Okay, Jack thought, so this probably isn’t heaven. It’s funny though, because after the initial blast of terror, and when you begin to deal with something—no matter how horrible it is—you pretty much can get used to just about anything, even if that anything involves a hundred-foot long snake that wants to eat you. Even when that snake is just behind you, and is now gaining on you.
Jack had toned down is opening mad dash, because even in this air, with these wonderful new lungs, and all the rippling runner’s muscles functioning perfectly up and down his legs, he could never have made it to the treeline before the snake got him. He glanced back, and yep, it was still there, about fifty feet back, its head doing a very scary-fast metronome tick tock.
He wasn’t going to make it. Jack tended to be an optimist, even at the worst times, but perky positive thoughts were never going to get him to that treeline that was now an impossibly far hundred yards away. True, he had halved the distance. And despite the terror of it all, Jack couldn’t help but glory in the flash and flex of his perfect runner’s body. He had just completed the fastest hundred-yard dash he could have ever hoped to run. But facts were facts, and that snake was slithering faster than he was running, and it had not slowed to match his decrease in speed even as he attempted to pace himself.
Where were the others? Jack spared only a truncated thought of concern for Stacey, Joshua, and Michael. He couldn’t worry much about them, at least not right now, because his world was all about fight or flight, and he knew he couldn’t fight the thing gaining on him, and as he knew when he started this race, he probably couldn’t beat it with speed. And where was the ghost girl, Sandy? He had felt her presence his entire life, but he certainly didn’t feel her now.
It was up to him. Jack needed to deal with this monstrous anaconda, and he figured he would need to beat it with his brain, because he had to be smarter than a snake, didn’t he?
Abruptly Jack darted to the right, pelting full out. He made himself breathe, in through his nose—he actually snorted loudly, like a horse—and out loudly through his mouth, expelling the air from his lungs in great bursts. Then he stopped, digging his naked heels into the grasses and soil beneath, and thank God he didn’t slide through the grass, and with a massive leap he sent his body backward, and in a surreal moment of clarity, Jack observed the snake’s head striking, right in front of his body, and the moment seemed stretched and forever, as at least twenty feet of the monster’s head and body passed before him in a muscular punch, and Jack turned and dashed along its body, and he had sped along fifty feet of its great body, which seemed about as tall as his own waist, and as soon as he noticed the body begin to decrease in speed, he placed a hand on its scales—he dimly perceived the beautiful scales, as large as his hand, in alternating diamonds of glowing turquoise and dark green—and vaulted over its body to the other side.
Jack had seen a snake eat a mouse, in science class in the fourth grade, and even though that snake had only been about eighteen inches long, he had found the spectacle awful, and he had many nightmares about it even into the fifth grade. Because that mouse had known, and even though it was faster than the snake, it had still gone down, to one strike of the snake’s fangs, and then a too-fast winding up of the coils of its body. The mouth bit and the body seized the mouse in an abrupt winding down of tightening bands, and then the snake had constricted, and only one of the mouse’s little feet had protruded from the big muscled fist of coils. The mouse had kicked for a few seconds as the snake visibly constricted upon the little mouse body.
And now Jack was only moments away from being that mouse.
Jack pretended to flee the snake, then he stopped and vaulted back over to the other side of its body, and the world seemed to fly up about him, the ground quaking, and there above him twenty feet in the air were massive coils the size of tractor tires. And he dashed back down along the snake’s body, throwing himself down under a coiling sweep of deadly muscled cable, and now the body seemed to be everywhere, undulating and sweeping, coiling and writhing. He leaped over another part of its body, jerked to the side, and as he began to pelt out running again he more felt than saw the head come past him again in a surreal moment of slow-motion threat. It had gone for the kill, again, and just barely missed him.
He found himself running parallel with the forest on his left. He registered the great pile of coils on his right, and it was loud, that great body flexing and bending, but Jack figured it would take the snake some time to get all that bulk going again, and he spared a glance over his shoulder, and it was there, the mean-looking face of the snake with its great alien orbs with what looked like horns above its eyes.
Jack cried out with a burst of speed, hooking away from the still coiling snake (there were great loops up in the air possibly fifty feet above him) and he dashed back toward the forest. He would do a fifty-yard dash without looking back—stop looking back, you have to stop looking over your shoulder, he had to be vigilant and focus on the distant trees that didn’t look so far away now—he looked back, oh shit, and the face was coming, too fast, off the ground, its mouth opening, and Jack leaped to the left and dimly registered the head striking past him, just missing—he could have slapped it as it passed it was so close—and Jack ran.
He heard the grass rustling loudly behind him as if a truck were careening to run him over and through the corner of his eye he caught sight of a great undulation of coil coming up on his left, and he knew the head was close on his right and his heart surged as he realized he was still within the range of its great coils and he prepared himself and when he felt the body just there on his left he jumped and just cleared the body but it bucked up and knocked him up into the air and dimly he realized he was spinning through the air, heels over head, and then he was tumbling through the grass with no idea of where the snake’s head was but he was sure this wasn’t good, it had him now, there was no way he was going to get away.
He rolled in the grass and pushed himself to his feet and started running. Instinctively he ducked and jagged to the right, and he felt it pass him again. How many times had it struck at him already? He had lost count, but he wasn’t dead yet, he could still run, and that he did.
His head spinning, he saw he was running toward an expanse in the grasses with no treeline in sight, oh great, he was running in circles, but there just before him was what looked to be the snake’s tail rearing up from the grasses and he grunted and just managed to duck under the tail, but it struck him in passing, and it hurt, it hurt, the scales scratched his naked back and almost propelled him back into the ground. He abruptly changed direction and ran in a new direction, catching sight of the trees and hey, they looked closer!
A great hissing noise erupted just behind him, sounding like helicopter blades just above and behind him and Jack nearly froze, it was such a terrifying burst of sound. The snake was either very angry or it was using its volume as a tool, to paralyze him, but Jack was not the kind of mouse to freeze in place when terrified, no he was the kind of mouse that ran as fast as its little white mouse legs could carry him.
Jack, running, heard a terrible scream, and only after a moment realized that the scream issued from his own mouth, and he hoped no one heard the scream, because he would die of embarrassment before the snake ever caught him. With a new burst of speed he ran full-out for the trees before him, oh he might make it, come on, he sent thoughts of encouragement into his legs, please, faster, run, faster!
The speeding truck behind him seemed closer now, blasting its air horn, and Jack wished it was something as innocuous as a speeding semi-truck about to run him down, because the animal quality was there in the hissing, it was a being, and that made it more terrible than imminent death. All-surrounding terror was the worst thing, and Jack had never experienced true terror, not even close. His was a life of high school and running and computer games and thick novels, and that cute girl in his sociology class, Genevieve, and who in the world had ever run just before the fangs of a snake, regardless of its size. Modern man was not supposed to meet such things, not even in a zoo for exotic animals.
Jack squealed like a pig and threw his body to the right and again—again it struck at him, this close to the trees and it almost got him again! He could never keep this up, it had missed him so many times, the law of averages could not be bucked this many times.
There it was, stretched out ten feet before him, its mouth clenching down on air, and Jack placed his hand on its neck and jumped it again, it seemed like he had been doing this trick forever, that for years he had fled before this snake, jumping again and again over its body, and Jack realized it was pulling back, retracting into its own coils again, readying for its final and this time successful strike, and Jack stuck out his hand and grabbed what appeared to be a six-foot pine tree, and he whipped himself around it, not slowing at all, and he vaulted himself away from the tree into the forest, dodging about a tall tree trunk, and then forcing himself to zig and zag from tree to tree, that freaking snake, oh that flipping freaking snake, let it follow him in here!
Because he was in the trees and maybe the snake wouldn’t like the dark forest. It certainly wouldn’t be able to maneuver as well as Jack could manage. He glanced back. Oh, the snake seemed to be maneuvering just fine, because it was only ten feet back, erupting through the trees.
Damn it, Jack snarled, that just wasn’t fair, after his mad dash to the forest, and it now seemed the forest wouldn’t protect him any better than the tall grasses.
For the first time since this trauma had begun, Jack realized he was gasping for breath, and he was tired, he was flat-out pooped. This should be the moment when he could fling himself upon the dark loam of the forest floor, and laugh at his ordeal. But the ordeal wasn’t ready to let him go. There would be no laughing, not even of the maniacal kind.
Jack ran down corridors of trees, he dashed between trunks that were a hard fit for his body, he cut back around larger trees, and he managed to scan the overhead branches as he ran. He didn’t think climbing a tree would protect him from the snake, but he had to try something other than endless running because his heart was pounding throughout his body, he could feel it throbbing in his fingertips. He was slick with sweat, and kept trying to wipe the moisture out of his eyes with his forearms, which only succeeded in rubbing the sweat from his forearms into his eyes.
Branches crackled behind him, and he heard the vast snake breathing, loudly, the great thing was winded too, and Jack couldn’t run very fast any longer, not because his body was depleted, but because the closeness of the trees constrained him, and the noises behind him told him the snake was not as hampered as was he, and finally he leapt for a branch that seemed just out of his reach in a tall tree, and he caught it with his fingertips, thank God, and without pause he swung himself up like a gymnast and started climbing, hand over hand, climbing like a monkey, hardly testing branches with his feet as he propelled himself upward. Thankfully, his arms were in great shape, able to pull his bodyweight, which was much faster than trying to find good footholds.
The snake was just beneath the tree and it rose up high as a man, and then more, higher, it reared up majestically, taller and taller, not climbing the tree, but rearing up like a cobra before the tree. Jack kept his eye on it even as he scrambled higher, and higher, and within moments he was thirty feet up in the tree, on the other side of the trunk which he gauged to be about three feet around.
Jack paused, peeking around the trunk, the snake’s head was just there, watching him. He glanced down, not willing to take his gaze away from the snake’s face for more than a moment, and he saw its body drawing into a vast pile of coils at the base of the tree, my goodness, how big was the thing, anyway? If Jack stood on the ground in that pile of coils it would be far over his head. The ring of coils was fifteen feet across, at least, and ten feet above the ground. Jack glanced back at the snake’s head. It watched him. It was perfectly still, save for the expansion of its body as it breathed. Its head was just outside the ring of branches, extended thirty feet above the forest floor.
Jack glanced up. He could probably climb another thirty feet, but didn’t doubt that the snake would be able to reach him, even way up there. He looked back at the snake. It watched him.
“Come on already,” Jack said, feeling near tears. “Why don’t you just go away?”
The snake cocked its head. Jack readied himself. It was about to strike.
“You speak to me,” the snake breathed in a strangely high-pitched voice, sibilant and hissing.
Jack’s eyes grew huge. It was almost worse, that it talked. Come on, this was just too much. How much could he take before his brain short-circuited? He remembered the note, don’t be afraid, and almost snorted. Dumb old man, great advice.
“You dare speak to me, Little Mouse,” the snake hissed, “why do you run from me? I will admit, naked manchild, my Little Mouse, that you have impressed me, for no other has eluded me. None other has reached the green talls, nor the man-dwelling beneath the green lows.”
Great, Jack thought, there’s a man-dwelling, I ran the wrong way. Wouldn’t you know it?
“Can we call it…quits, then, good race and all that?” Jack said, pleading, his body now trembling, because listening to its high strange voice filled him with surreal fright.
“No we cannot call it quits, Little Mouse,” the snake said, its head drawing back, sneering (Jack readied himself to dodge behind the trunk, he felt it was close, the snake’s next strike, he sensed it was lulling him so that he would be standing still when its head darted in and its fangs plunged into his heaving chest). “You are my meat. It is written, Little Mouse, that the man who eats the sacred food shall be meat for the god.”
“I didn’t eat the sacred food,” Jack said.
“Liar,” the snake breathed. “You ate the fruit, I smell it in your sweat. You reek of my sacredness.”
Jack thought of the lumpy pear thing in his hand, biting it, its sweetness, its goodness. Stupid fruit. He hadn’t even been hungry. What was he thinking?
“Come on, couldn’t you post a sign or something,” he said, thinking about the thick branch about five feet above him. When the snake struck, he would dodge behind the trunk and in the same motion leap for that branch. “I wouldn’t have eaten it if I thought it was sacred food. I just ate about ten pancakes, I wasn’t even hungry!”
“You ate the sacred food of the gods, and now you are my meat, come, offer yourself to me, freely, and I will swallow you without my usual entertainment. You shall digest inside of me for thirty days, alive, conscious, a part of me. Come to me, Little Mouse.”
Jack felt a compulsion to do just that, step forward through the branches, and throw himself into the snake’s mouth, arms spread wide.
“Call him, the god, I’ll apologize. I want to talk to the god,” Jack said.
“Fool, you are talking to your god,” the snake said, and its throat expanded to either side, spreading itself out wider than a cobra hood, and it was beautiful, shimmering with rainbow flickers of twinkling light. It looked like wings spread from its neck fifteen feet on either side. He caught twinkles of indigo, deep colors, they were gorgeous, sparks of purple, flickers of crimson.
“Beautiful,” Jack breathed, the twinkling lights reminding him of Disneyland after dark, or the rich neighborhoods at Christmas, for the twinkles of light were actual illuminations, glowing in the dark forest. They were lights, not reflections. Great, the electric serpent.
“Yes, I am beautiful, and I am your god, and you will obey me,” the serpent said.
“You’re not my god,” Jack said, hardly thinking of what he said, but this monster might be huge, but it certainly was nothing he would ever consider worshipping.
The snake struck, brutally fast, like all predators in nature, one moment it was still, and the next its head was just before Jack and he barely managed to tuck behind the trunk of the tree, at the same instant leaping for that branch above him, but the snake’s passage struck the tree and jarred it violently, so that Jack’s left hand missed the branch, but his right hand caught on just by the fingertips, and he swung crazily, high above the forest, the snake’s head withdrawing beneath him. And twisting, Jack nearly fell, not doubting that the snake would pluck him out of the air before he ever came close to the ground.
Jack’s fingers lost purchase and he fell but slapped the branch with a second swipe of his left hand and he pulled himself upward, scrambling up, kicking his feet for momentum, doing the monkey thing again, crazedly pulling himself upward branch by branch, the strength of his muscular arms amazing, kicking his feet at the snake’s head just beneath him as it rose through the branches of the tree. His left foot slapped the snake in the eye and the beast—the god—withdrew back through the branches. Gasping and groaning, Jack peered down at the snake’s head, just ten feet beneath him. It could bite him, right now, at any moment, and Jack had nowhere to go. He felt a bolt of panic wash through him, sweeping upward from his genitals to punch his belly up into his heart.
Jack vomited, his gut clenching, body bending, and all his pancakes and coffee rushed out of him, the contents of the little packs of raspberry jelly that he smeared over his sourdough toast, gushing in a massive spew of acid and fluid, splashing on and over the snake’s face. Jack doubled over, falling onto the thick branch, and the impact drove a second gout of vomit from him.
The snake hissed, outraged, and withdrew from the deluge of vomit, blinking its eyes of the acid.
“Profaner, barbarian, stinking foul mouse!” the snake hissed, shaking its head violently, withdrawing again outside the ring of branches.
“Sorry about that,” Jack coughed, and then spouted again, his mouth a funnel, a literal fountain of bile.
“Never have I been so defiled,” the snake spat. The snake drew close again and seemed to sniff at him, but with a tongue that on its own was the size of a swollen boa constrictor. “But clever, Little Mouse, for the sacred food is purged. But do not think you have escaped me, for you are now my enemy. I swear it. I swear it.”
“Sorry, I’m sorry, no need to swear,” Jack pleaded, scrubbing his mouth with his arm, “just too much excitement for one day, plus I kind of overdid it at IHOP.”
“Do not call upon other gods, Little Mouse, they will not save you,” the snake hissed.
Jack blinked, peering through the branches at the snake who was risen again at his level. They must be forty feet up. He didn’t know what the snake was referring to, calling upon other gods, unless he meant IHOP, and although Jack loved their pancakes, he wouldn’t ever consider the place to be anything close to a church.
“I will find you, Little Mouse, but now you will not be my meat. You will be my…plaything.”
“Yeah, yeah, see you then, maybe we can have another race, slowpoke,” Jack said, never able to resist a bit of sarcasm. But even as he said it he felt he might have gone a tad too far.
The snake stared at him, hard, and then it was coiling away, slithering noisily through the trees, its body seeming to take forever even as fast as it moved. And finally, Jack was alone, in the dark forest, exhausted, utterly spent. He patted the tree trunk.
“Thanks, tree,” he breathed. He rubbed the trunk of tree, enjoying the rough texture of the bark. Then he felt something, an irregularity in the bark. His fingers traced along what felt like, yes, something that wasn’t a natural part of the tree, it was a carving in the bark, it was the letter…J.
He traced. J. And next, there was the letter A.
“No way,” he breathed, finding the next letter C, and the final K.
He placed his palm over the letters carved up forty feet in the very tree he had chosen in his panicked rush. Out of all the dingy forests in the world, and I have to climb up this high to find my name carved right…here.
A blue flash of light enveloped him and he felt vertigo wash through him. He blinked, his ears popping, head spinning. He was no longer seated on the branch of the tree, forty feet up in the air.
He was sitting on a little bed, in a small circular room. On the bed next to him was a pile of clothing. He felt so dizzy. He glanced about the room, noticing the small fireplace against one wall, a small wooden door opposite, and a window with glass across from him. On the mantelpiece above the fireplace was a beautiful, intricately carved bow, with a quiver of arrows slung beneath it. And what looked like a silver dagger. He wanted to get off the bed and look out the window, but it was all too much.
Jack slumped over on the bed, huddled into a ball, and fell into a deep rush of blissful darkness.
Number Six pulled his bathrobe over his sweats, his fingers barely able to loop and cinch the broad terrycloth belt at his waist. Why was it so cold? He rummaged in the drawers beneath the chamber and found the extra blankets, snatched one out and pulled it over his shoulders, remembering how carefully Seven had tucked the blanket about him that day in the kitchenette. His teeth chattered and he clenched his jaws to cease the racket. Moaning, he moved around his chamber area over to that of Number Seven. Her chamber was closed, as expected, humming softly. He had distantly hoped she would be out and about, and that they might have a little chat.
“Suh-suh-Seven?” Number Six called, slapping his palms loudly on her chamber. Funny, he never noticed before, but their chambers were very much like coffins, big, fat coffins. He felt dizzy. Although the lighting was muted, as always, it still seemed too bright. He clenched his eyes and slapped the chamber a few more times, huddling in his blanket. He knocked on the metal surface of the chamber with his fist.
He knew there was a way to communicate with Number Seven through the nearby console, in fact he could contact her from inside his own chamber, but he needed to talk to her again, he needed to have a nice face-to-face sit-down with another person, and last time Number Seven had made him feel so much better. With months racked up in Voyages, he just felt he needed to sit with another real person, hear a voice—her voice.
Number Six slumped down and sat with his back against Number Seven’s chamber. He pulled the blanket about him and tried to remain calm, he tried to suppress the trembling that wracked his emaciated body. It was almost time.
He had followed the old man’s instructions, perfectly, to the letter. Old Ben had assured him that everything would be okay, that this plan would work, he would finally be able to save Varra, in High Vale, but here in RL he was hitting a crisis. It just didn’t feel real any longer, here, in this place, in the flesh. He must be losing his mind, because this felt like the simulation, and not a particularly good one.
If he managed to save Varra—and he would, he would, he just had to—with the promised help, he knew things would change, not only in High Vale, but here. Things were about to cross a threshold, and never be the same again. Perhaps they already had. He didn’t know if he could ever go back to classes, or a mundane job, or even just the plain old normalcy of sitting down to a meal with a group of people.
Number Six was afraid. He huddled down in Number Seven’s little alcove outside her chamber, and he actually drifted toward sleep. When was the last time he had actually slept? It had to be two months, at least, and in the compressed time of the chamber, it was actually as if he had been conscious for years, ever active, ever moving, never stopping, jumping from one interesting thing to another, one dynamic act after another. His teeth chattered and he placed his palm over his mouth to suppress the trembling, and he drifted for long moments, and then, quietly, with a sigh, he fell asleep, snoring almost immediately.
Seven sat cuddled on her couch, a fuzzy blanket drawn up about her, sipping her cup of coffee. Quiet Mozart played. She had chimes tinkling on the small balcony that was usually her dormer window, and crickets fiddled in the warm summer breeze. On the coffee table before her sat the small stack of books, Murakami’s 1Q84, Galouye’s Simulacron-3, and Goldman’s Control. She had just finished reading all of them—she didn’t like the absorption trick wherein all the contents of a book could be assimilated in moments, she preferred the old-fashioned way of reading each word; of course, it wasn’t actually old-fashioned, as she could speed up the time of reading, from anywhere at a normal hundred words a minute or so, to a comparatively amazing thousand words a minute (she could even speed through at five thousand words per minute, but that just felt like cheating, there was very little enjoyment), so she had in reality only spent about ten minutes reading all three books.
She could not say that she liked any of them, except maybe William’s Goldman’s book. She liked the artist, the painter of the blues, and she kind of had a crush on the young cop, and even liked the humor of the old cop. But all three books were just too “sciencey-fictiony” for her taste. And 1Q84 was actually kind of creepy, eerie. But something about all three books made her feel a little funny, indescribably odd; they gave her the feeling that someone was watching her as she read, causing the hairs to stand up on the back of her neck.
And it freaked her out, some, that both Jack and Stacey read these books and were drawn by their reading toward suspecting what was actually happening to them, or not happening, not truly, but that they were not…real. That was impossible. The crystal sandbox was programmed in such a way that anyone even coming close to the truth was naturally led away from his or her suspicions. They were supposed to think, “Well, that’s weird,” and then just drop it, write it off as coincidence, or déjà vu, or just a plain ole weird feeling (if pressed too far, the program would remind them that perhaps they were going crazy, and then console them with the fact that crazy people do not question their sanity, and this is where it would usually end). And Jack even seemed to intuit Seven’s presence, he described it as she had always been there, a part of his life, watching him, but what he couldn’t know was that his life was only a few days old. True, anyone in the crystal sandbox would have the ability to draw on tons and tons of stored memory, impressions, remembered feelings, all the required minutia of a very real life, drawn from the data of an actual life, one lived long, long ago.
Jack was somehow sensing her presence as she examined his childhood, his boyhood, his teenage years; she had somehow become his Lady Ghost. She kind of liked that, that she was somehow inserting herself into his actual life, although she knew this was not what was in reality occurring.
A book like 1Q84 seemed to be drawing on the same conclusions; the author somehow knew that his world was more than it appeared to be, or he more likely guessed at it. More, and less. And for crying out loud, Simulacron-3 put it all out there, okay, kind of in a melodramatic science fiction way, but still, how could these authors even guess any of this? Especially from the 1960s, and the early two-thousands? The technology back then hardly hinted at what she employed today on a daily basis, even what the outside world used for everyday things. They could have no way of knowing. People like Jack, Stacey, even the authors, they were like cavemen, dreaming of a distant future.
A muffled thumping came through her Inner Sanctum. What in the world? Her hand went to her heart and pressed the locket under her sweats. What was that? Was that inside her head?
No, she realized what it was. It was not from here, in her Inner Sanctum, but it was the call from another world, the one out there, outside her chamber. Why would someone bang on her chamber? It couldn’t be good.
She inhaled deeply. She couldn’t hide, not even in here. She would have to go out there, and face whatever it was that banged like the fist of doom upon her world. She must rise from her dreams into the harsher world of RL.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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