‘Survive!’, Cory McMillen

Illustrations © 2012 Eric Asaris



 [ Tank, © 2012 Eric Asaris ] Garr crouched low on the rusted husk of the tank, the rhythmic pulse of The Word in his head. Running a heavy tongue over thick, cracked lips, he reached out and carefully tested the hatch. It was loose. Metal-heavy, hot from the sun, but otherwise inviting. His fingers shook with nerves as he gripped it. Sweat cooled his temples and ran down his cheeks. You never knew when a find this big would turn out to be a trap.

A shadow crossed over him, too fast to be a cloud. Squinting upwards, he noted three black dots moving across the pale blazing blue. Abaluhya's tanks in the sky. He considered them for an absent moment, and then flexed his fingers across the handle of the hatch. Breathing deep, he lifted.

It wasn't a trap. But it wasn't exactly a find, either. The two dead men inside were stripped and burnt, their remains stinking in the terrible heat. Any and all usable materials that had remained after the fire had long since been removed, every last item of known or unknown potential hastily ripped or soldered away, leaving only a sharp-toothed tomb for two fallen men. There wasn't anything left that he could salvage.

Garr looked up at the sinking sun, listening carefully. He'd wasted a day out here, digging through the newest wreckage created by The Word. That happened sometimes; scavenging made for a very uneven, if relatively safe, living. He just hoped Abaluhya had fared better than he.

Far off in the distance, he could still see plumes of angry, dark smoke. They were the last vestigial remnants of what had been a billowing and rolling black monster. It had swallowed the sun and sky for two days. The men who had fought here had emerged from its grasp, either as gleeful conquerors or fearful survivors, and proceeded to do away with each other. Garr didn't know or care who they were and what that meant. They were dead now, and that was all. Survivors. He smiled in spite of himself. What a funny word to have used.

“Survive,” The Word coughed suddenly, as if he'd woken it with his amusement. He swatted at the air, like chasing away a mosquito, but of course it did no good. “Survive,” The Word said again.

Garr ignored it, instead choosing to wonder what had could have burned to create such an unending amount of thick smoke. He had personally never travelled further west than Akure, which had been unremarkable and not worth revisiting. He remembered his mother talking about a city a hundred times larger than that, though, somewhere further out in the same direction. She must have been exaggerating, telling a story to entertain her child. No place could actually be as big as the village she described. But even if she were only telling a partial truth, Lagos must have at one time been the biggest and richest place in the whole world.

Before The Word came down and ruined it all.

He squinted in that direction, straight into the fires of mystery, and tried to picture a town so big that you could never see it all. He supposed that such a place would roll a lot of smoke, indeed, when The Word finally had its way.

“Survive,” The Word responded assertively. Garr slapped his palm hard against his forehead and cursed. “Survive,” It insisted again.

He gave up, climbing down off the tank and starting the journey home. There was nothing more to do here, anyway.

If he could have the day back, he wouldn’t bother coming here at all. Too much risk for too little reward. With all his effort, Garr had only managed to gather together a handful of semi-valuable leftovers. A large knife with the tip broken off. A military ration that had been wedged underneath the seat of one of the trucks. A cracked rearviewmirror. That was it.

The glass could be traded off. The meal was obviously worth keeping. But after examining the knife a bit, he decided to leave it behind. Digging a small pit, he buried it in the sand. It would get a lot in trade, more than ten meals or twice as many mirrors, but Garr felt sick to look at it. There was a danger to such things, clear as The Word in your head. And you could never really say for what, or whom, a weapon had made. It was better if nobody had it.

He patted the ground to smooth it over, and then he turned and moved east.

Abaluhya was waiting for him when he got to the tent. She had taken off her ratty, faded bandana, and was rinsing it in what was left of their bath water. She hummed a song as she worked, head moving slightly with each climb or fall in the melody, and squeezed the water from the rag.

She did that a lot, hummed. She said it distracted her from The Word, that she couldn't hear it at all if she focused hard enough on the music in her head and the vibrations on her tongue. Garr had tried it a few times, when the repetition had become especially maddening or threatened to drown his thoughts forever, but it had never worked for him. Music was too much like The Word, in his opinion, or like a gun. Just more noise to fill up the world with. The only time Garr found any respite from the invasive droning was when he discovered something so curious or intriguing, so worthy of investigation, that he simply ceased to notice It. Things that made him ask questions. They were his escape.

You couldn't make It go away, of course. Not with anything. But you could sometimes overwhelm It if you tried.

“Survive,” Said the Word.

It rippled between his temples, as though defiantly responding to his rebel’s thoughts. And sometimes, like right now, he almost thought he could hear It chuckle at him.

“Can you hear me?” he asked. “Do you know me at all? Do you care what I do, or if I'm alive in the morning?”

“Survive,” It intoned emotionlessly, and he didn’t think that there was any sort of answer in that.

Abaluhya claimed that, when The Word first came down, people had actually seen the ships that brought It. They’d known them as something more than just a spot in the sky. And there had been hundreds of them, none larger than the tank he'd found today, all appeared from some unknown other world to take up residence above our planet. The upper atmosphere, she said. Exactly what any of that meant, Garr was unclear on. Abaluhya tried to explain it to him once, but she sounded just like his mother had when she talked about Lagos. Garr wondered if exaggerating was a woman's game, or if it was just something that adults did to avoid telling the truth. The only two people he'd ever really known well in his whole life were his mother and Abaluhya, and they both seemed prone to doing it.

When the sky tanks first arrived, Abaluhya said, they had sat silent for three days and nights. Listening, some thought, to the human broadcasts that littered the airwaves. Watching to see how they were received, others claimed. After a while, people even began to wonder if they were paying us any attention at all. But then, in the time it takes a person to blink, The Word began pulsing into every single person on earth, over and over and over again.

This set off a fresh round of questions, the most pressing of which was, “Why?” Some believed that the tank creatures had latched onto that particular word due to its heavy inclusion in the reports of pundits, and were trying to use it to communicate with us. Like maybe they knew it was important, but misunderstood what it meant.

Abaluhya said she never believed that they misunderstood. She thought they knew exactly what it meant.

Which is why Abaluhya thought it was a weapon.

Garr had asked once what a pundit was, but Abaluhya said it didn't matter. They were long gone, now, and no longer a part of the problem. Garr thought that maybe they'd been important or special, in some way. In charge of the people around them, perhaps, or powerful.

For whatever reason, though, and with whatever intention, the Word did come down. And it ruined humanity.

From day one, the Word didn't come through radio, or television, or phones or computers or any machines. It wasn't a message sent through sound or device. It appeared directly in peoples' minds, in all peoples' minds, almost as though they'd thought of it themselves. Toneless, voiceless, and impossible to shut out, it nevertheless had a way of feeling ominous or fearful. “Survive,” It would say to you, over and over again, until you started praying for a way to make it stop. Until it was the only word some people could remember at all. And it didn’t matter what language you spoke, or where you went. The Word always found you, and it knew you well.

Unemotional as it was, you couldn’t help but receive the Word as anything other than an insistent, anxiety-ridden command. And the people reacted; they obeyed.

Abaluhya said that at first, however, very little seemed to have changed. The governments of the world tried to find some way to shut it off, or to respond to it, but were unable to do either. People complained of trouble sleeping, or of being distracted by the unending call, but mostly they started to grow quiet. A lot quieter than they had ever been before. “Why did they get quiet?” Garr remembered asking Abaluhya once, several years ago. She had told him the story many times when he was growing up, because she thought that he should know it. She believed that, if people remembered how this all started, then maybe someday they could find a way to understand and control it. Garr didn't think he would be the one to do that. He couldn't even scavenge particularly well. But he liked to listen.

“Well,” she'd said slowly. “They got to where they didn’t really think much about each other. They were too busy thinking about the Word.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t play games, Garr,” she’d admonished.

“Survive,” said the Word.

He’d made a face, the kind you make when a bug lands on your nose. “How do you think about survive?”

Abaluhya had smiled that sad-eyed smile that Garr knew so well, and tilted her head. “You don't realize, because you've grown up with It. Your thoughts always getting interrupted, your brain a place that isn’t wholly your own. Probably you don’t hear It the way the older people do. But for us, It still feels very strange. Foreign. Like a knife in our thoughts, or a stranger’s hands on our bodies. We grew up without It, and our minds never quite learned to tune It out. If we're not careful, It can get us thinking the wrong things.”

“What can?”

“Survive,” she'd said suddenly, with the same lifeless insistence that The Word offered. It scared him to hear It out loud, especially coming from her. “It means different things to different people.” She had been washing her bandana then, too, along with his too-big pants, and she stopped long enough to finish their discussion. “To your mother, It meant protect her child no matter what. That's all she cared or thought about. To me, It always meant food, shelter, a sense of security, and even good company. I guess I'm just selfish that way. And to you, right now, It means try to understand the world as best you can.”

“But then what happened to all the people?” Garr had asked. “That doesn't sound like a bad thing at all.”

With a tired sigh and a shake of the head, she'd looked away and gone back to cleaning. “Survival is...scary, Garr. It's hunger and fear and anger, all wrapped into one. It makes some people do things they wouldn't ever want to do otherwise.”

“Like what?”

She stayed silent a long time, until he thought she wouldn't answer, and then said, “Like take your momma away, I guess.”

“Oh,” he went back to drawing pictures in the dirt. He was young then, and his mother's absence was something that he had just grown used to. Something he'd come to accept. Strange, that the older and stronger he got, and the farther away his memories became, the more the loss of her upset him. These days he could only picture a hazy, undefined face, almost featureless. It could be anybody. And yet he missed her more now than he had in the weeks after the men attacked the makeshift village they had been staying in and took her away.

That had been the last time Abaluhya told the story of the tanks that came from space and planted The Word in the minds of men, he suddenly realized. She had never spoken of it again, and he had never asked.

He studied her now. She was old. But he didn't really know how old, or what age really meant. She had deep lines on her face and speckled grey in her hair, something the people they traded with rarely had. But although she frequently talked of needing to rest, she rarely tired before he did. And while food was often scarce, she never really got skinny the way Garr did. Even now, his clothes hung loosely from his torso, but her's still hugged firm and taut. Her arms and legs, defiantly thick and strong, were nothing like his bony contraptions, and her midsection remained full, almost heavy. It was like she refused to let the world into her house, telling it to get away before it made her angry, and the world meekly obeyed. Like she was a Word all her own.

And maybe she was. Even at Its worst, when It came at them loud and often like a cry for help, Abaluhya would smile and sing her gentle songs of joy, and never complain at all.

She looked up at him, saw him staring at her, and smiled. “I was getting worried,” she said. “Did you find anything?”

He shook his head. “Not much. Somebody beat me there. They took almost everything.”

Her smile faded. “Everything? Did you check the engines? The wheels?”

He nodded.

“Did you look for glass?” She pressed. “Or rations?”

He nodded again.

Her face set hard. “What about canteens?”

“Abaluhya, it was stripped. I’m sorry. I spent all day.”

She sighed, gave him a sympathetic look, then hissed at the doorway like a scared rat. “It would take a lot of people to strip a find that big. Tell me you covered your tracks.”

Garr felt his eyes go wide. “I forgot,” he admitted. He’d been too busy thinking about the Word.

She hissed again, pulling her shirt tight to her. “We'll have to move in the morning. Right away.”

“I'm sorry, Abaluhya.”

Her eyes lingered for another moment on the doorway, then softened and found him. “Don't you worry,” she said. “We will do what we always do.”

“Survive,” said The Voice, and Garr nodded agreement.

“Abaluhya,” he said, “I was wondering. Why don't you ever tell me the story of The Word anymore?”

“Do you miss it?” she asked absently, eyes and thoughts straying back to the open entryway of the tent.

“Not really, I guess. But you used to tell it all the time.” She turned back to him, and gave him that same sad familiar smile. “The Word means different things, at different points in your life, Garr. What It means today won't be what It means tomorrow. I can promise you that.”

“So?”

“When you were young, I could tell you those stories because you could hear them, and yet be separate from them. Even true stories are just stories, to a child. Now, you're old enough to understand them.” Her eyelids fluttered and she looked away. “That makes the story dangerous,” she said. “So I don’t tell it anymore.”

“I don't understand.”

“You will, someday. If you...” she trailed off, and he knew how the sentence ended.

“Survive,” said The Word. Garr decided to let it drop.

“What did you find today?” he asked. “Was the other site any better?” The battle had happened in two phases, on either side of their campe. The first fight had been the one Garr had visited, to the west. After it ended, the two factions had regrouped and struck again to the east. The second fight had been bloodier, larger. And with The Lord’s Towne so close by, it was also more dangerous. Abaluhya had explored that one.

“It had been visited, but only by the locals,” she said. “God’s men don’t take much from the dead. I found us some clothes, some food, and a half-empty first aid kit. Could have had more, but I couldn't carry it all.”

“Food?” Garr leaned forward. Abaluhya smiled, and this time there was no sadness in it.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I got you plenty of food today, my skinny, skinny child.”

They ate well that night, mostly things that came in cans. Some of it was starting to go bad, and some of it had already done so, but it wasn't the first time they'd eaten outdated food. When it was done, they lay on their bedrolls and talked about in which direction they ought to move tomorrow.

“I should have gone with you,” Garr said. “We could have gotten more.”

“It was too dangerous for you there.”

But not for you, he thought. “Abaluhya,” Garr said after a time, “what started it?”

She was quiet for a time, and he started to think that she might not understand the question, but finally she said, “It was food. Food was the beginning of the end.” She sighed. “The Word is immediate. It doesn't think about the future. It's something you do right now, forever and ever. Right now is always here. So you stop doing the things that used to take time, and you start thinking about being hungry. People came apart over food. Sometimes it was water or other things, too, but always food.” Then she yawned, and turned to look at him in the dark. “Why do you ask me all of these questions tonight? Where does this curiosity come from, all of the sudden?”

Garr licked his lips and didn't answer. “Good night, Abaluhya,” he said.

“Good night, my skinny child. And don't you worry about right now. There's plenty of food left.”

He smiled, and drifted off to sleep.


A familiar, if unwelcome, sound woke him sometime later. He sat up, holding his breath. The night was empty black, and Garr thought that the sun must be as far away from his side of the world as it ever would get. He listened, fearful, but heard nothing more. Even the insects were being quiet tonight.

It would have been easy to dismiss the sound as part of a dream. But he was certain that he had heard a hollow, metallic clinking. He reached over and shook Abaluhya awake.

“I think somebody tripped the cans,” he whispered to her.

“Survive,” said the voice.

Abaluhya didn't speak. She just sat up, listened to nothing for a few seconds, then jumped to her feet and grabbed him by the arm. “When did this happen?” she asked.

“Just now.”

Her grip was suddenly tight, and Garr tried to wiggle out of it. Abaluhya held fast. “Which direction?” she asked.

“I…I’m not sure.”

She nodded, very slowly, her eyes sideways in her head. With a jerk of his arm, she indicated the little flap she’d sewn into the back of the tent. It was tiny, barely enough for a person to wiggle through, but it was important. It was there so they could escape.

“Go,” she said, her voice like a stretched muscle.

Garr didn’t have to ask where he should go, or what he should bring with him. They’d faced men in the night before. Still, “go” was another word that he wished not to ever hear again. This place had been home for longer than any other place he’d ever known, and it felt warm to him. He’d even begun to hope that it might really be home. Now the truth of it was revealed, and he felt like a foolish child.

He crouched down and tore the little threads holding the flap closed, then turned around as he realized that Abaluhya wasn’t right behind him. She was standing in the entryway, parting the heavy fabric, looking out at the night. “We should hurry,” he whispered, his voice a cracked whine. “They’ll be here soon.”

Abaluhya didn’t turn around. “This is my fault,” she told the black. “I believed in the wrong words, child. Now, the price is come due.” She shook her head, rubbing the back of her neck. “There is no safe.” The words came out bitter, like old fruit, and Garr flinched.

“We should go, Abaluhya. Please.” He realized that he was shaking, and tried to make it stop. He didn’t understand what Abaluhya was doing, why she was acting this way. “They’ll be here soon,” he repeated.

Turning to look at him, she smiled a dry creek smile. “I placed the cans too close to the tent,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Garr, but they’re here already.”

Terror locked his joints and cooled his insides. “Please,” he breathed. “Please hurry.”

She shook her head. “Run.” And then she was gone, the tent flap swinging softly closed.

Garr heard nothing, and could not breathe. Then a man’s shout cracked the night, so close that Garr knew the owner would see him if he tried leaving the tent. It was followed by the barking retort of a gun, impossibly loud and angry. Panic overwhelmed him, the way a river or a dream can overwhelm a person, and then an unconcerned voice slipped into his head and made a casual, if insistent, suggestion.

“Survive,” It said.

Garr’s toes dug dirt. He pushed himself through the little flap and out into the night. Another shout went up from behind him, but it sounded further away, as if the person had actually been walking away from the tent. Or chasing something.

Abaluhya.

Garr’s heart was made of thunder. The blackness was pure and his eyes were not yet prepared to focus, so he crawled on the ground for a long while. Then, when he could, he stood and he ran. Behind him an angry cry was followed by a second gunshot. Garr didn’t know if it was him the men were shooting at, but if it was they missed, so he ran some more.

He didn’t hear anything more after that. He just forced his legs to push the ground into his past. After a time they began to hurt, like they’d been chewed on, and his chest burned hot, so he slowed to a walk and looked up at the night sky. Abaluhya had long ago taught him to use the night sky to keep his bearings, but he didn’t bother with it now. He knew exactly where he was, and where he was headed.

It didn’t take long to reach the field of broken tanks and men. And the knife was still right where he’d buried it. After he found the spot and crouched to dig, it only took him a few seconds to expose its delicate power.

The blade looked and felt different to him, now. Less like a sickness or a boil, it was more like a thing that reminded you of a person you cared for. Something that told you things were well. Like Abaluhya’s bandana, or the idea of his mother.

Garr looked at the wreckage around him, and was grateful that these men had come here to die. They had brought him something important. If he hurried, he might even still be able to save Abaluhya. She was wise, and careful. Moreso than any of those men.

He wasn’t aware of the heavy, labored breathing until a large and powerful hand gripped him about the neck. Garr wanted to scream his fury. If he hadn’t been so lost in his thoughts, the man would never have been able to slip up behind him. “You’re not so clever,” the deep voice growled. “And fast only gets you this far.” The hand tightened, until Garr thought his throat must collapse, and he twisted wildly in panic.

“Hold on, now,” the man pulled at his hair with the other hand, yanking his head back and sending pain along his scalp. “Almost over.”

Garr gasped for breath and found none. Above him, the night sky was sparkling with excited curiosity. Three lights moved among the stars in a triangle formation, intruders among the untold heavens.

“Survive,” said The Voice. Twisting wildly, Garr swung his arms in a futile and uncoordinated act of desperation. He almost didn’t understand what was happening when the knife in his hand slid over and into soft, sensitive tissue, but he knew exactly what the man’s howl represented. The fingers around his throat and in his hair disappeared and Garr took off at a stumbled run, heading deeper into the garden of dead and broken things.

Behind him, the man was cursing and threatening all manner of injury. Garr realized, suddenly, that he was relieved to know the wound he’d delivered was probably not serious. It didn’t seem right for him to want the man to live, in fact it shamed him, but he could not force the feeling out.

He nearly fell as he tried to gain speed, to put distance between himself and his enemy. He couldn’t stop touching his throat. It hurt so badly, he didn’t understand how his fingers could be finding it intact. Slowing, he found an overturned vehicle, slipped down behind it and listened.

Other voices were picking up now, yelling to one another from any number of directions. Garr gripped the knife tighter and whispered a makeshift prayer. They were here.

The man who had attacked him hollered something to the others, his voice clipped with anger. Whatever he said, he only got mocking laughter in response. He yelled again, his anger slurring his words, and then the retort of a gun cracked the night. He didn’t yell any more after that.

Garr turned and crawled quietly, not stopping until he was crouched down behind the tank he’d opened up just hours before. Listening carefully, he tried to pinpoint where the men might be. They were calling out, both to him and to each other, behaving almost drunkenly in their moment of perceived victory. He held the knife up, flexing his fingers around it, and knew that he could beat them if he was careful.

And then a new voice spoke to him, soft and sad, and it offered a Word of its own.

“Don’t,” it begged.

He licked his lips, eyes wide. “What?” he asked the night.

“Don’t.”

He turned, unbelieving, in the direction the word had come from.

“Abaluhya?” he whispered.

She came crawling over, a creature of the night, and held out her hand. “Don’t,” she said. “Please.”

“I thought you were dead.” He felt like a child again, suddenly, and wanted to cry. “I thought they…”

She put a finger to her lips and tilted her head, listening. “These men are fools,” she said. “But you don’t have to be smart when you run with a pack. Give me the knife, skinny child.”

Garr recoiled. “I have to kill them,” he said. He wished that his voice were deeper, stronger. “I have to, or they’ll...”

“No. You don't have to kill anyone.” She was still listening for the men, her words impossibly soft. “You have to go. Run from this place, find a new home, and don't ever return.”

“Abaluhya,” the catch in his voice betrayed him.

She turned sharply towards him, then, and in her eyes was something that he didn't understand. It curled like the tooth in a hungry snake’s mouth, wet with poison. She moved to approach him, and he jerked backwards.

“Abaluhya!” he gasped.

She stopped, as suddenly as if she hadn’t been moving at all, and put her hand to her mouth. Her eyes watered, softened, and the venom leaked out from them. “You have to go,” she said softly. “I’m so sorry, Garr, but you have to. Leave the knife and go. You have to survive.”

Then she turned, tensed, and was gone.

Garr hugged himself and tried not to cry. Out in the darkness were terrible noises, and he understood what they meant. The men were coming for him, and Abaluhya was stopping them. One final gift for her only adopted son, a few fleeting moments bought so that he could go on living.

Or. Or he could stop them himself. He remembered the way the knife felt when it cut the man. He could do it again. It was easy. And then he would be able to stay here, in this place where he’d said the word “home.” Here, with Abaluhya.

 [ Survive, © 2012 Eric Asaris ] Except wasn't true, anymore. He couldn't stay with Abaluhya. Not now that he knew about the snake tooth, and what it meant for them both.

A man's voice called out for him to give himself up. It sounded angry and nervous, no longer sure.

“Survive,” said The Word.

Garr winced. “Shut up,” he hissed back at It. “They're going to hear you.”

“Survive,” It said again, and it sounded almost soothing. Like Abaluhya during a thundering rainstorm.

He leaned over and peeked out into the night. The men were scattered, searching, half-blind with their own stupidity. Abaluhya was out there, somewhere. Garr licked his lips. If he was going to stop them, it had to be now. He flexed thin fingers on a cool handle.

And then the moment passed. Wiping at a wise man’s tear, Garr let the weapon drop heavy to the ground. He quietly kicked mud on it until he was sure it was buried forever, and then he stomped the ground flat.

Those men out there were not his enemy. He knew that now. They were just victims, like the burned men in the tank. Like Abaluhya. Like his mother.

His enemy was The Word. He cursed It aloud, and then he turned to the east. And he ran and he ran and he ran.


© 2012, Cory McMillen

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