The call it “Thumper.”

You normally can’t hear it, at least not consciously. But when it’s acting up, usually in early spring or late summer, you can feel it. In your teeth, in your bones, and if you’re down at Pleasantwater lake, in the waves and ripples.

Once you hear it, once you start to notice it, you realize that everything in town matches itself to that profound bass thump when it’s at its strongest. Your heartbeat. Your breathing. Everything is synchronized in a way that feels wrong at the basement of your being.

A local guy, Jim Hatcher was his name I think, just like the famous author, used to do an AM radio broadcast about whatever was rattling in his brain. He’d go on and on about “Thumper” and his investigations into it. Kids loved listening to him because he always went wildly between “kindly folksy grandfather” and “raving lunatic” as the mood struck him.

Hatcher used to say that “Thumper” was coming from beneath Pleasantwater Lake, which I guess makes as much sense as anything. He said that there was a “stellar machine” beneath the waters, leftover from a civilization long since perished, slowly exposed by erosion. This “stellar machine” sent out “force signals” as it stirred from its slumber. Hatcher always said that he was researching what the machine was and what its signals did, but he was always coy with specifics.

When he died in his little house on the lake and they didn’t find him for two weeks…that didn’t exactly help things.

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“There’s just one problem with these property records.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“There’s no death date for the former owner.”

“That’s no problem. You see, I never die.”

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“No data was recovered from your skimmer,” Tallow said. “Nothing but you, and that’s a miracle in and of itself.”

“Are we still in atmo?” cried Remy. “Please tell me we’ve left.”

“No, of course not,” said Tallow. “This is a class three skimmer, it’s not capable of breaking atmo. We’re a few days out from Neptune Central Station, we can transfer you to a trans-atmo skiff there.”

“You don’t understand,” cried Remy. “The flux is still scrambling your communications. She’s still out there.”

“She? Your skimmer had an all-male crew, if I’m reading this manifest correctly.”

“We never saw more than shadows,” Remy said. “Shadows in the clouds. But there’s no other way to describe what we saw.”

“Another skimmer? Maybe a crew member from an illegal claim jumper?”

“To see it from lower atmo like that…no, no,” Remy said. “She would have had to be as big as a cruiser, or a continent. Maybe that’s why she never came close…the atmo is too thin…”

Tallow shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Behind her, a shadow of humanoid and vaguely feminine shape reared beneath the Neptunian clouds.

The second-to-last thing Tallow heard was Remy screaming.

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Tendrils of brown clawing at the setting sun were the first sign. People wrote it off as a little incoming rain, if they noticed at all.

The second sign was an odd smell, perhaps best described as a ghost that was once a tree. People noticed this; the sensitive felt their eyes water, and the barely felt scent caused the short of breath to huff a bit. Authorities, when consulted, insisted that nothing was amiss.

Finally, a veil descended upon town, like mist. It was thick enough that the first few cars to emerge from behind it had their headlights on.

No more came.

The people were found where they lay, curled up in bed, on their couches, slumped in chairs at restaurants. They had not been suddenly overcome; cars were pulled over, loved ones were tucked in. And, aside from a few at the very edge, and those who had been away, the entire population of 817 souls never stirred again.

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The disfiguration produced by the Ague was extreme, compared by those who had seen it to severe burns with the addition of inky black pustules. No one ever established a definitive cause, nor a method of transmission, nor why the disease seemed to prefer women to men in a ratio of 3:1 or more.

Most mysterious of all was the Ague’s sudden disappearance, leaving in its wake hundreds if not thousands of disfigured people, mostly young women.

Moved by their suffering, and under more than a little pressure from the local lords, the Sepulcher of the Creator created the Cloister of the Veil for them. Sufferers of the Ague were given a castle, abandoned during the Late Period, which they were able to renovate into a convent of sorts. Given land to till and animals to care for, the many women and few men were all sworn to the Sepulcher’s rules for convents, celibacy foremost among them.

They were also provided with clear linen uniforms that draped in such a way as to shield their ravaged bodies from view. The few males were ordained priests of the Sepulcher and tended to wear metal or wooden masks as a sign of their rank.

But even as the Cloister of the Veil was hailed as a success, it was full of people from all walks of life. The Ague had claimed plenty who desired nothing like a monastic life, and rumors soon began of broken vows and promiscuous behavior among the sufferers there.

And that is why an Inspector of the Sepulcher was dispatched: the rumor and fear that one of the sisters had become pregnant, and the possibility of what an Ague-borne child might bring unto the world.

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Gasping over the alarms in her ears, Emma pulled the handle to blow the explosive bolts on the hatch. It was the only way to get the fire under control, even though she knew that it was ultimately a futile effort. Her capsule’s systems were shot, the oxygen reserves nearly depleted, and most of the provisions had been destroyed.

Compared to that, Joris IV’s total lack of an atmosphere seemed almost trivial.

When the hatch blew, Emma scrambled outside. It was as much instinct as anything; she knew in the coldest part of her brain, the scientist part, that she was already dead and just hadn’t realized it yet. As the last bits of atmosphere inside the capsule blew away, and the parachutes settled under their own inertia, she settled against the still-warm side of her little craft.

And that’s when she heard it: a voice at once familiar and impossible.

“Mom?”

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“Welcome, friend. I have long seen you wander through this place,” I said, “yet this is the first time you have ever suffered my approach. I hope you don’t think it imprudent of me to ask who you are, and what business brings you to my family’s gardens?”

A solid white sheet hid the content’s of the woman’s face from view, tucked cleanly into her shawl. But I could see a jaw moving beneath, the outline of brows.

“It is always a pleasure to be approached so politely.” The thing’s voice was like paired pipes, one high and soft, one deep and desert-cracked. “Pleasantries are meaningless but they do ease the burdens of weary travelers.”

“May I fetch you anything from the house?” I added.

“To answer your second question: no thank you. There is naught there which would nourish me. To answer your first, I am a seamstress of the human soul. But I am not a wealthy one, and I must make do with the scraps.”

“I am afraid,” I said, “I do not catch your meaning.”

“When a soul passes, it furnishes material from which new souls might be fashioned. It is the nature of my kind to do so. But without means, the poorest of my kind must take the barest soul-scraps and fashion from them quilts.”

I sucked in a breath. “And what, pray, is a soul-scrap?” I whispered.

“Ask your sister,” the thing replied. “She has just lost the life she has carried for six months, and that tiny scrap is what I have come to collect as an act of charity.”

Inspired by this.

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