Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 7
Ivan finds himself on the Gameplain for the first time, where he formulates a desperate plan to help Juan get free.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta hadn’t told him all that much about the endless marble plain of her dreams, but Ivan certainly recognized it from her brief description when he opened his eyes. The tiles beneath his feet were slightly warm, the air neither warm not cold. The light didn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular—nor did the sense of dread that raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
He looked down at himself. He was dressed, as far as he could tell, like some kind of Robin Hood—leather armor over green cloth. He held a staff in his left hand. A reach over his shoulder confirmed that the weight slung across his back was a big sword of some kind. He didn’t draw the sword, but the hilt felt so right in his hand that he was tempted to.
He turned in a circle, scanning the horizon. Hasta had described a landscape thick with slavering monsters, but he saw nothing of the sort, just a line of distant black clouds. In fact, about a hundred yards away in that same direction he saw a short woman warrior with a black ponytail. She stood with her head down, as if asleep. Was that Hasta? It was hard to be sure, but he sensed it was. In the opposite direction, far away but still much closer than the giant altar in the distance, he saw Juan.
Ivan looked back toward Hasta. He could make out an arrow piercing her thigh. Juan, on the other hand, stood with his feet apart, knees bent, waving a double-headed axe unsteadily before him. Though he gripped the thick handle with both hands, he couldn’t keep seem to keep it balanced.
He wanted to go to Hasta, but it was Juan she had asked him to save. Hoping he was doing the right thing, Ivan headed toward Juan.
It was like running in a dream. Ivan didn’t cover the ground nearly as quickly it seemed he should. The tiles weren’t slick under his feet, but he had the strange sensation that they were disregarding the friction of his boots. Carrying the long staff was awkward, so he pushed off with it like a gondolier. That pushed him forward all in a burst. He took the staff in both hands, practically rowing himself along. The distance closed rapidly.
“Juan!” Ivan gasped, reaching the other boy. “Dude, what’s going on?”
Juan was dressed much like Ivan, but with a feathered cap perched atop his unbound hair. His eyes were half-closed, unfocused. The gleaming steel head of his axe bobbed and weaved as if he were drunkenly fending off a circle of marauders.
Ivan tried to get close enough to shake Juan’s shoulder, but the axe head kept getting in the way. Juan didn’t seem to sense him there. When the blade passed within an inch of his cheek, Ivan sprang back, dropping his staff and putting a hand up to grab the haft of the axe just below the head. He felt a mild electrical shock.
“Careful, dude, it’s me!” he exclaimed. But in that same moment he seemed to see himself superimposed over Juan’s slack face. Ivan was staring into his own stunned face, arm up to hold back the axe, while beyond him ranged an indistinct mass of black, roiling clouds. At the same time, he seemed to sense black walls around him, a chair, an inability to move his arms. He felt like wetting his pants.
Ivan let go of the haft and jumped out of the way of the blade. The weird composite vision vanished, and he looked over his shoulder. The clouds were nowhere near as close as they’d looked a moment before, just a smudge of shadow on the horizon.
“Juan!” he hissed, turning back. “Come on, snap out of it! Tell me where you are! Where’s are they holding you, dude?”
Juan kept twisting from side to side, swiping the unwieldy axe at nothing and nobody. Another hundred yards beyond him, Ivan spotted someone else—a girl dressed as a warrior, asleep on her feet, the spiky head of a mace resting beside her foot.
Kylie. He would have recognized her anywhere.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to calm his nerves. He wanted to run to her, get her out of this place. He felt suddenly claustrophobic, as if the closet walls were hemming him in again.
He took a breath. One thing at a time.
Ivan opened his eyes and watched the axe head weave. When it came close enough, he snatched at the haft with both hands. He felt that same electrical shock but held on.
Juan tugged at his end of the axe, but not very hard. Ivan felt this only distantly now that Juan’s viewpoint had superimposed itself over his vision again. He saw himself trying to wrest the axe away with the terrible clouds looming behind him, and he also saw Juan trying to keep hold of the weapon.
Something about the axe could help him help Juan. Ivan didn’t know how he knew this, but he did. He twisted the axe as he gave it a sharp jerk, and it popped out of Juan’s hands. The two of them stumbled apart.
Juan’s eyes sprang fully open. “No!” he cried, and to Ivan it felt like the words were coming from his own throat. The panic and desperation were his own. “Ivan, what are you doing? I need that!” Juan lunged for the axe.
Ivan both felt and saw the move coming, both saw and felt himself dancing out of the way. “Juan, please listen!” he both said and heard. He held the axe out to one side, fearful of losing himself to confusion and injuring one or both of them. “I’m trying to help. I need to know where to find you in the real world. Where are they keeping you, Juan?”
“I don’t know, in a room!” Juan shouted, lunging again. Ivan felt the tears of terror brimming in Juan’s eyes. “I need that, man! They’re coming!”
Ivan sidestepped Juan’s lunge. He didn’t want to let go of the axe, but maybe they could trade. With his free hand he lifted the sword over his head and offered it to Juan. Only then did he see the heavy scabbard’s intricate horn inlay.
“Take this,” Ivan said. Together with Juan’s, his eyes crawled hungrily along the scrolls and curlicues of the scabbard, entranced. He felt Juan’s yearning for the blade, watched what could almost have been his own eager hands reach out to accept the trade.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” said Juan, taking the scabbard in both hands.
Ivan let go of the sword. The bifurcation of his senses abruptly ended.
Juan slung the scabbard across his back. He drew the gleaming longsword and hefted it with both hands, its point toward the empty sky. He gave Ivan a nod and a grim smile. His eyes, though bloodshot, at last seemed fully focused.
“Watch my back, brother,” Juan said. He ran twenty or thirty yards in Hasta’s direction, then stopped and took up a defensive position facing the shadows on the horizon.
Ivan, though, felt weak and jittery. He let the axe head drop to the marble floor, leaning on the haft with both hands to keep from falling over. A terrible hunger gnawed at him, behind his eyes, deep in his gut. What on earth had just happened?
He looked at the axe, trying to lift it, then sank to his knees, his hands locked around the haft. Breathing hard, he moaned, “Oh, God. Oh, God.” Sweat dripped from his nose. His stomach was cramping.
On the horizon, the clouds massed higher. He stared down at the blue veins pulsing beneath the surface of the gray marble. They throbbed in time with the pounding behind his eyes.
“No,” Ivan said through gritted teeth. This was far worse than any coffee crash. Ludicrous as it seemed, it appeared that in trading Juan his weapon, Ivan had also acquired Juan’s addiction. And now he was going through withdrawal.
Ivan closed his eyes, breathing deeply. Exhaustion filled him to his bones, the hunger a snarling beast inside him. He let his hands slide down the haft of the axe. He wanted to sink back into sleep and escape all this—not just the withdrawal but the fear. Those clouds on the horizon radiated a palpable, paralyzing dread.
He shut eyes more tightly, straining toward sleep, toward oblivion. Again he sensed walls around him, but not so tight and cramped as in his cell. He sensed a chair beneath him, too, but no constriction of his arms. This was the place he had perceived through Juan’s senses, though it seemed a bit different now.
A cry startled him. Ivan’s eyes snapped open. Juan, facing the horizon, was swinging the sword out there alone on the tiled plain. He looked like he knew what he was doing, too—like a tai chi master practicing alone in a park, but fast and violent. Juan punctuated his thrusts and blows with wordless shouts.
I should help him, Ivan thought. But he couldn’t see what, if anything, Juan was fighting. How could he help?
No, this was the way to help Juan, whatever this was that Ivan was on to. The axe was the key. Ivan locked his fingers around it, leaned his forehead against wood worn smooth by a lifetime’s use. He closed his eyes, breathing evenly, trying to shut out the sounds and relax . . .
The air in his lungs grew stale and close. Ivan coughed and opened his eyes. He was sitting in a chair in total darkness. He coughed again. Something about the way the sounds echoed told him the room was small but not tiny. Drenched in sweat, he stood up, flexed his arms, and scoped his surroundings.
He found himself in the corner of a room twelve feet wide, fifteen feet deep, and eight feet high. Walls of fine mesh. Mesh floor. Mesh ceiling. He trailed his fingertips across the warm metal.
Had he traded physical places with Juan? Was Juan now trapped in Ivan’s cell? Either way, his first priority was getting out. And at the far end of this room was a door. With a handle.
The door opened easily, but immediately behind it was another door, this one of solid wood. He could turn the knob, but the door was apparently secured on the outside by some kind of latch or bolt. Ivan pounded on it and slammed his shoulder against it, but to no avail. A cramp doubled him over and left him sweating and shaking. With his winter coat on, the room felt like an oven.
Ivan backed up a few steps. Scoping the door with his left hand, he flipped it with his right.
Pain like lightning stabbed his skull. Ivan fell to his knees and coughed up burning bile. Something clattered and crashed, and the air turned suddenly cold. He heard small animals screech.
Ivan looked up. Weak light streamed through the empty door frame. Ivan wiped his mouth and pushed himself shakily to his feet. A fat combination lock dangled from a broken hasp attached to the jamb. The door itself was nowhere in sight.
Outside the room, Ivan found himself on an upper story of some burned-out tenement building. Blue-gray light sifted in through the slats of boarded-up windows, along with thin veils of blowing snow. Lines on the wooden floors marked the demolished walls of what once were tiny apartments. Looking back, he found that the room he’d escaped—an old studio apartment with an industrial wire cage installed inside—was about the only thing still intact on this floor of the building. The rest was mostly charred.
A warped staircase began just a few feet from the doorway. Stepping carefully, Ivan descended. His breath steamed in the cold. On the landing one flight down, he found the door he’d just flipped. Somehow the sight of it, tumbled and splintered, sharpened his hunger for wholeness—for drift.
He clenched his fists to keep from reaching for the baggie Frida had insisted he take.
Three flights down he reached ground level, where a squeaking horde of rats awaited. Ivan’s skin crawled as he picked his way across the cluttered ground, but the rats kept to the darkest edges of the space. Their eyes glowed a malevolent red. Ivan headed for a square border of dim light that seemed to promise a way out. He kept turning this way and that, sure the rats were closing in on him.
He shoved aside a piece of plywood and found a low opening. He emerged from the building into a narrow alley so packed with snow that it was clear no vehicle had passed this way in hours. Blackened fire escapes clung to the soaring brick walls. In the distance he could hear car engines, shouts, and a voice on a loudspeaker.
For a few minutes Ivan did nothing but lean against the brick wall in snow above his knees, letting snowflakes cool his upturned face. It felt good to be cold. It helped quiet the storm in his blood.
When he felt steady enough to continue, he noticed a twisty gully in the snow. Someone else had passed this way on foot, either entering or leaving the building through that makeshift plywood door. Mr. Sunshine, perhaps?
He followed the meandering tracks down the alley to where they vanished into the large, dark gap behind an industrial-sized dumpster.
He was bending to peer into the shadows when the cats attacked. √
To be continued…