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Chapter 8: Backflash

Copyright © 2009 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.

Chapter 8: Backflash

     There’s no real memory of it, just a yawning gap whose emptiness beats like frantic bird wings against smoked glass. Pressure waves in empty air. This is his mind.

     Things are breaking down, here. He’s only human after all.

     “Take care of my little boy out there.” Momma smiled, crinkly with a vague hint of pain. She pecked his cheek with a sand-dry kiss.

     She looks better here, in this place, in this time. Not so far gone. Here she was still somewhere up on the mental inclination, having not yet slipped and slid to the edge, hanging on by cracked and bleeding fingernails, feet dangling in the abyss, screaming for Chuck. Maybe she was still taking her meds.

     Her kiss didn’t make his skin crawl.

     Richie had started the day like any other — watching cartoons in his underwear, crunching sugar-coated cereal. But today the cartoons were stupid, the cereal cloyingly sweet. Two lumps of shit in his head as he watched, and chewed. Today was trash day. The day Mr. Fitzsimmons, The Fitz, would thumb open the weapons locker. The day Richie would clear the mall of Xers, lowballers, dirt-eaters, dirty-ears. Pick your favorite putdown.

     In the bathroom, pulling up the big zipper on his copsuit, dark eyes framed by everything else in the mirror. Like everything else, none of it fits.

     He’s in the hallway outside the apartment again, the carpet gone to pale ratty strands in the middle, shading out through dirty brown to black at the curly edges. Holes kicked in the walls like somebody missed. Fluorescent lighting that made everyone look dead. Momma, too.

     She said something he can’t hear anymore.

     It hurt. He sighed, breathing out the feeling of it. “I’m not like them.”

     Momma reached out, almost touched his arm. “Oh, Richard — you’ll fit someday. You’re like, like God’s spare part.”

     From the depths of the stairwell, someone vomited enthusiastically.

     “Take care of my little boy out there,” his Momma said, her eyes pleading.

     “Yes, momma,” he replied flatly.

     A mummy’s peck on the cheek. But it was his.

     He passed the elevator on his way to the stairs, the doors wedged open against a deep and stinking darkness. The stairwell wasn’t much better — a museum of human vapors in its own right — but at least it worked.

     He pushed through the swinging door with the little window, the cracked glass and bent frame making a funny letter in his head. A magical 27th letter, the cypher letter that broke all the codes and made the real world sift into place through the sieve of crap we called reality. With a little smile he shook it loose and took the stairs two at a time.

     Somewhere below the seventh floor he flashed past

GODCOPS SUCK GODCOCK

     a fake graffiti mnemonic, probably got up by the all-volunteer Freedom Keepers. It was scrawled in real-time red, like a fat felt-tip, with style. There was undoubtedly a TeleGnosis component loaded in the nanotech ink — when you read it, it read you, pinging the morality grid, pulling down autoserveillance into your skull for the better part of a day. You’re not supposed to be reading that shit anyway, citizen.

     In a single-party theocracy there is no such thing as a single-party theocracy — there are only the people in charge and the people who aren’t. And the only place that idea lurked was in a book. Richie read books — the Priest passed them on to him. Most people had never read a book, an honest-to-God book, ancient contraband. It was that, or no real education at all. He was, in the State’s eyes, a retarded cripple, incapable of learning like normal children. He couldn’t remember Revelations wholesale, or the Children’s Crusade, or how Chuck Christ defeated Allah, Hitler, the Soviets, and finally the corrupt secular humanists. He couldn’t remember anything by sipping at the TG and suckling on the whole of human knowledge. He was stuck with his own flawed, human-limited memory. And books.

     He kicked down the stairs, two at a time, the atomized funk of people burning in his lungs.

     And freedom in his head.

     From atop the Skywall, the Tustin Support Pillar: from here it looked like a patch-work grey monolith, wide as a mountain, rising impossibly to the wider foundation disk, crowned with the glass spires of skyscrapers. Aircars streamed in angular ant-trails against the beige sky.

     Far below, the slums of Tustin Landing spread out beneath the Pillar like a fuzzy brown carpet. A rusty, diarrhea-colored rain drizzled off the underside of the disk, keeping the slums moist and fungal.

     The broken limbs of two wrecked Pillars rose from the horizon, jagged, lesser peaks. They had their fusion reactors spooled up full blast when Skinny showed up and turned everything off. The tech stopped working, but basic physics didn’t. The other pillars literally blew their stacks. Tustin’s reactor was offline for repairs at the time, a lucky inconvenience.

     Richie paid the autobus fare with an ancient cash chip the Priest gave him. People stared. Eccentric or cripple, his action said. Maybe a little bit of both. But there was no way he was going to walk through the slums — he wouldn’t make it to work. The uniform would buy him maybe five minutes until the locals got over the orbiting yellow banners that screamed SECURITY and realized he was alone, with no back-up. They were extremely poor, extremely hungry people crammed into a small filthy space.

     The bus felt like that, too, pressing up against his feet; he was swarmed and surrounded by sweating, breathing people. People like him, alone and afraid and paranoid, and not like him at all. Numb to it.

     His knees ached as the bus accelerated upward at a fuck-you angle into the traffic pattern. Between the press of heads and averted eyes he could almost make out the monochrome sky. He thought of his Momma.

     “If I’m a spare part,” he whispered to the snatches of sky, “What has to break so I fit in?”

     The old woman in the maid’s uniform next to him reached out with her foot and scooted her loop-handled bag away from him.

     Richie exited the autobus on the lip of the Mall 4 landing slab, a broad asphalt concourse streaming with people and vehicles. Aircars of all colors and makes dipped out of the sky and slowed, crawling in lines as people hopped in or out. When the cars reached the edge they leaped back into the sky. At the far end, some kids were playing a dangerous game of who’s-in-last, running alongside their car and waiting for the last possible moment to get in. Someone almost didn’t make it; the gull-wing door came down on a shiny blue leg and dragged a new white sneaker awkwardly across the blacktop and over the edge. Distant howls of laughter as the car took flight, leg dangling. Richie shook his head — no one else had noticed. It was his sharply honed mall security instincts that caught the horseplay.

     He jogged through the chaos of cars and people and through the big glass doors into the clean, metallicool air of Mall 4.

     The mall was a still, almost meditative place for him; other than the small sounds of people walking in large spaces and the occasional shout, it was quiet. Quieter than outside. Quieter than his apartment. It was a cathedral space, with broad, open angles of glass and metal bigger than a human mind. It was awe-inspiring that such a huge space held nothing. Of course, he knew this was just his lack of perception — for everyone else the towering spaces and balcony-encircled shafts were filled with holographic video and dancing signage, animated vegetables, animals, babies; no doubt in those great spaces bright hauntings taunted and begged. And noise. Music, admonitions, entreaties, directions, words focused into blasts of pure sound designed to loosen purse-strings.

     But not for him.

     Just space and quiet.

     Blank slates for him to fill in as he saw fit, or not.

     He rode a mile-long escalator down into the bowels of the Food Court, with its greasy white tile and green plastic plants. Richie passed under the Food Riot sign, one of the only physical signs in the mall, a mailed fist wielding a burrito like a baton; he thought, like he did everyday, that the frozen ones could hurt.

     Between the Food Riot and Quetzalcoatl’s he entered the slim hallway that lead to the CORE SEC door. Richie took a deep breath, sighed. He put his hands in his pockets and kicked the dented metal plate at the base of the door three times. Presently, it opened.

     “Well, if it isn’t Prince Richie,” said the pimply albino with thin red hair and beady eyes.

     Richie winced. “Hey, Teague.”

     “Well, c’mon in, Your Highness.” He gestured with his cig, little rolling motions of the wrist, bowing. Snickers rode the smoke through the crack in the door.

     They had no shortage of names for Richie. When he newly-hired he tried to get them to call him ‘Ace’ — everyone else had a liquid callsign they went by — but it didn’t go that way. Richie learned that what you got called wasn’t dictated by you, it was a very democratic process. And yours was the only vote that didn’t count.

     Teague swept the door open with a flourish and Richie brushed past him into the locker room. Naked bodies loomed and pressed, long dark rows of metal lockers seemed to shift in the clouds of cigarette smoke and the smell of human endeavor. As Richie worked his way to his locker, the largest of the bodies rotated and lumbered over toward him.

     “Hey, freak, you need help finding your locker? Why don’t you just scan — oh, wait — you can’t.”

     The room erupted with laughter.

     Richie nodded his head in an arc of acknowledgement to the daily routine of salutations. “It’s okay, Chase, I got it. Mine’s right here.”

     Chase was a giant baby, literally — his head was huge, bald and apple-cheeked; his arms and legs hung with rolls of man-sized baby fat, his belly and man-tits were soft and round and pink. Huge white snuggies completed the image, looking for all the world like a massive, saggy diaper.

     “Hey,” Chase asked in his disconcerting falsetto, “Hey — you ready to get some, freak?”

     “As ready as you are.” Richie popped his locker open, pulled out the rack of armor plates.

     “No,” Chase breathed, “No horseshit this time. Really.”

     Richie folded his arms. “Really what.”

     Teague slapped him on the back, a stinging blow that almost threw him forward into his locker. “The Fitz says you’re goin’ down today.”

     Richie steadied himself on the rack of armor, threw Teague a muted dirty look. “No.”

     “Yes way,” Chase shook as he blurted it.

    “Some goddamn dirt-eaters brought in a scaffold,” Teague said through a big yellow leer, “Like they wanted to get in a fucking outflow.”

     Chase nodded, his face as severe as a toddler’s, “The Fitz says we’re gonna go clean ’em out.”

     “We should just,” Richie swallowed as bird wings beat in his stomach, “We should just blow the tunnels. You know, seal them. So nobody can get in.”

     Chase shook his head solemnly, mouthing a big puddin’-faced ‘NO.’

     Teague leaned in close, his breath like burning rubber. “Then we wouldn’t get no fucking practice, now would we?”

     Everything felt too hot, too close; nothing fit. Richie’s breath came up short. “I could run doors,” he said too fast.

     Chase reared back, slabs of flesh sliding over one another. “Guess what, freak? I already ran ’em.” He grinned. “Snug as a bug. You’re gettin’ blooded. Today.”

     Richie kitted out in a shimmering silence, his numb hands slipping the armor plates into the pockets of his copsuit. Getting heavy for the job.

     They gave him an old battery-powered headlamp — without a TG node he’d be blind down there. Teague and Chase would have a real-time holomap overlay through the TG, bright as cartoon daylight. They’d be able to work in the darkness like it wasn’t even there, like pulp ninjas, like darkness was their gig. Richie would be stuck in a confining light, a cone of perception as thin as smoke. Seeing just one piece of the world at a time.

     Teague tossed a black box with an L-shaped handle at him and he caught it, heavy.

     “What’s this?”

     Teague giggled. “A heartbeat detector. So you can find your way around down there, freak.”

     Richie turned it over in his hands. It had a grill on one side, some knobs on top. Old tech. Chase leaned over, his face drawn long with the exertion of seriousness. Richie twisted a couple of knobs and the box clicked to life, beating out a crazy polyrhythm. He killed it.

     “Where’d ya get that piece of futuristic hardware?” Chase asked, “A time-machine?” He let out a single high-pitched guffaw.

     Teague shook his head. “Naw. Found it in one of those Civil Assault bunkers down in sub-basement five. Found that, and a coupla cases of rancid ketchup. An’ some picture books.”

     Richie looked up. “Picture books?”

     “Porn, mostly.”

     Chase brightened. “Any any good?”

     “Naw. They were picture books — the gretches hold still.” Teague shuddered. “Really creepy. Speakin’ of –” he continued, “If they’re back in the tunnels, the scarecrow must be busted.”

     Chase slotted his last piece of armor. “We’ll find a new one.”

     “We always do, brother,” Teague winked and punched him playfully in the arm.

     At the weapons locker, Mr. Fitzsimmons paused. The Fitz had the look of a football coach gone to seed, big, but not in the strong way. All the athleticism bled out of him and replaced with a gas. Hair buzzed down to gray stubble; one bloated fist sporting a big gold ring with a stone cut from faded glory. He snapped his gum and put his big hands on his hips. “Now, lissen up. I want you boys to go clean all that shit out from down below. But I don’t want any fucking headaches. Teague, that means you.”

     Teague frowned with comic indignation.

     “Yeah.” The Fitz folded his thick arms and rested them on the top of his belly. “No fucking around. You stick together — you’re a team, goddammit. Three assholes means just a load of shit for me to clean up. You work as a unit and everybody makes it back.”

     “We’ll give it a hundred and ten percent, sir,” intoned Teague.

     A vein stood out in the center of The Fitz’s forehead. His eyes bugged slightly, like they wanted to leap out and strangle Teague with their optic nerves.

     “Yeah,” The Fitz said finally, and thumbed open the locker.

     The guns were no-nonsense slug-throwers in blunt black carapaces. Submachine guns with 100-round drum clips. The real deal. Teague and Chase cooed and caressed theirs, made them snap and click as they checked the action. Richie held his at arm’s length, heavy metal, his arms jerking with micromovements to pull it closer, to push it away. Bird wings beat in his blood. Awkwardly, he clipped the gun into his shoulder harness, heavy for the job.

     The Fitz sighed and ran a hand over his scalp, down his face. “Just don’t kill each other. That’s all I ask.”

     Richie felt never-get-off-the-ground heavy.

     As heavy as it gets.

     They made their way down into the core of the Pillar, bottoming-out the elevator and then hoofing it into muggy, cyano-algae slimed stairwells. The darkness clattered with hollow bootstomps. As they picked their way over rubble-strewn halls near the old Civic Assault bunkers under sub-basement five, Richie noticed the edges of his headlamp’s corona grow ragged and stuttering grey, like a migraine aura.

     “Hey,” breathed Richie, “Hey, I think I’m getting sick.”

     “You’re already there.” It was Teague’s voice.

     Chase snorted.

     The edges of the light ebbed and flowed with staccato static.

     Richie blinked. “It’s getting worse. I’m — I’m seeing things.”

     Someone slapped him on the back of the head, making his circle of light jerk to illuminate his soiled boots.

     “It’s rats, you fucktard,” sneered Teague. “They’re running from your light.”

     “That probably means something,” said Chase.

     “Shut the fuck up.”

     Eventually, the long hall dead-ended in a dogged-down pressure door with a big wheel in the center. Two piles of scrabbling rats swirled and diminished into drains on either side.

     “Yeah, you go an’ warn ’em. Tell ’em we’re coming. Fucking rats. You’re all the same.”

     Chase barked with laughter, like a small dog.

     They popped the door and Chase kicked it open in stages, busting the rusty hinges loose in loud squealing clangs. Hotter, wetter air rolled over them, swampy and fecund. Alive with quiet life.

     Outside the door was a tilted landing and the torched-off nubs of a fallen staircase; at the edge squatted an electric winch like a kicked over wheelbarrow. And beyond that — a darkness that swallowed all sound.

     They fixed a cable over the greasy wheel and clipped the carabiner end to Richie’s copsuit.

     “Don’t you make trouble for me,” Teague jabbed a finger into Richie’s chest. “Don’t you fuck up and fall.”

     Richie wanted to say something, but his throat was thick with the whole business. Nothing would fit. He couldn’t even swallow. He just nodded blankly and leaned back over nothingness. The winch began to whine.

     He fell slowly, with occasional juddering starts that made his heart clench. He was a bubble of light in fluid darkness; as he descended the pressure on him rose.

     The bottom appeared suddenly, a dark brown silt scored with the signature organic arcs of flowing water. Clumps of trash dotted the landscape, amalgamations of wire frames and clothes and colorful plastic curls all netted together by strands of decaying plant matter. Richie passed through a foggy layer that nauseated him, made his vision swim. It had been a while since the Pillar had been flushed. It stank accordingly.

     The ground was soft when he reached it, squelchy under his boots. His sucking footsteps stirred up more of the terrible odor. He suddenly realized, with a small jolt of terror, that they should have brought respirators.

     There were faint noises here, the distant shush of rushing water and barely-there metallic pops, like far-off steel drums.

     Teague came down, followed by Chase, the winch screaming non-stop agony far above.

     Richie found them with the light.

     Teague winced and waved a white hand. “Get that shit out of my eyes!”

     Richie looked to their boots.

     “Alright.” Teague gave a resolute sniff. “Let’s go check the scarecrow.” He squelched off into the darkness.

     Presently, Richie noticed that the way was narrowing. He could hear the echo of their boots in mud, and soon one rust-bowed wall, and then another, found their way into his cone of light. Teague and Chase had stopped ahead.

     Something hung between them where the walls narrowed to a door-sized aperture. An X of chains, with a ragged sack of something tangled in the middle.

     “Like The Fitz says, the fresh ones are scarier.” Teague’s voice was thin — he was speaking away from Richie, into the darkness beyond the aperture. “The more this garbage gets to lookin’ like garbage, the less scary it has in it. What did he call it?”

     “Dunno,” said Chase flatly.

     Teague snapped his fingers. “Identity. If they can’t identify with it, like ‘you’re next’ — it’s no good.”

     Richie kept his light down, out of their faces. Each step brought him closer and somehow farther away. For the first time, he felt the beat of bird wings inside his skull.

     “Knock that shit down,” Teaque spat.

     Richie heard Chase move, then a tearing like dry cloth. The chains rattled. At the edge of his circle of light, something dropped into the silt. He caught a flash of crumpled brown paper, and a black oval; then suddenly, the pieces of reality sieved out into the true pattern: a skull with the better part of the face peeled off.

     Teague and Chase worked the chains clean with more thuds and plops and Richie didn’t breathe. Breathing felt like showing off; breathing felt like disrespect. As he held his light perfectly steady on the skull he felt something he never wanted to feel again, an oil-and-water churn of guilt and joy. It tasted like breakfast, hot at the back of his throat.

     “I said let’s go.” It was Teague.

     “What?” The word rushed from him, taking the whole of his breath.

     “Are you fucking deaf now, too?”

     “I’m good.” He said it too fast.

     “Straight shooter?”

     The question made no sense to Richie. “Yeah.”

     Teague clapped his hands. “Then let’s go clean up the shit!”

     Chase howled briefly, then broke into breathy laughter.

     They disappeared through the aperture.

     Richie hesitated, eyes on the skull. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and staggered after them.

     As they rounded a bend in the hallway that opened up into another massive chamber, the heartbeat detector stutter-clicked, making Richie jump.

     “Don’t move!” Teague screamed, “Don’t fucking move!”

     Then nothing but the squelch of boots in mud and the tappity-tip-tick of the heartbeat detector. Richie’s own heart beat hard in his throat. He realized with a sudden chill that he was fumbling for his gun.

     The darkness spoke. “Who the fuck are you?”

     “Who the fuck are YOU?” Teague practically screamed it.

     Tap-tickety-tip.

     “Mall one core sec. And you?”

     “Mall four.” Teague sounded relieved and annoyed simultaneously. “Christ,” he breathed from somewhere close behind Richie.

     “What’s with the light?”

     Teague snorted. “He’s with us. A fucking cripple.”

     “Ha.” The darkness sounded nonplussed.

     Teague sniffed. “You got anything out your way?”

     The darkness paused and lit several cigs. “Coupla Xers, fresh ones.”

     “You bag ’em?” It was Chase.

     “Naw. We gave ’em a pass.”

     “We don’t give passes,” hissed Teague.

     The darkness seemed to consider this. “As you will.” Then, “How ’bout you? Everything clean your way?”

     “Always,” Teague drawled.

     The darkness jangled and squelched. “Then we’re out. See y’all ’round.”

     “Laters.”

     A deep red flash flared as Teague struck a cig on his body armor. Richie kept his head down, his light on Teague’s mud-encased boots. He could smell the cigarette tang, the freshest thing down here.

     Teague exhaled loudly. “Fucking fucktards.”

     “We shoulda shot ’em,” Chase said, dim anger and half-understood regret in his voice.

     “No,” Teague replied with slow annoyance, “we shouldn’t have. Get that light the fuck away from me.” His hand flashed down into the light, a bone-white jumping spider in Richie’s thin world.

     “Sorry,” Richie muttered as he swung his head away, into the deeper darkness. The boots-and-spider afterimage played at the edge of his vision, red on the walls.

     Chase coughed. “Are we gonna shoot anybody?”

     “Yeah,” Teague exhaled audibly again, “We’re gonna shoot us some Xers. C’mon.”

     They walked on in sucking mud. Presently, Richie came to realize that the afterimage was actually firelight on the curve of the wall. He turned up the heartbeat detector. It clicked and tripped with overlapping beats.

     “How many ya got?” Chase was too close, his words hot on Richie’s neck.

     “Two, maybe three, I think,” Richie whispered.

     They rounded a bend and saw the fire a hundred meters distant, small and bright with occluding shadows, a far guttering on an open plane.

     Richie heard an odd sound, odd for this place. It was primal, like the world’s first warning siren, the ultimate irritant. Itchy under the bird’s wings in his head. Suddenly, with a cold sheet of fluid dread, he placed it.

     It was a baby, crying.

     “Well, let’s go roust ’em,” Teague said, lighting another cig.

     Teague strolled into the firelight, gun tipped back on his shoulder, casual, thumb hooked in a belt loop. Puffing smoke. Chase tottered hugely behind.

     Teague’s face split into a flame-reflecting grin. “Evening, folks.”

     Richie saw a man and a woman; under the X her face just like his Momma’s in the middle of the night, jolted awake from an expedition to the past. And a baby.

     New ones. The tats still freshly raw, the baby crying, it’s face red and swollen where the nano burrowed into its flesh. The fat black X raised and raw.

     The man spoke. “We don’t want trouble.”

     New ones. Nice clothes, lots of nice things in torn shopping bags. That bewildered look, the I-can’t-fucking-believe-I-slipped-through-the-cracks look. Their eyes not yet dead.

     Teague unlimbered his gun. “The fuck you don’t.”

     The deep cold in his words froze everything, just like that, the man squatting by the immobile fire, face drawn long, bright red eyes on Teague, lower lip peeled from bottom teeth; the woman sitting on a bulging dark green garbage bag, head down, long auburn hair draped around the baby in her lap like the sumptuous, chocolaty-velvet top of the last bassinette.

     Do something, Richie told himself.

     The man snapped upright and flung something underhand at Teague’s head, a piece of flapping darkness. Teague squawked and ducked back, too late. The darkness folded around his head as he pitched over backwards into the mud.

     “Run — run!” the man screamed to the woman. He whirled and left the firelight. Richie followed him with his headlamp.

     “God DAMN it!” shrilled Teague, hurling the book from his face and into the fire with a burst of sparks. “He’s getting away! Shoot ‘im!”

     “He’s Richie’s, man,” Chase said matter-of-factly.

     “Somebody fucking shoot!” Teague struggled to get up.

     “C’mon, Richie,” bellowed Chase, “Get ‘im!”

     Richie did something so incredible, so far removed from the self he thought he knew, it was as if he stood outside, behind the glass of an alternate reality, feet hovering above the mud, a mute and muted ghost observing Chase and Teague and himself as three pillars of shadow around a camp fire.

     He pulled the trigger.

     He saw his own eyes, glistening teeth and tear-trails making a bright square in the strobing muzzleflash. Light shone from his forehead like a thought-beacon. Something tore in him then, seeing all of it at once, something that was never going to be quite the same ever again. Something breaking so he’d finally fit in.

     I didn’t mean me, God, I didn’t mean me!

     The man stiffened and fell, skidding on his face and hands, his raincoat bunched to one side. He lurched upward, back onto his feet, turning, eyes wide and shiny. His mouth, round and filled brimming with the darkness that swallows all sound.

     Take care of my little boy —

     He took two short steps and collapsed.

     Richie saw it with his own eyes, back in his body, fingers tingling with feather-touches, feathers that smelled like hot gun sticking in his throat, his blood thrumming with their frantic flicking; in his head every thought was a little bird, the flock scattered by a scything, plummeting predator. At the edge of the chaos he was aware of Teague cursing while Chase exulted loudly. Beyond, the darkness called with its doppelganger throat in the voice of a woman screaming while a baby cried.

     He looked at what he had done and tried not to believe it.

     Tip… Tap. Tip… Tap. He dropped his light to the heartbeat detector. The man was still alive.

     The flock reformed in his head, a dark clotting mass. It was still bird wings, but now they beat with a kind of coherency. He was still alive.

     “Of course he’s still alive.” Teague startled him, suddenly close and reading his thoughts. “You think the Fitz would trust bloodbags like us with real weapons? We got tranq rounds. He’s just sleepin’.”

     “So,” Richie swallowed, “We’re just leaving?”

     “Oh, yeah.” Teague lit a cig, took a drag and inhaled sharply. “We’re just leaving. Get his ankles.”

     Cold extradimensional glass against his palms as he grabbed the ankles. He pressed his face against it and cried out soundlessly, no breath to fog it; he watched himself pick up the man’s legs as Chase hefted the ragdoll form up from under the armpits. Weightless tears slid along his face as he watched the three of them — Teague, Chase and himself — slog through the mud back to the portal with the chains. And between them, the burden of the new scarecrow.

     “Let’s string him up.” Teague sounded bored.

     Chase wrapped a chain around the man’s neck and hauled him to his feet.

     The darkness screaming and screaming, the sound ghosting to an echo as it paused to fill its lungs with more, the thin keening cry of the baby rising beneath the echo, patching the gaps with wet misery.

     The heartbeat detector was strangely warm in his hand.

     Tip. Tap. Tip-tip-tip —

     Then… nothing. Nothing ever again. He turned it off and it was the sound of him finally fitting in.

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