Land of Fire and Ashes
by Colin P. Davies
Castello climbed up the cliff until the stench cleared, the air cooled and the agitated cries of the shredders were lost in the rip and roar of the late-afternoon wind. The creatures could not follow him this high. He was safe — but had again failed to get back to his shuttle.
He halted and examined his hands. The sharp stones had torn his skin, but he’d been too busy scrambling for his life to feel pain. He hooked an arm over a branch and spat onto his palms, stirring the blood and dirt into a brown paste, then stroked war paint across his cheeks. He wanted only to get out of here. They gave him no choice but to fight.
He peered down through the thick branches that burst from gaps in the rugged stone. Far below, the heavy turquoise of the chimerical jungle rolled out towards the horizon and the Bay of Naples. Alone, on an abandoned world. He chewed his lip and contemplated his chances. Not good . . . with the sky a cloudless blue and his water limited.
He clambered up further, placing each hand and boot with care. Although the sun had moved around the mountain and he climbed in shade, sweat soaked his jacket.
When his fingers found the familiar ledge, he pulled himself up and along it, into the mouth of an immense cave–a vast, deep hall with sheer polished walls and vaulted roof and floor of crushed cemented stone. The rear wall, sinister with squirming shadows from the smoke of the campfire he’d abandoned only a short time before, had been hollowed out to form a niche painted with hieroglyphs. Inside lay a life-size statue of a small boy, perhaps seven years of age, huddled naked and face down on the floor. The discovery by the university drones had brought Castello down from his Clarke orbit faculty into the wildlands of Campania.
He rested just inside the cave entrance and told the shadows, “I’m still here! Now you’ve no excuse for not visiting.” As his respirator had failed shortly after he left the shuttle in a clearing, forcing him to breathe the psychotropic tainted air of the jungle, he knew it was only a matter of time before he met his angel.
The divinity dust in his lungs was not the only problem he’d encountered since landing. Two days ago, when he’d tried to return to the shuttle, the shredders had appeared. To make matters worse, his high frequency emitter, designed to keep the creatures at bay, would not work.
At the foot of the cave wall, his communicator lay where he’d hurled it after finding the battery missing.
He was stuck in this cave.
He did not believe in uncanny coincidences.
Someone wants me trapped here.
As he lay in moon-shadow against the side-wall of the cave, with the night-calls of the shredders a reminder of the worldwide victory of the jungle, Castello sifted through his past, searching for enemies.
Who would want to do this to me?
One name came to mind. Sophia, his ex-wife.
“You’d love for me to suffer,” he’d said.
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“You left him alone.”
“For twenty minutes! Only twenty minutes.”
“Long enough to turn our home into an inferno.” She’d landed a stinging slap on his cheek.
“I told him not to play with fire again. I told him one accident was enough. He said he understood. How was I to know he’d disobey me as soon as my back was turned?”
“For God’s sake . . . he was only seven years old!”
For thirty years, Castello had tried not to think about his son, gripping his feelings so tightly that now he was scared to ease the pressure.
A shuffling sound opened his eyes. He felt for his torch and gun, lifted his head from his backpack, and rolled onto his side in one swift motion.
A small boy, half-lit by the full moon, stood at the edge of the cliff. “I saw your fire,” he said.
Castello flicked on his torch. The light trembled as he fought to keep his hand steady and play the light over his visitor. The boy wore a simple white tunic, belted at the waist. His spindly legs and pale feet were bare. Large eyes in a round face and a head of tight dark curls gave him a cherubic appearance. Castello eased the grip on his gun and put the torch aside. “You took your time.”
The boy laughed and pointed. “Your cheeks…what is that?”
Castello got to his feet. “War paint. It’s an ancient tradition.”
The boy moved to the other side of the fire. “You’re planning on a war?”
“I was, a few hours ago. What’s your name?”
“Must angels have names?”
Castello shrugged. “You’re my angel. I say you should have a name.” He threw another branch onto the fire.
The boy stared at Castello through the sparks that danced up into the blackness. “Julian. My name is Julian.”
“The Roman form of Guiliano . . . .”
Julian smiled. “You want to go home.”
“I’ve tried, but those shrieking demons are in the way.”
As if on cue, another screech split the jungle night.
Julian pointed a finger at Castello’s gun. “Have you killed any of them?”
The boy pouted.
Castello watched Julian for a second, then stepped towards the edge of the cliff and gazed down at the jungle. Hardly a hundred meters from the base of the cliff, the blue lights of his shuttle flickered through the windblown leaves. “I could have killed them,” he said. “Some of them . . . but they came from everywhere.” He turned back. “I’d need more ammunition than-”
Julian was gone.
Castello took his torch and went deeper into the cave. The beam settled on the statue — a plaster cast most likely taken from nearby Pompeii. Inside the cast would be the skeleton of the young victim who had died in the famous eruption. This boy, at least, was real.
Suppressing a shudder, Castello returned to the fire. He understood the targeted hallucinogenic function of the spores that permeated the jungle and had been expecting the visitor–but was not prepared for the sheer clarity of the vision.
He could have been talking to his own son.
The dawn squeezed sunlight deep into the cave.
As Castello rebuilt the fire in the hope that the smoke might alert a passing drone, he tried to recall every detail of the previous evening’s encounter. With a bottle of spirit and a lighter he brought the fire to life, then sat back and chewed on an energy bar.
So what’s it to be? Try for the shuttle again, or sit and wait for help to arrive? But there were many reasons why he might be out of contact and the university would not rush to commit another shuttle.
He was on his own.
“You wanted a war?” he yelled towards the jungle. “Okay, you’ve got one!”
It was time for a skirmish.
Castello scrambled down the cliff until he reached the tree tops and could see areas of the jungle floor. The foul scent of the spores reached him, but he was still safe from the shredders.
“Come on!” he yelled. “Who wants to be first?”
A movement below caught his eye as a shredder spun into view: a pink juvenile, fresh from the pod, with a body the size of a human head, topped by a teeth-ringed mouth, a perimeter chain of eyes, and the array of whipping clawed tentacles that gave the creature its name.
Castello fired. The shredder jerked to the side and bounced off a tree trunk. Blood gushed from the mouth as the interlocked teeth set up a sinister death rattle.
Instantly the jungle was filled with spinning destruction as dozens of the creatures set upon the victim.
Castello sprayed them with a full magazine of slugs. The cracks of the shots were lost in the frenzied shrieking.
He loaded a new magazine and descended carefully, keeping a wary eye on the melee, and was about to drop the last meter to the soft floor and make a run for the shuttle, when someone came out of the brush towards him. He raised the gun.
“You’d better go back.” Julian pointed at the chaotic mass of shredders. “They already have your scent.”
Castello saw that several of the creatures had broken away from the feast and were heading his way. “Are you my guardian?”
“No, but you’re not done with me yet.” The boy leapt into the air, grabbed a branch, and hauled himself hand over hand up the cliff towards the cave.
With the shredders flailing at his heels, Castello followed.
He found the boy peering into his open backpack.
“You don’t have much stuff,” Julian announced.
“I’m an archaeologist. This was a fact-finding mission. I wasn’t expecting to stay for long…or to meet you”
“So what went wrong?”
“I don’t know. I suspect that somebody wants to trap me here.”
“You think you’re trapped?”
Castello examined Julian’s face. He’d been taught that angels were an expression of the psyche. They would find the fault lines in a personality, exploit the weaknesses to direct the soul back on the path to God. For most, that path led directly to a martyr’s death amongst the shredders.
Julian sat cross-legged by the fire. “That boy back there . . . .” He waved a hand towards the plaster statue in its niche. “He was about your son’s age when he died. Is that why you came?”
“I was just doing my job.”
Julian glanced towards the back of the cave. “Suffocated by ash. Do you think that’s worse than being burned alive? Or is it all the same when you’re dead?”
Castello snarled and clenched his fists. “You want me to feel guilt? You think I don’t?”
Julian did not answer.
Castello sat heavily on the ground and ran a hand over his shorn gray hair. “They say that you angels swim in the subconscious, that you know what drives a man, and what can destroy him.”
“They say a lot. Which they do you mean? They say the human race has become Godless and has to find its path back.”
“Through extinction?” Castello stared at the boy. “That’s what the terrorists said sixteen years ago, just before the bio-attack, before unleashing the jungle with its shredders and its angel spores.”
Julian shook his head. “That’s not how it turned out.”
“Few paths are straight.” Now the human race was safe. The angels no longer served a purpose, even in the minds of the terrorists. The battle had moved onwards and upwards.
Julian stood and gazed out across the jungle. “This place used to be so different. Green fields, goats…and the smouldering mountain.”
“Yes. Can you see it? Imagine it?” Julian glanced into the depths of the cave. “The boy playing on the slopes while smoke seeps out of the ground and the mountain belches its black dust. He pretends he’s a god, or a hero, striding through a land of fire and ashes. Can you see it as the mountain erupts, burying him alive?”
Castello felt light-headed.
Julian looked directly into Castello’s eyes. “I’m sure his father promised that he’d keep him safe.”
Castello put a hand on the ground to steady himself. “It’s not his father’s fault. He couldn’t have known that Etna would erupt. Some things can’t be predicted.”
Julian replied, “But some things can.”
Castello awoke in the cool afternoon shade. His head was swimming. The last thing he remembered was falling to the ground and Julian’s gentle voice asking if he was all right.
The fire glowed silently. He was alone again.
He stood and let the breeze clear his head and thought of a boy playing happily, foolishly, on the slopes of a living volcano.
He’d expected his son to behave like an adult, but kids follow the impulse, don’t see the consequences. That much he could have predicted. Castello had made a dreadful mistake.
He stumbled to the back of the cave and stared down at the cast of the boy. He put out his hand to touch the cold figure, and fell to his knees.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
By the time the stars were out and the moon was up, Castello was standing at the edge of the cliff, torch in hand. The angel had not appeared again. He wanted to ask more questions, but he was out of water and had no choice but to make a run for the shuttle. The lights appeared so close . . . .
Castello spun around. Julian was standing beyond the fire, partly obscured by the smoke. “I figure I’ve got fractionally better odds in the dark.”
Flames lit the boy’s face with highlights and shadows. “The creatures see well in the dark.” He pulled a branch from the fire. Flames burned at the end. “You know there is a way to reach your shuttle.”
“I don’t understand you.”
Julian pointed to the statue. “You understand that. The ash buried him and molded itself to his body. Whoever found him made a cast of the hole he left in the solidified ash.”
The boy was gone, but the hole remained…. Castello recognized the hollow ache he carried inside himself. “Tell me what I have to do.”
Julian touched the burning end of the branch along his bare arm. Flames licked along his skin and fire erupted over his entire body, engulfing him.
Castello stared at the flames and imagined his son fighting to escape that fire, terrified, screaming, burning . . . . Tears ran down his cheeks.
He knew how to reach the shuttle.
Castello dropped his torch and gun and snatched up his backpack, then started down the cliff.
Within two meters of the ground, he lodged his feet against a sturdy branch, opened his pack and took out the bottle of spirit and the lighter. He dropped the pack, emptied the bottle over his clothing and jumped down to the jungle floor. Immediately the shredders swept in, shrieking and swirling, behind him, beside him, beneath him, flailing at his legs…. He screamed, then flicked the lighter and touched fire to his clothes.
The fumes flared. Flames seared his face. Yelling and stumbling, Castello charged for the shuttle.
The sea of shredders parted as the blazing man tore through them. Heart pounding, he tripped and nearly fell. His hand slapped against metal. He yelled the command, the shuttle door slid open and he fell inside. Emergency systems detected the fire and reacted, extinguishing the flames in moments.
He struggled to the controls, operating more by instinct than reason, every motion of his body triggering cascades of pain. He had the shuttle in the air and locked onto the auto-navigation beam, speeding towards home and safety, before he fell to the floor and slipped into a merciful sleep.
Later, he would be unsure whether he’d been asleep or awake when Guiliano had walked in through the wall of the shuttle. From the floor, Castello peered up as his son said, “You asked who would want to do this to you.”
“Yes, I did.”
The boy knelt and put his small hand upon his father’s shoulder. “Look hard . . . and deep.”
Castello had turned to peer out of the window, past his reflection where the lights of the habitat loomed ever closer against a mist of stars. Yet, even as he felt the shuttle prepare for docking, he knew his foe would not be found out there. He looked closer in. And as he stared, he heard-
“If you look hard enough and deep enough, father, you may just find yourself.”
Colin P. Davies lives near Liverpool, England and his stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Spectrum SF, Paradox, Andromeda Spaceways, Jupiter Magazine, Membrane SF, Bewildering Stories, Time in A Bottle, and The Immersion Book of SF. His story “The Defenders” was included in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #22. Tall Tales on the Iron Horse, his first collection, is available from Bewildering Press. Currently he is working on the sequel to his first novel and developing his Pestworld radio/podcast series. More information at www.colinpdavies.com