Charge

I sit outside the tent, watching men furl the flaps of the mess and close up the camp for night. They’re all armed, but that wasn’t true when I first arrived. A patrol ambles along the edge of the courtyard, chatting amicably in their rhyming nonsense.

The activity around the camp seems to be centered in the sleeping areas now, with a lot of terse banter and a few people brushing their teeth. The evening sun leaves a corona along the western horizon, but the high pillars of a weather front moving in from the east still catch the last dregs of a red light. Fireflies play in the ruin, and a few insects chirp, but I don’t see any monkeys. They must have all gone to bed. It smells like rain.

The tent flap rustles behind me and then Doctor Tellerhorn sits down in the dust by my side.

“That was a bit much, even for him,” he concedes. “But it’s gotten harder and harder to know what he’s talking about. I think half the time he’s speaking to someone in a wholly different country. Taking care of him may be the best we can do at this point.”

“Seemed pretty clear he was talking about me.”

“Well… his prophecies haven’t quite achieved the level of reliability required for us to commit murder in cold blood merely on his say-so.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Still,” his eye twinkles as he rolls a cigarette. “Drunk any blood lately?”

“Not that I’m aware of. So what is heros? Where does it come from? Did you steal it from some kind of temple?”

He offers me the tobacco box and I wave him off, so he lights his own and breathes it deep and long before answering: “I can see why you might assume that, but no. A glacier shifted in the artic and revealed what looked like a very old ruin, covered in a Devanagari antecedent script.”

He pulls a handful of moussed and scratched photographs from his pocket and hands them to me. Some show ruins like stone teeth rising from ice and snow. The rest capture scenes of huge hairy mummies, frozen solid on shelves of carved ice, and set about with weapons. The corpses could be days or centuries old, surrounded by so much ice.

“The coldest place?” I ask.

“Hm. Maybe. We got the first pictures back from Koch’s expedition. Once we figured out what he had found, we had to race the Germans to get back to it, but we won.” There’s a twinkle of satisfaction in his eye. “In the ruin one of the porters found a diamond about the size of the tip of your thumb. He tried to pocket it, poor sod. He went quite mad. That’s how we learned about its chemical properties. It hit me quite by accident actually: a newspaper I’d read and something he said. It turned out, his raving was actually firsthand accounts of concurrent events hundreds of miles away. Well, the chemists wanted the thing tested. Of course I protested but in the end they won out.”

He breathes a cloud of smoke that drifts up and vanishes in the heavy sky.

“So they dissolved it. Twelve volunteers got the solution at varying intensities. It wasn’t actually a diamond, mind you. Far too soft to be a diamond, and it liquified in an alcohol solution above boiling. We settled on a very weak solution. Destroying the sample got us one thousand seven hundred and thirty doses. That was a year ago. There were only six left when your friends stole them.”

“Only six more?” I ask.

“Minus the one you got, so five,” he confirms. “And the Captain says he put a bullet through the case before they got away, so maybe four.”

“What happened to the volunteers?”

“A dose a month helped keep the madness at bay, but the effectiveness of the charge fell off. The others did much worse than Daniel. Most have stopped talking or moving. The ones who still talk only rave. They’re being taken care of, of course, and the ravings written down, but you’re the only one we’ve got who’s still lucid. Of course, your first dose was somewhat more recent. I should think you’ll have a month or two before you get to where he is. Sorry.”

“I bet I can last longer,” I tell him, frowning and staring at the stones of the yard as I sort through my experiences from the past few hours. “The visions seem to have depth, almost like they’re not just a way of seeing, but another access of movement. I can look that way, but I think I can also go. More importantly, the deeper I look or maybe go, the stranger things become. Without a map, or at least a framework for understanding what I’m seeing, the visions would be completely overwhelming and confusing. The antidote to that madness is the body, the living coil, pain, pleasure and touch. You can escape by returning to that, and reconnecting with my body has served as a sort of anchor to pull me out of the visions.”

Tellerhorn eyes me sadly. “Are you familiar with the dreamtime state described by the Arrernte aboriginals of Australia? I attended a lecture on it at the Royal Society a few years back. The Arrernte describe accessing a sort of timeless parallel land, where history can be directly experienced, but where dwell ancestral spirits and other gods. I sent for an expert on the subject, but while we waited for his arrival the program was managed by a psychoanalyst of the Freud-Bruer school who insisted on treating the visions like a form of hysteria. He told our men to examine their visions and discuss them in detail. He told them that to gain control they had to first identify and acknowledge the source of the dissociative impulse.”

I scratch my jaw. I’ve got a beard coming in. It itches. “That may have been incautious. Let me guess, the more they examined, the more incoherent they got.”

“Just so,” he says, wagging his cigarette. “And our aboriginal expert never arrived. Waylaid by pirates, I’m given to understand.”

“How outlandish.”

“Indeed. Doubly so, since he was traveling by Empire Air.” He sighs. “Well if you’re right than we’ve made a very troubling error in our treatment, and I’m not entirely prepared to accept so simple a solution as ‘feel your body’. You can’t will your way out of a heroine trip, or wake up from anesthesia by wanting to.”

Fireflies dance before the rising storm-front clouds. A raven calls. I say: “Are you trying to tell me I need to steal your drug back if I want to stay sane?”

“It’s the only way I know of, but obviously it won’t last unless we can figure out how to synthesize it.” He’s either a tremendous actor or his face and voice brim with genuine apology.

“Alright,” I tell him. “If it’s along my way, but my priority is my friend-”

He waves his hand dismissively: “I quite understand. But you see there’s something I think will help us both. I have this private suspicion that the thieves who stole our heros might have some better idea than we do how to handle it. If they really do have their own diamond, that is. If they have one, and it’s lasted hundreds of years, then their rate of consumption would have to be much better than ours. We need to learn from them. Danial’s life may depend on it, and the lives of the other volunteers. Including you.”

“I hear what you’re saying Doc, and nobody wants to understand this thing more than I do but-”

“If Brass gets his way then one we find the temple, we’ll kick down the door and kill everyone inside. He doesn’t like Agafya very much. I believe they have a history in Bhurma that’s left the good Captain with a bit of a prejudice. Does Agafya know you? Can you get me a meeting? I just need-”

What cuts him off is as loud as a bomb and a lot longer, a chord hitting the edge of every wrong note, winding through octaves vaster than the edges of hearing. The resonance of it strikes my bones and fills my body with a shaking potence that feels like lust, like anger, and like terror.

Tellerhorn covers his ears and looks around. The armed patrol squad collapses writhing to the ground, to clutch their faces and scream. In the tent behind us Danial Thames’s sudden howl rises with the chorus of a hundred voices throughout the camp.

One of the voices is mine. Something hot and vicious pools in my lower stomach and leaps up my spine with deadly hunger. I want to kill. Tear. Break. The earth beneath me is porcelain and cobwebs full of spiders.

Tellerhorn crouches above me. He slips a noose around my neck and the sound is suddenly a sound – a long note, braying, like a dog’s howl. It’s a horn call. Someone’s blowing a horn. Someone is blowing a horn that’s making everyone insane.

I blink. The doctor looks around with wide eyes.

“What do you see?” he shouts at me as I touch the paper charm he left about my neck.

Something’s here, it has to be. The sound is too close. But the stones of the courtyard reveal nothing to me except the faint whisper of bare feet, standing in the camp’s center. I have to look deeper.

I conjure that feeling, being outside this body of flesh and blood, the experience of the pit, and I open my eyes. Mundane color blows back like dust before a wind. The vibrant lights of living stone sear and linger. Beneath the spiraling vortex of the night sky, the men of the camp blaze in the now familiar outlines barely containing their seething veins of memory.

In the middle of the open space before me stands a huge, hairy, naked man. His left hand holds a horn to his lips, and his right grips a curved sword. From the mouth of the horn red billows like the storm-front had been locked inside, now released.

This man ordered Sylvia to kill me. This is Agafya. His aura makes a howling snow-storm of white – a chaotic haze in which the suggestions of human shapes scream and struggle for escape.

He lowers the horn from his lips but the sound and fury from it lingers, echoing through the ruins and bouncing back from the night sky in waves of angry red like arrows or rain. The auras of the camp soldiers flash and shift as the worming violent red of the horn burrows into them.

At Agafya’s left shoulder stands the blind dog-man in a shirt made of hanging teeth, with three huge hounds muzzled at his heels. At Agafya’s right stands Sylvia. Black her wild hair. Black her coat. Black the knitted mail of her shirt and leather of her boot. Black the oil staining her skin its hue. Black the look her blue eyes strike upon me.

“Shit,” I say.

From every side the screams of pain turn to rage, and out of every tent boil the soldiers of the Empire, fully armed and ready for war.

One Reply to “Charge”

  1. Laura Moos says:

    Hmm. It occurs to me that the Doctor here just might be the smart man Maya wants him to extract. It’s interesting that the charm blocks the effects of Agafya’s horn but doesn’t stop him from being able to project.

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