June 2011


“He said he saw something, in the heart of the reactor, just before the meltdown,” Valerian said. His eyes seemed to grow cloudy with the weight of remembrance.

It was painful to even hear those words, after what had happened in the Ukraine. “What did he see?” Vasily asked, trying not to let his voice crack.

“Captain Lebedev…he’d gone aboard to try and stop Berenty, to try and leave the rest of us a way off of this rock. We were in radio contact the entire time. There was so much static…so much gunfire…it was hard to understand, hard to make out.”

“Uncle Valerian…what did the captain say he saw?” Vasily pressed.

“I thought I heard Petr Ulyanovich say that he could see into the pod the Elbrus IV had constructed, into the heart of its design. Something even that snake Berenty couldn’t conceive.”

“Uncle…”

“The captain said he saw a young girl. Not unlike his wife when she had been a young woman. It was the last thing he ever spoke of.”

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Those who had survived the contagion described its throes as a descent into a personal hell: a sensation of fatigue and detachment eventually growing into complete dissociation from reality. They’d hear a roaring in their ears, like a distant waterfall, and then the colors of the world around them would change. Bright became dark and dark became bright; noise was amplified a thousand times, as was movement.

The worst thing, though, was the change sufferers perceived in human expression. The ordinary actions, words, and even facial expressions were suddenly suffused with menace, demanding violent–even lethal–retaliation. Sufferers would see themselves as beset on all sides by threats, and a sort of terrible paranoia borne of fever was the result. Curiously, this didn’t seem to extend to other sufferers, who seemed to see one another as erstwhile allies. At the very least sufferers would ignore each other while they turned tooth and nail, knife and gun, on their other fellows.

The contagion seemed to run its course in a few weeks, with something like twenty to thirty percent surviving if they hadn’t been killed in their violent frenzy. Those fortunates would gradually return to normal, though they were often emaciated and starving by that point and easy pretty for those that remained violent. The remaining seventy to eighty percent would eventually reach such an imbalance of activity versus caloric intake that they would simply shut down. Occasionally, heavy sedation had been shown to allow even the most violent afflicted to endure the course of their infectious madness, but the intense supervision it required–to say nothing of the medications and expertise involved–made it out of reach for all but a lucky few.

There was a time long ago when sparrows had no personal names. They all addressed one another as “Sparrow,” which caused no end of confusion; in fact, legend held that sparrows did not flock in those days but were strictly solitary, never associating with one another save to bear young. The elders spoke of these as dark days, when four-leg and two-leg predators had their way and no sparrow stood a chance once it had attracted their baleful gaze.

Then the hero known as Ellw discovered the secret to personal names, to telling one sparrow from another, and flocking together for protection in numbers from the four-legs and the two-legs. The tales disagreed as to how Ellw came upon these secrets, and the storytellers were usually at pains to share the different interpretations–the debate it provoked served to draw their listeners in further. Some said that Ellw had discovered these things through natural genius. Others claimed that he had learnt to speak with another creature, such as the cooing bob-heads or the shrieking whitings, who had revealed the secrets. There were even those who claimed Ellw learned to listen to the two-leg striders–to base predators, llew–in a corner of a far-off island, stealing their names for righteous use.

Regardless of which version of the tale was offered, the end was the same: Ellw’s teaching spread far and wide in the World Beneath, and today he was regarded as the father of all sparrows in spirit if not in fact.  Some rejected Ellw’s ways, others sought to improve or modify them, but rare indeed were few isolated sparrows who had not heard them.

After the great victory before the city gates during  the Second Siege of Vienna, King John III Sobieski of Poland, whose hussars had helped to carry the day, captured the Ottoman baggage train. He wrote effusive letters home about wagons heaped high with the wealth of the Orient that had attended Kara Mustafa Pasha and his troops.

One of his letters never made it to the Polish court at Warsaw; its courier was waylaid and robbed, either by Ottoman stragglers or the troops of Imre Thököly of Hungary, who had tried to profit while Poland was virtually bereft of troops. The letter made its way to Budapest, where it was lost in the former royal archives until a researcher uncovered it in 1916.

The king’s letter described the contents of Kara Mustafa Pasha’s personal saddlebag, with particular attention paid to a small object described as a “spiral of black obsidian or other polished black mineral.” None of the prisoners could identify the bauble or recalled seeing it before, but its place so near the Pasha, intermingled with mementos of home and family and precious jewels, intrigued the king. He declared his intention to take it with him to Warsaw.

That same researcher, granted access to the Polish archives after the fall of Warsaw the previous year, was able to trace the obsidian talisman’s path. It had followed Stanislaw II August into Russian captivity, been held at the Tsar’s court, and then captured by a German unit.

The object, whatever it was, seemed to presage the decline and eventual doom of whichever realm held it.

Of course, Sebastian wasn’t going to let a little thing like the apocalypse get him down. Far from it: he saw it as an opportunity to play with a vastly increased store of components which he was free to scavenge. His slight frame and sixth sense for things that were large and angry–honed by many years on the playground–served him well in picking through the debris of a collapsed society. Things he never could have afforded for his experiments and gadgets were suddenly free for the taking.

Even with his avoidance skills, the question of what to do when confronted with another angry scavenger–or, worse, Slow Walkers or Fast Walkers–did occupy a fair bit of Sebastian’s time. Many of the other survivors relied on guns, but Sebastian saw a plethora of weaknesses inherent in firearms, not the least of which was that most gun stores had been thoroughly looted and ammunition was scarce. One thing there were plenty of, though, were batteries–every size from AAA to D, and kept in every corner grocery. For a long-ago merit badge, Sebastian has experimented with getting a battery to release its entire charge as a directed zap of energy. It was a simple matter to expand the concept and combine the necessary parts with a few springs, coils, and triggers from real guns.

The first scavenger had laughed when he saw Sebastian loading what looked like a shotgun with D cells instead of shells. He was still laughing when the expended charge stopped his heart and Sebastian ejected the smoking and spent batteries onto the cracked pavement.

“You do understand that my German is rusty, right?” Benoir said.

“At least you have German at all. I studied Spanish in college.”

Pages ruffled in the log book. “25 November 1917. Still no visual contact with L.59, and no further signals from base or Tanganyika. Position is unknown due to heavy cloud cover both above and below.”

“Sounds like they were having some trouble,” said Benoir.

“26 November 1917. The order to abort was given at 8.23 this morning, but we cannot be sure that the airship is moving in the correct direction. Everything is strange.”

“It’s true, it’s true!” Zigman said, arms flailing. “We’re just here to take pictures. This is a camera!”

“Put the weapon on the ground, now!” the uniform barked. “Hands on your head!”

“Let’s just…calm down,” I said. I slowly and deliberately unslung my camera and laid it on the deck, and then placed my hands on my head. “We came here to photograph the mothballed ships. We’ve been camping out in the battleship.”

“Don’t encourage them,” Zigman spat. “And you, G.I. Joe! Stop pointing that gun at me.”

“I don’t care why you’re here or who you’re selling those illegal photographs to,” the uniform said. “Tell your friend to place whatever the hell it is in his hands on the ground or the rifle that I’m pointing at him will be the least of his worries.”

“Zig, do what he says,” I hissed through gritted teeth. I could already see Wozinski and DeBeers following my example, putting their equipment down.

“Don’t call me that, and don’t tell me what to do! We’re here to document these relics of American aggression before they’re covered up. You’ve no right to stop us!”

“Susan’s Cape is a restricted area. You’re already going to be up on trespassing charges. Do you want to be up on being shot charges too, huh? They’ll make your next of kin pay the full cost of the bullet, and it ain’t cheap.”

I heard that scuttling noise again, this time behind the trio of uniforms in the mess door. This time, though, something was definitely moving in the shadows.

One of the uniforms, the one closest to the port side, yelped as something brushed across his shoulder. A minute later, the darkness swallowed him whole, with just echoes from spastic rifle burst to show he’d ever been there.

“I think we got more than we bargained for.”

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