Eldnium, p.11
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       Eldnium, p.11

           Enoch Pyle, Jr
 

  The sky began to shift from a baby blue to a dark and brooding violet. The sun hastened its way toward the horizon in the west, anxious to hide again. But Jackson was still wandering through the woods.

  He'd lost the road several hours before, when he had to work his way across a creek. Back then, the sun was still high and hot, but the spring-like relief from the bitter winter wind was temporary, and already the cold silently returned to the world.

  He walked on, his legs shaking, not just from injury but from lack of food and water. He realized that he hadn't had any sort of nutrition in over 72 hours. His lips cracked from dehydration. His eyelids scraped against his corneas with every blink.

  He could feel it happening…he was dying, his life thinly tied to him by the sheer will to move forward, to find help, to leave this world on his own terms. That will came from deep within him, welling up to the surface. It was the man he'd spent the last six years repressing, smothering, forcing deeper and deeper, trying to hold onto his childhood in spite of everything he'd been through.

  Ahead, through the splintered and naked columns of oak and pine, Jackson saw a small cabin crouching with a mound of snow pushed against its side. He couldn't make out if any smoke was rising from the chimney, and he figured that meant the place was empty. But still, it was a place, and Jackson figured it must have food, a stack of firewood, maybe a warm bed. He pulled himself to his feet, wondering when he had sat down, and stumbled toward the cabin.

  It was farther away than he thought. Larger, too. It wasn't the Saples' place, but it looked comfortable enough. As he approached, he could smell burning wood. And when he came close enough that he thought someone might hear, he called out, "Hello?" But the air escaping his throat was little more than a whisper.

  He circled around to the front of the cabin, surprised that there weren't any old cars or piles of scrap metal around the cabin. He would have imagined that most cabins would have their immediate perimeter blanketed with things that should have been hauled to the junkyard. But the outside of this place was spotless. Impeccable. Whoever lived in that cabin, hidden in the woods, kept the yard clear. Clean. And, to Jackson, such a thing seemed a little strange.

  He circled around the house. The front door wasn't accompanied by any kind of porch or awning. It was just a door, standing in solitaire at the front of the house. A naked sentry. Jackson approached it and noticed it was slightly ajar. He touched a hand to its cool, wooden surface and creaked it open another couple of inches. He swallowed a dry and scratchy gulp and said, "Is anyone home?" a little louder this time.

  No answer.

  He pushed the door. It swung freely and tapped against the inside wall. A smoky, warm smell snuck its way outside, wrapping itself around Jackson like a hug. It was dark inside, but down the length of the hall, a reddish glow illuminated what seemed to be a sofa covered with papers and trash.

  As he crept his way in, the smell of a dying fire grew stronger. It was easily the greatest smell in the world. It made him think of food and home. He wanted to cry, but he couldn't. He was too dehydrated, too ill, and too close to death.

  "Hello?" Silence. "Please…someone…if you're there…"

  He stood at the entrance to the living room. The glow of the fire actually seemed to work well at illuminating the room, and Jackson could make out more detail now that his eyes were adjusting. He looked at the papers on the couch—more obituaries, but mostly just scraps of papers full of what seemed to be arbitrary letters and numbers. They covered the couch and blanketed the floor, creeping their way up the walls via thumbtacks. Strings of yarn were spun from point to point, mapping paper to paper, article of interest to article of interest. It was like something out of a scary movie. Something Jackson had only seen on television.

  He heard a rustling just outside the front door, and then saw a man standing there, a dark shadow against the light of the setting sun. Jackson shrunk back, deeper into the room. Had he been seen? Jackson didn't know. He reached around his back, feeling for the gun he'd stuck in his waistband.

  Gone.

  He'd lost it, somewhere in the woods, probably. Between blackouts.

  "Damn door," the man said, fiddling with the door knob.

  Jackson scanned the room for a hiding place. Just past the fireplace, in the corner, a hallway stretched out of the living room. Jackson dropped to the floor and started crawling toward it. He had a plan to find a room with a window through which he might escape.

  Escape from what? This guy is unaffected. He could help you.

  But Jackson felt uneasy. Anyone who would obsess over random letters and numbers was obviously sick. Crazy. And it struck Jackson that this might very well be Dr. Bink's patient. So Jackson scurried toward the hall and disappeared down it just as the man entered the living room.

  Jackson heard him rustling around, mumbling to himself unintelligibly. He wondered what the man was doing, what the papers meant. Starlite…what does Starlite mean? And he almost thought about asking, but he didn't. He just kept crawling down the hall.

  There was a door at the end, already open. Jackson slipped through it and pushed it closed. It let out a tick as it latched, but not the sound of metal. Jackson looked up at the door knob. Wood. The hinges, also wooden.

  No junk outside, Jackson thought. He knew they were coming. He didn't want to attract them.

  And then Jackson heard a more frightening sound than even the wails of the street people. He heard the man ask, "Who's back there?"

  Jackson sat, frozen. He wanted to scream…to run…but his brain just wouldn't work that way anymore. He was too tired, and in the back of his mind, he realized something about the man: he was avoiding the street people, too. Pierce Gunner had always had a saying about this kind of thing. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

  "A friend," Jackson called out, coughing between syllables. "I'm a friend…"

  The door knob turned, and the door swung open. Jackson couldn't see much of the man's face through the darkness of the room, but he could see the whites of his eyes, which seemed more yellow than white.

  "You," the man said, in an almost accusatory manner. For a moment, Jackson thought that maybe the man recognized him from somewhere, but then he continued, "You're safe here."

  Jackson let out a breath, the room started to spin, and Jackson passed out.

  The Final Days

  Jackson had a distinct sensation that the sun had been rising and setting while he drifted in and out of consciousness, cozied in a bed within the lonely old cabin. How many times the day had turned to night, however, was a mystery.

  Jackson opened his eyes and the room came into focus.

  “You’ve been asleep for a while.”

  Jackson opened his mouth to reply, but stopped when the man raised his hand and added, “Don’t speak. Save your strength. The worst is yet to come.” The man turned to a small table beside the bed and retrieved from it a tray of food. “I brought you something to eat. Soup. Crackers. I’m not the world’s best cook, but you look like you haven’t eaten in a while, so I reckon it’ll taste just fine as far as you’re concerned.”

  He unfolded a pair of wooden supports from the underside of the tray and placed it over Jackson’s legs. Jackson shimmied himself into a sitting position and looked down at the food. The soup was little more than broth, dark brown, burned. He grabbed a wooden spoon from beside the bowl and considered taking a small, introductory taste before dropping the spoon back onto the tray and drinking directly from the bowl in a manner his mother would almost certainly have frowned over.

  It was simultaneously awful and delightful.

  “Go easy there, buddy. You’ll make yourself sick if you eat too quickly,” the man said. “What’s your name?”

  “Jackson.”

  “Jackson, it’s a pleasure. My name is Henry.”

  Jackson raised his eyebrows and took a shot in the dark. “Doctor Bink?”

  The man frowned, hesitated. “I think we’re beyond formalit
ies, but yes. How would you know that?”

  “I was in your office at the hospital…I saw your clippings.”

  “Those weren’t my clippings,” Henry said, turning toward the window and drawing open the curtains. A bright shaft of light flooded the room, bringing it to life. “Those were stories brought to me by a man whom, up until a few days ago, I considered to be extremely ill. But he doesn’t seem so crazy anymore, does he?”

  Jackson wanted to answer, “Yeah, sort of…” but instead slurped the last bit of soup from his bowl. He asked, “What about the clippings here? In the living room?” and popped a cracker into his mouth, relishing the salty flavor.

  The man walked toward the door of the room, which was standing open. “We’ll make time for questions, once you regain the strength to walk.” He left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.

  Jackson scanned the room. It was barren. No knickknacks, no fancy decor. The curtains at the window were flat black, made to block out the light. Jackson lifted the tray and moved it to the side of the bed. He pulled back the covers and noticed that his pant leg had been ripped down the seam, the leg itself bandaged. He inspected the treated area and noticed no sign of infection. The doctor must have given him something to take care of it.

  He wiggled his toes—working—and swung himself to the edge of the bed, letting his legs dangle over the side. He stood up gingerly, careful to catch himself should his legs be a bit wobbly, but he was able to stand without much trouble.

  He moved toward the window and looked out, suppressing the incredible urge to make a run for it. He felt compelled to leave, but talked himself down. He couldn’t imagine that he was in any danger here…not with someone who expressed a desire to nurse him back to health. But still, something wasn’t right…he could almost feel it…not unlike the feeling a person gets when they think they’ve forgotten something.

  The world is in the pooper, he thought to himself, it’s as simple as that. And that seemed enough to quell his worries.

  He heard some knocks and bangs coming from the living room of the cabin and made his way through the door and down the short hall, limping a little. The doctor was climbing on furniture, running lines of yarn from one newspaper clipping to another in a weave of what seemed to Jackson to be complete nonsense.

  “Up already,” the doctor said, without turning around or pausing. It was clearly a statement, not a question.

  Jackson said nothing.

  “Well,” the doctor continued, “go on…ask away.” He jumped down from the back of the sofa and climbed two shelves high on the bookshelf in the corner, attaching a clipping marked “176” to a clipping marked “154”.

  Landon took the invitation and asked, “What is all of this?”

  The doctor laughed. “That’s a good question. A very good question, indeed.”

  The doctor continued stringing together number after number, occasionally fixing a new clipping to the wall. When Jackson realized the doctor wasn’t going to answer, he asked another question, “How did you fix my leg?”

  “You have blood poisoning caused by radiation exposure. It’s in your marrow. I didn’t fix it. I gave you water, treated the infection topically, and bandaged it up, but the damage is done. You’ve been marked.”

  “Marked?”

  “For harvest,” the doctor said, light from the window glinting from his eyes.

  “Harvest?” Jackson took a breath. “I don’t understand. What’s going on? What’s happening to everyone?”

  At this, the doctor stepped off the bookshelf and turned toward Jackson. “Sit,” he said. Jackson moved some papers from the small recliner next to him and sat down. The doctor remained standing and continued, “I’ve been treating…sorry…I had been treating a patient named Sam Johnson for the last 7 years. He first came to me because he had ‘important information’ about my mother, who’d died just a few months prior to Sam’s first visit. He told me that I was a piece of a galactic puzzle. Obviously, I was interested. I invited him to visit every week. Sometimes twice a week. And each visit became more and more detailed. He shared fantastic tales that spoke of the cosmos, life, existence, and the future of the human race. It was quite easily the most coherent delusion I’ve ever encountered, but so incredibly unbelievable that I’d diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. I was trying to help him work through the delusion, but it only intensified. And then he disappeared.”

  “Disappeared?”

  “Six months ago, he stopped showing up. When the Control came and started turning people into zombies, I remembered his stories, and figured he must have been onto something. I pulled all of his files, realizing he must have seen it coming and gone into hiding. He’d mentioned building a ‘haven’ here in the woods, and so I came looking for him. All I found was this empty cabin.” Henry took another look at the clippings and went back to stringing them together.

  “You said he mentioned a galactic puzzle? What does that mean?”

  “That’s where things get…weird,” Henry said. “Sam believed humans to be the seeds of a dying race of alien royalty. He had a complete explanation for the origin of the solar system stuck in his head. He could recite with startling clarity every step our planet has made from ball of magma to flourishing oasis. I had to record all of his sessions and go back over them later, referencing as many scientific journals as I could find.” The doctor strung “53” to “209”. “I thought he was some kind of genius physicist with a cracked brain, because this story—he called it Project Starlite—seemed to fall in line with most scientific theories.”

  “Starlite? I saw that written on a photo in your office. What is it exactly?”

  “It’s damn complicated, that’s what,” Henry said. “But the general idea is that these aliens needed to replenish their numbers. So they constructed our solar system from scratch, right down to the little particles that make up the atoms in the sun. There, the light from the sun became a part of every living thing on the face of this planet, and they’ve just been waiting for our DNA to catch up, so that they can harvest us, their true, natural heirs.” Henry looked at Jackson and acknowledged his wide eyes. “I know. It’s crazy. That’s why I didn’t believe him. I thought aliens with that kind of technology would be able to simply clone themselves…grow their numbers quite literally. But Sam insisted that there were limitations to such a method. He said that Project Starlite was safer.”

  “My dad,” Jackson said, “used to tell stories about this.”

  “Sounds like Daddy knew more than he let on,” Henry retorted. “Where is he now?”

  “Dead. Mom, too.”

  “Sorry,” Henry said, then went back to stringing together clippings.

  “What are these clippings?”

  “These are mostly death and birth announcements. Sam had figured out the DNA pattern. He insisted that the harvest would take thousands of people all over the world…that the DNA the Control needed was so spread out, it would take years to harvest everyone. But once the Control showed up, I started looking closer. They aren’t looking for hundreds…they’re looking for one. I believe that Starlite is a person.”

  “Then what’s The Control?”

  “That’s what Sam called these masked fellows.” The doctor tapped his finger on a polaroid that sat atop the coffee table. It was a candid shot of a masked individual standing in a city street.

  “Are they aliens?”

  “Probably.”

  Jackson asked, “If they’re only after a single person, then what’s with the tower in the city?”

  “What tower?”

  “You haven’t seen it?”

  “I haven’t been to the city since The Control first showed up.”

  Jackson filled Henry in on the giant metal structure and foundry, and how it had been constructed in such a short time.

  “Of course,” Henry said. “That’s why this whole place is made of wood. They’re salvaging metal for the structure. It must be some sort of radio tower
…a communication device.” Henry said all of this while still connecting numbers.

  “Why wouldn’t they have their own technology? Why come here and build such a rickety old tower for communication? It doesn’t make sense…”

  “I’m just guessing…thinking out loud,” said Bink. “It could be anything.”

  “Well, who is Starlite?” Jackson asked.

  “I can’t be sure…but I’m working on it. Sam wrote over the name on the newspaper clipping. "I couldn’t make it out. So I have to redo his work from scratch and find the person before The Control does.”

  Jackson squinted his eyes with a mixture of skepticism and confusion. It was too much, the whole story. Jackson’s compulsion to run doubled, but he didn’t, reminding himself that his father told stories so similar, that this one couldn’t be entirely crazy.

  “So…what’s your plan…after you find the person they’re looking for?” Jackson asked.

  “The plan?” Henry repeated. “The plan is to find Starlite and hand him or her over. Then, maybe they’ll leave the rest of us alone.” Henry connected “48” and “37”.

  “What are those numbers?”

  “I’m not sure, but Sam had a pattern, and I’m following it.” He started rummaging through a pile of papers on the sofa, mumbling under his breath, “Where is that…aha!” And he stopped cold. He held the paper in his hands and stared at it fervently, his back toward Jackson, his fingers twitching ever-so-slightly, the paper rattling in his shaky grasp. Jackson couldn’t see Henry’s face or the paper itself, but as the doctor turned to look at Jackson, Jackson couldn’t mistake the look in Henry’s eyes.

  The mark, the girl who let him go…it was enough to form an assumption.

  Panicked, Jackson jumped up and started running toward the front door, but the doctor was on him in a moment, tackling him to the floor. “It’s YOU!” the doctor screamed. “It’s YOU!”

  He pinned Jackson face-down to the ground, and started binding his hands behind his back with the yarn. “You!” the doctor repeated, “You’re the one they’re after!”

  Jackson was terrified. The doctor was on his bad leg, sending fresh spikes of pain through Jackson’s body. “Stop!” Jackson shouted. “Please…stop!” He twisted his face, a stray kernel of gravel digging into his cheek bone as it pressed against the wooden floor.

  But the doctor didn’t listen. He finished binding Jackson’s wrists and then hogtied them to his ankles. After this, Bink retreated into a back room. Jackson struggled with loosening the yarn, but didn’t make any progress before the doctor returned with a pillowcase. He pulled it over Jackson’s head and tied it loosely in place with more yarn.

  Jackson could see only blackness, but he could feel Henry grab the yarn between his wrists and ankles as he started to drag Jackson across the floor and out the front door.

  He left Jackson there, with the cold ground pressing against his exposed leg, taking thick, panicked breaths of heavy, cold air, and went to rummage somewhere else. When the doctor returned, Jackson heard the lighting of a match, the fizzing of a fuse, and the whistle of a firework rising above the trees. There was a loud bang, and Jackson knew that it was only a matter of time.

  The Control were coming.

 
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