Although this could be appreciated alone, two others of the Hollow Men series have appeared: part I and part II.
I trudged for a day in a direction that had not existed the day before. Tramping to the bleak beacon was like plowing through mounds of slushy snow seeping through your boots. When the pair of shining black beams smote me, the going slowed to a crawl.
I’d passed beneath the lower angle of the black light’s reach before sensation returned to my flesh.
A white-bearded dwarf exited the base of the beacon waving a lantern, a replica of the one squatting on the beacon. “Turn back! Look not into eyes!” His voice was mechanical, gear-grinding.
The journey had worn my patience, so I toppled him. He fell back flinging his lantern behind. He hit with a clang; the lantern’s hinged glass door swung open and cracked against the rocky soil, and the cold, coal-black flame soared, guttered, and winked out in the indifferent wind. The man groaned as I carried on.
Years of severe weathering had pocked the formerly sleek obsidian surface of the beacon. I ran my hand along its rough flank and steered myself up the inner winding. The rotting wooden planks protested the load as I pushed wide the trapdoor.
Inside the lantern room, I swung open the glass lens and slid shut the iron vent to suffocate the coal-black flame. Ice crystals formed in the cracks spread across the vent.
The lens separated into smaller, distorting glass blocks–each chanced to point at the spire that had been my home since my days as unformed crockery. From this vantage, it looked little more than a mossy screw, but each lens block also pulled it in some direction that made my attachment to it laughable–fat, skinny, hour-glassed, warped.
I pivoted and found myself gazing, across a broad desert, into a land leviathan’s slow blinking gaze.
“You fool!” The dwarf was hoisting himself up on the floor. “You’ve opened the gate to misery!” He brandished a dagger, slashed and thrust.
I dodged. “Wait.” Again. “I see your point. Please. Let me open the door, so the flame can breathe, and men do not look.” With an elbow, I broke the ice and slid the door open, careful not to let the chill black light fall on me.
The dwarf tilted his head back and absorbed the light.
I threw his heavy metal frame into the flame and slammed the door shut.
Carla backed up so she could see the reef better. A tessellation of almost-identical shells, each occupied by something vaguely resembling an octopus, individually as intelligent as a cat, and about half the size of a cryopod. As in a coral, the “animals” were connected, forming one colonial organism. It sounded like the cell right in front of her was the one that had spoken. Last time, the colony had been much smaller, and it had not understood her next question.
“Which one of you spoke?”
I am only one. There is no one else but you.
That was interesting. The first few visits, she had not been sure it recognized her as an independent entity. And the language lessons she’d broadcast from the buoy seemed to have been assimilated. Was it gaining intelligence as it grew? She went through the rest of the questions, recording the answers.
“I’ll be back next year. Your health and prosperity.”
As on her previous visits, it only responded to direct questions.
You have returned. Why?
The reef was huge, extending several meters above sea level and for kilometers along the sand ridge. The base was lost in darkness. She hovered above the waves on the seaward side. As always, it seemed that the polyp directly in front of her was the speaker, though she never could see an organ moving or vibrating. She set up a slow leftward drift of the skimmer, to see if the conversation stayed with the original polyp or moved with her.
“You are my research project,” she said. “I study you, to find out how you grow, how you think, what you do.” The reef was silent for a bit.
Again, why? Small organisms that I eat don’t visit me. Only you visit me, and you are not like anything else I know.
The voice moved with her, transferring seamlessly from one polyp to the next.
“I visit you because my people want to learn about others. Because we are not alone.”
Do you know others like me?
“I don’t,” she said. She and her Thesis Committee had agreed to say nothing about the fossil reefs stranded 100 meters above sea level. The reef spoke again.
I will create a motile form. It will transport my essence as you do for your “people.” There will be more like me. They will speak with you.
Your health and prosperity.
Sherman Palmetto was used to ants and bees and wasps having it in for him. He was three weeks old when the first attack came, a kamikaze phalanx of ants from four nests converging on his crib. After three more pitched battles they moved from their beloved farm into the city. When he left home it was to move into the top floor of an apartment building, easier to defend with the panoply of sprays he kept to hand. He grew careless.
Thus it was the spiders caught him.
It was a Wednesday morning, his twenty-third birthday, and Sherman woke from dreams of drowning to find himself encased in webs. Pale early light filtered into the room, revealing more webs everywhere, and hundreds of spiders. One of them directly over his head descended on a silken strand, landing on his nose.
He screamed for a while. He thrashed; the nose-spider climbed a few inches away. For every thread that snapped a dozen spiders made daring leaps to reinforce his cocoon. Nobody came to check on him. Eventually he stopped, and lay panting.
Then he saw the woven message in one corner near the ceiling. “Hello, Sherman,” it said. “We mean you little harm.”
He read it out loud, putting little question marks after both sentences. Nose-spider inclined its head.
“You’re nodding? You understand?”
Sherman looked back at the message. “Don’t you mean ‘no harm’? That’s what they say in movies, ‘We mean you no harm.’.”
The spider spread its forelegs in midair. Sherman decided that was a shrug. “Okay, then, what do you want?” Finally! He was going to find out what they were after, besides his death.
Nose-spider pointed toward the ceiling, and Sherman looked up again. Spiders snipped a few of the strands at the corners of the previous message, and it floated down to reveal another one.
“We have a question.”
“A question?” said Sherman, trying to inhale enough to scream it. “You’ve got questions? What about my questions?”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, fine. What’s your question?”
If a spider could be said to smile, Nose-spider did. It gestured upward again. Sherman read the question.
“Why are the ants and flying insects intent on your death?”
They didn’t know? “You don’t know?” They didn’t know! “What the hell are you asking me for? Don’t you insects ever talk to each other?!”
If a spider could be said to look mortally offended, Nose-spider did. It took the better part of an hour for it to weave its next message, but considerably less for Sherman to figure out what it would say.
“We’re not insects, you moron. We’re arachnids.”
“Penny for your thoughts,” Rachel says.
Blake hears her words, looks up from his financial statements. Rachel, his secretary, is in the outer office, so it can’t have been her. Hearing things, he thinks. Too much coffee. He takes off his glasses, pinches the bridge of his nose. Then he stares at the wall to clear his mind.
A minute later, the door opens and Rachel walks in. She opens her mouth, her lips move, but nothing comes out.
Blake looks at her and blinks. He puts his glasses back on.
“Um, just thinking I need to take a break,” he says.
“You work too much,” she says. But her mouth doesn’t open.
Blake just stares as Rachel looks at the financial statements on the desk, back to him. Then Rachel’s lips part and mouth the same words.
“Well, er, you know,” he says. He lets the thought trail off. He isn’t sure he really had one to offer.
Rachel smiles widely at him, winks once, then turns and goes out the door. Blake is sure she says as she leaves, “You should go on vacation. With me.”
Blake stands, paces around the office. My mind is going, he thinks. No other explanation.
His phone rings and he goes to answer it. There’s only a dial tone when he picks up the handset. He places it back in the base. Sitting at his desk, he waits a minute, picks up the phone. “Hello?” he says.
A robotic voice says, “This is an automated reminder from Zuma Travel that you have eight hundred points toward a future leisure cruise. Call us to book your next vacation! Goodbye.”
Blake hangs up, sits still for a moment. The world is definitely out-of-synch. Or he is. Then again, he thinks, when has it ever really been otherwise?
“What the hell is going on?” he says aloud, wondering if his words will come out wrong. But his lips move in-synch with his speech, so no problems there. Maybe it’s just the universe’s way of telling him something. Maybe things were actually in-synch after all, and it’s time to do something about that.
He buzzes and Rachel comes back into the office.
“I think I should go on vacation,” he says. “With you.”
She opens her mouth to speak, but she says nothing for a minute.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this,” she says finally. “I mean, I think I’m in love with you, but… God, what am I saying?”
Blake stands up and walks to her, takes her hands in his. By the time her lips catch up with her speech, he’s ready.