Chapter 0 (Prologue): God’s Dogs
Copyright © 2008 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.
As Goldstein knelt with his weapon he should have been thinking of white light and breath, but there was nothing behind his eyes save memories of Amy, and at his core, the bright spike of pain that is love for the dead. The other men in his unit lay about him, strewn in the hay, deep in self-imposed comas. Ghosted and mindless. Goldstein was alone, awash in the awful churn of his disquiet mind.
“The war for Earth was over in a day. The aliens remain in the shadows, ever-present and yet blithely resistant to meaningful contact. The human race, left to its own smashed devices, feeds on itself. In the remnants of the old United States a virulent new strain of Christianity rises with the coming of the Second Messiah, Just Chuck. Citizens lend their brains, their minds and perhaps their very souls to Telegnosis, a head-to-head web of porn, products and salvation. Meanwhile, deep in the network, virtual beings and rogue superweapons — gods in their own realm — battle for the future of a dead race. Is humanity even worth saving? And just what does Skinny want?”
Think of the sound coming out of a crying child. Not the spoiled-cry, the life’s-not-fair cry, but the cry that comes from the pure shock of the unknown, and terror. The cry that follows on the heels of violence. The cry that wafts in the smoke above a bombing.
That sound, coming from a child.
It is the sound of the leading edge of humanity coming up against the rough stone of our universe and being abraded. The sound of the leading edge tearing like we’re about to lose it.
Because we are.
The universe grows wolves, too, and they eat our children.
I will kill everything that eats children. Animals, people, ideas — everything that eats children, I will hunt and kill.
The sound of our leading edge, our children, being ground away resonated in the hollows of his soul every waking moment — and sometimes in dreams as well.
I will kill everything that eats children.
Animals, people, ideas.
Things from the stars.
I ask but one thing of you, cosmos: let me be their suffering.
The nocturnal hours passed, counted in breaths. He thought long, slow memories of Amy, her dark hair spread on a pillow. Amy in sunlight, her smile squeezing his heart. He thought of Amy: did she burn, or decompress? For the thousandth time he decided it didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter. He squeezed the grip of his baseball bat until his knuckles were bone white and his tendons creaked. The wood wouldn’t give. Neither would he.
Amy in a gauzy summertime dress, her hair dancing with the wind… The heat of artificial sunlight on her skin.
He hefted his baseball bat. Office 4 issued them some bullshit carbon-crystal swords with depleted uranium cores — outrageously hard and heavy, and sharp as acid wit — but Goldstein still preferred wood. It swung cleaner in the technology suppression field, and made that satisfying crack — that getting it done crack — when it connected. He sensed it deep down, in the thick of working them: he got the feeling they didn’t mind the cutting, but the bludgeoning bothered them quite a bit. Like a taboo. He couldn’t pin it down exactly, but it was there in their eyes, their big dead eyes, when he swung on them.
Outside the barn, a surprised bird cried out. Goldstein knelt on a bale of hay and peered out into the gravid night through a gap in the planking. The barn sat atop a low hill overlooking a darkened farmhouse. Farther off, a stinking duck pond reflected the brownish glow of the full moon.
Their position was perfect. They would have the edge in momentum when the time came.
He glanced back at the farmhouse and involuntarily tried to know it. His eyes, framed in crow’s feet, twitched up to the left; nothing happened. His telegnosis interface was shut, not that the TG would work anyway in the suppression field. The joke went that even an inclined plane had trouble working properly in a suppression field.
It was better with the TG off, anyway. No commercials to minimize, vidwindows and mindsynchs popping up like neon fungus, begging for attention, for eyeballs, for money. And no propaganda.
The scar stretching from the top of his grizzled scalp to his carbon-fiber clavicle ached slightly. They were coming.
He drew himself back into oblivion with a breath, squeezing the spark of life down into the deep black. Goldstein slumped against the wood of the barn, his half-lidded eyes even with the gap. Behind those eyes only the barest mote of sentience burned. If Skinny sensed them, it was over. Goldstein and his men had to catch them in the open, by surprise, if they were going to get near enough to —
Somewhere, a dog began to howl.
The air felt suddenly swollen, as if something was crowding into all the empty spaces between molecules; his scar tingled. Twitching lungs drew a slow breath through the nose. Dull eyes barely registered the small craft coming from far off, getting larger with each second. Coming from far off, though its moon-shadow never moved. The shadow expanded, a spreading stain, as the craft slid through inhuman dimensions above the farmhouse. His heart beat, then waited quietly in his chest. With a pop the craft’s size stabilized at something over ten meters across. It was a flattened sphere of dull gray metal, speckled like granite. Brown stains tracked down from the top and spotted the underside. It hung over the farmhouse, perfectly immobile, as if rooted to the sky. A Skinny podship. A flying saucer.
Ribs squeezed a slow breath from him.
The Skinnies blinked into the yard. More than twenty of them, like mummified children with swollen heads — and those big dead eyes.
He increased his heart rate. Let his consciousness flicker, a lit match.
“Coming,” he murmured.
The others began to stir, rising and taking up position like sleepwalkers. Sword arms slowly flexing.
Atheist Duff had door; there was no door bigger than Duff. He held his sword low, his fists the size and color of coconuts.
Then the two Mormon kids, their third time out. Almost old-timers, almost around long enough to remember their names.
Saint Kowalski and Greenstick had the rear. ‘Greenstick’ was just a placeholder noise — as the new guy, no one bothered to remember his name. You just point out the corpse and the TG would ID him.
Goldstein spoke in a sleeptalk whisper. “Remember, a live one this time. Wound it so they won’t take it. A live one.”
“Live one,” Duff breathed.
Goldstein’s heart was still.
“Go,” he whispered.
The whole squad inhaled hard and fast as one man, their minds flaring bright like suns. Duff kicked the door, and they charged.
Boots pounding down the hillside, the whole squad silent but for the arrhythmic thumping. Breath perfectly controlled for power, none to waste on noise. The Skinnies all turned simultaneously. Their weapons extended from their hands with a low hiss, short rods lengthening into what looked like golf clubs. They ran for the hill, for the humans, with their peculiar loping gait, like arthritic old men.
Goldstein brought his bat up over his shoulder, reinforced his grip with both hands. He adjusted his charge with a series of small skips, swung and caught the first one in the head. Crack. The impact rang through Goldstein’s skeleton, charging him, feeding him. Skinny went down, nearly inverting head over heels, spun by the blow. A dark jet of ichor splashed across Goldstein’s throat. Hot.
The rest of the squad piled in, hitting the Skinnies at a dead run.
Goldstein kept the momentum of the bat moving, taking it up over his head in a sweeping arc. Blazing eyes seeking the next one. A Skinny to his left, swinging for him, high. He let the bat continue forward and lunged in. The last inch of the bat caught the Skinny in the face as the golf club struck the middle of the bat and bent around it — just like a real golf club might. The end whipped down and bit deep into Goldstein’s upper arm. He carried through and the blade tore away, ripping a long gash and scoring the bone. The Skinny staggered back, one of its big black eyes ruptured.
Goldstein ducked and rolled. A five-iron whiffed over his head as he came out of the roll on his side, kicking a Skinny hard in the groin. Goldstein felt the pelvis-analogue snap as he launched the Skinny into the air. Skinny tried to go with it, dropping its club as it waved its arms to maintain orientation. It caught a sloppy backswing from some one’s sword and neatly dilacerated.
A gap opened up in the human wedge; a single Skinny slipped in, behind Duff. Goldstein grabbed his bat like he was going to bunt, a hand at each end, pushed himself to his feet and punched the Skinny in the face with the grip. He followed through, winding the bat up over his shoulder as he slid his left hand down for a two-handed swing. He reversed direction and swung for the Skinny’s spindly legs, crunching them out from under, spinning Skinny sideways into the ground. Goldstein continued all the way through, bringing the bat up and then down like an overhead sword strike, pulping the Skinny’s head into the ground with a dull smack.
Inside, he began to feel them, a sensation like a sound in your bones, as if madness were a noise. A phantom chorus of angry animals snarling, snapping, keening. The pitch and intensity dipped with every dead Skinny.
The humans fought with an ancient abandon, rushing and swinging and hacking. The Skinnies pressed on, seemingly oblivious to their mounting losses, swirling like little gray children about the massive humans. The whole tableau was incongruously quiet, with only the low thump of boots, the swish of blades, and the sharp-wet sounds of landed blows.
Ten seconds after contact, the few remaining Skinnies broke and ran for the saucer. They didn’t blink out.
The humans stood dumbfounded for a split second. Three Skinnies, running. Wordlessly, the humans gave chase, stomping over the slick field of body parts. Kowalski reached them first, swung down diagonally with his sword, then back up. The straggler hopped apart in cartoon sections. Two left.
“Live one!” Goldstein yelled.
Duff chucked his sword point-down into the ground, midstride, and leapt for a tackle. The Skinny jinked, but Duff caught it by the shoulder and went down, spinning the Skinny around and pulling it down with him, rolling over on top of it.
Still running, Goldstein cocked his bat one-handed over his head and hurled it like a throwing ax. The bat whirled through the air and caught the Skinny in the back, knocking it flat. And Greenstick was there, his feet planted wide, head and shoulders framed by the low-slung moon, his sword inverted downward, arms raised.
Goldstein screamed. “Greenstick!”
He drove the blade down, pinning the Skinny to the ground.
The saucer popped like a soap bubble, gone.
Six humans gulped down the cool night air.
A cricket chirped experimentally. Cattle lowed in the distance. The unseen dog gave two sharp barks.
Goldstein coughed. “Duff! You got a live one?”
“Naw. Broken neck, hoss. They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Duff stood and brushed half-heartedly at his fatigues.
Goldstein clamped a hand over his bleeding arm, faintly dizzy. He stalked away, head hung, legs stiff.
“Fuck!” he yelled, kicking a sectioned torso across the muddy grass. “Fuck!”
The squad stood quietly as the big black sky effortlessly absorbed the word.
The TG came on with the signature four-tone chime and party of dancing lights begging for attention. It was Office 4 on a secure link.
“I’ll take it,” Goldstein said aloud.
The men began to drift away as Goldstein took the call.
“Negative on the hole-in-one. It’s all sandtrap here.”
Goldstein stood, blood seeping between his fingers. He began to nod and sigh as he took the shitstorm for them.
When it was over, he minimized all the commercials to his peripheral vision so he could see. “Evac in five.”
He cringed as his torn biceps cramped.
Everyone lit smokes. Goldstein licked his lips, but didn’t want to pull his hand off until he could get stitched.
Greenstick stumbled over. “They didn’t blink out. When we took ’em, I mean.” His eyes were wide, unfocused.
“Yeah,” said one of the Mormon kids, wheezing, “They came at us.”
“What’s up with that?” The other Mormon kid.
Goldstein shrugged, a gesture that made him grit his teeth. “Different every time.” His old-man’s eyes lingered on the Mormon kid’s smooth face; he bore the mark, a black X that divided his forehead into three small triangles of flesh, fat black lines from hairline to ears. Almost a cross, but kinked sideways, wrong. Shrouding his eyes. He bore the mark, as did they all.
“What’s your name, kid?”
The boy looked surprised, his mark deforming upward. “Thomas –”
“That’s enough. Thomas is enough. Pleased to meet you, Thomas. Nice work tonight.”
Duff was looking up the hill at the trail of body parts. Skinny never took the wounded, or the dead. The grass glistened in the golden moonlight. He glanced back to Goldstein. “This for Silent City?”
Goldstein looked inside himself, shook his head. “Nothing could ever make it even. Not for Silent City.”
He snatched a furtive glance at the full moon, the golden brown moon, an expensive child’s toy rolled through shit.
The sparkling domes flashing with fire and erupting outward; the fading screams.
“Gotcha,” said Duff. Then, “For us.”
“No better reason.”
It was so long ago. Amy had taken on mythic proportions — she was every woman, mother of every child he saw. Her last moments were the junction of infinite possible threads, cut.
All these things will not come to pass.
Hers was not a sad, anonymous snuffing, just another tick mark fuzzing into the static of billions of lives lost. Billions meant nothing to him. One was everything. And everybody loved at least one.
A vidwindow sprang into being before his eyes, occluding the real world. The men groaned. The window showed a man-shaped shadow, but spiny and backlit with licking flames, standing over Chuck — who was flat on His back, knocked out, robes all helter-skelter. His head lolled, with big cartoon Xs for eyes. The camera zoomed in toward a single eye — it opened, becoming the crossed-out face of an Xer. Any one of their faces.
YEAH, IT’S YOU. OBEDIENCE IS OPPORTUNITY. DISOBEDIENCE IS DEATH. THEY SAY, YOU DO. DO IT NOW.
The window faded to reality.
Duff flicked his smoke away, a miniature shooting star. “God Bless the ESC, eh, Goldstein?”
“Yeah.” An old joke. “But whose god?”
They all laughed. It hurt, but they still laughed.
“Hey,” Kowalski brayed, “Hey, I just figured it out! We’re like ambassadors, sharin’ our special monkey-love with the space brothers! ‘Hello from the people of Earth!'”
Everyone ignored him.
Kowalski picked up a neotenic head, held his arm high and wagged it at the squad. “HUMANS,” he intoned.
“Knock it off.”
“HUMANS. NO STARDRIVE FOR YOU. BETTER YOU BURN OUT HERE, THAN BURN OUT THERE.”
Amy in the artificial sunlight of an anti-matter reaction, her hair flapping savagely in the raging breach-wind.
“Awright.” He dropped it.
The mercy of flashing to superheated plasma, or the terror of breach?
All it did was make his hands tremble.
The farmhouse lights came on, strips of light leaking from shuttered windows. A man stepped out onto the porch, fully dressed, a canvas bag of clothes hugged to his chest. He craned his head forward, turning this way and that. And began screaming.
“Fuckin’ sycophant.” Kowalski saluted him with his middle finger.
Goldstein sighed. “Somebody shut him up.”
Duff pulled his sword from the damp earth. “This one’s all on me.”
Goldstein watched him jog across the field toward the screaming sycophant, sword gleaming dully in the moonlight.