Ian and Kyouko had run as soon as they knew that somebody was either trying to capture or kill them, and they had done nothing but run for the last five minutes. When the Way that had been their original destination had become compromised, they had known where the next Way was located. They had known that if anybody was taken or killed, staying behind only meant that they would probably share that same fate. So they had left Carlos, and they had run. They had both become very good at running.
Events were still happening according to plan, which Ian was very thankful for. He had little confidence in his own ability to improvise.
In the darkness, Ian had trouble seeing the river he was looking for, so he scanned in front of him for the reflection of stars in the snaking water. Finding it, he quickly slid down the bank and into the river. Kyouko was fast behind him. Both of them were breathing heavily, and the sound of flowing water filled their ears.
“One of us has to stay behind to open the Way,” Ian said.
There was silence as Kyouko stared at him.
“I’ll do it,” Ian said. “You won’t die if you do it, but you’ll be taken. It’s better for me. I’ll die, but they’ll do worse to you if they take you.”
“Well yeah, I don’t want to die.”
Kyouko blinked. “All right. I’m sorry. It looks like you’re going to die.”
“I know,” Ian said. He clenched his teeth and shivered in the night air. Water was seeping into his pant legs and the tiny woman next to him was still staring at him and his heart beat out a machine gun tempo. “I know.”
There was silence again. Ian read the time on his watch: 10:52:46 PM. There were seven minutes and fourteen seconds until the Way could be opened.
Kyouko opened her mouth halfway, but Ian held out a hand to silence her. Listen, he mouthed. The padding of footsteps and the rattle of military gear filled the air. Ian did not breathe. The silhouette of a man peaked over the top of the riverbank. The man was alone.
Ian and Kyouko were low enough in the water that they weren’t spotted. For several long seconds, the man peered around in the darkness. Then, after fumbling for a moment, he took out a flashlight and pointed it at the river. Ian and Kyouko weren’t there anymore. The man had been too occupied taking out his flashlight to notice the sounds of splashing water, and was too surprised when he felt something sharp sink into his leg to put up any resistance. He collapsed to the ground in a limp heap.
Ian started dragging the man down to the water. “Oh my God, oh my God,” he said. “Did you kill him? Tell me you didn’t kill him.”
Kyouko shook her head.
“Then what the hell did you do to him?”
“There is neurotoxin running through his veins. He’s paralyzed now. He’ll be dead in ten minutes.”
Ian closed his eyes. “So we can use him to open the Way.”
Kyouko nodded. “I was wrong. You won’t die. But who knows? I might be wrong again and you’ll die after all.”
“Let’s not talk so much about my death, okay?”
“Would you like to talk about mine?”
Ian let go of the man’s limp body at the edge of the river. Dark water lapped at the man’s feet. His unfocused gaze passed between Ian and Kyouko slowly.
“He’s not Foundation,” Ian said. “They have better equipment. And they wouldn’t make a mistake like this.”
The man’s lips twitched. Now that he could examine him closely, Ian could see that he had dark skin and straight black hair. He was mumbling something in a language that Ian couldn’t understand.
“Who, then?” Kyouko asked. She leaned in and placed her face an inch from the man’s, peering at him with unblinking eyes. “Not a jailer. Not a book-burner. Where do you come from, strange man?”
The man’s voice grew louder. “Shut him up,” Ian said. Kyouko ripped off a piece of her shirt and stuffed it in the man’s mouth.
Ian looked into the man’s eyes. They were too unfocused for him to make out any sort of emotion. The man lay there passively, submissively, mute to their ears and helpless against their will. If he had seen fear in his eyes, then Ian might have regarded him as a human being, but he saw nothing there, only the poison.
“He’s from the Insurgency,” Ian said. “I’ve seen them before. The Insurgency’s dogs…they take them from the gutters, they starve them, and then they let them loose. They’re hardly human.”
“This one is very much a human,” Kyouko said. “Can’t you see?”
She ran her hand over the man’s cheek. “Feel him. He is warm, and soft, and he fears death. Seems like a human to me.”
Ian looked into Kyouko’s eyes. Fascination and wonder and discovery were inside her gaze as she toyed with the man’s body. Ian didn’t know what Kyouko thought of the man. What did he think of the man?
A lump of meat about to expire.
“Ian,” Kyouko said, “why did he come after us?”
“Presumably because he was told.”
Ian wondered what the man wanted. The Insurgency marked the frontier of the unknown, even for those who made it their business to know all. They did not know what the Insurgency’s goals were, or where they came from, or what they believed in. The Foundation and the GOC were known threats, defined entities that could be measured and calculated and recorded. But for all Ian knew, the Insurgency was driven by an unknown, unseen, malevolent force, driving people to kidnap and steal and kill.
“Because somebody wanted Carlos, and they wanted him alive because they have some twisted plan for him,” Ian said. “So they took him. But us, they don’t need us alive, and they don’t want us telling anybody that they were here. And now they want us dead.”
Kyouko looked away from the man to roll her eyes. “Wants on wants, plans on plans. Sounds pretty boring.”
Carlos was gone. Suddenly, Ian wanted to scream. The Insurgency had taken Carlos, and now, for just a moment, Ian wished that it had been somebody else who had taken him, because then, he would know why. He wanted to think to himself, I’ll enjoy watching this man die, but he couldn’t. He could not hate somebody if he knew nothing about them. There was nothing to despise in the alien, nothing revolting in the blank, formless surface of the unknown. There was no ideology or motive to contest. There was only fear and ignorance.
Now, the man’s eyes were half-lidded and glassy. He made muffled noises underneath the makeshift gag. Blood from his leg was staining the water red.
“Where do they come from, Ian?”
Ian watched the man’s eyelids fall lower and lower. “Nobody knows. Most people think they’re an offshoot from the Foundation. They do the same work as the Foundation but on a different side, and they do it with less rules and more unpleasantness. And some people think that they’re still part of the Foundation.”
“This one doesn’t seem like a jailer, though.”
“When you see what they do to people, it’s hard to tell them apart.”
Kyouko shook her head. “They’re not jailers. They’re prisoners. What do you think, Ian?”
“I don’t care. I don’t care at all.”
He knew that Kyouko knew he was lying, but she didn’t say anything.
Ian sat at the edge of the riverside and rested his head in his hands. There were three minutes until they could open the Way.
The sound of gunfire broke the silence of the night air. Sprays of water fell on Ian’s face as he scrambled away. The strobe lighting of muzzle flashes stabbed at his eyes as shadow and fire played across his vision. He had been found, the Way hadn’t been opened yet, and—
The gunfire stopped. Men were beginning to yell.
Before he could react, somebody shined a flashlight in Ian’s face, grabbed him, and shoved him to the ground. There was more yelling. Ian couldn’t begin to understand most of it, but through it all—
“What are you fucks waiting for? Shoot her!”
Ian stumbled to his feet, only to meet the muzzle of a gun pointed straight at him. The man carrying it tensed.
“If you shoot, I am going to kill him,” Kyouko said.
Kyouko held their earlier prisoner’s limp body upright. She was pressing a knife to the man’s throat. Her face was perfectly relaxed. Several gunshot wounds marked Kyouko’s body; Ian knew she didn’t care. Ian couldn’t even tell if the Insurgency soldiers understood what Kyouko was saying, but the man pointing the gun at him had lowered his weapon.
One man stood apart from the rest of the Insurgency soldiers. This one wore a military uniform with a straight back and a cold glare on his face. He raised his gun to aim at Kyouko, and then the yelling started again. Ian looked into the eyes of the Insurgency soldiers, and he saw fear. He saw them turn to the uniformed man and address him in hurried, pleading tones, while the uniformed man cursed and spat at them. They crowded around him, blocking his line of fire. Meanwhile, the poisoned man groaned and writhed in Kyouko’s grasp. There was foam beginning to line his lips. In the chaos, his gag had fallen out of his mouth. He was still babbling in the language that Ian couldn’t understand.
Finally, the uniformed man shoved his subordinates out of the way. “You dumb bastards are all dead when we get back to base,” he said, and then he shot Kyouko. She fell to the water, dragging the poisoned man down with her. Her skin began to ripple and distend. Ian saw that nobody but him noticed.
The uniformed man turned to Ian next. Kyouko’s ploy had bought him some time, and now she would buy him some more, but Ian knew that it wasn’t enough. He glanced down at his watch. There was a minute left.
“Your men wanted their comrade to live,” he said.
“They’re fucking idiots. Either he’s alive now or he was going to die anyway.”
The man turned to his men and yelled something at them. They didn’t respond. One of them had waded down to the water. Ian watched as he stooped to cradle the poisoned man’s head. They had the same dark skin and straight black hair.
The man turned away from Ian to raise his weapon at his own men. “Don’t you fucks understand? This is bigger than one fucking person. “
“Is that what this is about? Some greater cause?”
“Look,” the man said, turning back to Ian. “We’re trying to make the world better for these miserable bastards while you hide in your holes. If we were in charge, the world would be perfect, or at least a lot fucking better than it is now. But they’re too stupid to help us help them.”
Ian listened to the man’s words. All he had wanted was for the man to talk as long as possible, but now, actually hearing what the man had to say, he felt all of his concentration and his planning twist and snap. He looked into the man’s eyes and saw a shell, filled with teeming darkness, a puppet, set in motion by forces that mocked and derided the reason of humanity. Ian started laughing.
“You stupid bastard,” he said. “You want a better future? By killing off or locking up the strange and wondrous?”
“We—we’ll make the world safe for you as well! There won’t be any more ‘consensus reality.’ We just, we just need—sacrifices need to happen.”
The man raised his gun, and then Kyouko’s body exploded. A scaly tail knocked the uniformed man away. A terrible hissing filled the air.
Eight biting snakeheads, each one as large as an automobile, snapped at the Insurgency soldiers, tearing through flesh and bone, picking entire men up and then swallowing them whole. Eight thrashing tails, each one as thick as redwood trees, smashed and flailed at the now-running soldiers, crushing them beneath clubs of scale and flesh. Screaming and gunfire assaulted Ian’s ears. He collapsed to the ground, curled up into a ball, and closed his eyes tight. He could smell blood in the air. And through it all, he could feel the sensation of hissing, of forked tongues and eyes that glowed like rubies in the night, of death and carnage. It was the unseen malignancy that animated the Insurgency, come back to take what it had given and reap what it had sown. It was Chaos.
Free of the human mind that suppressed it, free of the human body that contained it, the demon snake Yamato no Orochi bathed in a river of blood under the moon.
When Ian got to his feet, the surrounding landscape had been transformed into a desolated field of toppled trees and split earth. Kyouko was human again. She was kneeling over one of the bodies of the dead, a knife in her hand, cutting out the man’s heart.
“Kyouko,” Ian said. “I…”
“I knew…I was probably going to survive,” Kyouko said. “But you said that you feared death. And that you did not want to die. So I thought that I would not have you die.”
Kyouko took the heart out of the man’s chest and handed it to Ian. He checked his watch; Kyouko’s timing had been perfect. It was the heart of a man who had died that night, on the Witching Hour, and it would give them passage through the Way.
A commotion drew Ian’s attention. It was the uniformed man, a gash in his side seeping blood, aiming his weapon at the two of them. Ian wanted to give the man a medal. After his men refused to follow his orders, after being set on by a giant eight-headed and eight-tailed snake, he still wanted the two of them dead. So long as there was blood in his veins, Chaos would drive him forwards. Now, Ian wanted to laugh again. There was nothing he could do to stop him from shooting.
The man never fired. He collapsed to the ground, blood flowing from a new wound in his neck. In the uniformed man’s place, there was a woman in a suit and tie.
The woman didn’t seem to notice Ian and Kyouko. She spoke, as if to herself, “He was missing humility.”
Ian and Kyouko ran for the water, but the woman didn’t give chase. Instead, she knelt down by the man’s body and started rifling through his clothing. Eventually, she procured a vial of red liquid. She stood, shook her head, and then walked away.
Ian threw the heart into the river as he and Kyouko dove into the waters. The river churned, embracing the two. As Ian felt the power of the Way pull him into the Library, the last image he had of the woman seared itself into his mind. Blood from the uniformed man’s neck wound had stained the sleeve of the woman’s suit, and had colored her right hand red.