Skyglass: Chapter 8
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Scourge and Scavenge
I found myself the biggest gun I could hold and headed out of the city in a rented van. When I reached the green-fuzzed limits of the Gut, I stopped and got out; hoisted the warm, oily machine over a shoulder; and continued on foot.
It was time to end my father.
I was ready and jittery with anticipation. I’d always been in end-time, but now the last step was actually happening and I couldn’t wait to be finished. To find the end. To walk away with smoke lifting from my footprints. In the beginning, just after he’d made me human–those days when I’d just run-run-run–I’d asked myself why I was wasting myself for him, why I was letting such a stupid, sun-slurping pig rule my life and be my catalyst. But then I realized I wasn’t. I was my own catalyst. I deserved revenge and father number two deserved to be its victim, because once, I’d been fire–and then he stole me. He stole my power, my nuclear heart, my ability to billow out proof of my fire-self in a gout of heat. He killed me in the only way fire could be killed: he put me out.
And yet, here I was. Still straggling along the rotting path he put me on. In some ways, a human with a spine of feeble fire was the perfect combination to survive this place–this planet and its human-warped galaxy. I would always burn longer and hotter than anyone. I couldn’t melt skulls down into gullets with a single sparky wink, but I would never go out. My new flesh couldn’t be extinguished. But I would never be as warm as I once was, and for that crime, father number two deserved death.
His hidey-hole was between the Gut and the Waste, just like Zinn had said. It was windless here, in the ashy borderlands. The hills were gray beyond the trees and I was a star against a dull morning sky–which made me think, good. I hoped he could see me coming. I hoped he pissed himself, and that I would find him hiding in a corner with a bag over his head, crouched in a spreading yellow puddle.
The shed he was supposedly living in was moon-colored with no windows–strange for someone with such a hard-on for heat and sunshine. Then again, he was in hiding. And there was no sun out here–the ashen clouds didn’t let it in. As I approached, I watched the crystal chimes he had strung up from the eaves of his shed. They were so motionless that they hung like shiny gallows’ men.
I stood at the door and wondered whether I should knock. It would be funny, I thought, to knock.
Oh yes, let’s.
So I knocked.
A chilling, too smooth voice–like he’d polished it on sandpaper–spoke from the other side. “I told you not to come here, Carn. You’ve got an appointment next week. Be patient and go away.” His voice was like I remembered it: polished and fast, but brittle. Glass-like.
I wondered briefly who Carn was, what appointment he was talking about, and how long father number two planned on playing doctor before he whipped out something that wasn’t a medical grade p-com to prod her with–but I wasn’t here for questions.
“But, daddy,” I said instead. “I’ve come home. Won’t you let me in?”
I heard cursing, and a lock rattling. Frantic scrabbling sounds.
So I gunned down the door.
I stepped into a small, vile room lit by a single ceiling panel. Old, saggy candle stubs covered every surface and boxes of medicinal herbs littered the floor. But I didn’t care about any of that, because on the other side of a fire-scarred table was father number two, wearing what was undoubtedly a fireproof bodysuit: crinkly chrome fabric from toe to throat and a giant, bioplast fishbowl over his head.
Under the fishbowl, he looked like a hunk of chalk. He had a lumpy nose, claylike hair slicked down his skull, and faint, crumbly purple shadows underneath his eyes.
I sucked a shudder back inside me. I wanted to vomit, I wanted to scream, but instead I called, “Found you!” as cheerfully as I could.
He flinched. “How–?” he started to ask, then shook his head like it didn’t matter. A lazy smile rolled onto his face, even though I had a gigantic gun leveled at his stupid head. “Really, pretty girl? I made you human–isn’t that enough?” The fishbowl muted his echoing voice.
“You think I wanted to be human?” I sneered.
He shrugged, his eyes shifting, searching for an escape. “You seem to be good at it, at least. Last I checked.”
I shoved the table at him. He scuttled backward to the wall as the table’s legs squealed across the floor. When he was pinned, I jumped up and stalked across the tabletop. A step away from his belly, I stomped; father number two jumped and cowered, trying to cover the overturned fishbowl with his hands.
“What do you want?” he asked slowly. Despite his repugnant cringing and squeezed-shut eyes, he sounded calm.
I knocked on the bioplast protecting his raw porcelain face. “Open up!” I chirped. Then I crouched down, so we were almost eye to eye. Almost, because I was still taller, and–more importantly–because we would never see anything on the same level.
“What do I want?” I mused. I squashed my face up against his fishbowl and jabbed the gun into his throat in answer. “I want to shoot you dead.”
He lifted his gaze up to meet mine. His smile changed; I shuddered. He looked genuinely friendly. Revulsion crawled up my shoulders and to my ears. His friendly grin was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen in all my life.
He cocked his head. “Shoot me?” he murmured. “That doesn’t sound right. Why would you shoot me, morsel? You’re so much better than that. Stronger.”
I kept silent. My tongue was charcoal in my mouth.
Despite my silence, father number two figured it out. His fat, sluggish grin almost burst its fleshy seams. “Your fire’s gone. Isn’t it?”
I said nothing.
“You poor, poor creature.” He shook his head. “I can see now how cold you’ve become, and yet…fire or not, hunger is endless. Both of us know this all too well, which is why we’re family. We get each other.” He smiled sweetly at me. “There’s something more you want. Isn’t there?”
I backed up, kissing the end of the gun to his fishbowl. “Of course,” I said, stiff-mouthed. Revenge had always driven me forward, but there was something else. Something impossible. Something I hoped for more than anything, and thus kept it shoved off and silent, deep in the moistest, darkest coils of my gut. But I said it to him anyway, because he was the only one who could give it to me.
“I want to go home,” I rasped. I couldn’t feel my throat, it had gone so stiff. My face was so hot with tears I wondered if I had any skin left. “I want to see my mom. I don’t want to be human anymore,” I hissed. “I want out of this rotting flesh.”
“Ah. That.” He sighed, like he was sad. “Not possible. You’re human forever–and by forever, I mean forever. You’re immortal, don’t you see? You’ve got what everyone wants.”
I rose slowly, staring down at him, wordless wordless wordless. And then I said dully, “I was never not immortal.”
And then I thought, I can’t go home.
Father number two just watched me. His cheeks were flushed pink and his smile slunk back, only this time, it wasn’t friendly. It was starved. He parted his lips and started babbling, the stupid piss-words foaming down his chin.
“It’s funny,” he gibbered, “how much better you are than I could have ever hoped for. When I plucked you free from your mother, I didn’t know fire was alive or sentient. I just wanted a pretty, pretty girl, with the power of fire to make her strong. I mean…” He sighed delicately. “Imagine a girl like that in bed. Imagine her anywhere, everywhere, and her hot-sweet mouth, and–”
He was nearly slavering as he prattled on about me. I wondered, listlessly, if he’d forgotten what was happening, because he was staring at me with lust-filled eyes, his skin mottling into the color of a tornado sky at the thought of all the nasty things he wanted to do to me.
“I’m going to shoot you,” I told him.
“No. You wouldn’t.” He raised a hand gently to my gun, like he wanted to pet it–and then he shoved himself against the table.
I staggered, but then my gun was level again, grinding hard against his head-protector.
“Die,” I seethed. “Die. Die. Die.” I squeezed the handle tight and let off a billion rounds.
Bullets turned to fizzling sand as soon as they hit the shell around his face. I cursed. Of course his brain aquarium was bulletproof–but I kept shooting anyway. It had to collapse at some point. I planted my feet, letting the gun and its pulse sink into me; its weight like an oily, metallic third limb, just as hot-blooded as the rest of me.
A heavy insect groped up my ankle–no, a hand; it was too meaty and blunt. I continued my spray of bullets, but looked down: father number two had both hands out. One was working its way–stroking, fingering–up my calf. The other was lifted between my legs. I caught sight of his hand just in time to watch it drop, smashing an obsidian sphere on the tabletop.
The sphere broke like an egg; ectoplasmic heat spun out, kindling everything it touched; I skidded back, spine scraping the table; the gun knocked my chin back as it flipped end-over-end before shuddering against the front wall. The room blurred, smoked. I was on my back, on the floor. I couldn’t move.
A numbomb. The rotting, pissheaded slopcock. I saw father number two struggle past in his stupid suit as the shed caught fire on the explosive’s incendiary shrapnel. I strained to move my body, to shift to my cat-self, to scream, to anything. I couldn’t.
My only comfort as I lay there was the burning. The gun liquefied and slithered beneath me. Beams went brilliant red, toppled. Two landed across my stomach. I welcomed the blaze of breaking bones and deep-bruised flesh.
Everything else about me was agonizingly still–I wasn’t supposed to be still. Stillness wasn’t me, and this, all this–the burning, my helplessness, father number two’s escape–it was all so wrong.
When the shed was nothing but shifting cinder, warm silt tickled my throat, and I coughed. I could move again. I threw off the beams pinning me into the ash and stood. Snow was falling, dampening the wood char around me. Cold and wet and slow. Everything I was not, and yet somehow, right then, it fit.
Proceed to Chapter 8, page 2–>