The Quest pt 1..and some gratuitous pop culture by Rich
They had no reliable way to determine time. So they ate when they were hungry, and slept when they were tired.
For their second sleep, they used the collapsable shelters and air mattresses contained in their vests - a considerable improvement over sleeping in the truck. Roger didn't have a vest, of course; so Doreen loaned him hers while she doubled up with Tamiko. He wasn't an experienced camper and wasn't exactly comfortable, but he slept well enough.
He awoke with a start, and saw Ludwig crouching in the darkness.
"I thought I heard something," said Roger.
"You did," replied Ludwig "but I took care of it. You can go back to sleep."
When he woke again a deep red sun was hanging above the horizon (the wrong
horizon, but they were getting used to that). In the center of their improvised encampment was the corpse of a two headed...something. Both of it's necks were obviously broken.
The next "day", the terrain gradually became more barren. The trees got smaller (and stranger) until there were no more trees. The grass was grey and sparse and twisted, with barbs and thorns that grass wasn't supposed to have. It went without saying that none
of this showed on the map.
Ludwig had showed all of them the basics of driving the truck, so they took turns. They passed several packs, herds, and flocks of monsters, and all of them were moving in the direction they'd come from. Some of them were larger than anything they'd seen further south, and that was saying a lot
. If these things were all heading for the Regiment, then the Regiment was going to be very busy.
More than once, they'd seen demons attacking other demons. Evidently, the answer to the question of what the things ate was "each other".
"Maybe we should just pen them up and let them slaughter each other." said Tamiko.
"Maybe that would just make the survivors that much tougher." replied Doreen.
The odometer on the truck showed that they'd traveled four and a half kilometers, while the indicator on the monocycle was stuck on 3,141.6, and wouldn't budge from that. Ludwig tried resetting it to zero, but as soon as he finished it reset by itself.
"Wonderful," said Tamiko. "we've travelled pi
That prompted Doreen to try estimating distances to various points using triangulation, but the results were inconsistent. Evidently the Pythagorean theorem was one more thing that didn't work reliably near the Hellmouth.
this section contains spoilers for some old movies, and an old song. You have been warned.
The grass was gone completely now; in it's place was a kind of yellowish moss. Doreen and Tamiko were having a very animated discussion as they drove.
"Excuse me, but what are you young ladies talking about ?" asked Roger.
Tamiko replied. "John Wayne movies. I said this trip reminds me of 'The Searchers', or 'Rio Grande'. Doreen said that she prefers 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'. Which is a good movie, but not really relevant."
"Not directly, perhaps", replied Roger. "Although it could be seen as the story of a personal
journey; or two journeys, I suppose. Both
of the male leads go through changes during the film."
"Maybe," answered Tamiko, "if you mean they both change into heroes - except neither one of them really gets there, do they ? Stoddard is a good guy but he can't get the job done, and Doniphan gets the job done but he's not exactly a good guy."
The Luds were paying attention now, even though neither one of them really understood what the three were talking about.
", said Doreen. "He basically throws away his whole life for the woman he loves !! How is that a bad thing ?"
"I didn't say it was 'bad', just that it wasn't exactly good. Shooting the bad guy from ambush ? Not really very heroic." responded Tamiko. "Besides, both
of the guys have selfish motives, when you come right down to it."
"Which was what John Ford was getting at, I suspect;" offered Roger. "Sometimes people do the right things for the wrong reasons, or vice versa, and you can't always tell who the hero is
. Of course, there are actually several messages in the film, if you look for them."
"Right," responded Doreen. "Like Mr. Peabody's speech when he nominates Stoddard. With all that stuff about the savages giving way to the cattlemen, and then 'the builder of cities'."
"Yes," said Roger, "Ford definitely believed in Progress with a capital 'P'; he just didn't think it was always nice and neat. Doniphan isn't
a nice man, and he doesn't get a happy ending. Stoddard does, but only by living a lie - which ruins it for him."
He smiled. "However, if I were looking for a film about a journey, I think I'd pick 'The Naked Prey'; and I'd prefer 'Rio Grande' over 'The Searchers'. Wasn't that trip supposed to take several years ?"
"For all we can tell, maybe this one already has." replied Tamiko.
"Yes, well...I suppose I'd have to concede that point. But I think you're looking at the wrong actor. Not John Wayne - Robert Mitchum."
Tamiko said "I think I speak for everyone here when I say 'huuhh???"
Roger cleared his throat and began to sing:"Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn't run him Down
Each time they thought they had him,
His engine would explode
He'd go by like they were standin' still on thunder Road"
"And there was thunder, thunder over thunder road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his Load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him, but the devil got
Him first. "
"Are you trying to jinx
us ?" said Tamiko. "He dies
at the end of the song !!"
He had to spend the next twenty minutes teaching the song to the Luds. Then Doreen taught them "Six days on the Road', Tamiko did "Eastbound and Down", and they finished up with "Convoy".
After the third sleep (thankfully undisturbed), the terrain changed again.
The sandy ground was covered by something that looked like coral, and over the coral crawled creatures that looked like starfish, other things that looked like crabs or shrimp, and sluglike things the size of cows. Roger knew enough biology to know that most of these things couldn't live outside of the water; but they seemed alive to him. He took more notes, wondering as he did so if anyone would ever read them. Under other circumstances he would have been fascinated, but whatever charms the novelty of this trip might have had had worn off long before.
They also saw several dozen impossibly large flying creatures, which Doreen dubbed "Hindenburgs". They were hundreds of feet long, with bodies that seemed to be inflated like balloons; long tentacles dangled from the front ends, and there were openings that might have been mouths.
These were accompanied by multiwinged flyers the size of pterodactlys. These swarmed around the "Hindenburgs" like pilot fish around sharks, and occasionally dove down to skim along the ground. They saw one snatch up a creature that resembled a rabbit with too many legs. Another seemed to sense their presence - they all held their breath as it approached, but at the last second it frantically veered off.
Apparently Roger's "fire glamour" worked.
Roger didn't know how long they'd been traveling through the mist, or how far they'd come. They couldn't see more than a few yards. The sun seemed to be down; But there was dim light, a reddish glow that emanated from the mist itself. Occasionally they glimpsed shapes through the haze, some of which seemed to be moving. When they approached these shapes, they found nothing.
The next morning, if it was morning, the vehicles couldn't continue; or more accurately wouldn't
continue. They started fine, and ran properly as long as they were moving in any direction except the direction that the team actually wanted to go. As soon as they tried to move towards the Hellmouth, the engines died.
"Well, that's just great
." said Tamiko. "Since when do machines get to have opinions ?"
"Perhaps they're smarter than we are." answered Ludwig.
They all stared at him, except Ludmilla, who just smirked.
"Excuse me, but did you just make a joke
?" asked Doreen.
"Ludwig has a very good sense of humor," answered Ludmilla, "but most people don't get his jokes. We don't know why." Then the two of them were roaring with laughter, while the others just looked at each other.
They sorted through their gear, packing the essential items into portable loads. That meant that the Luds had to leave behind a lot of ammunition - with each shell weighing close to a pound, even they couldn't carry more than a hundred rounds apiece, unless they wanted to abandon all of their other equipment. Doreen placed a locator crystal on the front seat, so that they could find the truck later (assuming it didn't disappear, or get eaten). Then they continued on foot into the haze.
The others didn't seem to be effected, but Fitzpatrick was growing more and more frustrated and nervous. Perhaps, if he'd ever trained as a soldier, he might have become accustomed to the "hurry up and wait" mentality - he might have learned to relax and accept what couldn't be changed. The Luds certainly appeared to be perfectly calm, in spite of moving through the equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank.
Doreen and Tamiko, on the other hand, seemed to be practicing their tracking techniques; they were studying the rocky terrain as they moved over it, and he could have sworn that he'd seen Tamiko actually sniffing
the ground. He had no idea what they were looking for, but they seemed perfectly happy to continue looking.
Tamiko was leading, with Doreen a little behind her and a little to the left. Ludmilla was on "trail", since Ludwig said she was better at that than he was; Roger had no idea what skills were involved but he trusted that his teammates did. Tamiko stopped and lifted her hand, and the others froze.
Tamiko crouched, leaned down close to the rock, and got a small flashlight from a pocket. She held the light a few inches from the ground, and aimed the light diagonally across the stone. Doreen spoke softly; "That's a tracker's trick we learned in Africa - footprints stand out more when the light comes in at an angle."
Tamiko gestured them forward. Fitzpatrick crouched next to her and could see the print clearly; three-toed and nearly a foot long, and pressed into the rock.
"Made by a Very
large bird, or possibly a dinosaur," he said, "undoubtedly a fossil".
"I'm not sure it's 'undoubtable', sir." said Doreen. "The edges are sharp; they're not eroded at all. If this was mud instead of stone, I'd say the track looks fresh."
"If it is," replied Tamiko, "then it was made by something heavy and hard enough to push right into the rock."
"Or a herd of somethings," said Ludwig. He'd moved ahead while they were talking. He was crouching now too, and nodded towards the stone ahead of them. They could all see that there were a lot more prints. "because if one creature made all of those, it would need a lot more than just two legs."
Ludmilla spoke up and said "Maybe something like that ?" She pointed into the mist, and they could all dimly make out a titanic form moving in the distance. Roger couldn't make out the shape, but he felt like a man looking at an aircraft carrier from a rowboat.
It was dark when they stopped to eat again. They had begun rationing the food, since they had no idea how long the trip would take, or how often they were eating. Ludwig and Ludmilla ate surprisingly little for their size, which only partly compensated for the appetites of Tamiko and Doreen.
There were things in the sky that they couldn't really see - enormous things shaped like clouds, which didn't move like clouds. Roger's eyes seemed to go out of focus when he looked at them. It was a bit like looking at a "Magic Eye" puzzle; he had a feeling that he could
see them if he just learned the trick. He also had an even stronger feeling that he didn't really want to.
There was no vegetation at all anymore. There was only rock and sand. Some of the sand seemed to move by itself, for no apparent reason.
"So, sir Roger,", said Tamiko, "any theories on this burning ice we're supposed to look for ?"
"Nothing solid." he replied, "chemistry was never my strong suit, but I suppose that there may be some substances that could go directly from ice to fire if conditions are right. Frozen methane, perhaps ?"
"You're asking me ?" answered Tamiko. "I was a Comp Lit
major. I barely know enough chemistry to understand how water boils. Besides, anything like that wouldn't just burn, would it ? It would burn up
, and that's not exactly what the seer told us."
Gradually the mist cleared, and they found themselves in a maze of black stone, broken by buttes and spires, and crevices which reached downward an unmeasurable distance. The air coming out of the rifts was foul and unbreathable, and they could see flames at the bottom.
If they'd still had the vehicle, it never could have negotiated this labyrinth. Even on foot they could barely manage it, and they found themselves at dead ends more than once. The jumpbelts helped a bit; when they were stuck, one of them could jump to the nearest high ground and look for a way out.
Even so, they had to scale more than one cliff, and backtrack around more than one canyon. Two chasms had been crossed by jumping over them, with Ludwig carrying Roger and Ludmilla carrying Doreen. Roger definitely didn't want to repeat that
experience. By the time they stopped to sleep again, he was exhausted and nursing a sore back.
During the night, they could all hear the scrabbling of something, or several somethings, coming out of one of the crevasses. Whatever it was didn't approach any closer.
They moved out of the maze, and on to a rolling rocky plain. There was no sun, and no moon, and the sky was overcast. While Fitzpatrick was no astronomy buff even he could tell that the few stars which they could see were wrong. A pillar of smoke rose in the distance, glowing blood red.
"I'm going to go out on a limb," said Tamiko, "and say that's probably where we need to go."
Ludmilla spoke up; "Also, we should probably speed up a bit, because I'm pretty sure there's something following us."
Tamiko dropped out as they passed a jagged boulder, taking cover behind it.
The light was too dim to see what their tracker looked like, but her "Slaydar" picked it up quite clearly, and as it got closer she could hear it's footfalls in the sand. From the sound, she guessed it had four legs and was roughly man-sized.
She wasn't going to capture this one; she planned to kill it and bury the body in the sand. As the creature came into range, she darted forward; but as her naginata struck down, the creature was already striking back.
She felt the blade bite deep, and saw the thing convulsing on the ground. Then she felt the searing pain in her left forearm. The burning sensation was so bad she almost fainted; it was all she could do to hold on to her weapon. Looking down, she saw red lines of inflamed skin spiraling around her arm. The skin was beginning to swell as she watched.
She clutched her wounded arm against her torso and used her blade one-handed to scoop out a shallow hole in the sand, then shoved the demon's already decaying body into it.
Instinct made her look up. There was a second creature perched on top of the boulder, it's muscles bunching as it prepared to spring. She leveled her weapon, but knew that with only one working arm she wasn't likely to win.
There was a sound like a crack of thunder, and the beast's head blew apart. Tamiko gaped, then whirled around. Ludwig stood up, his bearhunter smoking. He said, "We'd better put something on your arm."
Tamiko just stared at him. He pulled a tube from a pocket and began smearing some kind of ointment on her wounds. "This will ease the pain and prevent infection," he said "I don't know if it will neutralize poison". The pain was dropping already.
Tamiko was still staring. "Did you think we'd just leave
you ?" he asked. "Ludmilla would never let me hear the end of it if I did that."
He shouldered his cannon and began walking; then turned back and said : "We need to hurry - Ludmilla says there are more coming."
They had the bodies of greyhounds, while their heads were a cluster of whiplike tendrils, with a triple-beaked mouth on the center. They ran easily, and faster than any human. Certainly they were faster than Roger. Doreen muttered a few words, then threw several pellets in the direction of the beasts. Each pellet released a cloud of opaque foul-smelling smoke. Ludwig threw Roger over his shoulder and began loping away. The others followed.
Behind them, the running monsters hit the smoke and recoiled, coughing and choking. That bought precious seconds for the team to gain ground.
They topped a rise and headed down into a bowl-shaped valley. At the bottom was a building that had no business being on the continent, let alone in Ohio.
It resembled nothing so much as a miniature pyramid, which glowed softly under a gold-tinged light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
As they closed on the pyramid, the pack of creatures crested the rise behind them. Ludmilla pivoted and fired a burst of explosive shells that sent several of the things tumbling, and scattered the rest. Then she turned and ran. The creatures regrouped and came on again.
Tamiko stopped and leveled her laser rifle. Firing from the hip, she dropped another half dozen of the demons with a long burst, scattering them again. Then she too turned and ran.
Ludwig and Doreen had reached the pyramid. Doreen was circling it and sprinkling chalk on the ground, while Ludwig was battering at an iron door which stood at the base of a short ramp leading downward. Ludmilla and Tamiko reached the top of the ramp just as Doreen completed her circle. She shouted, and the chalk glowed.
The first of the runners hit the circle and fried. The others circled, sniffing, looking for a way in. Something much
larger was stalking in the darkness behind them. Ludwig had put a gasping Roger down and was slamming into the door with all his strength, and so far hadn't done anything more than bruise his shoulder. Tamiko joined him, her kicks shaking the door; but it still refused to open. "Lieutenant Calvert showed me something," she said. She reached into her vest and produced a tube, from which she squeezed a grey pastelike substance.
Ludwig evidently recognized what she was doing; he withdrew back up the ramp. Tamiko applied the paste in a thin line around the edges of the door, then inserted a short cylinder into the paste, She turned the end of the cylinder three times, then dashed up the ramp. "Everybody down !", she yelled.
They all hit the dirt, and seconds later a blast of fire and sound shot up the ramp. "Well, that sounded
like it worked." she commented. It hadn't. the door was scorched, and the stone in front of it was cracked - but the door was still locked.
Still shaken, Sir Roger limped over. He was clutching his side. He studied the door and said, "This is a long shot, but It's worth a try, I suppose". He drew a thin pointed stick from inside his jacket, pointed it at the door and said "Alohomora !!". There was a click, and the door opened.
Everyone looked at him. "Sir Roger," said Tamiko, "you got some 'splainin' to do."
This took me a while, and it still doesn't flow as well as I'd like, so I may change it. I'm open to any comments, criticisms, or suggestions.A/N:
I don't think I've actually seen "Thunder Road", and it's been years since I saw "The Naked Prey". But I have the DVDs for all three of the John Wayne movies mentioned, and I recommend all three.