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Dead Space Martyr
By B. K. Evenson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Electronic Arts, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Chava woke up earlier than usual that day, just before the sun rose. His mother and sister were still asleep. His father was gone, traveling again. When the boy asked him where he went, he was always evasive, and Chava had learned not to ask further. He took a ladleful of water from the bucket and drank it, careful not to wake his sister. He poured another into the basin and washed his face and hands and arms before quietly slopping the rest onto the dirt floor.
He was still sleepy. He watched his sister move restlessly, giving a little moan. Why had he woken up early? He had been in the middle of a frightening dream. There was something chasing him. A strange, stumbling creature, something that moved in lurches and starts, something that seemed at once alive and dead. He shook his head, wondering how something could be both alive and dead.
He slipped into his clothes and left the shack, careful to stop the piece of aluminum that served as a makeshift door from clacking behind him. Outside, he could smell the salt in the air, could see, a few hundred meters away, the slate gray waves. The tide was out, the waves gentle now, hard to hear from this distance.
Something lingered in his head, a noise, a strange sound: a whispering. It was saying words but in a language he couldn't understand, so softly that he couldn't even tell where one word stopped and another started. He tried to force the sound out, but though it receded, it didn't go away. It just hid itself somewhere deep in the back of his skull, nagging at him.
His dream rushed forward to fill the space. The creature had been large, just a little bigger than a man. He was watching it from behind. In the dream, at first he had thought it was a man, but when it turned, he saw that it was missing part of its face, the jaw. There was something wrong with its arms as well, but the dream was blurry and he couldn't make out what it was exactly. It watched him with eyes as blank and inhuman as the eyes of a fish. And then, in a single bound, hissing, it had been on him, its slavering half jaw trying to sink broken teeth into his throat.
He was wandering, not really aware of where he was going, trying to fight off the bits of dream playing out in his semiconscious mind. He was surprised to find himself down at the shoreline. To the left, the coast was empty. Down the coast to his right, far in the distance, were two or three fishermen, standing in the surf, trying to pull something in. Whatever it was, the boy knew, would almost certainly be deformed and taste of oil. It would be a challenge to choke down. It was no longer safe to fish. The sea here was polluted and starting to die, and similar problems were working their way inland as well.
He'd heard his father talking angrily about it. Crops that even a few years back had been healthy and strong now came up stunted if they came up at all. The only supposedly safe food was the patented foods grown in controlled environments by mega-corporations, food that few could afford. So the choice, his father said, was either to eat food that slowly killed you or go broke on food you couldn't afford, while everyone went on destroying the world.
He started walking toward the fishermen, but something hindered his steps, slowly turning him. He began moving down the beach in the other direction, where it was deserted.
Or almost deserted; there was something there, something rolling in the surf.
A fish maybe, he thought at first, but as he walked forward, it seemed too large to be a fish. And the shape was wrong. A corpse maybe, a drowned man? But when it flopped back and forth in the tide, he knew he was wrong. That it was wrong.
The hair started to stand on the back of Chava's neck. He walked toward the thing, trying not to listen to the rising cacophony of whispers taking over his head.CHAPTER 2
Michael Altman rubbed his eyes and looked away from his holoscreen. He was a tall man in his early forties, with dark hair going just a little gray at the temples and lively blue green eyes. Normally, he had a keenly intelligent gaze, but today his face was a little drawn, a little weary. He hadn't slept well the night before. He'd had bad dreams, visceral stuff — all death, blood, and gore. Nothing he wanted to remember.
"That's odd," said James Field, the geophysicist whose lab he shared. Field ran stubby fingers through his thinning white hair and leaned back, his chair creaking beneath him, as he stared across the room at Altman. "Altman, did you get these same readings?"
"What readings?" Altman asked.
Field spun a copy of his holoscreen Altman's way. It showed a Bouguer/Salvo gravity map of the 110-mile diameter of Chicxulub crater. The crater had been left when a ten-kilometer bolide had struck the earth 65 million years ago.
James Field, now in his late fifties, had spent most of his career micromapping the crater for the state-owned Central American Sector Resource Corporation (CASRC). He focused mainly inland along the perimeter of the trough, where small concentrations of key minerals might be found and quickly extracted. Since people had already been doing the same for hundreds of years, this mainly meant going back for quantities small enough that earlier teams, before the resource crisis, had deemed them unworthy of retrieval. It was slow, tedious work, as close to being an accountant as you could get and still be a geophysicist. That Field actually seemed to enjoy this job told Altman more than he wanted to know about him.
Altman, on the other hand, had been in Chicxulub only a year. His girlfriend, Ada Chavez, an anthropologist, had gotten funding to study the contemporary role of Yucatec Mayan folktales and myths. He'd managed to pull just enough strings and call in enough favors to get a small grant so he could follow her to Mexico. He was supposed to be profiling the underwater portion of the crater, providing a map of likely geological structures beneath the half mile or so of sea muck by gathering data from both satellite imaging and underwater probes. It was, in theory, a strictly scientific project, but he knew that whatever information he gathered the university would sell to an extraction company. He tried not to think about that. The work was slow and not very rewarding, but he tried to tell himself it wasn't quite as pointless as what Field was doing.
He looked at Field's holoscreen carefully. It looked normal to him, the gravity readings typical.
"What am I looking for?" asked Altman.
Field furrowed his brow. "I forget you're new," he said. "I'll zoom in on the center."
The center of the crater was in deep water, about a half dozen miles from their laboratory. Altman leaned toward the monitor, squinted. A darkness at the heart of the crater revealed a gravitational anomaly.
"Here's what it looked like a month ago," said Field. "See?"
He flashed up another profile. In this one, the darkness in the center wasn't there, Altman saw. He checked the first profile. The readings everywhere but the center were the same.
"How's that possible?" he asked.
"It doesn't make sense, does it?" said Field. "It wouldn't just change like that."
"Probably just an equipment malfunction," said Altman.
"I've been working here a long time," said Field. "I know an equipment failure when I see one. This isn't one. The anomaly appears both on the satellite images and the underwater scans, so it can't be."
"But how could it change?" asked Altman. "Maybe a volcanic eruption?"
Field shook his head. "That wouldn't give this sort of anomaly. Plus, the other instruments would have sensed it. I can't explain it. There's something wrong," he said, already reaching for his phone.CHAPTER 3
As he got closer, Chava became more and more nervous. It wasn't a fish or anything like it. It wasn't a sea turtle or a dog or a jaguar. He thought maybe it was a monkey, but it was too big to be a monkey. He crossed himself and then crossed two fingers for protection, but kept moving forward.
Even before he could see it clearly, he could hear it breathing. It was making a strange huffing noise, like someone trying to retch up something he was choking on. A wave pounded in and for a moment the huffing stopped, the creature swallowed up by the water and foam. Then the water ebbed and left it panting on the damp sand. It flopped over and swiveled something like a head in his direction.
It was like the creature in his dream, but much worse. It was not human, but seemed as though it once had been human. Its neck looked like it had been flayed free of skin, the reddish pith underneath flecked with white splotches, oozing slowly. What looked to be eyes were only empty sockets covered with veined, opaque membranes. The jawbone seemed to have vanished entirely, leaving only a flap of loose skin and a hole where the mouth should have been. The huffing noise came from that opening, along with a bitter, acrid smell that made Chava cough.
The creature was hunched over, its fingers webbed, a thin leathery membrane running between its elbow and hip like a bat's wing. It tried to stand, then fell back again into the damp sand. There were two large red lumps bigger than his fists on its back. They were growing.
Mother of God, thought Chava.
The creature gave a sound like a groan, the lumps on its back pulsing. The bones in its arms cracked, the arms themselves twisting, becoming less human. It coughed up a milky liquid that hung in strands from the hole in its face. The back split open with a loud cracking sound, spraying blood, and exposing spongy gray sacs that filled and deflated; filled and deflated.
Chava was unable to move. The creature suddenly swiveled its head, staring at him with its eyeless face. Its muscles tightened and the gaping hole pulled back into a poor imitation of a smile.
Chava turned on his heel and began to run.CHAPTER 4
A few minutes later, Field had spoken to Ramirez and Showalter, two other geophysical scientists working in the area. They had confirmed it: they were getting the same readings as Field. It wasn't an equipment problem: something had changed at the heart of the crater itself.
"But why?" asked Altman.
Field shook his head. "Who knows?" he said. "Showalter thought it might have to do with seismic activity focused directly at one of the sensors, but even as he suggested this was already talking himself out of it. Ramirez is as confused as we are. He's talked to a few others, none of whom seem to know what's going on. Something's shifted, something's different, but nobody knows why it's changed or even what it could be. Nobody has ever seen anything quite like it."
"What should we do?" asked Altman.
Field shrugged, thought for a moment. "I don't know," he said slowly. He sat running his fingers through his thinning hair, staring at nothing. "Nothing much we can do on our own," he finally said. "I'll file a report with CASRC and see what they advise. Until I hear back, I suppose I'll just keep on with the readings."
With a sigh, Field turned back to his screen. Altman just stared at him, disgusted.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked. "Are you even curious?"
"What?" said Field, turning back. "Of course I am, but I don't know what to do about it. We tried to figure it out, and everybody else is just as confused as we are."
"And that's it? You're just going to give up."
"Not at all," said Field, his voice rising. "I told you: I'm filing a report with CASRC. They'll be sure to have some ideas. That seems the best way to handle it."
"And then what, you wait a few weeks for someone to read the report and then a few more weeks for a response? What goes on in the meantime? You just keep taking readings? What are you, a company man?" Field's face flushed dark. "There's nothing wrong with following protocol," he said. "I'm just doing my job."
"This could be huge," said Altman. "You said yourself it's not like anything you've seen before. We've got to try to figure it out!"
Field pointed one shaky finger at him. "You do what you want," he said in a low, quavering voice. "Go ahead and be a maverick and see where it gets you. This is a big deal, and it needs to be handled properly. I'll do my job the way that I know it should be done."
Altman turned away, his lips a tight line. I'm going to find out what's going on, he vowed, even if it kills me.
Hours later, Altman still hadn't gotten any further than Field. He called every scientist he knew in or around Chicxulub, anybody at all with an interest in the crater. Each time he hit a wall, he'd ask the person on the other end who else they thought he should call and then called them.
By a quarter to five, he still hadn't gotten anywhere and had run out of names. He ran back over the data and correlated it with what he could get his colleagues to send him. Yes, there definitely was a gravitational anomaly. Something had shifted with the electromagnetic field as well, but that was all he knew.
Field, who like any good bureaucrat quit promptly at five every day, had begun to transmit his data and to pack up.
"You're leaving?" asked Altman.
Field smiled and heaved his pear-shaped bulk out of the chair. "Nothing left to do here today," he said. "I'm not paid overtime," he explained, and then walked out the door.
Altman stayed on another few hours, going over the data and maps again, searching for precedents for shifts like this in records about the crater itself or about similar sites, records that stretched all the way back to the twentieth century. Nothing.
He was just on the way out the door himself when his phone sounded.
"Dr. Altman, please?" said a voice. It was barely louder than a whisper.
"This is Altman," he said.
"Word has it you've been asking around about the crater," said the voice.
"That's correct," he said, "there's this odd anomal —"
"Not over the phone," the voice whispered. "You've already said too much as it is. Eight o'clock, the bar near the quay. You know where that is?"
"Of course I know," said Altman. "Who is this?"
But the caller had already hung up.CHAPTER 5
By the time Chava came back, dragging along his mother and a few of the other people from the nearby shantytown, the creature had changed again. The wet gray sacs on its back were larger now, each almost the size of a man when fully inflated. Its arms and legs had somehow joined, melding into one another. The flayed quality of the neck had changed, the flesh now looking as if it were swarming with ants.
The air around it had taken on an acrid yellow sheen. It hung in a heavy cloud, and when they got too close, they found it difficult to breathe. One man, a small but dignified-looking old drunk, wandered into the cloud and, after staggering about coughing, collapsed. Two other villagers dragged him out by the feet and then began to slap him.
Chava watched until the drunk was conscious again and groping for his bottle, then turned back to stare at the creature. "What is it?" Chava asked his mother.
His mother consulted in whispers with her neighbors, watching the thing. It was hard for Chava to hear everything they were saying, but he heard one word over and over again: Ixtab. Ixtab. Finally his mother turned to him. "Who is Ixtab?" Chava asked nervously.
"Go fetch the old bruja," she told him. "She'll know what to do."
The bruja was already heading toward the beach when he came across her. She was moving slowly, leaning on a staff. She was old and frail, most of her hair gone and her face a mass of wrinkles. His mother claimed that she had been alive when the Spaniards killed the Mayans, a thousand years before. "She is like a lost book," his mother had said another time. "She knows everything that everyone else has forgotten."
She carried a pouch slung over one shoulder. He started to explain about the creature, but she silenced him with a gesture. "I already know," she said. "I expected you sooner."
He took her arm and helped her along. Others from the shantytown were coming down the beach as well, some walking as if hypnotized. Some wept; some ran.
"Who is Ixtab?" asked Chava suddenly.
"Ah, Ixtab," said the bruja. She stopped walking and turned to face him. "She is a goddess. She is the rope woman. She hangs in the tree, a rope around her neck, and her eyes are closed in death, and her body has begun to rot. But she is still a goddess."
"But is she dead?"
"The goddess of suicide," mused the bruja. "She is the hanged goddess, the goddess of the end. And she gathers to her those who are dead by uncertain means." She stared at the boy intently. "She is a very harsh mistress," she said.
Excerpted from Dead Space Martyr by B. K. Evenson. Copyright © 2010 Electronic Arts, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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