Denton explains: it starts a few billion years ago when the Earth swallows a moon or a planet or an asteroid. Something immense. They know it was immense, and they know, a little bit, what it was made of. They know it happened because of the Earth’s magnetic field or the aurora borealis or something. Denton tells me this in the darkness, his gun on my lap and the Jeep’s headlights stretching across the asphalt. You can drive a long way south in Texas. We drive until the sun pinks up the east. The gun is heavy in my lap, and it’s hard to hear Denton over the music. But we can’t shut off my music.
Half a day back: three piano chords and the coil of a violin spiraling up. The sound makes the speckled dark peel away. With that, pain. Burning in my shoulder, my temple. I breathe the music in and become myself, kneeling on the buff industrial tiles, straddling Charlene. She’s staring at the ceiling with a worried expression. There’s a gawping red hole in her belly, and my hands are inside her up to the wrists. The violin soars like a bird. I drink it like wine. My hungry self quiets.
I pull my hands out of Charlene’s fading warmth. My hands are thick with blood, and spatters reach my elbows. I follow Charlene’s dead glance to the ceiling. Blood spatter there as well.
Charlene, the perfect dorm mother with her pudgy amiability. Her left hand’s a fist, still holding clumps of my hair. Her right forefinger’s flexed around the trigger of some snub-nosed something. I don’t know anything about guns. My shoulder says she got at least one shot off. Jesus, the woman made me hot chocolate with milk and Hershey’s last night to help me sleep. She’s wearing khaki pants and a pink cardigan. What the hell is wrong with people.
The cold circle of another gun presses against my skull. From the corner of my eye, I see Denton standing there, pale but steady. The gun doesn’t shake at all. He’s holding an iPhone close to my ear. That’s where the music is coming from. It’s Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” Classical’s not my favorite, but I always liked that one, the simplicity of it. The bird chortles, spinning up, down, but usually up.
Denton’s voice is shaky, though his hands aren’t. “I’m going to back up three steps. Stay down until I say, and then get up slowly. Very slowly.”
I nod, staring down the corridor at the dorm-style bathroom the twelve girls share. Shared. The door is propped open, and a pair of tanned legs stretches out from behind it. Soph, I think. Sophia from UT Austin. Answered the same ad I did, along with Dylan and Mei. I knew Mei a little from Asian Student Association, though I didn’t go past the first meeting.
I only met the others and the rest of the cadre from Texas Christian and A&M in the vans on the way here. Twenty-four of us in four industrial-looking white vans—each with a driver, silent and grim, each with a chaperone, bubbly and engaging, well supplied with treats and gum. We drove west past Toyah, desolate even for West Texas. The few brick buildings and the cemetery with its crooked stones and crosses were even sadder than the empty miles of saltbush. We drove through town, barely slowing down, ten, fifteen miles to a series of low grey buildings—six in a long rectangle recently thrown up and, even at a distance, the hum of generators.
Charlene was in my van. She gave me Bubble Yum. Now that I think about it, the drivers were probably military and armed. But Charlene tried to shoot me.
Denton moves back, still pointing the gun at my head, still holding the phone like he’s about to throw a treat to a pit bull. My legs are cramped, and it’s hard to get up; I leave cartoonish handprints on the tile. The corridor’s lined with doors, six to a side. Seven are shut, each with a name in chubby letters cut out of pink construction paper. Mei, Sophia, Lou, Vanessa, Dharma, Sami, me. The other doors yawn wide, only black inside.
We laughed when we saw our names like that, secretly charmed. It was such a sorority thing to do and glorious that we got our own rooms after a school year in triples. Such a Charlene thing to do. Like the hot chocolate.
I didn’t drink the hot chocolate. It had a weird metal taste. I took one sip and left the rest to congeal by my bed. My mouth still tastes funky.
Denton gestures at the bathroom with the phone. The music quavers, and my vision sparks. He thrusts the phone forward, so I can grab onto that melody. I step over Charlene’s legs, and he follows me up the hallway. The door’s open enough that I can avoid Sophia’s legs and the rest of her. A thin shell of bone is all that’s left of her head. Brain matter is splattered thick against the porcelain wall. I wonder if Charlene did that.
I foul the handles turning on the water. It takes a while to scrape off blood. I look in the mirror once. There are dark smears around my mouth. My left sleeve is soaked red, but I think it’s just grazed.
Even over the water, I can hear Vaughn Williams’s lark jubilating and a sharp scream from the boys’ dorm that cuts off fast.
Last night, we were restricted to the girl’s dorm. Just a precaution, Charlene said. They said there was a prison break and escapees maybe headed for Toyah, and even though it was beyond unlikely they’d get anywhere near the compound, we weren’t allowed outside. Seemed lame even then. Vanessa had sneaked in her cell phone in the bottom of her bag—fuck control parameters—and was texting Dylan. The boys were on lockdown too, she said, but Cliff, the hunk from TCM, wasn’t in their dorm.
“Are you going to kill me?” I ask Denton, trying to clean beneath my fingernails. Not just blood there. Something fibrous. I watch him in the mirror.
He glances behind us, down the hall, before turning back to me. The lark is silent now, and the last piano chord is fading, but before the void opens, the fast monotonous pulse of house music beats it back. There’s a question in his eyes, and I nod in response.
Carefully, he lays the iPhone face up on the broad edge of the sink. “If the music shuts off, I will be back in an instant, and I will kill you. Do you believe me?”
He withdraws, and I pull my hands from the water, letting a pink swirl run down the drain. I unbutton my shirt and pull it away from the raw patch on my shoulder. It sticks a bit. I dab a clean part of the shirt under the water stream and try to clean up the shallow wound. The house beat pounds in my head. It’s not my kind of music, but it’s working: the thump of a synthesized drum, the brassy kick punctuating each phrase takes what’s boiling in my brain and corrals it.
Denton’s back with a shirt, a handful of gauze, a brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide. I see him considering his chances before tucking the gun in his waistband. He circles behind me and dabs the peroxide on the graze. It foams white and tingles, and it stings when he wipes it with the gauze. He hands me the shirt and steps away, pulling out the gun. This time, he holds it loosely, pointed at the floor. I pull on the shirt. It’s not mine: too big and rough fabric. I button it up and roll the sleeves past my wrists.
I pick up the iPhone and its relentless beat and follow Denton down the hall, past Charlene. There’s a backpack leaning against the back wall; he scoops it up as he passes. Switching the gun to his left hand, he shoulders open the door and gropes in his pocket for a ring of keys.
“One chance,” he mutters to me or to himself. “We’ve got one chance. Keep the music on.”
The humidity outside is like pushing through a big warm sponge. I hold the iPhone to my ear. In the thick wet air, a smell like burning oil. Two of the white vans sit pristine. One is on its side, the wheels still spinning. The fourth is upright but cratered like a cannonball landed on the roof. It reminds me of Sophia’s skull. A fat coil of black smoke rises from behind the boy’s dorm, spinning lazy into the sky like a tornado.
There’s a jeep, also right side up. Denton takes my wrist and pulls me toward it. Halfway there, the screaming from the boy’s dorm begins again. Nothing human. Nothing animal. The clang of it clashes with the beat of the music. I fight to hold onto myself and not follow the spinning void (glorious, cosmic, bursting out of my skin). Denton shoves me inside the Jeep, throwing the backpack into my lap. He sits in the driver’s seat—gun in one hand, keys in the other—mutters “fuckit,” and hands me the gun. I dangle it by the butt and lay it carefully on top of the backpack. Denton squeals away from the compound, staring into the rear-view mirror. I look over my shoulder. No one’s there.
The jeep skids on loose rock around the curve back to Toyah. This close to Denton, I can see that he has coarse pores in a sunbaked face and black stubble from his chin to his sideburns. How old is he? Late forties, early fifties? We didn’t see him much, the girls—just in the cafeteria and sometimes in the lab. Now, I see a spatter of reddish dots along his jaw, turning brown as they dry.
He pulls over past Toyah and its desolate brick buildings. I stay in the car. He’s left the engine running. In the shallow, stony ditch by the side of the road, he kneels and retches over and over. I don’t hear anything over the music. After a while, he dusts off his knees and gets back in the driver’s seat, like he did nothing but stop to take a piss.
We drive until twilight, stop to get gas at a station where a road intersects the highway and loops endlessly back on itself into the brown hills. The blue-red light from the Chevron sign makes an isolated pool in the gathering dark. I stay in the Jeep while Denton fills it. Then, he vanishes into the tiny mart for so long I think he’s ditched me. But he returns with lukewarm water bottles and some melty Snickers bars and a bagful of those little energy drink blasts that look like vodka bottles. He asks me if I need to pee. I don’t, and we drive on into the dusk.
“Denton,” I say once, mostly just to hear my own voice. My throat aches like something thick was pushed down it. “How many people did I kill?”
He doesn’t answer for miles. “Well, Charlene,” he says at last. “Maybe Lou. That wasn’t Charlene’s kill. Her face was . . . ” He glances at me sideways, adjusts for the curves in the road.
I cover the earbuds with both hands, and a flute echoes inside my head. If I listen very hard, I can hear something in the center of my head answering.
“They told us the animals attacked the ones that didn’t change. Like they were culling them out. So maybe you did. I know Charlene got the rest. She was a pro.”
The night deepens, and stars spring out of hiding. They made the music in my head change a little. “So why am I alive?”
He only shakes his head.
“You’re supposed to kill me, right? Charlene tried to kill me.”
“I’m tired of killing. You were the only one left besides some of the boys, and Alexis and Seeger were finishing them off. I knew they wouldn’t listen. I thought, if the music could control you, it might be worth it to save one. To study you instead of dissecting you. But mostly—I’m so tired of killing things. Small things. Big things. So full of blood.”
I’ve never heard him string so many words together, and now, I hear the accent: something a little off about the vowels and the ends of words. He’s older than I thought.
I hold my breath as a spot of light in the distance splits into two headlights coming closer. Out here, you can see for infinity, so it takes a long time for the car to pass us. It never stops growing bigger and brighter. I wait for it to pull across the freeway and wonder what Denton would do. So close, the lamps like mute stars burning through raw optic nerves, so I shut my eyes tight as they zoom by. I expect them to explode into Chevron blue and red, the siren to scream through my music, but nothing happens. Denton lets out a long breath.
“Are the police looking for us?”
“Police? No. By now the compound’s sanitized. Nothing’s left but us, and they won’t want anyone to find us. They’ll take care of it themselves.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
He shakes his head.
“Black ops? Secret government? CIA? Illuminati?” I’m not going to ask about the summer job—the study on the effects of a low-strength magnetic field on memory, two thousand and room and board for three weeks, and we could call it an internship—because that was a lie so magnificent it’s gone past outrage, past even complaining about.
“ ‘Black ops?’ Jesus.” He laughs. It’s a surprisingly nice laugh and stops too quickly.
So that’s when he tells me about Earth swallowing up another planet and how now it’s been pushing its way out of the core. Forcing up to the surface, pushing sulfur in front of it.
“That’s why we’re in Toyah and excavating in Sulfur Springs. There’s a site in Australia, too. It’s like the sulfur deposit’s a scab and this . . . substance, this something swallowed three or four or even, hell, five billion years ago is the matter that’s behind it. The matter in Australia and the matter in Texas have the same chemical signature. Which means it might be part of the same mass and immense. And moving. Hatching out of the planet. And who knows how long that’s been happening. Nobody would’ve noticed except for the animals.”
“Rancher out past Toyah liked to shoot jackrabbits in the afternoon. Only lately, the jackrabbits wouldn’t be shot. They knew where the bullet was coming from and moved aside. Or if they were hit, it didn’t affect them much.”
I think about it. “Obviously, he missed the shot. Was he drunk?”
“He was drunk a lot at the end. But he said he didn’t miss. He was accustomed to shooting three, four of those jacks most evenings. Used a big enough gauge so they explode, just a quick red spray and they’re gone. Bang two, three, just like that. And then there was the damage to the cattle. He’d find them out there exsanguinated. Totally bloodless. And burrowed through—actually tunneled. More and more reports like that, where the sulfur deposits are. Too similar for coincidence.”
“I didn’t see any cattle where we were.”
“No. All gone.”
He doesn’t answer.
It’s afternoon by the time we reach the enclave, red dust in the air making the sun swollen and crimson. It squats in the west like a wound in the sky, the thick air trembling around it. I shield my eyes and stare at it, Lonestar humming in my ears, sore from the earbuds. I don’t know how far south we are, but it can’t be far from the border. Denton turns off the main road and bumps over gravel and fine dust for five or six miles before we come to a fence, thick timbers and barb wire, that stretches far as I can see. A gate blocks the dirt road, and three figures stand waiting for us. How Denton told them we were coming I don’t know. He parks and motions for me to get out.
“Leave the gun,” he says.
I secure the earbuds before I move. “The battery is not going to last much longer,” I tell him.
He bites his lip. “We’ll find a way to charge it.”
Two men and a woman stand at the gate. The woman’s sun-bleached hair is French-braided back, leaving her tanned face exposed to the bullet-hole sun. Probably in her thirties, in jeans and a pink, button-down shirt that might be left over from a corporate life. She holds a shotgun cradled casually across her elbows, finger very close to the trigger. The younger man has that white towhead hair that kids usually grow out of and a smooth face with bright red patches on both cheeks. He wears a short-sleeved tee with a stylized red, white, and blue squiggle across it, and the skin of his arms is as red as his cheeks. At his crotch, in front of a huge oval brass buckle, he holds a Glock or Colt or something. He stares past Denton at me, beady blue eyes narrowing.
The other, older man is clearly in charge. He has no weapon, only the utter confidence of place, of rootedness. He has a face the woman will have in another decade; the sun’s baked deep wrinkles across his forehead and at the corners of his eyes, the sides of his mouth. He has a Caterpillar tractor cap, dusty green with close-trimmed hair beneath. Probably his forehead is fishbelly-white under the hat.
Caterpillar cap pushes the gate open with booted foot. Denton walks inside, and I follow.
“No one wants you here,” he begins without preamble, not caring that I can hear. “They say this Chink girl and you are moles, and it’s too near these troop deployments for comfort.”
“You’re in charge here,” says Denton. “What do you think?”
“Me? I know you’re a crappy spy and got as much to do with Jade Helm as Walmart. But I don’t want you here either.”
“They experimented on her. They’re going to kill her. Killed a lot of kids this summer.”
“And you helped.”
“She’s not one of ours,” says the younger man. “Why would we want one of your monsters?”
“Shut up, Billy,” says the woman. He looks at her and scowls, but he does shut up.
Denton kicks at the dry ground, raising a tiny dust cloud. We watch it drift away.
“You owe me.”
The older man barks once, loud, just like a big dog. I’m startled until I realize he’s laughing.
“I know, I know,” says Denton. “Still.”
“You’re calling that catastrophe in? For this?” He flicks his thumb at me. Denton nods, the barest movement of his head.
“Gods. ‘You owe me,’ like a bad movie. I should have Billy run you out right now, ’cept you’d probably kill him.”
Billy shifts forward, hand tightening on his gun. Denton gives him a considering look. “Maybe. She definitely will.”
The boy’s blue stare is chilly in the hot sun.
They take us to some cabins higher up where the foothills started. Mine has six bunks installed along one wall. No one else is here. There’s electricity; Denton has a charger stowed in the backpack, and I sit cross-legged on the floor, connected by earbuds to iPhone to circuit to whatever means they have of powering this place.
In the twilight, Denton builds a fire inside a ring of smooth rocks. The dried brush he uses smells medicinal, and the flame is pale. We sit on a plastic tarp, and he lays out a towel. A scalpel and a bigger knife, the blade made for hunting or skinning maybe. Neat squares of gauze. A bottle of peroxide. I wait until he’s finished before I take out the right earbud. The thump and purr of “Walking in Memphis” continues in my left ear.
“The animals,” he says. “Groundhogs that couldn’t be shot, carnivorous rabbits, coyotes that can outpace a Hummer. Those we could bring down had this ancient matter, this planetary substance, crystallized in their bones. Swimming in their blood. It made them stronger, faster. Almost indestructible.”
“That too. When you find that contamination by some substance doesn’t result in sickness or deformation but enhances the subject, makes it stronger . . . ”
He pokes at the scalpel. Folding his hands in his lap, he looks at me directly. It’s the closest to an apology I’m going to get.”
“You’ve got implants—more like seeds, really, charged with the matter and inserted along your spine.”
“When did they do that?”
“Remember the shots? Flu shot, MMR?”
“Yes, but . . . ”
“How did you . . . ”
“You all fainted. But not really.”
I look at the fire while he lets me think about it.
“People get embarrassed about fainting. Maybe not all the girls, but the guys are. With luck, some of you didn’t even remember. That’s when. And along the spine—you might be a little sore, but you might notice a funny lump in your forearm. Same principle with the animals, the chimps. They couldn’t chew them out.”
He holds up two fingers close together. “Same idea as radiation treatments through implants or a stick of Depo-Provera in your arm. Slow, constant dosage.”
“The music,” I say quickly before he can go on. “Why does the music keep me myself?”
“I don’t know. It worked with the chimps. It was a guess. Maybe . . . ” Another of his shrugs. “I don’t know.”
He picks up the scalpel and has me hunch a bit, so the implants pop up against the skin. It doesn’t even hurt when he cuts them out. I can feel the blade slice, feel him dig around in my meat for the tiny plastic sliver. A thing like pain but not. The void in my brain takes it and makes it something else, weaves it into its own music. That’s when I know it’s not going to work. It’s already deep in my system, my bones. My stars. But you have to try anyway sometimes.
The sad trickle of sound though the headphones isn’t suppressing anything, only distracting it for a time. Something that sang to itself in its place beyond the edge of the galaxy before it orbited inward, caught by the gravity of the forming planets. I’ve heard recordings of the sound space makes, of Jupiter moaning in the void.
Denton deposits three tiny grey slivers into my palm. I throw them far out into the gathering dark.
Probably, they buried GPS in me, and Denton didn’t know. Or the Jeep had a tracker. Or they just knew where he’d take me. They hit us at dawn, fast and lean, and don’t bother with prisoners. I make it out of my bunk and out of the cabin in time to see a small figure in the distance, Billy probably, run away from a small green figure. Small green aims something, and the runner’s head starbursts red, though his legs keep pumping for a few seconds. More green figures swarm across the red dirt like ants.
Denton’s sprawled at my feet outside the cabin door, face down. He doesn’t move.
Small popping sounds bounce ’round my free ear. My thigh feels hot, and I look down. My flesh is cratered open, dark and wet. It reminds me of Charlene’s belly, and I have a brief desire to plunge my hands in. I feel heat. No pain.
Another legshot to the opposite knee, and I go down. They must be trying to take me alive. Idiots. My head slams into the rocky ground, and the music stops for a fraction of a second. In that instant, day becomes star-bordered night. Then, the sharp notes of the violin, and back to day and light and burning.
I crawl across the ground, a thin trickle of music still pouring through the broken earbud in my left ear. There’s something soft, still warm in front of me. Half-blind, I reach for it and pull. It flops over like a badly packed duffle. Wet all over my hands, and Denton’s sightless eyes looking up at the sky.
Something seizes my hair and wrenches my head back. One of the green men. He goes on one knee beside me, keeping a hold on my hair. The earbud falls, the tinny sound of the violin gone. I blink, look at his eyes. Hazel. Expressionless. Blink, look at Denton’s body. Blink, look straight at the sun. There is no music; the music is gone.
And then, all the music in the world.
He holds my hair so tight it starts to rip out of my head. A knee presses into my back, bending me double. I don’t care. I’m looking at the sun, and it is a red bloody hole in the sky. It always was. They’re crawling out of it now, all my brothers, all my beautiful sisters in their glory.
The moon is a dead rock in the sky. All its songs are lies. Let those who love her perish on her unfeeling breast. But the sun is a sphere of boiling larvae, and they sing. My face bursts open, a ruin. Renewed, my true face emerges, and I turn it to the green man. His eyes go wide and glassy as my tendrils reach for him and burrow into his skin. I will find the music inside him, the fragment of the sun he hides inside, and liberate it, a small brother-larvae that longs to join the rest of them boiling in the star overhead.
I will free all of them, and we will sing, soaring higher and higher, chirrup, whistle, slur, shake. Larks.
Originally published in Tomorrow’s Cthulhu,
edited by Scott Gable & C. Dombrowski.