a short story
Gaskin stood in the middle of The Sleeping Road and wearily examined the scene that lay beyond. To his right, the waters of the sea glistened under the baking sunlight; to his left, the mountains stood like sentinels, blocking the way to his destination. He let his eyes roam over the vista for a few more seconds, then glanced over his shoulder. Abraham had wandered into an adjacent field and was now running his ethereal hands over a large metallic object that was protruding from the grass.
'What is it?' Gaskin shouted.
Abraham didn't reply, or pretended not to hear; it was a trick he'd mastered to irritating perfection of late. Gaskin sighed and looked to the sky for a few seconds, then threw his rifle over his shoulder and stepped into the field. As soon as he got near, his eyes bulged.
'Good grief!' he exclaimed. 'What is that?'
'Isn't it magnificent?' Abraham replied, looking up at him and grinning. 'I didn't think I'd see one of these just yet,' he went on. 'It's bigger than I thought.'
Gaskin walked around the object, shaking his head. The way the body of the thing tapered as it entered the ground suggested that only half of it was on show; the rest was buried. There was some sort of large lettering printed along the body, but it made no sense to him. It read: ED STATES AIR FOR.
'What is it?' he asked again.
'This,' said Abraham, 'is ... or rather what is left of ... an aeroplane. It ... will fly through the air.'
'It's come from the future?'
'Oh yes! We'll fight in these things one day.'
Gaskin looked up sharply at this. The thought of combat in one of these things was beyond his comprehension and, looking at it, not something he would relish. Lord knew the war they were fighting now had been bad enough on foot if the losses they'd suffered were anything to go by.
'Don't worry,' Abraham chuckled, seeing his reaction. 'You'll be dead and gone long before these things are invented. I'm talking millions of years.'
'Then how the hell did it get here?'
'You know how the physics are so messed up around here,' Abraham replied, solemn all of a sudden. 'It's a wonder it got through.'
'Then ... maybe there's some hope.'
'Maybe ... for those still alive.'
Gaskin looked up from the aeroplane and shot a sour glance in his friend's direction. This he then instantly regretted, as it had given Abraham all the indication he needed that his little dig had hit the mark. Gaskin quickly turned away from the aeroplane and began to walk slowly away.
'Let's go,' he ordered.
'No, look,' Abraham replied. 'Someone's coming.'
Gaskin spun round and saw that Abraham was pointing towards the field that lay on the opposite side of The Sleeping Road. Sure enough, a man -- his dress indicating that he was local -- was striding confidently towards them, running his hand across a head that was completely bald. Gaskin and Abraham backed away slowly as the figure got near; Gaskin tensed his finger on the trigger of his rifle, just in case. As it was, he needn't have worried: the stranger strode right past them and continued on into the field. Gaskin and Abraham exchanged bemused glances then looked back at him. By now he had stopped and was fiddling in the pocket of his breeches. Eventually he pulled out, of all things, a small retractable telescope, which he pulled to its full length and placed to his eye. He scanned the horizon then, after a couple of whispered curses, lowered the telescope.
'Damn,' he murmured. He folded the telescope and placed it back into his pocket, then turned back to face Gaskin and Abraham.
'So,' the man said. 'What do we owe the honour?'
Gaskin and Abraham frowned at each other but said nothing. The stranger possessed a thin weedy voice that didn't fit his build.
'Well, what are you doing here?' he asked sharply. 'You're not local, you're a soldier.'
'I ... We,' Gaskin began, 'we sort of came here by accident, we-'
'Impossible,' the man interrupted. 'Nobody comes here, by accident or otherwise. These are the last days of this world; if anything, you should be heading out of here.' He glanced around briefly. 'Whose we?' he asked.
Gaskin, momentarily caught off guard, turned to gesture at Abraham. However, as his eyes locked with his colleague, he saw that Abraham had his finger to his lips and was gently shaking his head.
'He doesn't see me,' he whispered.
Gaskin winked and looked back at the stranger. 'It's ... nothing,' he whispered. 'I ... er ... I had a friend with me ... but ... '
The man nodded knowingly. 'I understand,' he said.
'What's your name? Gaskin added quickly.
'You know a way out?'
Damiona immediately threw back his head and roared with laughter. Gaskin sighed and looked down at the ground. He'd not heard a sound like that, raucous or otherwise, in a long, long time.
'Don't you think,' he replied once he'd stopped laughing, 'that I wouldn't be here if I knew how to get out? There is a war going on, you know!'
'Well,' Gaskin replied. 'You told us to get out of here, so I thought that ... '
'Seeing as you got here,' Damiona snapped, 'I thought it would be safe to assume that you knew a way out.'
'No I don't. To be honest with you, how we got here is a long story. We just got caught up in the war like everyone else I suppose.'
'Have you always been alone?' Damiona asked.
'No,' Gaskin replied. He cast a quick glance at Abraham. 'I was with a friend, Abraham Thyr.'
At the mention of this name Damiona looked visibly shaken. He placed a hand on his forehead and then crossed himself.
'Abraham is here?' he whispered.
'He's dead I'm afraid. You knew him?'
'Everybody does. What ... happened to him?'
'I shot him.'
'You killed your own friend?'
'In self defence, but yes.'
'Then the situation's even worse than I thought,' said Damiona.
'Why?' Gaskin asked.
'Once, possibly, we could have won this war, but not now.'
'Not with our General dead.'
Gaskin glanced at Abraham. 'You mean ... ' he began
'Abraham Thyr,' Damiona whispered. 'The man you killed.'
'So what's it like to be popular?' Abraham asked with a grin. Gaskin shot him a sour look in response, but didn't answer. He was far too weary to get into an argument right now; he was thinking about hot food and lying in the arms of the woman he'd left behind to come and fight Joa's army.
They'd perched themselves on the wing of the aeroplane to rest for a while. Damiona was now just a distant speck on the horizon as he carried on down The Sleeping Road. He'd simply wished him well and set off on his way. He didn't know where he was going, he'd told him, but Gaskin could come along if he wanted. Gaskin declined and said that he would maybe catch up with him later. He was thinking about this when a faint but definitive rumble echoed across the sky, causing him to curse loudly and jump to his feet. Abraham did likewise and raised his hands.
'Easy,' he soothed. 'Take it easy. It's just a skyquake, nothing more.'
'How can you tell?'
'I just know.'
Gaskin eyed the sky nervously for a few moments and then slowly sat himself down again. He trusted Abraham's word; the man had been blessed with some astonishing senses since he'd returned from the dead. Many times during the last few days, Gaskin had wondered if it was worth turning the gun on himself to see if the same thing happened to him. The more he thought about it, the more attractive a proposition it became.
He found himself thinking back to the night that he and Marco had tried to escape back through the wormhole after he had shot Abraham. It was so clear in Gaskin's head, it might well have happened yesterday.
It had taken them about a week to retrace their steps back to the entrance, which was decorated with a thick, swirling mist. When they finally arrived, night had fallen, and with it came animal cries, the likes of which neither of them had ever heard before. They stopped and looked at each other nervously. Neither of them had to say anything, but it was clear that they were both having second thoughts.
'Ready?' Marco asked.
'As I'll ever be.'
'Then let's get out of here.'
As they stepped forward, Gaskin remembered the state of some of the bodies he'd seen lying at the mouths of these things in the past. Some people passed through unscathed of course, but not all, and as Gaskin walked, he told himself to think about home and his woman. It would not be such a bad scenario to die with her on his mind.
' ... So cold ... ' Marco was saying.
'The mist,' Marco replied. 'It's so ... cold.'
Gaskin hadn't noticed until then that he had fallen a couple of paces behind Marco while he'd been contemplating what was to follow. He took several hurried steps forward in an effort to catch up, and at that moment he realized that Marco was right: the mist was absolutely freezing compared to the humid, sticky atmosphere they had just stepped out of. Marco meanwhile, had disappeared from sight. There was only the sound of his footsteps on the rocky ground beneath.
'Marco ...' Gaskin whispered. 'Wait for me.'
No reply came from up ahead, but Gaskin could suddenly see a dark shadow in front of him to his left; so he hadn't lost Marco after all. Reassured, he continued to slowly walk forwards, his hands held out in front of him as if he was blind; which of course he might as well have been, as the mist was the thickest he'd ever seen in his short life. He continued to walk tentatively, one eye on where he was going, the other on the area just in front of his hands. He glanced over at Marco. He had stopped and was standing still. Gaskin did the same.
'Marco,' he whispered. 'What's wrong?'
Again, there was no answer from his friend. His form simply stood there, one minute visible, the next, consumed by the crawling mist. Gaskin waited for the mist to clear before calling out to him again. When it did, his call caught in his throat. Marco, it seemed, had turned to face him, but there was something drastically wrong with his shape now. Ludicrously, the shadow that loomed over him now seemed to be at least a foot and a half taller and the same again wider. Gaskin ran a panicked hand over his face to wipe away the dewy residue that the mist had deposited upon him, then instinctively dropped to his knees, as the mist was thicker down there and offered some cover. The shadow in front of him began to move slowly forwards and even before it spoke to him, Gaskin knew that whoever this was, it was not Marco.
'It's too late to pray, Gaskin,' said a deep voice that was all too familiar. Gaskin felt a coppery rush of panic in his mouth and throat; simultaneously, his pulse rate went from a canter to a gallop. In front of him, the mist parted obediently and out stepped Abraham Thyr, just like he'd stepped out of the darkness in the hallway of that house that night. The night Gaskin had shot him dead, mistaking him for the enemy.
Gaskin screamed and fell backwards, his arms wheeling blindly, groping for something substantial to cling to, something to reassure him that he was still on solid ground. He was, and in confirmation, his hands slapped painfully onto the rocky surface below. Before he could get some purchase however, his backward momentum caused his hands to slip and he crashed heavily onto his back. His head cracked onto a particularly sharp rock and he was momentarily dazed. He blinked heavily and then screamed again as Abraham's towering form came to a stop at his feet.
'The things I've seen,' he murmured softly. 'I have such stories to tell you, such stories ... '
Gaskin was too dumbstruck to offer a coherent answer; the sight of the man he had killed now standing before him contradicted everything he understood about the world, even one as crazy as this. True he had witnessed many strange events in his time here, but the resurrection of a dead man was the most profound amongst them. So much so, he felt himself begin to pass out from the effects of the shock, and though every cell in his head screamed their warnings against unconsciousness in the presence of this man, he was powerless to respond. Before he blacked out, a scream that could only be Marco came out of the mist. Gaskin silently wished him well, then slipped into the darkness behind his eyes.
Gaskin was jerked out of his reminiscing by a gentle pat on his shoulder. He looked around and saw the grinning face of Abraham. He was pointing towards The Sleeping Road. Damiona was nowhere in sight.
'Time to get going,' he said. Gaskin nodded and jumped down off the aeroplane wing. They stepped out of the field and onto the rocky ground.
'D'you know,' Abraham began, 'one day, this entire planet will freeze over.'
'You've seen this?' Gaskin asked.
'Yes. The polar caps will advance and there will be so much surface area of ice, the rays from the sun will mostly be reflected back into space until the planet cools to such an extent, it freezes up.'
'No. Eventually, volcanoes will burst through, and from them, gases will cause clouds to form again, causing some of the heat from the sun to be trapped in the atmosphere. The planet will warm up again and the ice will melt. In millions of years' time, humans will discover fossilized drop stones -- a sure sign of glacial activity -- in somewhere called The Tropics, near to the equator, and wonder how they got there. Oh and that sea over there will one day be called the Caspian Sea.'
'You saw all this ... '
'Just after I died, yes; when I was in the wormhole. I told you that I had seen such amazing things.'
'How about a way to beat Joa's army.'
Abraham shook his head. 'No, 'fraid not,' he said.
'Then what made you so special? Damiona practically fainted when I mentioned your name; he said we didn't have a chance now that you were dead.'
'I don't know. There's nothing really to tell you. I was just the man in charge.'
'Then why are you still here and talking to me as if you're alive?' Gaskin asked.
'I don't know. Maybe it's a power in our species that we've yet to discover. Maybe Joa knows this and that's why he or she started the war.'
Gaskin nodded. 'Makes sense,' he said, thinking how, in reality, it made just about as much sense as anything else he'd heard. 'But what do we do when we find him, or her? Can we take him on, the two of us?'
'I don't know,' Abraham replied. 'But I can tell you that this,' he pointed at the ground that they were walking on, 'was once a living being, and it bears some significance to what's going on here. That's why it's called The Sleeping Road.'
To Gaskin, the thought of the road ahead of them suddenly coming to life would normally have seemed completely ludicrous; but after the events of the last few weeks, he supposed anything was possible. He was, after all, walking and talking with a dead man.
'Tell me what you know about Joa,' he said.
'A very bad man,' Abraham replied. 'Or woman, or thing. A thing most likely.'
'I see ... ' Gaskin replied uneasily. He glanced down at his rifle and thought about how inadequate it looked all of a sudden. Many platoons had been dispatched to intercept Joa's army, but not one single man had returned. Yet despite this -- and this was the strangest thing -- Joa hadn't advanced; at least, not yet. Gaskin supposed that this was why he was taking this walk. Deep down he'd given up all hope of ever being reunited with his woman again, but before him waited the greatest wonder of this infant world. He wanted to see -- he had to see -- before he died, and The Sleeping Road was leading him there.
They walked on in silence for quite some time, then found some large rocks that offered some shade in which to rest under. Gaskin practically collapsed onto the ground, whereas Abraham, who had no need for rest, of course, simply stood and admired the scenery.
'Big animals,' he whispered.
Gaskin lifted his head. 'What?' he asked irritably.
'Big animals will evolve here in the future,' Abraham replied. 'They'll rule this planet and then die out just like that.' He clicked his fingers to emphasize his point. 'They'll never be seen again, but millions of years later, after Joa has caused our extinction, man will return. He will dig up the fossilized skeletons of these animals and study them, become fascinated by them ... '
'Look,' Gaskin said. 'Unless your time in the wormhole told you anything useful, will you please shut up while I ... ' His voice trailed away as he realized what Abraham had just said. He sat up. 'What did you say?' he demanded.
Abraham didn't turn to look at Gaskin, he continued to stare at the mountains and the sea.
'You heard it right,' he said quietly. 'Our extinction.'
'Extinction ... '
'For now, but we'll be back.'
'I wish you'd-'
Abraham held up a hand. 'Quiet,' he said. 'Something's coming.'
Gaskin's heart bounced in his chest and he jumped to his feet, totally unprepared but longing to see the creature that held his fate within its unholy grip. However, the approaching sound was made by nothing more than a hundred or so pairs of human feet. Strangely disappointed, but at the same time much relieved, Gaskin stepped around Abraham and watched the crowd as it ran towards them. As he did so he felt the faintest wave of energy wash against his chest and face, and then on over his head. He closed his eyes for a moment and appreciated its cooling caress. When he opened them again it had gone.
'What's going on?' he asked Abraham.
'I don't know,' he replied. 'I can't see any reason for panic.'
'They're not panicking,' Gaskin informed him. 'Quite the opposite unless I'm very much mistaken.'
Abraham peered at the approaching throng and saw that Gaskin was right: several of the leaders were cheering and waving their weapons in the air above their heads in celebration.
'Fools,' he murmured, a touch sarcastically.
'Why?' Gaskin asked, snapping his head around to look at him. Abraham simply offered an irritated shake of the head by way of response. It was plain to see that he was less than pleased with the arrival of these people, but stranger still was the way his demeanour had changed completely in the last few seconds. He had gone from the contemplative ghost he'd become, back to the combative General he'd once been.
The crowd was drawing closer now and Gaskin could see Damiona at the fore, cheering loudly above the rest and waving at him. Gaskin waved back, somewhat sheepishly, and then sat himself down on the rocks.
It was Damiona who reached them first; he instantly dropped to his knees in front of Abraham, who turned to Gaskin, an expression of puzzlement upon his face.
'He sees me ... ' he said. Gaskin offered nothing more than a shrug.
'Abraham,' Damiona gasped, oblivious to his dilemma. 'You're alive ... '
'On your feet man,' Abraham ordered.
'There's a body,' Damiona went on, ignoring the command. 'Just back there; we think it is Joa.'
Before Gaskin or Abraham could offer any comment, the crowd began to cheer loudly at the announcement of their enemy's apparent demise. Gaskin, however, was too tired to show any emotion; he just sat where he was and watched how Abraham regarded the people before him with an uneasy expression upon his brutish face, as if he knew something they didn't. Gaskin let his eyes wander over the crowd and realized that it was not as substantial as he originally thought it had been. What he had first estimated to be a throng of a hundred or so was, in reality, no more than fifty. Ample enough, he hoped, to divert Abraham's attention from him for the time being. With that in mind, he left Damiona to his hero-worshipping and turned his back on them all. He wandered back along the road and then stopped and gazed out across the waters of what Abraham had christened The Caspian Sea. He thought of his woman, and of Marco, and apart from the crowd behind him, he felt as if he could be the last man alive in this strange world at that moment.
It took several moments of musings before Gaskin sensed that it had all gone very quiet behind him. He could also feel the occasional waft of heat mixing with the breeze. Frowning, and a touch apprehensive, he slowly turned his head and glanced tentatively over his shoulder. His feet turned the rest of him as his eyes fell upon the scene that greeted them.
'Oh ... no ... ' he gasped.
As if he hadn't seen enough in recent times: every member of the crowd was on fire. There were no screams, no thrashings of pain. They stood motionless and silent as they burned. The only sound was the soft crackling of the flames as they danced to the tune of the breeze.
Dizzy with shock, Gaskin ran his eyes over the statuesque corpses and they eventually landed on Damiona, or rather, what was left of him. He had clearly been the first to take the fire, as he was infinitely more charred than the others, and was still in his kneeling position. Gaskin then glanced at Abraham. He was still standing with his back to him, watching the crowd in silence. That he was untouched by the fire came as no surprise, as in his current elemental state, even the power of fire would be incapable of harming him. Gaskin felt his feet begin to move, independently of his mesmerized brain, and he slowly stepped towards Abraham. In front of him, various blackened segments of the crowd's anatomies -- a head here, an arm there -- occasionally broke off and fell to the ground as the fire took a greater hold on their flesh.
'Abraham ... ' Gaskin whispered.
As the three syllables of his name reached his ears, the man lifted his head a little, then turned around. As he did, Gaskin gasped and froze on the spot. Abraham's face had all but changed. That fearsome façade had transformed into something that was much softer, much more reposed, its blue eyes reminding Gaskin of the sea that had briefly transfixed him with its rhythmic movement only moments before.
The transformation was all but complete by now. Of Abraham's natural ferocity, there remained only the slightest glimmer, and after a few more heartbeats, even that had disappeared.
'Who are you?' said the deepest voice Gaskin had ever heard. The question itself had been delivered reasonably enough, but its resonance instantly told Gaskin as to whose presence he was in. This, without doubt, could only be Joa.
Before he could offer any sort of answer, Gaskin was suddenly granted the nightmarish vision of Abraham's face, rising again amidst Joa's features, his eyes blazing with fear and rage, his mouth gaping as if screaming. The fragment of his fortitude that had recognized his name when Gaskin had called out to him was clearly making one last desperate attempt to reclaim the body of ether that Joa had stolen so expertly. Gaskin remembered the wave of energy that had hit him, and the subsequent change in Abraham after that. That had been the moment that the seizure had taken place. Joa had crept up and struck without any of them noticing, not even Abraham; which in itself was a massive testament to its powers; that the host himself had no control over the hijack of his body.
Gaskin held his breath as Abraham flung his head frantically from side to side within the confines of Joa's outline, and silently willed him not to give up and to fight for what was his. It was all in vain however, as seconds later, Abraham's features dissolved completely, leaving Gaskin confronted by Joa again. It was looking at him as if nothing had happened.
'Who are you?' it asked again.
'My ... name is ... Gaskin.'
'You are with these people?'
As it spoke, Joa gestured towards the burning multitude, and at that moment, Gaskin understood why they'd lost every single platoon that had been sent out to intercept this thing.
'No,' Gaskin replied.
'Then ... walk with me.'
'Huh ... ?'
Joa mercifully took its eyes off Gaskin for a moment and tilted its head back to look up into the sky. This, coupled with its almost casual stance, dissolved a little of its supernatural appearance.
'The things I've seen out there, child,' it said. 'Shapes in the stars, great masses moving deep in the darkness ... ' it shook its head. 'Whatever they were, or still are, I evolved from them.' Gaskin winced as its eyes came back to rest on him. 'One day, it went on, 'your kind will come again. Animals will come down from the trees and start to walk on two legs. In time, they'll look like you child.' It chuckled slightly. 'No offence,' it added.
'Why ... have you killed ... everyone?' Gaskin asked, at once fearful of the answer. He needn't have worried; Joa simply shrugged.
'My journey goes on,' it said. 'Forever.'
As if in response to this, Gaskin felt the ground tremble ever so slightly. He glanced down to see the tiniest of cracks opening up around his feet. He looked back at Joa; it was smiling at him.
'The Sleeping Road awakes,' it said. 'Here's to the next few million years.'