Consciousness takes me with a fury I've never experienced.
Body seizes; muscles contract; lungs suck air. For a split second I'm dying, unable to breathe, disoriented. Been buried while sleeping. Panic maggots crawling on my skin, biting, digging bloody burrows in flesh. Being consumed alive, nibble by nibble. Worms caress up inside me, deep and damp, blending chunks of still-pumping organ meat. Segmented masses cavort; a ravenous orgy; stew of unrecognizable gore. Something inside tears open, frenzy of fluids escaping. Slickened cavities drown in the thick flood, soaking lungs, a miasma of juice. Pain registers on all scanners. Needles attached all over, injecting acid. Dissolving from within; discorporating internals; nuke blasted abdomen.
Gone. All gone and vapid. What's happening? What was that? I'm awake. I was awake, and it was real, I could feel it all happening to me, inside me. I can still feel it, but only as a fading memory, a dimming after-impression. It wasn't real.
Eyes open to...to what? Darkness, but not completely. Still early in the morning, sun not yet met with the horizon. Looking up, eyes wide, the stars still visible on one side of my boat, and blackness turning to gray on the other. Daylight is inbound.
Disentangling myself from Phoenix's arms; his hand is where it shouldn't be, reaching across the trench coat, a thumb poking gently up under one breast. I consider breaking his finger--it'd be so easy--but instead I pull his arm away, and slide from under the blanket. I stretch, on my feet and in the chill of the air, listening.
To the ocean boiling.
I rush to the railing, the sound of water popping and hissing in my ears. All around my boat, the water bubbles, as if superheated by some crack in the ocean floor, volcano temperatures rising to the surface. But there's no heat, just churning of water. And the unease that's settled in my stomach. Pull the trench coat tighter, closer to my body. Ward off...whatever. Cross my arms around my waist. Shields up. Gotta get those shields up; they can protect me from...what exactly? The bubbles in the water? The ocean is an unfathomable giant, and nothing can truly protect us from it; we're out here in the middle of glitchwhere. Gotta get off this liquid landscape; get some dirt underneath my heels and between my toes.
"Phoenix, wake up," I say, eyes on the rolling water, torqued back down on itself. What's causing that?
The boat shudders briefly, as if shaken by an earthquake. Something hit the boat, underneath. Instinctively I look down at the deck, between my bare feet, as if I could somehow see right through to the gloomy waters beneath. Neo-plastic is as opaque as it is manufactured. Push hair out of eyes, back behind ears. Phoenix is over there, hidden beneath the blanket, still sleeping.
THUD! There it is again, the deck vibrating with an unnatural buzz. There's something down there. Beneath.
"Get up, Phoenix," I say, noticing that the circumference of churning water is spreading--a growing circle of fluid turmoil. "We're in trouble."
THUD!! The boat lurches sideways, deck tilting, the prow spinning to my left. I grab for the railing and stay on my feet. Articles laying on the deck roll towards this side of the boat. An object hits my foot--the sever-whip. I pick it up, but no way it's gonna be useful against whatever's down there. Still, I clutch the handle tight, inanimate metal providing some distant comfort. Can still hear the engine running, but the churning water is disturbing any wake we might have, so I can't tell if we're moving. Certainly not in the same direction as before. Fingers fast around the railing, I look into the water, trying to glimpse what's down there. Still too dark. Holding my arm out, I activate the sever-whip, letting the plasma wire trail down into the water. The light from it is a yellow hue, illuminating the water with a flickering glow. It's not working, the bubbling water soaks up the light--a singularity lurking directly below the surface. I switch the sever-whip off, retracting the wire. Glitch, what am I going to do?
"Phoenix, wake the glitch up!" I turn my head and yell. He's not moving, off in some foreign dream world--caressing young bandit-women and undressing pretty thief-girls.
I turn one leg. Gonna walk over and shake the glitch out of him, but the boat is raised--quite smoothly, as if it's resting directly on something--up in the the air, lifted out of the water, then splashing back down. My feet slide out from under me; down on one knee now. I maintain my grip on the sever-whip as the boat rocks, recovering.
Ok, I have to--
THUD!!! THUD!!! THUD!!! And then there's something rising from the water. No, three somethings. They break the surface about four meters away from the railing, three tapered...eoa tusks? No, they're horns, oh God horns. Dripping water like drool in the pale gray of the rushing morning, the horns continue to rise until the head they're attached to begins to take shape, a mountain of harsh surfaces. Scales upon scales, and murders upon murders. A NeoDragon-ish creature from the depths, making a nest of that watery hell far below. This beast from beneath lifts its head above the water, its mouth parting like a crack in the earth. I'm paralyzed by the sight, forced to look at a fissure brimming with rock-like teeth, long and thick, sharp, some broken off at the root. Shanks of eviscerated fleshy tissue caught between teeth; decaying remnants of meals long devoured. OhGodohglitch, something trapped between two teeth-rocks just moved, still twitching, still not dead. A putrid cloud of putrefaction seizes the area, and I have to suppress the mandate to disgorge the bile that appears in my throat.
Eyes. Where are its eyes? Oh my glitch it has no eyes! Don't think I can take this! Phoenix, wake up, glitch why are you leaving me to deal with this by myself?!?
I think it's a Zannathan, and it's going to kill us both. Tear us apart, get little red pieces of us stuck between those teeth. It all comes down to this: the sea will be our graveyard. Activating the sever-whip; thin wire of light pools at my feet. Not going to the grave without a fight, puny weapon that it'll be against this adversary.
But the Zannathan has disappeared without making a noise, back below the surface. The ocean continues to froth. Wary, I walk over to Phoenix, with each step expecting the return of the enormous creature. Fatality, just around the corner. Tear us both apart. Phoenix is encompassed within the silver blanket, out of sight. Holding the sever-whip away in one hand, I kneel, grab for his shoulder, pull...and realize that wrong just set foot on my boat. Wait no, it's been here all along, just didn't notice it. Like a veil, the wrong settles over me. All is not right; in fact, nothing is right. Why won't he wake up?
"Phoenix?" Underneath the blanket, the shoulder in my hand gives way with an unnatural movement, and the blanket material is...soggy, sticky against his body. Did he hurt himself? While I was asleep? A strange twinge inside tells me not to, but I pull the blanket back anyway. He can't be hur--
Sever-whip drops to the deck and deactivates. White noise in my ears wipes sound from the universe. Nothing gets through but the vibrations of my beating heart, a doom knell beating in my chest. Tears start flowing from nowhere. I want them to continue, to run down my cheeks forever in jagged streams, never dabbed away, never forgotten.
He has to be mourned.
The mound of exploded meat in front of me is hardly human-shaped. I can see bursts of hair where I think his head should be, but it's as if he swallowed a pulse grenade and it went off in his mouth, opening his face like a flower. His entire body is a portrait of disaster. Arms broken, fingers ripped off, his insides on the outside. Blood is congealing in great pools within the confines of the blanket--the only real thing holding these hunks of tissue in one area. If I let go of the blanket his body will...spill...all over the deck. Oh, I can't look anymore, throwing the blanket over him again, backing up against the far railing and I realize that I'm screaming and sobbing and there's mucus running from my nose down onto my upper lip, and I can't hear a thing, only feel the throb of my heartbeat and my whole body shivering against the deck.
On one side of the blanket, a pale finger pokes out. It's perfectly clean. I shut my eyes.
Sound comes rushing back, and I can hear the miserable sounds coming out of my mouth, only they're being overwhelmed by something else. A roar. The Zannathan is roaring, and then the smell of its breath fills the air, and I shut my eyes tighter because I know what's next. This is where it all comes down.
Down to this. The sea. The graveyard.
My eyes are closed tight through it all. Shields down, come and get me. And somewhere, perhaps a hundred miles away, perhaps right next to me, there's a whisper and a soft caress on my forehead. The whisper is curiously louder than the Zannathan's roar, and its a mantra, hissing: "sssss. wwwww. uuuuu. sssss. wwwww. uuuuu. sssss. wwwww. uuuuu."
Not hissing though. Words actually: "syl, wake up."
What the glitch does that mean? I'm already awake, and nanoseconds away from being swallowed by a Zannathan, prominent member of the Seven Dangers of the High Seas club.
"syl, wake up, we've got a problem."
Before I can think, before I can open my eyes to verify it's Phoenix whispering in my ear and that everything I just experienced was all in my mind, there's a
And then I'm screaming for real.
Coils Within Coils [p036]
Phoenix, the non-liquefied version, is calling my name, shaking me, forcing my screams to choke in my throat. The note of panic in his voice is what makes me open my eyes. It was all a dream before, but this isn't. Phoenix has me by the shoulders--tried to pull me to my feet while I was still unconscious--so our limbs and the blanket are twined in an awkward tangle.
I'm on my feet, leaning on Phoenix's shoulder for support. "I'm up! I'm awake! Glitch, what a way to--"
"No time for that," Phoenix says. "There's something in the water. A Zannathan, I think."
My hand tightens at his shoulder, fingernails digging in at the mention of the beast which haunted my dreams. No, it can't be.
Phoenix grabs my wrist, loosening my grip on him. "You okay? We have to get to that hypercurrent, or we're..."
"We're what?" I ask with bowed head. Nausea fills my stomach; like a bubbling cauldron in there.
"Or we're gonna wish we had made it to that hypercurrent."
You were dead just a few seconds ago, Phoenix. Just human pulp, ready to pour out onto my deck if not for that emergency blanket. Don't expect me to get over those feelings I felt in just these few seconds. I'm not ready for this.
"Where's your sever-whip?" Phoenix asks, moving to the control console.
"Here," I say, pulling it from the trench coat.
"Not much against a Zannathan, but it's better than harsh language. Not that you don't have an arsenal of that."
"Glitch. Shut up." Looking at the ocean, its surface boiling like in my dream, my stomach rolls. Static begins to vibrate. Have to keep everything down. Concentrate...
"We're still moving toward the hypercurrent, but if we increase the throttle, this boat may not hold together. You heard how the engine sounded before, when we--"
THUD!! The deck lifts, forcing me to my knees, knuckles banging against the neo-plastic. The stern raises almost completely out of the water, and for a second I think we're going to turn over, the deck tilting wildly. Then the boat's back in the water; my body tumbling into Phoenix, the stink of sweat strong in my nose. Mine or his, I can't tell.
"Definitely a Zannathan," Phoenix says, steadying me. "I caught a glimpse of its tail. Looks exactly like I expected, but I doubt it's a fully mature one, or it would've swallowed the entire boat. Can you turn that thing on? Maybe it'll give us a little more light."
A flick of my thumb and the sever-whip wire extends, splattering us in pale light. "Not gonna do much good," I say, struggling to maintain my feet, my head spinning on torrents of nausea. If I could just sit--
"Get back!" Phoenix shouts, arm strong around my waist, twirling me beside him, somewhere in this movement, pulling both his guns.
The Zannathan is a nightmare of a creature, rearing up from the dark water in front of us. Its elongated head is covered in a crusted layer of scales broken only by the knot on the top of its head, three short horns poking from there. In the dim light of morning, my mind is filling in many details my eyes can't actually determine: mouth of sharp teeth, two thick arms, webbed fingers and claws, and eyes. My dream was wrong. The Zannathan holds itself erect in the water. On the other side of the boat, I see its tail break the surface. And it's just a little one--a baby.
"syl, this is bad," Phoenix says. His pistols begin to roar, twin cannons sending silver bolts over the prow. The Zannathan rears back as the bolts hammer away at its scales, tearing into the flesh beneath. A gooey substance, black in this light, begins to flow from the wounds. The Zannathan lets loose with a wail of pain and lurches forward. Its head slams down on the prow of my boat. The deck splinters--a sorrowful sound--and the only thing that keeps us from being catapulted directly at the Zannathan is its tail which has wrapped around the stern, the railing back there bending dangerously. The boat groans and sinks low into the water under the Zannathan's weight, the bubbling ocean flowing into the deck. Phoenix's shots are not having the effect I expected. Some shots actually reflect off the Zannathan's scales, ricocheting into the sky, into the water, some back onto the boat, melting deep trenches in the deck. The Zannathan opens its mouth, wide and packed with teeth, pointed pinnacles, teeming with thick saliva and rotting chunks of saturated remains. The beast roars; a putrid stench filling the area like a cloud. With its webbed hands, it reaches forward.
Those claws... It's going to rip us to shreds...
"Use your sever-whip!" Phoenix yells in my ear, directing the majority of his fire at the Zannathan's head.
The plasma wire is curled at my feet, almost touching my skin, too close. It's jiggling like a serpent to the shaking of the deck. Have to be more careful. The Zannathan's tail is the only part within striking distance, hugging the aft portion of my boat like a reptilian lover. The sever-whip reaches out--under my control?--straight, as it were a staff instead of a length of wire, and buries itself in the Zannathan's tail. There's a spark as it enters and then another as it continues all the way through, exiting on the other side. The tail jerks, and I can feel the tension traveling up the length of the plasma wire, but it extends to accommodate the thrashing. The end of the plasma wire curls up and back towards me--I'm doing this?--then, with a quick zip of sound--wetness and speed--rips upward through roughly a meter and a half of Zannathan flesh, trailing divided scales and a thick wall of blackish carnage. The Zannathan's scream fills the air and its tail immediately tries to lift up, away from the boat. The plasma wire, still coated in Zannathan blood, shoots back out, descending right back into the wound it just made, this time continuing downward. A thick paste of black ooze leaks from the ragged wound and onto the deck as the glowing wire of my weapon digs down through the Zannathan's tail. Grabbing the railing with my one free hand, I'm mesmerized by the sever-whip, cutting deeper into the flesh with each second, highlighting the violent wound with an equally violent light. Then, with a horrendous finality, the sever-whip cuts completely through. The cleaved end shudders to the deck while the rest of the tail shakes back and forth, sprinkling thick drops of blood in the air, spraying the the deck, Phoenix, me. My boat rocks, as if caught in an explosion. The end of the sever-whip, out of my control, rolls across the deck, sparking against the base of the control console. The Zannathan's wailing becomes a gurgling, then stops.
It submerged. The ocean stills.
I turn to Phoenix in time to see him spit up a huge wad of black ooze onto the deck. "You hurt?" he asks, his voice thick and wet.
"No," I say, loosening my grip, flipping the switch. The plasma wire retracts. "You?"
"I was too quick for it. Didn't lay a claw on me."
Hand goes to my forehead, static still buzzing, stomach still wavering.
"Hey, what is it?" Phoenix asks.
"It'll pass, just give me a second. I dreamed all of this, you know. Just now, before you woke me, and now it's happening. It's a little much."
"That explains your screaming. I'm sorry that it's turning out like this, syl." Phoenix looks at the control console and the cracked deck. "That hypercurrent can't be much farther. We'll make it. Hey, you did all right for yourself--and me--just now. Not many people have done that to a Zannathan. You should take one of the scales off that thing and put it on a necklace, show it to your wirewitch friends. Impress the glitch out of 'em."
Phoenix, what are you saying? Always trying to keep this facade of levity. This can't be the real you. "I'll think about it," I say. "We're not safe yet."
"I've never been safe. I'm used to it." But Phoenix is smiling--he's not trying to depress me. "Still, Lady Luck'll pull us through."
"Glitch, I must've just missed her, 'cause what just happened wasn't very lucky. You might want to consider the fact that your Lady has abandoned you out here."
"Hey, I'm not dead am I?"
I let a breath out slowly, concentrating on pushing the queasiness in my stomach to some far off place, where it can't effect me, can't make me purge what little there is inside me out onto the deck. I'm dizzy behind my eyes so I shut them, the static rearing up louder. Wish I could put the static far away too, let it be forgotten. I open my eyes, and it recedes back to what it was before. I'll find out what it's all about someday. But right now, there's...
(what? what is it?)
(a warning. listen.)
...out there. The ocean, over there--almost un-seeable in this light--as if its very surface was angry, bubbling over with rage and and escaping gases. The disturbance is getting closer, and fast. Static was warning me, didn't listen, glitch me. I flip the switch, and the sever-whip sparks to life, plasma wire exiting the handle in a tight spiral.
Phoenix sees my weapon activate. "What are you...oh," he says, then pulls his pistols.
"Behind you!" I shout, knowing that it's too late.
Geyser of water. Roar of attack. Smell of decay.
Phoenix actually gets halfway around before the Zannathan has him in its mouth. It has its arms on the deck, claws through the railing to keep from slipping back into the water. The static in my mind ramps up to the equivalent of an earthquake as I see Phoenix struggling in the jaws of the Zannathan. One of his arms is pinned between massive teeth; the other is struggling to regain a grip on one of his pistols. Amazingly, those jaws haven't crushed him yet. Only a matter of seconds though.
Before he'll be taken from me forever.
Static's grinding through me, vibrating my brain, my bones, threatening to loosen my joints, and I only have one half second to decide what to do because the Zannathan's not going to kill him on my boat. It's going to slip back into the ocean, and chew him up, mash him into bloody bits down there--in watery hell--where it feels most at home. It'll kill him, it'll swallow him, and before Phoenix even begins to digest it'll come back for me.
There's a moment--a pause. I can believe that the Zannathan is looking only at me in that moment, staring me down with one of its crusted eyes. Daring me to do something. Phoenix continues to struggle, trying to reach for his waist, caught firm in the Zannathan's maw, but I know that it's only concerned about me, focused only on me. I'm distracting it. Somehow I am. Maybe it can hear the static too.
And in that moment, I shrug the trench coat from my shoulders--a single smooth movement Phoenix would be proud of if he weren't about to be bitten in two--and pull the sever-whip back behind me. Seeing me (it knows), the Zannathan makes its move, and it's fast.
But I'm faster, the sever-whip like a bolt of lightning, arcing up and over the Zannathan's body, curling around it, just behind those massive arms. A coil around a coil, the plasma wire digs in, but doesn't cut through the scales. I'm grappled to this horrible beast. Can only take one breath before the Zannathan exhales fetid fumes, pushes back and plunges back into the ocean, pulling me with it, my iron grip on the sever-whip causing control surfaces to break the skin on my palm. My shoulder joint groans and I'm dragged into the air, then across the deck, knee banging on the railing. A spike of pain drives itself down my leg. The static courses through me, seeking out the pain and redistributing it throughout my entire body. Instantly, I hurt all over.
But all that's forgotten as I go back into the ocean.
Seven Seconds Left To Live [p037]
Skin burns as the ocean's icy fingers molest my body. It's a torturous touch, ravishing me as a plaything, helpless and caught. Every cut and bruise coughs fire at pain receptors. I collide with the Zannathan, scales opening new wounds. More fire. More blood.
I open my eyes and the water is a shadowy haze, broken only by the sever-whip's glow. My eyes instantly reject that I'm opening them in salt water and that I'm being pulled through it at high speed. At least the Zannathan's not descending any further. Want to close my eyes. Close them against the ocean, against Phoenix in the Zannathan's mouth, against the static razor-slicing through my skull. Against this glitched watery grave I'm being live-buried in.
Amid the static, the pain and my thoughts, two things burst to mind.
I can't maintain my grip on the sever-whip for long and I can't hold my breath forever. Have to think of something fast. Think static think static think.
Got it. This isn't going to be pretty.
I imagine the sever-whip forming a complete circle, extending around the Zannathan's tube-body. Then, I contract it. I feel resistance as the plasma wire cuts through the Zannathan's scales. The handle jerks in my hand, the plasma wire breaking through to the softer flesh inside the beast, the glow of the sever-whip muted as it delves into a thick layer of meat. There are strands of black goo streaming at me now. I clench my teeth and concentrate on decreasing the diameter of the sever-whip's circle. More black goo, and then the ocean is boiling and I can feel the pressure in my ears increase, the static increasing too. The Zannathan changed directions. It's diving, glitch. The muscles in my arm are sending me warning signals, telling me they're at their breaking point, tendons about to pull loose. The sever-whip feels slick in my hand--I'm bleeding there.
Somewhere, down in front of me, Phoenix is being swallowed and digested. I grip the sever-whip handle tighter, willing the plasma wire to cut faster, deeper. There's more resistance the more constricted it gets. Then...
It cuts through and...
An unexpected explosion...or two...or...
(confused? Phoenix? what happened?)
The ocean becomes a ball of turbulence. I'm blinded instantly as a cloud of black goo and torn chunks surrounds me, even the glow of the sever-whip is lost to me. I'm a marionette to the tornado currents. I shut my eyes against it all, flailing my arms to stabilize myself. Flashes of heated water pelt the skin at my feet, my knees and my stomach. Pieces of something which I can only pray isn't Phoenix rain against me, wet smacks making dull echoes through my bones. Something larger hits me in the stomach and I blow bubbles out, the last of my air abandoning me in an instant. Glitch, not good.
How deep am I? Pressure's enough to hurt. Can feel it in my ears and chest. Opening my eyes; can't tell which way is up--everything's mixed up. Blurs of black goo drift in a blinding miasma of gore, and I'm dead in the water--my buoyancy left me with those last few air bubbles. Body seems numb from the cold of the water, but the cuts on my body continue to burn. How can that be?
All I can see is absolute glitch. I extend my arms and kick my feet, picking the direction my head thinks will take me to the surface. The hand gripping the sever-whip is useless. Can't propel myself with that in my hand! Can see the glow of it now as the cloud around me seems to thin. I'm kicking and paddling, but I can't tell if I'm getting anywhere; can't tell if I'm doing myself good or harm. There's a sharp pain in my chest now. My lungs are pricking me from the inside, demanding that I feed them some air. Attempting to swim for the surface isn't helping. I'm requiring more of my body without giving it any additional fuel. My heart is pumping faster. My blood is flowing quick through my veins. And my lungs are empty. The pain spreads, till it's not just my lungs, but my throat, my mouth, my head. All of me. And the static's still there, buzzing, letting me know I'm not dead yet.
Not quite yet, but just wait about seven more seconds...
Something grabs my foot. I stop kicking. Now grabbing my ankle. My calf. Now the other leg, at my knee. Human hands seizing my legs. Phoenix, pulling himself up my body. Hand on the back of my thighs, my waist. The sever-whip, virtually fused to my hand now, drifts around behind us, plasma wire out of the way, then Phoenix's hand is on my shoulder, the other coming around behind my neck, and we're face-to-face, his features blurry in this water, barely lit with the glow of the sever-whip through the murk, but I can see that his eyes are open and he's looking directly into mine. Now vision's going black around the edges, and some reflex is telling me to open my mouth and take a deep breath of...anything and everything, but take a breath! Can I actually will myself to suffocate? Or will my body's frenzied mandate take over, forcing me to inhale the ocean's water, flooding my lungs?
I don't have the chance to find out because Phoenix pulls me toward him, squishing me and all my naked parts into him, pulling my head close, tilting my head, then covering my mouth with his, and my first reaction is...shock, and I'm not opening my mouth even though I know what he's trying to do, but I'm numb and frozen in his arms, unable to command my body to let down the shield it raised to keep from drowning, staring at eyes that are close enough for me to see the questions there, the confusion, then I'm grabbing for his back, sinking a claw into him to steady myself, control myself, and finally I'm opening my mouth just a little, and there's a breath of air there, and my body realizes that it can survive for a few more seconds, but it doesn't trust that it'll be safe past those few seconds, and without warning I'm waging an inner battle to keep from sucking the life out of him, inhaling deep and stealing what he offered freely, but I'm managing to hold back those urges, taking only what he is able to give, restraining darkened impulses the static's whispering to me.
Phoenix kicks for the surface, and I kick right along with him, our knees bumping, the sever-whip handle melded to my palm, the thin plasma wire trailing down below us, a solitary tail to our conjoined form. I close my eyes, and he cradles me to him, sharing atmosphere between us, while all around us swirls a tempest of black Zannathan blood and pieces of detonated flesh.
Ocean Of Blood [p038]
The pressure in my ears decreases, and the static fades as we ascend. Numbness defines my existence; my body an iceberg of exposed curves.
We break the surface. I pull my lips from Phoenix's and vacuum in a massive amount of air, feeling it whistle down my throat, lungs expanding to accommodate the inrush. My hand digs into Phoenix's back, keeping him close, keeping me from drifting away. My savior. I flip the switch on the sever-whip handle and continue to breathe deep against Phoenix's shoulder, using his body to keep my balance in the water. Muscles are weak all over, tingling--a feeling that manages to get through despite the numbness overtaking me.
"Where's my boat?" I ask, opening my lids. Everything's hazy; salt water lingering on my eyeballs.
"Looks like Lady Luck loves me after all," Phoenix says, turning my chin with one goo-covered hand.
My boat is headed straight for us, about fifty meters away, continuing on the course we left it on. The thing even appears to be headed in a straight line--despite the fact that it's listing to one side.
"Glitch, that's...amazing," I say, letting the surprise manifest in my voice. "The Zannathan must have veered out in front of my boat. I thought we were going to be swimming to the mainland."
"Things always work out when I'm around..." Phoenix says, trailing off, weakened.
"Are you okay?" I ask, giving him a quick assessment. His hair's pasted to his head, dark with ocean water and Zannathan blood. Streaks of his own blood are wet on his cheeks, but I can't tell if he's actually cut there.
His eyes go unfocused for a second. "Fine. Just a little tired. Wrestling Zannathans always takes it out of me. Now, how're we going to get on that boat? It's liable to pass right by us before we can catch hold."
"I'll handle it," I say. Phoenix, you look like you're about to go into shock, but I guess that's understandable considering what you just went through. And still, in spite of it all, you still managed to save me.
I raise the sever-whip out of the water as my boat approaches, flipping the switch and watching as the plasma wire shoots out, wrapping around the railing at the prow. The metal sparks and complains, but the make-shift grapple holds, and then we're moving through the water, swinging in towards the hull. I retract the sever-whip, pulling us farther forward, making sure we aren't back where the propellers are spinning. Holding on to the sever-whip and Phoenix, I push him up and toward my boat; he grabs the railing, somehow getting a firm grip even though everything's slippery with some sort of fluid--either water or blood. He hauls himself out of the water and over the railing.
There's a hissing which rapidly becomes a squeal. Looking forward; it's the sever-whip cutting through the railing; metal melting, popping off in little glowing globs. I have just enough time to register this when the sever-whip finishes the job, slicing completely through. I'm loose in the water, fingers unable to find purchase on the side of the hull. I slide backwards, but Phoenix catches me at the wrist, dodging the sever-whip, then pulling me up. There's no way to get back on my boat with any grace, and I'm completely exposed to him once again. I'm too cold, too beaten to even care, but he doesn't even appear to be trying to avert his eyes. Maybe he doesn't think I can see him staring as I'm climbing over the railing. I deactivate the sever-whip and slump to the deck, reaching forward to pull the trench coat across my naked form. Phoenix sits down hard, his feet slipping, or his legs giving out; difficult to tell.
He's bleeding from the chest, thin red lines dripping down his jumpsuit. Zannathan teeth marks; holes in his jumpsuit. My eyes swing to the severed Zannathan tail leaking dark fluids all over the deck. Not going to be able to push that overboard.
"You're not okay," I say. "You're bleeding."
Phoenix looks at his chest. "So I am. Don't worry, nothing went too deep."
"Cosmic glitch, cut the macho j'aa! You just got swallowed by a Zannathan!"
"Yeah," Phoenix says, still looking at his chest.
"That explosion...you did that?"
Phoenix looks up, smiling. "Yeah. And I'm guessing that you're the reason I had less than half a Zannathan to deal with at that point."
"You're welcome," I say.
"Thanks. And, and for the good news, we're getting closer to the hypercurrent. In fact, it's probably only a few hundred meters in front of us."
"Turn around," I say, moving to stand. "Or at least close your eyes."
"Phoenix, do you really want to find out what it's like to swallow an activated sever-whip?"
"Umm...I think I'll turn around now."
Phoenix stands and turns his back to me. I'm shivering uncontrollably as I pull the trench coat on, cloaking my body from the elements and Phoenix's eyes. It's difficult to command my arms and legs to move where I want them too. Phoenix is shivering too. I move, coming up from behind him--my head not even reaching his shoulders--and wrap my arms around his waist in a tight hug, hoping he's not hurt where I'm squeezing him. I'm careful to avoid jabbing him with the sever-whip handle. He jerks like he's about to be stabbed in the back, but he doesn't pull away. Instead, there's a shudder.
"You're getting Zannathan blood all over yourself and my trench coat," Phoenix says, his arms hovering over mine, not touching me. "Why are you--?"
"This is for saving my life."
"Oh," Phoenix says.
He's shivering within the circle of my arms. My ear to his back, I can hear air entering and exiting his lungs. To me, it's a hollow, unnatural sound, wet.
We're a pitiful sculpture; two survivors of a detonated island huddled together in a futile quest for warmth. Together, our shivering is monumental, and for a few seconds something tells me we'll reach some strange resonant frequency and just come apart at a molecular level, shattering like the layer of ice my mind tells my is forming on my skin.
"And this," I say, sliding underneath Phoenix's arm--around to in front of him--stepping back, releasing, then slapping him across the face, black goo splattering, "is for for everything else."
Phoenix just gapes, rubbing his cheek. "What--?"
"Again, you're welcome," I say. "You deserve more than that, but I wouldn't want to injure you further."
"But there's no way you could--"
I cut him off. "Let's forget about it and take a look at your chest. You're hurt. We probably need to wash out your wounds."
Phoenix grabs my arm--the one with the hand holding the sever-whip. "And what about you? What the glitch did you do to yourself? You're bleeding all over the handle, and it's dripping on the boat."
And it is. There are blood drops on the deck at my feet, and on my feet, between my toes. While Phoenix holds my wrist, I gently pry my fingers from the sever-whip handle. My fingers have deep gashes and dents, flaps of skin lifting as the control surfaces are lifted away. I grit my teeth, and curiously, find myself almost thankful for something to distract me from my other pains. Phoenix sets the bloody sever-whip handle down on the deck, still holding my wrist. The fingers are curled up like they still have a weapon to press against.
"We need to get this fixed up."
"Give me a towel. I'll fix it."
Phoenix brings a couple of towels over, sighing. "I really was looking forward to using these as pillows again. And here, use some of this." He's holding out a bottle.
"No, that's our drinking water. And it's our last bottle."
"If our wounds get infected because we didn't wash them out properly, I'll never let you live it down."
"Fine," I say, walking over to the edge of my boat and trailing my hand in the water for a second. It's like sticking my hand in molten magma, threatening to consume not just my hand, but my arm up to the shoulder. I yank my hand from the water, and wrap it in the small towel. But not before I see something in the water. A dark mountain plowing up the ocean's surface.
Right behind us.
Headed right for us.
My throat constricts, choking off any hope I had of talking, warning Phoenix. Instead, I have to get up and move to him, pointing and waving, trying to take a breath, static hammering through my brain once again.
"Another one!" Phoenix yells, dropping the blood covered towel he'd been using to mop at his chest.
My throat unglues. "It's more than that, it's bigger! It's...it's--"
"--an adult! Probably the other one's mother! Bet she's not too happy about what you did to her baby!"
"What I did?"
"We have to hit that hypercurrent, or we're glitched!" Phoenix swings to the control console.
"Make us go faster, Phoenix." There's just enough light to make out the shape of the monstrous creature. It's at a slight angle to us for a moment, and I can see its truly staggering length--it just goes and goes! A wave of water is pushed out in front of it, the water boiling, and I can hear--now that it's closer--a hissing noise. If that thing hits us at the speed it's moving, there won't be anything left of us.
Phoenix swings the throttle to maximum, and my boat lurches forward. Madness-inducing clanking noises immediately drown out all other noises. My boat begins to vibrate with a violence that lets me know we're doing irreversible damage to it. This is a one-way trip.
Despite the noise, I hear Phoenix muttering. Something about--
"Glitch your Lady Luck keetcha!!" I yell at him over the combined din of my boat and the static in my head. "She's cosmically glitched us this time!"
"We're not dead yet, syl! If we don't make it, then you can come to a conclusion like that!"
"How close is that hypercurrent?" I ask, bracing a hand on Phoenix's shoulder while I stare back behind us where Zannathan number two is entirely too close--fifty meters maybe.
Phoenix pauses for a second before responding. "Glitch, real close! We should be right on top of it!"
"I don't see anything!"
"There should be some red beacons floating near the edge of it!"
I want to grab for my sever-whip; I want to feel its reassuring presence in the palm of my hand, even though it will ultimately be futile. This Zannathan is just too big.
A shout from Phoenix. He points out a small glowing light. Ten meters. Very close. We can make it...I think.
But then our luck gives out. There's a loud BANG! from somewhere inside my boat, and then the engine revs up, whining in a higher pitch than ever before. Our speed begins to decrease.
"Glitch!," Phoenix says, flipping the throttle off, the noises inside my boat subsiding. "That's it!"
Looking back at the Zannathan I realize that we're not going to make it. We don't have enough momentum to carry us the rest of the way.
Phoenix lets a single swear word escape his lips and grabs my shoulder, apparently ready to throw both of us overboard.
The static in my mind stops dead. I'm like a caught animal, paralyzed as my predator prepares for the kill. Time does not stand still like I wish it would. It moves forward with all the speed it ever did. I'm bound to the forward motion of it all, mere seconds away from a collision with an unstoppable beast. I dig my fingernails deeper into Phoenix's shoulder and watch.
As a laser beam from heaven--unexpected salvation--reaches out and shoots right through the Zannathan's head. In its entirety, the silver-yellow laser beam is visible for about five seconds. It zips along the length of the Zannathan's body, moving directly away from us, then shuts off.
'What the--?" Phoenix says.
I'm gaping in the shock of it all--the suddenness, the swiftness, the efficiency. There's a great cloud of steam engulfing the Zannathan, but--
"Oh, glitch," Phoenix says, "we're not out of it yet."
The Zannathan is clearly dead--its head split open like two halves of fruit, thick, black blood is spraying from its head in multiple geysers, but its momentum is still carrying it toward us. The halves of its head begin to drift apart, and I can clearly see a cross-section of its jaw, its tongue, its skull. Its brain. To my horror, one hemisphere of its brain rolls inward, a neatly cut tumor of squishy matter, tumbling into the black goo water between its vivisected body halves. And between those two halves, other parts of the Zannathan are...leaking, letting loose to pour into the now empty space.
"Hold onto something!" I shout, but there's no time left for either of us to do anything else.
A wave of water, laden with thick strands of goo, washes over us first. My feet go out from underneath me, and I take Phoenix down with me, grabbing a corner of the control console to prevent us both from being slammed up against the railing, or being swept overboard. Then we're hit by the Zannathan's massive form. I hear creaking and cracking, the neo-plastic deck buckling under the impact. The rear of my boat lifts, tipping the prow into the water, dangerously close to sending us downward into the ocean, but then we're moving forward, faster than when my boat was under its own power. Phoenix and I are bathed in a dense shower of Zannathan blood, spurting from non-cauterized arteries. The blood feels like fire on my chilled skin, and my body jerks with reflexive shudders. A waterfall of the beast's inside's flow onto my boat in a half-meter-deep tongue of seepage, pooling around my body and Phoenix's till we're fully immersed. Remembering to keep my mouth closed, I struggle to keep my head above the flow. Both Phoenix and I are hit with unrecognizable organs and mysterious chunks of flesh. Some long, tentacle-like organ lands on Phoenix and wraps itself around his head like a living hat. He reaches to remove it, but his hands are coated and he is unable to get a grip.
The Zannathan's split body is still pushing against us, threatening to overwhelm my boat, when we hit the hypercurrent. The consequences are instantaneous. And brutal.
The prow of my boat is jerked to the right, presumably aligning with the hypercurrent flow. Phoenix and I slide toward the railing, Phoenix hitting first, then my body rolling into him. Phoenix groans as my elbow digs into his chest.
The lifeless Zannathan enters the hypercurrent with us--the results disastrous in the extreme. The Zannathan's body halves become...blended. As if it's being scraped along a meteor moving at a few thousand miles an hour, the Zannathan's body begins to shear off, grinding off huge chunks, but mainly turning its flesh into a fine mist. Phoenix and I are assaulted, the force of the hypercurrent sending the mist at us like a hail of darts. I'm forced to turn my head, burying it in the muck to avoid the stinging onslaught. After only a few seconds, I can feel us beginning to pull away, and the rain of Zannathan blood subsides. I pull my head from the muck, opening my eyelids which are dripping black goo in lumps. Behind us, the Zannathan's momentum continues to carry it into the hypercurrent. It's a violent disturbance taking place on the ocean's surface.
Phoenix and I, both desecrated with Zannathan blood, slowly pull ourselves from the muck.
Insistent, the hypercurrent pulls us toward the mainland and whatever awaits us there.
this page and its contents copyright (c) by ethan a. cooper