It had been a long time since Last Call had come down, and the clouds were still on fire.
She pulled her poncho closer to her, and watched the sky nervously. That rotten-egg smell from the west meant rain, and there wasn’t much shelter in sight. Oh, their ponchos were rubberized and had hoods and all, but still. The rain left scars when the wind intervened, especially on the littles.
Her tired old mount loped along after the others, tasting the air nervously from time to time with its black, forked tongue. Long-Knife said there would be rich pickings before long, but he’d been saying that for a while now, ever since they’d hit the desert. The suckers were getting scarce and the other raiders were getting restless. That didn’t bode well.
Stanza shook her head. Poor Long-Knife, she thought. A leader made with the goods or went down. Problem was, pickings had been so thin for so long. Not his fault, of course. Suckers had been getting scarce, and the times of famine between feasts had been getting longer and longer.
And trekking the wastelands hadn’t been his idea, either. Nobody had complained when he’d first led them out, away from the tribesmen who’d been hunting them. But that never mattered: the others were grumbling, the strong ones were thinking, and pretty soon he’d likely get shanked in the night. And then someone else would be in charge. She’d only been with the clan a few years, but she’d seen it happen often enough.
She hoped it wouldn’t be when he was with her. Old Max had been in bed with Pretty Alice when Long-Knife had taken over, and he’d celebrated with her right then and there. Alice had never been the same after that, and she’d died soon after. Oh, it had been good for Stanza at the time: Long-Knife had taken her as his own after that, so nobody else could touch her. But when a boss went down, all bets were off. And girls had died from taking on a whole clan before.
Stanza shuddered, and then put it out of her mind. ‘You worry about death when it comes along to claim you,’ her da had always said. In the meantime, there were suckers to raid and new women to bring in, and always the search for the biggest haul. Da was always right, she thought. So she kept on with the rest, and let the day look after its own tired ass.
They went on towards the west and into the stench of rain, looking for rich pickings.
* * * * *
Long-Knife called for a halt and held his binocs up towards a lump in the distance. Stanza hoped he wasn’t bluffing; the men wouldn’t take much more and some of them liked to hurt when they bedded. Still, she couldn’t help wondering which one it would be, if Long-Knife went down. She looked around, and saw Basher looking at her right back, the older man’s eyes hard and cunning.
Then Long-Knife looked back at them all and grinned. “Shelter!” he cried. “An old-time sleeper! Come on!” And the air was filled with the slashes of the men’s whips as they drove their tired basilisks on to the sleeper, for where there was shelter from the rain there were likely suckers for the plucking, maybe enough haul for a party.
Long-Knife needed that party, all right, and he and the other raiders rode hard to reach the sleeper before the rain.
The sun was fair bleeding to death when they reached the place. Covered with dust like everything else, it was a one-story gig. It had a long main part and a couple of other halls branching off in different directions like a broken spider. Hard to defend, which was good news today and bad news tomorrow.
To the north was a huge garden laden down with fruits and veggies, some even going to rot. The tarp over it was ragged in places, and the sides flapped lazily in the wind.
“Tie down those sides!” Long-Knife snapped, “Greenie and Waller, try to fix the top. Roper, Little X, take four and get the sides, then help Greenie and Waller. All other eyes out for suckers!” A short cheer broke out then, and they all hopped, men and women alike, to do what they could.
A sound broke through the preparations, and all eyes looked to see Long-Knife standing next to Basher, holding him a little close. Basher stared, gurgled, and fell. Then Long-Knife wiped his blade on Basher’s leg, the other man’s life soaking into the sands.
Stanza relaxed. Shelter from the rain, maybe suckers, and now blood. Long-Knife would still be leading tomorrow. She pitched in and helped Greenie and the rest protect the harvest from the coming rain, hurrying without rushing, not one of them in their haste wondering why or how such a bounty had been allowed to fall into such disrepair.
They had the devil’s own plenty of time, though they didn’t know it. I held the winds back until they had the tarps secured, nice and tight. Then I let the rain come and chase them in to me.
* * * * *
Long-Knife had them secure the main building first. He parked the clan’s youngest there, with the oldest keeping watch. Then the rest of them did a basic sweep-and-clear, followed by a full search. The sleeper had been a motel before Last Call, and it had just over a hundred rooms, with maybe half of them still intact. It took the raiders about an hour to get it all worked out, and then they met again in the lobby. That’s when their boss started to think.
There were signs of a tribe having been there, sure, but not now. They’d left in a hurry, too: provisions and personal stuff gone, but the garden was still intact and unharvested. And they’d been gone for a while, long enough for some of the food to rot on the vines.
Towards the end, the search had had an almost desperate edge to it. Some of them wanted to find the suckers, hiding in some special place. Others were thinking it had to be a trap. A few thought maybe they could settle down, and make the garden work for them.
Throughout it all, none of them saw me. I didn’t let them.
Long-Knife made light of the whole thing, but he was too smart not to be worried. Nobody liked it when he posted extra guards throughout the sleeper, but with Basher’s death nobody asked questions. Then he took Stanza off to the manager’s rooms to celebrate. He took his three best – Greenie, Roper, and Little X – to be guards at the door.
The manager’s rooms were, of course, where I was. Where I was waiting for them, actually. And when he opened the door, I let Long-Knife and the rest of them see me as I sat on the far bed.
He’d already taken off his poncho, looking forward to Stanza, and when he saw me it hit the floor, forgotten. I could see his mind racing, How the hell did we miss this kid? His eyes narrowed, and he grabbed his shiv. But his voice was full of authority instead of fear as he said, “Okay, kid, into the hall.” He’d interrogate me while the other three held me down, leaving Stanza in the room, secure.
He called me “kid” because I was one. Stanza and I were of an age, both sixteen, though she thought she was older and looked it from the life she’d led. We were both born at the same time, actually: that’s how it works. But Long-Knife didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if he had. All he knew was that I was old enough to bear a blade and fight, and he was too wise to take chances. When he spoke, his men came in. When I didn’t move, they did.
With my back to the window I was a silhouette to them, but I saw them clearly as they came at me. The sunlight coming in despite the rain gleamed dull red off Long-Knife’s shiv. Greenie had his darts in one hand and his knife in the other; the other two had steel at the ready. Stanza had no weapon, and Long-Knife shoved her face-down on the nearest bed to keep her out of the way.
I laughed. It was a long, cruel sound, and it was meant to be. I was goading them and they knew it.
Long-Knife took a half a step back and snapped, “Take ‘im down!” Greenie threw his darts: one at my face and two at my chest.
I took the darts in the back of my left hand: one, two, three. All three of Long-Knife’s boys were coming for me then. I laughed some more and held up my right and they stopped in their tracks.
I took my time taking out the darts. I tossed them into a corner behind me.
Greenie whimpered. His boss stared, mouth open.
I got off the bed so there would be room. I gestured to the three raiders, still frozen and terrified.
“Now,” I said. And I cupped my hands, so.
Each of them was in a bubble, a little bubble big enough to sit in. They could move now, and they beat and screamed soundlessly against their invisible cages as they were lifted up onto the bed. I chuckled a little, thinking of the mimes that had walked the world before Last Call. But no one alive knew about them any more.
No one but me.
Time to get serious. I brought my hands together. The bubbles came together, merged into one big bubble.
Then I closed my fists, and the big bubble shrank down to about an arm’s length across, and then half that, and then it could be seen, suddenly round and red and yellow and slick-looking with wet crackling sounds that were more felt than heard.
It was then that Stanza, still sitting on the other bed, finally found her voice and screamed “Stop it!” So I opened the bubble and poured them onto the bed. And she looked at them and wept.
The tears kept coming, and for a long moment I just watched her do it. What amazed me wasn’t that she was crying, but that she was crying for them. She was staring at them, and thinking how they didn’t deserve to go like that, that nobody did.
Mind you, any one of them would have taken her if they’d dared defy their boss, or if they’d been clan leader themselves. And Stanza, she knew that. But here she was, staring at them and crying, and getting pissed at me for doing it.
Thinking back, I guess I should have expected as much. But even though she had seen, she didn’t get it. Which meant that we weren’t done.
“Stanza,” I tried at last, “We need to talk.” She shook her head. I watched her reach out a shaking hand towards what was left of them, and stop. It wasn’t like she could close their eyes and pretend like they were asleep. I suppose I could have just given them heart attacks or something. But precision takes time. Besides, I’d wanted to be thorough.
I tried again. “Look, man--”
Then she exploded. “You bastard!” she screamed, “I got nuthin’ to say to you! You bring ‘em back! You killed ‘em, you killed ‘em an’ you bring ‘em back!”
Sure, she was hysterical. I knew that. It wasn’t a rational thing to say. But still, I don’t get surprised very often, and her saying that surprised me. I felt like she’d given me a rare gift, and I guess I wanted to thank her for it.
I reached out my hands over their remains (drip, drip, drip they went onto the carpet), closed my eyes and spoke.
“Thomas. Luke. Alex. By the names your mothers gave to you when you first slithered out from their secret flesh, I call you.” There was a shift in the room, a tension that even Stanza could feel, and she whimpered. “Back from the place you are now. Back from rest, back from repose. Back from peace. Back from light.
“I call you,” I intoned again, and my mind reached out to find them. “I know you, and by your names I call you back. Back to pain. Back to fear. Back to hunger, illness, and death.”
I reached out as I spoke. I saw them further out, looking at their guides with wonder, saying things like ‘so it was you all along,’ and ‘how could I have been so blind.’ I grabbed them with my will and reeled them in, shrieking and fighting, back into the lives they’d only just been cut loose from.
”Return,” I said, as I drew them down screaming. “Return. Return. Return. Return.”
I stitched them back into their bodies with my mind as I held my hands over them, mended their wounds and restored their crushed bones. I forced the life back into them, I bade their hearts beat again, I shoved air into their lungs until they breathed on their own. Their eyes opened and they stared at me.
Looking down at them, I spoke again, saying, “All right. Your flesh is mended, your sins unforgiven. Now get up, take your knives, and walk.” And uncomprehending, moaning with horror, they picked up their shivs and stumbled outside.
While I’d been busy with the show, Long-Knife had dropped his foot-long blade and taken off screaming. He was running aimlessly through the rain and out of sight, falling and running and falling again, steaming as it melted him away. Stanza had slipped his shiv under her poncho. Since I hadn't been watching her, she thought I didn’t know. Which was reasonable, I guess. Stanza was made of sterner stuff.
I gestured the door closed and she looked at me with eyes still wide and round. I told the room to keep our voices in, not to open or break until I said otherwise.
“Now,” I said, “We talk.”
She was still on the bed where Long-Knife had pushed her, her mind racing with half-plans and nightmare what-ifs. I dried the blood on my bed to powder and tossed the covers to the floor. I wanted to be comfortable for our palaver, and the distance would, stupidly, help her to feel more secure so she could listen.
I started her out slow. “All right. Now. Long ago, there was light. And yeah, it came from something, but we can just call it the light. Anyway, this light, it cooled and broke apart into different realms and worlds. We live in one world, in one realm. There are others, but this one is the one that’s most important to us. It’s ours.
“And by that, I mean it’s yours and mine.”
She frowned, which was a good sign: it meant she was thinking. I’d had a feeling once the stone got rolling she’d be okay, but it’s hard to be sure.
“So,” I continued, “here we are, in our world today. And sometime before – never mind just when or how – it got hurt.
“Time was, the world existed on a kind of axis. You know what that is?”
She shook her head.
“Okay, try this: there was always a balance of opposite forces, and they complimented and tested each other, as well as opposing each other. So they kept each other strong, and kept the world strong through their balance. Dig?” She nodded, and I went on, “It’s that way in every world, world after world, all linked up together in the balance, like a bunch of kids playing push-me-pull-you. But there’s just one catch, and that’s free will. Free will is what gives meaning to it all. And that’s vital, man, that’s what keeps the balance itself going, like a giant wheel. But it also makes it so that the balance can get yanked around.”
“Wait. Wouldn't people have to be part of that balance?”
I shrugged. “If you can’t opt out, there’s no free will – just a bunch of pieces falling into place and reading stale scripts. For the balance to work, it has to be vulnerable to attack. One person with a strong enough will, at the right place and at the right time, can hop right off. Or even bring the whole thing screaming to a halt.”
She swallowed. “So is that what happened? Somebody stopped the balance?”
I barked a small laugh. “No, man, not even close. But if people get stupid enough – in the right place at the right time – they can still do a lot of damage, see? They can hurt their world, maybe kill it. And maybe that pulls the next couple of worlds off the path. And then maybe one of them falls, and pulls a few more along. They can knock the wheel a good one, send it careening into infinity with no hope and no one to miss it when it’s gone.” I sighed, and looked out the rain-damaged window, acid snakes streaming along its panes as the rain continued to fall.
“There’s always been a balance,” I told her then. “Light and dark, birth and death, male and female, truth and illusion. It takes more than some stupid stick-fight to uproot that. It can be done, sure. But that's not how things went down.”
She was still struggling to take everything in. “Okay . . . so . . . if that’s all true, why are we even talking?” She looked around, thinking about beds and locked doors, spoils and strongest men. Then she looked back at me, and pulled her knees to her chest, her voice quiet again. “What do you want from me?”
Stanza wasn't stupid, and she was stronger than she knew. But she was still a raider's girl. “I want you to understand," I told her, getting impatient. "I want you to think, know, and dig what I am telling you today. And that’s all. Because every now and then, when a world is off-balance enough to endanger things, somebody gets born with the glow, the gift that it takes to salvage the situation. Maybe it’s the wheel’s own self-maintenance. Maybe it’s alive. I don’t know.” It was a hard admission, but for her I made it. I don’t know.
I went on, “What I do know is that when it happens, somewhere, somehow, somebody is born with the power to save their world – or to rule it – which means somewhere in that world their counterpart, their balance, has to be born too. It’s happened before, and it’s happened a lot.”
I paused, wishing I could give examples she’d understand. But names like Marduk, Bali, Guatama, and the rest . . . they just didn’t mean anything anymore. So instead I just leaned closer and said, “But this time, something went wrong. Maybe because of the war, or other worlds falling down. Maybe because of something else. But the roles got yanked around, man. They got yanked around bad.
“I was supposed to be the tempter. The deceiver. And that would have been fine. I’ve got all the savvy and the know-how to make it so. And instead here I am, saddled with all it takes to rule the world, or to even heal it despite itself. And you know what?
“Fuck it.” She blinked, and I said it again. “Fuck it. Let it die.”
She was aghast. “Why?”
I laughed again. “Man, are you kidding? You want to rule the world? Go ahead. Hell, girl, I just handed you three disciples; Jesus started out with nothing and ended up with a faith that lasted damn near three thousand years. Buddha did even better than that.”
I looked away, suddenly angry, not sure why. “Hell, man, they weren’t even trying.” I shrugged again, and made my voice more calm. “Place your bets and spin the wheel. Try your luck and see what you get. Rule the world and be a hero, save it and be a god. And when it rolls around again, you look up from your sweat, blood, and tears and see that nothing’s changed, after all.
“So fuck it.”
“No.” She was scared now, terrified. “No, no-no-no-no. That can’t be right. It’s not like that . . .” Then she was standing between the beds, forgotten knife waving around while she yelled, “You’re a liar! You can’t do that! And even if you could, it wouldn’t work like that – there’s no good in religion, it killed the world!” Then she was screaming at me, “Religion brought Last Call, everybody knows that!”
I nodded while she stood there, shaking. After the war, religious leaders all over the world had been tracked down and killed. Very little trace of organized religion had survived. Small wonder she was scared. Hell, everybody was, really. Rival tribes might kill each other in the dark, and everybody hated the clans. But they’d all run into a burning house together to take out a priest.
It took a little time for her to get it together again. She’d been found by the raiders years ago, and hadn’t dared raise her voice since. Now the worst of it was past, and she was coming out the other side. “It's not a lie,” I told her, “I'm telling you the truth. I may be the only one who ever does. Like it or not, that’s what I do.”
And still, even then, she didn’t get it. Her breathing was still rough, and she was just starting to remember the knife. In a minute she’d put it together that I really didn’t care. But now she could listen again. So I sighed, crossed my legs, and smiled a bitter smile as I started the tale.
“Okay. Last Call came down because of faith. You know that, everybody knows that.” I held up a hand. “But not because of religion, man . . . that’s the difference.
“See, when you dig deep enough there’s really only one truth in religion. There used to be a lot of them, all over, and they fought like basilisks in heat. You know that. And everybody thought that one truth was in his faith, or was something that denoted his faith from the rest. But everybody, everybody, was wrong. Dead wrong.
“Because that religious truth’s got nothing to do with any faith or creed. It’s been the basis for just about every faith that’s come down the line since it all began, and will be for most anything to crop up until the world’s last churches are run by rats. But that’s all.
“I’m talking about the guiding principle. That is the true religion, man. The rest is just illusion.”
Curious despite herself, she had to ask, “So, what is it? What's this ‘guiding principle?’”
I looked at her. “You already know.”
She stared at me. “I don’t believe this. You’re telling me that you have a chance, a real chance, to save the world. To save it, really save it. You could stop the rain, the malforms, all of it . . . and you’re going to just let it all keep falling? You – you—” She fumbled for a word bad enough, and then just threw the knife at me like a rock and screamed, “You asshole!”
I batted the knife away, and it landed by her pillow. “What do you want me to do?” I asked her. “Sacrifice myself? Set myself up for slaughter for you people? Get real. And for what? For them?” I gestured to the door. “Would you let them murder you for saving them? Because don’t think it wouldn’t come to that. That’s how it works. That’s exactly how it works.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she insisted.
“Yeah, actually, I think it does. Action and consequence, man. You push something, it pushes back. You push the people away from oblivion, they’ll shove you right over the god damned cliff as a thank-you. But hey, you’re welcome to try.”
“What about one person with a strong enough will?” she demanded. “If you can make a difference--”
“That’s my point,” I interrupted, “When you save them from themselves – or even if they just think you did – you just changed them, man. That’s when they get scared. Maybe for their free will, maybe just for their chance at a bigger piece of the haul. It doesn’t matter. All they know is, you’re a threat. You altered how they do things.” I looked at her. “At that point, you have to die. Otherwise they can’t take control. Not ever again.
“Here, dig this. Someone is born, some poor slob with the passion and power to cradle the world, to kiss it and make it better. The dude takes this guiding principle and says, ‘Hey, guys, if we just all stop acting like assholes and do this one thing from now on we’ll all be better off.’ He grows up, he gets tempted, and maybe he sets things right. And I’m talking about the whole world, man. He’s fixing the whole world with that one principle, that core ideal, and he has the power to make it so.
“Then, by accident or design, he gets dead.
“So now, enter the people. The wonderful, sacred, loving people this poor bastard suffered, saved, and did it all for. The people take that core ideal, and they wrap a bunch of ritual and crap around it. Maybe they write a big book or three about it, maybe not. Then they mould it, cater it to the lazy and the easily led, and make an elite to run the operation. Like Old Max was trying to, but on a bigger scale. They cater to the suckers and they draw them in.
“Because they know that the more they can bury that principle in words and rules, the more they get to call the shots. Before you know it, they’re getting their armies together and crushing all the rest, spreading out their turf. Always on the lookout for more suckers and that big, long haul. But by then it doesn’t really matter anymore.
“Because by that time the religion – and I mean the core ideal, the principle – has been lost. Their redeemer’s been reduced to a symbol they can use, the religion’s long forgotten, and the illusion is all that’s left. And then the cycle starts all over again.”
I smiled, tired and maybe even a little sad. “So. You have fun with that.”
She made a frustrated gesture. “So don’t save anybody from themselves, then! Can’t you just show them, and give them the choice?”
“Then they hate you for not ruling them, and maybe kill you sooner. No thanks.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I think you’re still the deceiver.”
I looked out the window again, and said nothing.
“Maybe I should just kill you now.” Long-Knife’s shiv was in her hand again. She knew I’d been hurt when I was hit by Greenie’s darts, and she’d seen that under the laughter I’d had to focus to dispel the poison. I could see her thinking, He doesn’t care enough to fight. He’d react slow. Burned-out, like Alice. It wouldn’t be hard.
But I laughed at her, still watching the acid fall, and even to me it was a bitter sound. “That isn’t how it works. You can’t kill me, only destroy me. And then only if I let you.” I looked at her again. “Just like they can’t destroy me, only kill me.”
“Will you let them?”
I opened my mouth, but I hesitated. I felt my skin grow cold. “I don’t know,” I heard myself say. “Maybe.” Then I shook myself, calm restored, thinking, she’s dangerous after all. Out loud, I said, “But that’s not for you. You just do what you’re gonna do. Our world’s been given its death wound, man. It’s bleeding out. Barring something big, the human race is over and done with, no loss.”
“You’re a liar,” she said again. But now she knew better.
“No, man. Every word, I’ve told you the truth.”
I met her gaze. “Because I know it will hurt you.”
And so I told her, as gently as I could. Then I got up off the bed and went over to the old steel door. I told the room it could open now. I opened the door and left, and the rain parted for me as I walked.
* * * * *
The desert doesn’t scare me. I think I’m the only person who can live in it without fear.
The sun doesn’t burn me, so I walked in the daylight and enjoyed its warmth. I see everything that comes my way, so nothing much can hurt me. When I camped for the night, I made a rock burn to keep me warm, and turned some stones into bread for my dinner. I played the flute I’d shaped from an old man’s femur, looked up at the stars and wondered what it would be like to wonder what they were. I had been born knowing.
I wondered about Stanza, and whether I loved her, hated her, or both. Or if, most likely choice, I was just too selfish to really do either one well enough to matter.
Then again, maybe not. I thought long and hard about what I’d told her, and what she might do with it. I’d already made up my mind to keep my sight off her for a while, so that gave me something to wonder about.
An old jackal with a stump leg howled a few miles off, and I played a counterpoint. She’d lost it to cancer when she was a pup, but it had gone into remission and the litters she’d thrown since had been healthy enough.
I thought about the old jackal. I thought about the world. And I thought about my parting shot to Stanza, as she sat lost and alone on an ancient hotel room bed.
You should have been the Redeemer.
--Coyote (March, 2012)
(Desert picture from outeq.deviantart.com, sunset photo from archiearchive.wordpress.com. All rights reserved by the creators as applicable.)