The liquid filled my stomach, but I almost threw it all up because I was so dehydrated. After a few seconds his entire canteen was empty.
“More,” I said to him desperately.
“Well, slow down pardner, I don’t think your stomach can handle much more right now. It’s been a while, you know?”
I choked as more of the water I had drank wanted to come back up, but I kept it down. Not going to waste a drop.
“Thank you, who are you?” I asked him.
He didn’t answer, he just turned the light up on the lamp a little brighter. “You don’t look so good compadre. What are you doing down here anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be up in the light?”
“I fell. Some people were looking for me. Where am I?”
“Deep brother. You’re in deep. Fact’o the matter is, if I hadn’t looked down and seen you sputtering and hollering like that, I probably woulda kept right on walking, leaving you for dead. Matter of fact, I almost did.”
He gave me another canteen. I drank this one a little slower, relishing the sweetness.
“Thank you, thank you. I am sick.”
He didn’t answer that either. He stood up. We were still in the cave where I fell.
“I don’t know what to do about this really, I’ll be honest with you. By all rights you should be dead, this being the last place on Earth and all. But, I’m a kind soul, kinder than I should be, and well, I couldn’t just watch and let you suffer like that, not after all this.”
“Who are you, sir?”
“Names to be decided. You can call me Bob, or Robert for now. Don’t really matter. I took a look at you. That fever tain’t natural. You got something running through you, deeper than sin and twice as ugly, and it’s burning through your soul mighty fast pardner. Mighty fast. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it?”
“My fever? Yes, I got poisoned, by a woman, up above.”
“Son, I may not be like you, but I been around long enough to know being female don’t just make you a woman. That sir, what you met up there? That weren’t no woman.”
“Fair enough, but she tried to kill me.”
“Now, that does sounds like a woman.” He gave me that big smile.
“What are you doing down here?”
’I’ve been asking myself that question for quite some time maself. Still can’t really figure it out, only that the Great Writer wants me to be here, so I am here.”
“You believe in the Great Writer?”
“Shore I do, why else would a hard drinking Texan hokey poke like me be doing down here in the middle of your story huh? A little duex ex machina you ask me..hahaha.”
“The Great Writer protects us all,” I said absentmindedly.
“Now, you are lying. You know as well as I do the G.W don’t protect shit. He has us running around doing his dirty work for only reasons he can tell. But for whatever reason it may be, here we are and here you are. Knockin on heavens door as it wore.”
“I’m going to die?”
“You’ve been dead more time than most of us can keep track of son, death shouldn’t scare you.”
“It doesn’t. It will end suffering.”
He smiled. “Right.”
“But, this time, this is it? Unless, can you get me out of here? Take me to the Tombstone? I know it is a lot to ask.”
“No son, I’m not going to take you to Tombstone. And if I were you, I would just steer clear of that place.”
“You believe in love?”
“Then you understand Evil. That place is evil.”
“I should stay away?”
“This isn’t a warning. Your path lies through Tombstone.”
“Then why tell me?”
“The Great Writer wills it to be so. You must make your choices to proceed onto the next segment of your story. All our stories are interlaid with yours.”
“When you get to Tombstone, you will be met with great opposition. But Tombstone is the marker for destiny. You will meet the Sorceress. She will help you and guide you, even though you will not know it until your final death. And your cause is the cause of the Great Writer. He wants you to succeed.”
“Succeed in what?”
“Finding the path to rescuing humanity, son. He has laid it out on your shoulders. You must tell the truth of the Great Writer to the people of Earth, though they will curse you for it.”
“O.K.” I closed my eyes, I was tired, this man was crazy. But I was not going to insult him.
“I’m not crazy son. The Great Writer has chosen you to tell his story. You are the vehicle.”
“Look, Bob. O.K I hear you, but I don’t think I am much of a vehicle for the Great Writer to do anything but laugh.”
“It’s not up to you.”
“You must tell them a story.”
“The people of Earth. Tell them about the Marauders and their partnership with the Tartari.”
“They will not believe me. I barely believe me.”
“Tell them anyway. Bring them the light. Bind them together. Then seek retribution for all the blood and hate which has spilt in the name of love. Destroy all those that are enemies before you, leave not one mote of a being alive who stands in your way. Kill them, their children, their food, their beast of burden, their temples, their disc and most importantly, kill their God and burn down every one of his alters. This is from the Great Writer.”
I was silent. There was a hollow feeling in my chest. Visions of snakes wearing armor and fire flies with human hands dancing in the skies above the Earth, floated through my vision. Hallucinations. It was the fever, must be.
“This is no fever.” A female voice. Lora. I tried to sit up.
“No. Listen to Bob, Zildjan. This is no fever dream. You are the one who has been chosen to deliver the second coming. In eleven hundred seasons the end of this universe will begin. At that time, a serpent with great power will follow behind a meteor made of a man sitting on a throne wearing a shiny crown. The serpent will follow the man through time. The man will make a grave mistake. The serpent will bite, ending time. What you do here today, will either be the salvation, or the destruction, of all there is.”
“Oh. Well, as long as there’s no pressure.”
“You must believe, Zildjan,” Lora said.
“I am sick, I am hallucinating, I am hungry. That is all I know.”
She turned to Bob. “Feed him. He can’t think beyond his hunger, he needs to be alert to understand what it is he must do.”
“Wish ah could darlin, but I cain’t, G.W want him hungry till she comes.”
“He is cruel,” Lora answered back.
“He can be.”
“And She? I hate her, why does it have to be her?”
“That I caint rightly tell you, sweetheart. Just like I cain’t rightly tell why you have such beef with her. But what I can tell is that your little boyfriend here has a whole lotta mess to ponder on his plate and well, I don’t know if you are helping.”
“When she does come, you tell that little whore that I’ll be waiting, and watching. Her day will come.”
“Well, as of today she is nine, so I don’t think I will tell her that. But I will tell her you said howdy! How’s that?”
“Nine or ninety, once a low-down whore always a low-down whore, tell her that for me too.” She turned from Bob and looked at me. “Zildjan. I love you.” She turned back to Bob. “Make him understand.”
“Try harder. You’ve done it before,” she turned back to me, “Believe,” she told me. Then, impressively large wings made of pure white spread out on either side of her back. A blinding flash filled the cavern, then like a snap of my fingers, she was gone.
“Uhhh…what just happened? I don’t think I’ve ever had a hallucination do that before.” I said to Bob.
“Jerricho,” Bob said, in a eureka moment and snapping his fingers near his temple. He ignored my question about Lora the angel.
“Jerricho?” I asked him.
“Jerri-mother-fucking-ko. That’s what she meant by try harder. Boy that gal sure is smart, no wonder she’s an Arch.”
“Arch? Archangel?” I asked in surprise.
“Boy, I tell you Joshua was one tough cookie, he was a lot like you.” Bob smiled.
“Like me? Joshua? Jerricho Joshua? Like in the Christian Bible, Jerricho?”
“Didn’t believe a damn thing either. Not even after the old man parted the dang gummed seas in front of his face.”
“Are you talking about…the biblical city?”
“Tumble down the walls. Yes. Shit. You’re the type that’ll need a real intervention, huh? Well, I can see if the old man will go for it. He hasn’t done that type of thing in a while. But, hey you never know, right, these are not typical times.” Bob took out a long stick from his leather vest, struck a match and puffed. A thin stream of white smoke filtered out of his mouth. “Cheroot tobaccy son. They say Cuban is the best, maybe they’re right, but for me, give me a good ole fashioned cheroot and I’m A O.K.”
As my hallucination puffed on his cheroot stick, I had to wonder about my abrupt meeting with Lora. Was she an angel now? An Arch angel to be precise, whatever that meant. Was I already dead?
“You can’t stay here long, son. They’re going to find you, that blanket you left isn’t ’xactly what you’d call covering your tracks, know what I mean? Does give new meaning to the phrase: covert ops. Get it, boy? I said co-vert ops… cause it’s a blanket, you see?” He laughed at his own joke. My throat started to close, it was like trying to breathe through smoke. The fever was making me nauseous. Bob saw my distress and abruptly stopping laughing. “Just wait for her, she will help you.”
“Who is… her?”
“She is the one ordained. Just hang on, stope being such a baby.”
I reached down to touch my stomach and came up with a fist full of my own blood, I showed it to him in the dim lanternlight like a kitten showing his mom a mouse that he caught. “Gee whiz Bob, I don’t know, I don’t think I’m being a baby, I’m thinking that our hero will not make it out of this story alive. I’m going to die in this cave, hallucinating about my girlfriend being an angel and talking to a cowboy form Texas smoking a cheroot stick. Whatever the fuck that is…” Things started to fade. A fever sweat formed on my temple.
“No pardner. Don’t sleep, not yet.” Bob reached down and with the red-eye of his glowing cheroot stick he pressed the burning tip into my bleeding wound. It was like someone was pressing my soul with a hot iron, branding me on the inside. I tried to scream, but I was too weak from the fever. I tried to vomit, but I had no food in my belly. So, I just lay there and burnt.
“There, that’ll hold you.” His job apparently done, he stopped bar-b-cue’ing me and stood up as if to leave. “That’s it for me, Bub. Keep the lantern, you’ll need it.”
“Wait…please… don’t… leave.”
“I thought you said I was a figment of your imagination?”
“Yes, but you’re the only thing out here not trying to kill me. Just wait, please. Tell me… more about...my mission?”
“You’re just buying time huh?” He sat back down, “Sure pardner, I’ll tell you. See it’s like this. This planet’s gone sideways a bit. It’s been heading down this direction for a while, but now its real bad, gone off the deep end as it were. Theses doors are thin man, and are exceedingly heavy. God, the devil, mankind all mingling together, not good.”
“That’s right. Baal. An ancient god from time immemorial. Haven’t seen that old goat since Babylon days. And now, that the great play is about to enter the final curtain, well, here he comes, and I don’t know if you’all are going to make it. But then again, I’m not the one who wrote the book.”
“When…when is that supposed to happen?” I knew the answer before the question came out of my mouth.
Bob smiled a deep smile that started in his belly then nearly turned into a laugh, instead he choked it back and took a toke of his cheroot stick. “Pardner, now that is one hella-ofa dumb-ass question.”
“It already happened.”
“Oh yeah. All but a few of your brightest managed to miss it. The apocalypse has been done. But even that is just another chapter. Contrary to popular opinion, the book doesn’t end at Revelation. I mean, think about it. What does Revelation mean but to reveal? And what kind of revelation could be learned, if that were the end?”
“There is more.”
“Eternity son. Its hard for humans to grasp. Which is not a bad thing. But eternity means eternal. The apocalypse was not the end, rather the beginning of the last chapters in the book.”
“And what does that have to do with me?”
“You’re going to reclaim the universe for G.W and he is going to love you for it. You understand?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Only that I wanted to keep him talking. The more he kept talking his gibber-gabber, the surer I knew I wasn’t dead.
“Sure brother, I am the Prophet. I will lead mankind from the darkness, save the universe. I am the Luke Skywalker.”
This time he did laugh. “The great mountain will shake, rattle and roll pardner!”
“Do I, get like a magic sword, or shield or something? A magic owl to guide me on my journey of redemption, like Perseus?” He looked at me for a few minutes, I thought I had gone too far.
“You have Baby, don’t you? And your pal, what’s his name? Tap-tap?”
“Chirp-chirp,” I said meekly.
“As for a magic shield, you lost that… didn’t you?”
He looked at me expectantly. I had been joking about the sword and shield, making a mockery of his gibberish. But he had taken me seriously and replied to me with a serious retort. What he said did make sense, and that was frightening. I saw him watching me, waiting for my reply.
“The Cube,” I said flatly.
“Yup. Bad mojo losing that. Pretty sure Lora told you to keep it safe.”
“I didn’t have many options.”
“True. But it’s going to be a while till we see that badboy come up again. Around eleven hundred seasons by my reckon. Good luck telling them that in Tombstone, though.” He laughed darkly, he was surrounded in a puff of smoke around his face like the Ghost of Christmas past. I closed my eyes, suddenly I wanted to rest. But Bob’s words rang in my head, I could not sleep now. With tremendous mental effort, I opened my eyes. He was gone. “Bob? Bob!” No answer. He had disappeared. But, true to his word, he left the lantern, and as a bonus, the canteen. I reached out to grab it, shook it, it was empty. “Fuck.” I threw it as far as my weak arms could. Leave it to me to hallucinate an empty water canteen.
“Ouch!” said a female voice. “You hit me!”
I looked out into the dark. I could see nothing. But I could make out distinct footsteps approaching, they sounded small, like a child’s.
“Hello?” I said into the dark. Soon, an image emerged from beyond the lantern. It was a little blonde girl, with eyes the color of gold, but shaped in the form of an hourglass. She was ragged, wearing clothes which hung around her thin bones like drapes around furniture. She carried a small metal pot in her left hands, and something I couldn’t make out in the other.
“Hello, you’re awake. Yay.” She placed the pot on the floor and squatted on her haunches. From one of the pockets in her rags she took out the fire-in-the-bottle from my ruck. She poured it over a nest of broken sticks, she struck a match and fire came to life. She positioned some of the larger sticks into a “A” frame and a long stick in the middle, with the pot hanging over the fire. The pot was filled with water. She dropped whatever was in her hands into the pot. “Mushrooms, they grow in crevasses of the caves. These are edible, but taste much better in a stew. My mother showed me how,” she said.
“Food? Who are you?”
She looked at me expectantly, like I should know. “You forgot me already? It’s me… Chris-Anne? We’ve been talking. You’re Zildjan, from the west. You used to live in the Argo. You’re going to Tombstone. Even though you know it’s a bad idea.” I said nothing. Was this another mirage? “Look…” she took something out from one of her pockets. It was Chirp.
“Gimme that.” I reached out my arm to grab it, but I was too weak.
“No, no, it’s O.K you asked me to keep it safe. In case you died, you told me to get him another system, protect him. Don’t you remember?”
“No, I’m sorry. How did you find me?”
“I tend goats.” As if that was the extent of the explanation. She looked to be around ten
“Goats?” I didn’t really know what a goat was, Bob had mentioned goats as well, but I didn’t get it then either. I did not want to insult the little girl by showing her my ignorance.
She laughed, she could read it on my face. “Little furry animals, with a tale, hooves, some have horns? We keep them in Tombstone. It’s our main source of meat. Our only source.”
“You have meat?” My stomach grumbled. That was a good sign, maybe the fever was breaking.
“No, I do not have meat. You asked me this before. Tombstone has meat. They count the goats, it would not be worth my life to lose any of them. But they like to eat the mushrooms that grow in the caves. I tend them. That’s when I saw you, here, bleeding. I gave you water, from my canteen, which you just hit me with.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry.”
“It’s O.K, you were bad-hurt. Muttering to yourself about some woman.”
“Yes.” In the lantern light I saw her blush. “Is that your girlfriend?”
I smiled. “Used to be.”
“Oh.” She said nothing. She broke a stick and began to stir the pot. “I don’t have any salt, so the broth will be nasty, but it will help you regain your strength.”
I reached down and felt my stomach. I felt a nasty scar. Chris-Anne saw my motion. “I’m sorry, but the stone here is filled with all sorts of bacteria. I had to cauterize the wound. With this.”
She brought out Baby, her tip was browned, as if cooling from being poked into a fire
“You did this to me?”
“I had no choice, you were bleeding very badly. I was afraid you would die.”
So, she was real. I had imagined Bob’s cheroot burning into my flesh. “It’s fine. Thank you, I barely remember it. Thank you for your kindness.”
“It’s O.K. Bob told me to help you.”
I sat up. “Who?”
“Bob, the man with the cowboy boots. What’s a Levi?”
“Levi, you said Bob had on nice Levi’s? Is that a type of pants?”
She seemed amused. “I didn’t think angels wore jeans. I guess Levi’s are angel pants?”
“Are you real?”
“How did you see Bob?”
“He was right here. He led me to you. Said to follow you and take you to Tombstone. Though I don’t know why, it’s a horrid place.”
“Bob…is an angel?”
“Yes. He said you were the Prophet of the Great Writer. Is that true?”
I laid back down. “No…You saw my hallucination? That’s never happened before.”
“What is a hallucination?”
“Are you real?”
“Why do you keep asking me that? Yes, I am real. Here, the broth is ready.” She stood up and went back into the dark. Seconds later she emerged with two metal bowls and a spoon. She lapped broth into a bowl. She came behind me and propped me up onto a large rock. I could see my torso was bandaged.
“You did this?” I asked her about the bandage.
“Yes, here.” She handed me the spoon and the bowl. I slurped away. It was good, though it hurt my throat. “I have a fever, at least I did.”
“Yes, Bob told me. The fever is not broken. It runs a deadly course. The mushrooms help, but the fever will attack again, and this time you may not be strong enough. We need to take you into the pool in the pit.”
“The pool in the pit? What is that?”
“Well, it’s what I just said. It’s a pool in a pit.”
“What does it do?”
“Heals. It may save you, maybe. I think.”
“A healing pool? How is that possible?”
“Tombstone has enough drinking water to have a pool?”
She slurped her broth. “I didn’t say you could drink it, I said it may heal you. It may not. It was here since before time, it will be here still.”
“Where is it?”
“Not far. Your fever comes on and off every hour or so. We should walk there after you finish your soup,” she said as she scooped more into her bowl.
“That’s fine. You…live in Tombstone.”
“Yes, in manner of speaking.”
“Where are your parents?”
“There is only my mother. My father was a robo-droid incubator.”
I nodded. Test-tube babies. During the last parts of the war the Gene-crats and the Techno-crats wanted to create perfected humans. Not perfect, the robo-models decreed that perfection in human form was impossible, so they wanted the next best thing, a perfected human was one with advanced genetic properties and no possible incidences of ailments. The military wanted them for soldiers, we in the X-terminators wanted them for hunting Tartari, everyone wanted them for genetic matrixing. But, like everything else about our society, there were more defects than expected. The genes didn’t mix the way the coding was written, it was like no matter how much you tried to make a perfect human there was some deviant chaotic atoms in our DNA that made sure that something got fucked up. After a while the project was scraped. Not before millions of perfected babies were born, however. Many of them born to human mothers. Obviously, Chris-Anne was one of those babies.
“Where is your mother now?” I asked her.
She gave me a dark look with her golden eyes. She peered inside my balls, down to my scrotum with that look, as if she was picking my soul out of a line-up of pedophiles in some hellish criminal line-up, then the looked vanished and she was back.
“My mother used to bring me here, when times got bad in Tombstone. She showed me these caves, how to get around, where to find food for the goats, and the pool.”
I didn’t know how to react. It wasn’t that she ignored my question as much as she seemed to have an air as if I had no right to ask it, so she saw no need to answer. Yet that look, had I imagined it? She did not seem malevolent. In fact, in my condition, she could have killed me with my own blade, sliced my throat as easily as she stirred the mushroom broth and I would have been completely unable to stop her. “She…lived here? In the caves?” I asked her. I would go along with it, they were her caves after all.
“Sometimes. The people in Tombstone hated her, said she was evil, a bad omen.” She stared into the fire as she said this. Images of her and her mother running through the town, seeking safety seemed to play out in her eyes like theatre. “They burned her alive once, at the stake. It’s so terrifying, watching your mother burn to death. They threw her body away, down into these caverns. I took her into the pool-in-the-pit. Dragged her there myself. Her burned body was shrunk and light after their flames had melted most of her away.” She looked at me, her hourglass eyes danced in the flames. “They said I was evil, the daughter of a witch. But I brought her back. Saved her because of the pit. That was when I met Bob. He told me that my mother had another purpose. One was to have me, the other would be revealed.”
“What was that purpose?” I asked her, in a deep whisper.
“I never found out. She returned to town soon after, instead of running away like I wanted. Really, where was there to run to? But when the townspeople saw her, they were even more filled with hate. She went from witch to demon, but they were too afraid to burn her again. That’s when Jack Gordon stepped in. He decided that she needed to be delt with. He raped her in town, in the middle of town, while everyone watched and egged him on. He wanted to show the people that she had no powers after death, that the burning had cleansed her and stripped her of her powers. Then he made every male in the town take turns on her, like a train. From then on, Jack was in charge of the Tombstone, they called him ‘mayor Jack.’ And my mother, after the last piece of sodomy was performed on her, was tied to a tree in the outside of town to serve as a deterrent to anyone approaching the town, to shed their sins before they entered Tombstone.”
I put down the bowl. “Chrisanne, I am sorry, but your mother…”
“Yes--did you see her, on the road?”
“Well…” Baby was next to her feet. I didn’t mind dying, but not for that witch. “Uhh…no. I don’t think so.”
“Good. She was an evil bitch, if she saw you she’d probably try to fuck you, then kill you. Wait here, I’m going to find you some bigger sticks, maybe we can make you a crutch. I don’t think you can walk like that.”
I said nothing as she sank back into darkness.