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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.19
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.19

         Part #3 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 

  where all the exhibits were dead.

  ARRIVAL + 36 HOURS

  33

  LIKE AN ALIEN INVASION

  “They should treat it like an alien invasion.”

  Morgan’s words kept coming back to Eliza on the plane. Outside the window was a mystery nightscape—a blur of clouds parting now and then to reveal… darkness. Were they over the Atlantic? How crazy to not even know that much for certain. How often did this happen to people, this not knowing where in the world you were?

  Eliza shivered and drew her forehead back from the cold windowpane. There was nothing to see out there but cloud tatters and night. If this were a book or a movie, she thought, she’d be able to read the stars and get her bearings. Characters always had just the right random skill set to master the situation at hand. Like, Thank god for that summer on an uncle’s smuggling boat and the handsome deckhand who taught me celestial navigation. Ha.

  Eliza had no random skills. Well, she did a mean horror-movie scream, apparently. Useful, that. Oh, and she was handy with a scalpel. When she’d taught the undergrad anatomy lab back at her university, a student had joked that she probably knew all the best places to stab someone, and she supposed she did, though it was not a skill she had ever had to call upon.

  So basically, the sum of her special skills amounted to stabbing with great accuracy while horror-movie screaming. She was practically a superhero!

  Oh god. It was the fatigue. She estimated that she was into hour thirty-six of keeping awake—not counting her brief doze in the lab—and it was no easy thing. The soft sounds of Dr. Chaudhary’s snores from across the aisle were torture. What would it be like, to be able to nod off without fear?

  Who would she be, without the dream? Who was she anyway? Was she “Eliza Jones,” whom she had created from scratch, or was she, immutably, that other self, molded by others, and crushed by them, too?

  People with destinies shouldn’t make plans.

  Such were her thoughts when she detected the plane’s first pitch of descent. She put her face again to the cold windowpane and saw that the darkness outside was no longer entire. A dawn flush clung to the contours of the world, and… Eliza’s brow furrowed. She leaned closer, tried angling her face for a better view. She had never been to Italy, but she was fairly certain that this was not it.

  Italy didn’t have… a desert, did it?

  She glanced at the agents seated several rows back, but their faces gave away nothing.

  Jostled by turbulence, Dr. Chaudhary finally woke and turned to Eliza. “Are we there?” he asked, stretching.

  “We’re somewhere,” Eliza replied, and he leaned toward his own window to peer out.

  A long look, a lift of his eyebrows, and he settled back into his seat. “Hmm,” was all he said, which, in the parlance of Dr. Chaudhary, translated roughly to: Very strange indeed.

  Eliza felt as if her rib cage had flinched up against her heart. Where are we being taken?

  By the time the plane’s wheels touched down on a desolate stretch of desert runway, the sun had cleared a ridge of mountains and revealed a land the color of dust. The single building that served as a terminal was squat and fashioned seemingly of the same dust.

  The Middle East? Eliza wondered. Tattooine? A sign, hand-painted, was illegible in exotic, curling letters. Arabic, at a guess. That probably eliminated Tattooine.

  An official in some kind of military uniform stood off to the side of the runway. One of the agents conferred with him and handed him papers. And in the shadow of the dirt building, two more men leaned against an SUV. One was an agent in the requisite dark suit; the other was dark-skinned, in a robe, with a length of brilliant blue cloth wrapped around his head.

  “A Tuareg,” noted Dr. Chaudhary. “Blue men of the Sahara.”

  The Sahara? Eliza looked around with new eyes. Africa.

  The agents said nothing, only led them to the vehicle.

  The drive was long and strange: stretches of perfect featurelessness punctuated by marvelous ruined cities, the occasional laundry line or drift of smoke hinting that they were still inhabited. They passed children riding camels, a flock of walking women in headscarves and shabby long dresses of a dozen sun-bleached colors. At a place as featureless as any other, the vehicle left the road and began to bump and rock uphill, sometimes fishtailing over the scree. Eliza’s knuckles were white on the strap above the door, and all thoughts of angels were left behind with the airplane.

  This was something else altogether, she suddenly knew, with a piercing and utterly unscientific breed of knowing that she thought she’d left behind. A dark foreboding gripped her, unleashed from the closet of memory, of childhood, when she had believed with a child’s guilelessness what she had been taught to believe: that evil was real and was watching, that the devil was in the shadow of the yew hedge, waiting to claim her soul.

  There is no devil, she told herself, angry. But whatever she’d convinced herself of in the years since she left home, it was hard to believe it now, in light of current events.

  The Beasts are coming for you.

  “Look.” Dr. Chaudhary pointed.

  Uphill, stark against the shadow of distant mountains, appeared a fortress of red earth. As they drew nearer, tires grinding over rocks, Eliza saw that more vehicles stood outside its walls, among them jeeps and heavy military transport trucks. A helicopter, off to one side, idle. There were soldiers patrolling, dressed in dusty desert camouflage, and… she caught her breath and turned to Dr. Chaudhary. He had seen them, too.

  Cutting down a path from the fortress: figures in white hazmat suits.

  Alien invasion protocol, thought Eliza. Oh hell.

  One of the agents made a phone call, and by the time their vehicle came to a stop near the others, a man with a broad black mustache was there to greet them. He wore civilian clothes and spoke with an accent and an air of authority. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Morocco, doctor. I am Dr. Youssef Amhali.”

  The men shook hands. Eliza merited a nod.

  “Dr. Amhali—” began Dr. Chaudhary.

  “Please, call me Youssef.”

  “Youssef. Are you able to tell us why we’re here?”

  “Certainly, doctor. You’re here because I asked for you. We have… a situation that exceeds my expertise.”

  “And your expertise is?” inquired Dr. Chaudhary.

  “I am a forensic anthropologist,” he replied.

  “What kind of situation?” asked Eliza, too quickly, too loudly.

  Dr. Amhali—Youssef—raised his eyebrows, pausing to take her measure. Should she have remained the silent assistant, the obedient female? Maybe he heard fear in her voice, or maybe it was just a stupid question, considering his field. Eliza was well aware what forensic anthropologists did, and what must have brought them all here.

  And when he lifted his head, just slightly, and sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose in distaste, Eliza smelled it: a ripe rankness on the air. Decay. “The kind of situation, miss, that smells worse on a hot day,” he said.

  Bodies.

  “The kind of situation,” Dr. Youssef Amhali continued, “that could start a war.”

  Eliza understood, or thought she did. It was a mass grave. But she didn’t understand why they were here. Dr. Chaudhary gave voice to this question. “You’re the specialist here,” he suggested. “What need can you have of me?”

  “There are no specialists for this,” said Dr. Amhali. He paused. His smile was morbid and amused, but underlying it Eliza detected fear, and it fed her own. What’s going on here?

  “Please.” He motioned them ahead of him. “It’s easier if you see them for yourselves. The pit is this way.”

  34

  THINGS KNOWN AND BURIED

  They were at least twenty minutes doing paperwork, signing a series of nondisclosure agreements that escalated Eliza’s anxiety page by page. Another quarter of an hour fumbling into hazmat suits—ratcheting the anxiety up even further—and at last they
joined the insectlike parade of white-clad figures on the path.

  Dr. Amhali paused at the top of the slope. His voice came out thin, filtered through the breathing apparatus of his suit. “Before I take you any farther,” he said, “I must remind you that what you are about to see is classified and highly volatile. Secrecy is paramount. The world is not ready to see this, and we are certainly not ready for it to be seen. Do you understand?”

  Eliza nodded. She had no peripheral vision, and had to turn to catch Dr. Chaudhary’s nod. Several white figures trouped behind him, and she realized that there were no distinguishing features to any of them. If she blinked, she could lose track of which one was Dr. Chaudhary. She felt like she’d stepped into some kind of purgatory. It was deeply surreal, and became even more so once the restricted site came into view. Downhill from the kasbah, a rope perimeter enclosed a cluster of acid-yellow hazmat tents. Big, squat generators hummed, snaking power lines into the tents like umbilical cords. Personnel milled about, grublike at this distance in their head-to-toe white plastic.

  Farther out, soldiers patrolled. In the sky were more helicopters.

  The sun was merciless, and Eliza felt as though her air supply were being syphoned into her mask through a straw. Clumsy and stiff in her suit, she picked her way downhill. Her fear, like her shadow, lengthened before her.

  What was in the pit? What was in the tents?

  Dr. Amhali guided them to the nearest one and paused again. “ ‘The Beasts are coming for you,’ ” he quoted. “That’s what the angel said.” And it seemed to Eliza that in the space of seconds she became just a heartbeat encased in plastic. Beasts. Oh god, here? “It would seem that they are already among us.”

  Among us, among us.

  And with a showman’s flourish, he whipped back the flap door to reveal…

  … beasts.

  The word beast, Eliza realized slowly, encompassed an extremely broad spectrum of creatures. Animals, monsters, devils, even unspeakable dream-things so terrible they can stop a little girl’s heart. These were not the latter. Not by a long shot.

  These were not her monsters, and as her heart resumed something like normal beating, she chastised herself. Of course they weren’t. What had she been thinking? Or not thinking. Her monsters existed on a vast dream plane, at a whole different order of magnitude.

  You call these beasts, Youssef? she might have said, laughing in breathless relief. You don’t know from beasts.

  She didn’t laugh. She whispered, “Sphinxes.”

  “Pardon me?” asked Dr. Amhali.

  “They look like sphinxes,” she clarified, raising her voice but not lifting her eyes from them. Her fear was gone. It had been snatched away and replaced by fascination. “From mythology.”

  Woman-cats. Two of them, identical. Panthers with human heads. Eliza stepped through the door, immediately feeling a reprieve from the heat. The tent was cooled by a loud AC unit, and the sphinxes were on metal tables set atop drums of dry ice. Their furred, felid bodies were soft black, and their wings—wings—were dark and feathered.

  Their throats had been cut, and their chests were dark with dried gore.

  Dr. Chaudhary stepped past Eliza and removed the helmet of his hazmat suit.

  “Doctor,” said Dr. Amhali at once, “I must object.” But Dr. Chaudhary didn’t appear to hear him. He approached the nearest sphinx. His head looked small and disembodied above his suit, and his expression was poised at the edge of skepticism.

  Eliza took off her helmet, too, and the stench hit her at once—a much purer form of the smell that had wafted up the hill, but she could see the creatures with much greater clarity. She joined Dr. Chaudhary beside the body. Their escort was agitated, scolding them about risk and regulations, but it was easy to tune him out, considering what lay before them.

  “Tell me what you know,” said Dr. Chaudhary, all business. Dr. Amhali did, and it wasn’t much. The bodies had been found, more than two dozen of them in an open pit. That was what it boiled down to.

  “I hoped to dismiss it easily as a hoax,” said the Moroccan scientist, “but found that I could not. My hope now, I will admit, is that you can.”

  By way of reply, Dr. Chaudhary only lifted his eyebrows.

  “Do they all look like this?” Eliza inquired.

  “Not remotely,” replied Dr. Amhali, twitching a stiff nod toward a sheet of white canvas humped high over a much greater bulk than the sphinxes.

  What’s under there? Eliza wondered. But Dr. Chaudhary only nodded and returned his attention to the sphinxes. She joined him, ran a gloved finger over a feline foreleg, then leaned over one dark wing. She lifted a feather with a fingertip and examined it. “Owl,” she said, surprised. “See the fimbriae?” She indicated the feather’s leading edge. “These flutings are unique to owl plumage. It is what makes them silent in flight. These look like owl feathers.”

  “I hardly think these are owls,” said Dr. Amhali.

  Are you sure? Eliza quipped inside her head, because I heard the owls in Africa have lady heads. She felt… high. Dread had walked down the hill with her. At the mention of the word beasts, it had coiled itself around her and squeezed—the dream, the nightmare, the chasing, the devouring—and now it was gone, leaving relief in its wake, and exhaustion, and awe. The awe was on top: the top scoop in the ice-cream cone. Nightmare ice cream, she thought, giddy.

  Lick.

  “You’re right. They are not owls,” agreed Dr. Chaudhary, and probably only someone as familiar with his tones as Eliza was could have detected the dryness of sarcasm. “At least, not entirely.”

  And what followed was a cursory head-to-toe inspection with the aim of ruling out a hoax. “Look for surgical seams,” Dr. Chaudhary instructed Eliza, and she did as he asked, examining the places the creature’s disparate elements conjoined: the neck and the wing joints, primarily. She couldn’t share Dr. Amhali’s hope; she didn’t want to find surgical seams. If she did, for one thing… then where—or who—had the heads come from? That would be a horror movie rather than a momentous scientific discovery. And anyway, it was a pointless exercise. She knew that the creatures were real. As she knew that the angels were real.

  These were things that she knew.

  No, you don’t, she told herself. That’s not how it works. You wonder, and you gather data and study it, and eventually you posit a hypothesis and test it. Then maybe you begin to know.

  But she did know, and trying to pretend otherwise was like screaming at a hurricane.

  I know other things, too.

  And with that, one of the other things… presented itself. It was as though a fortune-teller flipped over a tarot card in her mind and showed her this knowledge, this truth that had been lying facedown in there… all her life. Longer. Much longer than that. It was there, and it was a very large thing to suddenly know. Very large. Eliza took a deep breath, which is not an excellent idea while standing corpse-side, and she had to stagger back, taking a succession of quick, purposeful breaths to clear the miasma of death from her lungs.

  “Are you all right?” inquired Dr. Chaudhary.

  “Fine,” she said, struggling to cover her agitation. She really didn’t want him thinking she was squeamish and couldn’t handle this, and she really really didn’t want him wishing he’d brought Morgan Toth instead, so she got right back to work, assiduously ignoring the… tarot card… now lying faceup in her mind.

  There is another universe.

  That was the thing that she knew. In school Eliza had shirked physics egregiously in favor of biology, and so she had only the most simplistic understanding of string theory, but she knew that there was a case to be made for parallel universes, scientifically speaking. She didn’t know what that case was, and it didn’t matter anyway. There was another universe. She didn’t have to prove it.

  Hell. The proof was right here, dead at her feet. And the proof was in Rome, alive. And—

  It hit her with hilarity. “They should treat it like an
alien invasion,” Morgan had said, and he’d been exactly right, the little pissant. It was an alien invasion. It just happened that the aliens looked like angels and beasts, and came not from “outer space” but from a parallel universe. With ever-deepening hilarity, she imagined floating this theory to the two doctors beside her—“Hey, you know what I think?”—and it was about then that she realized her hilarity was not hilarity at all, but panic.

  It wasn’t the beasts or the smell or the heat or even her exhaustion, and it wasn’t even the idea of another universe. It was the knowing. It was feeling it inside herself—the truth and depth of it buried within her, like monsters in a pit. Only the monsters were dead and couldn’t hurt anyone. The knowing could rip her apart.

  Her sanity, anyway.

  It happened, in her family. “You have the gift,” her mother had told her when she was very young and lying on a hospital bed, full of tubes and surrounded by beeping machines. It was the first time her heart had gone haywire and turned into a mass of fibrillating muscle, very nearly killing her. Her mother hadn’t held her, not even then. She’d just knelt beside her with her hands folded in prayer, a fervor in her eyes—and envy. Always, after that, envy. “You will see for us. You will guide us all.”

  But Eliza wasn’t guiding anyone anywhere. The “gift” was a curse. She’d known it even then. Her family history was potholed with madness, and she had no intention of being the latest in a string of “prophets” locked away in asylums, ranting about the apocalypse and licking spots on the walls. She’d worked very hard to stifle her “gift” and be who she wanted to be, and she’d succeeded. From teenage runaway to National Science Foundation fellow and soon-to-be doctor? She’d succeeded pretty freaking wildly—in all ways but one. The dream. It came when it wanted, too big to bury, more powerful than she was. More powerful than anything.

  But now other things were stirring in her, too, other truths that weren’t her own, and it terrified her. Several times she swayed. Her light-headedness had become extreme, and she was beginning to suspect that by going sleepless to deny the dream, she had weakened something else within herself. She breathed in and she breathed out, and she told herself she could control her mind as she controlled her muscles.

 
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