fiction15 Sep 2008 08:00 pm

Jack is an author living in the Pacific Northwest who has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and numerous Year’s Best Anthologies. Read more about him in the profile, following.

Cab Macarron left his patrol car at the state barracks but he didn’t bother to change out of his trooper’s uniform. He picked up Joe Rodriguez at the Penny Diner in Goldbar and they headed straight to the Soams place as dusk was descending on the North Cascades. If there was going to be trouble Cab wanted backup. He had played football with Joe in high school. Back then, only five years ago, they had called Rodriguez “The Monster.” He was still a big son of a bitch. Cab and Joe had always stuck together, pulling a three year hitch in the Marines and then going for troopers.

Cab’s Jeep Cherokee handily negotiated the county road. The snow was like wedding cake frosting marred once by somebody’s fingers — the narrow tire tracks left behind Nancy’s snappy little Honda Civic. The Honda tracks slewed around pretty good. That car was light, and Nancy had no business coming up here anyway.

“She called you?” Joe Rodgriguez said.

“I already said she did.”

Cab parked behind the Civic. He reached into the Cherokee’s glove compartment for his flashlight, a rugged four-cell job with a steel cast barrel.
Their boots made a crumping noise in the snow. Cab pointed his flashlight through the ice-encrusted window of the Honda. It was like peering through clear water, everything appeared wavy, the suitcases and brown grocery bags. Cab could plainly see the AGA logo on the bags.
“Looks like she’s moving in,” Joe said.
Cab shot him a glance, measured his friend’s innocent observation, and shook his head.
“Nancy’s seventeen,” Cab said.
“She’s got a mind of her own, though.”
Only Joe Rodriguez, whom Cab had known since boyhood, could get away with telling Cab anything about his kid sister Nancy.
“I seen it in her before she was twelve,” Joe said, pushing it.
“Seen what?”
“That she wasn’t going to stay put,” Joe said. “Not for you or anybody else, not after your mother passed.” Cab’s mother had held the three of them together after Cab’s father was killed in the Panama invasion. A military funeral and a posthumous Medal of Honor didn’t mean a thing to Nancy; she had barely been out of diapers. But for Cab, being handed his father’s Medal of Honor was like being presented with the burden of his own premature manhood. A few years later their mother collapsed on the kitchen floor in front of Nancy, hammered by a stroke at the age of forty-five. By then Cab had already enlisted, and Nancy endured life in foster care until he mustered out of the Marines and managed to talk the Department of Social and Health Services into giving him guardianship over his sister for the remaining years of her adolescence. Nancy, who’d run away four times from the foster home, took Cab’s guardianship as a ticket to freedom. But Cab regarded his responsibility seriously and let her know it.
“She’s a minor and I’m bringing her home,” Cab said to Joe Rodriguez.
“Because she called you.”
“Yeah, because she called me.”
A weird call. The dispatcher had relayed the message to Cab. He was at the end of his shift. He called Nancy from the barracks. She had sounded near hysterics. “Peter’s brought something through. I thought he was just talking, but God, Cab, he really did it. The thing bit him. I don’t know where it is now. Out in the woods. I’m afraid to leave the cabin, but Peter’s bleeding. I’m scared, Cab.” Then there was some angry shouting in the background and Nancy said she had to go, that she shouldn’t have called. A moment later the line had gone dead.
I’m scared, Cab.
Now, standing in the deepening twilight beside Nancy’s Honda, Cab looked up the hill to old Neal Soams’s fancy cabin. Neal had leased the place out to the wrong guy this time. Naturally Cab had done a background check on Peter Goetz as soon as Nancy mentioned the name. This was no local kid. Cab could scare the town boys off easily enough. What he didn’t understand was that if Goetz was such a hot-shot genius then what was he doing out here by himself about as far away from MIT as you could go without getting your feet wet?
“Let’s go, if you’re with me,” Cab said.
“Course I’m with you, old son.”
The switch-back path to the cabin was buried. They cut straight up the hillside, and Cab felt it in his knees. He drove himself, his breath fogging out in icy clouds.
“What’s this?” Joe had stopped. He was bent over, breathing hard, big shoulders moving up and down in his black and red Pendelton jacket. He pointed at what looked like a thick black snake lying in the snow. Cab didn’t want to waste time but he slogged back and hunkered next to Joe.
“Looks like a power cable,” Cab said. He put his hand on it. “Sucker’s warm, too.”
Joe pointed his chin at the cabin, now about fifty yards farther up the hill. “You think he’s tied into the underground line?”
“Cable this thick would handle a lot of juice.” Cab almost smiled. “Illegal as hell.”
Joe stood upright and stretched his back. He moved up the hill a couple of strides, but Cab stayed where he was. In the last few seconds the cable had grown perceptibly warmer. Hell, it was practically too hot to touch. The snow was melting around it.
Suddenly white light burst over them. An explosion, utterly silent. Being down low probably saved Cab. A force drove him onto his back, sliding him down the slope with his head towards the road.
Joe Rodriguez screamed.
A bizarre pattern of silvery shimmers fanned out above Cab, as if the air were filled with irregular sheets of tin foil. Joe was right in the middle of it, arms flailing, his upper body actually glowing.
Cab whipped around in the snow, galvanized by a sensation like a million ants crawling over his body. He squeezed his eyes shut against the painfully bright tin foil air. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The crawling sensation ceased, and the shimmers faded, leaving deep purple twilight.
Cab pushed himself to his feet and looked around. Rodriguez was gone. A trail of boot prints led into the trees. From the cabin to the bottom of the hill the black cable lay exposed in a trench of melted snow.
“God damn.”
Cab had expected to see the cabin blown to flinders, maybe the fieldstone chimney and a few smoking cross beams standing in the dimness. But the cabin appeared unchanged, except it was dark, when moments ago the porch light had been on.
Cab picked up his flashlight, brushed off the lens and tried it out. The bulb worked fine. He turned to the tracks in the snow. As much as he wanted to get up to the cabin and see about Nancy, he couldn’t leave his friend. Joe Rodriguez’s scream shrilled through his mind as if it had never stopped.
He didn’t have to follow the tracks far. Joe’s legs stuck out from under the shaggy, snow-laden bough of a blue spruce. Cab knelt beside him, barking Joe’s name. Rodriguez did not respond, and Cab hooked his fingers in a belt loop at Joe’s hip, reached under the spruce bough to find his shoulder and roll him onto his back. What he touched in the concealing shadow under the tree made him jerk his hand back — a reflex, as if he’d inadvertently put his hand into something nasty
Without conscious volition, Cab stood up and backed away. He caught himself and stopped. That was his friend. Whatever had happened to him, it was still Joe.
Cab tucked the flashlight under his armpit, took hold of his partner’s boots and dragged him clear of the tree. “God!” He dropped Joe’s legs and the flashlight and staggered back, his hand covering his mouth. After a minute he forced himself to pick up the flashlight and point it at the thing that had been his friend. From the waist up it was a nightmare of tapering gray tentacles limply attached to a trunk of the same rubbery flesh. Joe’s red and black Pendelton jacket hung in tatters. Only one of his arms remained, and it was twisted, shrunken, a mere vestige.
Cab didn’t even try to fit his mind around the impossibility of what he was seeing. His pragmatic nature took over, as it always did, and he hunkered beside the Rodriguez-thing and rolled it onto its back.
Joe was still there — a piece of him. His face rose out of the neck-less gray trunk like a death mask minutely sculpted clay.
Something shifted in the air above Cab. He looked up sharply and saw a clump of snow falling towards him. The branch from which it had shaken loose was still moving. Cab swung his flashlight up. At first he saw nothing. It wasn’t until he began to move the light away that it happened to glint on a silver thread. He glimpsed it then it was gone. He had to move the light again, angle it slightly this way and that before he was able to discern an intricate network of silver threads stretching from the blue spruce to the next nearest tree. It was strange, almost as if the network really wasn’t there. Even the barest shifting of his light caused the threads to disappear. After only a moment or two he looked away from it, necessarily dismissing it from his thoughts so he could concentrate on the problems at hand.
He fought an almost overpowering urge to charge up the hill to the cabin. But his partner was down, and God only knew what was happening up there. This was more than he could handle by himself.
Cab half fell, half slid to the bottom of the hill, and then he was yanking open the passenger door of the Cherokee. He grabbed the CB’s mike, but when he switched the unit on a storm of static burst from the speaker. It was the same on every channel.
Cab racked the mike and started up the hill again, driving his boots into the deep snow, feeling the fire in his knees. He could have taken the Jeep, maybe out-distanced the interference. Then again he might have had to drive all the way to Goldbar, waste as much as an hour.
Cab, I’m scared.
Ten yards from the cabin’s front porch the air felt charged with electricity, reminding him of the crawling sensation he’d experienced during the silent explosion.
He pounded on the door but no one responded. At the back of the cabin he shined his light in the kitchen window. Rustic pine cabinets. Dishes piled in the sink. Something moved on the floor near the doorway to the dining area. He caught it in his light. A hand groping out of an unbuttoned flannel sleeve.
Cab drew his 9-mm Beretta. He moved to the back door, prepared to kick it off its hinges. But the door was unlocked.
Peter Goetz lay sprawled on the broad plank floor. The left side of his torso looked mangled and burned. But he wasn’t burned; he was changed. Like Joe Rodriguez. Only Goetz’s transformation had taken a different form. His left arm was thinned out, almost a black bone, with a couple of extra joints thrown in. Three fingers instead of five, and they weren’t really fingers. His left leg was violently twisted, erupting out of the hip socket, halted halfway in its transformation between human and something else.
Cab stepped over the inert body. He had to find Nancy. The floor was streaked with a substance like black tar. It was too thick for blood, which is what Cab took it for at first. He followed it to an open door and the smoke-filled room beyond. His flashlight beam swept through gray layers to discover what looked like a miniature broadcast tower. The air smelled of fried ozone. The tower was partially melted, the intricate cross-braces sagging. This was it, ground zero.
Cab started out of the room to look elsewhere, but a barely audible whimpering made him turn back.
“Go away, Cab, I don’t want you to see me.”
“Are you hurt? Where are you?”
The room wasn’t that big, nothing in it but the weird tower and a table loaded with electronic equipment. No place for a girl to hide.
“Come on, Nancy.”
He swept the room with the flashlight. A stifled sob, low to the floor. Under the table. But there wasn’t space for her under there. He holstered his gun, squatted, pointing the flashlight. The beam touched her and she scuttled back. Cab’s heart thudded, blood roaring in his ears. It couldn’t be, it couldn’t. He reached for her. It was Nancy’s face, mostly, but God the rest of her…
She darted away from his hand, scrabbling out the door on multiple legs, insectile.
He stumbled after her into the hall, saw her disappear through an open door. Before he could follow a hand closed around his ankle. He jerked around, gasping. It was Peter Goetz. He had dragged himself down the hall, leaving another smeary black trail. Raising his head, he rolled his eyes up to look at Cab. The left one was big as a golf ball, popping from its socket, egg yoke yellow with a red pin point in the center.
Cab jerked loose and said, “What have you done, god damn you?”
Goetz started talking, his words coming out in a rocky mumble — a troll’s voice.
“…the Ancient Ones…brought it through, then overload, power surge…gar’ne sothoth neg’a geeth!…god…two dimensions, objects can occupy the same space…never thought…blended with counterparts across the dimensional interface…”
Goetz’s words became unintelligible. Syrupy drool leaked from the corner of his mouth. His alien limb twitched and rapped on the floor. Revulsed, Cab started to back away. Peter Goetz’s human hand locked on his ankle again, this time with a much firmer grip. As Cab tried to pull free the black bone limb twitched up behind him, the talon-like digits spiking into Cab’s leg.
Cab cried out in pain, threw himself back with all his weight and strength, breaking loose. He hit the floor hard. The hideous thing Goetz had become dragged itself towards him, the yellow eye with its evil red spot almost glowing in the dark hall. With a quick practiced movement Cab produced a small canister of mace and discharged it into the eye. Goetz shrieked, and Cab was able to shove himself away. His hand dropped to the butt of his automatic but he left the weapon holstered. If there was a way of reversing this nightmare Peter Goetz was the only one who knew how to do it.
Cab stood up, reached for his handcuffs. He looked for his chance and lunged in, grabbing Goetz by his human arm. He slapped one cuff snug around the wrist and quickly locked down the other cuff on the wide knob of the tower room’s door. Goetz thrashed blindly for him with the spiked digits of his alien hand. Cab danced back out of reach. He felt surprisingly steady and in control, even optimistic. After all, if he’d mistakenly thought Goetz was dead he may also have been wrong about Joe. Cab might still put things right again, even in this insane situation. All he had to do was find Nancy. Once he had her under control they could get out of here in the truck, bring back help, somebody who could figure out what Goetz had done.
Cab backed slowly down the hall, his leg throbbing where talon had spiked him. Goetz whimpered and thrashed helplessly on the floor, the cuff rattling loosely on the neck of the doorknob. Cab proceeded to the open door through which he’d seen Nancy disappear. He paused outside the room, his nerve beginning to fray. He could hear her in there, a chitinous scrabble on the wood floor. For a moment he couldn’t move. He had to force a rational calm over himself. He counted five deep breaths, and then he strode into the room and kicked the door shut behind him.
There was a window but by now the twilight had failed. He swept the room with his flashlight. She could be anywhere, anywhere. “Nancy, goddamn it.” His light touched the closet door, the window sill, the counterpane, a pillow without a slipcover, the nightstand, the bare floor, the steam radiator with its elaborate scroll work, sweeping around, back and forth, a nervous searchlight. He couldn’t see her, but she had to be in the room. Then his light fell on a Coleman kerosene lantern sitting on top of the dresser. He set the flashlight down, dug a book of matches out of his shirt pocket, primed the wick and lit it. The room filled with hissing lantern light.
He heard the scrape of one of her legs on the floor and turned in time to catch a glimpse of her retreating beneath the bed, like some gigantic, loathsome insect. He cursed under his breath, steeling himself. Plenty of times since he’d taken over guardianship of Nancy she had driven him to the brink of rage with her smart mouth and stubborn refusal to obey his reasonable restrictions. But he had never allowed her to see his anger. At the most trying times he mentally cut her off, completely blocked the annoying teenager she was and cast back into memory for a picture of her as she’d been when their father died. The innocent toddler, the little girl who held his hand to cross the street, who begged him to read stories to her and push her in the swing. He had been the man of the house. Now, getting down on his knees with the flashlight, he used the mental trick again, imagining Nancy as a child, remembering how it had felt to look out for her, to be the man.
“Come out of there, Nancy.”
Her words, blurred with sobs, nevertheless sounded human. “I can’t stand myself like this.”
“We’ll get you back to normal somehow. I promise”
“You can’t.”
A hard knot bulged in Cab’s throat. He had been the man in the house but he’d been a child, too, a boy unfairly pushed toward maturity. He had tried, God he had tried. But always, dogging him like a shadow demon, had been the cruel fear of failing his mother and sister — of letting his father down.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” he said.
He moved the flashlight and she cringed back, holding up two of her knobby, triple-jointed arms to shield her eyes.
“Come out,” he said. “All I want to do is help you.”
She only sobbed louder. Cab had to get her away from here, back to the Jeep, and he didn’t want to waste any more time doing it. He stripped the bedspread from the mattress. Nancy shifted nervously under the box springs.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m taking you out of here.” He spoke in a flat, no nonsense tone, deliberately purging his voice of emotion. He couldn’t afford to waver, not now. He had to concentrate, keep his head. He had made mistakes with Nancy, he could see that with shocking clarity. The horrors he’d encountered this day seemed to have released all his deepest fears, throwing them up in hideous relief. All his life, since the death of his father, he had been so frightened of failing to live up to his responsibility that he had gone overboard, pushing, pushing until he had pushed Nancy out of his life altogether. But it might not be too late to put things right; he had to try.
Cab set his booted foot on the edge of the bed frame and shoved hard. The bed scraped away from the wall. Nancy tried to dart between his legs but he threw down the bedspread and gathered her up. She fought but he had her, wrapping the spread tight around her, confining her movement. “Don’t,” he said. “Please don’t fight me, Nancy.”
Her struggles grew less frenzied.
He tucked her under his right arm, hating the sharp little twitches of her alien limbs. Gripping the big flashlight in his left hand he started down the hall.
Goetz, too, had ceased struggling. Shackled by his wrist to the doorknob, his face lowered, Goetz muttered in a strange, contorted language as Cab stepped past him. The atmosphere was suddenly hushed, expectant. He could feel Nancy breathing inside the bedspread.
He opened the front door with the hand holding the flashlight. Something whipped out of the darkness, striking him across the chest like a stiff yard of rubber hose. Cab staggered back, grunting. Whatever it was crowded itself into the doorway, hissing and muttering alien syllables. At once Nancy went wild trying to kick free of the bedspread, responding to the thing in the doorway. Cab brought the flashlight up.
Joe was still alive, all right — or the thing that had been Joe. It lurched toward him, mostly human from the waist down, but from the belt upwards it was a writhing Medusa of tentacles. Rodriguez’s face clenched and gasped in the dead gray bulk of its torso.
Cab backed away. It was speaking to him, though the words were alien. He could barely hold onto Nancy in her frenzy to get away. Her muffled voice called out to the advancing creature in its own language. The Peter Goetz monstrosity swiped at Cab and he dodged out of the way, retreating down the hall.
He switched Nancy to his left arm. It was more difficult to hold onto her and he couldn’t direct the flashlight where he wanted it, but it freed up his right hand. He drew his 9-mm but didn’t shoot. He couldn’t shoot, not Joe. The Rodriguez-thing waved its tentacles, whacking against the walls in the narrow hallway. Cab backed into the bedroom he’d only moments ago quit, and slammed the door.
Immediately, Nancy wrenched free and hit the floor, frantically disentangling herself from the bedspread. Before he could stop her she skittered up on the bed and launched herself at the window.
The glass shattered and she was gone. Snow breezed into the room.
The Rodriguez-thing crashed through the door, shrieking like a banshee, Joe’s human mouth stretched impossibly wide. Cab threw the flashlight. A tentacle sent it pin wheeling into the wall. Cab leveled his automatic but hesitated to fire. If there was one chance in a million of restoring his friend…
A tentacle lashed out and wrapped around Cab’s ankle, another seized him tightly around his left thigh, while a third waved by his neck, seeking purchase. Cab was out of options. The tentacles tightened down. Cab’s femoral artery pounded as if to burst under the pressure. He thrust the Beretta forward. At the same moment a flailing tentacle brushed against the lantern, coiled around its fuel tank and lifted it off the dresser.
Pain hazing his vision, Cab cried out, “Joe, I’m sorry,” and squeezed off two quick rounds. They splatted into the gray flesh. All the grasping tentacles squeezed in spasmodic reaction. Cab screamed, fired twice more, but it didn’t matter. The lantern burst under the pressure, dousing the Rodriguez-thing with flaming kerosene. Instantly it released Cab, and he was able to push himself away and stumble to the window. The monster’s many tentacles waved helplessly. Joe Rodriguez’s face became more prominent, stretching out of the hot core of yellow fire. And then it began to melt.
Tears streaming from his eyes, the heat baking over him, Cab shoved the wooden sash up, dislodging a rain of broken glass. He clambered over the sill and pitched face down in the snow that had drifted against the side of the cabin.
He lay there for some moments, his face half buried in the snow, his cheek turning numb, breathing hard, trying to gather his will. What a mess he had made of things. It was all coming apart now. Joe was finished, the cabin was burning — and with it the machinery that had created this nightmare.
Now only Nancy was left.
It was just the two of them, like when they were kids. The way she was now she needed him even more than she had back then. In her present form she was helpless in the world. She would have to understand that. She was going to be depending on him a lot. Who else could bear to love her? He wouldn’t screw up again. He was all she had now, but first he had to find her.
He got up and began to walk, favoring his left leg. The jumpy glare from the burning cabin revealed Nancy’s tracks in the snow, each peculiar impression a tiny cup of shadow in the red light. She was fast and had a good lead; finding her wouldn’t be easy. He set his jaw and slogged forward, determined. He wasn’t letting anybody down, not ever again.
As he reached the very limit of the firelight he saw her, squatting on a stump as if she had been waiting for him. Cab halted ten feet from the stump, his instinct warning him to approach no closer. She was barely visible in the weak red glare, but what he could see was terrible. Oh yes, she was going to need him again. And he would handle things differently this time. He wasn’t his father and he didn’t have to be. All he wanted was to be good, to do the right thing.
“I don’t belong to you, Cab.”
Funny. It was what she had said so many times before, since he had taken responsibility for her. To hear the same words in that tortured rasp her voice was becoming, to see her as she now was, a freakish thing. But it wasn’t going to be the old battle of wills. He wouldn’t let it be that way. He moved closer.
“Let me help you,” he said.
“I won’t.” She turned and sprang from the stump.
Cab lunged after her, but she was right there on the other side of the stump, not really trying to escape. In a moment he knew why. He found himself hung up in a net of invisible threads. Sticky. A trap. The gun, which he’d still been holding, slipped out of his hand. The more he struggled the more entangled he became. Where the threads touched his exposed skin–on his hands and face –they burned like acid.
Not a net…a web.
“I pick my own friends now, Cab. Gah ‘Sogoth!”
There was a vibration in the web. Cab remembered what Peter Goetz had said about bringing one of the Ancient Ones through before his machine overloaded. And Nancy’s hysterical call about a thing biting Goetz.
Cab pulled wildly at the complex web that ensnared him, but it was useless. Finally he sagged, exhausted, and looked up. A pair of yellow eyes centered with pin points of blood glowed in the dark above him. “Sig na’getha.” The eyes twitched closer, and Cab strained to reach his automatic. It lay in the snow, just beyond his grasp.
“Nancy help me!”
The gun was right in front of her; she might have pushed it closer to him, but she didn’t. And Cab knew it really was too late. Nancy, the creature that had been Nancy, cocked her strange little head and regarded him with cold, inhuman detachment. Cab never looked away from her again. In his final seconds he had to accept it. After all, he was responsible.


Trackback this Post | Feed on comments to this Post

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.