Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 8
In need of sleep, Hasta falls into a vivid and terrifying nightmare world, only to be awakened by a new and nauseatingly real enemy.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Ivan was okay! Reading his brief email Hasta wanted to cry, but her relief was tempered by her worry for Juan. She hit REPLY and typed:
Ivan! Im fine. Still here & all alone. But Mr Sunshine has Juan. Please find him. Stay safe.
After logging off the principal’s computer, Hasta scoped her way to the southwest corner of the school, alert for any signs of life. She entered the gymnasium and let herself into the big equipment room that contained everything necessary to host a basketball game or volleyball tournament. She closed the door behind her and made sure it was still locked. The room smelled of vinyl and old sweat. She tried not to think too hard about that as she found a gymnastics mat two feet thick to lie down on.
Hasta rolled up her sweatshirt to use for a pillow. It was warm inside the room, but she shivered like a girl huddling in a dark forest filled with bears and wolves. Terrified, she closed her eyes.
She opened them again to find herself once more on the vast tiled plain. She was down on one knee, left elbow propped on her thigh to steady the crossbow in her grip. Her eye ached from sighting down the tiller, where a square-headed bolt was nocked and ready to let fly at the wall of gray-black cloud a mile ahead that blotted out the horizon.
Every muscle felt tense. Her nerves were twanging like piano wire. Sweat dripped down her forehead. How long had she been kneeling here in this position? It seemed like forever. What was approaching? She had no idea.
She took her hand off the trigger to wipe her brow, then wiped her hand on the back of her rough cloth trousers. She returned her finger to the trigger and rested her eyes a moment by looking back over her shoulder at the gray- and salmon-colored tiles. She took her other hand off the crossbow’s stock and massaged the bridge of her nose. Then she put her eye back to the tiller and took sight again on the wall of cloud.
She swung the crossbow slowly left to right and back. As she did, her line of sight passed over the distant fallen body of Gillian Smart. Gillian was closer than the cloudbank, but it was hard to tell by how much. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? Sometimes the cloud seemed miles beyond her, sometimes on the verge of swallowing Gillian up.
Hasta looked away again, blinking hard. The optical illusion, if that’s what it was, was giving her a headache. And though she didn’t want to turn her back on that freaky cloudbank, she needed to see if her other friends were all right. She pivoted until she could see Ivan. He was still asleep, leaning on his staff, but at least he appeared alive. Hasta wished he would wake up, though.
Beyond Ivan, Juan appeared to be half-awake. She waved, but though she could see him with some clarity, he didn’t seem to see her. He was swaying on his feet. The head of the axe he gripped in both his hands dipped and weaved drunkenly in the air before him. This filled her with trepidation.
Far past Juan, a dark-skinned girl wearing a feathered cap stood in apparent slumber, and beyond her was a white-haired person of indeterminate gender. Together they formed a line that ran from the stormfront toward some kind of huge platform or altar in the distance. Something lay atop the platform, but she couldn’t tell what.
Hasta swept the horizon. Along with the giant pillars, she could make out two other lines of sentinels. They ran at divergent angles from hers, but all three converged on the platform. It was like they were rays emanating from that great edifice and running outward to infinity.
And something else. Turning again to face the black bank of cloud, she realized the stormfront did not run in a straight plane perpendicular to her sentinel line. The farther she looked to either side, the more it seemed to curve, as if it might wrap all the way around the horizon to meet far behind her. As if this clear space they all occupied and defended were the eye of a hurricane vast enough to swallow a world.
Hasta readjusted her grip on the crossbow and focused on the cloudbank. The dark clouds roiled, making shapes that suggested giant monstrosities fighting their way out of some black shroud. Within the depths of the storm lightning flashed, casting skeletal patterns of bright and dark onto the surface of the clouds. But for the faint wind at her back, the scene was utterly silent.
She licked her lips. “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” she muttered, but she wasn’t sure if she were wishing for her friends to join this fight or for herself to pop out of the vision.
Her very bones seemed to rattle from the tension.
She didn’t know how long she’d been waiting when tendrils of shadow curled out from the stormfront like smoke, whipping and waving, coalescing into almost coherent shapes—black swords, dark maces, serpentine flails. Hasta swallowed, jerking her crossbow one way and the other as she tracked the spots where monstrous bodies seemed about to stretch the boundary of cloud to the breaking point.
Sweat stung her eyes, turning everything blurry. She wiped it quickly away.
By the time she returned her hand to the tiller, Gillian’s body was lost in the black cloudbank. A huge blue monster broke out of the mass and charged. Even from a hundred yards out, it was fearsome and grim. It had the body of a blue-skinned man but a lumpy blue head like a boar. It wore only leather breeches, and its round belly rippled as it ran. Snaggly yellow tusks jutted from its mouth in every direction. When it bellowed, the sound reverberated in Hasta’s ribs—all the more terrifying for being the only sound she could hear. It waved its four arms, one of which held a wicked, curved scimitar, one a dagger the size of her leg, one a shield, and one an iron-capped club that looked like the thighbone of a giant.
Hasta could barely breathe. Her lungs felt paralyzed. Every instinct told her to run, but her friends stood in a line behind her, some asleep or vulnerable or both. Her crossbow seemed like a toy in the face of such a creature, but that was what she had. She aimed carefully at the beast’s beady eye, trying to anticipate its motion from one instant to the next.
Aiming a little high, she took a deep breath and gently squeezed the trigger as she exhaled. A thrumming thwok! sounded as the bowstring launched the bolt, and Hasta’s shoulder took a solid thump from the recoil. Before she even saw whether her shot landed, she was reaching over her shoulder to pull the next bolt from her quiver. Her hands seemed to act of their own accord, as if they’d had training she hadn’t.
As she slapped the bolt into the long groove on the tiller and turned the crank to draw back the string, she saw that the monster had dropped the dagger and club and clapped two of its hands to its face. It stumbled to its knees, yellow blood pouring from between its fingers. With a howl, it fell on its face and was still.
A thrill of relief shot through her, but Hasta had no time to savor it. Now two great monsters rushed from the cloud at once, widely separated, smoky tendrils tearing away and dissipating as they run. The one on the left, alligator-headed, wielded a long spiky chain that it snapped like a whip. The one on the right, blue and horned, carried a spear like a sharpened tree trunk.
Hasta aimed first for the second creature, which seemed the greater threat. She needed two bolts to bring it down, but as it fell it launched its spear straight at her. She sprang to the right, trying to keep her distance from the alligator creature. The tree-spear crashed against the tile where she’d just been kneeling and skidded across the marble floor. Hasta whipped the crossbow into position and brought the alligator creature down from a distance of fifty yards.
Not all that close, but far closer than Hasta ever wanted to get to such a monster.
She gasped for air, already winded. “Ivan, Code Fred, Code Fred!” she shouted over her shoulder as she dropped again to one knee. “Juan, some help!”
Three vulture-headed monsters rushed from the cloudbank in tight formation, brandishing claws like iron blades.
Thwok! Thwok! Thwok! Thwok! Hasta’s hand blurred as she cranked new bolts into place and fired them off. Blood in sick yellows and greens spurted, splattered, and spread in pools across the marble. The blue veins in the stone pulsed hotly as the blood steamed. Hasta blinked away sweat and swallowed her rising gorge.
Five monsters emerged. Hasta had no time even to register their faces or weapons before she was mowing them down. The fifth and final fell dead a mere twenty yards from her, green blood fountaining from a wound in its neck. A dozen new monsters were already closing the gap between the cloudbank and her.
A sob choked its way out of her even as she kept on reaching, loading, cranking, firing. She was sure she’d run out of bolts any moment. Then, all alone against a monstrous army, she’d have only the dagger at her belt.
But with four monsters down, a shadow fell over her. She looked up. A giant face with bushy blonde muttonchop whiskers was falling toward her like a meteorite. Its brows were drawn together in puzzlement over blue eyes, its mouth bearing a quizzical half-smile.
Hasta thought the face would crush her, but then she sat bolt upright in grainy darkness.
“What are you?” asked a scratchy young male voice, inches from her face. The touch of its warm breath turned her stomach. “I’ve never seen anything like you. I don’t understand.”
Hasta sprang to her feet, pushing the shadowy speaker hard in the chest. She rushed toward a gray crack in the dimness, found a light switch next to the open door and slapped it.
She squinted in the sudden light. She was still in the equipment room where she’d gone to sleep. The door was open a foot, a bristling key ring hanging from the lock. On the floor, scuttling backward like a player in a game of crab soccer, was a towheaded white boy in wet pajamas. He backed against a bin full of basketballs and stared at her with the same puzzled expression as the giant face in her vision, though he looked nothing like it.
The boy was about her age. His straight, damp hair was pale blond, almost white, and looked like it had been cut at home with a bowl. He wore light-colored pajamas with vertical stripes, and his feet were dirty and bare. She thought she recognized him from school.
“LaVell?” she said. “LaVell Rigby?”
The boy stood up. He didn’t answer right away, but cocked his head like a bird and regarded her with curious, probing eyes. He was very pale, but his cheeks glowed a rosy pink. He took a step toward her, cupping his chin in one hand.
Hasta stepped backward into the doorway, not taking her eyes off him. The gym outside was dark, but light spilled from the adjacent coach’s office. “You stay back,” she said.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,” said the boy. “I’m just trying to figure out what you are.”
“What are you?” Hasta said, tensing to run. “What are you doing in here? I was sleeping.”
“Sleeping isn’t what it looked like to me.” The boy drummed his fingers on his chin and shrugged. Something furry scurried from the shadows at his feet to behind the bin. A mouse? No, too big. “Well, maybe you’ll answer some queries for me now that you’re, um, awake.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Hasta said, her skin crawling. The memory of her vision was slipping away again, in fraying tatters. As much as she wanted to forget it, she needed to write everything down. She headed for the coach’s office. Remembering would be vitally important.
The boy hurried after her. “No, seriously, hold still,” he said, trailing behind.
Hasta pushed into the coach’s office. The desktop was in disarray, and two drawers had been pulled open and sifted through. She sat down in the ergonomic chair and grabbed a pen and a bright blue notepad.
The boy stood in the doorway of the little brick-walled office, blocking the only way out. He didn’t look at her, though. Instead he typed at an invisible keyboard, sometimes making arcane motions with his right hand.
Creeped out, Hasta tried to ignore him. On the notepad, she scrawled:
- gray and pink marble plain
- black stormclouds
- Gillian, me, Ivan, Juan, dark girl, white boy, altar
- Gillian—dead? Ivan—asleep?
- crossbow, bolts, dagger, leather armor
- BLUE MONSTERS WITH FRAKKING SCARY WEAPONS!
- kinda Hindu-seeming, but not really
She ripped the sheet off, folded it, and stuffed it in her pocket as she stood up. She faced the boy, who was frowning down at whatever invisible thing was in front of him.
“You were in my Spanish class last year,” Hasta said, folding her arms.
The boy looked up, distracted. He was only an inch or two taller than she was. She thought she saw movement behind him on the gym floor, and she heard squeaky chittering. “Operator?” he said, pointing at the air in front of him. “It says you’re an operator. But you can’t be an operator.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what you really are, but I know one thing—this system is screwed up a lot worse than I thought.” He grinned. “Which makes things a whole lot easier for me.”
A deep chill ran through Hasta. “What are you talking about?” she said. “What do you know about it?”
“I know we’re in a blind zone,” the boy said, his smile cruel. He advanced on her. “Which means I can have a little fun.”
There was nowhere for Hasta to go. She stabbed her middle finger at him, but, like with Mr. Sunshine, the resistance was like ramming her finger into a brick wall. She shook her hand hard as her eyes teared up. The boy, teeth bared, jumped forward, grabbed her by the shoulders, and pressed her with his body against a sheet-metal bookcase.
He kissed and bit at her neck, tore at her T-shirt.
“Stop it!” she shouted, struggling for all she was worth. A rotting corpse pressed against her couldn’t have disgusted her more. The boy tried to grab her flailing arms, but she managed to get a grip on his shoulders at the same time that she slammed him in the balls with her knee.
The boy stumbled backward, screeching, hunched over his crotch. He had the audacity to look offended.
“You can’t do that!” he cried, spittle flying from his lips. “You’re not even real!”
“The heck I’m not,” Hasta said, and kicked him under the chin with her steel-toed combat boot.
The boy crashed backward and lay on the floor moaning and bleeding normal red blood and clutching himself and squirming around in pain. Rats—yes, rats, half a dozen of them, which had clustered in the doorway—shrieked and scattered into the shadows. Hasta stood over the boy, shaking so hard she couldn’t still her hands. She wanted to throw up.
“I don’t have time for this!” she yelled down at him. “Don’t you know the world is ending, dipstick!”
The boy’s eyes flew wide. “What?”
She waved a spastic fist, quashing the urge to kick him again. “You haven’t seen the messages? ‘Prepare, the end is near!’ If you’re not going to help, just leave us alone!”
The boy scuttled backward out the office door. “The end is near?” he said, head turning from side to side. Blood from his chin traced a speckled arc across the front of his pajamas. “Oh God, oh God. I gotta get outta here.”
Hasta advanced on him, seized by a wild and desperate hope. “What do you know about Vishnu?” she demanded. “Is he waking up?”
“Vishnu? What on earth are you—”
The boy’s eyes rolled back in his head, and his body stiffened. With a gasp, he collapsed to the floor.
Hasta was about to leave him there and make tracks when the boy groaned. His eyelids fluttered and opened. He blinked, grimacing in obvious pain. His brow furrowed.
“Hasta?” he said, looking up at her. “Hasta Veeramachaneni?”
“LaVell?” she said, ready to kick him again and bolt.
“Where am I? Is this the gym?” He tried to sit up but fell back again and closed his blue eyes. “Hasta, what am I doing here?” √
To be continued…