by Michael O’Brien
I should never have looked so closely at the bones.
I remember standing next to the titanic stone sarcophagus, wondering who could have carved this massive granite construction and why. I remember watching the engineers attach ropes and brackets to the lid after dissolving the ancient mortar that glued it on. I remember holding my breath as the lid grated and groaned free.
I should have held my breath longer than that. The memory of the stench released from inside will stay with me as long as I live.
Hmmm. Interesting phrase, that.
Anyway, all the media hounds were pretty disappointed by the box’s contents: three bare skeletons sitting in a nasty stew that smelled of waste products and ancient meat. Me? I was excited. There was nothing I liked more than old bones, and these had to have been sitting in there for 2,000 years or so. Soon, I would get my chance to examine them for probable gender, diet, cause of death, or perhaps even more. It’s amazing what bones can tell you.
So: there were three of us assigned to the research team as, basically, orthopedic archaeologists. I’d been doing that for a few years, and my career had been just interesting enough to attract notice among other professionals. I had no doubt my work here would be called “preliminary” in the majority of the research papers produced by this project, but my name – Lisa Ramirez – would still appear. In the meantime, I enjoyed being first on site. Except for the smell.
I liked working beside Jenny Matsuda. She was pretty new to the field, but her fresh and eager perspective helped make up for her lack of. She loved the travel and possessed a clever imagination; but Jenny sometimes had trouble keeping focused on the work before her. Still, she knew her job, and didn’t suffer from a lack of new opportunities.
Elizabeth Richardson, on the other hand, possessed a sharp tongue and an arrogant attitude. We could tell she felt she was slumming by getting her hands dirty and working with us, and that she should instead be lead researcher on an overfunded project in a nice sterile lab. The rumor mill said the chip on her shoulder came from a colleague who stalled her career when she wouldn’t sleep with him. I usually let her irritation slide off my back; in the long run, she was rewarding to work with. Elizabeth’s impatience pushed her to jump to conclusions, but she almost always turned out to be right. Besides, I, uh…
… well, no one’s going to read this. I was really into her. Wouldn’t have been a good idea to say so for professional reasons, and doubly so if those rumors were true; besides, she didn’t give me the idea she had any similar feelings about me. But I won’t lie, I kinda wanted her to boss me around in very specific ways outside of work hours.
I think I’ll delete that before I’m done here.
All right: back to what happened. Thankfully, someone else got the job of suctioning all that reddish-brown muck from inside the sarcophagus. We weren’t handling the analysis for that nasty crap. As soon as they’d gotten out as much as they could, we took over. We shot a butt-ton of pictures, and then gently removed the bones for cleaning and examination. The stench wasn’t gone… but it was manageable.
We tagged everything and gently consigned the remains to padded boxes for transport. Eventually, everything would go to a fully-equipped lab; but we had a nice temporary setup in a building close to the site, and I was excited by the idea that we might learn something fascinating in the initial processing. Jenny thought the bones might belong to someone famous, maybe Alexander the Great; so she was excited too. I suspect Elizabeth was eager to discover something that would show the world her brilliance and elite skills.
And that’s how it all started.
We’d each picked a skull and started cleaning. This was delicate, gentle work, but we’d all done it many times before. There was no hurry; we had at least a week or two before everything would be packed up and shipped out. The smell had died to a tolerable level and I was looking forward to building a preliminary reconstruction of my chosen skeleton.
I’d put down paper and drawn connecting lines beneath bones that I thought belonged together. Jenny arranged hers on her worktable as though she was setting up a still life, but the relationships were still clear when you looked. The bones on Elizabeth’s table were lined up with such incredible precision that you probably could have identified any spot on them with a set of basic x-y-z coordinates. The scanner people loved her.
I was thoroughly absorbed in my work when I realized Elizabeth was yelling at Jenny. I looked up from what I was doing and paid attention.
“ – can’t even pay enough attention to an initial cleaning! Look how you’ve etched the bone, Jennifer! Were you cleaning this poor soul’s cranium with steel wool?”
“You can stuff that! I don’t have to take it from you! I’ve been as careful as either of you have. I don’t know where those scratches came from, but it wasn’t me!”
I looked more closely at the skull I’d chosen. My nose rebelled, but you could see the scoring by the bits of waste matter still present in the tiny grooves. “I think she’s right, Elizabeth. I’ve got those scratches here too, and I haven’t used anything stronger than a soft toothbrush. Take a closer look at yours.”
She tossed her blond hair from her eyes and glared at me, but gently picked her skull up with her gloved hands. Her demeanor changed from combative to interested. “Well… hmph. I see what you are saying, Lisa. They’re all etched. It’s fine and too regular to be natural, but I certainly didn’t do this either. I apologize, Jennifer.” She may have backed off, but she still made it clear this was a perfunctory apology.
Curiously, I wiped a vertebra somewhat clean. “In fact, I think the same scoring’s here too.”
Jenny looked at a femur, clearing a line of debris from it. “More here. Are all the bones like this?”
I looked at the neatly arranged parts of skeletal structure waiting on our attention. “I guess we’ll find out.”
As we worked our way methodically through the ancient bones, it became apparent that they were indeed all etched in the same way. It looked almost as though someone had taken a fine wire brush to each one, carefully lining up each stroke.
Jenny frowned at the ones she’d worked on so far. “This had to have been done once the skeletons were bare. Now, am I supposed to believe that someone carefully unsealed that box, moved a few tons of granite aside, scratched up the skeletons, then put it all back the way it was? ‘Cause that’s ridiculous.”
“No doubt the marks were left by some kind of flesh-removing tool,” Elizabeth observed. She showed restrained excitement; this could be something new brand new, and brand new could be her ticket.
I didn’t want to shoot her down, because I’d never seen her so pleased. Unfortunately, I couldn’t agree. “I’ve never heard of anyone using a tool like that,” I said. “Besides, you’d expect to see irregular scrapes, not this nice even pattern.” I pointed at the pelvic bone I’d selected to work on next. “I agree with Jenny. This is… huh. What in the hell is that?”
“What’s what?” Elizabeth demanded.
I leaned in to look closer. “There’s metal here.” I saw a perfect disk, about the size of a half-dollar coin, stuck to the underside of the bone by some of the dried muck.
“What the hell?” Elizabeth came over to look, followed closely by Jenny.
“Looks like brushed aluminum.” I took a few dozen pictures, and then went in to carefully dislodge the artifact. I wanted a closer look at it.
“No one was making aluminum in Egypt two thousand years ago,” Jenny said confidently.
“I’m not arguing with you. Look at this, though.” They crowded around. The small perfect circle of metal really did look machined. One side had a geometric design in bas-relief, and the other a neat array of shallow round dimples.
“A coin would almost certainly have a readable inscription… a denomination, a date, the name of the current ruler,” Elizabeth mused.
I started picking up her excitement. This could be anything, and I’d found it first. “Maybe it’s some kind of token or marker,” I said. “A gaming piece, perhaps.”
“Hey, maybe there are more back in the casket!” Jenny suggested, becoming excited herself. “The suction tools had grilles, they might have missed something. Maybe we can prove someone did get inside that box before us.” She buckled on a tool pouch, pulled a cap over her short black bob cut, and began heading to the door.
“We are not numismatists,” Elizabeth snapped. “We’re here to look at bones. I can talk to the next team, and set up further investigation.” I could clearly see that she had every intention of being reassigned to that team.
I lost a little patience at that point. “Okay, you stay behind,” I said, getting up to follow Jenny. “I’m sure we’ll find absolutely nothing to suggest someone was smelting aluminum two thousand years ago, nothing to force the scientific community to revise their consensus on the history of metallurgy. Nothing they’ll call ‘the Ramirez-Matsuda breakthrough’ in the textbooks.”
“… fuck you,” Elizabeth responded as she set her tools on her table and followed us both.
Twilight settled over the dig site as we showed our identification to the security staff. They gazed at the three of us incuriously and made no move to hinder us as we slipped down into the pit. Floodlights drove the shadows away, contrasting strangely with the enigmatic, externally featureless stone block. The air smelled of dust and sand and, unfortunately, still of things long dead. I think all three of us were imagining the specters of long-dead craftspersons watching us work. I think I looked amused; Jenny looked excitedly creeped out; and as always, Elizabeth looked impatient.
Elizabeth mounted the folding metal stepladder left next to the sarcophagus. The thought of a major discovery with her name on it had driven away her previous reluctance. I allowed the sight of her ascending rear to briefly distract me from the matter at hand. “I’ll look first,” she said. “Maybe I can find whatever scraping tool they used.”
“Ooo, yeah! I’ll be right behind you,” Jenny offered.
“This isn’t a hotel suite, it’s a tight space,” Elizabeth snapped. “Stay there and give me some room to move around. You can search after me.” I was annoyed by her peremptory attitude, but amused at her eager desire to slide around in what the suction hoses couldn’t get. Jenny and I sat on the edge of the box and watched as she rooted around. The two of us offered pseudo-helpful advice that was answered in curt monosyllables if it was answered at all. Half an hour later, Elizabeth had acquired multiple red-brown smudges and that was about all she had to show for her work.
She stopped looking. “This is what comes of listening to you idiots,” she mumbled. “One of the workers probably dropped his good-luck charm in here while clearing the muck away.”
Jenny’s face fell as her interest evaporated. “That makes a lot more sense, actually.”
“I’m over this. Give me a hand up – wait, hang on a moment.” Elizabeth leaned down to peer closely at one of the many carved designs on the floor of the sarcophagus. The entire interior of the box was covered in those carvings. They didn’t look like hieroglyphics or anything identifiable as language; but that wasn’t our field, so none of us had examined them carefully.
She wiped away nearly-dry muck from a circular carving with a relief pattern of bumps inside. I looked at Jenny, and we both peered down at what Elizabeth was doing. The carving she revealed was clearly the same size as the disk, and the bump pattern appeared to match the dimples perfectly.
“Either of you bring the coin? I want to check the patterns,” Elizabeth said.
“Yeah, I have it,” I answered. I had taken it along to compare with the others we had hoped to find; I begrudgingly passed it down.
“Damn, how about that. Looks like it would fit in here perfectly.” She started to set it in the carved depression.
“Don’t! It might set something off!” yelped Jenny.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “This isn’t an Indiana Jones movie, birdbrain. Everything here is solid stone without a crack or a join. Tell you what: if you see a poison dart suddenly sticking out of me, feel free to pull it out.” She set the coin down, spinning it slightly in place to match the bumps. It slipped precisely into place.
Elizabeth disappeared, with a comic-book “pop”.
Jenny screamed, and clutched my hand. I just sat there open-mouthed. “Elizabeth!” she shouted, but no one answered. I saw flashlights swinging toward us and started shouting for the security team.
“Where’d she go?”
“I – I – I have no idea,” I stuttered. The disk remained where she’d put it, but there was no Elizabeth.
Jenny jumped down from the edge, still holding my hand tightly. “Ow! Jenny, leggo! That hurts!”
“Elizabeth!” she yelled again, and reached down to pick up the disk. She touched it, and –
– and we felt a terrible falling, tearing sensation, and landed on our feet in neon brilliance.
“It’s gorgeous,” Jenny whispered dazedly.
Whispering seemed appropriate. We stood in a vast space built from glowing traceries of color running horizontally and vertically, sometimes twisting into chaotic knots. No one gleaming line continued for very long before breaking up or changing direction or joining one of the knots. The maze of light stretched away in all directions before blending into a nondescript grey; indeed, it ran above us and below, which made it not very clear what we were standing on.
“What is this place?” I wondered aloud.
“It’s beautiful,” she repeated, “but I don’t think I like it very much. Trying to follow any of these lines makes my head hurt. I don’t think this place likes us very much.” She trembled a bit and tried to look everywhere at once.
“You frightened?” I tried to sound brave.
“Lisa, I’ve been mugged in Baghdad and nearly raped in Mogadishu. I can handle myself; in fact, rape dude’s balls almost ended up in his chest cavity. But this is giving me the creeps.”
I stared at her a moment. “Well, then I’m willing to admit I’m a bit twitchy too.”
A voice suddenly echoed around us, and we both jumped. It sounded like an electronic device trying to replicate an inhuman set of speech organs; it said only “Zar tia cucca fel penidor berret som.”
Jenny crouched a bit, craning her head around. “Who said that?”
I was looking for the source as well, uselessly. “Got me. It came from everywhere,” I replied.
“It sounded like I was being told to keep my hands, arms, feet, and legs inside the ride vehicle at all times.”
“Well, it made me want to curl up into a ball, but I suppose that’s sort of the same thing.”
“Elizabeth’s in here, right?” Jenny asked. “Because I’m ready to find her and leave. I just play with bones, not – not pocket dimensions.” Her voice wobbled on that last part.
“Science-fiction fan, huh?” I tried stepping forward, and whatever we stood on continued to support me. “She’s gotta be in here. We all touched the same disk. Besides… I don’t know where else we’d start looking.”
Slowly, I walked forward, Jenny following behind me. The abstract, discontinuous light shapes around us tended to hypnotize, like a perfectly straight desert road surrounded by horizon. After a while, it became obvious that either we weren’t moving in a straight line or the lattice wasn’t, because the knots of color appeared and disappeared as we moved. I wished I’d brought breadcrumbs or something.
“Maybe there’s a map around here somewhere? Or an information booth,” Jenny suggested. She waved her phone at me. “This probably doesn’t surprise you, but I’m not getting GPS or cell signal.”
I drew my shoulders together. “This feels so wrong. I feel like an intruder; like we are being watched.”
“Oh hell yes. I’d swear something would like us to leave, now. Wish we could oblige.” She kept grabbing my hand for reassurance, than quickly letting go as if to pretend she hadn’t.
I shook my head, trying to find something visual to focus on. It was hard to tell in the confusing perspective, but one of the bright knots seemed to be getting closer to us, becoming more detailed and intricate until it seemed to be within arm’s reach. This close, the tight tangle of light seemed almost solid. Almost without conscious intent, I reached out to touch it.
A shower of golden sparks engulfed my hand; I yelped in surprise and yanked my hand back quickly. The sparks came along, though, and I reflexively tried to shake them off. Suddenly, the sparks coalesced into the physical form of a solid object that appeared in my hand. I dropped the thing immediately, and as it fell to foot level it disappeared in another burst of sparks.
“Jesus! Are you okay, Lisa?” Jenny tried to look at my hand and the place where the object had fallen at the same time.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, just startled. My hand’s tingling, but that’s all.”
“What was that thing?”
“It sure wasn’t a map… it looked like some kind of tool? I didn’t get a good look at it.”
“Let me try!” Jenny reached toward the knot.
“Zar tia cucca pitacor fenol fel sim garra no,” echoed around us.
Jenny drew her hand back. “Somehow, that didn’t sound like ‘Sure, go right ahead.’ I think I’ll obey the Mystery Voice for now.”
“Look, let’s find Elizabeth. Then the three of us together can figure out how to get back out of here.”
We wandered among the light for a long time. Occasionally we’d hear more of those cryptic announcements. My watch said we’d been in there for an hour, but it felt longer. My phone was useless; none of the apps would launch, and the display flickered in a worrying manner. I finally shut it off before something worse happened.
We were thoroughly lost by that point, but had nothing to do but keep going. Jenny was trying to keep a count of the knots we passed, and I tried to as well, but our counts kept conflicting. I’m not sure either of us was wrong. A lot about this place didn’t make sense: I hated to spout more sci-fi babble, but distance and direction didn’t seem to be obeying the normal laws I was used to. It both fascinated and worried me.
Finally, we heard some kind of clattering to our right: it echoed oddly but seemed to be the realest thing we’d heard in here – and I include Mystery Voice in that list. We tentatively started heading toward where we thought the noise came from, and soon we could make out a solid silhouette resolving out of the grey.
“I think so,” I replied. We moved quickly toward the shape. The lines seemed to move out of our way now that we had a direction in mind, and soon we could easily recognize it.
Jenny ran forward. “Elizabeth!” she shouted as she leaped forward to embrace our colleague, almost scattering the objects in her arms. I wanted to hug Elizabeth as well and have her tell me everything was going to be okay now, but I refrained. I doubted I’d get anything good results out of that.
Elizabeth was in her familiar mood. “Careful, Jennifer!” she barked as she dodged Jenny. “If I drop any of these things, they’ll disappear.”
“We’re glad to see you, too,” I said. “What the hell happened to you?”
She scowled at us. “You touched the coin, and fell through solid stone into this cheap computer-graphics amusement park, right?”
“Well, there you go. I’ll admit it’s good to see you too, Lisa.” That made me feel warm and tingly; but damn, this was still not the time.
Elizabeth brightened for a moment. “Hey, do you have the coin?”
She dropped back to her scowl. “Figures. God damn it. I thought if it got me here, it might get me back. I tried one of the glowing nodes, hoping maybe it would call the elevator or something. Got the first one of these.”
“And what the hell are those?”
“No idea, but look at them.” We did. She held five randomly shaped objects, each with bits suggesting handles, buttons, grilles, or nozzles. They had the same brushed-aluminum look as the disk that had dropped us here, with detailing in jewel-toned color.
“It’s like they get 3-D printed on demand. You touch the node and the little sparks do their thing. It’s like a giant library, or catalogue. Maybe a storehouse: I can’t seem to get any of the little tangles to work twice.”
“Yes, we made one of them work before, but the object went away when it hit the floor,” I said. I looked at her collection as though it were a string of primed grenades. “Then some mystery voice spouted nonsense, like some scolding error message. Maybe we shouldn’t be fucking with all this.”
“I heard the voice too. But come on: in for a penny, in for a twenty. We’re already in deep. We’ve got to bring some of these things out with us!”
I knew why she said that, but I frowned skeptically at the artifacts anyway. Elizabeth saw my expression. “We’ve got to! Don’t you get it? These – objects, devices, weapons, whatever the hell they are – are like nothing we’ve ever seen. If we can get out of here with these, we will make the history books; and that worthless Assistant Director will have to absolutely beg… um… well. Otherwise: even if we get out, we’ve got nothing but a story. I can’t even make my phone camera work.”
“Same here,” I admitted.
“Those things look alien somehow,” said Jenny in a distracted tone. She couldn’t look away from them.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and indicated our surroundings with a toss of her head. “Well, what could possibly have given you that idea?”
“Zar tia cucca rati gest bito fel temblor.”
“Exactly, Mystery Voice. Jenny, hold these. Now that we have three sets of arms for carrying, I want more of these things.” Elizabeth shoved the pile of artifacts into her arms, and walked over to a nearby knot. She reached for it.
“Maybe we’ve got enough for this trip,” I suggested.
“I’ve already dumped a dozen artifacts so I could carry these. The little tangles stopped reacting to me just before I found you, but I want to get at least one more sample. Don’t worry, it’s fine.” She pressed her palm against the knot, ready to grab whatever appeared.
The sparks appeared, but this time no device started forming. Instead, the sparks engulfed her hand completely and began crawling up her arm.
“Shit!” I cried and darted forward to pull her free. The sparks came with her hand, but slowly engulfed it instead of creating an object.
“Zar tia cucca fedor libe tac fel gelini darok,” the voice advised.
Elizabeth was startled, but didn’t want to show it. “Uh. Um, that’s not… no; stay cool, I think it’s okay. Kind of interesting. They feel like they’re crawling around on my hand. Maybe it’s generating some kind of clothing or armor.” The sparks spread to her wrist, and Elizabeth began to look a little concerned. “Huh. Does tingle a lot more than the other things did.”
I stood there indecisively. The sparks around her hand faded as the glittering cloud moved slowly up her arm. Underneath was some sort of dark red glove, gleaming under the nearby lines of light. The fingers of the glove ended in needle-sharp talons. They looked more like bone than metal.
I started shaking with horrible premonition. “Elizabeth… are you sure that’s a glove?”
She look at me, then carefully touched her other hand to the red surface. The texture looked more like exposed meat and muscle than fabric. Her eyes grew wide and she pressed against the new surface in various places.
“Fuck!” she shouted. “I can feel that! That’s my arm! What the hell is it doing to my arm?” Frantically she started batting at the sparks that still crawled along her forearm, leaving wet tissue behind. Bony plates began to appear on her arm under the sparks. “Oh god, oh god, what is this? Stop it! Lisa, make it stop!”
For several seconds, I was frozen in horror. The sparks continued to convert her arm into something demonic, horrific. Then the smell like cooked meat hit my nose, and that was too much; I dropped to my knees and three up. For some reason, that sparked and disappeared into the floor just like that first artifact had.
“Zar tia cucca peri wenok ree fel tiromusi gat.”
Jenny snapped. “Shut up shut up voice SHUT UP SHUT UP!” I heard a clatter of dropped mystery objects, and turned my head to see most of Jenny’s armload hit the invisible floor. Each of them disappeared in tiny fireworks like everything else; she used the one artifact that remained to bat hysterically at a nearby knot. The third time the object hit, it too evaporated, and Jenny’s hand triggered more sparks. This time the knot exploded, spraying gold glitter all over her upper body. My abused guts tightened again in fear, but the spray died away quickly leaving no traces. Like me, she dropped to her knees, holding her head in fear and frustration. The knot calmly reformed as if nothing had happened.
“Okay.” I was trying hard not to panic. “We need to get the hell out of here.” I grasped frantically at straws until anything at all came to mind. “Okay. Ah. All right. Elizabeth, when we started concentrating on your shape, the lines seemed to help us get to you. Both of you: think about the sarcophagus! That’s how we got in… maybe we can get out that way!”
Elizabeth just stared mesmerized at the slow rebuilding of her arm, and Jenny stayed on her knees with her head down. I yanked her to her feet, and grabbed Elizabeth’s normal hand. “Snap out of it and come on! Both of you, I need you both!”
The two of them followed me numbly. I swore again to myself; I didn’t want to be solely responsible for getting us out. I didn’t know if I even could do it without their help. With no other better option, I thought of the sarcophagus with all my might as I pulled them forward. Were the lights moving out of our way as they had when we searched for Elizabeth? It was so hard to tell!
“Zar tia cucca ter winit suk karo beri roto fel.”
“Zar tia cache procedure…” Jenny mumbled.
I stopped. “What?”
Her expression was blank, and for a second I could swear I saw those golden sparks in her eyes. Then Jenny focused and saw me. “I – I – I heard it twice? I heard the nonsense and then I heard it again in English… I think.” Tears started running down Jenny’s face. “There’s something in my head. I can’t… it won’t…”
The blank expression returned, and she stood like a mannequin. “Zar tia cache security protocol suk in progress…”
Oh god. I could barely keep from shaking her; I wanted to start shaking, myself. “Jenny, what’s a zar tia? What’s a suk?”
Behind me came a groan from Elizabeth. “Unnnhh… ah… it’s hurting… I can’t breathe… Jenny, Lisa, help me…”
I turned. Her arm was completely gone, replaced by something hellish. The limb had two elbows now and was far too long, almost as through a demonic surgeon-torturer had indulged itself. Elizabeth looked helplessly at me, then at her arm, waving it around a bit; but the sparks had worked their way to her chest and neck. I thought I saw organs moving under the ropy red flesh and white armor bone of her torso. I couldn’t bear to see the slow ruin of the body I’d fantasized about, and I looked hastily at her face again. She was terrified, and her look begged me to do something, anything.
“I – I can’t help,” I said desperately. “I don’t know how to stop this!”
Both her fists, the untouched and the violated, clenched tight. Fluid dripped from the latter. “Leave… me,” she choked out. “I don’t… think… make it. Get her… get… ahhgll… mnuugghh…”
The sparks were up to her jaw and her next few sounds were unintelligible, but her face said it all. I pulled Jenny along behind me and ran for it.
We ran for twenty minutes. We’d spent an hour finding Elizabeth, but I had no idea at all if we were taking the same way back. All the latticed neon looked the same after a while, and only by passing knots of light could I be sure we were moving forward.
“Zar tia cucca pel rorag suk telga jip roto fel.”
“Zar tia cache security protocol suk status fabricated,” Jenny mumbled mindlessly. Something behind us roared in anger and pain, and it wasn’t the announcement voice.
I looked back. Was that a shadow in the grey distance between the glowing colors? I tried to tell myself I didn’t know what it was, but I knew. Or, I knew who it had been.
“Jenny… Jenny, I can’t drag you along any more. I don’t know how to get us out of here and I need your help. Jenny! Answer me!” She looked blankly into the distance, showing no sign of hearing me. I stood there, indecisive. I wanted to keep running, but I couldn’t leave here, and I had nowhere to run to.
Something shambled closer to us. Something with long, thin arms that bent in too many places. Something that seemed to have four legs, and screamed in anger-pain.
I looked at the slowly resolving form, and I looked over at Jenny’s empty gaze, and I made my decision. There was nowhere to run, really. I hoped the thing that had once been Elizabeth – the nauseous horror made from the body that had given me such delicious daydreams – would give us quick deaths. Then I thought of her suffering and felt guilty about even that.
Now I could see the monster clearly. The sparks were gone. Obscenely, they had left Elizabeth her long blonde hair, but little else. Her head was a misshapen ovoid with burning red coals for eyes and a cartilaginous pit of a mouth. Her taloned fingers flick-flick-flicked as though impatient to rend. Armored plates of bone protected her torso as their misshapen edges cut deep into it with every step; and I saw that the two lower bones of each leg had separated, receiving two bent, sharpened digits apiece. Where the other two toes had gone wasn’t even worth a guess. Even had I been as brave as Jenny in Mogadishu, I wouldn’t have known what to kick.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” I said, tears beginning to flow. “Goodbye.” Jenny still had her back turned, oblivious. I took her hand and closed my eyes.
“Zar tia cucca abal dyfo tesu ogiteh zem fel.”
“Oh, give it up,” I breathed.
“Combat logistics cache security protocol: intruder elimination, status incomplete,” Jenny said emotionlessly. I looked around at her in despair, and saw her back stiffen, and her head lift. She yanked free from me, reached forward, and grabbed a knot of light in each hand. The sudden sparks raced in threads of staccato light up her arms to her head, and she screamed.
“Incomplete! Incomplete! Zar tia cucca fel meno ritusa labu voci hedo hedo fel sidyn pul! Combat logistics cache security protocol cancel! Cancel! Protocol safety purge override! Zar tia cucca fel meno ritusa labu voci hedo hedo fel sidyn pul!”
The monster stopped just before me. A hot, reeking wind came from the open pit in its face… and… and if featureless glowing orbs can look sad…
It collapsed. Bones snapped, and blood pooled beneath it. I turned back to Jenny and saw her body contort in agony and she said –
– and I felt a terrible rising, tearing sensation, and found myself standing in the sarcophagus. I heard a tiny ping, and looked down to see the little disk pop free of the carving it had rested in. I collapsed.
Startled security personnel stood crowded around the sarcophagus: some with guns drawn. “It’s her! It’s her! One of the bone team!” shouted one of the quicker-witted guards, and most of the guns lowered. Another guard had the presence of mind to reach in and pull my limp, shaking body from the box.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. “Where are the others?”
I turned back to the box and waved vaguely. “I… uh… I don’t know where I was. Somewhere… else. As for my friends –“
With a horrific squish and a sound of scraped bone, two complete skeletons appeared in the sarcophagus, along with maybe 150 kilograms of reddish-brown muck. And before I collapsed, I remembered the last thing Jenny said after one more of those nonsense announcements.
“Zar tia cucca fel sidyn labu peris camod semab rut hedo vugu. Combat logistics cache emergency exit engaged; disinfection protocol to follow.”
I’m definitely going to delete this.
––––– END –––––