A Brief Interruption of Transit
My prompts were "lemon", "flying jellyfish", and "a man whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere." Most of the cadence comes from "Some Nights" by fun., and I highly recommend giving it a listen before reading. I cribbed a lot of setting elements from Landsdale, and realized part way through the plot that I was also stealing themes wholesale from China Mieville. There's hint of Kelly Link in this too, and if you can find a copy of her "Stranger Things Happen," there's no book I could ever recommend more. As far as a dedication goes, this one rightfully belongs to the sisters who gave me those prompts, and to you for reading it.
May you be inspired.
The last dying heave of the Cadillac's engine came on a patch of barren interstate three hours east of Santa Perdida, jolting Elías out of his tunnel-vision stupor. What began as a gentle tremor in the engine block quickly grew into a shaking, heaving disruption and forced him to the side of the road. The horizon was as close and flat as a panorama backdrop, and no cars were visible for miles in either direction, so he climbed out into the late-evening heat to take a look at the problem.
The radiator was busy gasping little puffs of steam, fighting for breath when Elías lifted the hood. His hands, calloused and tan, could only hold the metal for a moment. Once the prop rod was in place, he withdrew to shake his fingers and suck on the still-forming burns. The car had boiled off the last of its fluids, and its metal innards were pinging angrily as they cooled back down to ambient. For the moment, it was busted. He knew that now for sure.
All around him spread the Tierra Nueva desert, limitless miles of rusting car-husks and sand-burned scrap piles. This close to the Interdiction Zone, there were parts of it that were fluid. Places that could not be fixed in space, where the geometry melted and ran until they might be anywhere at all. His official-issue guidebooks had assured him that the highway was safe, that the mighty Trans-Provincial I-8 had never experienced any drifting, but it was still a troubling place to be broken down. Wandering landmarks weren't the only things that occasionally crossed the border.
Sweat crawled from his scalp down the back of his neck. Returning to the car, Elías fished out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from the clutter in the back seat. He put one of the paper tubes to his lips, flicked fire, and inhaled. His exhale was a dragon's, made of mystery and power. It made him feel important.
His grandfather had told him stories as a child, and when he smoked he could still sometimes believe them.
We didn't lose the war, the old man would say. We surrendered, and that was a choice. We let the otherness in. It made us braver and stranger.
What a load of bull, his father would respond when Elías dared to mention Abuelo's eccentricity. Some day they will return to claim the rest of our territories. We are cowards living on borrowed time.
For the grown Elías, leaning against the side of the broken automobile, these were trivial thoughts. The carbon passing between his lips was just a way to kill time. There was nothing to do but wait, anyway, either in the expectation of rescue or of the coming of night. He was not going to walk for miles under the burning sun. If no one drove by in the time it took the sun to sink, then he would travel by moonlight. Meanwhile, he smoked and remembered.
The barren scraplands took on new character under the stars. Strange reflections danced and scampered over bare metal hoods, keeping pace with him as Elías walked.
We are strangers here on the edges, all of us. Abuelo's voice echoed in his head. These are the only places where equals can meet.
Three years out from the Service, he wasn't sure he agreed. Not that he had ever shot at much from his guard-post on the variable edge of the zone. There was not a hate born of conflict in him, just an uneasiness with impossibilities. Parades of shouldn't-be's had drifted through his sights every day, out beyond the aether rifle's effective range. He had been glad when his civil duty to the Federated Provinces had ended without a kill.
In the road ahead of him, something changed and Elías came instantly to a stop. His instincts were still scraped keen from basic. He suspected that, given the nature and intent of that training, time would never dull them. He could pick out inconsistencies in two identical photographs with his eyes closed and his breathing stopped. To his relief, this one turned out to be a rabbit.
The hare flattened its ears against the base of its skill and crouched low in the road. It was strange to see one out here with not a trace of greenery in the landscape, but nature had always been an optimist. Maybe there was a secluded oasis nearby.
When Elías made no move to threaten it, the animal passed, scurrying off the still-warm blacktop and into the darkness of a shattered Humvee. Ammunition and arms had been left behind in many of the vehicles abandoned after the war, and for a time smuggling and scavenging had thrived. Only when year after year had passed and there was still no sign of a second incursion did the prices on the old weapons finally fall away, leaving the market littered with the traces of their passage from vogue. There were still piles of abandoned hardware in some of the distant vehicles.
And so goes the cycle, Abuelo's voice murmured.
Elías had worked for a time as a scavenger under his father's instruction, but he felt no lingering need to leave the road. The lonely miles passed without interruption.
It was just after midnight when the false dawn came, painting the sky alive with color. Neon flickers, traces of pastel, broad streaks of primary wove between each other in an aerial show that sent his heart racing with worry. He had never heard of an aurora out this way before, which meant that this was a unique phenomenon, the kind which tended to come exclusively from the other side.
Back in basic, they had taught him a triage for the erosion of reality. He knew to count simple numbers, recite the basic facts of physics, and to clasp your hands together and pray. It was a talisman for the simple-minded, he was sure, a myth distributed by the brass to keep recruits from panic. Nonetheless, he started a sequence in his head.
One. He walked forward, eyes staring up at the sky as the colors passed overhead. He had heard accounts of predatory shades before, hues that stole the silicon from your organs and the pigment from your skin.
Two. Little border crossings were often like chemical spills. They would grow wider and deeper before they were cleaned up or washed away. It was hard to tell whether this one was ending or just beginning.
Three. A bit of purple drifted in low, almost buzzing him. He saw it clearly, like an undulating ribbon, and began to run.
Four. They were settling now, drifting earthwards like ghostly confetti. They had filled the air, and he could not see an end to them.
Five. He scrambled off the roadside, down a sharp embankment, and into a ditch. There were cars on either side of him, more of them ahead. He climbed over hoods and slid down bent roofs, desperate with the need to be somewhere else.
Six. They stopped. As abruptly as they had arrived, they vanished, and after a hesitant start the night returned.
Elías found himself looking out from behind a half-buried aluminum frame, Abuelo's words once again ringing in his ears.
Just because they do not mean us harm does not mean they are not dangerous.
It took a little while to return to the road. At this rate, he wondered if the packages of crackers he had stuffed in his pockets would be enough to sustain him. Three hours by car was a long way on foot, and hardly anyone traveled the border roads anymore. Certainly not if they could avoid it.
That was getting more difficult these days. Borders were emerging everywhere.
The second phenomenon came upon him a few minutes later. It was intangible and without warning—as they sometimes were. It began with the smell of cinnamon.
Abruptly, he was back in his father's kitchen. Soup was simmering on the stove, and the tiled floor was firm under his feet. He felt the wrongness of it clearly, tasted it in the normality of the picture. Things had never been this idyllic.
There was no dirt, no dust, no unscrubbed surface in sight. The soup had not yet been burned.
His father entered the room then, and he stood tall in the way that Elías remembered. So tall, in fact, that the top of his chest moved seamlessly through the ceiling, and his shoulders and head were lost from sight. Manipulating a perilously long arm, his father stirred the soup.
The protocol for dealing with visions like this was as simple as the triage. You stayed calm, and you rode them out. Sometimes you came out the other side, and sometimes you were never seen again.
Elías flinched a little when his father turned, holding a wooden spoon outstretched. There was broth in the cup if it, steaming quietly. Elías shook his head. No thanks.
Shrugging, his father lifted the spoon through the roof and presumably took a sip. When it came back down, it was empty. Deft hands added more salt to the soup.
I could be here forever, Elías thought, and that may have been my only opportunity to taste it.
No, said his father, you wish to leave. And that is why we cannot keep you.
The other place melted, and he was back on the road again.
All things come in threes, Abuelo had decided, simplifying the world into mathematics for his grandchild. They may be curiosity or coincidence or challenge. You will recognize the pattern.
But grandfather, Elías had responded, what if there comes a fourth?
Then it is simply the pattern starting over again.
They had last seen each other on the day Elías left for basic. Abuelo had frowned, said it was a necessary thing, and died some weeks later. The energies left in him by the war had promoted enthusiastic cell division in his old age. He had told no one of this, evidently finding the passing quieter that way.
There was little meaning in it, as far as Elías was concerned. Death was a border that even the other side could not cross. He had only wished that he had more time to understand the old man, rather than remembering him as a handful of sayings.
The third phenomena descended on him while he was mulling this over, and he looked up to see a sky full of fish.
They were hanging there, suspended, as if in brine. Their gills fluttered and their fins swished, but they moved not at all. A transparent man-o-war hung above him in the dark, and he took care to slip between its tentacles.
He felt as if he was a stranger, trespassing on some abyssal floor. Perhaps some day the desert would be covered over in water. Perhaps he was staring into the future.
Now you understand, the voice came from everywhere and nowhere, rippling the air around the fish.
He stopped, stood beneath the wings of a manta, and listened. Is that it? Are you really that simple?
No. But you have grasped a small part of it. We are your future and your past. We are the little bit of madness that you have tried to wall out.
He saw himself reflected in the eyes of a shark, watched as a little bit of him vanished into its glossy sincerity. We didn't succeed.
Not fully. You hold us back.
Barely. He frowned. The phenomenon had reached its peak. Soon it would be weakening.
And, for the time, that is enough. We are content to live on your fringes. After all, it is your dreams that give us substance.
He had no reply to that.
There are two ways this ends. The first is that you die of thirst along the road. You will not reach your destination before dawn. That is less pleasing to us.
It is not pleasing to me, either.
The other is this: we can save you. Our influence is ebbing, but we will do what must be done.
He considered this. Abuelo would have done it, that he knew. And it was better than death. You would get something from this, too?
Then do it.
He felt the sensation seize him abruptly, radiating from the distal points of his body, his fingers and toes. It covered him in buzzing numbness, and he blacked out.
When he awoke again, it was to the shuddering death of his Cadillac's engine on a patch of barren interstate three hours east of Santa Perdida.