seemed like several hundred yards before it widened out again. At that point, it almost immediately started descending in slopes and ragged steps. Degren paused. "Maybe we should try the other way."
"Why? We're bound to get closer to the water this way, right? I'm getting pretty damned thirsty, brother! And I wasn't comfortable on that narrow ledge, anyway. I don't really want to do that again."
"The way these ledges descent here suggests that the river is flowing in the same direction we're walking. It may very well drop just as fast in the bottom of this chasm as these ledges do here. And we're getting deeper in the earth. I don't think that's a likely direction for our escape."
"Well, let's at least see if we can get to the water this way. It sure sounds louder to me. C'mon; another twenty minutes, and if we can't get a drink, we'll turn around."
They hadn't gone five hundred feet when the ledge ended what seemed to be a plate metal bridge to a large, stilted wooden platform. There was what looked to be an old gas lamp burning on a slender metal post at the far end, and the handrail parted just to one side of the lamp. One side of the rail turned downward and outward, as though a set of stairs or a steep ramp extended over the void. The deck boards were warped and cracked, and Decker could see areas where worms or beetles had eaten away large quantities of the wood.
Decker pulled up short of the rickety-looking wooden structure. "Damn, I don't know if I'd trust that thing."
"Well, it's turn back now or trust the fates," his furry companion replied, "and I'm quite content to turn back." Degren reached for the cavern wall, propping himself against it. His hand struck something smooth that gave inward as he leaned. A metallic clank issued from where he'd placed his hand.
Decker snapped to attention. "What was-" before he could finish his question, a series of grinding thuds and the trembling of metal beneath their feet cut him off. A queasy sensation rose in his belly as he felt the bridge they were standing on slowly tilting toward the edge. The wooden deck appeared to be unaffected, so both men stumbled onto the boards. Decker could feel the wood sagging and cracking under his weight, but there was no choice; the metal floor lurched and screeched away into the gloom with a great, long, stone-rending crash. Where they had been standing seconds before, they stared into a billowing cloud of dust. As it cleared, they could make out what appeared to be some sort of old metal framework attached to hinged rods and gears, all of which was now twisted and broken.
"M-must have been some kind of suspension bridge or something," Decker stuttered between adrenaline gasps. He could hardly take his eyes off the ragged gap, but the platform was creaking threateningly underneath him. "Shit! Shit! Shit! What now?"
"We'd better see if we can get over to that lamp, find out if there's a stairway where that railing drops down." Degren scoped out the boards in front of him, trying to see between to where the joists must be. He eased slowly along over a shadow line that he judged to be a larger support. "See if you can get on the same line I'm on, but stay back a ways. Better if we don't have both our weight in the same area."
Things were generally firmer near the lamp. Decker grabbed the pole and scanned the narrow iron stairway that zigged from one small platform to another as it descended into the chasm. At every third or fourth platform was another lamp pole. Most of the lamps were burning, though it appeared that further down more of them were out. They paraded downward to a vanishing point.
"Christ on a crutch, it's a long way down!" Decker felt light-headed; vertigo threatened to send him reeling back across the deck, back where he could not see the terrible spectacle of thatincredible drop. "Jesus, man, I don't think I can do it. I don't think I can go down those stairs!"
Degren put his hand on Decker's shoulder, eliciting a trembling groan. "What choice do we have? There is no way to go but down."
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
The walls were a muddle of Pueblo squash soup; the lone window was a wicked, crosshatched goat eye of blinding light that was trying to pry its way into his fevered, breathing skull. There were pastel yellow cacti seething up between the sun-scorched grey floor planks, blooming feather-headdress-ed cartoon Indians screaming football cheers in pidgin Chinese. Cross-legged on an old piss-stained futon pad, sweating profusely in the Arizona July afternoon, Decker Quall shook his head slowly; he feared if he applied vigorous force it would spin off his neck, gyroscope out the door and disappear down some dry arroyo. If it did, he'd follow it until it ran out of centrifugal force and collapse with it in the cool shadows at the bottom of the gorge. That was his plan for the moment; he'd think it through further when the peyote dream settled in to something a bit more cohesive.
Decker had scored some “buttons” from a buddy, loaded his scant belongings into his weathered white Camry wagon and taken Arizona 87 out of Scottsdale, headed north into the wastes for a little psychedelic vacation. He figured he'd end up back to his home town of Anoka, Minnesota eventually, but for now it was all about....well, nothing.
He'd been fired from his cooking job at the Cafe Carumba, which was okay with him; the place was filthy with bitchy old Minnesota tourists, anyway. Might as well be back home where the rent was manageable and the water tasted like water.
When he'd ended up in Payson with a blown radiator hose, he'd asked around about renting a squat for a few days, to “take in the scenery”. The tow truck driver, a pimply kid with a puerile sneer and a Marlboro Light pasted permanently to the corner of his mouth, had offered his dead uncle's drinking shack out on 260 “for fifty bucks. It's about 20 miles past Star Valley, up an old washed out road that used to be...I don't know what. ” he chopped his train of thought and eyed up the Camry doubtfully. “A couple miles before you get to Preacher Canyon, you'll see one of those old shaving cream signs. If it's not dark, you might see the old ruts. It's a pretty rough road. Nobody goes there on account of...well, it's hard to get to.”
It sounded like just the place. Three hours later, two hundred and fifty dollars poorer but carrying a stocked cooler and a new coolant hose, Decker raced away from the sunset, hoping to beat the darkness out to the dead man's shack and wondering how he'd know he was two miles from Preacher Canyon. A few blind runs and a lost tailpipe later, he'd found his way to the tumbledown board-and-mud hut crammed between two meat-slab boulders crouched in the rocky hills south of Diamond Point. The place had been a real mess, but he'd lucked into a serviceable hurricane lantern and a five gallon can of kerosene tucked under the trap door that was hidden by the futon. Good thing, too. He didn't even have a flashlight.
He'd played around with the car radio and drank beer that night. Good idea to get settled in before doing any of that cactus. Curled up in his battered old Herter's sleeping bag, he got his first good night's sleep in months. A morning walk revealed numerous rattlesnakes and not much of anything else. He sun-roasted up a couple hot dogs in an old baby moon hubcap he found and polished up, then set about preparing for his “trip”.
It seemed appropriate to commune with nature as he entered his altered state, but there weren't any caves nearby. He wasn't going to sit in the direct Arizona sun; he'd been out here for a couple years and had learned his lesson about that. Finally he gave up and dragged the futon near the 4-pane window, sucked down a bottle of water, and ate two of the little buttons. Hell, the old shack was almost a fixture of these dusty foothills by now, anyway.
So there he was, watching the vapor trails of his fleeing sanity refract through that painfully bright glass. The walls were breathing, the floor was undulating and sprouting, and the sun was a giant burning marshmallow. Trickles of sweat were tiny lizards racing across his skin. The shit was real. Happy fucking day.
There was a tingling on the back of his neck as he heard the wall behind him start to creak. Slowly, he scootched in a half-circle to see what the new development was. The wall was bowing inward, and the rough adobe plaster was starting to craze and flake. Each breath that the little house took cracked more of the mud off the splintering boards. “Go away!” Decker commanded, his heart a giant tympani echoing sloppily in his chest. “G'wan, leave me alone!” The back wall seemed to heed his words, and for an interminable period it synched up with the rest of the walls in a sinuous slur of breath.
Decker breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing he needed right now was a visit from some angry desert god; these crazy tribes of the Southwest had hooked up with a strange sort of mojo and he wasn't ready to explain himself to an animated Castenada-esque cactus root. I mean, sure, he'd read the guy's books; why else would he be here? But he wasn't sure how that pantheon might treat a disgruntled, disheveled, disowned and displaced white boy from snow country.
The sun freeze-framed its way across the window and down into the ragged rising mountains to the west. Shadows were starting to creep across Decker's hallucinatory indoor vegetation when the creaking and cracking of the back wall began again in earnest. Man, this was some really potent stuff! He'd figured on the high sort of planing out about now, settling in to cruise control, but it felt like the whole shack was lifting up out of its crevice! There was a rhythmic “WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP!” shaking the house, and the planks of the back wall were beginning to part inwards. Shards of desert-dry wood were spraying onto the futon, striking him in the legs and belly. He was frozen in place, with the wash of noise thundering, mixing with his careening heartbeat, when the wall finally burst inward, revealing a large, heavily-muscled man clutching what appeared to be about a thirty-pound maul in his gnarled fingers. His only garb was a crocheted loincloth; multicolored flowers tagged together with green yarn. Behind him was a near-mirror-image of the hut that Decker occupied, replete with a setting sun outside the window!
“Nuer lueen spung quntas buj oonie!”, the sledge-swinging dude expostulated, staring intensely into Decker's eyes as he yanked splintered boards off dry-rotted studs. “Nuer dulung champa!” Heaving off the last board that blocked his passage, the large man shrugged through the narrow opening and grabbed for Decker's shoulder. Decker twitched away from the thrusting hand and rolled toward the door.
What the hell are you talking about, Lil' Abner?” Nearly swooning as he struggled to his feet, Decker missed the doorknob and banged his head against the casing. He spun to face his assailant, clutching at the dusty counter for some sort of weapon. “Are you nuts? Wait, am I nuts?”
“Gur thoon nuer spung glert champa,” the big fellow replied, looking down at the hammer in his hand abashedly, then setting it on the futon, continuing in a more appeasing tone, “gur buj coo lutie vundis dulung.” He pointed out Decker's window toward a pair of rainbow-hued pterodactyls that were flapping madly toward the shack. He beckoned to the splintered hole in the wall, and urgently requested, “Puer zing thoon champa, zuey trugga fooits!”
“Oh, shit!” Decker's addled mind threatened to ooze out of his ears, but with a desperate shake of his head (he thanked his lucky stars it remained attached) he brushed the psychedelic cobwebs far enough aside to make a decision. “Fine, I'll follow you!” One last glance backward revealed a herd of blonde mastodons with shrubbery for tusks bearing down on the shack right behind the flying dinosaurs, then he tumbled through the gap and followed Mr. Sledge out the doppelganger door.
They scrambled down the hillside together, Decker stumbling along like a scarecrow as hammer guy leaped from rock to rock with a grace belied by his bulk. He pulled Decker up onto a platform of rock and continued his earlier spiel. “I'm sorry, fellow. I misrecognized you as someone else. Still, it seems you were in some danger there.”
Decker gritted his teeth and the pressure sent orange and green lightning bolts across his vision. “Well why didn't you say so before, man? ” The clustered syllables coming out of his own mouth were just as foreign to Decker's mind as they'd been in the shack, but now, mysteriously, he could understand them. “And why am I suddenly talking like this?” He paused for breath and looked around at the disorientingly similar but thoroughly alien landscape. “And why, mister hammer guy, were you beating down my wall in the first place?”
“Ah, you can understand me now. How strange are the workings of the Deity!” The big man paused, and Decker suddenly noticed that his skin was covered by a smooth layer of flesh-colored fur. “You did not ask, but I am Degren. My companion, Furge, was in the middle of a soul quest when he melted through the wall of our shelter. He looks a little like you, but isn't, um, bald. I was trying to follow him, but he obviously didn't end up where you were. Did he?”
Decker wondered why the peyote high was feeling like reality. He thumbed his chest. “Decker. I didn't see anyone except you, and I didn't expect to, either. I did expect some crazy visions. I was on a, um, soul quest, too. This is a bit more than I bargained for, though. Are you a hallucination?”
Degren eyed him quizzically, then understanding dawned. “You ate the cactus buttons. I wondered about those creatures that were coming for us. Too strange, even for an otherworld.”
There were cracking and crumbling noises coming from the hill behind them. “Uh-oh,” Decker moaned, casting a glance up toward the shack, “I think my hallucinations followed us!” One of the mastodons burst through the front wall and tumbled toward them. Three others followed, making a daintier step of it, then accelerating into a shambling downhill gallop. One of the pterodactyls emerged, wrestling its wings through the splintered remains of the front wall. They could hear others screeching behind it.
“Speaking of that,” Decker said, scratching his left ear furiously with a pinky fingertip.
“There's a cave just on the other side of that little cliff,” Degren pointed, “with an opening too small for your, uh, friends to get through. We might make it. Watch out for the snakes. Go!”
“Snakes?” Decker squeaked, hesitating. A quick glance rearward convinced him that snakes were the least of his worries, and he sprinted after his furry companion. Dodging around razor-spined cactus, leaping the occasional nest of boulders, they barely made it to the little cave mouth as the first pterodactyl swept by, claws dragging clots of loose rock off the cliff face. Decker dived in to the pitch black hole just in time; he felt something hard drag at the bottom of his left Converse as he tumbled down onto damp stone.