May 30, 2014 § 1 Comment
October 12th, 2009
Russia’s a big country. Jen was born in Canada, its only real rival in size, and even so she couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Russian steppes. But even Russia has her limits. And one of those limits was where Jen found herself struggling to stand, a cold high place called Altay by the Russians. To the Mongolians and Chinese, both of whom shared a border with this place, it was called the Gold Mountains. Here, the steppe, the desert, and taiga all came together.
Luc was down.
It seemed impossible. Luc had survived everything. Luc had survived blowing up an alien spaceship over Paris, at the cost of the original team he’d assembled, the one she’d basically replaced.
When her father died, Luc had been there. When she’d gotten herself set on fire, Luc had been there. When she tore out her own heart, leaving it with John, out of her reach, Luc had been there. The only cure for pain is work, he’d said, and we always have more work to do. She’d sat in a bunker somewhere in Alsace with her face a cold mask and Luc had given her that. There would always be work.
As long as I’m alive, you’ll have a place to go, work to do.
She struggled to her feel against the cold the withered cadaver put out. He had already dealt with them as soon as they’d ported in. Swept into them while they fought the distortion nausea of the transition – they’d pushed Rift hard to clear that much ground. She looked over at Rift, laying unconscious on the mountain trail. He was breathing. Perhaps the monster intended to make use of him afterwards, of his ability to be a living matter transport beam. She didn’t know.
Her chest was bleeding. She looked down and saw a slash mark from his talons, a bloody trail that curved down from her collarbone all the way to her navel, already closing up. He nearly disemboweled me. Nearly. It’s not horsehoes, motherfucker. You won’t get another chance.
Her lungs ached in the unnatural frost.
Around her, Altay watched. The mountains were gorgeous, she noted. It almost seemed like she was just on a trip to a place where the earth reached up to caress the sky, and not down two of a three person team while that thing… whatever it was… marched up the mountain to the tomb. Above her, several drone vehicles proved that the Russians hadn’t forgotten they were there.
Don’t worry, President for Life. I’m still on the board.
Jen began taking steps. It was agonizing at first. She was so cold she could barely move. But each step got easier as her body refused to let her freeze. After the tenth step, she was moving at normal speed. After the twentieth, she was hurtling forward, leaping over rocks and grass, while the sun descended behind the Gold Mountains, painting them their namesake color.
They’d arrived in Russia during a period of great stress. The Russians were in many ways defined by their omegas – national heroes, forces for change. One group had taken on the name Kulaks, a name Luc explained (in that slightly superior tone he always used when explaining things to her) had roots in the late Russian Empire and the rise of communism.
They’d been in his bed in the chalet in Geneva. He loved that place. He’d spent the morning planning the trip, explaining that he wanted to make sure the omegas of Russia weren’t suffering under the reign of Elenia Shukroz. He’d gone on and on about it. Jen had been bored, really bored, not just her usual ‘bored now’ pose she used to safeguard herself. She’d let him lure her into his private rooms, open several bottles of wine (as ridiculously expensive as you’d expect from a man who owned his own chalet) and gotten a mild buzz on while he kissed her neck and murmured in French.
Her Tante had spoken flawless French. She’d giggled at the idea of Luc trying to seduce that formidable woman. Eventually she closed her eyes and thought of a cold morning in Alexandria and the messy brown hair of a man with earnest eyes and let it happen. Afterwards she lay in bed and listened to Luc talk more about his big trip, about reports he was hearing.
Now he was laying on his back on top of a mountain and Jen couldn’t stop and check on him. She had to go faster. Shukroz had called the omega Koschei and had told them that his initial attack on Moscow had been to gain an egg that had been kept in the Hermitage – he had that egg now, on his person. Now he climbed into an ancient tomb.
“He must not be allowed to reach the altar.” Shukroz’s pale, unnamed (well, no one had told Jen his name) shadow had told them. “If he does, and he manages to turn the Silver Key… all will be forfeit. Only one who can cheat death can touch the Key, and it will summon those who once fell from the sky – the ancient Scythians, secured in their kurgans against the end of days.” He’d then coughed, and drank heavily from a bottle he had on him. He didn’t offer to share.
Jen cleared the slope and broke out into a run. The kurgan was an enormous stone tomb, a burial mound for a giant. Her newest scars still ached, blood from the rocket that had blown up in her face had dried on her cheek. Koschei had seized control of most of the Russian defense forces and used them to distract everyone while he raided the Hermitage. Now that he was invincible, Shukroz’s trembling shadow indicated, he would go inside and, after the appropriate rituals, turn the Silver Key in the Lock of the World, and the army of dead warriors who fell from the sky would rise and destroy Russia.
“Then, one assumes, the world.” He drank again. “Is shameful, for the world is where I’d hoped to retire.”
Outside the kurgan, several dead men and women lay frozen from the Deathless’ touch. Two survivors shuddered, huddled together off to the side. She didn’t have time to check on them, either.
She ran into the entryway, the gap between vast stone slabs, and made her way down.
The path down into the place was lightless, but she simply had no choice but to proceed as best she could, as fast as possible, and trust to her better than average senses. The steps were cold, the wall colder. Finally she came to a chamber lit with a lurid argent light.
In it she could see Koschei – bone white, flesh twisted around a skeletal, aberrant form, eyes like points of fire. He was chanting. His voice was like endless fathoms of ice.
Jen deliberately ran into the massive stone block that made up the arch, cracking it. It weighed tons.
She hit it again. Koschei turned, arching one of his enormous eyebrows, frost trailing from his lips.
“Do you think to bury me here?” His voice boomed. She knew he was speaking his own long-dead language, and somehow she heard it as english – the attack on the Hermitage was fresh in her mind. “Fool, I am immortal. I am the Deathless. Bury me and I will simply…”
Jen ripped the three ton shard of rock out of the wall. Turned and threw it like a discus. It crashed into the pallid flesh of Koschei, and while it didn’t kill him – it couldn’t kill him – it knocked him back and away from the altar.
Those inhumanly long, pale arms pushed the rock shard off and the immortal rose, expecting Jen to rush him as she had at the Hermitage. But she didn’t. She’d stopped at the altar.
Stopped next to the Key.
His eyes opened wide as Jen took her right glove off, the one that covered up the strange constellation of white dots on the back of her hand. She grinned like a wolf at the immortal, twisting in his rich robes, seeking to gain his feet.
She reached out and grasped the Silver Key. If she’d turned it, the armies of the fallen Scythians would have risen from their graves, perhaps. Perhaps not. But she did not turn it. She instead pulled it, drawing it out of the ancient lock between worlds. It slid, the size of a sword in her hand, a gnarled and twisted thing of silver carved with elaborate forms of panthers, stags, and tigers. The end of the Key was the claw of a bear extending outward. Blue fire crawled up her arm from her hand, but she didn’t cry out, didn’t react at all.
The Deathless stared, comprehending.
Jen took a step.
“The way I see it, you have that egg somewhere on your person. You rushed right here from Moscow. You wouldn’t have had time to stop anywhere to hide it.” She hefted the Key like a mace. “I’m going to find out if I’m right.”
The Deathless attempted to speak the word of power, to freeze her blood in her veins. She leapt forward, an arm like corded steel grasping and crushing his jaw. He wrenched it free, but there was no more time left to speak before that silver paw came crashing down on him, seething with the fire that fell from the sky.
She eventually found the egg. By then, he who could not die begged for it to end.
She ended it.
She walked out of the tomb minutes later. She could hear the distant sound of helicopter blades, knew that they’d arrive in minutes. It meant little to her.
Around her neck, on a leather thong, a small silver key hung. It looked as though it were a perfect replica of the larger Key which she’d used to batter the Deathless one and crush the egg once and for all. It was not a replica.
She walked down the path and found the place where Koschei had ambushed them, the spot Rift had transmatted them into. She checked on him first. His eyes fluttered weakly to life, and she lifted him up and carried him over to where Luc lay.
He was panting now. He looked up with his one good eye as she dropped down to her knees next to him.
“I’m here.” She lay Rift down, propping his back against a rock as best she could. He gave her a weak thumbs up. “I got him.”
“Good.” He coughed, a wet, tearing sound. Reached out a hand to her.
“Stop being such an actor.” She took his hand. “Just dupe me, you’ll heal up and we can leave. Rift’s already almost on his feet…”
“Can’t dupe.” Luc coughed again. “Tried. Too weak. I’ll be dead soon, Jen.”
She felt like Koschei had hit her again. Her hand tightened on his, convulsing. Luc had been the only constant of her life since becoming an adult. In the decade since the aliens came and destroyed his life, she and Rift had been the only constants in his. He smiled up at her.
“It’s not a bad way for me to go.”
“No. I’m going to get you out of here. Rift can…”
“I’ll be dead before he can. You get him out of here. That’s an order, DuFrene.” He chuckled again. “I’ve seen to things. You’ll be taken care of. You can do whatever you want – I’ve established safe houses, covers for you. The chalet is in your name.”
“I owed Wolf. I expect… he’ll be upset with me.” More chuckling. “You looked so much like your mother. Did you know? No? Well, you did. I couldn’t resist. She picked the better man, of course. We take our second chances where we can get them.” His hand was now on her face. “For what I’ve stolen from you, Jennifer, forgive me.”
He died with his hand on her face. She sat there with him until she could hear the copters descending.
“Jen.” Rift spoke, his voice weak. She turned eyes on him. “We have to get out of here. Shukroz will be done with us now. And she’s…”
“I know.” She lifted Luc’s body like a small child, extended her hand to Rift. “Can you?”
“I’ll get us out of here.”
When the helicopters full of armed soldiers arrived from Gorno-Altaisk, they were gone.
May 2, 2014 § 3 Comments
In 2007, my wife and I went to the Humane Society and adopted a small grey rabbit we named Grimalkin. We called her Grim. She was anything but. It is impossible to sum up a life in words – to sit here and pin down all of Grimalkin in a few paltry sentences, so that you can know the way she really was. It is as doomed and foolish a task as rolling a rock up a hill when you know it will roll back down, but her life demands some memorial.
When we brought her home, we had two cats and another rabbit named Herne. Upon seeing Grim, Herne immediately knew this was the love of his little rabbit life, and wasted no time introducing himself, the way male rabbits have been doing since rabbit kind first arose on the Earth. Although slightly shocked by how forward he was, Grim accepted him as a suitable bunny mate, and wasted no time sorting out the rules of the household, explaining forcefully to the two cats that there would be no more of their habitual holding Herne down and grooming him phases. From that moment on, the only one who would get to groom Herne was Grim, and she made sure it was completely understood.
When Herne passed, I was convinced that I didn’t want a rabbit, that it was too hard to take care of them. Grim decided I was wrong, and sorted me out quite enthusiastically with a hot little tongue, grooming my face, my eyes and beard until I realized that I was hers and she wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s how things stayed for the next five years.
Grim was ludicrously brave, taking on vacuum cleaners, the cats, a little parrotlet with equal equanimity. Even when she got sick this week, she refused to let go, fighting her body’s betrayal of her with that same single minded courage. Grim feared little, stamping her feet, flicking when necessary, but she was also capable of delight. She danced better than any rabbit I’ve ever seen (even if I’m biased in her favor, prod of her as I am) and she had a positive gift for knowing exactly how to sneak up and start pushing her tiny head under your hand for nose rubbing.
I could sit here and type stories and anecdotes about Grimalkin until my fingers bled, though, and you still would not know her. You would not know of countless nights I lay away on the living room floor while she contentedly gnawed on a block of wood, sharing the night with me. You would not know about watching her dance around the room and come running up to my wife, mock-charging the small purple table Julian uses. You would not know of watching Julian trim her nails, making the little ‘bunny burrito’ by covering her head so she wouldn’t panic.
All of these and more made up seven years with her. Her last week in this world was one marked by a debilitating illness – she couldn’t raise her head, walk, she tried so hard that she actually injured herself worse and couldn’t get around, but she never once surrendered. She kept eating, she kept fighting. I can’t tell you how hard I wished for her to get better, how much I wanted her to beat this.
She was a rabbit. I know many people won’t understand how a grown man could weep over the death of a rabbit. Hell, when I was a kid, we used to eat rabbits. And yet here I am, in the throes of grief, because my daughter has been taken from me and I will see her no more. I will never see her dance again, never feel that small, shockingly warm tongue lap at my skin, never have her loaf next to me on the floor, never again will she wiggle in delight and grab the carrot away from me and run as though I would change my mind and try and take it back. Never again the sounds of teeth grinding in the night. Never again.
Grim bunny, you take a piece of us with you. Julian and I love you. There will never be enough words to say how much.