io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. Here's our first selection, "How Many Miles to Babylon?" by Megan Arkenberg. Enjoy!
Art by Khitrets.
How Many Miles to Babylon?
By Megan Arkenberg
And he cried out in a mighty voice:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
She had become a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and hateful beast.
The Goliath halogen died today. We hoped at first that it was only the battery, that if we changed it out and cursed and tapped it hard against our thighs we could get it flickering again, then shining steadily. We went through half our stock of batteries before we admitted that the light itself was shot.
"Fuck," I said. "Fucking mother of a goddamn fuck." I was holding the battery case. I shook out the pack of double-As we had stuffed inside and flung the worthless chunk of plastic into the trees.
David didn't say anything. He went around to the back of the truck and found a pair of xenon flashlights, thin and red, behind the box of canned soup. They take half the batteries, but aren't a third as bright as the Goliath.
It's getting harder and harder to pretend we aren't racing along the edge of a knife, one box of flashlights and a fistful of batteries away from the mercy of the things in the darkness. Beyond the reach of our headlights, the highway and the undergrowth are both as black as the empty sky. We know all too well what's hiding there, both the things that came from the stars, and the things that waited countless centuries in caves and cellars and tangled forests for the Darkening to claim the Earth. I sit on the roof of the truck, a flashlight in each hand. It's my turn for the watch, but I know David isn't sleeping. I can hear the fizz and crackle of static as he flips through dead radio stations, looking for guidance. Looking for Babylon.
But the city has fallen silent tonight. We can only hope it hasn't fallen dark.
Today, tonight—David has convinced himself that these words have lost any meaning, that the changing numbers on his wristwatch are as arbitrary as the patterns the intermittent rain traces on our windshield. I'm not so sure. I half believe that the sun and the moon and the stars are still there, making unfathomed cycles behind the veil that fell with the Darkening. Wouldn't it be colder, if the sun were dead?
I am beginning to hate the trees. They grew up—overnight, I would say, and David would object—they grew up too quickly in the first hours of the Darkening, closing in the roads, smelling like earthworms and rot. It's been months since I've seen an empty field. The branches that I break down for our fires are leafless, their bark sloughing off in my hands, strangely and unpleasantly damp. Still, we need the firelight, and so we need the trees.
The end of the world has a funny way of teaching you about necessity.
David shakes me awake near three in the morning. I can see the fluorescent numerals blinking on his wrist, illuminated but not illuminating. His face is as unfathomable as always in the firelight, planes and angles and shadows like a patchwork of misery. "Listen," he says.
The radio reception flickers and burbles, nearly incomprehensible, but we've been listening so hard for this that I could repeat the words in my sleep. The message is the same every time.
Hello? Hello? A high-pitched voice, a young woman or child. This is Babylon. We have light. We have— Static, like a purring beast, and then, Hello? Is anybody there? Hello?
"Coordinates?" I murmur, groping on the truck floor for my jacket. "Location, anything?"
"FM waves. We've gotta be within thirty miles."
"We've been within thirty miles for weeks. It's like searching for a needle in a haystack."
He shrugs, a motion I hear rather than see. Crinkling of his windbreaker, dull creak of the tired bones in his shoulders. "Then we keep looking," he says. The static crackles, and though we strain our ears listening, we hear no more from Babylon.
We haven't seen a town in months. I think the trees consumed them, swallowed them up. I'm not sure how literally I mean that.
Sometimes we see something sticking out of the mud and the twisted roots—a slab of concrete, a mile marker, a once-fluorescent bar sign with scorch marks around the edge. It was fire that drove us out of Sommer's Grove in the first place, a dome of orange and crimson swallowing the sky over the strip malls and the faux-Victorian duplexes. Flames rained down like bullets, smelling acrid, chemical. Now I think we should have stayed in the ashes—that whatever threw the fire down on us was really on our side, fighting against the darkness.
At noon, the Horseman attacks.
David named them all according to what we could hear: Runners, with long loping pauses between the scuffing of their heavy paws against the earth; Batmen, who descend with the flapping of wings and the smell of new leather; Horsemen, whose six legs beat like hooves against the crumbling remains of the road. The Horsemen are the worst. Their feet are sharp and cold as steel, and their teeth are like needles, breaking off in your flesh.
A Horseman is what killed Salem.
This one is smarter than most. It launches itself at me while we're checking our taillights, in the momentary dimness. But the flinty click of hooves against the truck bed is all the warning David needs. He flicks on the brights. I draw all my flashlights at once—the blue rectangular diving light, the two thin reds that replaced the Goliath, the fistful of tiny LED penlights strung on a keyring. It's taken some practice, but I've learned to get them all lit in a blink, switch after switch sliding beneath my thumbs.
The Horseman shrieks like breaking glass. I can see its silhouette for a fraction of a second, the long spindly legs, the bulbous, eyeless head, and then it's gone, dissolved in the light. My chest heaves, my heart pounding in my ears. Above my head, the truck's side is pocked with six-inch dents.
"That was . . . too damn close," I pant.
David nods, leaning out the driver's window. "We can't . . . dim . . . the lights," he says breathlessly. "Not even . . . for a second."
Salem died on the first day of the Darkening.
It had all happened in an instant, the sun swallowed up, satellites wiped out of existence, as though the world had been locked in a black-sided box. Freighters and bridges plunged into the sea. Planes dropped from the sky, their sides puckered by the marks of gigantic claws.
In the darkness, we never saw the ships, but we heard the hollow, bone-deep sounds of their landing.
In a little town twenty miles north of Milwaukee, while she walked from her car to the doors of the library, my husband's sixteen-year-old daughter was shredded with steel-bladed hooves and needle-fine teeth.
Mikhaila, David's ex, made the call herself. We'd never spoken before, but she told the story to me, wouldn't let me pass the phone to David. Her voice was ragged and eerily calm. I hated her for it, for making me listen, but I understood. How do you tell a man that the thing he loves most in the world is gone?
So I was the one who told him, who watched the news work like venom through to his heart. I caught him when he pitched forward, screaming, and half-carried him to the couch.
When he was thoroughly unconscious, surrounded by empty cans and plastic bottles, I tried to call Mikhaila back. The phone rang for fifteen minutes before I gave up.
The next night, a ball of flame ignited the roof of our neighbor's house. We threw what we could into the back of our truck and sped out of the burning town, stopping only to break the windows of a battery store and grab everything we could carry. We could see skeletal, winged figures writhing in the fire-lit sky.
"We'll drive until dawn," David said thickly, forgetting in our grief and adrenaline that dawn would never come again.
"What do you think we'll find there?" I ask. David's driving with one hand on the wheel, the other flipping through radio channels. Everything is static.
"I don't know," he says. "Safety, I guess. Others who survived."
There have to be other survivors, I know. But we've never seen them, not another car on the road, not even a light on a hill in the distance.
For the space of a moment, the radio receives something, a deep male voice booming out of the upper nineties. " . . . and the light of a lamp shall shine no more in thee." I should recognize the quotation, but I don't.
David spends the rest of the evening going back and forth over that empty patch of static.
I've stopped asking if he's all right.
First, because it's a stupid question. Of course he's not all right, his daughter and most of the world is dead, and we're pawing through the darkness and the monsters with a supply of soup and batteries and flashlights that won't last forever.
Second, because I hate the way he looks when I ask it. Frowning, sick to his stomach, like he doesn't think I should care.
The end of the world has a funny way of teaching you to stop asking questions. You get the same answers every time, over and over. The song has no second verse.
How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten.
Will we get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
(Over and over again.)
A pair of Runners has been following us since we killed the Horseman. I haven't mentioned it to David; I just perk up my ears every now and then, when the sound of the engine dims, and I hear that heavy thumping in the near-distance. Thump-thump, thump-thump, like a pair of heartbeats.
I wonder if monsters understand the concept of revenge.
"Getting tired?" I ask.
"Here, let me drive," I say. "You need to rest."
"You haven't slept in thirty-six hours."
"I said I'm fine."
I lean back against the headrest. "You're not fine, David."
He pushes down on the accelerator. Behind us, the sounds pick up. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
David takes first watch, and I don't fight him on it. I'm hoping he'll exhaust himself and his body will force him into sleep. I lie awake across the seats in the truck cabin, eyes closed, listening for all I'm worth.
He's trying his pocket radio. Static, static, static, punctuated by the click of the turning dial. What a waste of batteries, I think, and then it comes. This is Babylon, clear as crystal in the darkness. Then nothing.
He doesn't come to wake me. I try not to let it sting.
I think the Runners have to stop and rest. Either that, or the light from our campfire is steady enough to frighten them back into the trees. They don't come and they don't come, and finally David nudges me out of feigned sleep, and lays himself down to rest.
He's really sleeping, too. I trail my hand over his face, down his neck and across the firm rise and fall of his chest, and he doesn't stir, doesn't respond at all. It's been months since we've really touched. I can't remember the last time he kissed me.
Before we left Sommer's Grove, while David was vandalizing our pantry for canned goods, I took a bottle of magnesium tablets from the medicine cabinet. Burning magnesium is too bright to look at. I thought, at the time, that it would remind me of the sun.
There's a third Runner now. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. I wonder how much longer I can wait.
When I'm sure David is sleeping soundly, I climb up on top of the truck with his little radio and flip to the AM stations. Coarser reception, longer-distance. I know exactly what I'm looking for, in the middle of the six-hundreds.
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. It is a woman's voice, clear and cold as steel. This is the dozenth time I've listened for her while David is asleep. It feels, somehow, like a betrayal. It has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and hateful beast.
David sighs in his sleep. I want to believe it's my name he murmurs, but it could be Salem's, it could be a wordless moan of pain. I turn the radio back the way he left it, back to the voiceless wilderness, the valley of bones.
This is Babylon, the voice says. The static chops the message like a blunt knife. We have (crackle) anybody (crackle) Hello? Hello? And the radio battery dies.
I never met Salem. Custody fell to Mikhaila, a thousand miles away, and the three or four times that Salem visited her father, I made myself scarce. Women's club retreats, weekends with my parents or my girlfriends. I was terrified of becoming the wicked stepmother; an absent one seemed preferable.
I know that Salem got excellent report cards, loved art classes, played soccer for three years in grade school, and shattered her knee so badly that she needed to sit out through junior high. She adored whales and dolphins, and the year David and I got married, we sent her a fat plush orca for her birthday. Its eyes were huge, with cartoonishly feminine lashes.
She sent us a terse, polite, hand-written thank-you card. It was illustrated in watercolor with an orca's eye, beautiful and dark.
When she died, she was carrying a backpack full of books on Picasso, for a school project, and Rossetti, for recreational reading. She also had a box of colored pencils, professional-quality, a masculine leather wallet with her learner's license and twenty dollars cash. And a plush orca, loved to flatness, one huge plastic eye crushed by the Horseman's hooves.
I wonder if monsters understand the concept of revenge.
Nimrod was the king of Babylon, and a mighty hunter before the Lord. Of course, no one ever says what he hunted.
Something rustles in the leaves on the side of the road. I would turn up the headlights, but David is asleep in the driver's seat, his chest rising and falling as heavily as if it pushed against the weight of the world. I don't want to disturb him by reaching through the window. Instead, I throw more damp and foul-smelling wood onto the fire.
The steady thump-thumping stopped thirty minutes ago. Either the Runners are resting, or they've come too close to run.
I finger the powdered magnesium tablets in my pocket.
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. The words ring in my head, as repetitive as a nursery rhyme. What if it's true? What if Babylon is not our new Jerusalem with angels at the gates, but a charred skeleton city, a ruin with monsters nesting in its bones?
There are too many logs on the fire. The flames burn low, dull red, only the heart of them hot enough for my undertaking. For the last time, I look at David through the open driver's window. His eyes roll beneath his lids; he is dreaming.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," I say to the monsters.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Three Runners step into the road, at the feathery edge of the firelight. More rustle through the trees behind them. They are horrible, spindly things, smelling of rotten meat. Charred bones tear out of their gray and purple flesh. Their empty eye sockets are like the blackness of the pit.
Fool, says the middle one. It is longer and fatter than the others. It speaks with the voice from the AM radio station, female and icy. What business could a daughter of the light have with the children of darkness?
She is looking for Babylon, says the one on the left. The men who thought they could fight us with prayers and candle flames.
The one on the right licks its bloated lips with a thin black tongue. The birds of midheaven have feasted on their flesh.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Daughter of men, says the middle one, what do you think you are doing?
You are alone in the world. The one on the left tilts its head, like a vulture eyeing carrion. Who do you think will protect you?
Why do you not speak?
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I smile, crouching before the fire. I spit on the asphalt at their scaly feet. And I take the bottle of magnesium from my pocket, unscrewing the cap.
There is an unendurable brightness, a burning pain across my face. The Runners shriek like the damned. The ones in the forest scramble for safety, but their scrambling does not go on for long. The stench of charring flesh fills my nose and mouth.
Then silence, and darkness.
David is clicking through stations on the truck radio. Static, static. All the voices of Babylon are dead.
"That was foolish," he says again.
I touch the cool bandages across my eyes. They are wet—with what, I don't know.
"I saved your life," I say. "I killed God knows how many monsters. The least you can do is thank me."
Click, click, click. He turns the radio dial. Static crackles from the speaker by my ear. Then, "Thank you."
He swallows hard. "So what do we do now?"
It is a question full of questions.
Should we continue searching? Did Babylon ever exist, or was it a trap devised by the creatures of darkness? And who were its citizens, who fought with prayers and candle flames? How many monsters are left in the wilderness—and how many people? Will I ever see again?
How many miles to Babylon?
I cup my hand over David's knee. The denim beneath my fingertips is rough and warm.
"We keep hunting," I say.
A voice cries out through the radio static, a single word, too bright and fast and sharp for us to understand.
If you enjoyed this story, please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2012 issue, which also features original science fiction by Ken Liu ("The Five Elements of the Heart Mind"), plus SF reprints by Paul McAuley ("Gene Wars") and Nancy Kress ("Always True to Thee, in My Fashion"). Plus, original fantasy stories by Marissa Lingen ("On the Acquisition of Phoenix Eggs (Variant)") and Sarah Monette ("Blue Lace Agate"), and fantasy reprints by M. Rickert ("You Have Never Been Here") and Aimee Bender ("A State of Variance"). All that plus feature interviews with bestselling author Neal Stephenson and award-winning author R. A. MacAvoy, and our usual assortment of author spotlights. And, for Lightspeed's ebook readers, our ebook-exclusive novella this month is a tribute to a science fiction legend who recently passed away: the Hugo Award-winning novella "Weyr Search" by Anne McCaffrey, the first in her iconic Dragonriders of Pern series, plus a memorial by her son—and collaborator—Todd McCaffrey. It's another great issue—and the first under the new regime—so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!