Gemma Files is a Canadian citizen, and has lived in Toronto, Ontario for her entire life (thus far). She is the daughter of two actors, Gary Files and Elva Mai Hoover. She has published two collections of short stories (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both from Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, a Sinnersphere Production, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). A Book of Tongues: Volume One in the Hexslinger Series (ChiZine Publications) was released in April, 2010, followed by A Rope of Thorns (2011) and, soon, A Tree of Bones (2012). We’re pleased to bring you the following story as part of our 12 Days of Monsters celebration. – The Editors
Depth drunkenness brings strange thoughts—stranger than usual, at least. Right at the moment, it’s like I’m seeing my deaf paternal grandmother’s hands hover in this darkening air, signing the scenes of my life away syllable by syllable: Old, new, in and out of order.
These slippery reminiscences, repetitive and elusive—squid-ink images written on oil, squirming from close examination. A memory flip-book, curling at the corners: Nanny Book’s crepe-paper skin, laced with pale blue veins; the vestigial webs between her arthritic fingers, spread to catch the light.
My unit bracing to take their turn—pulses shallow, impatient with dismay, most of them more terrified to gauge the true limits of their shameful, mounting fear than consider the circumstances prompting it—as Captain Kiley lies propped up against his bunk, making rabbit-shadows on the holding cell wall.
The sky over Pittsburgh when I was five years old, dirty as a bed of nails.
A map I saw once of the twin moons of Mars.
Hit, flash: Popped bulb, clicked lens—image, then absence. Whispers in my skull, like the roar inside an empty shell: Blood echoes. Music to—in—my ears.
And just what the hell is that word for the fear of fear, anyway?
Fear: Phobos. Fear of: Phobia.
…must be it.
I press my eyes closed, momentarily forgetting to remember just how deep we must already be. HPNS regulations at least breached, for certain-sure, if not exceeded—more than deep enough to check my hands for tremors, and count off the rest of those prospective High Pressure Nervous Syndrome symptoms our mission literature listed:
Increased excitability, motor reflex decay; aphasia. Mental glitches.
…under the deep black sea, who loves to die with me…
—glitches. Psychosis. Cyanosis.
I slam my head back, skull on wall, hard enough to ring myself true—short, sharp shock, broken left incisor into lip, tweak of clarifying pain. Instant coherence. Kiley’s rules, channeling themselves: Keep alert. Tell it through. No opinion without research. No solution without…
“Book,” the Doctor whispers, beside me. I shift a bit towards him, deliberately trying to find the floor’s sharpest angle, to bend my hip in such a way as to make the pain flare just so, girdling my pelvis. Making myself uncomfortable.
“Doctor,” I answer.
“Book, Regis. American. No…registered rank.”
He coughs. “I…didn’t know that.”
“No reason you would.”
The Doctor give a snuffling gasp, a liquid retch. Something catches in his throat, rattles there briefly—then flicks out again, splattering the floor between us with wet, red bile. I glance back at the wall I just used for a memory aid, which could frankly use a few shadow animals right about now. And as though he’s read my mind—
—which may, I suspect, no longer be quite as hard to do as it once was—
“Black…Ops…operative. ‘Wet…boy.’ Yes? C…I…A—puppet.”
I smile, thinly. “Whatever.”
But at least you know my first name.
“You…are a—coward, Book,” the Doctor tells me. Then lets all his breath out in one big rush, ragged with the effort, like he expects me to pause, to take note—to congratulate him on his sudden insight, his startling perspicacity.
As though this were really some big revelation.
Okay: Step back. Start over.
To call the situation bleak would be an understatement. Down to our last few hours of oxygen, high on our own fumes and drifting blind: Trapped inside a lost, crewless, experimental submarine—make and model strictly classified, even if it mattered—trolling rudderless, black and silent, along a smoking ridge of volcanic fissures at the bottom of the Subeja Trench. Engines blown, no fuel reserves, interior lights dimmed down to a thread or two of emergency luminance along the hallways. With nobody left to tell the whole tale but me and the Doctor, enemies in an undeclared Lukewarm War, huddled across from each other behind the blackout blinds, the two-way mirrored walls, of what we used to call the Waiting Room.
Me sitting quiet, chin on knees, cradled by a weak but quenchless glow that emanates from somewhere deep inside me—quivering, almost imperceptibly, against the back corner of my former prison. Watching him, on the floor, slumped in on himself—curled, fetal. Broken. Moving just enough, every once in a while, to give up the occasional cough—weak and wet, greased with pinkish phlegm; visible fallout from a buried haematoma, a crushed rib, a punctured lung.
Blood whispering in my inner ear, static between stations: Radio Tintinitus, the voice of the virus. Of that indefinite thing to whom I owe my freedom, my breath and life itself, but whose true nature remains as much a mystery to me now as when they finally threw me into this same room, head-first, to sweat and scream out my appointment with its presence behind a triple-mag-locked door.
The barely-there voice of my master, my soon-to-be savior.
It cajoles, flatters. It says: My love. It says: You know I will honor my promises. It says: Time means nothing. And in the same non-breath, self-contradictory, it says: Soon.
And I sit here, still, not answering. My whole body nothing but a thin skin suit, stretched tight over an endless scream.
When three of the Doctor’s largest “orderlies” finally dragged me down to the Waiting Room, they had to break two fingers just to get me through the door. I lurched, tripped, came down face-down and felt my bottom lip split open on impact against the floor, left eyetooth cracking right in half like a piece of candy-corn.
Mouth full, head tolling, I spat, swallowed, screamed back at them—and him, for all I couldn’t see him through the two-way’s glare—every invective phrase I could form in their wonderfully poetic native language: “May goats rut on your grave! May nuns use your bones for dildos! May God fill your heart with shit and drown your grandchildren in blood!”
And then, reverting under the stress of the moment to pure all-American: “Fuck you! Motherfuckers! Fuck, fuck, FUCK ALL Y’ALL!”
Unlike the rest of my former unit, you see, I knew exactly what to expect—because I’d already been there behind the mirror myself, helping the Doctor record what happened to each and every one.
I felt like I’d broken the rest of my fingers on that fucking door, before the pain calmed me far enough down to get me thinking straight again.
So: Slowly, I turned. Made myself look back.
And there it was, in the Waiting Room’s far corner—almost close enough to touch.
They found it at the bottom of the sea somewhere, in relatively shallow water. Took it out real deep to test it, just in case—a fairly good idea, in my personal opinion. Given what I’ve seen it do.
White coil of unknown—metal? Bone?
Silence. Compressed dust.
A funnelled, calcified glass shell, an empty tube-worm knot, utterly alien. Shedding icy light the way we shed blood, and looking somehow slick while doing it. Somehow… unclean.
But that might just have been the fear talking.
Blink-flash fast, I conjured a mental image of the Doctor comfortably ensconced behind that mirror, taking his notes, making his calculations, running his useless experiments; the same fucking data, over and over:
You go in. And it sits there. And you sit with it.
And then—the glow begins to change. To grow.
Five times out of five. Granted, I’m a traitor, not a scientist—but to me, those odds do suggest a certain pattern.
I felt myself freeze, then, settling instinctively into much the same position I hold now, except with my back up against the door instead of the corner. Freeze and listen, straining for a hidden warning, some cold whisper beating up through the rush and gasp of my own hot blood—a hum beneath the hum.
Beneath the human.
The flutter of my pulse, quick and light with morbid anticipation. The—
—of my own fear.
…and why do I keep forgetting that fucking word?
Oh yeah, right; brain melting. Memory—drowning.
Terror-struck, I held my breath, tried to slow it down. Closed my eyes and prayed to simply disappear, before the sheer, dull, palpable horror of it all ate me alive.
But I didn’t piss my actual pants until the first time I heard that noise in my blood begin to talk.
Two weeks, ten days and five other men ago…five men I knew well—my trusting comrades, my trusted co-operatives…five men plus dear, dead Captain Kiley, that old Cold War-horse, who once let slip (in strictest confidence) how he considered me his second son…
The call came straight from the top, wherever that is: A need-to-know mission with an unstated goal, just a set of coordinates and a schedule on a sheet of flammable fax-paper.
Search and destroy, no questions asked. So we smuggled ourselves into the area, clinging barnacle-fast to the hull of a rented ship—dropped blind, docked ourselves at the base of volcano 037, got equalized with the pressure, and spent the rest of the day marking off time. And when the sub’s shadow fell over us, we swum to meet it in perfect formation, convinced—like the brave little hardbodied boy scouts our training had made us—that the computerized codes we’d been issued with would be enough to trick our way inside. Which they were, of course; when you’re working for folks who routinely drop $50 million or so on new toilet paper dispensers, a string of numbers probably comes comparatively cheap.
No, it wasn’t the codes that betrayed us, or got us captured within an insulting half-hour. The codes didn’t give us up to the Doctor, to serve as cannon-fodder in his continuing quest to find out what that thing in the Waiting Room was—aside from almost-instant death for anybody he threw in with it.
‘Cause codes, you see, don’t really come equipped for treason—hold no political opinions, weigh no options, covet no raise in monetary reward. Risk nothing and nobody on the simple hope of gettin’ pee-ay-ei-dee-paid.
Like participants in any arranged marriage, The Doctor and I agreed to consummate our vows only after an exhaustively negotiated ritual of long-distance courtship. Acting under Kiley’s orders, I used my satellite access as the unit’s translator and intelligence liaison to track the sub’s location and eavesdrop on its internal mutterings—and when his back was turned, I used the same good ol’ U.S. technology to slip inside the Doctor’s laptop, read his notes. Send him e-mail. Tell him he could protect his precious project, and gain a core group of experimental subjects, for the one-time-only price of a hefty Swiss bank-account deposit, a trip back to the surface and an artfully-faked sole survivor scenario: Me cast momentarily adrift in the unit’s life-pod, beacon on, with an enemy bullet lodged in some suitably fleshy body-part (exact location to be determined later on, at both our conveniences).
“You tellin’ me all this’s about money?” Kiley demanded. And I just shrugged, snapping back: “What else?”
Thinking, all the while: Disappointed? Well, fuck you, dead man. You can yap all you want about honor, and duty, and the idiot joy of the holy patriotic Cause—but from where I stand, you’re nothing but worm-food with an attitude. So go ahead, strike that pose. When you’re being buried with full military honors, I’ll be cutting myself a slice of apple pie and negotiating a thousand-dollar blow-job.
“You know when the Old Ma’am and the rest of those REMFs back at HQ find out, they’re gonna cancel your sorry ass.”
I smirked. “Find out from who?”
“Ain’t you got no pride at all, boy?”
“Well. I guess not.”
Behind me, somebody spit on the floor. All of them glaring through me, turned back first: If looks could eviscerate. Even fey little Ed LoCaso, the training camp’s token cocksucker, suddenly pumped full of indifferent hauteur and undying contempt—if the situation hadn’t been just a little too butch to bear it, he looked like he might have given me the finger-snap, or maybe just the finger.
“You just better be ready to live with yourself, Book,” Kiley told me, finally, right before they hauled his kneecapped ass onto that medical stretcher and took him down the hall to meet our mystery guest. Last words, and he knew it, so he thought he had to make them count—make his point before it was too late for me to repent, and come to an impressive eleventh-hour understanding of the error of my ways.
“Is that meant to be some kind of challenge?”
A frown—a wince, almost. Like: Jesus, Regis!
“History — ”
“Yeah, right. Now, let’s see: Who is it writes history, again, exactly?”
We both knew the answer, and so did everybody else—it’d been one of Kiley’s favorite saws, back up top. So no one bothered to reply.
Not even him.
Distant echoes, as the dim lights fade further: Roils and rumblings, metal gamelan trills. The odd hollow clang, barely audible, as the Waiting Room floor’s dip slowly steepens. Behind the two-way, I hear the Doctor’s autopsy equipment start to skitter down the counter, catch and clatter on the fixtures—all those poor lonely clamps and scalpels, laid out in eager anticipation of my corpse.
And cheated instead: Cheated, cheated.
The voice seems to smile, seems to agree. And tells me:
Oh, Book, Book—shape up, soldier. You think you really got all the time in the world? You believe everything some fossil full of prehistoric bacteria tells you?
…can’t believe I even just thought that sentence…
So talk it out straight, for once, you crooked motherfucker—before your brain turns irretrievably to mush.
Regis Aaron Book: Me. 28 years old. Specialist rank 4, Lang-Intel. Cheat and smart-ass. Traitor.
Born in Louisiana, raised in Pittsburgh; deaf grandma, absent Mom—gone so long, all the photos burned, I barely remember if she had a face. But I suspect she was probably pretty; I sure am.
After she ran off, Dad re-enlisted, went to Germany. Got all ripped on LSD one night and drove his tank into the Rhine. The government sent us a letter. I got to it before Nanny Book could see, read it, and flushed it down the toilet.
No great conversationalist, my Nan, and that wasn’t all because of her pronunciation problems. She did teach me ASL before I was five, though.
Ever see the sign for drowning? It’s kind of cute.
I played football in high school, got a university scholarship. Fucked my left foot (deliberately, I must confess)—hairline fracture, long-healed now. Transferred streams. Did languages: French, German, Hungarian, Romanian, five different Slavic variants—the USSR grand tour, they used to call it. Which is how I caught certain people’s eye.
When I went ROTC, I told people it was because the recruiting officers said they’d kick me $40,000 toward the rest of my fees. But that was a lie. I joined the army so I could kill people—after which I joined the CIA, so I could do it for no good reason and be virtually assured of getting away with it.
I’m an American, born and bred. I like money. I like power. I like sex, as long as it doesn’t lead to anything too permanent. I—
…blood in my…
—what else? Anything relevant?
(there‘s a concept)
Oh, fuck: Shut up. Will you just shut the hell up, already?
…noise. In my…
My name is Book, Regis—Regis Book—and yes, I am a coward. And you know why? Because the proper synonym for coward, in this messed-up post-Berlin Wall world of ours, is “smart person”. Cowards always come out on top. We try harder, and when we screw up it hurts worse, so we make damn sure it never happens again. We’re the ones who live to fight another day—or just to live.
Stay alive: My sole, my only legitimate consideration. The only one that matters.
Five more minutes, five more hours. Five more days, more years. Fifty. Five hundred—I don’t discriminate. But I am selfish: Oh, yes. You damn betcha.
Because I’m not going to die, not here—never here, never like this. Watching image- and word-meaning shuffle off into disintegration as my mental deck of cards deals me a dead man’s hand, and the air runs out. Watching the Doctor cough his life away. Watching the lights dim, and hearing this thing inside me hold its figurative breath, waiting for me to get so loopy I don’t care whether or not I’m part of it, or it’s part of me. Or if there’s any me still left for it to be a part of.
No. I’m not going to die like this—or any other way, if I can help it. I’m coming out of this sub just the same way I came in, the same way the Doctor and company found me when they opened the Waiting Room’s mag-locked door, after the mandatory five hours had finally elapsed: Alive alive-oh, just like sweet Molly Malone…
…before the fever, that is. Before the last verse.
Yeah, well, whatEVER; folk music was never my strong suit.
Alive, spelled ay-ell-ei-vee-ee.
Anything else is gravy.
The Doctor has lapsed into some kind of half-sleep. In the two-way, I catch a glimpse of my fine new self, post-thing: My bone-blonde hair, my bleached-out skin. My eyes like bruises, cilia purple with broken blood-vessels. I sniff the air, and decide that my skin has begun to smell like hash packed in sulfur.
And this glow, this glow, around and inside me. This inmost light.
The whispers tell me: You are a chrysalis. And I counter by forcing myself to think hard about the shrivelled husks I saw left behind in Nanny Book’s back yard, after the butterflies had gone on their merry way. I imagine my mouth splitting slowly open, ripping. Bending like vinyl under the eruptive strain, as a hitherto-hidden larva sloughs me off like so much deluded dead skin.
I feel the fear rise up in me again like wine, like flame—the salt and spices of it distributing themselves through my body while I struggle in its slow-cooking flame, rendering me ever more tender, more juicy. More appetizing.
‘Cause fear is what this thing goes for, see? It loves it. Eats it. Got it in little tiny jolts from Kiley and the boy scouts, one by one by one; suck ’em dry and move along, bub. Skin packets, lit and hollowed from within, irradiated with detritus radiance. One big bruise, left to rot: An empty, man-sized wrapper, stuffed full of crumbly bones.
And why was I the only one, apparently, to ever figure this particular connection out?
Just my luck, I guess.
Dribs and drabs, after the long drought on the sea-bottom—aside from stealing the occasional muffled howl from a passing, boneless thing or two, in between geological epochs. From me, though, a veritable stream of terror, so constant as to skirt actual saiety. Fear-engine Book, running on empty: C’mon in and make yourself at home.
The Doctor turns his head again, heavier. Barely able to open his eyes. And tries to ask:
“The shell?” I shrug. “Dust in the wind, Doc.” Adding, as though in explanation: “It was old.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
A wheeze; a cough. “And—what was…inside…?”
To which I smile, curling back my bruised lower lip. Showing the tips of all my remaining upper teeth—my ill-set front caps, my jagged, half-missing left incisor. And reply:
And hey, there’s even evidence: The Doctor taped it all, obsessively anal to the last, with a camcorder installed (as per tradition) behind the two-way—images skipping and fading between intermittent washes of static. I wound it back, watched it, in those first dim eons after I knew for sure that no matter what, the sub would just keep right on drifting further down and faster. Talk about post-modern: My cruel apotheosis, shot by shot, in all its real-time glory.
Hour one: Me pounding, pleading. Slumping. Turning.
Hour two: Me and the shell.
Hour three: The glow, beginning. Spreading.
Hour four: My hypnotized attention. Our conversation, me and it—that thing; not something which really seems to register, actually, on the purely visual scale.
Cajoling, flattering. Saying: My love. Saying: You know I will honor my promises.
The glow increasing steadily throughout, meanwhile; a slimy glitter. A blazing smokeless cloud, pillar of salt-white fire. A certain sense of boiling. Of moving outward, then—inward. Saying: Soon.
And in hour five…
The Waiting Room door clicks open, admits four—Doctor and goons, the original three-pack, already braced for action. They see me on the floor, face-down; the declining line of my limp back, head clutched in hands, shadow-rapt. No more light, bright or otherwise. No more shell.
…this quintessence of dust…
“Bastard ate the fucking thing, fuck your mother,” I hear one blurt. And think:
You could say that.
The Doctor kneels, waves them closer. One kicks me over. They see my face, hesitate as one—
—and I feel my hands knot, my insides furl. I feel them start to reel away from me, then stop dead—sway, dazed. Instantaneously lulled. All of them, Doctor included, plunged into a kind of half-intoxicated trance brought on by my—(its)—proximity. Like standing next to a generator, invisible energy pouring off me in waves. Drowsiness seeping in through the pores.
I feel their fear, like I feel my own. And I feel what was once inside the shell—what’s now inside me—sniffing at it: My mental tastebuds, gearing for the feast. My mouth, watering. The glow rekindling, a slow flame under my skin. This radiance looking out through my eyes, bruising them from the inside with the pressure of its glare.
…in my blood…
Disconnected, surfing the current: A battery. A contained conflagration, run on incipient panic. I lever myself up with both hands, mirroring the Doctor. Look around. See them return my look, all of them—helpless not to.
“Bet you wish we were back in El Salvador now, fellas,” I remark. Conversationally.
And I feel it let go of me, the thing, exploding outward like a concussion bomb-blast: Blow out the bridge, bring the bulkheads down. Crush the goons back against the Waiting Room walls. Crumple the Doctor in on himself. A surge of pent-up energy, driving me upward—haloed, paralyzed, cocooned in power. Catapulted into some pupa stage, lapped in adrenaline and brain-opiates. I feel the shell’s former inhabitant slip away from me, in search of fresher fields, and my terror surges, babbling. I match it, promise for promise—set myself up as its carrier, its willing Judas Goat.
Succor and repair me—love me for real, like you love yourself—and I will bring you prey and praise.
A modern Prometheus for the century’s end: Eat my fear anew each day, that I may live forever. Trying my level best to make it understand, through instinct rather than intelligence, that I’m not just a host—not just some new flesh shell for it to hide and sleep in, hibernating until the next best thing comes along. Wordlessly eloquent, I vow to trade keeping myself in a constant state of fear and pain for a vaccination—however temporary—against the whole concept of death: Death by drowning, by slow suffocation, death here at the bottom of the deep black sea, in the pressure-drunken final fathoms.
Making sure to also point out—with strictest possible attention to detail—that if I lose my personal identity, then I won’t know what I have to be scared of anymore.
And you’ll starve.
I hover, wait for its reply. Until the words come, soft as necrosis. Cells collapsing. A lie for a lie:
Time means nothing…
Yeah, yeah: To you.
Which brings us, I believe, right back to where we started.
“Book,” the Doctor whispers, now—so soft I can barely hear him, over my own constant internal whisper.
“Doctor,” I reply. The word not meaning quite what it used to: Two empty syllables, ringing hollow in my skull. Language no longer seeming necessary, even as a nervous tic.
He clears his throat, or tries to, blood rattling in his lungs. Spits, or tries to. And shapes the words, with a last feeble breath:
I shift my gaze back to him, slowly. Take a moment to remember his title, his significance. Then nod. And think:
But not as much as me.
Here on the Subeja Trench’s second shelf, already too far down to hope for rescue—anytime soon, at least—we drift past holes belching black lava, coral mountains crusted five arms deep with vivid, fleshy anemones. Everything watches us go by, large or small. They give us sidelong glances, and bare their teeth. And we keep on slipping down, fathom by fathom, until the foliage thins and the light falls away. Until there’s nothing to note our descent but a congregation of boneless, blazing things which regard us with a total lack of curiosity.
While I note the Doctor’s broken corpse, sprawled and sloughed on the floor beside me. Feeling similarly little.
Wondering: Did I really strike a bargain, just then? Or do I only THINK I did?
But if I can still think coherently enough to even consider the question, I guess, it probably just doesn’t matter all that much.
The sub buckles, twisting in on itself deck by deck. But I hold fast, footloose and evidence-free, to the improbable notion that I have been promised exemption—that even when the water seeps in under the Waiting Room door, this thing‘s infernal patronage will render me impermeable, slicked with infection. No swelling, no softening, no gentle nibbles from passing teeth; just a long sleep, a long, long dream. One long nightmare, a phobophobic haze, during which I can jim in my own stew—
(you fucker, you promised)
—stew—swim in my own…juices. Awhile.
…a while, a minute, a century…
And when they (the CIA, the Doctor’s bunch, a salvage crew, whoever) finally find us, and pry open this busted can, how very sweet I’ll be. Well-marinaded, and ready to serve: To be my prehistoric savior’s chosen liaison, its translator. Its face prepared to meet the faces it will eat.
Or maybe we’ll just stay down here, forever, unfound and unmourned, until entropy eats us both.
I raise my hand, look at my fingers. See my vision narrow. My pressure-drunk brain, squeezing itself flat. Glitches, sparking and fading: Images fizzling. Kiley’s shadow-animals. Nanny’s hands.
The two moons of Mars, on that childhood chart. Deimos and—
—Phobos. Meaning panic—
Fear, my motive, my spur. My dark and guiding star.
All my life, I think, my fear has driven me to take the easiest way. And where does the easiest way lead, usually?
Well, that would probably be—down.
Down here, at the bottom. Where there are a lot of things, and most of them glow…
Thinking: When you get what you ask for, you really have no right to be surprised.
First published in Transversions #11 in 1998 (Dale Sproule and Sally McBride, editors); reprinted in Creatures, an anthology edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay in 2010.