|Shriek: An Afterword|
|excerpt courtesy of Pan Macmillan and Tor|
In this excerpt, Janice has typed her account of the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, and her brother Duncan has come back behind her and added his comments in parentheses.
There came a night so terrible that no one ever dared to name it. There came a night so terrible that I could not. There came a night so terrible that no one could explain it. There came the most terrible of nights. No, that's not right, either. There came the most terrible of nights that could not be forgotten, or forgiven, or even named. That's closer, but sometimes I choose not to revise. Let it be raw and awkward splayed across the page, as it was in life.
Words would later be offered up like "atrocity," "massacre," and "madness," but I reject those words. They did not, could not, cannot, contain what they need to contain.
Could we have known? Could we have wrenched our attention from our more immediate concerns long enough to understand the warning signs? Now, of course, it all seems clear enough. Duncan had said the war could not continue in the same way for long, and he was right.
The night of the Festival, the sun set red over the River Moth. Most of the crepe paper lanterns that people had set out had already been crushed by rubble or by the motored vehicles of opposing forces. The Kalif's men had stepped up their bombardment of the city from without. They made no pretense any more of aiming at anything in particular, their strikes as random as the startled flight of pigeons trying to avoid the crossfire. Their bombs were as likely to crack open a hospital ward as a Hoegbotton sentry post. A certain fatalism had crept into the minds of the survivors as a result. Really, it was as random as a heart attack. Why worry about what you cannot defend against? So we walked the streets as calmly as we had before the war, when we hadn't been hunkered down against threats like a fungal bullet to the brain from some trigger-happy F&L recruit.
No, gunfire couldn't get to me. What terrified me as I looked out from my apartment at dusk was the proliferation of red flags.
On the way back from our journalistic assignments that day, before we turned in our now infamous "The Kalif Yearns for Every Ambergrisian's Head" article, the flags of the gray caps had appeared in multitudes—rhapsodies of red that seemed, like the ever-present fungus, always on the verge of forming some pattern, some message, only to fall apart into chaos again.
As we approached Lacond's offices in the late afternoon, the wind picked up. It rattled the gravel on side streets. It brought with it a strange premature twilight, and a smell that none could identify. Was it a smell come up off the river? It seemed bitter and pleasant, sharp and vague, all at once.
The light, as Martin Lake might have said, had become different in Ambergris.
We left Lacond's offices tired and ready for rest, Duncan to his and Mary's apartment, me to my own place much further down Albumuth Boulevard in the opposite direction. (Not even Lacond could demand we cover the Festival, not that year. The Kalif's troops were an unknown factor—they made us nervous, as had the uneventful Festival the year before.) Sybel had decided to take me up on my invitation and stay with me that night, just in case. Either we'd celebrate the Festival together or defend ourselves against it. (I left ample protections; I'm sorry they were not enough.) We had all been through many Festivals. We were old pros at it. We knew how to handle it.
I had thought about making the trek to our mother's mansion, but Duncan had assured me he could keep her safe. (She was quite safe, for several reasons, not least of which was her location: far enough upriver that the Kalif's men had not requisitioned the house, and far enough from Ambergris that she would come to no harm from the gray caps.)
Dusk had become night by the time Sybel arrived, breathless from running. After I let him in, I bolted the door behind him.
"It's not good out there," he said, gasping for breath. "The trees are too still. There's a silence that's…like I imagine what the Silence must have been like."
That was a thought. I felt light-headed for an instant, a conjoined chill and thrill. What if, tonight, we were to experience what the twenty-five thousand had experienced during the Silence, the city to become another vast experiment, if Duncan was to be believed?
"Nonsense," I said. "It's just another Festival. Help me with this."
We pushed a set of cabinets up against the door.
"That should do it," I said.
Outside, we could hear a few dozen drunken youths pass by, shouting as they stumbled their way past.
"Death to the Kalif!" I heard, and a flurry of cursing.
"They'll be lucky if they survive the hour," Sybel said. "And it won't be the Kalif that kills them, either."
"When did you become so cheerful?" I asked.
He gave me a look and went back to loading his gun. We had pistols and knives, which Sybel had managed to purchase from, of all people, a Kalif officer. There was a booming black market in weapons these days. Some wags speculated that the Kalif had invaded Ambergris to create demand for inventory.
Meanwhile, the gray caps had spores and fungal bombs, and Truff knew what else.
"Do you think we're much safer in here?" I asked.
Sybel smiled. "No. Not much safer."
There seemed about him that night more than a hint of self-awareness, mixed with that rarest of commodities for Sybel: contentment. (It was only rare to you because you never saw him in his natural element.)
We didn't board up the window until much later, fearful of losing the thread of what was going on outside. The full moon drooped, mishapen and diffuse, in the darkening sky.
Through that smudged fog of glass, we watched rivulets and outcroppings of the Festival walk or run by. Clowns, magicians, stiltmen, and ordinary citizens with no special talent, who had put on bright clothes and gone out because—quite frankly—in the middle of war, how much worse could the Festival possibly make things? True, without the great influx of visitors from other cities there wasn't nearly the number of people that we had become accustomed to seeing at the Festival, but Sybel and I still agreed it was a more potent Festival than had been predicted by the so-called experts. (Including us, Janice, in our column in the broadsheet.)
Then the merrymakers began to trail off. Soon the groups had thinned until it was only one or two people at a time, either drunk and careless, or alert and hurrying quickly to their destinations. Every once in awhile, something would explode in the background as the Kalif's men kept at it. The bright orange flame of the shuddering explosions was oddly reassuring. As long as it stayed far away from us, that is. At least we knew where it was coming from. (Yes, with all the force of His benevolent, if distant, love.)
Sybel and I sat there looking out the window like it was our last view of the world.
"Remember when we used to host parties in abandoned churches on Festival night?" Sybel said. He looked very old then, in that light, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth undeniable.
"Yes, I remember," I said, smiling. "That was a lot of fun. It really was."
At least, more fun than the war. I didn't want to return to those days, either, though.
Sybel smiled back. Had we ever been close? I search my memory now, thinking of the glance we exchanged back then. No, not close, but comfortable, which is almost more intimate. In the preparations for countless parties, in seeing Sybel day after day at my gallery, a deep fondness and affection had built up between us.
"Maybe after the war, I can…" The words felt like such a lie, I couldn't continue. "Maybe the gallery can…"
Sybel nodded and looked away in, I believe, embarrassment. "That would be good," he said.
We continued to watch the city through our window: that fungi-tinged, ever-changing painting.
Finally, it began to happen, at least three hours after nightfall. A stillness crept into the city. The only people on the street were armed and running. Once, a dozen members of a Hoegbotton militia hurried by in tight formation, their weapons gleaming with the reflected light of the fires. Then, for a while, nothing. The moon and the one or two remaining street lamps, spluttery, revealed an avenue on which no one moved, where the lack of breeze was so acute that crumpled newspapers on the sidewalk lay dead-still.
"It's coming," Sybel muttered. "I don't know what it is, but it'll happen soon."
"Nonsense," I said. "It's just a lull."
But a chill had crept over me, as it seemed to have crept over the city. It lodged in my throat, my belly, my legs. Somehow, I too could feel it coming, like a physical presence. As if my nerves were the nerves of the city. Something had entered Ambergris. (Creeping through your nervous system, the gray caps' spores, creating fear and doubt, right on schedule. I'd put the antidote in your food, but an antidote only works for so long against the full force of such efforts.)
The street lights went out.
Even the moon seemed to gutter and wane a little. Then the lights came back on—all of them—but they were fungus green, shining in a way that hardly illuminated anything. Instead, this false light created fog, confusion, fear.
"Should we barricade the window?" I asked.
"Not yet," Sybel said. "Not yet. This might be the end of it, you know. This might…" Now it was his turn to trail off. We both knew this would not be the end of it.
We began to see people again on the street below. This time, they ran for their lives. We could not help them without endangering ourselves, and so we watched, frozen, at the window, beyond even guilt. A woman with no shoes on, her long hair trailing out behind her, ran through our line of vision. Her mouth was wide, but no sound came from it. A few seconds later, some thing appeared in the gutter near the sidewalk. It tried to stand upright like a person, tottered grotesquely, then dropped all pretense and loped out of sight after the woman. The roar of the Kalif's mortar fire followed on its heels.
"What was that?" I hissed at Sybel. "What in Truff's name?"
Sybel didn't reply. Sybel was whispering something in his native language, the sing-song chirp of the Nimblytod tribes. I couldn't understand it, but it sounded soothing. Except I was beyond being soothed.
Then a man came crawling down the street, shapes in the shadows pulling at his legs. Still he crawled, past all fear, past all doubt. Until, as the Kalif's mortars let out a particularly raucous shout, something pulled him off the street, out of view.
Silence again. I was shaking by that time. My teeth were grinding together. I'd never understood that your teeth could actually grind involuntarily, could chatter when they weren't grinding. Sybel made me bite down on a piece of cloth.
"The sound," he whispered. "They'll hear you." (If they heard you, it is because they "heard" my protections on the door of your apartment—my attempt to help you may have endangered you instead.)
The street lay empty, save for the suggestion of shapes at the edge of our line of sight.
Suddenly, the Kalif's mortar fire, which had been progressing in a regular circle around the city, became erratic. Several explosions occurred at once, quite near us, the characteristic whistle of destruction so banal I didn't even think of it as a threat at first. The ceiling lifted, the floor trembled, dust floated down.
Then nothing for several minutes. Then another eruption of explosions, farther away. On the outskirts of Ambergris, gouts of flame lit up the night sky, whiter than the moon. Slowly, as the fires spread, it became clear that the conflagration was forming a circle around Ambergris.
We watched it spread, silent, unable to find words for our unease.
After a while, Sybel said, in a flat voice, "Did you notice?"
"The Kalif's mortars have been silenced."
"Yes, yes they have," I said.
Nothing rational told us that the Kalif's positions had been overrun, but we knew it to be true regardless. Someone or something had attacked the Kalif's troops. And yet not even H&S or F&L would have been foolhardy enough to launch an attack on so unpredictable an evening as Festival night.
That is when we decided to board up the window. Some things should not be seen, if at all possible.
Soon after, we began to hear strange sounds that could not have been real—gurglings and shouts and screams, but oddly twisted, as if distant or distorted. At other times, it sounded as if soldiers fought with swords on the street below. The sound of leafy vines growing and intertwining at great speed. The sound of buildings collapsing—a dull, muted roar, then the sweet exhausted sigh of wood or stone hitting the ground. A smell, sharp yet musty, began to enter the apartment.
Sybel began to rock back and forth, holding his arms over his knees.
"We should leave," he said. "We should get out of the apartment. Find a high place."
"Don't say that," I said. "This is the safest place to be."
Sybel smiled and gave me an odd look. "The Borges Bookstore was the safest place to be, and they burned it down."
Sybel was beginning to scare me.
Something began to scratch at the outside of the door. A slow, tentative sound. It could have been anything. It could have been the wind. But the breath died in my throat. I realized every nerve in my skin had come alive in warning. I shut my eyes for a long time, as if willing the sound to go away. But it did not. It became louder, gained in confidence, precision. Scrabbling. At the door. At the window. I heard it sniffing the air. Reading our scent. I shivered, caught in the grip of nightmare. If we hadn't boarded up the window, it would have been looking in at us at that very moment.
Sybel moaned, took me by the arm. "Janice, I think we have to leave."
I held the gun tight, so tight my knuckles ached. "But where can we run to, Sybel? And how do we get out of here? I don't think it's possible now."
"Do you think you could slide out of the bathroom window?" Sybel asked.
A knock at the door before I could reply—but not at the height I'd expected; lower, much lower.
I stifled a scream. "It's too close. It can hear us right now. It can hear us talking. It knows what we're going to do." I held the gun like a club. I was no use to anyone. The fear had gotten too far into me. This wasn't like trying to kill myself. I could face the fear of that now, but not this fear—this was too different, too unfamiliar.
Sybel grabbed me by the shoulders, whispered in my ear, "Either we go through the bathroom window or we're dead. It's going to come in here and kill us."
"Yes, but Sybel," I whispered back, "what if there's already one at the bathroom window, too? What if they're already back there?"
Sybel shrugged. There was an odd, fatalistic light in his eyes. "Then it doesn't matter. We're dead. I'll go first. If they get to me, go back into the apartment and lock yourself in the bedroom, and hope dawn comes soon."
I hugged him. I've never been more terrified than at that moment—not even now, writing this account. I don't know what came over me. I'd seen the horrors of war, become clinical and precise in the cataloguing of them, but somehow this was more personal.
The thing at the door knocked again. Then it spoke.
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