In an outer rim galaxy of frontier violence and sin, a legend is whispered, making the rounds of the lawless worlds and dusty spaceports. It tells the tale of a temple in a cave in a town in a valley in a planet just as alien and dangerous as any, but with something special and impossible and nearly unfathomable existing in abundance at its core, for those lucky or worthy enough to find it.
I: THE CURSED
Lasso the Sun
“Trying to talk sense to her was like trying to teach your peter to piss up a rope, son.”
The boy, hearing his father’s words, thought of his mother, and fought the tears that threatened to well into his eyes. He focused his vision on the vastness of the sun-bathed plain before them, its few wispy skeleton-trees stark against the earth, its sharp granite outcroppings like bizarre sculptures formed by the tenacious wind. He sought to make-believe some of these into something more: to the south a herd of bison pounding over the ground! To the north a gigantic valley serpent reared from the plain! But his game of old didn’t entertain him that hot morning – he was unable to conjure beasts from the earth. This day he could only ache bitterly and wince at the stinging in his eyes, the dust and tears itching and scratching and making him wish the world wasn’t so mean.
They stood in silence. The father spit into the dirt. The boy saw, and spit, too, like his father. Together they continued to watch the scene burning before them. In the distance, the boy saw a shape, a scratch against the crimson sky. It circled high in the air, its progress slow. It was graceful, the way it dipped groundward and then swept back up toward the outline of the rising sun’s rim in a long arc like some gargantuan and majestic bird. But of course the boy knew it was no bird, and of course he would never dare talk of its grace to his father. For fear of his father’s hard hands curling into fists and finding his cheeks and arms, adding to his collection of bruises. For fear of sounding like some kind of a traitor, to his mother’s memory, to his father still alive, though he seemed more like a statue of late, hard and quiet and sitting unmoving for hours at a time. The boy was only eager to point out the flying speck to his father, proof that his eyes were sharper than they’d been the day before, and much keener than they’d been one week before that.
But his father spoke up first. “There’s one, son. Ruining the sunrise with its wicked shape.” And he spat into the dirt again, and added, with venom, “I hate them. Those Varkoom scum. Blood-skinned cocksuckers. We hate them, don’t we, son?”
The boy nodded, re-focusing his squinting gaze on the dark shape making arcs in the stifling air. Focusing what hate he had on that single mote in the sky, sagging his shoulders with the effort, feeling small and weak in the act.
The father followed the flying shape with scowling features and aching grey eyes. He recalled the clouds on the day his wife left him forever, their heavy grey look overhead as he regretted for the first time his terrible ways toward her every day that they’d lived together. Every long day of her serving triple duties of toiling in the fields and tending to his needs and of course raising their son, dutifully, admirably, honourably. A strong woman, to have borne his ways for so long, and the equally wicked ways of life in the Colonies.
“But still,” murmured the father, “She was a great woman, your mother. And strong. Fiery like this picture burning out there. Piss and vinegar and tough as nails through and through.” His voice grew unsteady as he finished. “Your mother, son, she…she was like this here sunrise, when you put it all together and look at it long and hard. Sunlight, bright and fiery.”
And he made a sweeping gesture before them with his good hand, his left hand, which still owned all of its fingers; and the boy nodded, thinking of his mother wearing her own bruises like badges of courage around her troubled eyes and frowning lips.
“Yup. Like fire,” said the boy, thinking he might impress his wise father with the conviction he put into his words.
“But don’t forget, son,” the father said, the hardness returned into his voice, shrinking his son a little more in the shoulders, deflating his chest where he’d tried to swell it out like a rooster owning the chicken coop. “It’s also the colour of blood that we’re looking at. And always remember it, son. Always remember the colour of blood.”
The boy thought he understood, and together they nodded their heads in the shimmering air. They stared into the bloody sky until the father raised the battered silver stick in his hands, awkward work since his right hand had been mauled in the attack weeks past, along with his knee; sighted along its ancient telescopic lens and searched through a film of scratches and nicks the air one mile in the distance. A moment of panning the instrument from east to west and west back to east, and then the magnified flare in the crimson, a darker image of fire against the blistering sky.
The boy tensed when he sensed his father become taut beside him. He wanted to raise his hands and plug his ears with his fingers, but wished to appear tough, hardy, ready for anything. Unafraid of loud noises like men are unafraid of such things. Still, he jerked against his will when the loud report cracked from the old gun, knocking his father back a half-step with its force, clapping his ears like two invisible hands smashing down on either side of his head.
Through watering eyes, father and son surveyed the sky in the west, saw the black speck dropping like a stone through the air.
Satisfied, the father cleared his throat, spit once more into the dust. “Got him. Got the cocksucker like he deserved it.” And he paused with the Old World rifle slung over his shoulder, still smoking its grey wisp of smoke from its nose, and he turned his eyes down on his son, and said, “We got him.”
The boy looked to his father’s ruined right hand extended toward him, missing three of its stout fingers, making it look crab-like and alien. He felt proud as he took it in his own smaller hand, pumping it up and down vigorously as though it didn’t feel grotesque, nodding his head in unison with the motion. His father’s skin felt boiling-hot, a burning touch gathering all the fire of the morning sun in its leathery landscape and transmitting it to him through the binding gesture of their handshake.
They took a moment to look over the farm spread out before them, forlorn and quiet with its machines shut down, its animals set to pasture, never to return again. The whirring ceased in the old moisture sheds. The air filters silenced and baking in the light. The electrified fence surrounding the property on all sides and above, too, in order to prevent attack from the sky, silenced from its regular quiet buzzing. The sparse grass unmoving in the oven air, the twittering of triceedas from the dry corn husks bordering their property on the east and west sounding somehow nervous, frenzied in their calls.
The father said, “There is a place.” And it was all that he said.
And, wordlessly, they stepped into the space bubble resting like a gleaming silver egg in the weeds and dust along the periphery of the yard, prepared to leave memories of blood and fighting forever, and find Paradise.
Black Charm, Black Hex
Harry Dalmar felt the coarse bite of the hangman’s noose sink into his throat through the thin fabric of the black hood, circling his oxygen and constricting its progress. He imagined his throat as a shrinking pin-hole through which the final moments of his life were fast bleeding. The courtyard air was still, boiling, and the murmurs of the rabble grew as the moment neared its grisly climax. His hands were being bound with the same coarseness of rope, he felt its biting touch as the executioner fiddled there roughly. Harry Dalmar wore the hood of the dead man, and in the darkness of its shroud, saw her like a mirage amid his despair:
Hair red like her lips like the wild roses that grew along the river bank behind her owner’s plantation home. Lily-pale skin and her body’s beautiful shape, long and strong and sleeker than a canyon cat in its prime. Her pair of slender tails curling around her leg, their red tips lapping on the air like thirsty tongues. Her slave-name as ordinary as she was alien, exotic: Jane Smithsa; though he’d always call her the universe’s gift to him, unlike any Dalbidian ever cursed to live in man’s New Frontier—
Something hit him, a heavy object smashing across his back and shoulders and ripping him from his reverie. He staggered unsteadily atop the trap-door set into the creaking wooden execution platform, just as something else crashed down onto the top of his head. He crumpled to his knees, stars exploding inside the claustrophobic world of his death-hood. He knelt there, head reeling, amid a commotion of movement all around him: boots stomping on his hands, bodies colliding with him. As he swam toward full consciousness again, he discerned it: a different touch, oily and close upon his neck-skin, a slithering movement pressing against his throat.
Piercing screams erupted from below, as those come to witness his death bore witness to some new horror; and his executioners, too, and the priests and his enemies standing attentive all around, seemingly all crying out in terror or revulsion, and the knocking of their boots upon the wood of the death-platform as they scrambled madly to escape whatever thing this was. The heavy sound of falling objects striking about him intensified, a loud thumping in the dirt below and the deep hollow knocking from the rickety floorboards.
Harry Dalmar managed to fight his way to his feet, uncoiling himself from the frail grasp of the half-knotted ropes. Tearing the hood from his head, he marvelled at the necklace he wore – the black snake, its skin slick and its obsidian eyes deadly. Its forked tongue darted into the boiling air and quivered something inside of him.
Frozen with horror, he stared about himself and watched the rain of snakes.
Specimens of every length, infant snakes like long dark worms, and adult serpents like immense coiling whips arcing down from the sky like some dark judgment, all the same tar-black colour as the serpent he wore about his neck. Something told him to leave the creature be, to not try and rid himself of it, for it and its many brothers had been his salvation on his doomsday. His gut told him this, and some other, even deeper place of instinct.
As if in answer to his thoughts, the serpent hissed in his ear, and in its sibilant voice Harry Dalmar heard the impossible, the miraculous, the unmistakable; a word:
Maybe he was a madman, after all, like the people said, like the law declared. Maybe his place was strangled and swinging in the hangman’s noose and—
He stumbled back a step when he felt fingers clutch his ankle, looked aghast at the purple-faced priest at his feet, with his new black collar of slippery scales, thrashing wildly while the snake squeezed his life from him. Harry Dalmar turned to the bedlam of the courtyard below and everywhere it was the same: here, a massive serpent sinking its fangs into the face of a woman around which it was wound; there a screaming child nearly invisible beneath the tangle of black coils; everywhere, panic and death.
Screams followed him as he wove through the men crowding the execution platform, stumbling on quivering legs down the squealing steps and into chaos of the street. A dust-storm billowed upward from the commotion of fleeing and struggling people, putting dust in his eyes and slowing his progress. Around him, the horrific deluge continued, the sound of the serpents striking the earth reminding Harry Dalmar of some dark tribal drum dirge signalling ominous things. The sheer number of snakes seemed to cast a shroud over the daylight, or perhaps it was only the dust billowing around him that caused this darkness.
He fled amid terrified and pleading cries to Heaven, and bullets and heat rays singing through the boiling air. The serpent clung tenaciously to him, and with it whispering its miraculous message in his ears he scrambled through the filthy alleys of the ramshackle town, crying fearfully every step of his terrible journey. But though he wept miserably, that inner voice kept telling him to leave the serpent alone, for it was his saviour. And so he ran on and on, until he came across the lone honji tethered to the rear of the dive tavern, an ancient pre-Frontier Era tune drifting languidly through the ajar window.
He rode his sturdy little mount to death in the Black Santiago steppes bordering the town, and then he ran his boots to tatters among the cacti and horned Lecki lizards beyond, and then he crawled until his knees bled into the dust and attracted giant grass spiders with the sticky taste of iron. Throughout his entire long trek he’d worn his serpent like a grotesque ornament about his neck, like a black charm or hex, and all the while it whispered and whispered in his ear:
Only when, hours and hours later, he felt that it hung less tenaciously against his flesh, did he finally let it slide from him and into the dirt. He stared at it, shaken and awed, and when he saw what it told him—its final, dying message—he remembered an old legend he’d heard whispered in space bars and cattle yards and jail cells countless times since the days of his youth.
As though possessed by some dogged demonic spirit, the serpent’s body was stretched tautly in two distinctly opposing directions: its tail still quivering in its dying throes and pointing into the sun-dropping northwest, while its black-eyed bullet-head trembled due northeast; its tough-skinned body cracked sharply midway through its stout bulk, creating a horrid base of grotesquely bunched, cracked and flaking scales, that marked a distinct ‘V’ in the dust, a single gruesome letter trembling terribly in the heat haze like an oracle.
And he thought of his own hand scratching this same symbol with knives or rocks into the wood of fences and tabletops long ago, the only smattering of writing he’d ever learned how to set down.
V, for Valley. V for the Valley of Green.
The silent planet too far from the sun to grow any lush greenery and forests but defying science and logic in every way, or so the tales said. Amisam, with its deep green valley and impossible supply of contentment. Paradise, in the wildness of the Big Black’s nethermost reaches. Impossible and miraculous. Like a dream warm and beautiful in the icy reaches between stars. An old legend or myth, for young and old alike. Whispered hopefully after a father’s harsh beating left his son petulant and resentful of the world while confined to his bedroom; or muttered like a prayer to the setting sun during a prisoner’s recollection of less difficult days as he lay shivering in his cold grey cell; or wished for by anyone thinking back to the time before the Great Expansion brought war and hunger to the New Worlds, and to so many of the Frontiersmen who were supposed to have been revelling in their promised glory long, long ago.
And Harry Dalmar blinked sweat from his eyes and watched the salty beads drop down onto the serpent-oracle blistering in the weeds. And he stared and stared until the snake became a crumbling mound of skin-husk and scales. And gathering these remains to himself, because this suddenly seemed the right thing to do, he draped them over his shoulders once more, where they clung despite their limp, ruined state, as if with some lingering shred of life. And then he slunk several miles more into the bloody setting sun, into the back roads and alleys of some unnamed mining settlement in the far west. Into the dark corners of a dusty market square, hidden in shadows where lawmen were too afraid to look. It was here that he strangled a merchantman with the silky kerchief he’d worn, directly beneath his stall’s filthy striped canopy, and then emptied the man’s pockets for their gold coins, and his small tin box of eclectic multi-world coins, too, kept in the safety and shade beneath his tables all day long, away from the eyes of furtive cutpurses and murderers like himself.
Harry Dalmar thought about very important things as he choked the man’s life from his slumping body. He thought about how he wanted judgment for his wicked ways. He wanted answers for why he was allowed to live and walk among men being as cold and unfeeling as he was. He wanted to know just who or what he was, Devil or awful man of unforgivable sins, or whether these things in the end were one and the same. He wanted to shed his snakeskin hide and reveal his heart to someone who might understand him, and explain him to himself so that he might see what he was all about, and whether he existed for any reason other than to be hurtful and wear snakes like witchy charms around his neck. He wanted to rest his aching heart and tired thoughts the way he’d needed to for far too many years, but never been allowed by the ways of the universe.
And Harry Dalmar bought himself a junk ship that couldn’t get the best pilot on any world to any place at all, and with hope hammering and smashing inside his chest like he’d never ever felt it there before, he rocketed out of that lawless dust-bowl settlement and into an evening sky filled with a billion stars. And among them all, he searched with a frantic eye until he found the brightest-glowing, and this was the same one that whispered to him across the gulfs of blackness, like a serpent in his ear. And toward this glowing emerald speck he steered his rickety ship, and sailed off quickly, straight as an arrow and just as surely.
The Varkoom were savage and soulless, all fang and fire-skin and arcane primeval rituals.
Untamed and primitive, they were a race of cruel warriors who devoured the young and set fire to the land. The atrocities they committed upon humans and their children were the stuff of hushed campfire tales, to scamper children off to bed when mothers and fathers wished to be rid of their naggings and complaints. The Varkoom were archaic and stupid and the deadliest obstacle the Colonizers had met in their sweeping expansion throughout the Rim, obstinate and determined to not bend to the will and wise ways of their superior man.
These things men called them.
The Varkoom were in fact the only strong race of the Fringe, resilient and proud. Rebels in the face of the pioneering poison spreading across the worlds: Man, and his hunger for expansion, his penchant for slaughter where slaughter furthered his greedy goals.
These thoughts Helma-Rar pondered as he held the shrieking human baby in his enormous hands. The creature’s skin against his own both repulsed and attracted him – its wan hue, its softness, such a fragile-looking creature. He thought the thing might simply burn up inside of his red-skinned grasp. But the infant wailed on and on relentlessly, chilling him somehow, a nervous racket that unnerved him the longer it went on. He’d eaten them before, the human children abducted from Colony towns during skirmishes. It was a taste that had only ever sickened him, bringing to mind aftermath battlefields of corpses burning in the sun, rotting in their atmospheres of ecstatically-buzzing flies and twitching maggots.
He turned at his comrade’s roar beside him where he owned the attention of their fellow warriors gathered in the grassy compound.
“The would-be Colonizers brand us wicked, while acting out their own wicked deeds upon us. They feed our young and old alike into the mouths of their ovens on the Extermination Worlds, and preach against our sinful ways of wishing peace between all.” Here the Varkoom soldier raised a human infant high into the air, carelessly, violently, as if it were a sack of feed. “Then let us fall in place among the honourable white raiders, and feast as they feast.”
And the Varkoom soldier brought the mewling infant to his mouth, placed it between his immense jaws, and champed down viciously.
An awful crunching sounded throughout the compound outside of the barracks, accompanied by a piercing shriek from the child and a celebratory roar of his comrades that shook the earth. It was in the wake of this old, terrible song of blood and vengeance that Helma-Rar thought, very unexpectedly in that moment, of a place he’d heard tell of long, long ago. The young whispered of it, and the elderly cackled of it, too, while only occasionally those of the in-between ages acknowledged the potential reality behind the mystery or legend. Amid the screams of babies being murdered and the exultant roars of his brothers-in-arms, the gentle touch of the name fell upon his ears like a gift of softness in the war field.
Hamisamrah, and the caves of peace.
In that moment, of blood and death, Helma-Rar wished like he’d never wished before in his many many years, for the chance to rest his weary bones in this place. The only place where true peace could be found, if the fables were true. The caves and caverns like a great metropolis beneath the green valley, tended by an ancient and peaceful people much like his own, secluded and safe in their impregnable retreat. For unnamed dangers barred the path to Hamisamrah’s warm heart, littering the world above with the skeletal remains of those unworthy who sought egress into this wondrous sanctuary.
It was the potency of the suddenly-arrived need to discover this truth that urged Helma-Rar to do what he did that fateful day, guiding his hands as he set the infant down in its steel tub; tearing free his weapon from its scabbard at his hip with a quick whisper of steel slicing leather.
Turning upon his brothers and with his gruesome gun letting fire. And his six brothers falling dead before they even realized the great betrayal, in vivid pools of blood and bone, the shells detonating their cargoes of steel spikes within them, splitting skulls and chests and abdomens wide, drenching the grass. He watched the fallen warriors only until he was certain none had survived, and re-sheathed his weapon with a pain in his heart.
Without thinking, he scooped the screaming infant from its steel tub, and with one giant hand deposited it inside the warmth and shelter of his belly-pouch. And with a sound like the popping of springs and groaning of tarpaulin, Helma-Rar spread his long powerful wings from where they were tucked along the length of his back, and he drifted upward like a bloody beacon into the star-filled sky.
Sun on the Run
In the instant of the Big Death, she’d given up all that her father’s preaching had committed her to over the years.
Just like that, in the unreality of that moment of blood and bullets, and she’d forsaken her beliefs like snakeskin shed and discarded in the dust of a derelict town where only ghosts roamed. Like the sun put out, and from then onwards a life living in shadows and uncertainty.
Darla was the heaviest little girl in the universe. Her father had told her this as if it was something to be proud of, to stick up in the face of anyone who might use the same words but in a way that would try to make her feel very small and weak. Like a bug in the dirt, easy to be crushed into dust under a tough man’s boot-heels. She kept her thoughts to herself, like secrets, especially those that concerned her embarrassed feelings about the way she looked. She only shared her secrets with one friend, and it was the only friend she’d ever made in her life: Lucky Lecki, her tiny and old Lecki lizard that she’d saved from the steel jaws of a canyon cat trap where he’d wandered by accident and got his tail snagged. She’d cried as she pried open the rusty steel trap-teeth, and the little emerald Lecki wriggled and spasmed in silent pain in the grass.
She’d taken him home hidden inside the pocket of her apron, and when she plucked him out in her bedroom less than one hour later, it was the first magical thing she’d ever seen in her life: her Lecky had sprouted a new tail, healthy and nimble as he flicked the air with it cheerfully. “You’re my good luck charm, Lucky,” she’d whispered to the creature, and helped nurse it back to health with a steady supply of live field flies and baby grass spiders appropriated while her father and mother were looking elsewhere.
There wasn’t very much lucky about the Death Day, though, not really, not for anyone except maybe her, and for her only a very little bit. None of those big eager men had expected her to be packing something more than her rolls of skin and giant sagging breasts beneath her faded print dress, like an enormous flag wrapped around her immenseness. The Old World shotgun fitted like a secret toothpick between her folds, under her big sweeping dress, it was a surprise when it snuck out in her pudgy fists and shot up the little room and all of the dirty-thinking men getting in line to take their turns with her like they’d probably taken turns with her momma and sisters in the other rooms. Those dirty filthy pioneers, revolting like her father had always predicted they would, if the innocent killings got to be too many and the people sick of it all. Killing and raping the wrong side of the war, this is what conflict will achieve in the end, he’d predicted and been right about it all, as she eventually saw with her own terrified eyes.
Big Darla loved the red look of the men’s faces when she set off that big ruckus. Like a bunch of Varkoom taking over the faces of those ugly dirty men, red everywhere, and wasn’t that just perfect, wasn’t that just right. And she only cried about it a long time afterward, once she’d escaped from the room and the town and the planet aboard the little single-pilot ship she barely squeezed herself into. Only when she was already among the stars, and they twinkled on every side and she felt how utterly alone she was in the universe—only then did she finally let herself behave like a little girl.
Big Darla looked at the red and brown smeared all over her fat hands. She saw the dirt under her nails, and caked on her big body where her dress had been torn during all the fighting and shooting and running away. She remembered finding her momma and little sisters, big Windy nearly as big as she was, and tiny Maria, only a little baby and with such pretty eyes like two green-watered ponds—all dead with bullets cracking their heads, their dresses gone and thrown around the room, unholy and awful. Leaning in close to baby Maria, Darla had heard it, clear as day—the tiniest of voices, whisper-quiet and frail but unmistakable, the impossible words it spoke:
“In the Valley in the Cave, we’ll be together again, sister.”
Babies didn’t talk, Big Darla knew, and she took it as the final sign from a God that had otherwise abandoned her to the awful and cold embrace of the universe. At least Lucky Lecki hadn’t left her, she reasoned while considering the icy ways of every world in the Rim—he’d remain her truest friend, until the end.
Amid the stars, Big Darla cried and let go of God, but not before vowing to seek Him out if He existed at all. Because she had some questions that only He could answer for her. He might have forsaken her forever, as though all the warmth of the sun had gone away and left her cold and alone, but she aimed to find Him so that she could get to the bottom of some very big things. And with all the sadness and rage she’d felt throughout her life burning her up inside, Big Darla, feeling very tiny and hugely guilty, guided her ship toward the brightest star in the field before her—a green and green star pulsing in the dark miles—and flew and flew and flew.
II: Lost in the Crossroads
The man and his son left their silver bubble nestled among a small grove of trees which bordered the great desert. Looking over his shoulder, the boy marvelled at the heat waves shimmering the distant horizon line, magically. He waited to see whether a castle or fort would appear there, but soon he grew tired and turned his eyes back to the path he and his father followed. It was in that instant he realized that the oasis lay before them and not behind.
His father had shouldered through the overhanging arms of tree-branches, holding them aside for his son to see: in the distance, a valley, its sides steeped in the lushest of green trees and tall grasses, dipping down and down, with a promise of deep forests at its mist-shrouded bottom, and all the mysteries and answers they might hold in their leafy reaches. A strange animal scampered into the greenery at the commotion, its silvery fur dappled in sunlight filtering through the treetops. The boy risked a bit of childish excitement, and asked his father, “The caves, papa? The caves are down in there someplace, huh?”
The man laid his ruined hand on the boy’s shoulder, firmly, warmly, murmured, “Hush now, boy. We got some walking ahead of us still.”
The boy nodded and walked onward, silently exhilarated with the new smell on the air: like perfume, something sweet and exotic which he’d never smelled before, and then he noticed the pretty pale flowers dotting the path everywhere. He breathed deeply of their scent, heavy and juicy, and different too from any of the wildflowers he’d smelled back home, or those cultivated by the farmers. A small flash of crimson blurred the air, coming to rest on the fragile branch of a sapling sprouting from the earth near to him. He looked, marvelling at the wondrous creature, bird-like, yet nearly completely globular in shape, its butterfly-like wings spread open on the warm air like a pretty scarlet fan. It fluttered off a moment later, a whizzing bulbous blur of red, and the boy watched amazed as it disappeared among the branches over their heads.
A worry-thought wrinkled his brow for a moment, and he asked his father, “Papa, what about our silver egg? We left it behind, at the edge of the desert.”
The man shook his head, muttering, “We’re done with that egg, son. Hopefully, we’re finished with all of that from now on.”
And they walked on, silently, along the slowly dipping trail.
It seemed for a moment as though the old ways had returned to haunt the father and his son.
The scene in the glade, of the gigantic Varkoom towering over the obese girl like some immense bloody obscenity, chilled them both. An instant later and he saw the pale-skinned baby nestled in the crook of the thing’s arm, and ice stabbed at his heart. Tearing free the gun from where it lay slung over his shoulder, the man hollered for the woman to take cover.
The girl and the Varkoom started at the commotion, she instinctively raising her hands on the air and the creature stooping into a threatening posture, fingers rolled into square fists, legs spread wide in battle-ready stance. Its wings opened like vegetable chutes in some sort of incredibly accelerated growth spurt, whipping the long grass with a strong gust of wind, bobbing the fruit in the branches of the trees all around them. The man’s finger tensed on the trigger of his weapon as the girl’s frantic cries broke through into his awareness, halting him only barely.
“No! Don’t shoot! Please, stop! We’re friends!”
The incongruous sight of the Varkoom passing the tiny infant to the woman, one-handed, gently, daintily, puzzled him. The man ceased sighting along the tip of the gun, but didn’t lower it from its place trained on the Varkoom. His ears heard and his mind reeled as he processed what the girl had said, matching her strange words to the incredible scene of her standing fearlessly alongside the horrid creature, arms thrown up in its defence. It shivered him all over his body, and when at last he found his voice, he croaked, “What place is this, where girls walk with Varkoom on their arm?”
The Varkoom stood to its full height, grazing the branches with the top of its fiery-plumed head. Its eyes smouldered, but its voice was gentle when it murmured, “I’ve a feeling that you know what kind of place this is. We are here for much the same reason, I gather.”
“Please sir,” said the big girl, hands still raised in the air, eyes pleading. “Please put down your gun. My name is Darla, and you got nothing to be scared of from us, I promise you. We were just talking about the place we’re going to, in the valley, and that we’ll be able to get some milk for the little one there, I’m sure of it.”
She’d followed the song of baby’s burbling, she explained, and found them curled together at the base of a tree, the infant and her strange guardian. She implored the man and his son to believe her words, that the Varkoom was gentle and kind, to just look into his eyes and they’d see for themselves.
The man’s expression remained ashen as he tried with great difficulty to suppress the hatred trembling his body as he looked at the red-skinned monster before him. He looked into its crimson eyes and saw his wife’s face of terror being ripped from him forever. He saw the thing’s massive wings and fists like square blocks of molten rock, and imagined his wife being flown into Hell and touched all over by the hands of demons.
He simmered and trembled, but managed, “Okay, Darla. Okay… You…You’re with this Varkoom, and we’re all here for the same reason. I’ll give you that, and so I won’t do right now what I know should be done, on God’s own will.” And his knuckles twitched white along the stalk of his rifle. And he raised his wild eyes to Helma-Rar, and whispered hoarsely, “But I want you to know something, Varkoom. I want you to know that I won’t ever trust you. I know what you are, and I’ve got my eye on you. I’ll always be watching you close, and I’m waiting for the chance to kill you good, demon.”
And he turned and drifted away from them, stopping to peer over his shoulder at his son; a small, wide-eyed owl, more curious than fearful, distractedly stroking the gregarious Lecky Lizard in his palms and staring with unabashed awe at the Varkoom warrior towering over him like a scarlet mountain.
And the man’s anger was swept away by the deluge of sorrow which then gripped him, putting tears in his eyes, and he could only turn away from the blasphemous sight and hide among the bushes and flowers with his huge shame and grief.
Big Darla’s voice was soft in the stillness. “She’s adorable. Just so gorgeous. I had a little sister once.”
Helma-Rar looked up at her words, sensing the sorrow filling them up and making them significant. He only grunted, and turned back to the pink infant he cradled in his lap, her eyes serene blue jewels as she drifted in his embrace.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll come around,” she added, meaning the angry man, and she gave the boy a gentle look where he sat close to them, entranced by the alien warrior in the grass.
The Varkoom said simply, “I could kill you all, very easily. Right at this moment. Eat you and have my supper. Sharpen my teeth with your bones, like so many of you think we do. But I like this grass more than thoughts like those.” He stirred a wildflower with a gigantic hand, and then he added, almost as an afterthought, “I am Varkoom, in blood. I am Varkoom in spirit. I’ve come to be set free, from all that I’ve seen my brothers do.” He cocked his head at the small gurgling sound falling from the infant’s moist mouth, said, “What is her name, I wonder?”
Big Darla smiled at him, blushing because of her secret thoughts: how she would make a good girl for the warrior in the grass, a big girl like herself. A girl of rolling hills to his hard mountain range physique. She said, “Her name can be whatever you want it to be. She’s starting over here.”
Helma-Rar wrinkled his brow in thought. Soon, he murmured, “Pomma.” And when he saw Big Darla’s eyes smile at the sound, he revealed, “In Varkoom, this means ‘soft’. Because she is so soft.” And he stroked the child’s round cheek with a huge callused thumb, marvelling at her texture.
The boy barely heard Helma-Rar’s words, only continued to stare, awed, at his massive limbs, shining in the bright light. Corded heavily, his arms were red tree trunks rooted to a body of prodigious mass. He rippled all over with muscle like steel springs beneath his skin. Sitting in the grass, stooped and with sunken shoulders, he was still much taller than his father, who was a big man among most men and the tallest of their family. The boy eyed the Varkoom’s enormous tusks with awe and fear, the bright bones like ivory glistening where they protruded from his immense mouth. His single tuft of red hair drifted in the breeze, a crimson plume like a banner of war from some far-past time.
Because it sounded like the right thing to say just then, the boy said, in a small voice, “I don’t know nothing about you Varkoom.”
And Helma-Rar answered, “No one knows, but the Varkoom.”
The boy noted Helma-Rar’s sad eyes, but said no more for fear of angering his father once again, who he knew might be able to overhear where he sat cleaning his rifle several feet away. The boy’s eyes continued to be drawn, however, to the strange trinket, carved from steel, which dangled from the massive creature’s hip and made little tapping noises whenever he moved any which way. A carven image, of a Varkoom, it seemed, vivid crimson in colour, and shiny and glittering in the sunlight. Only its shape was less sleek, less taut and wiry and immense and dangerous than all the Varkoom the boy had seen in pictures, as well as this one sitting beside him in the tall grass. A baby Varkoom. A child alien conqueror, although something about those words put together in such a way sounded strange and not right to the boy.
Helma-Rar saw where he looked, and only said, “It was a gift from my mother. She is dead now.”
The boy looked into the grass, mulling this over and twirling an emerald grass blade between his fingers; pretending it was a magical pen and that he scripted secret invisible words on the air, which were really his secret thoughts that only the truly good-at-heart would be able to decipher. But no one said anything about the things he wrote, though he reasoned that it might only have been because he’d been to school for a few years and probably nobody else among their party had done that.
But the Varkoom watched the progress of his air-writing, and seemed to understand. His livid eyes softened, and he cupped a huge hand over the boy’s, gently, briefly, before returning to fiddling among the tiny flowers stirring in the breeze. And when a gentle dusk breeze blew through the branches, he unfurled his mighty wings and curled himself beneath their canopy, like a living tent to shelter the softness of his adopted child through the coming night.
Helma-Rar thought of his mother, as he’d last seen her, on the final night before he’d embarked on his quest, during his brief visit to her house. Her eyes like water, sad and mercurial and unseeing, her thick fingers clutching in her death-grip his last letter to her, in which he’d confessed to her his war-time sins with tears running freely from his eyes: he’d partaken of the human flesh-feast, and eaten babies with his warrior-brother brethren; he’d heard the tiny creatures’ high shrieking screams as his tusks ripped and crunched into their flailing little forms.
He explained his reasoning to his dead mother, quoting his own letter-words: “I saw them, mother, I saw the humans spearing our children in the villages and way-stations. I saw them slaughter our little ones so easily. I understood my comrades’ thoughts, to eat through their ranks, too. But still the taste was awful, so very awful in my mouth…” But of course his words had fallen on ears now deaf forever, and Helma-Rar only wept and wept.
He’d found her that night, only hours following his treason and subsequent departure from the lines. His mother’s gigantic form toppled over among her newest diorama, a piece cobbled together from the thin, tough branches of talji saplings and totra roots; their sinuous fingers coiled about one another tightly, expertly combining to create the semblance of her very own humble little home, her place of haven and sanctuary from the insanities living outside its walls; complete with tiny replicas of both her and her son, sculpted expertly and with her patient hand from the difficult material of bosool weed, twisty and unreliable. Her life-colour faded, her skin pale and pink and her body lifeless. A pool of her bright blood surrounding her, from the place in her skull where she’d shot herself with the spear-gun. The long spear incongruous in her serene home, spiking her clean through, grey and ugly and savage where it entered her head on one side and stabbed through terribly on the other, red and sticky with brain- and bone-gore.
A peaceful woman, unable to bear the scene playing in her head, over and over like a nightmare snippet of film – her son the executioner. Her son the soulless. Her boy like a human being raiding and raping and reaving and eating the young as if they were morsels in the changing galaxy’s new food chain hierarchy.
Helma-Rar, writer of murderous letters, who killed his own mother with the evil deeds he’d committed and foolishly documented as if in some weak hope of forgiveness.
Helma-Rar plucked the noisy human fruit from the branches over his head, easily, holding it aloft for the others to see.
The lanky man with weeks-stubbled cheeks and wild eyes, futilely brandishing the small Old World pistol in his fist, the weapon’s barrel twisted upward grotesquely where the Varkoom’s fingers had wrenched and pinched the steel like paper. He squirmed in silence a moment, until Helma-Rar deposited him roughly on the grass and held him beneath his volcanic gaze. Firelight played over the man’s frantic features, sent shimmers along his strange scaled hands. Peering closer, the group saw that these were gloves of a sort, and when the man snarled at them it was Big Darla who tried to calm him before violence erupted.
“We won’t hurt you,” she said, pudgy hands raised high in the air. “We all just met each other today, too. Maybe you’re here for the same reason we’re here, stranger.”
The man’s eyes grew less livid at this last, his demeanour more relaxed as he allowed himself to settle in his place before the fire. He breathed heavily and shook dirt and grass bits from his filthy clothes. He was nodding his head, and when he found his voice, it was low, husky. “I crashed my ship a few miles back, in the desert. I been wandering all day and night. I—I heard you a while back, and snuck up, in case you was…dangerous.” He offered the group a wan attempt at a smile, looking eerie and gruesome in the fire glow. “But maybe…maybe this place isn’t so dangerous, huh? At least not the…the place I’m looking for.”
He saw the solemn look in the strangers’ faces, only now allowing himself to ponder the bizarre rag-tag look of the group. Something in their silence, in their sad yet hard eyes and slumped shoulders, told him that he’d met up with fellow searchers. He muttered, “I’m Harry Dalmar. And I’m so damn tired. Maybe can I grab a couple of those fruits you got there, to quiet my belly?”
Harry Dalmar settled himself near to the man, maybe because he was the most silent of the group, much like himself, or perhaps because he looked to be the loneliest of them all. Harry Dalmar was just laying down on the grass and getting set to close his weary eyes on the moonlight, when the man’s voice chilled him from the darkness.
“You got the skin of the snake around your fists, brother. I don’t know if I can trust the look of you.” The old man’s gun hung motionless in his hands on the silvery-blue air. Moonlight glinted from its long barrel. His eyes watched Harry Dalmar’s eyes, though, and not his hands sheathed in snakeskin. Something burned there that he recognized. Some awful thing. Some lost burning thing that kept his own eyes trained there and nowhere else. He murmured, “What’d you do, Snake-Man? What happened to you? Why are you here? You’re among fellow lookers now. You can tell. Why are you here?”
Harry Dalmar, very close to the flickering fire, felt winter in his bones, in his heart.
Harry Dalmar saw sweet Jane Smithsa the way he used to look at her for hours every night back in the old world: rope loops wound tight around her wrists and ankles where she lay naked and beautiful and terrified in the attic room of his little shack hidden away in the gulley, spread-eagled across the bed like some kind of present for him and no other man in the universe, eyes only for the silver gun always itching Harry’s finger while he circled her slowly, naked and sweaty and frightened, too, at the awful things the universe allowed him to do if he wanted. His only garment the long, severed tail of the Dalbidian female he kept strapped to his bed, the member hanging like an exotic shawl across his shoulders as he paced the small room, admiring the perfection of her, one-tailed though she now was.
Her lips blood red, her skin like virgin-white lilies.
“I done bad things.”
And it was all that Harry Dalmar said, and the tears that beaded from his eyes gave him away for certain, he thought. And with suns of shame burning in his cheeks he turned his face toward the rustling green roof overhead, and tried to breathe, and tried to sleep, and tried fruitlessly to shut out the old pictures playing behind his eyes, relentlessly, relentlessly.
Harry Dalmar’s silence chilled the old man deeply. Something inside of it spoke to him. He curled into himself before the wheeling embers of the fire, numbed with cold, and barely stirred when the heat touched the bare skin of his old, scarred hands. His eyes clouded over, and in the flames, he saw things as they were, as they could never be undone.
His fist crashing against her chin, sending her tumbling into the stall with the baby honji. Descending on her and letting loose with words and his fists, too, always his patented dual attack on the only woman he’d ever loved. A booted foot found her side, and another her belly, bowling her over while he pummelled her head and neck relentlessly. His words grunted, curses in the cramped wooden arms of the stall while the frightened honji kicked anxiously at the hay, unable to break away from the commotion because of the tether holding it helplessly in its place.
“My woman won’t make me small in front of my son, not ever again. That won’t happen again, will it? This land is ours, just like the government companies say it is. I won’t go on defending myself from you like I got to from those goddamned Varkoom raiders every day.”
Delivering punches until his arms had grown numb. Lashing a discarded loop of rope around her wrists and securing it alongside the honji’s tether where it was fastened to the bracket in the wall. Leaving her bleeding and weeping in the straw with the flustered animal still pawing at the earth.
The last time the man had touched his wife before the dawn attack. And then he was blinking sleep from his eyes, staggering outdoors with his old rifle in his hands to the song of alarm sirens wailing. Watching the sickening sight with a hollow, sinking feeling filling him up everywhere: the flailing arms of his wife as she was carried away by the wing-borne Varkoom horde, through the rend in the overhead roof of mesh cage fence; the doors of the barn across the yard thrown wide where the raiders had pilfered the building of its supplies of animals and feed and imprisoned woman.
His own knee bleeding and spiking suddenly with pain as the shells exploded in the dirt about him, shrapnel finding his flesh and crippling him into immobility. His right hand mangled, fingers lost in the dust and chaos. He dragged himself futilely in the dirt, spreading blood and bone bits into the earth where the spikes had severed his limb clean through; screaming his voice hoarse as his woman disappeared into the rising sun in the hands of the savages that men feared more than any other demon in the universe.
“There she goes. Oh sweet Lord, there goes my sunlight…”
And he weeping into the dust, and cowering into the small embrace of his trembling son, the loneliest creatures in the universe at that awful morning moment.
Into the nocturnal silence, broken only by the crackling of fire and the electric whirring of crepuscular insects, Big Darla whispered to Harry Dalmar, or to the man and his boy, or to the Varkoom. “I killed someone, too. A long time ago, it seems. The…It’s a tough place, this crud universe. Any world, any place. They’re tough places. Right? And you got to be tough to live in tough places. Right?”
Harry Dalmar nodded, and wiped surreptitiously at his closed eyes with a dirty finger.
“Tough,” Big Darla muttered. “Tough. Tough.” And she muttered it again and again and again, as though she was trying very hard to convince herself of something.
She’d only ever felt pity for the young Varkoom, slaves in chains dredging in the fields in the name of the Colonialists. Working to further man’s goal of stealing from them all of their worlds, with all of their lands, these outer rim backyard worlds that should only have been left alone, in peace.
She’d only started to spill the beans about her father’s plantation to the town boy because he’d been so pretty. His blonde hair with its curls. His green eyes like summer grass. How could she have known that her big blabbermouthing would get him and all his cronies up in arms? How could she have foreseen that his rescue operation would turn out so altogether different from its original plan?
She shouldn’t have told about the mistreatment of the little red ones, poked and prodded with electric lances in the fields if they slacked off in their work. She never should have said that those young kiddie Varkoom got their wings clipped nice and early, while only in their thirtieth or fortieth year so her father wouldn’t have to worry about fly-aways every long work day, a lot harder to handle than grounded children, even with the security cage surrounding the property. She shouldn’t have leaked about how when they got to be too old, and the muscles started bulging in their backs and along their arms and legs, that this was when the farmers and plantation hands would take the pretty, blood-red children to the furnaces and throw them in like wood into a fireplace.
Big Darla shouldn’t have but she did. Because of a boy’s lovely eyes and hair, and because he talked to her for a long time, and he didn’t seem to mind her tree trunk arms and legs, and the hills of her many bellies and the fat cheeks squashing her features so ugly. She’d do anything in the universe to turn back time and undo her bad deed of shutting off the electricity and snipping the security cage wires with the pair of big shears the way her pretty-eyed boy had instructed her, just to help out his group’s small rescue mission. Get those poor kids and get out, and good riddance to slavery on the New Worlds. One two three, mission complete – easy as making pie, or even eating it.
But Big Darla never even guessed that what happened could have happened. That the rescue would turn into a slaughter of her whole family, and all the hired hands, and her fathers’ house and property all burned down around her ears, while her sisters and momma got touched by all the bad men disguised as pretty and nice boys with good reasons for sneaking onto Colonial farms in the deep dark night.
If only she’d been smarter. If only she’d been less ugly and weak, and then she never would have thrown her darling sisters into such an easy and evil trap.
If only God hadn’t left her, when she’d needed His guidance most.
The group lay about the fire, tired from their long journeys, and drifted. And they each of them wondered what meaning they might find in this place like a dream or myth from their youths, among the grass and mountains and strange and beautiful flowers and fauna. And the thought chanced to flit through each of their minds, too, that perhaps they’d already discovered something very important and vital, by finding each other, and the distant, forlorn looks in their eyes which they all recognized.
The old man dreamed, and in his dream he saw certain of the same pictures as his son saw in his own dreams, only neither would tell the other and so they would never learn how similar their deepest wishes really were.
A green valley.
Lush and verdant.
Birdsong in the trees instead of bullet symphonies.
Life everywhere instead of death gathering clouds of flies on the corpse-littered ground.
His wife held his crab-hand, and she smiled, and she wore no bruises to blemish her sweet, rugged features.
Flowers and trees and all their guns discarded on the grass, useless and un-needed in this new place of wonders where violence was a fable of some dark and far-away past.
Harry Dalmar dreamed…
The girl in his arms held him back.
She wore a smile, red-lipped.
She forgave him, and squeezed his hand in hers.
Her tails coiled around his legs, kept him close to her.
Together, they strolled among flowers, beneath a canopy of trees.
Together, they sang along with the birds.
Together, with the girl on his arm, Harry Dalmar felt un-alone, and loved…
The boy dreamed, too, and he watched them from above, from his sky-vantage because in this dream he owned wings which sailed him high and far, amid clouds and birds.
Below, far far below, his mother and father waved upwards at him. They were smiling and beckoning him to join them. He declined with a playful laugh, and urged them to join him with his cloud friends.
He watched them sprout their own wings, and lift from the lush grass and come to him through the still, bright air…
Big Darla dreamed of Little Maria.
In her dream she cradled the child to her immense bosom, cooing like a pigeon into her ear. Soothing, comforting, her words and non-word gibberish alike, reassuring the child that they were headed through the forest of flowers and fruits and secret magic, and toward the rest of their family waiting safe and happy at the end of the path.
In the dream, Big Darla could sense her sister’s ease, her tiny gurgling noises of comfort as her older sister held her closely, tightly, protectively, just in case, just in case…
His wings took him into the emerald reaches.
The air tasted delicious, moist and cool.
Below, sun-speckled lakes and rivers nestled among the green landscape of trees and rolling hills like sparkling flashes of light.
Beside him sailed a ship. Her wings gigantic, elegant, his mother was wrinkled and beautiful and vividly crimson, the most gargantuan ship owning the sky.
He stretched his long wings and revelled in the sensation. No Colonial sniper threatened him in his high-air flying. He slipped his spear-gun from its holster and let it fall earthward. He watched its slow descent as it turned over and over, headed for the sparkling blue of a sun-blazing lake. He unveiled the pink baby inside of his belly-pouch and transferred it, mid-air, into the waiting embrace of his mother.
Together, he and his mother watched the weapon fall, and when it was lost in the shimmering distance, they turned to examine the tiny baby with her soft eyes. And Helma-Rar felt something in his chest lighten, tear away from him and drift off into greenness like an old thought or memory…
When they awoke, a path had appeared.
A narrow, balding trail leading off through the overhanging trees to the east. Beyond them the morning light shone brilliantly, enticingly. They exchanged sleep-blurred glances, struck anew with the awe of this place. They scrambled to their feet, wiping the sleep from their eyes, and looked, incredulous.
A wooden sign that hadn’t been there in the night stood amid the tall grass and colourful nodding flowers, its message carved deeply into its face in a patient looping scrawl.
They stared at the sign together, the young boy helping them all with the longer words, because the boy had his first few years of schooling done, unlike most people he ran into, and, strangely, despite this being an alien world, they were in the only language he understood.
“We the sufferers have gathered here. We the once-broken, convened in this valley haven long ago, and here we shall remain, until the end of times arrives and sets us free of our bad memories. Welcome, or, perhaps, be gone…”
They stood in awe a while. The world about them was still, only the distant whirring of insects in the trees, the grass. A wind gusted, stirring their clothes and the branches surrounding them.
They looked down the sun-stippled forest path, and saw their ghosts, waiting.
“My God,” murmured the father. “It’s true. It’s all true.”
They saw them through the trees, down in the valley beyond: hanging like peculiar hazy cumulus low over the sloping plane: thousands of spectral lights, ephemeral and shimmering among the tall-grass and sparse trees and tumbleweeds drifting like gigantic spiders over the valley floor; intangible orbs and eddies and halos of light whose languid movements floating over the grass and among the flowers carried a melancholic deliberation, an indisputable sentience.
The path upon which they stood was verdant on either side, and canopied overhead with entwined tree branches. They felt safe beneath this shelter, where no eye might find them, judge them.
“We got to think,” said the man, shielding his far-roving eyes with his crab-hand. “About exactly what we’re going to do now. We got a lot of thinking ahead of us.”
“You know what the stories say,” murmured Harry Dalmar quietly. “This road isn’t for everyone. Not many make the walk. Just look at the place. A dead sea over there.”
They followed his squinting eyes and saw the graveyard plane to the west: bones burning in the shimmering heat, the calcified remains of countless wanderers making a rolling landscape upon the earth, baking in the early morning sunlight. The unworthy or the unprepared. The weak or the too-strong. Among the bonescape, riddling its white-grey surface, sunlight glinted dully from countless implements of violence: rifles new and old, pistols and daggers and sabres and spear-guns, like an exhibit chronicling a history of inter-species relations in the Rim.
Harry Dalmar laid a tentative step forward along the path, but Big Darla stopped him with a hand on his elbow. He recoiled at her touch, the unfamiliar warm feel of it on his skin, so foreign, this kind of intimacy. His eyes found hers, and he noticed suddenly how pretty she was, beneath her fleshy cheeks and many hills of chins. Maybe he could love her, too.
Her whisper was emphatic, frightened. “Let’s not make a mistake now. Let’s not become skeletons today, okay?” And she un-slung her rifle, and tossed it from her into the fringe of the skeleton-field, adding to its collection of silenced weaponry.
Harry Dalmar eyed her nervously, shaking his head a little. “I don’t know, lady. I don’t think so,” taking another step in the direction of the valley, and then another and another. “I don’t know if I feel right about going down there without no…”
They became still in their places, frozen bodies and numbed minds. Nothing stirred in the forest, only the deep roar that they felt seeping upward from the earth itself, and from the air and trees, too, it seemed. And a moment later the sound had ceased.
Eventually, they all breathed again, casting shivering glances to the skeleton-field on one side, and then longer looks along the canopied path before them and the openness of the valley shimmering beyond.
Harry Dalmar had stumbled back several steps, throwing his weapon away from him like an accursed thing when the deep roar had begun. Now that it had ceased, its absence left the forest around them in a huge and deep silence. He stammered apologetically, “I don’t want no trouble from this place. I don’t want to bring anything at all like that here. You were right, Darla. That was a warning…like we got to watch what we do here in this place. It’s not…This isn’t the Colonies. Or the spaceports and slum towns, and Extermination Worlds. This…This place isn’t those places.”
They nodded at Harry Dalmar’s wise words, silently.
Helma-Rar slipped his gun from its sheath. The group watched in awe the strength in the Varkoom’s arm as he hurled it skyward, to join the ancient graveyard of weapons and bones, far, far out on the plain. The boy’s eyes twinkled in admiration. He liked how this Varkoom was different from the ones he’d always heard people tell about. This one carried human babies in his belly and threw his weapon away because peace was better than shooting up the quiet morning forest. He liked this Varkoom alright.
They felt it beneath their feet.
They felt it course through their bodies, rattling them deeply. A distant tremor, rising quickly and quickly in volume. The roar returned, only so much louder. Filled with fury, indignation. A bellow from within the earth beneath their feet, a warning or reprimand. The voice of the world on which they stood making itself known, explaining some little part of itself to these new searchers.
They turned, and saw the man with his Old World shotgun, sunlight glinting from its long stalk where he levelled it at Helma-Rar’s bright red chest. The man’s eyes sighting unwaveringly along the sleek barrel. Hatred burning there. His lips a tightly-drawn line stabbing across his unshaven face, grimacing with his disdain.
“I got you, Varkoom,” his words whispered, low and heatedly. “I got you dead on, cocksucker.” His finger tightened on the trigger, and he whispered, “You took the sun, demon. You took the sun from me, and now….” He trailed off, his eyes burning.
Helma-Rar stood rigidly in place, stooping to lay the baby he’d been cradling onto the grass beside him, out of harm’s way. Then he stood once more to his full height, chest thrust forward, head grazing the tree branches, eyes watching the man’s, grimly, proudly.
The grass beneath them shook. Fruits dropped from the trees over their heads, pelting them like a heavy rain. Birds scattered frantically, their anxious cries adding to the chaos. The warning in the planet was a cacophony. The new searchers toppled like pins in its throes, but for the man with the gun, and the Varkoom, who managed to stand their ground. It deafened them all, put tears in their eyes as they awaited their unfathomable end.
And the man lowered the shotgun, and hurled it up and away from himself and into the graveyard field.
The earth trembled a while longer, an uneasy grumbling, a fading thunder, and then was no more. Birds sang again, nervously. Insects buzzed like electricity. The searchers looked about themselves in awe. Big Darla’s Lucky Lecki lizard poked his tiny bullet-head from the pocket of her dusty coat, and blinked his revolving eyes in the sunlight.
“We got a long way to walk still,” said the father to his son, and to the Varkoom, and to the others, his ruined hand gesturing down the balding trail and the valley beyond. “We got time to get to know each other ahead of us, I’m guessing. We got time to get to know each other real well. The good stuff and the bad, and how come each of us is here today.” He looked to the Varkoom, noting how it once again cradled the human child so gently to its massive breast, so lovingly. He laid a hand, his good hand, with all of its fingers, on his son’s shoulder, and squeezed, clumsily yet warmly, winning him a confused smile from the boy.
They stood in stunned silence, puzzle pieces baking in the air, confused as to how to arrange themselves for answers, perhaps only dimly aware that their tenuous union may have been clue enough. A fat girl, a rapist, a winged demon or angel, and a father and son, all with aching thoughts and breaking hearts, stepping into the path together. Stirring dust and ghosts. Bathed in the bloodlight of the dawn sun. Steeling themselves to drift among spirits, the mysterious valley’s and their own, toward their dreams of peace while around their ears sang the songs of their pasts. Making their way, slowly, surely, toward truth and revelation, toward peace or a place like Paradise where nothing would ever hurt them again, or maybe these things were one and the same.