Entertainment – The late story

I fell asleep trying to finish this last night. It’s still early-draft and will change but it’s pretty much complete. This one is not going out as a stand-alone. I’m saving stories for another collection. This one needs a lot of work but the basic idea is in place and that’s the hard part done. Now it’s just a matter of polishing.

Here. late, is the story of how and why Hal Brandt is in ‘Channelling’. Rough but ready.

____________

 

Death looked down at the child before him, a small boy of maybe seven or eight years. The boy looked up and dug his finger into his nose.

“Great costume, mister.” The boy grinned and wiped his finger on his sleeve.

“Thank you,” Death said. “Yours is very good also. What is it called?”

“I’m a Ghostbuster.” The boy held up a foil-covered cardboard tube, shouted “Zap!” then ran off to join his friends.

Death’s ribs rose and fell in what would have been a sigh if there had been lungs within them. For this one night of the year he could walk openly along the dark streets, among people dressed as bedsheet-ghosts and latex-masked goblins. He was flattered to find a few still dressed up as Death himself, although only he carried the burden of the scythe. Beneath their skulls were faces of flesh and blood. In Death’s experience it was usually the other way around, although as the first human to die, he had never seen a skull when he was alive. His own skull would have been the first man’s on Earth to shed its mantle of flesh and reveal its clean lines to the world.

There were many modern costumes among the night’s revellers, things he assumed were from the new media of comics, film and television, but there remained a core who remembered Halloween’s real meaning. A temporary blurring of the line between this world and another. A time to scare away the monsters. A short time, one night, when humanity believed that the residents of both worlds could meet and when those who wished to do so could exchange places.

The physics of it all flashed through Death’s skull. It wasn’t the whole night. Seven minutes only, when the planet passed through the region of space where this rift existed. He shook away the equations and the formulae and checked his pocket watch. Tonight he expected to have no souls to collect in this place, but something else did. Death was here to prevent its success and he had no time to waste.

He moved through the revellers to the edge of town, past the last streetlight and into that deep darkness only a moonless country night could offer. This year, obstructing the creature from the rift should be easy. Not as easy as those years when it appeared mid-ocean, but certainly easier than when it opened in the middle of a city. This year, it would open in woodland, some way outside this town.

Seven minutes gave the creature within plenty of time to reach town and return. It was fast – hellish fast – but it would not know which direction to head. There should be nobody around, nobody to give it any sort of clue about any nearby habitation. This year, Death anticipated an easy win.

Ahead, light glowed among the trees. Death quickened his pace. It was too soon. The rift should not be open yet.

“Is it ready?”

Death stopped. The voice came from just ahead. A human voice, a living voice. A woman.

His shoulders slumped. It was not the first time humanity had discovered the pattern of appearance of the rift. None had ever survived the experience. Well, there was one, once, nine thousand years ago, but none since. It seemed this encounter was not going to be as easy as he thought.

“It’s fine. Are you sure this is the right place?”

Another voice. A man. Death edged closer to the light. They would not see him unless they were psychic or innocent. He could rule out the latter since their presence here meant they were clearly well versed in the occult, but not the former – for the same reason. Close enough to see but not be seen, Death observed the two of them.

Only two. Two will not satisfy it but might be enough to distract it.

The woman spoke again, in between deep puffs of a cigarette. “I’ve been over and over the calculations. This is the place, and the time. In—“ she looked at her watch “—eight minutes, the gateway will open..” She finished her cigarette, dropped it, and lit another. “I’ve put a lot of money into this project, Brandt. You’d better deliver.”

The man, Brandt, fiddled with dials on some sort of console. Wires trailed through the grass to odd-looking devices arranged where the rift would open. In the background, out of Death’s line of sight, a generator hummed.

“I’ve looked at your calculations too. There are gaps.” Brandt kept his eyes on his machine.

“It appears once a year on October 31st. Where it appears depends on the orientation of the planet when it makes contact. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes in the middle of a desert. Nobody sees it so there are no reports. Those are the gaps, and they fit the pattern. The numbers work, Brandt. My numbers work. Your numbers are the ones I worry about.” She stared at the tip of her cigarette.

“Nothing to worry about, Miss Blackthorn. Numbers are what I do best.” Brandt adjusted dials and checked the meters on his machine. “This will tell us how much power we can suck out of that dimension and what sort of rate of power we can expect to harvest. Next year we can start harvesting.”

“Next year?” Blackthorn stamped on her half-smoked cigarette and lit another. “Why not this year?”

Brandt stretched his neck back to stare at the stars. “What happens if you plug a 12-volt bulb into 240-volt mains? It goes pop. To put it simply, we cannot plug in our free-energy harvester until we know the voltage we are plugging into. We have to know how much power we are dealing with and it’s likely to be a lot. That is what we are doing here and we will have seven minutes to do it. Then we can tap in, perfectly and without error, next time and every time after that.” He looked straight at her. “You can sell this energy as electricity on the grid and you’ll probably get your investment back in the first month. Don’t worry, your money is safe.”

Death rubbed his chin. This was a new one. Previous idiots playing with the rift had been religious types or seekers after knowledge of the afterlife even though the rift had nothing to do with either. Some had hoped to get news of the future, some had hoped to contact the dead. This was the first time Death had come across anyone seeking the rift for pure profit. He had now, he thought, seen it all.

“We’ll know in four minutes.” The woman turned her back on Brandt.

From his robe, Death took his little book. Not the vast tome written of in human stories, a small notebook whose pages showed only today’s collections, and which updated itself in real time.

The name Brandt appeared in Death’s book. Hal Brandt. An engineer. That must be him. Also Sofia Blackthorn. Both names were written in grey, not the usual solid black. A rare and troubling occurrence, which meant Death might not get to collect them. He’d have to make sure the rift-creature didn’t get them first.

Brandt stepped back from his machine. “Ready. Unless the power in there is immense, this machine will measure it. It should also give some clues as to how to link to the other dimension permanently. Then I can tune the harvester for next time.”

Sofia Blackthorn snorted. “I suppose I can stand one more year of pretending the wind-generators work. Next year we channel the power to look as if it’s coming from those white elephants I invested in. I’ll then turn the damn things off for good.”

They don’t know. Death almost dropped his scythe with the realisation. They think they are just tapping another dimension’s energy. They don’t know what is going to come out of there.

“You could turn off the windmills anyway. They are no real use. Nobody would notice.” Brandt studied his console.

Sofia raised her eyebrows. “Many of them aren’t even connected to the grid. They just spin for effect. Those that are connected use power to turn when there’s no wind.” She shook her head then lit another cigarette. “I still can’t believe I gave money to those Green shysters.”

“One minute to go.” Brandt powered up his machine. “I just hope this thing can take the hit.”

“It had better.” Sofia moved to stand beside him. “It just needs to drain enough energy to slow it down.”

Brandt looked up. “Slow what down?”

Sofia smiled. “The thing I neglected to mention. Don’t worry about it, you just keep that machine going and leave the rest to me.”

“The rest of what?” Brandt took a step back from the console. “Sofia, what is all this really about?”

“More than money. Much, much more.” She dropped her cigarette and gazed into the area surrounded by Brandt’s devices. “Did you really think I was nervous about losing a bit of spare change? I have more money than I’ll ever need. No, what’s coming is something far better.” She bared her teeth in a wide grin. “Power.”

“Idiot!” Death rushed from his hiding place and rushed to stand in front of her. “You cannot control it. I can’t control it. What chance do you have?”

“Here it comes. Keep that machine running, Brandt. If you fail, we both die.” In front of Sofia the air split vertically. A thin line at first, a darkness within the night that seemed to have shadows within it. Shadows in blackness, more felt than seen, more intuited than experienced. The rift widened, but not much. It reached some fifty feet into the air but only four feet wide, tapered top and bottom into a point. A long rip in fabric, a meeting between spacetime and a very sharp knife.

“Timer started. Seven minutes. Sofia, I hope to Hell you know what you are doing.”

Death spun to face the rift, his scythe ready. So neither of these fools were psychic and certainly not innocent. They would neither see nor hear him. They’d see him soon enough. If not him, then the other…

Sofia bowed her head and, with fingertips pressed together, started a low incantation. Death shook his head and wished he had eyes to roll. He had heard that incantation many times through the millennia and he knew one thing about it for certain. It didn’t work.

The thing drifted through the rift. An enormous vertical snake, limbless and with an almost-human head on top.

Hal screamed. Sofia pressed her eyes closed and kept chanting. Death raised his scythe, hoping to hold the thing off long enough to save these two people’s souls. Their lives, well, apart from one, nine thousand years ago, he had not succeeded. It was always worth trying.

The creature’s face was benign, an almost sad visage, its mouth pinched into a small ‘o’, but Death knew its looks belied its nature. This thing did not roar. It did not bare fangs because it needed none. It needed replenishment.

Along its length were human faces, contorted in torment. Some faces were silent, dead, rotting. These were the ones it needed to replace. Sofia was in its path but Death was in the way.

“You cannot pass me, demon.” The same words Death uttered every time. It wasn’t really a demon, it wasn’t really alien. It was beyond those terms. Something humans didn’t know enough about to even feature in nightmares. Something from an entirely different universe where different rules apply.

The thing nodded at Death, as it always did, then shot forward and… stopped.

Death made hesitant motions with his scythe. It had never stopped before. The scythe could not kill, Death was incapable of killing, but it could hurt the creature.

Sofia stopped chanting and looked up. “It worked. Brandt, do you see? It worked.”

“What worked? What the Hell am I doing, Sofia?”

“It’s Miss Blackthorn. For now.” She shot the ashen Brandt a grin. “Hold it here until the rift closes. Then it can’t get back and it’ll be mine to control.”

“You are fucking insane.” Brandt pressed one hand to his chest. “Control that thing? I should let it go.”

“Don’t you dare. If you release it, it will rip our souls out and eat them. We’ll replace two of the dead faces on its body. Then it will go looking for more. You really do not want that to happen. How long?”

“Huh?” Brandt gazed up at the creature, its face twisting in either rage or pain. “It’s about fifty feet long, at a guess.”

“No, you bloody moron, how long until the rift closes?”

“Oh. Five minutes, ten seconds.”

Death moved closer to the creature. It could not harm him. He had nothing it wanted. One of the still living faces on its body gazed at him in pleading.

They can see me. Well of course they can. They’re dead. I wonder…

Death touched the face with the tip of his scythe. The face withered, its soul drawn into the blade. Death stepped back and released that soul. It drifted into the woods.

“I’ll guide you home later,” he called. “For now, wait out of sight.”

One by one, Death touched his scythe to the faces. The creature screamed and writhed but could not escape Hal’s power-draining machines. One by one, he released the souls to wait for him in the woods. The already-withered faces he could not help. The creature had digested the souls behind them.

“What’s going on? The faces are dying.” Sofia clenched her fists. “It will be powerless. Useless. Brandt, are you doing this?”

“I no longer have any idea what I’m doing.” Hal stared at his console. “All needles are in the red. There’s too much power. This thing is going to blow any minute.”

“How many more minutes do we need?”

Hal checked the timer. “Three minutes twenty. It might last that long but I can’t guarantee it’ll hold after the rift closes. That thing will be stuck here and it’ll be loose. What have you done, Sofia? What have you done?”

The creature gave out a low moan. Death gazed up at the head on top of the long body.

“So you can be defeated. You’ll have to last a year with no food. I’m hoping you can’t.”

The creature turned its face downwards to look Death straight in the sockets. It laughed, a slow, dooming, hollow sound.

The words Death had overheard came back. Hold it here until the rift closes. It knew. The creature knew. It had stopped struggling. In a few more minutes it would be on this world for a year. Death wondered why it didn’t just stay anyway. There must be rules in its universe compelling its return – but if it was prevented…

“You have to let it go.” Death pushed his skull right into Sofia’s face.

She stared right through him at the creature beyond. “It will need food.” She shot a sidelong glance at Hal.

“Two minutes.” Hal now had one arm clamped across his chest. “I don’t know…” He slumped forward onto the console.

“Don’t die, Brandt.” Sofia’s words were honeyed. “Not just yet.”

Death shot to Hal’s side. Hal was close to death. Close enough, maybe, to see it. Or at least hear it.

“Let it go,” Death whispered. “It will take your souls but if it remains here, it could take thousands. Let it go.”

“My chest. Pain.” Hal’s lips turned blue.

“Hold on, Brandt. We’re nearly there.” Sofia’s voice cut the air like a razor. “I need you for one more thing.”

He’s not hearing me. It’ll be too late when he’s dead. Death tried once more. “Hal. Let it go.”

Hal’s brow furrowed. His breathing became laboured. He turned his head to Sofia. “You’re going to feed me to it, aren’t you?”

Sofia stared wild-eyed. “It’s immortality, Hal. Immortality. That thing has lived for over nine thousand years and it can live forever. You can too, as a part of it.”

“How—how can you know?

“There’s a carving. In Russia. Nine thousand years old. It matches with one of the rift openings. This is the creature it depicts. Let it take you. You will live within it forever.”

Hal forced his eyes to focus on the timer. “Twenty-four seconds.” He moved one hand slowly, painfully towards a switch. “Fuck you, Sofia Blackthorn, and fuck your money.” Hal flipped the switch. The light faded from his eyes.

The creature screamed. Sound ripped the air like a chainsaw. Its tail lashed around Sofia and brought her, shrieking, to its head. To that innocent-looking ‘o’ of a mouth. It kissed her on the top of her head.

Sofia hung limp. The creature dropped her to break on the ground below. Halfway along its length, Sofia’s face pressed out of the snakehide body and opened its mouth and eyes in a silent horror.

Death rushed forward. If he could recapture that one soul, the creature might starve to death before the next rift opening. Too late. The thing shot back into the rift, its deep ‘Ho ho ho’ echoing back as the rent air closed.

“Bugger.” Death lowered his scythe. He considered the machinery around him and realised that it could finally rid the world of this annual parasite. It could be held until he took all its souls and then released with no time to take another. What a pity its designer was dead. What a pity he would not be able to guide a future operator.

“So what now?” The voice made Death turn. Hal stood there above his own corpse.

Death inclined his head and took out his little book. There was Hal Brandt’s name in solid black. Sofia Blackthorn’s name was gone. “Well,” he said, “you survived, sort of. I mean, okay, you’re dead but you’re not snake-food. It’s not as bad as it could have been.”

Hal snorted. “I know, I felt it happen. I mean what do you do now? Are you going to drag me to Hell for my part in this?”

“I serve to guide the dead to the afterlife.” Death chose his words carefully.

“Guide.” Hal’s mouth twisted into a smile. “You can’t compel me to go with you, can you?”

“Uh…” Once in a while, Death came across one who did not accept his authority. Truth be told, he had no authority. He really was just a guide.

“The thing is, Sofia is not the only one. There’s another of her kind seeking the rift and now I know why. They aren’t after money. They want that monster as some kind of pet.” Hal lowered his head. “I can’t go with you. I have to find them and stop them.”

“Not much you can do now. You have no substance.” Death felt disinclined to argue. He could certainly do with an ally in this fight.

“There must be a way. I have to try.”

Death looked past Hal at the souls coming out of the woods. The ones he had released. “Well,” he said, “I am kind of busy at the moment.” He walked past Hal. “You know, I might just have missed you in all the confusion. Don’t you think?”

Hal grinned. “I understand. You can guide me later. See you around.”

Death looked back. “I’m always around. Especially at this time of year.”

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