Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 9
Trapped in a deserted hardware store, Hasta’s cohort does battle with two daemons of terrible beauty and power. Meanwhile, Lamm lays claim to a thrilling mode of transport.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Two minutes later, the sliding glass doors whooshed open. Hasta crouched in the feedstock aisle at the far end of the store, absently stroking Moses’s back as she watched the convex security mirror set high in the front corner.
Even miniature and distorted, the two daemons were radiant, almost hypnotic in their slow, deliberate motions. As Hasta tried not to breathe, they moved along the front of the store, their terrible gazes sweeping back and forth like searchlights. Moses quivered but didn’t make a sound. Hasta had tried to make him stay in the back office, hidden with Bobby and LaVell, but he stuck to her like glue—and she was glad to have him with her.
The daemons paused two aisles away, scanning the floor. The linoleum was littered with items spilling from a big pile in the next aisle over—tumbled paint cans, boxes of nuts and bolts and screws, drill bits, discs of sandpaper, anything the crew been able to pull down off the shelves in the two minutes they’d had to cobble together a battle scene.
Ivan and Elaine lay halfway down the aisle, facedown and motionless, beyond the supine forms of Frida and Kylie. The two girls had put themselves out with the wristwatch gesture, though not without trepidation. Hasta was pretty sure that was how Elaine had survived the massacre—by playing dead. She hoped the daemons would take the bodies for corpses and keep moving.
If not—well, she tightened her grip on the scrambler Frida had given her.
Tiny metal implements tinkled and crunched as, in the curved mirror, the daemons turned into the aisle where the bodies lay. Hasta held her breath. She could feel every beat of her heart.
A voice echoed from the back of the store. “You stupid chunks of software,” it said, dripping with derision. “She’s in the next aisle.”
Moses growled. “Crap,” Hasta said and darted around the endcap display.
She slipped a little on all the loose screws and entered the next aisle to find the bronze female daemon already rushing back from the litter pile, palm forward. She couldn’t see the daemon’s silver partner, but she heard his voice: “You! Outsider! Halt!”
The female was nearly on her. Hasta barely had time to raise the scrambler. She squeezed the button as the daemon’s palm smacked against it. At the same time Moses sank his teeth into its leg.
The daemon’s arm went spastic, thrashing around and even knocking its own hat off. It drew its head back, smiling a calm, cruel smile, and slashed its good fist upward through the air.
An irresistible force yanked Hasta off her feet. The store whirled crazily as she and Moses flew over the checkout counters. She smashed into a display of fertilizer bags near the front windows. Moses yelped. As Hasta dragged herself upright, he was struggling to get his feet under him on the slick linoleum.
Someone was screaming toward the back of the store. Hasta shook her woozy head. The world spun, but there was no missing the relentless bronze figure on the far side of the checkout counters. The daemon kept its torso turned sideways to hold the flapping, uncontrollable arm out of its way.
A powder in the air made it hard to breathe. Coughing, Hasta jabbed her middle finger at the daemon. Nothing.
It jumped the checkout counters in a single bound.
As LaVell screamed, Juan duckwalked slowly toward the back of the store along the top of the shelving unit dividing two aisles. He held a black comm window stretched wide between his sweaty hands. Ever since trading weapons with Ivan on the marble plain, he’d felt fantastic—stronger, smarter, more alive than any time he could remember. Now, though, his legs felt rubbery, his hands shaky as leaves, his insides liquid and ice-cold. But they’d all be dead if he didn’t step up. Hasta would be dead.
He had to make this work. He had so much to make up to her.
Juan had lain flat atop the shelving as the silvery daemon stalked along the aisle below. But just as Juan was about to make his move, LaVell had come charging out of the office at the back of the store, giving everything away. Bobby’s only jobs had been to keep the kid hidden and quiet back there, to make just enough noise to draw attention down this aisle, and to watch the far end of the connection. But maybe that was one job too many, because now the daemon was holding the poor kid off the ground by the front of his pajamas while its other hand quivered clawlike in front of his face.
“You are an Outsider and a violator,” the daemon was telling the screaming kid, “and you have no place in this realm.”
Juan prayed the daemon did not turn its head as he crept closer and closer, almost to within striking distance . . .
“In the name of the natural order of things, I banish you henceforth and forever from—”
One step closer . . .
And suddenly, idiotic Bobby came barreling out of the office, holding the nozzle of a fire extinguisher at the ready. “Hey, bozo!” he shouted, waving his free hand. His upper lip was split and bloody. “How about I banish you?”
The daemon’s head swiveled toward Bobby. Bless you, Juan thought, whispering a Hail Mary as he leapt from the shelving.
He slammed the comm window down around the daemon’s head and shoulders. The top third of the creature vanished, and suddenly Juan was wrestling what felt like a bronco as the rest of the body thrashed and bucked.
LaVell backed up against the shelves, a severed arm still grasping the front of his pajamas, as an unearthly gargling noise came from inside the office. Bobby ran back inside, and Juan heard the foamy hiss of the fire extinguisher. The body jerked and stiffened momentarily in Juan’s grasp, and he managed to touch the corner of the window with the little X.
The body flopped to the floor as the window winked out of existence. Bright light streamed from its thoracic cavity. The arm dropped from LaVell’s chest. Bobby emerged grinning from the office and flashed a thumb’s-up.
That’s when a blood-curdling scream rang out from the front of the store.
When the pale figure shot into the air from behind LaVell, Ivan at first thought the flying things had returned.
Weak as he was, Ivan raised the heavy axe and stepped back to guard the slumbering group behind him, which besides Juan, Kylie, and Frida included Hasta again as well. When she’d fallen asleep during the aerial attack, the fliers had broken off in confusion and retreated. Ivan hadn’t registered the moment when Hasta stopped being out there on the marble and started being behind him again, but then he also hadn’t registered any of the moments when they’d all moved closer to LaVell and the altar.
LaVell stood about twenty feet from Ivan, propped up by the quarterstaff he gripped with one hand. The pale figure hovered in the air about fifty feet above him, flailing its limbs and looking frightened and bewildered. It was nothing like the fliers from before. This was just a skinny white man in his mid-twenties, dressed in a tunic, flowing pants, and high-tech sneakers of some sort. A square of brown beard grew on his chin, and a similar one in the middle of each cheek. Panting, he touched his face as if surprised to find it intact.
“You?” the man exclaimed as he caught sight of Ivan. “What’s your shell doing here? Who are you?”
The voice was different, but Ivan was sure he recognized the snide cadence of Hanuman, LaVell’s occupier.
Ivan assumed a batter’s stance with the axe. “What do you want?” he growled.
The man bounced a few times in midair, shouting and grunting, as if shaken by an invisible hand. Then he zipped away to the left, screaming as he streaked toward the horizon. Ivan watched with a circled hand clapped to his eye. The man collided with one of the huge pillars, vanishing in a puff of light.
“I guess this means I won the bet,” Ivan muttered.
The black clouds, though still distant, seemed larger and closer than before. Behind him Ivan heard LaVell begin to stir. He turned. LaVell opened his eyes and blinked, looking for all the world like a lost five-year-old.
“I—Ivan Babich?” he said tentatively. His face began to crumple. “Oh, my heck, did it happen again?”
As the female daemon landed on the near side of the checkout counter, Hasta, horrified, realized what was making her cough. The baggie of drift that she’d stuffed into her pocket had burst. The powder coated her whole side like flour and was spilling out onto the floor.
Hasta sat up like she was covered with spiders. She snatched at the flap of plastic bag sticking out of her pocket.
The daemon stopped ten feet from her, standing impossibly tall. “You are in violation of multiple firewall quarantines,” she said. She pointed her arm sideways at the nearest cash register, which burst apart in a shower of plastic, gears, and silicon. “Please halt and present security credentials for verification.”
Hasta flinched, yanking the remains of the baggie from her pocket. She flung it as hard as she could at the daemon, who had started toward her again.
Trailing powder, the baggie smacked the daemon in the face and puffed apart in a dirty brown cloud. The creature let out a shriek fit to wake the dead. Hasta clambered to her feet, and Moses nearly knocked her down again in his blind haste to get away from that sound. She spotted the scrambler nearby and scooped it up. Window glass cracked from the sonic assault.
The shriek was spiraling in pitch. Though every instinct told her to run, Hasta stopped and looked back. With its one good hand the daemon was clawing at its face, which bubbled and blazed with the white heat of boiling metal. The other arm flailed uselessly.
Painful as this looked, Hasta doubted it would kill the daemon, or even slow it down for long. So she did the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life. She ran toward the writhing creature, shoved the scrambler against its stomach, and fired.
The daemon stiffened, arms flung high, and vibrated. Hasta darted away again as it fell backward. It jittered on the floor like it was touching a live electrical cable.
“Ha!” shouted Hasta. “That’s your brain on drugs!”
And then she ran.
Sucking in great lungfuls of air, Lamm climbed out of the culvert and stood up from the rushing creek. He hadn’t taken two steps before a new anomaly smacked him to his knees in the water.
Half-blind with pain, Lamm dragged himself through the scraggly grass bordering the creek and collapsed. That last window had really taken it out of him. He didn’t know how they’d done it, but his tormentors, singular or plural, had set it up at an angle underwater behind the iron grate that was supposed to prevent people from getting trapped in the culvert and drowning. But because of the angle, and because of the constriction of the window on the originating end, Lamm’s only option had been to hold his breath while he laboriously sawed through the grate with a specially shaped force shield he gripped in his twitching, uncooperative hands.
He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.
He pushed himself back to his feet. Staggering across the grass and through a screen of trees, he came to the back of a sizeable retail establishment. Around front, the only vehicle in the huge parking lot was a Ferrari 550 Barchetta convertible roadster, parked with inhuman precision in the non-handicapped spot nearest to the entrance.
Lamm caught his breath. What a gorgeous machine it was. Six-speed manual transmission. 5.5-liter V12 engine. Rear-wheel drive. Zero to sixty in four and a half seconds. Top speed of 201 miles per hour.
He and Kray had never been assigned a car like this one. In fact, the word car could never in a million years do justice to a precision instrument like this.
He would kill to drive a car like this one, just once. With a sigh that was almost a sob, Lamm turned away and entered the store.
He only recognized the twitching body that was Flay by the bronze sheen of her trench coat. Her face was a dried white mask that looked like stucco. “Prima donna,” he muttered as he edged past her. He was particularly careful to avoid the brown powder scattered about.
At the end of an aisle that looked like a tornado had hit it, he found some of the pieces of Ever. A severed arm waved for his attention, practically falling out of its sleeve. It was trying to tell him something, but the fingers produced only gobbledygook.
As Lamm gazed down at the arm in wonder, a voice called from a room at the back of the store. “Lamm! Shiva be praised. They’re monsters, utter monsters. I think Flay is dead, Lamm. Dead.”
Hmm. Daemons could be killed? Interesting.
Lamm walked to the open door of the office and stared down at Ever’s flopping torso. The daemon’s arms ended just above the elbows.
“Quick, Lamm!” said Ever. “Help me put myself back together.”
Lamm stroked his chin. “Ever, it’s the end of the world,” he said. “Help yourself.”
Ignoring Ever’s increasingly hostile entreaties, Lamm left the store. If his brain could be trusted, the latest anomaly lay one hundred thirty-two miles west. He couldn’t sense the presence of an open comm window anywhere nearby, so he feared his only viable travel option was the Ferrari.
Lamm grinned. He felt almost giddy as he slipped behind the wheel. √
To be continued…