3LBE #17
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And Their Heart Like Engines

by Miranda Ciccone

 

They waited, hiding. Saul tried to ignore the stink of Jackson’s blood, but it filled his nose. Saul was afraid it would make him sick, but what could he say?

He listened with one hand pressed to the steel door, trying not to breathe, trying only to hear. There was no sound. In the darkness, his mind conjured up strange images. He could see his breath on the metal turn white and fade. Images and dreams sparking and fading: lights without matches. Fire without candles. Dreams without belief. The ancient and terrible fear of the dark.

He turned from the cold surface to Jackson, lying on the floor. Stretching out a hand he touched the warmth of the man’s blood.

“Christ, Jackson,” he said, “I don’t think we’re making it out of this.”

There is no sky on the moon. There is the dusty grey-white surface like old bone ground under the heel of the ages, and there is the vacuum. There is, for the body standing on the wide pale plain under the stars, no atmosphere to lessen the shock of the void, no gentle cushion of ozone to shield the eye from the relentless nothingness.

Jackson made a slurping, disgustingly organic noise. Saul knew he was trying to breathe, and reached for him. The palm of his hand was sticky and warm as passed his fingers blindly over Jackson’s face. He felt the man trembling.

“Oh, God,” said Saul.

He got up, and pushed the door open. The huge curve of the city’s dome reflected the light of the stars, but beyond he could see the Black and far, far away, the rim of the Earth, blue and green, aflame with the light of civilization.

He looked back toward Jackson, though he could barely see the edge of his boot in the faint nausea-blue light. It wasn’t as if this place had been intended for human habitation. Certainly it was not meant for human survival.

“I’ll come back,” he whispered to the dying man. “Come back, when it’s taken care of.”

He pushed the door shut carefully, and he ran, swift and low, following the wet trail on the metal road, trying to stay out of the glow from the blue running lights. There was no sound but his heartbeat and his breath, and he could smell his own sweat and fear. He reeked of it like a wild animal.

all the wicked angels

He needed a weapon. He had to fight. Somehow. His head clanged with thoughts of desperate struggle, primal instinct, ideas of what might come. He was soaked with sweat. Bent nearly double from the crouching run, he came to the place where it had found them, where it had torn the insides out of Jackson and splashed them around the room. Where he had dropped the gun. He wasn’t supposed to have a gun. After all, what sane person would expect trouble on the Moon, the Earth’s data storehouse? The permanent deep freeze? Yet even in the early days, when the first Techs stepped off the orbital elevator, they had looked up into what wasn’t there and resolved to arm themselves against it.

Now Saul stumbled into the darkened room and with desperate, fumbling hands he searched the worktables; in the blue and useless illumination he threw tools and work orders on the floor, and slipped and stumbled from room to cubicle to empty, unoccupied office.

Why were there offices? Why had they built rooms? Why the beautiful, elegant arching domes over the cities of endless banks of computers? Why these touches of humanity, these illusions of gentleness in the midst of the reeling madness of the vacuum? Saul struggled. He waded through knee-deep stacks of paper, the dried whispering words and data of dead men. He felt Jackson’s hands claw at him.

He’d dropped the gun when he’d hoisted Jackson onto his shoulder and the man’s blood spilled down his back onto the metal road behind. The roads were metal. All the cities on the moon were made of metal, all the ranks of black windowless buildings and banks of computers, with huge crystal domes upon which the abyss bore relentlessly down, and down and down.

Beneath the bunk in the infrequently used residential cubicle, his hand closed over the familiar shape, cold and heavy. He drew it out, and felt its weight. It was loaded. He’d fired once, maybe twice, and heard the thing squeal like an animal and the sound of scurrying feet, the scratching of claws.

Now he picked up the weapon and tried to feel better about it, but the emptiness in his gut, as though the whole world had dropped out beneath his feet, remained with him.

He stood with care, one hand flung out and groping at the nothingness around him. His chest rose and fell rapidly; the air tasted of stale ozone, a memory of mechanics, of failing systems.

“All the wicked angels,” someone said, “With their souls on fire.

“And their hearts like engines.”

He inhaled harshly. The words were not his. They came out of the darkness, from the smell and the cold sharp air on his face and the backs of his hands. He drew breath through his nose and mouth.

There was an odor of flowers. A breath passed his lips, cold and stale, into the damp spring afternoon.

“With their souls on fire,” he heard again, and looked around. A man was speaking.

He was at a funeral. His father’s funeral. The mourners were all around. The grass was wet and the sky cloudy and damp. His mother stood some distance away, leaning on his uncle and weeping. He looked up at the sky.

More words were said. Saul didn’t really hear this time. He was looking into the gray sky, but the clouds were fading. Something was wrong. Something had been torn out, the curtain of the world was being shredded, ripped away, like skin, like flesh, like the belly of his friend.

“We’re standing at the edge of a great darkness,” he said to no one in particular, staring up into the starry abyss, “The edge of a following tide.”

He snapped his head down. Flowers. Blooming in the darkness. His fingers were illuminated with blue. He put his head down and ran, out into the black that was not night, was nothing like the night. He could hear the thing now. Not with his ears. He knew it was there and he could hear it in the terrified beating of his own heart. The thunder of the tide.

His father voice said, “There is an infinite abyss of chaos like a black, unrelenting ocean. We know it’s just there, beyond the world we build.” His father was sitting up in his coffin. “Beyond the sanctuary and the light and life. We know it’s there, always, with the sound of the lingering thunder at the edge of our mind. Only stretch out your hand, and you can touch the edge with your fingertips.”

He gasped. His foot struck something in the blind darkness. He heard now the noise he dreaded: sharp nails on a hard surface. A roof? A floor? To the right? Behind?

with their souls

on fire

His mind screamed. He grasped the gun with both hands and, half-crouching, exposed in the middle of the road, he tried to go forward. But the shrieking howl made his hands shake, and the bones of his legs, and his teeth chattered so violently that he stuck his tongue between them to make them stop. “Oh God, please stop — please…”

He heard breathing. Not his own.

Something else. Were there words? Not real words, not spoken.

In silence his father said, “We are at the edge of the abyss.”

There was a sound, a moment. In the dark he jerked the gun up and fired as the monster leapt.

As it arced through the air, he followed it with his mind and fired, again and again and again.

A noise of flesh. Something screamed; it rattled the crystal domes. The vibrating cacophony of the spheres. The hair on the back of Saul’s neck were all on end. He heard a heavy body hit the ground.

“What protects you? How will you ever be safe?” His father again.

Saul approached, both hands clutching the gun, tongue clenched between his teeth, blood running from his mouth.

He was surrounded by flowers, blooming in the blue light. He saw the body of the thing. He didn’t know what it was, shimmering from muscles to skin to scales. It wasn’t human nor animal and never had been. It wasn’t. Only a monstrous evil amidst the flowers. It seemed only half-real, fading in and out of the blackness with each of its heaving breaths.

Saul steadied the gun, aimed at its head, and fired. Bits of skull, brain, and shadow flew all around him. Blood spattered his grey Technician’s uniform. He wiped at it with a clumsy hand, smearing it all across the front of the jumpsuit.

“Nothing,” he said then, to the flowers, and he looked up past the crystal dome into the depth. “It’s nothing.”

“It need not come from the darkness,” Said the funeral-voice, from some great and hollow distance. “A brilliance of nothingness, a blinding abyss. The emptiness of the stars.

“It need not come out of the darkness.”

He said, “No, nothing.”

He was naked before the void. Looking down he saw the shadows in the light and nothing more. In the darkness, there was nothing. Beneath the blackness, beneath the dome, standing in his skin with blood on his lips, his hands twitched and then were calm. He inhaled the smell of ozone. There were no flowers. There was no sky. Nothing lay bleeding on the blue-lit metal road.

There was only the darkness, and him.

 

 

Miranda Ciccone - Miranda spent her childhood with her nose buried in sci-fi and fantasy books, and to this day very much consider herself a science fiction geek. She enjoys darker themed stories for the opportunity they present both to pursue creative and original ways of storytelling, and to deal more intensely with themes not often recognized or fully explored in more traditional sci-fi. Her story “Babyface” appeared in The Harrow, and she continues to attempt to develop nonstandard stories that twist perceptions and expectations. She lives in Dayton, Ohio and with a fourteen-year-old firebelly newt that is still going strong despite its advanced age.


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ISSUE #17

April 2008

FICTION