Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 11
Fighting for her life, Hasta finds herself transported to a mysterious and ominous new realm, while Lamm and Kray get one step closer to finding her.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
She found herself standing on a vast plain, under a cloudless sky of the most intense azure she had ever seen. That sky was so beautiful it made her want to cry. She looked down. The ground under her feet was not ground at all but instead an intricate mosaic of giant rectangular marble tiles, some gray, some salmon-colored. The mosaic extended to the horizon in every direction, never, as far as Hasta could tell, repeating in its pattern. The dark veins in the marble stood out so clear and blue that they might almost have been veins, visible even inches beneath the surface and pulsing with life.
A faint wind blew as Hasta looked around, neither cold nor warm in temperature but somehow fresh. Off in the distance behind her, a pillar of what looked like the same gray marble rose so far into the sky its top was lost in the blue. She could barely make out a similar pillar far behind her to her left, and another far behind her to her right. And now she started picking out other pillars, in every direction, eight of them at least. But what most drew her attention as she turned in a circle was Ivan, standing about a hundred yards away.
When she noticed him, she was no longer certain what direction she’d been facing when she first found herself here, but he was standing side-on to her, facing left. She felt no surprise at seeing him, and none at not having noticed him immediately, just as she felt no surprise at being here at all. Despite the distance, she could see him with preternatural clarity. He was dressed strangely—and familiarly, in some uncanny fashion—in what looked like leather armor over a tunic and leggings of rough-spun cloth. He wore a longsword slung across his back in a scabbard of something resembling horn. He gripped a tall walking staff in one hand, and in fact it was helping to prop him up, because he was asleep. His sleeping was the only thing about him that bothered her. She wanted him to be awake like she was.
The sight of Ivan prompted Hasta to look down at herself. She was outfitted similarly, with soft fawn-colored boots laced snugly most of the way to her knees. Her clothes and armor were so comfortable, she scarcely realized she had them on. A sheathed dagger hung at her left hip from a leather belt, and over her right shoulder was slung, at least as far as she could tell craning her neck, a crossbow and a quiver full of bolts. Somehow she felt she would know how to use these weapons if she had to.
She looked in the opposite direction from Ivan and had to stifle a sob. It was a girl, about the same distance away, dressed also in leather armor but lying facedown on the marble, her head turned away. She lay in a pool of blood, arrows bristling from her back, a broken sword near one outstretched hand. Hasta didn’t need to see the short blonde hair with the ends dyed crimson to know this was Gillian.
What on earth had happened? Hasta looked back toward Ivan, suddenly fearful that he, too, was dead, but no, she could see him breathing and knew he only slept. In fact, far past Ivan she saw another figure, Juan, also asleep standing up, and beyond him at least one more. It was a girl, she could tell that much at this distance but no more.
But beyond Gillian, across all that fathomless tiled plain, she saw no one else. She started in that direction, hoping against hope that she might find a little life in her one-time friend, but the marble was slick and difficult to walk on. Hasta slipped to one knee, but even as she did she heard a distant rumble of drums, or thunder.
Facing the same way as Ivan and the other sleeping sentinels, she saw ahead and to her left, more in Gillian’s direction, a massing of dark gray at the horizon.
Ice filled her veins, and her nerves sang as if at a bugle call. Had that been there a moment before? She wasn’t sure. And what was it? Storm? Smoke? Swarm of locusts? Hasta had no idea, but she knew that whatever that blackness heralded, it meant a fight, if not outright war.
She drew her crossbow smoothly from over her shoulder. Turning her head, she drew breath to shout to Ivan, to wake him, to alert him—
Erin’s face, framed by a bright corona and the night sky, loomed suddenly over her again, eyeballs rolling up to reveal their whites. The fingers had loosened at Hasta’s throat, and Erin toppled slowly sideways off her chest. A sodium-vapor lamp on a tall pole, eclipsed until now by Erin’s head, blazed into Hasta’s eyes as she gasped for breath.
Woozy and coughing, she tried to sit up, pulling one arm out from under Erin’s slumped form. The lamp was blocked again as Ivan stepped in front of it, bending down toward her. He dropped the heavy black briefcase with which he had apparently clocked Erin. He wore an almost comic look of shock on his face, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just done.
He seemed to shake it off. “Hasta, are you okay?” he said, helping her sit up.
Hasta bent forward with her head between her knees, rubbing her throat and trying to breathe. Her lungs heaved. Her trachea felt like it was filled with broken glass, and her back was killing her.
“Take a minute,” Ivan said, rubbing her back, “but if you can do it we should probably get moving as quick as we can.”
Hasta looked over at him, squatting between her and the platform edge. “I saw you, Ivan,” she croaked. It seemed very important to tell him. “Juan too.”
“Saw us where?” His brow furrowed. “Down on the street?”
“On the tiles,” she said, and started to cough. “Storm coming.”
Ivan looked up at the sky. “Yeah, could be. Do you think you can stand?”
She nodded, and he slung her arm around his shoulders. Hasta grabbed his sleeve with her other hand. She felt like she had to convey some sense to him of what she’d just seen, but the images and sensations were starting to slip away.
“You had a sword,” she said. “But I think you were asleep.”
“Okay, let’s go. Hold on.” Ivan braced himself with an arm around her back and hauled her with him up to her feet. “You can walk?”
Hasta blinked several times and coughed. She looked down at Erin, who was out cold. The older girl’s eyes seemed to be moving at a furious pace behind her closed lids, and her hands twitched.
“What do we do about her?” Hasta said. The urgency of her vision was nearly gone, but her throat still felt awful.
“I don’t know. We can’t throw her onto the tracks.”
“I guess not.”
“Wait, is that Erin Geraghty? It is.”
Ivan released Hasta long enough to point his cupped hand down at Erin. A rat that had crept out from behind the black garbage can scampered back to safety. Ivan turned his wrist and Erin’s black topcoat cycled through the spectrum. It stopped at a hot, electric pink that almost hurt to look at.
“Take that,” Ivan said. He hurried Hasta along as he wiped sweat from his pale brow. “What happened, anyway?”
Hasta coughed again, rubbing her throat. It felt like something was broken in there. “She and Dennis Clegg snatched me right out of my backyard.”
“Don’t tell them that. They were taking me to see their boss, and they tried to make me snort drift. That’s when I ran.”
“We saw you run into the station,” Ivan said. “We were riding the Damen bus, Juan and me. We—I—” He cleared his throat. “I had this weird feeling you were in trouble.”
Hot tears pressed against the backs of Hasta’s eyes. She blinked them back and grabbed the front of Ivan’s jacket. “Ivan, did you see what I did to Dennis? I did the same thing I did to Bobby.”
Ivan made a disappointed sound. “You mean I missed it again?”
Weakly Hasta slapped him on the arm. “I didn’t want to! He—he made me. Ivan, I don’t understand this. Why is this happening?”
“I don’t know, but don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” Ivan reached past her suddenly with the briefcase and handed it to a man in a blue suit who had shrunk back against the platform railing. “Here’s this back, sir. Thank you.”
The man grabbed the briefcase and hugged it to his chest, watching them pass with unconcealed fright. In fact, Hasta now noticed, all the commuters on the platform were standing back out of their way, watching them with wary expressions.
“So this is what you do when a brown girl’s getting choked to death right in front of you?” she shouted. She started coughing again.
“Come on, H.,” said Ivan quietly. “Let’s blow before someone gets brave and decides to call the police.”
Hasta didn’t need any prompting to know she didn’t want to have to explain to the police what had happened to Dennis. She couldn’t explain it to herself. Was he alive? Dead? Disintegrated? The uncertainty made it hard to breathe.
Ivan helped her limp down the stairs. A black cat froze on one of the steps below them, then dodged around them and dashed up to the platform.
“Where’s Juan?” Hasta asked.
“We split up,” Ivan said. “He ran after the car.”
Hasta shook her head. She was more than a little hurt that Juan had followed the car instead of coming to help her.
A clowder of mewling cats churned on the sidewalk outside the station. A couple of them darted inside as Ivan held the door open for Hasta. The commuters from earlier had all dispersed.
Hasta trembled in the cold as Ivan led her south. Her clothes stuck to her skin in sweaty patches. In a patch of shadow a block from the station, Juan came rushing up to them, out of breath.
“Hasta, are you okay?” he said, wrapping her in a big hug. “What happened?”
“It was awful.” She leaned into Juan’s shoulder, soaking up his warmth.
“What about you?” Ivan said. “Anything?”
“The car got away, and I couldn’t get a license plate.”
Hasta pushed back from Juan and hugged herself in the wind. “I’ll tell you whose car it was. Frida Sandstrom’s.”
Juan looked stunned. “What were you doing with her?”
“It wasn’t my choice. And I might have died if it weren’t for Ivan.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ivan said, but he looked pleased.
Hasta shivered. The tears were threatening to start again. “I dealt with Dennis, but Erin would have choked me to death.”
“Dennis Clegg?” Juan said. “You dealt with him? How?”
“What do you mean, how?” said Hasta, frustrated at not being understood. She made starbursts of her hands. “Poof! Like with Bobby. Didn’t Ivan fill you in?”
“I mean, yeah, but—” Juan shook his head. He looked confused and afraid. “Why were they after you?”
“That’s the whole thing!” Hasta sputtered. “I don’t know.”
Ivan give Juan a significant look, raising his eyebrows as if he expected Juan to say something, but sirens started wailing in the distance.
“Uh-oh,” said Ivan. “We’d better keep moving.”
The back of Hasta’s neck would not stop crawling as they hurried west. After a few blocks, Ivan pulled them into a recessed gateway and took his phone out.
“Hasta, you should call your dad,” he said, punching buttons. “He’s worried sick.”
The thought of talking to her father made Hasta’s stomach hurt. “How do you know that?” she asked.
“Long story.” He passed her the phone. “It’s ringing.”
“You’re a jerk,” she said, but she put the phone to her ear.
A click sounded. “Hello—Ivan?” said her father. His voice sounded desperate, miserable, and thin.
“No, Daddy, it’s me,” she said, her throat swelling. “I’m all right.”
“Oh, Hasta, flower, Vishnu be praised!” cried her father. His voice hitched. “Where are you?”
Without expecting to, she started sobbing. Her shoulders heaved and shuddered. A big streamer of snot dripped out of her nose, which she wiped brusquely on the sleeve of her gray sweatshirt. Juan moved toward her but she shook her head and turned away.
Hasta cleared throat. “Weird things are going on,” she said, getting her voice under control. “I don’t know what. I just wanted you to know I’m okay.”
“Hasta, your mother is here too. Whatever’s going on, honey, we can help you. If you are in trouble, tell us. We love you. We’ll do whatever is necessary.”
“I don’t think you can help, and I’m not sure I’m safe at home. They’d just know where to find me.”
“Who would? Hasta, you’re frightening me. If you’re in trouble, come home. Let me call the police.”
Out the corner of her eye Hasta saw a pale smear in the night, half a block back. She turned her head, but it was gone.
“Sorry, I gotta go,” she said. “Just—just check all the locks, okay?”
“Wait, Hasta.” It was a tone she couldn’t ignore. “I take it Ivan’s with you?”
“Juan too,” said Hasta, tapping her foot.
“Listen, my daughter.” Her father’s voice grew steady. “I want you to know that I trust you. Like Rama of old, you walk with faithful companions. May the Preserver walk with you as well, in righteousness.” The line clicked.
Hasta turned to Ivan and Juan, stunned. She felt the grief, worry, and terror drain out of her, replaced by steel resolve. She handed the phone back to Ivan. “Okay, boys,” she said. “It’s time to find out what we can do.”
Lamm watched the nighttime streets roll past, his gaze pulling more and more to the left. This newest anomaly lay less than two blocks away. When it popped up, they were parked a mile to the west, staking out Ivan Babich’s apartment building, hoping for a break in their search for his female associate. Perhaps this was it.
And though this anomaly was animate, Lamm could sense its life force ebbing. They needed to hurry.
“After Racine, turn left on Clifton,” he said aloud.
Kray grunted acknowledgment. Speech was a crude and cumbersome way to communicate, but sometimes necessary when Kray was so focused on driving.
“And until then, stay in the left lane,” Lamm added. Truman College, on their right, extended all the way to the sidewalk, and Lamm had no desire to pass through its exclusion zone.
Clifton was a one-lane street that curved between the backs of two tall apartment blocks in this neighborhood of night clubs, diners, and transient hotels a mile from the Lake Michigan shore. They turned up the street the wrong way but couldn’t get far between the cars parked on both sides in the big old sedan. Kray left the lights on and they proceeded on foot, Lamm in the lead.
They didn’t have far to go. Just at the limit of the headlights, a fat man dressed all in black lay facedown in a puddle of blood. He could have toppled out one of the many windows that faced the street, or off one of the fire escapes, except for his horribly twisted legs. Those indicated that the man had dropped to the street in an upright position, as if the bottom had dropped out of some walkway above.
But there was no walkway above.
This man was definitely their anomaly. As Lamm knelt just outside the perimeter of blood, the sensation of wrongness in his head was already starting to fade. He reached out to feel for a pulse in the man’s pudgy neck. He couldn’t find one under the layers of fat, but, as he probed, the man turned his head to fix Lamm with a weak, watery gaze. His face was a bloody mess, but even in the bad light Lamm could now see that the victim was only a teenager. In fact, he recognized him as Dennis Clegg, one of A.A.’s several recruits.
“Are you able to hear me?” Lamm asked, leaning in close.
The boy’s eyes fell closed, then opened again slowly. His breathing was wet and shallow. He rocked his head forward and back in a gruesome parody of a nod.
One advantage of an animate anomaly was that you could sometimes query it in plain English. “What individual did this to you?” Lamm asked with all the compassion he could simulate.
The answer came out in a breathy burble. “H-Hasta. Hasta Vee-something. She’s . . . Indian.”
Lamm stood up and turned to Kray, who waited several feet back. —Did you hear all that? Lamm said. He realized as he signed that he must have put his right hand down in the puddle of blood, because now it was dripping with the stuff. He shook his hand several times to the side.
—I did, said Kray. —I’ve summoned an ambulance.
—The girl, Lamm said. —She’s a monster.
Behind him, the broken boy gasped wetly for air.
—Yes, said Kray.
—She’s a monster, Lamm said. —And she must be stopped. √
To be continued…