Nails of Rust
After we fail at something, it's usually our first instinct to try and redeem ourselves. For that redemption, we look to our loved ones first. Perhaps, instead, we should look inside ourselves -- no matter what the dangers.
Is it possible to wake up after the nightmare, to discover it was just a dream?
-- Rachel Twin
She found the third corpse headless and set upright against the gates of the State Park. Beyond the steel of the gates, she could hear the cold wind moaning through swaths of needle trees. A soft scream in the darkness. She dipped her fingers into the bloody stump of dead throat, sniffed at cold wet salt. A fresh kill, no more than two hours old. She could feel the red congealing over her fist. Flowing into the cracks in the skin across the back of her hand where her identity had been branded.
As a commissariat's riding locust came to land behind her, she was searching through the clothes of the corpse for clues. She couldn't read the memory of the body alone. All it gave her when she touched it was the shock of sudden death. Without the head, her readings were useless. She could only use what she knew.
"Identity?" the commissariat demanded. She showed him her hand. He looked closely at the sigils scarred across the veins and tendons. "Yverin. A headhunter. Lost girl." He looked up. "Disgraced?"
"Retired," she lied. Those who had lost a hunt were forced to live in shame. Yverin had lost too many. But once the taste of the blood was inside her, no matter how she was making her money at the time, she had to catch the man. This target was locked now-- she couldn't give up even if she tried.
He let go of her and stepped over to inspect the body for himself. "What have you discovered?"
Behind his impossibly tall silhouette, the huge locust clicked mandibles in disgust. Headhunters were too deep in the dirt for most state commissariats. But its rider was of the opinion that they had their uses like all things. Murderers and thieves, for instance.
"Nothing," she replied. "Killed a couple of hours ago. No head for a trauma memory reading. Skin reads no more than the death itself." She wiped bloody fingers across the corpse's sleeves. "He must have been a wealthy man, though," she said. "These clothes are quality brushed silk."
She stood out of the way while the commissariat memorized the scene for evidence. Then he lifted the body and threw it regardlessly across the saddle of his locust. Without so much as a look at Yverin he climbed on. The huge insect, with rider and cargo, pulled off into the muddy orange sky.
"I just opened up another horse. Want some?"
She nodded. In a series of tunnels and archways under the clean house towers of the city someone had built Dream Arcade. At Keith's stall, he had access to a boiler and was cooking horse meat with a hose-like steam gun. He blasted at a piece of freshly- slaughtered flesh and she watched it gray under the wet heat, the skin splitting and the fat popping and boiling away. He let her carve a fist-sized chunk out of it with a bladed meat-scoop.
Keith's usual trade was in spikes. That was why Yverin was there. The SCD had run some tests on the wounds the three corpses had, after they drained all the fluid out of them, and each one came up the same; that some kind of sharp, double-edged spike had severed those heads, and whoever killed them had spent a lot of time and energy cutting through those necks.
Today, though, Keith was running the food, using some of his own meager stock to cull the horses with. They sat down on a floor made of crumbling concrete to talk and eat.
"So, I hear the commissariats have a stalker on their hands?" He touched his face as he spoke. His fingers dancing through a language of their own over his light-deficient gray skin. It was a way of communicating to the deaf-mutes that congregated at Dream Arcade for warmth and shelter. A major epidemic before Yverin's lifetime gave birth to hordes of children who could do nothing but see and feel. The dance expressed their emotions in such a beautiful fashion. Yverin remembered crying when she first saw them speak.
Keith had to force himself to learn the dance when he first came to Dream Arcade. Now it was habitual. Even when talking to those from the city above he danced. "Has the target locked? You looking to make some money out of him?"
She nodded, her blue eyes alight with the fire of commerce. "Three dead so far," she said to him. "Kills them by tearing off the heads with a bladed spike. Pushed through the throat, then hacked outward each side."
Keith coughed on his horse meat. "Spare me the details while I'm eating, please!"
Yverin smiled. "Sorry. I came to you because the blade would have to be new. The cuts are really clean. Sharp."
He shook his head. "I haven't had a bladed spike on my stall for a long time. I follow the trends. Everyone wants to cut people up with shark hooks. Spikes are on their way out."
She ate some more horse meat. Keith started rummaging in a sack at the back of the stall and found some stale bread and a skin bottle with some hot sauce in it. He poured some sauce over the meat to make it taste more edible. He offered her a husk from the bread and she began alternating between the two.
"Anyone else sell spikes like that?"
Keith's fingers moved over his face non-committally. "Everyone. But if it's as sharp as you say, then it could be custom-made. Spikes are more made for stabbing, you know? You'd need perfect metal to form that kind of edge."
She shut her eyes tight in thought. In the darkness behind the lids she could see flames and burning steel. A pouring black orange metalfall the color of the day sky.
"What can you see?" Keith asked.
She softly kissed his fingers one by one in gratitude. "The source," she said.
The SCD sent a runner after her at the State Steel Factory. She made no excuses for suddenly breaking off her tour of the works. She wasn't getting anywhere anyway.
They had found another body. Headless, just like the others. Another male. Outside the State Asylum. Someone had mistaken the crumpled rag-doll of a man for an escaped inmate. Now, one of the inmates had claimed he saw the murder.
"Tall," he said. "So tall." The inmate's eyes remained permanently fixed in front of him. Whenever he turned to look her way, his whole head moved. He shifted against the chains which ran from two rings through his palms to the cell wall like a restless riding locust, constantly fidgeting his head to see around him.
"What did you see?" she asked him.
"You a girl. Not nice to tell you." His voice had a serrated edge to it. Sound that grated her ears. Sawing through her mind as he spoke. Outside, the commissariat watching the door left to complete some other task. She knew they were laughing at her at the end of the octagonal corridor. The headhunter trying to interview the lunatic. They had put her up to this.
"I'll give you a choice then. The commissariats have gone." She moved closer to him. The kneeling man arched his back to face her as she towered over him. Moving closer. Close enough that he could breathe her scent, but out of reach of those big chained hands. "You tell me what you saw, or I'll rip your fucking jawbone off."
She was hot. Hot enough to carry out that kind of promise. He backed into the wall, a soft shake in his buzzsaw voice. "You won't catch this one, headhunter. He changes his shape. He can be anyone he likes. He'll kill you first."
She was squinting at him. He never moved once.
She called for an attendant. They unlocked the door and she left the madman laughing softly to himself in the cell. She sensed without realizing at first what her nerves were trying to tell her. The target was in the room all the time.
But she had to leave now. Had to set the trap first.
His death had to wait.
Richlane ran her hands through the short curls of Yverin's soft black hair. She closed her eyes and felt the girl's fingertips tracing down over the nape of her neck. Across her back. Under her arms. Hands cupping her breasts. The air in Richlane's dark room breezing from an open window to a curtained archway beside the bed where they lay side by side in unashamed nakedness.
"Paint me, Yverin," Richlane pleaded. Her short copper mop of hair fell down across her face. "Sweeten me."
Yverin reached out and painted her skin with gum. Sugar sweet, they could smell it as it dried against Richlane's hips; sweet glue congealing over the flat of her stomach. Her skin temperature rising under the touch of the brush. She gasped as Yverin brushed over her nipples. Richlane's chest swelling beside hers. Her breath quickening.
She returned the brush to its pot and breathed over the girl's freckly skin. Soft breath over soft flesh, drying the glue, forming a second skin across her body. Her back arched away from Yverin as she leaned over her and tore the gum from her. It came away from her first in large pieces, and then after in smaller flakes where the gum had formed around her light body hairs. She fed her shedding skin to Yverin, who let the flakes dissolve on her thin tongue before swallowing. A sweet musky liquor down her throat. They kissed then. They held each other and kissed for what seemed like forever.
A day passed. She woke up in Richlane's arms and left her a note painted in gum across her stomach. She promised to get back before the next nightfall. She knew the girl would understand. They never saw much of each other when Yverin had a criminal to sell.
She walked to the State Commissariat Department tower. A huge blade of grass among the tulip flower chimney-stacks in the city's concrete field. This city was made from a plateau. Hand-carved rock towering into the sky. What was once a huge mesa which filled a landscape on the edge of the black ocean, was now no more than a man-made plantation of concrete-shelled blocks. A city of caves.
Down in the basement of the SCD tower, they had stored the bodies of the dead. She talked to her only real friend in the whole of the department. Avoiding the looks of contempt she got from clerks and commissariats. Aria lived in a chamber carved from solid concrete, like the city itself was. Walls ragged and shadowy with gray chiseled topography.
"Anything interesting?" Yverin asked.
"New, but not interesting." Aria sat back on her bench. "The lunatic's dead."
Yverin smacked the wall. The skin on her palm broke against the sharp edges and she kicked it then, frustrated even more. "Shit," she cursed. She looked over at Aria, who had her quizzical face on.
"He was the best lead I had," she finally explained. "I was hoping to go back there and take a reading from him. I was too worked up to do it then."
Aria shrugged. "Sorry. He tried to escape. Tore his hands off trying to pull the chains from the wall and bled to death. Damn messy, from what I heard, too."
Yverin licked salt red from her palm. "You sound happy to hear it."
"Well, it was original."
Aria smiled. Yverin couldn't help but join in.
Richlane worked at the Portside Cathedral. Portside was a district made up of rusting metal fixed at angles to the concrete and stone of the city. Through a stained-glass window depicting The Fall, a bloody sun was setting fire to the black ocean.
"It's beautiful," she said to herself. Then she turned as her girlfriend entered the hall.
They met by the back pews. In the crux of her arms Richlane fed a baby from a metal thermos flask and a pin-pricked rubber nipple. She loved the work she did there. Half-way between missionary and children's nurse. Like Yverin, she had her own way of getting back at the wrongs of the world.
"Got your message," Richlane said. Behind her, at the far end of this huge hall, the older children were watching the constantly changing colors and warp of a large magic carpet high up on the wall, transfixed as the weave-and-weft kaleidoscope spun them some creation myth.
Yverin smiled. "Good. I didn't think I'd see you before tonight. I had to leave in a hurry."
The headhunter reached out and brushed the back of her hand against the baby's warm face. The thing gave out a sudden frozen reading, like a psychic warning, that made her flesh creep. She withdrew her hand sharply, reeling as if the child had snapped at her.
"Any closer to getting your man?" Richlane sat in one of the pews and took the empty bottle from the baby, preparing to wind the thing with some coarse-handed back rubbing.
Yverin shrugged. "Dead end," she said. Richlane handed her the bottle and turned the baby around to face the window. After a few sharp taps on its back, the thing coughed up a trail of thin, bubbling milk over her shoulder and onto the rusting floor behind.
"I'd better get a rag," she said. The last words Yverin ever heard her say.
She watched the girl carry the puking baby into a washroom and then had to leave. The empty Cathedral seemed so suddenly small. She could feel its walls shrinking in on her.
And silently left before she was crushed to death inside.
Inside a dream, Yverin swam in an ocean of oil. Thick and crude, it moved like a crowd. Currents following the flow and ebb of desire. She rode on those black waves.
Until she could see those heads floating in the blackness.
And on the horizon the heads grew larger. Their voices louder as she swam to them to save them. But they were already dead. Long dead now. And she could do nothing for them.
While they still had mouths they told their story.
"Looking for a head, headhunter?"
"You'll never catch this one, headhunter. He changes."
"He doesn't need a spike, fool. Look at his nails."
And they chanted: "Look at his nails. Look at his nails." Over and over. And she was drowning then. The thick, crude, black oil smothering her, pouring down her gullet. Feeding her and yet depriving her of life. Until all she could see was black.
Richlane's mouth kissed her crude ocean lips. But she was just another head. An empty soul playing savior.
Just another head.
She retched over the floor as soon as she woke up. She'd fallen asleep in a seat at the SCD tower, and now she knew she needed to be somewhere else. She couldn't tell if Richlane was alive or dead. If that dream was a premonition or a direct communication. All she knew was that the girl had somehow crossed the mirror, the mirror of dreams, the mirror that only shows what you have already seen and distorts it all, and she had entered into Yverin's mind. And she knew Richlane was in trouble.
The Cathedral was deserted. A huge cave crumbling over time. There was a pin-prick hole in the cover of the rusted roof and rain was leaking through, dropping down to splash into a pool halfway down the aisle, a thick red oily film rippling each time. The floor was slowly giving way beneath it.
Yverin stepped over to where the Magic Carpet was running through its colors and weft undulations. She watched entranced as the carpet moved and flowed. A beautiful story unfolding in its weave and folding over again at its edges. She felt her nerves calming as it melted into another story.
And the baby screamed.
She ran through the main hall, down the aisle, searching through the rows of benches until she found the thing, naked and alone under one of the pews. It stared at her with old eyes, focused on a point somewhere behind her face. She felt its reality just in time.
As the nails slashed air she dove over the bench. Scrambling to her feet, she dared not glance behind at the changing baby. Growing, turning blind, then reforming and bubbling into something new. Something foul and terrifyingly familiar. The baby became Richlane.
Yverin gagged, running for the aisle, but Richlane's growing hand, knuckles still soft, caught her ankle and began to wrap itself around her. She grabbed onto the back of one of the seats and pulled, her arms straining as she tried to free herself. The fingers around her leg still growing, becoming thinner, worming their way into the bottom of her pants and rising up her leg. She tried to escape with one last tug, feeling her muscles tear as she did. The fingers kept on growing.
She gave up. Turning to face Richlane, her skin was alive with insects now, her tongue tasting nothing but raw shock scared electricity. She had to get out of this, had to get away. Had to convince herself that Richlane was dead. And there were tears welling in her eyes, all the thoughts in her mind trying to hide the feeling of those fingers climbing higher, thinning out into skinnier and skinnier strings of wet flesh, pulling her down into the gap between the pews and climbing for her cunt.
"Paint me, Yverin." Her voice was sugar in the air. "Sweeten me." Richlane licked parted lips with a bloody sliver of tongue, glossing them red. Her copper hair glinting like hot wire.
In her terrified state, all Yverin could do was attack blindly. Her headhunter's instinct her sanity's safety net. She brought a shaking foot round into her lover's head with all the force she had inside her. All the anger and loss she could muster, focused into one violent blow. Yverin's boot smashed into the changing woman's soft-boned skull as a claw hammer would hit a peach.
Richlane jerked. The blow was hard enough to make her pull her growing fingers back like slug antennae and she let go. Yverin didn't wait to see if her kick killed the thing. She moved out. Over the pews and into the aisle. Her booted foot trailing bloodprints across the crumbling iron benches.
Stalking slowly behind on all fours, Richlane was changing once again. The sound of bones cracking into place, flesh reshaping. A whole new person emerging. Yverin caught sight of it as she looked for something, anything, to fight it with. She turned in amazement. She couldn't believe the audacity of the thing. It had become her. In every detail. Naked, with her short curly black hair and her light skin. And her identity branded across the back of her hand. The sinews forming together as the thing stepped toward her with a spiritual grace. It was monstrous, yet so perfect. Its fingernails stretching out, claws of hard skin, from the tips. Then retreating back to the hands, to leave one behind. The edges so sharp. The point so brutal.
Look at his nails.
She couldn't move. She had run and it had caught her. She had fought back and it refused to die. She'd run out of ideas now. She refused to move.
It stepped to her. Into her. The soft flesh melting over her, enveloping her. She had become one with herself. She backed away, a gut reaction. The headhunter instincts kicking in once again. Felt the oily raindrops running down her face. And when the thing's eyes glistened black, eyes that could not focus, nor turn away without a turn of the whole head, she saw the whole world unfold before her. The shine of the nail ready to enter her throat.
With everything she had left, she kicked down. Rust red water splashing away. And her leg drove deeper down. The rusted floor crumbled under them. The changeling took hold of Yverin and began to melt. For an instant, they were one and the same.
She felt the fall. The wind on the back of her throat in the darkness like a rush dream. The scream catching in her lungs, clawing to get out. The sea was hers. Her body in black tar drowning. Her last sight before she went under and the currents dragged her out was the sight of herself unfolding. Spiked through the heart on a rusty shard of iron foundation, she saw she couldn't keep hold of a shape. Yverin became an infected flesh mass, opening out from herself until her very bones were bursting. She turned inside out on that skewer, then fell, formless, into the sea.
She rose again in a blaze of sunfire. The sound of locusts etching the sky with an ever-clicking non-voice. The commissariats shark hooked her out of the sea and lifted her back to the flaking dockside. The screaming of the needle trees a soft whisper in the city.
Yverin. Headhunter. Lost girl. She had become one with the other side of herself. Now she was the same.
The sharpness of her fingernails digging into the rust.
Ridley McIntyre (Fraujingle@aol.com) was born in London, but now lives in New Jersey with his fiancée. He has been writing SF since the age of 8, but took a brief hiatus in 1997 while exploring the potential of growing up. He plans to do this with grace, having many tales to tell other people's grandchildren.
InterText stories written by Ridley McIntyre: "Boy" (v2n2), "Seven" (v2n6), "Mercy Street" (v3n3), "Nails of Rust" (v3n4), "Monkeytrick" (v4n4), "Ghostdancer" (v5n5), "Life Without Buildings" (v8n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Ridley McIntyre.