Title: The Deep.
Author: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson).
Genre: Fiction, horror.
Publication Date: 2015.
Summary: A strange plague called the 'Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things first, like where they left their keys, then the not-so-small things, like how to drive or the letters of the alphabet. Their bodies forget how to function involuntarily. There is no cure. But far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, a universal healer hailed as "ambrosia" has been discovered. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab has been built eight miles under the sea's surface. When the station goes incommunicado, a brave few descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths... and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anyone could possibly imagine.
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ That's how it went with the 'Gets: you forgot the little things first, then the not-so-little things, then the big ones. Next, the critical ones. In time, your heart forgot how to bear, your lungs how to breathe. You die knowing nothing at all.
♥ His gaze trailed north over the crested hills. He spied a church. It must've been centuries old, perhaps the very first thing the area settlers had built. It was burned. The spire must have gone up first, the roof beams reduced to cinders until what remained of the steeple had come crashing through the narthex.
Nothing else had been torched in the entire village. Only the church.
♥ Luke inspected Bathgate's outstretched arm—Luke's eyes strayed toward people's hands and arms habitually, a reflex action. Research showed that the 'Gets wasn't spread through physical contact, the transmission of bodily fluids, or as an airborne pathogen. But it had taken a while to discover this, and sadly, several tragedies had occurred before it was fully understood. Men had been shot in cold blood as they had struggled to recall some hard-to-remember fact. The phrase It's on the tip of my tongue had become the basis for justifiable homicide for a while there.
♥ The highway wasn't snarled with stalled or abandoned cars, the way it always is in stories about the apocalypse. Because this wasn't exactly the apocalypse, Luke had to constantly remind himself. It was just something awful that was happening.
For that reason, or maybe just out of old habit, the important things went along as they had. Ideas of ownership prevailed. The dead were still being buried—not always in cemeteries, but the bodies certainly went into the ground. Rituals were still being observed. And that was good.
♥ ..the way her gaze could sit upon his skull like a tarantula ready to sink in its fangs.
♥ "Hope," Leo said. "That's the hardest part. Maintaining hope after what happens, happens."
♥ Leo sawed his palm across his nose. "It's all percentages, Doc. Life is percentages. When Mona came down with it, hardly anyone had gotten the 'Gets. Less than 1 percent of the population. But that's the thing about percentages—no matter how small, they've got to affect someone, right?"
♥ The Hesperus hovered against the horizon, holding its position against the rising sun.
God of the Evening Star—Venus. That's what Hesperus meant in Greek, Luke had been told. But it was frequently mistranslated in Latin as Phosphorus. Namely, Lucifer. Of all the names in creation, why risk that invocation?
♥ His sun-burned face was either cheery—His eyes, how they twinkle, Luke thought; His dimples, how merry!—or faux-cheery, as his eyes shone with cold scrutiny.
♥ "We were competitors at first," Felz went on, "though I'm certain Clayton never saw it that way. Your brother competes against DNA helixes, against scientific absolutes, against the universe. The notion of competing with another person is, I'm convinced, totally foreign to him."
♥ She wore no insignia or rank. Those things didn't mean as much now, the same way a policeman's badge carried less heft. Ever since the 'Gets, people were measured by their abilities rather than by the pieces of tin pinned to their chests.
♥ Everything looked new and modern, but so many of the structures seemed to be half built or unused. It reminded Luke of those model communities on the outskirts of Las Vegas, built in anticipation of a boom that never came. The Hesperus had that same ghost town feel—it was a place built for great things that had not quite come to pass.
♥ "Anyway," Alice went on, "what you see here is the whole world, holding hands. We got a lot of support from private enterprise, too. CEO's, CFO's, magnates, philanthropists. Everyone's smashing their piggy banks. Everybody's lost something to this by now, y'know? And what's money worth if there's no future to spend it in?
"Why is it all Americans, then? I mean, down on the Trieste? Dr. Felz said the researchers are all from the U.S."
"I guess because America always rides point."
♥ "It's still our world down there, Dr. Nelson," she said, "but that's like saying that the ice ten thousand feet beneath the arctic icepack is, too. Yeah, it is, but not anything we know. Our government has spent thirty trillion dollars on space exploration, and less than 1 percent of that to explore the world underneath us right now. But it's just as unknown. You'll be entering another world, really and truly."
♥ "You're not being fair, Luke. Zach's allowed to be scared. He's a kid. There shouldn't be a penalty in this house for being scared."
Luke knew she was right. Your child doesn't owe you loyalty or obedience. You owe your child love and understanding, owe it unconditionally, and if you love them strongly enough, eventually that love may be returned. Luke's own mother had never seen it that way. She thought Luke and Clay owed her love regardless of how she treated them.
♥ She wasn't really clever. Luke had been coking to that realization for a while by then. Not smart, just cunning. Animals were cunning. Animals also ate their own shit and chewed live electrical wires.
The only way to deal with monsters—real or imagined—was to show no fear. You had to become the Human Shield.
♥ There is a specific depth you'll hit where the soul finds it impossible to harmonize with its surroundings.
It's not the darkness. A man is acquainted with it by then—as acquainted as he can ever be. It's not the vast silence or the emptiness or the absence of any life-forms he can draw warmth or certainty from.
It's not the pressure. It's not even the fear of death that constantly nibbles at the edge of his mind.
It's the sense of unreality. This out-of-body feeling that you've stepped away from the path your species has always tread. Things become dream-like, inessential. Your mind, seeking solace in the familiar, retreats to those things you understand, but those things become so much harder to grasp.
Memories degrade. You remember parts of people, but you surrender their wholes. Abby could crack an egg with one hand. It was a quirky skill Luke remembered wishing he had. He could still recall the sight of her doing it and the yearning that he could do it, too. But the more essential parts of her were already failing him.
The water wasn't the same down here.
Water is what runs out of our kitchen taps or a playground drinking fountain. It fills bathtubs and pools and yes, of course, the ocean—but at a certain depth, water becomes a barrier from all you remember, all you think you know.
You're trapped within it, a plaything of it.
Focus erodes. Your thoughts mutate. The pressure.
The soul can't cope with that. It shouldn't be expected to.
Humans weren't built for this. There's a reason nothing lives down there.
Or nothing should.
♥ A high note of dread sang through Luke's veins—a mocking aria that sent a shiver through his bones.
What are you so afraid of? said that same voice inside Luke's head.
Everything, another voice answered.
♥ "Down here, people... they go nuts," Al said. "You see it a lot on subs. An extremely concentrated form of cabin fever. Even if you're cooped up in a cabin in the woods in the middle of winter, you can still open the door and breathe fresh air. Inside a sub it's the same gray walls, same cold lights, same smells of bearing grease and dust burning in control consoles. ..But if you're prone to the sillies, you'll catch them eventually. The sea whittles at you like a sharp knife taking curls off a log until you just..."
♥ "He's not just a biologist—he's a chaos theory wonk. You know much about that?"
When Luke shook his head, Al said: "Basically it's a mathematical field based on trying to make sense out of random events—which seems in hindsight like a solid prescription for psychosis, wouldn't you say? Apparently Toy wad given to forecasting worst-case scenarios. Every silver cloud had a dark lining."
♥ That's exactly how it would happen, Luke figured. That's how it had to happen, because until that very moment Luke had believed the world was essentially reasonable. If you followed the rules, the world played fair with you.
Kids didn't just disappear off the face of the earth. Not in empty public parks. Not in the time it took to count to twenty. Things like that never happened.
..A thread of unadulterated terror now braided into his heart. Fear mixed with a love more profound than any he'd ever felt, and mingled with dizzying guilt for letting that most precious thing slip from his view at a crucial moment.
The voice in his head was black—discolored and malevolent, the voice of something conjured at a Black Mass. It spoke with calm certainty.
Your boy is gone.
The possibility jolted Luke into action. He stumbled into the woods.
"Zach! Zach! Christ, Zaaaaaach!"
How long had he wandered through the trees, screaming for his son? Far too long. He should have called the police. They would have arrived in minutes. But even as he'd hunted more and more desperately, the fear and mania mounting, he remained certain that it was all some ridiculous accident—a misunderstanding that, once rectified, would be something they'd laugh about when Zach was an adult.
Remember that time Dad thought he'd lost me in the woods, only what happened is that I'd tripped and conked my head on a tree trunk and knocked myself cold for a few minutes? Har-har-har!
Something just like that, yes, goofy and commonplace and nothing to call the police about because it was fine, really, everything was okayokayOKAY—
Luke staggered out of the woods, wild-eyed and bleeding from the brambles. His mind was a jumble of horrific images: windowless vans and fillet knives and his son's fear-struck eyes. Only then had he dialed 911.
..A feeling of unreality washed over him. This couldn't be happening. It was like waking up to find out your arm was missing—you went to bed, slept well, and when you woke up, it was gone. There was no pain, no scar. Only a smooth expanse of skin over the nub and an empty space where the limb once lay. It was that kind of nightmarish inconceivability he was facing. He couldn't cope with it. Luke could live without his arm. Both arms. Both legs. His tongue and ears and nose. He'd forfeit them all gladly just to have Zach back.
But the world has always been resistant to bargains of that nature.
..There was something else in her eyes, too. Fuming in the green of her irises. Fury. She was so, so angry at Luke. Over time, that fury might've turned into hatred.
There were moments over the coming years when Luke wished that Zachary was dead. The fervency of his wish was sickening. But yes, dead. Of cancer or brain parasites or even drowning in the creek. If he'd died of cancer, Luke and Abby could have been at his bedside, making his final days as comfortable as possible. It would have broken them in some ineffable way, yes, but it would have allowed them to live their son through his final days on earth.
Even if he'd drowned in the creek... it was awful to envision, but at least it would be done. They would have a body to dress. Rituals to observe. A coffin, a funeral. There would be a sense of knowing where their boy was—even if that meant under six feet of dirt at the Muscatine Avenue cemetery.
..For a solid year after Zachary vanished, he spent every night on the road. Driving around the city and farther afield, down the streetlit corridors of night searching for his lost boy.
He found him, too. Found him everywhere. It was a phenomenon other parents talked about; Luke and Abby had attended a support group at the urging of their grief counselor. A dozen empty-eyed parents (ex-parents?) sitting in a circle in a chilly community center. They kept seeing their missing children, too. Seeing them in busy malls or whenever they drove past a schoolyard. They saw them in crowds: an arm, a foot, or maybe something in a child's posture that mimicked that of their own lost son or daughter. They had all rushed heedlessly into a throng, scooped up a child whose back was turned—so sure; so goddamn sure—only to see the frightened face of a stranger staring up at them.
Luke could understand. He's see the crook of Zachary's leg folding into a strange car and would follow that car until it stopped and a boy who wasn't Zach got out. He'd seen his son's tousled hair bobbing amid the crowd at the Iowa State Fair. In his more desperate moods he'd considered snatching someone else's boy while his parents' backs were turned—serves you right! You've got to pay attention every... single... second!
..Twenty seconds. Live can collapse in that time span. Abby accepted the fact that it wasn't all Luke's fault—it could have happened to anyone, sure—and yet she came to hate him regardless. She walked out because she wanted to stop hating the man she'd once loved... and because she must have realized that her hatred, though powerful, was a pale reflection of the loathing Luke felt for himself.
Luke couldn't blame her. He wasn't even mildly relieved to discover she'd gone.
..So he drove and grieved, and in time the 'Gets took its hold on the world.
He dearly wished he would catch it. Forgetting was the best remedy, wasn't it? Forget Abby. Forget Zach. Forget the wonderful life they'd had together.
Just let me forget. Please, for the love of God.
But the world was resistant to bargains of that nature, too.
♥ "Your brother will let us in," Al said. To Luke's ears, her voice held the mad certainty specific to leaders of doomed polar expeditions.
♥ His face was austerely handsome in a way particular to polar icecaps—flinty and remote.
..Clayton's face reminded Luke of a blanket pulled over a nest of scorpions: seemingly tranquil, but with all manner of thoughts and instincts twisting beneath it.
♥ Clayton turned and walked away with every expectation they'd follow, treating them with the indifference you might accord to a pair of slack-jawed yokels who'd just fallen off the hay truck—which, Luke noted with an absence of bitterness, was how Clayton treated pretty much everybody he met. He'd always been an equal-opportunity disdainer.
♥ The sea floor was as flat as a ballroom. It unfurled to the farthest edge of the light's reach—perhaps twenty feet—before rolling under a solid wall of darkness that no man-made light could penetrate. The marine snow drifted in seismic combers, gentle waves of motion... or as though something was moving cunningly under the surface.
Luke's heartbeat thudded dully at his temples. He put a hand on the window. The mammoth density of the sea throbbed against his fingertips. He pictured spider-legged cracks forming in his reflection, then water needling through to slice his fingers off painlessly; next the window would shatter inward as the ceiling crumpled down, crushing him before he could make peace with God.
"We watch it out there," Clayton said. "Perhaps it watches us, too."
♥ "Whatever this is I've discovered... it, they, can be communicated with, I am sure of it. Reasoned with. They are here to help. I sense no hatred. Only curiosity."
Curiosity. The word stuck in Luke's brain like a quill. Somehow it seemed even more frightening than pure hatred.
♥ The hatch was open. Just a hair.
Four small appendages were wrapped around the edge of the hatchway.
A child's fingers.
Luke saw them... then he didn't. They had slipped away.
Next came a series of excitable, clumsy footsteps trailing down the tunnel.
His son's name passed over his lips before he could choke it down.
Laughter bubbled up the tunnel. The sound grew fainter, threatening to vanish. Luke rolled off the cot and shoved the hatch open.
That champagne-bubble laughter flooded the dim tunnel in reply—the kind of laughter Zach used to make when Luke hefted him under the arms and lobbed him into the air, catching him deftly as he came down.
This is not happening, chirped a voice in Luke's head. Your son isn't down here. You know that, Luke. In your heart, in your head.
But he didn't, really. That was the thing—Zach was everywhere. Anywhere. That's what tore you apart.
♥ The pipe's mouth was covered with a checkerboard rebar grate to keep stupid kids out. Because kids were stupid sometimes. Even the smart ones, like Clayton. They would come to an isolated swamp past dark, say, to collect pollywogs. Far from the reliable streetlit world—hell, they may as well be on another planet. They could disappear and nobody would even know until morning. It was tragic, but it happened all the time...
Even a smart kid had to be stupid only that one time.
♥ Luke suddenly and dearly wanted to tell his brother about the dream he'd had. He wanted to spill his guts about the giant millipede that, for a span of pulseless seconds, he'd been absolutely sure was stalking him down that darkened storage tunnel. He wanted to let Clayton know that these depths exerted a breed of pressure that lay entirely apart from the eight hundred fluid tons of water that pressed down on every square inch of the Trieste right this moment...
...but he had a terrible feeling Clayton knew all that already—he'd know it deep under his skin by now.
♥ Al nodded with a grim look of commiseration and of understanding. In the gloom, her teeth were gray: a row of tiny tombstones.
♥ "I'm just saying that guilt carves you up, right? Things happen sometimes and there's no way to fix it—on the moment, or any time after. But no creature is more adept at putting themselves up on that cross than human beings."
♥ "Your brother could be suffering, too," said Al. "He may just wear it differently."
Dr. Toy's words floated through Luke's mind: You are not who you are.
♥ He looked back again. He couldn't help it.
A hand was coming out of the trunk.
Gray and waxen—the hand of a long-dead thing. It was thin, the fingers terribly long, the bones projecting under that drab stretching of skin. If it were to grab him, Luke figured each finger could warp around his ankle at least twice. Every finger was tipped with a sharp black nail.
It was, he realized with dawning horror, the same hand he'd seen inside the standing pipe—the hand belonging to the creature they'd fled in the swamp.
That thing that was here, now, in the basement.
He'd been wrong to fear his mother. His mother could be cruel, yes, but at least she was human.
Is this actually happening?
This was the most adult question Luke had ever asked himself. There was no place in the normal world, the world his mother and father and brother lived in, the world of baseball and snow cones and sunshine, for this thing to exist.
This is not really happening, he thought, more definitively now. And quite suddenly, the crawl space turned insubstantial, gauzy—a dreamscape. He felt a strange inner buoyancy, as though his stomach were full of soap bubbles. He drifted on a sudsy wash of horror, but it was dream-horror, unattached to real-life concerns. A giant hand in his Tickle Trunk, how silly! It was noting to be afraid of, really...
He realized, with a thickness of mind he felt only when waking from a very deep sleep, that the voice he was hearing in his head was actually coming out of the trunk. An insidious, narcotizing mimicry of his own voice—it slipped out of the trunk and slid into his ears like some effortless oil. It matched his own voice exactly... or almost exactly: it held a coppery undertone that rasped over the vowels and consonants like a straight razor over a barber's strop.
Nothing to be afraid of... not really happening...
Luke turned to face the door again and started to crawl desperately. His fingernails and kneecaps scraped the cement, opening the skin up. The door galloped away in heart-clutching increments—he chased it the way a car pursues a heat shimmer on the highway: always tantalizingly close, but you never quite catch it.
The hand spider-walked down the trunk. The attached arm was long and sinewy and seemed both boneless and jointless: a ropy appendage like a fire hose.
I don't exist, Lukey-loo. You said so yourself, didn't you? You're just a big dummy, like your brother says...
But it did exist—at least right then it did. And that could be all the time a creature like this ever needed.
He crawled, blood welling on his knees, throwing a glance over his shoulder at the trunk. The crawl space light went out.
Like didn't know if something had switched it off or if the bulb had chosen that exact moment to go out. It didn't matter. The darkness galvanized his blood. Maybe the darkness was better, in a weird way.
He raised his back, pumped his legs, and scurried across the crawl space. The wooden beams raked his spine but he didn't feel any pain. His adrenaline was redlined, the fear sharpening the edge on his every sense. He could hear the thing's arm slithering and shucking across the grimy cement—a huthump! huthump! noise, as if it were flapping in a wavelike motion, those long nail-tipped fingers digging into the cement for purchase and then huthump! as it flicked forward another foot.
The door was closer—he could see the light of the basement now, the edge of the water heater. Mercifully, the crawl space was shrinking back to its old dimensions. Or maybe they'd never changed: it was just another nasty trick the thing in the trunk had been playing on him.
Right behind him now.
Like swore he felt a hard cold finger touch his ankle, a sharp nail leaving a sizzling line of pain.
With a final convulsive heave, Luke propelled himself through the door frame and into the forgiving light of the basement. As he skittered away on his heels, his eyes were drawn to the square of blackness housing the crawl space.
All was silent, only the drumming of blood in his ears.
But he may've seen something. Maybe not.
Eyes? Black, ageless, regarding him from the dark.
Some other time, Lucas. We have all the time in the world.
♥ He was back inside his own skin now. He stood in the Trieste with Alice, staring at a supply crate that rested in the deepest, most shadowed point of the purification room. How long had he been checked out? It didn't feel like more than a few seconds—and maybe that was all it had been, each second stretching out inside his head.
Eight miles above, all over the world, people were forgetting their pasts. Trapped down here in the charmless dark, Luke couldn't escape his own.
♥ No, it didn't look anything like the Tickle Trunk, yet it held the aura of it.
It's like bullies, was Luke's strangely apt thought. They can be hulking and potato fisted or weaselly and slender. It's that cruel quality in their eyes that identifies them as part of the same tribe.
♥ Trapped in the tension of that moment, Luke wanted to kiss her. She wasn't one of the stereotypical corn-fed Iowa beauties he'd grown up around—but then neither was Abby, with her raven hair and Nordic cheekbones. Yet there was something deeply alluring about Alice, an aliveness, a wilderness even; it would be like making love to a Valkyrie or something. And why not? What could it harm? He was single, lonely, and hadn't felt a woman's touch since Abby left. Alice hadn't mentioned anyone, either. They could have a friendly little romp. Make love in the foxhole, release some tension, then get back to business...
...but they wouldn't make love—they would fuck. Rut. Luke was certain of it. Fall upon each other like wolves, tearing and ripping and biting; there wouldn't be an ounce of tenderness or concern for each other's body or needs; it would be a brutal release, a letting go of the pressure they'd existed under for too long, no different than two swollen clouds splitting open with rain. The Trieste would warp the act, making it loveless and mocking—afterward they would be sweaty and bloody in places, ashamed for reasons they couldn't pinpoint, weaker, mistrustful and less unified than before.
♥ I had my daughter, Hannah, with my second wife. She was born in Belmont, Massachusetts; I was on a grant from MIT. Our neighborhood had wide streets, big lawns, rows of well-kept colonial homes.
When Hannah learned to walk, we reorganized our living quarters. We were fastidious in creating a safe environment.
But the basement door kept opening.
The basement held the detritus of past renters, stored in dusty boxes. The steps were shallow... except one step was bigger than the rest; you'd hit that big bastardly step and just about go ass over teakettle every damn time.
The basement ceiling was so low that I'd have to stoop like a crone. There was a sick, fruity odor that thankfully didn't waft up to the next floor—it smelled a little like death. As if a cat or dog had died of starvation down there, or maybe of fright.
There were spiders, too, big amber-bellied bastards—spiders and the odd skittering movement that may have been rats. I laid down traps but never caught anything. Still, every time I went down I'd hear something pattering through that warren of old boxes.
So yes, the basement door kept opening. And it attracted my daughter.
The first time it happened, my wife alertly swept Hannah into her arms and shut the door. She gave me a recriminatory look, as if I'd left it open.
The next time it happened I was alone, keeping an eye on Hannah without keeping a direct eye on her—as a parent, you develop a sixth sense. When my eyes ticked up, the door was open. Hannah was perched a few feet from the basement stairs.
I shot up and gathered her in my arms. She shrieked. Most worryingly, her arms reached toward the basement—as if she'd wanted to fall. As if she believed something down there would catch her.
Afterward I found a wedge of scrap wood and pounded it under the door until the clockwork of veins at my temples thudded with blood.
The last time it happened a blizzard was raging, snow slicing so heavily that we could barely see our neighbor's porch lights. I was distracted. My grant was in jeopardy, the car needed a new muffler... off in my own little world. I wondered afterward if it had sensed that, and taken advantage.
How had the wedge popped loose? I'd pounded it in hard, driven by rage and fear: the wood had cracked, pressure holding it in place.
Hannah stood at the lip of the stairs. The darkness was such as I've never known.
My daughter said one word.
Nanna was her grandmother on my ex's side. A narrow-shouldered, birdlike thing. But Hannah loved her, and fairly so: the woman doted on her.
One word, spoken clear as a bell. Hannah's arms stretched towards the darkness.
I saw it then: some ineffably old thing dressed in the skin of Hannah's grandmother, the bones showing through in spots, staring up at my daughter and smiling through a mouth of rotted teeth.
Come then, honeybug. Come hug your darling Nanna.
I caught Hannah at the last instant—my index finger slipped inside her diaper, between the cleft of her buttocks. I felt the terrible weight of her body straining against the diaper clips. She would have fallen headlong...
That, or something may have caught her.
My eyes fled down the steps, even though every muscle and nerve ending in my body fought it.
I saw nothing. Just the steps trailing into that twitching darkness.
But I felt something howling up the staircase as loud and clear as if a banshee had shirked at me.
Not a sound but a sense. Of NEED. Of HUNGER.
Something was starving in that basement. Something that had been born starving, maybe. It was never full, would never be satisfied.
I grabbed Hannah tightly. There came a harsh snick! like the jaws of a bear trap snapping shut. That, and perhaps a ringing note of laughter.
We moved out within a week. Shortly thereafter my wife and I divorced. The usual boring reasons: and accumulation of petty resentments and personal weaknesses. But a sentiment existed beneath those usual ones, unique to us: for two years we'd lived atop an unknown but festering horror that could've erased us.
Whatever had invaded the basement of that colonial home in leafy Belmont had been there a long time. Eventually it would've beaten me, outsmarted or out-quicked me, and as its prize would've claimed what I loved most. It was old, ageless maybe, and far more cunning than I.
How can a rational man run away from a basement? How could he admit that he was illogically frightened of nothing? But that sense of threat never abated; it was akin to that taste you'll get at the back of your throat before a big storm sweeps through—it's imminent, it's coming, all you can do is find safety.
Which brings me back to my recurring dream.
Which is this:
I am perched at the edge of those basement steps, about to fall. There is no preamble at all—I drift into sleep and that's where the dream begins.
In this nightmare I am an adult, and I'm naked... all except for a diaper, the same as Hannah once wore. It should be funny, but in the nightmare it only adds to the terror: every trivial detail is precision calibrated for maximum horror.
I'm standing at the lip of the stairs with my arms windmilling for balance. I am about to fall—the nightmare seems endless and yet I am always just about to fall.
It is dark at the bottom of the stairs, incalculably so. Something down there is shuffling forward, about to broach that thinning light.
I'm staring down, wobbling, and see something. My waking self can't even envision what it is—some things are confined to dreams, thank Christ.
But it is coming. I feel it. it's need. It's limitless, timeless hunger.
And then I wake up.
♥ I dropped my own eyes, speechless. It was awful to see a man go crazy right in front of your face. But I didn't blame Hugo one bit. Minds crack down here. Pressure bursts pipes, as the saying goes.
♥ The place repulses.
There is nothing to nourish the soul. Nothing but man-made angles and inert materials. Nothing is cut from nature, holding the supple appeal of objects that God has touched. God's finger doesn't reach down this far.
♥ Want to hear a story my mother told me? My mother was a Bible-basher. Bashy-bashy-bash that Bible, Ma! Ignorant dilettante scare-mongerer...
This story wasn't in any Bible. Don't know where she got it. Her crazy-ass stepfather? Yes, so...
Once there was a great exorcist. He saw demons in the waking world. They were everywhere. Perched on some poor fucker's shoulder or wrapped around a sinner's waist, its filthy hands down the man's pants, inciting him to vice.
Most of them were pests. Parasitic hellspawn who created havoc in the minds of weak men, leading them to cheat on their spouses, beat their kids, steal from their employers. But there were some very bad demons. They weren't physically big, necessarily—one of the worst was no bigger than a fruit fly. It'd perch inside the ear of a victim, dripping poison into that person's brain. The body of another was gauzy and fungoid. It wrapped around a man's head like a cocoon—it looked like a tent caterpillar nest on an oak tree.
Nobody could see them but the exorcist. He banished them. The same demons more than once, in some cases. And there was a place, my mom said, a nexus where they congregated. A deep, dark place. When the exorcist banished a demon from its host, it fell back to this spot. Sometimes the demon would remain down there a long time. It was difficult to get out, you see. The demons would swirl around, nipping and snarling, waiting for the opportunity to ascend to the human realm again.
These demons killed the exorcist. Eventually, inevitable. He didn't fling himself out a window like of Father Karras. Each encounter left scars on the exorcist—not physical, but psychic. These powerful demons hacked at the exorcist's brain, taking swipes like with a tiny razor, each fight wrecking him a little more, warping his reasoning until he 120couldn't fight them any longer. His body was found in an alley behind a cathedral where he'd fled seeking sanctuary, his face torn off by feral dogs.
I think of my mother's story now. That deep, dark place. If you had to hide something—if you were God, say, and could command it—if you wanted to hide the worst, most threatening things you could imagine... well, where better?
Answer me that. Where... BETTER?
♥ A beehive is a marvel of mathematics. A home of hexagonal cells, the sides of each cell meeting at precisely 120 degrees. The hexagon is the perfect shape for storing the most honey while using the least beeswax. Every honeybee is born with the knowledge of how to build a honeycomb. They instinctive know that hexagons are the building blocks of their homes.
♥ "We are just skin." My second wife said this in one of her fouler moods, when I had the bad timing to comment on her lovely figure. "Me and you and everyone, we're all just skin and fat wrapped around bones."
Yes, I'd told her, but I happen to fancy the way you're wrapped.
♥ This is not about the Disease. The 'Gets. Never was. The 'Gets was simply the vehicle, the substance whose purpose was to ferry the valuable commodity—US—to the site of infection. The 'Gets was the tail we foolishly chased down the rabbit hole. There is no cure down here. There is only madness and malignant evil and death. I should say, if we're lucky, death. We've been tricked. Played. Our love and hope and desire to do good for mankind—our need to understand, to CONQUER—brought us here against our every instinct.
I am known. I mean to say, whatever lurks down here (and yes, oh yes oh yes oh yes, something is down here) KNOWS me. Knows my history and loves and fears. It has been studying me for a long time. My whole life, even. It has met me before, and vice versa. And it has arranged, through some slyboots method, to bring me down here.
I am in the basement with the beast. It is the same one, I fear, that lurked in our home back in leafy Belmont—that same beast, or somehow connected to it. The creature that tried to take Hannah (HANNAH!). The same beast whose ageless need and hunger howled up those dusty stone steps. The one I fled from like a coward.
But you can't run. It will find you. Hunt you down and find you.
It will lay a trap in the basement of the world and bait it with the sweetest fruit and it will wait. It's been waiting a long time.
It has waited long enough.
♥ Luke gratefully let the terrible event pour out of him—sometimes the only way to disburden oneself of the poison is to share it with somebody else.
♥ He felt it out there. That sucking, hungering nothingness.
He found a flashlight in a drawer. He turned it on and trained it on the sea floor. The beam illuminated that mounded whiteness, marine snow piled in layers.
There are places on earth where light is unwelcome, Luke thought. Light has no power down here. Darkness is king. Light flees the dark, or it gets devoured.
Something snaked into the dregs of that light, lashing fretfully. Thick and reddish, an enormous night crawler flicking against the window. LB yipped in fright. Luke backed away... then was hit with another image, so much larger and so terrible that his soul withered at its prospect. And yet he didn't see anything—it would've been impossible in that blackness. He only intuited it. Luke caught a sense of something out there. Its presence was enormous, mind-filling. In that moment, he saw how things would look if the seas were drained: the station surrounded by monolithic alabaster cliffs that went up and up until their faces welded with the blackness above. The trench unfurled flat and featureless to the base of those cliffs—and in his mind's eye, he could see this... this... thing on those towering sheets of stone. It clung to the cliffs with many limbs, spanning all around the trench the way a spider fans its limbs across a web. It had no head to speak of. It was all limbs—all tubes—and each limb was the thickness of an oil tanker. Those limbs convulsed as it detached from the cliff, lowering its terrible body onto the ocean floor. Its limbs smashed down into the ghostly muck, sending up combers of marine snow that rolled in awesome white waves....
♥ Luke's mind heaved. Another chunk broke off the crumbling landmass of his psyche, drifting into the dark. The portion that remained could comprehend that madness—true, uncaring lunacy—was not far away. Madness had been there since he'd set foot on the station; it had been dogging him persistently, waiting for the cracks to develop so that it cold slip painlessly inside. That's exactly how it would happen, too: a quick little jab like a needle administered by an expert nurse. He'd barely feel the insanity take hold.
♥ The most profound darkness he'd ever known swept over him. The absolute absence of light, fueled by a fearsome pressure. Workers in a caved-in mine shaft might have an inkling of this sensation, but how far down was the deepest mine shaft? A mile? At eight miles, the blackness was some new kind of scientific thing, a darkness nobody had experienced before... except this wasn't new, was it? It was the opposite. This darkness was ageless. And it had been waiting a very long time for Luke to inherit it.
♥ It's me, Daddy. Just little ole me. Ole Zach Attack. Shine your little light on me. You'll see, I promise you'll see everything!
Luke wouldn't—couldn't—let the light touch the thing hooked to the ceiling ten yards away, wearing his son's pajamas. If he allowed that to happen, he would go mad. It would happen instantaneously, the moment the light touched the thing's teeming face. A sharp note would sound in the dead center of his mind, a brittle snap or click, and his sanity would be burned out like a fuse going dead. A deadness would enter his eyes. He'd begin to titter along with the thing on the ceiling.
He might even be inclined to... to hug it. The two of them entwined lovingly in the dark. Yes, he could imagine that happening quite clearly.
♥ He didn't know how to pilot the damn thing, but Al said there wasn't much to it. Seal the hatch, drop the weights, rise like a cork. Maybe he would rise too fast and the bends would twist the Nelson boys into human pretzels. Luke didn't care. He didn't want to die down here. It he had to die, okay, he was nearly resigned to it now—but he wanted to die while moving toward the sun.
♥ He would find her, or she would come to him. And LB, too. The world owed him, didn't it? The world had taken, and now it would give back. That was the way things worked, wasn't it? On a long enough time line, you paid what you owed—but you also go paid back. And hadn't they all paid enough? Weren't they owed, by God? Al, the dog, his brother. That was all Luke was asking for. A helping, fortuitous upward draft. Let a single beam of light in and let him follow it up, up, up out of the dark—
♥ Luke tried to wrap his arms around LB's front legs but they were scrabbling with such mindless intensity that he quickly changed course. Instead he grabbed her head and neck in a modified front headlock and tried to pull her away from the Mushka-thing... away from the hole that it was so clearly backing toward.
"Come on, girl," he panted. "Hold on, hold on with me here."
The Mushka-thing's entire head was now welded to LB'n flanks, stitched to her flesh by some grisly alchemy. It was already difficult to tell where LB's body stopped and the Mushka-thing's started. Its skull was flattened and fanned out, the fur bunching up between its ears like the folds of a shar-pei dog. Its eyes, which were flat and gray as oysters, slid across the loosening canvas of its face until they merged into a single jellylike eye that stared at LB with an unquenchable hunger. It issued ceaseless sucking sounds. LB's body convulsed as something was hoovered out of her from the inside, creating a fleshy indentation in her chest. She howled.
"No no no," Luke heard himself shouting. "No please no please no—"
He tightened his grip and pulled as hard as her could. LB shuddered. The bandages ripped away from her torn ear. The Mushka-thing continued to back toward the Einstein poster on its stick legs. Clickety-click. Luke pulled with so much force that he felt's LB's spinal cord pop as the discs dislocated. It was useless. He may as well try to pull a tree out by its roots.
You're going to kill her, he thought. You'll snap her neck.
His next thought: Would that really be so bad?
The Mushka-thing was relentless. It had waited a long time to claim its prize. Luke pictured the two dogs coming down in one of the Challengers. Had Al brought them? Maybe so. They would have been shivering and worried as the fathoms dropped, but they had each other. And maybe that's all the Mushka-thing wanted—for them to be together again. To explore whatever lay behind the hole as one.
Like couldn't budge her. Functionally, they were one creature now. Physically fused together. Finally, heartbreakingly, Luke sat in front of LB. He stopped pulling her. He hugged her instead. Even as she was being tugged remorselessly toward her fate—one Luke could not derail—he hugged her fiercely. He kissed her nose, hot with shock. It was, he realized, the same standard of care he offered shelter strays. Every few months he would volunteer at the local pound, putting down creatures who were too old, too sick, too irredeemable or simply unwanted. A dozen, fifteen at a go. It wrecked him. He would stagger out to his car afterward, shivering, and cry. It was easier with animals who were loved; their owners, whole families, would stand around that cherished fur-ball as Luke ushered it out of this life and into the next. But strays were euthanized in a cement room where a single light bulb hung on a cord. They may have gone their whole lives unmothered and unloved. They didn't deserve that. No creature did. The one thing that anyone should be able to count on receiving in their lives, love, had too often been withheld from those poor souls. And so Luke would comfort them. Each animal. He would spend a few minutes cradling them, rocking them, speaking softly to them. Sometimes they wouldn't stop shivering, or nip his gingers. This hurt him—not the pain, but the fact that love and gentleness was so foreign to these creatures that they didn't know how to accept it. Then he would kill them. It was not fair, and he hated himself for being the agent of that pure, inevitable fact. The world did not hold to any standard of fairness that Luke could comprehend. All his life stood testament to that. Good men die in wretched agony and bad men die happily in their beds. Creatures live and die never knowing love.
The Mushka-thing jerked. LB was wrenched backward again, yanked out of Luke's grip. He slid forward and reseated his grip. He wasn't desperate anymore. His fingers caressed those soft spots behind the jaw that all dogs loved to have rubbed. He rested his forehead against hers. He felt the thud of blood pounding in her skull.
The Mushka-thing reached back with one clowning rear leg. It snagged on the poster and tore it down. The whispers assaulted Luke immediately. A yammering, mindless—
No, not mindless there is a mind behind all this
—riot. Those fishhooks sunk into his head again, skewering his brain.
The hole was the width of a manhole cover, but wider on one side; it resembled a mouth twisted into a murderous sneer.
He began to cry then, clutching LB. The tears came easily. He had not cried tears of such distilled regret since his son had gone missing. LB was going limp, either spent, tired of fighting, or resigned to her fate. Luke hugged her so, so tight. He wanted LB to remember his touch. The warmth and love that radiated from his whole body, coupled with the sadness that she was being ripped away from him. He wanted her to take that one physical memory with her wherever she was going. The imprint of his hands on her. He wished it to be a reminder that she was a good creature, and loved, and that there were places on the continuum where love and kindness still existed, even if she did not share that world presently. She did not deserve this. But things happened. They happened.
LB's body came alive in his grip, buckling in what Luke hope was a final death-spasm. Her paws beat aF frantic tattoo between his legs. White foam like beaten eggs emitted from the sides of her mouth.
"Oh no," Luke said. It was all he could say, in the end. It seemed to say everything. "Oh no oh no oh no."
The Mushka-thing was being sucked into the hole. Once its body made it halfway through, the pressure intensified exponentially; LB was jerked forward, at the mercy of whatever monstrous force existed on the other side. Luke kept pace with her. He stroked her head as gently as he could, but his hands were shaking badly.
Please remember, he thought. Please remember that you are part of the goodness of it all...
♥ Fingers. Those are fingers they're fingers they're—
Like's hand operated of its own accord now. He saw things. Dreadful things.
A dusky load suspended from the hive on a strip of organ-meat...
A glint of bone that shone a delirious sapphire-blue...
A pinky grooved ball that twitched when the light touched it...
Other things. Some worse, none better.
You wanted to see, my son. Do you like it? Does it please you?
Finally, horribly, the light fell upon a ball crawling with bees.
It projected from the hive a few feet above Luke's head. At first Luke had no idea what he was seeing—it could have been the bottom of a wide-bellied beaker. The bees fretted lovingly over its surface. Perhaps an exhaled breath sent them off; whatever the cause, they lifted away to attend to other labors.
I'll kiss it better.
That was the stupid thought that zipped through Luke's mind while his eyes drank in this most sublime horror. Abby used to say it to Zach whenever he scraped his knee or stubbed a toe. As if something so simple as a kiss could salve all hurts.
Don't worry, Alice, I'll kiss it better. Just a kiss and it will all be okay...
Her neck bulged from the hive, webbed with syrup. Her face had been sliced open vertically and horizontally, the cuts intersecting at her nose; the flesh was skinned back from the center of her face in four triangular flaps, stretchered out and stitched to the comb. Her scalp was split down the center, the skin peeled back in thick folds; each fold had been anchored to the hive on thin metal armatures that must have once been part of Westlake's lab equipment. Her naked skull bone was dull as chalk.
Alice's body had been teased apart and strung all through the hive. Luke understood that without actually seeing all the evidence. Every limb and vein and nerve stem woven throughout the comb, tended to by diligent drone bees. Luke could only hope that she'd been dead before any of this began. He could only—
Al's eyelids snapped open. Her eyes were so very white in the flayed redness of her face. They rolled down languidly to meet Luke's horrified gaze. She smiled, her teeth ripped out. The grin of a newborn.
..Luke would kill Alice. Slash her throat open—one swift sideways swipe to let the blood out. If these putrid things killed him for that, so be it. But he'd kill her before they finished him.
Alice's eyes filled with red as they hemorrhaged blood. They became the same color as the bees' eyes. Her lips formed a single word.
Luke's hand stilled. Bees alit on his arms, friendly now, nuzzling his flesh with their furry abdomens.
Alice smiled—it was the same one he'd seen on Abby's face at the hospital after Zachary was born.
The smile of a new mother.
The bees lifted off his arms, whirring into the dark. Luke followed them with the flashlight—
He saw it then. The final horror.
A huge translucent sac hung pendulant from the underside of the hive. It was the size of a trash bag—this was Luke's first, incredibly domestic thought. The big orange ones he'd stuff with autumn leaves after Zachary had finished jumping in the piles Luke had so diligently raked.
Instead of orange, this sac was milky, strung with blooms of red and blue veins. The bees zipped around it in protective patterns, a thousand insect nursemaids. A few large bees tiptoed over its surface, which was convulsing with unnatural birth.
The sac hung in close proximity to the hole—which was far bigger than even the one in Clayton's lab. Light poured around its edges.
By that light Luke could see something moved inside the sac. Limbs strained against its membrane the way stray elbows and knees will push against the canvas of a tent. Luke could barely glimpse the fearsome outline of whatever lay inside.
The sac ruptured. Thick, veiny broth gushed out. Luke shone the flashlight up to Alice. Her face was dented, her nose and cheeks forming a horrifying concavity—the pressure of this unnatural birth was caving her skull in.
But she was laughing. High, breathless screams of laughter.
Luke backed toward the hatch. There was no saving her. No saving LB. No saving no saving no saving—
The bees formed a corona around his head, their bodies beating at his back. Something breached the sac. Luke didn't get a good look at it, which was a mercy. Only a sense of some gaunt and nightmarish limb slitting its own womb apart with mechanical ruthlessness, making a sound like a thousand knuckles cracking as it tore and gouged.
Luke's heels hit the lip of the hatch, spilling him into the main lab.
The hatch swung shut on Alice's deformed, gibbering laughter.
♥ A final memory:
Luke staring through Clayton's eyes again, up the basement stairs at their mother, who lay on the kitchen floor, nothing but skin and bones. She'd lost hundreds of pounds, the weight sloughing off. Doctors and specialists had paraded through the house for months by then; she'd visited hospitals as far distant as Houston and Rochester, Minnesota. Her condition left the best medical minds stumped. Bethany Ronnicks continued to wither into decay, her body the equivalent of an old jack-o'-lantern left on a front stoop weeks after Halloween had passed.
"Please," she whispered. "Stop this. I know it's you, Clayton... a mother knows."
Luke felt a smile spread across Clayton's face, a sliver of teeth in the dark. He must've looked beatific, a child saint.
Upstairs, their mother wept. These raw, hacking sobs.
"You bastard... rotten-ass bastard."
Luke felt something trickling down from the fuming stew of Clayton's subconscious. Pleasure. The most incredible pleasure imaginable, beyond sexual in its intensity.
Luke had always known Clayton was a monster of sorts—he now understood that Clayton grasped this fact of his essential self with a rational, clinical objectivity. He was a monster of detachment, eternally unmoored from his fellow man.
But their mother was a monster, too, and one much worse than Clayton. She'd given Clayton a reason to let his own monster out of its box... and his monster was a steely, calculating, devouring one, able to kill another of its kind with relative ease.
Clayton lay at the base of those steps, drinking in the sobs of the woman who've given him life—the woman whose life he stole by subtle degrees until she was gone, her scarecrow remains buried in a cedar casket in the Memory Gardens cemetery on Muscatine Avenue in Iowa City—and he smiled. His contentment was more sublime than anything he'd ever felt until then or had felt since.
♥ The smaller shape dipped his hand into the water. The tips of his fingers sent out delicate ripples.
Luke thought: Don't touch the water, Zach. Don't give yourself over to it, ever.
His body speared toward them. His lungs burned. It felt good, necessary. You had to suffer to reach those you loved. To suffer was to care.
An emotion bigger than joy, bigger than relief, bigger than hope ripped through his chest: bigger because it was all these emotions, concentrated and magnified.
♥ How much time had gone by? He didn't care. Something had broken inside his head. He lacked the ability to properly acknowledge this fact. His mind could no longer process the scale of its own ruin.
♥ His son coyly turned away. Shapes thrashed and fretted, half glimpsed, as if his face had given birth to a nest of snakes.
♥ He opened his arms. "Zachary. Please."
The space behind Zachary swelled with light. The darkness blew away; beyond that lay a new emptiness, illuminated by an aquifer of sickly light. A pair of arms filled that emptiness. Enormous, world swallowing. Flabby and wrinkled, sallow flesh draping the bones like proofing dough. Ghastly arms ending in huge, cruel hands. Thick knuckled, each finger curled into a sickle.
Familiar hands. Those of his mother.
Behind those hands lay a shape or shapes that Luke could not fathom. It spanned out and up, sheer as a cliff face, rising beyond the reach of his sight and his mind. The cliff shone in places—the dazzling but condensed light of a camera flash reflected in tinted glass. It was dark in other spots, a shade more profound than any Luke had known.
♥ Ancient. These things were older than anything any human being had ever laid eyes on. Their flesh was flayed open, the raw tendons scored with tiny cracks. Yet their skin was nearly translucent, too, as if their bones had been smeared with a thick coating of Vaseline—it was as though the years in their endless accumulation had sucked the pigment from it. Their skulls showed through in places, the bone as brittle as the parchment in a dusty book.
These creatures were carved out of time itself—the hands on the clock couldn't touch them anymore, though they had certainly left their mark.
Pitiless. This was Luke's second and overriding sense. Beholding them, Luke realized for the first time in his life that there are things on earth, or beyond it, who are careless in the most quotidian terms: they lack the inclination or desire to care for anything. They are pitiless in the most simplified fashion, as they simply lack the ability to feel it.
♥ Tricksters—the word raced through Luke's mind. Merciless game players. Everything that had occurred had been the work of these... things.
"Why not just leave this place if you hate it so much?"
The tall one shook its head. "We cannot, child."
"We have been shackled," the squat one said petulantly.
The Fig Men's eyes swiveled skyward. Heavenward. Luke could only wonder at their origins. Perhaps they were the last surviving members of an ancient tribe who'd been cast out, cast down. Shunned. They had lain down here, licking their wounds. Next, they set about baiting their trap—and when that moment arrived, their knives were sharp for the opportunity.
"Why?" Luke asked.
"We like to toy," they said in perfect unity.
Toy. Never in Luke's life had the word sounded so monolithically sinister.
"We fiddle," the squat one said.
"We test," said the tall one.
"We discover how things work."
"How they fail."
"Their pressure points."
"We are curious."
Luke envisioned these ageless tinkerers examining bodies and minds for the sheer sport of it. Flaying brains open and plucking each synapse like the strings of a lute, teasing out every private fear and horror. Caring nothing for those they entrapped and tortured, committed solely to their games.
♥ Luke's brain pounded within its bowl of bone; it seemed to expand, the grey matter expanding with the mad hum of his tormented thoughts, pressing against his nasal shelf until he was ill with it. Memory as a sickness.
♥ "The ambrosia," he said. "Yours?"
"Your kind requires a small enticement. You need..."
The tall one looked to the squat one in search of the word.
"Bait," the squat one said.
"Yes, bait. The hounds must chase the hare down the hole."
"And the 'Gets?"
"A happy convergence," said the squat one. "Our powers do not extend to such a degree."
"You would have come for less," said the tall one.
"You are a vain species," the square one sneered.
Luke knew this was true. Ambrosia appeared to cure the 'Gets, and so that was how the narrative played out—the hunt to find a solution for the incurable disease. But Clayton and others of his ilk would have pursued the lure of the ambrosia regardless of circumstance, whether it promised relief from cancer, AIDS, or old age. The unknown was a profoundly powerful intoxicant.
♥ "Why me?" he asked again. "You had my brother already. So why?"
"Because," the tall one said, "we had nothing to offer him in return for bearing our gift."
"There was nothing tying your brother to the surface." A look of true confusion graced the square one's face. "He prefers to be with... us."
"There is no accounting," the tall one said.
"But you." The squat one flicked a serrate black tongue over its teeth. "Ohhh, now you..."
"You have loved, my child.
"You have supped that weak nectar."
"You have ties to the sunlit world. And you see, we too wish to see the sun again."
"After all, we were there for its birth," said the squat one.
♥ "Our gift..."
"I won't accept it."
The tall one said, "Why ever not?"
Luke set his feet. "I'll die here."
They chuckled mordantly. '
"Oh my child," the squat one said, "will you remain a stranger to yourself to the very end?"
"You love too much," the tall one said. An expression flitted across its face that could have charitably passed for sorrow. "Your kind does so—loves heedlessly, without restraint or governance. It can lead you to grand places, surely. Places we have never seen or ever will."
"But love has other uses, too."
The ovoid ball those monstrous hands had left behind began to throb, its exterior issuing crackling birch-bark sounds. It bugled and heaved as whatever lay within struggled to set itself free...
A cocoon. Of course it was. Just like the one he'd once pointed out to Zach in the backyard, the one with a lunar moth crawling out of it. This cocoon was tar-black, just like the ones that had encased the Fig Men in his son's closet...
The cocoon expanded, pulsing like a diseased heart. Its exterior shed in crackling layers as it stretched with an awful elasticity.
Something split through. Dark and bladelike. A broth of pulpy sludge issued forth. One appendage was joined by another. Two arms, two huge and spidery hands. Tearing and sawing the cocoon apart.
A bulbous head appeared. It was all black. It opened its mouth—out came the shocked cry of an infant.
Its eyes opened next. They pinned Luke in a gaze that was equal parts malevolent and loving.
"Daddy," it said.
It slipped from its sheath. Its shape was incomprehensible. Its lunmatic anatomy humped toward Luke, those two gnarled but powerful arms dragging the ruin of a body still slick with amniotic fluid.
Zachary. After all this time, Luke's son had returned to him.
He fell to his knees. The Fig Men watched impassively.
"Our gift," they said. "Will you accept it?"
♥ Luke Nelson's final memory was this:
Zachary was five. Abby had enrolled him in peewee soccer. Zachary was the goalie. He'd let in the winning goal. They walked home afterward. Zachary in his cleats and shin pads, his white socks stained with grass.
People think it's about winning and losing, sport, Luke told him, because he could tell his son was upset. About winning, mainly. But that's not it. It's about the trying. The not-giving-up. We're all going to lose. So it's about losing and going on, keep going on, even though you may lose again and again. You may never win, buddy, not at some things. So it's about working as hard as you can, every day, to find your spot on the mountain. And then it's about being okay with where you are so that you can get some enjoyment out of that, and out of the things in life that are more important than whatever place you end up in that silly old mountain, anyway.
Zachary turned his face up to his father, the underside of his chin lit by the paling sunlight. He'd nodded stoically—a gesture well in advance of his years—and kept his silence. Perhaps he'd understood that even if his father hadn't managed to put his mind at ease, at least he'd tried. Being a father was an imperfect science, and its test subjects, that man's sons and daughters, had to accept their father's imperfections just as each father must eventually accept those same imperfections within himself.
♥ The Challenger ascended.
And within it, nothing human.
The vessel's ascent was swift—the sea ripped away in deferential sheets in order to aid its climb, or perhaps to cast it out.
Far below, the Trieste lay in spiderlike contemplation. No light shone in its labs. Its tunnels ran empty. It waited as it had since the beginning of all things, in one guise or another. Its walls bellied against the ceaseless pressure. Perhaps the thinnest stream of water would needle in, and moments later the strange and horrible edifice would be flattened... but some places are resistant to both time and pressure. Their occupants—their true occupants—are similarly impervious to such things.
Perhaps the Triste's many-splendored halls would entertain life again. A select group good-hearted souls entrusted with the salvation of the human race. Students of rationality and science who had heard the breathless stories of those who'd gone before and smartly dismissed them. The Trieste's prior occupants had been weak-minded, superstitious fools.
And so they would come down in ones and twos, arriving with their hopes and goals and adamantine minds—minds they believed to be unbreakable.
And who knows? They might bring a dog or two with them.
The power would be restored. The lights would flicker down the tunnels and over the wide window in the main lab. And whatever existed there would retreat into the darkness, its natural element, until the time came to call itself once more into the light.