AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Ten - "Evil Germs of Matter"

At the foot of the mountain . . .

Chapter Ten - Evil Germs of Matter

Claire Smith shifted anxiously while heavy rain came straight down from pouting black clouds. She held a trench coat over her head as a makeshift umbrella, but it had soaked through entirely and barely kept fresh drops from her head. Her lips were blue and shaking. She had worn a wool miniskirt and matching sweater in the hopes that it was enough to keep warm and not too much for the club. She had counted on the buses running on time.

I'm such a fucking idiot, she told her herself. It was easier to wrap herself in pity than it was to brace against the cold. The buses hardly ever ran on time and, looking up at the route number, she wasn't sure that it wasn't one of the canceled lines that had gone under when the city sold the transit department to private contractors. Her hair had been done up in three elaborate buns but was destroyed by the fall rainstorm, her nipples poked out from her too thin sweater matted by the invading elements. What little make-up she wore was smeared or washed away.
I should have let James drive me, she thought as she moaned and shook her coat, I would be there by now.

Later, maybe twenty minutes, maybe an hour, with her teeth chattering and knees numb, James pulled up behind her in his rumbling beater. She jumped when he laid on the horn to get her attention. That old rusted silver mustang from god-knows-when creaked down the street like a fallen angel.

Her brother rolled down the window and grinned.

"Hey there Tadpole, where ya swimming to?" he said.

"Thanks James, you are a life-saver," Claire said as she climbed in the car, wet skin squelching on the torn leather upholstery and pinching her thighs where her skirt clung. She draped the coat over the seat between the two of them.

"Hey, after I rescue you, now you're gonna get me wet too? Some sister." James joked, unleashing his easy smile. "Cate and Yance are already at the Bezel Room, they said I should go look for you."

"That's sweet of them. I'm sure you took some convincing."


The rain poured down on the hood of the car in little chaotic rhythms, rising and falling, the patter serene and sweet when divorced from its chill attack. The heater spewed waves of dry air on Tad. She tugged off her heeled boots to put her toes up in the vent. The windows steamed quickly and James wiped his with his sleeve.

When they got moving and as Claire's shivering subsided, James started to cough. She patted him on the back.

"Easy there . . . what's this?" she said. Strange. As he coughed an inky cloud not unlike dark phlegm from a bad cold shot out of his mouth. The stuff floated like it was lighter than air and then dissipated.

"Ehrm!" James cleared his throat, "What's wrong?"

"I . . . I don't know," she said.

His lips were stained black.

Remembering this was worse than imagining his death. His passing, and others she had known, had been softened by the indifference from the rest of the dead - the same withered bodies, the same immobile husks. 

That was why she hid it from them.

The sirens were never out of earshot, but they hadn't seen a sign of their pursuers for an hour at least. They could afford a rest. She needed a rest. As they arrived at the northern edge of SW AC-4 on Billy Blind Street, she slowed, her chest burning. But even as she regained her breath, the burn wouldn't go away. It didn't even hurt, not really, like soft smoke that wouldn't leave her lungs. She stopped as the smoke filled her, seizing her heart, and she coughed into her hand. She closed her eyes as she hacked hollowly.

Please, God. The phlegm was smooth, almost silken in her hand. She opened her eyes around stinging tears. Plague soot stained her palm black.

"Guys!" she called out, panting feebly. The adepts were ahead, leading them to a distant mountain on the outskirts of the Cities. She tasted soot on her lips. She kept her head low so they wouldn't see. "Wait up! I need a break." They stopped and waited on the other side of the street underneath a line of immaculately pruned trees. The magick blades in their hands faded like dying fireflies. Tad wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and then wiped her hand on her coat, wincing at the familiar texture of the soot, at first rough and then melting away like flakes of black snow.
Those rat fucking bastards. She squeezed her eyes shut and crouched with her head between her knees, breathing in rasping gasps with the soot swirling in her chest cavity. The immersion in the vat must have infected her. 

"Fuck them. Fuck them," she said quietly, biting back her tears. Her head throbbed, either from exhaustion, her trial in the compartment, or just from crying too much. The Agrats had never pinpointed the source of the plague, but it was obvious to her now. The Paternach could control it, had weaponized it somehow, and they had used it on her. She had to dig her fingernails into her ankles as she huddled to keep herself from falling into a manic sob. She breathed evenly in an attempt to gain control of her rage, to beat back despair. Holm began to double back towards her. She sniffed deeply and let out one final long breath before she straightened to join the adepts.

Tad intercepted Holm and pulled him back to the shade of the tree's branches. The street ran along a wide, empty industrial lot with a lettered marker under a light every few hundred feet. To the east an elevated shuttle rail ran south over Billy Blind and then through a gigantic building that looked like four massive squares: three balanced precariously on the one squashed into the ground. Beyond this - huge on the horizon - was the mountain, jagged and dark, seeming as much an absence or opening as it was stone and rock. Its edges blended perfectly with the night sky. She forced herself to look away before she became lost in the puzzle of its true shape and size.

"Maybe we should get on that shuttle," she said, gesturing to the tracks where a train passed with a distant creak and rumble, its lighted windows streaming by like faded old photographs. The string of compartments was too far away to see if anyone was on board, "It would be nice to stop running for awhile."

"Yeah, it would be," Darling consented but could not disguise her doubt. Tad knew it would be a risk, but the sickness burning in her lungs made it worth it. 

"We should try," Holm said. His eyes were on her and she had to turn away from him. 

"That building," Darling pointed to the T-shaped complex, "is Heles Mining administration, I'm sure. Let's see if we can find anything out in there before we try for the mountain."

"The mountain," Holm said as he stared at the looming shape, "I've been there before." His forehead wrinkled and his nose turned up. If there was a word for his expression she didn't know it. Like he was turned to the unknown without fear or courage, like a baby prepared to birth before the shock of being hits it with hot light. His look made her shiver and she put her hands in her coat pockets.

The sirens had dwindled and died while they rested. Darling began to walk towards the mining company's building, heels cracking sharp on the pavement, the paper bag crumpled under her arm. Tad and Holm soon followed, his eyes still fixed to the mountain. They had shaken their pursuers, and the lonely expanse of the park with its flat and sterile landscape could hide no one for half a mile in either direction, save from where they came across Billy Blind Street. Tad couldn't shake the feeling of imminent danger. She walked on the balls of her feet because she feared the slap of her boots made too much noise. Holm stepped in uneven scrapes in his fine shoes taken from Steve. Darling's hard soles pierced in a preposterous, reverberating note. Tad tried to tell herself, she just wasn't used to the emptiness. But that was a lie. Emptiness was all she knew before the last few days in the months since leaving Porton and her old life.

Old life - same as the new life. She eyed the bag innocuously crumpled under Darling's arm. Now that she was so close to the root she thought it couldn't possibly help them - her, or her people. If she held it now she would see it for what it was: just a dead hunk of wood. She abandoned this depressing thought. She had come for it and she would bring it back. Not for herself. For those left behind. 

Holm limped along next to her, Steve's gaudy clothes hanging a little large on him, a pillar of mystery in the stark wasteland.

I'll tell him soon, she thought, Soon enough.

She reminded him of James, shabby and honest in his naiveté, groping blindly for understanding and friendship. She peeked at the journal in her hands and read the title. She wondered if there were answers inside. She'd had to leave her duffel bag in the diner, otherwise she wouldn't be tempted to look at the pages. Darling had read some, and Tad had the idea that it had changed her. Even as they walk side by side Darling wouldn't look at him. They continued in silence as the concrete hummed with distant energy and the train squealed, metal on metal.

"Oh God," Holm said stopping in his tracks, "Look, under the rails . . ."

She saw them. Three lurking forms coming out from beneath the shuttle line, framed by the dark steel girders criss-crossing in an unvarying alphabet, one with a lantern held high in his hand, the two flanking him casually with rifles over their shoulders.

"What to we do?" she said as she huddled next to Holm and Darling, who tensed and moved her hand, pointer and middle finger barred straight. The outline of the athame warped the air as it solidified. Holm was calm.

"They aren't moving against us. Let's keep going, maybe we can make the building," he said and he waved them to follow. The hunters stayed put and watched as they approached. The friends passed under the outskirts of the building. The furthest portion of the T-section hung over them. A steel-leaved cargo door was set into the base of the structure. 

"What are they doing?" asked Darling with a demanding look at Holm. 

"I think . . . I think we are doing what they want. They said I had a job to do. I didn't know what they meant. Maybe this is it. They said they followed me back."

"From another place. Maybe the shales. Maybe somewhere else," she said hesitantly. Tad was bewildered; from fear of the hunters, uncertainty about their intent, and Darling's secret knowledge.

"Let's get inside - I don't want to wait to see if they change their mind about coming after us."

"Me . . . Coming after me."

"What's the difference?"


The massive reinforced door to the cargo bay clanged shut behind them, and a bellow of dry heat struck them as they entered. 

"It's like a desert in here," said Tad, wiping sweat from her neck. The air was thick and dusty like silt and sand in a storm. No, not sand. She felt the familiar skim of plague soot when she rubbed her fingers together. The others spit wetly to expel the stuff that got in their mouths. 

An orange haze tinted the cloud from long lights on the ceiling forty feet above them. Cargo containers were arranged haphazardly, stacked precariously on the warehouse floor. As they stood brushing at the soot uselessly, a shuttle passed far over head, shaking the containers and throwing a new coating of ash on them. The crackle of static from the propulsion slowed and, with a screeching peel of metal versus metal, it came to a halt. They were half way up the metal staircase on the far wall when the sound resumed, first with a series of electric clicks, and then with all the ferocity of a storm as the shuttle left towards the mountain.

"You know, I bet this is a private circuit," Darling said.

"Aren't they all private?" responded Tad as they reached the catwalk at the top of the stairs. Half way down the walk a rusted metal door led further into the belly of the building.

"Of course. I meant it must be for mining workers and bureaucrats. For this facility and the mountain," Darling said as she opened the door. A wave of soot poured out seeping down through the grated catwalk and pluming upwards, pushing her back. She waved her hands in front of her face and then pulled up her shirt to cover her mouth. They waited until the worst of the stuff spewed out before continuing.

Beyond was an open office with desks arranged in a grid five deep and three across and two glassed in on the opposite wall. Next to the corner offices and behind a collapsed wall with sparking electrical wires was another door.

"There's nothing here. This place is abandoned," Holm said as he touched one of the desks and swept some of the soot off of some papers, "These are dated a few weeks ago."

Tad searched the chairs underneath the desks and wiped away the soot from the corner office windows.

"Strange," she said, "Normally the plague would leave remains. At least some bones . . ."

"It wasn't the plague that did this," Darling said.

"But look," Tad waved her arms indicating the clinging infestation.

"No, I know what it looks like. I've seen this stuff come from a man . . . or something like a man. He had a black coat and no legs."

"No legs, huh? I suppose," Tad said with a snort, "The council back in Porton is pretty sure the Paternach is responsible."

"I'm saying these men; these . . . things . . . are weapons."

"Does it matter?" Holm had crossed the rubble of the wall and held door open to the inner stairwell.

The shuttle station was little more than a metal box with a bench and an open space that the elevated tracks ran through. When they opened the upper hatch from the stairway a gust of cold air relieved them of the acrid cloud. Tad breathed in the clear air, her lungs aching and her sweat stained black by the soot. She suppressed a cough. They sat waiting, save Holm, who balanced at the edge of the platform and leaned out to spot the oncoming lights of the train.

Tad flipped through the journal on her lap. She saw pages torn and others crumpled and upside down from rough handling. She considered reading it but wondered what good could come of anything she learned. Darling had been frightened by what she had read. Tad thought she wouldn't be able to go on if she were anymore afraid than she already was. She couldn't help but look at a few scattered phrases, but most didn't make any sense to her: "poisoned the apparatus" and "trouble for the return but will pay dividends for the amplifier" and "exigencies not entirely wrapped up" were a few of the absurdities that flashed before her. Some chilled her and she turned quickly away from them: "body on ice in the cold room" and "it is not essential that the child lives through the procedure", to these she closed her eyes, focused on the work of getting to the end, and fought back against the tyranny of fear. Everyone died faster if they were afraid.
She stood and walked to Holm, his hair and jacket blowing in the tunnel, looking out at the open track where it left the building. 

"Hey, kiddo."

"Hey," she said. She held out the journal to the wind. The first few pages were hesitant and clung to the stack in a flutter before a draft carried the rest to flight. Holm made no attempt to stop her. Darling stepped beside her and put her hand on her shoulder, smiling.

"Can't trust a Patern anyway," she said. "You did the right thing. Nothing in there would change how you feel. You already know what's right." She turned to follow Holm's gaze out the tunnel.

Tad blushed. She didn't like keeping secrets . . . they trusted her. But how to tell them? She promised silently not to slow them down - she would keep on.

"Oh? What if I think the road back to Porton would be a lot longer without your help?" she said feigning indignation, rather poorly. She was glad to be with them, and she realized she didn't want to hide it.

"This sickness, why you came here . . . did it take someone important from you?" Holm asked, hands in his pockets, fists bulging at his hips. Tad nodded as she felt the sting of tears, "In a way it took something from me, too. At least it was the same bastards. I won't let you down." Holm smiled big underneath his mustache, his eyes creased and heavy with a dormant sorrow that he couldn't help expressing to her.

The platform shook and she joined the others craning their necks out over the tracks to see the oncoming shuttle, holding on to each of them for fear of falling. The shuttle rounded a wide arc off the edge of the industrial park, its twin headlights presaging its passage on the curtain of night. The tracks below lit up as the energy stored within activated to power the shuttle's brakes. Tad understood something of the physics of the system, having been tasked once, maybe a year and a half ago, to sabotage a similar structure in Porton. The brakes take up the most energy from the Cord, wrapped underneath the rails, since the momentum of the wheels on the super smooth tracks was so efficient. The sound would have been deafening without the acoustic dampeners built over the shuttle wheels. As she covered her ears Holm tried to say something to her, but the words were lost to the noisy crackle of the rails and all she could see were his lips moving. 
Something about "the last time?"

When the shuttle finally halted and the doors slid open, Tad asked what he had said. 

"Oh, just that I'm glad I can actually ride on it, unlike last time." he said ,shaking his fist at the shuttle with a bemused moan. She laughed but had to cover her mouth. After they entered he turned to scope out the car, but Darling was already sitting down, leaning her head back on the hard seat.

"This thing is totally empty. I could tell as the first cars passed. It's just on auto pilot, endlessly looping around." She drew a circle in the air with her finger before letting her hand fall into her lap, "Useless!"

The car shook a little as it restarted keeping true to its cycle. The overhead lights brightened with the strengthening of the batteries. Holm and Tad remained standing with their hands on the cold metal bars, though the ride smoothed out enough so that this seemed unnecessary. Tad looked out the window and down the fifty or so feet to the ground. Nothing to see. She sat down eventually, her knees aching, her eyes unable to determine shapes or distance in the void outside the portal window. She laid her head back on the seat like Darling, who rubbed her temples with her fingers. Tad tried to sleep.

She was dozing when a rise in the noise of the shuttle and the corresponding rush of air that comes with a door opening between cars roused her. Her eyes snapped open. She saw Holm standing in the same position. Darling jolted upright. The lights dimmed though maybe it was because her eyes were having trouble adjusting. No - the darkening continued.

"Holm? What's going on?" But just as Tad spoke the lights popped on, hurting her eyes. Her vision blurred and she rubbed her face in shock. She scrambled to her feet and groped for Holm where she had seen him standing before but he had moved. By the time her eyes had sufficiently adjusted the lights went out again.

"Darling is that you?" She fumbled and grasped a thin wrist. But something was off . . . a long puffy coat covered the wrist. As her hands searched up the arm tufts of cotton or other insulating fabric fell from the sleeve. She felt blood on the tips of her other hand's fingers.

"I'm over here Tad," Darling's voice sounded very far away. The windows themselves had brightened with a red glow like coals burning in an old locomotive furnace.

"Who are you?" she asked.

She already knew. Perhaps she asked to give herself a chance to cope with the dread of seeing a dead man, twice over if Holm had killed him the night before she had met him like he said

She stood face to face with one of the hunters. His head looked large and lumpy with the hood pulled tight around it.

"Oh, Tad! Pleased to see you again." He took her hand and shook it with a firm, icy grip.

"What do you want?" she said, trying to sound strong but failing completely.

Another flash and she saw Holm and Darling again, beckoning her from the back of the train car. They didn't make any noise, there was no sound at all, but they waved her closer - they did not seem afraid. They sat down with her and all three were side by side with Tad in the middle before the light quit once more. The fire blazing outside the windows returned. Framed in the panorama of orange and red were the outlines of the other two hunters sitting across from them with their rifles laid on their knees. She saw their faces - Holm tried to cover her eyes but she batted him away - I'm not a child, she argued silently with him. 

She wished she had not. The man on the left, his gun bouncing on his jittery leg, had no face at all. A seeping puss coated a twist of folded flesh that dominated the rim of his face where a jaw and forehead should be. A recess of wrinkled purple scabs festered inside that flesh. When he spoke his voice came at her from all directions like a phantom driver on the shuttle's speakers.

"You're almost there . . . so close to the threshold," he said to Holm. His voice seemed so familiar to her that for a moment her revulsion and horror was quelled.

Then the hunter on the right said, "But the archer forgets his quiver. One last gift from the Foundation," with that same booming, reverberating voice. That one's head pumped, like an inflating balloon, the beating of a massive heart. She saw through the sack-like womb of his head.

She covered her eyes.

Again the lights blinked on. Again the hunters slide out of sight - between this world and the other.

"What are they doing?" she asked and leaned forward with sweat beading on her lip and brow, ready to move, to grab her gun, to follow the adepts' lead. But they did nothing.

"I don't think they are trying to hurt us." Holm's eyes were placid but they shook slightly with concentration.

"They want to tell you something, Aegis, you better listen. They aren't what I thought they were. Not enemies. Ghosts," said Darling. She had her arm behind Tad as if to prevent her from doing anything stupid.

I'm not a child, Tad said to herself again. Why would they think that? Settle down, Tad. But how could she, she had struggled in this world her whole life, what chance did she have against another one?

"But to what purpose-" Darling said and would have continued, if it had not happened again.

Darkness and the furnace outside.

There was a light, different from before, the orange coated hunter carried it towards them from the opposite end of the car. His hood was down and Tad saw he had no head, only a face, thin like a paper cut out. He held aloft a lantern. A spear of light traveled down the car and then broke into a thousand different colors; a kaleidoscopic vision. He walked softly towards them, his lantern swaying with the gentle rocking of the shuttle, dimming the light by closing a gauzy window over the eerie flame. He sat across from them, placing the lantern on the seat next to him, and crossed his legs. He leaned back and leisurely bobbed of his foot. 

"Gen, you've caught up with me." Holm spoke calmly and his eyes continued with the trance-like vibrations. Darling touched Tad's arm. She gasped and Darling put her finger over her lips. Darling's eyes were vibrating too . . .

Gen continued, "We're never far behind . . . listen close! I told you before that we killed the dog?" he said poking his finger into his hand to emphasize his point. Tad mustered the will not to exclaim, I saw it. I saw the dog!

"Yes, I remember, what of it?" Holm said.

"You were supposed to take the hide. It's an essential piece of the path to life."

"Path to life?"

"Oh dear." Gen shook his face and pursed his lips. Tad saw through his eyes to the strip of orange from the window. "He hasn't figured it out yet?" he said to Darling, her breath caught in her chest and a long swallow rippled her throat.

"I wasn't sure . . . it's never happened before," she said.

"What? What's never happened?" He pressed close to Tad, his face searching for remembrance. He was putting the pieces together but finding they didn't fit.

"The dog ate your memory, like a vulture on dead flesh. It guards the barrier, one for each adept who rides the arc of the Talus, to strip the being of its earth-bound encumbrances," Gen said. His easy manner and professorial tone unnerved Tad beyond his in-humanness. What was this about the barrier?

"Holm-" Darling's voice cracked.

"Say nothing! He will reject the truth until he sees its face and touches its body," Gen said, firm. The other hunters shuffled from the opposite end of the car carrying a large bag folded between them. "Here come Rob and his brother Rob. They have the skin of Materbelius the devourer."

"What truth?" Holm demanded, "What skin? I've had enough of you putting the spurs on me all of the time!" He stood and the athame flashed red in his hand. The Robs did not stop their slow shambling procession. Gen just chuckled with his chin low into his coat and raised his hand up in a conciliatory gesture.

"Do not fear what you find when you reach the end of the line. The spell requires your return to the mountain. Then you can come home to your new mother," said the hunter. 

Holm's fist trembled with the force of his frustration and his teeth ground tight in his jaw.

"The new mother . . . the Talus?"

Gen smiled broad and bright. The glow glinted off his teeth, clownish in his puffy coat, pleased with his riddling ways. Tad was not so scared anymore, even if the ugliness of the monsters repulsed her, even if she felt powerless in their presence. Then again, against Gen's whimsy was the implication of a singular path - no deviation seemed possible. Some obscure fate awaited Holm, maybe all of them. The line was already drawn.

Why do I go on with them then? Tad glanced at the paper bag, No, not that. What pulls me with along him? I'm not responsible-

Gen's eyes were on her. It was a look of sorrow: tears welled in his black eyes. He saw her sickness. She was afraid he would reveal her secret. Instead when he spoke he offered words of hope.

"You were called to him by his need. You are the protector of this sacred mission."

"Me?" She shook her head. She was weak and battered. All she wanted was to rest.

"You'll be ready when the time comes."

No. I won't.

Then the spirits came to Holm, lifting their gift up to him. The skin was creased and painted with dried blood. Lines and splotches, like markers on an ancient map, dotted the surface of the offering. As if to confirm Tad's imagining Holm pointed his finger and ran it along one of the drooping creases.

"Fine," he said, "I'll take it."

Gen sighed with heavy relief. His puffy jacket almost seemed to deflate and the Robs lifted up the skin high so that it wouldn't drag on the ground.

"Then be restored," Gen said. The Robs wrapped Holm in the skin so that the wispy black and gray fur was on the outside making him look like a wolf walking upright. Gen raised the lantern to his face. There was a burst of light as he opened the gauzy screen. He blew a strong breath at the flame. Tad expected blackness.

But the lights of the shuttle car had activated. She fluttered her eyes at the crisp lines in the compartment: the old pastel colored plastic chairs, the lights, the windows. She felt the hum of their travel over the tracks under their feet. 

The hunters were gone.


Tad and Darling embraced Holm as he sobbed and hacked spit from his mouth. His hands were sloppy with the fluid from his eyes and nose. He covered his face with the corner of Steve's silver jacket and snot shined in wide arcs as he cleared it from his nostrils. The dog-skin made him seem small, his tantrum childish, but Tad couldn't imagine the shock of remembrance, she wouldn't judge him for his weakness now.
For some time he was just unintelligible, screaming out gibberish, trying to tear his hair out of his head. He struck himself in the face with hard fists before Darling could restrain him.

He quieted down and Tad loosened her panicked grip on his body, but then he returned to mania and cried out for her not to leave him. Finally, through the tears, he started to make some sense.

"My fault . . . all my fault," he insisted.

"What is Holm? What's your fault?" Darling said, both comforting and coaxing. Sorrow overtook his words again and he wept through it as he tried to explain.

"I remember everything . . . my old life . . . coming to Hundun . . . betraying Hundun . . . people who were . . . fighting for peace in this world. Really I gave up everything I loved . . . and . . . and then when I tried to get it back . . . I'm a murderer!" He punctuated this by hitting himself in the chest as if to kill himself with the impact.

"No, that wasn't your fault," Darling said. She looked at Tad with dark eyes. 

"It was! My wife. My boy."

"We don't know if the boy is dead," she said, patting him on the back, petting him through the dog-skin.

"Harry. Harry was his name," he said after taking a deep breath at the tail end of a wail.

"So your son's name is Harry? We'll find him," Tad said trying to hold onto something specific, something that didn't hurt him so much to think about. She asked Darling: "Do you think he is in the mountain?"

Darling hesitated, perhaps wavering in her determination to give him hope if it would turn false, "Well . . . I think they took him for some reason beyond getting Holm to bring them the root. Holm, what do you think of that?"

His sobs quieted some. He took stuttered breaths between his words but he could articulate more clearly some details of his memory.

"Um . . . my . . . my son was sick with the plague. It wiped out our whole enclosure. Rachel's enclosure, I guess. I was gone by then. I think I took him to the root. Put him in the bath."

Darling went pale and a black furrow of anger darkened the lines of her face for a moment. But the anger passed and she spoke with a rasping restraint. "This explains some anomalies we've been detecting at Hundun. It might explain the weakening of the root."

"Who took him? After that, who took Harry?"

"It was this man named Armando. Except he wasn't a man. He's not from around here. He beat the tar out of me."

"I know about him," Darling sniffed, "The journal mentioned him." Her hand froze in place on Holm's back and her eyes staring as if into a great distance. Tad felt the train turn. She looked out the window she saw a glint of dawn. Another night had passed with no sleep. Or was there sleep? And dreams? She didn't know. It didn't matter. The Accelerated Cities were far behind them, the tips of the spires visible through clouds over where they had come. 

She looked ahead and saw the blot on the world that was the mountain. Dark and huge. Darling's eyes were drawn to it too. Holm sniffed back the worst of his pain and sat up to look at it, eyes ringed red.

Darling whispered, to herself, to no one:

"These mountains, when they fell down . . . how long ago was it? A hundred years or more. Anyway, it's said that they used to be smooth as marble, perfectly shaped in cones. When scientists of the old nation explored them, they found the Talus deep under the new rock. The Talus was the source that saved us when everything else failed. Suddenly the world got moving again. The shales were open to us. But everything moved too fast. Or, I guess, we were too slow for what came." 

"The Paternach," Tad said.

"That's right." Darling watched as they drew nearer.

"How many of them are there? The mountains?" asked Holm.

"There used to be a thousand or more. Not so many now."

They listened to the hum of the shuttle as the shadow fell over them. Tad thought of James again. She remembered him slamming three pints of Blatz in thirty seconds and then promptly throwing up beer foam all over the counter at the Bezel Room. Thinking of him now she felt she was saying goodbye to a distant past, to someone no longer her brother, just a vanishing memory. There were stories she told herself about him when she was sad. But she wasn't sad anymore. She thought of his wide smile and big lips, the unkempt hair, and the way he flipped the collar up on his jacket, the jacket she wore now - black denim, a zipper on the side under the right arm where the gun was hidden - she had learned that from him. 

He thought it looked so cool. She flipped her collar up and she rubbed her cheeks against the rough fabric. Maybe she wasn't the same either. 

She let go of the memory and let the mountain dominate her mind, its sloping rocks and indefinite surface, stretching to heaven and over like the mouth of God swallowing them whole. They were coming to an opening, a square cut like a pin prick in the mountain's face.

"We are one sorry crew," she said to the others before turning her head away from them. She coughed long and hard into her cupped hands. She squeezed them into fists and the soot rolled out from underneath her fingers like the juice from a crushed fruit. Damn it.

Damn it.


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