THE SKY BURIAL
“Wait,” I said. “Why did you kill them all?”
Bob shrugged. “Yellowbeard thought they might change their minds.”
I sighed. There must have been over two dozen men lying dead there. “How?”
He grinned and seemed to welcome the opportunity to chat before whatever it was he had planned for me. He waved the cutlass around at the corpses. “They were gathered out here, trying to get sanctuary. The monks kept the doors closed. Smart. And, these fellas apparently didn’t even try knocking them down. Not so smart.”
He put his foot against the shoulder of a dead man. He didn’t shove. He squeezed at the man’s shirt with his bare toes.
“I told them Yellowbeard would accept half of them in his crew. If they killed the other half.” He frowned and nodded. “That kicked off a scrap that did half my work for me. The ones left over were wounded or tired.”
He tapped at the guns on his chest with the pistol in his hand. “I picked off the strongest six right away. The rest were only a bit harder to put down.”
I looked Bob the Hippie up and down. He had spatters of blood here and there, but not a single wound I could see.
He chuckled with broad teeth through that mad, happy grin. “Violent resistance doesn’t seem to work any better than non-violent resistance.”
That was the end of that story. I glanced around, but the landscape hadn’t changed to give me an escape. I tried to reason that there had to be some way out—wasn’t there always?—but my thoughts failed to inspire the slightest change in the wooded gorge. Maybe because Bob was there, too? I hadn’t changed his mind about anything.
Bob took a step toward me.
“John,” Lincoln said from behind me.
“What if,” I said, holding my hand out. Bob stopped and his smile stretched that bushy beard. “What if when Galileo looked at Jupiter through that telescope…”
The smile vanished. I liked that.
“What if he had just seen a larger blob of light?”
Bob smirked a bit, then frowned. He shoved the cutlass into his belt. “But, he didn’t.”
“Maybe because he didn’t expect to.”
He laughed, making his bushy braids bounce. “I’m not letting you inside my head, engineer. I’ve seen where that leads.”
“Maybe,” I said, pressing the only weapon I had against his pistols and hanger. “Maybe God had to make those moons because Galileo expected them to be there.”
He grimaced and shook his head. “But, he didn’t.”
I heard Lincoln groan. I felt my face go slack. “He didn’t?”
“No,” Bob smiled maniacally. “He thought they were fixed stars, behind Jupiter, at first. That would have been a workable explanation, right?”
My shoulders fell. I should have paid closer attention in astronomy class.
Bob jutted his bearded chin toward the trail. “Turn and get marching back to town.”
Or, I should have paid closer attention to the monastery. There was movement among the statues, little shapes moving from figure to figure.
“Turn,” Bob said, raising the pistol and setting his free hand on a second. “And get marching.”
Not every statue. Just the fully human ones. Sirhan and Kinsey were moving from ear to ear.
Bob cocked the pistol. “Turn,” he said, his mouth growing slack. He looked over his shoulder.
Statues were leaning forward, stiffly, tumbling off the balconies like a shelf of books in an earthquake. But, the world was utterly still.
Bob wasted no time. He spun and fired off a shot. A man hit the dirt at the base of the monastery like a sack of cement. The others landed on their feet with a pattering like rain on mud. Bob dropped the pistol, drew a second, and let off another shot.
I scanned the ground. Before I knew what I was doing, I had closed half the distance to Bob and somehow had a dead man’s hanger in my hand.
The monks were closing on Bob fast and he had a half-dozen spent pistols at his feet. They were nimbler on the ground than in mid-air. That’s when I saw that it wasn’t just the human-headed statues that had tumbled from the temple. My brain went numb from the sight of cat-faced, lizard-faced, skull-faced monks. Or numb from the sight of Bob spinning to face me. Or numb from what my arm was doing.
I sank the cutlass into Bob’s stomach.
“Oh shit,” came Mukki’s voice from far behind me.
There was blood. A lot of it. It poured down the blade and splashed against the hand-guard. Bob dropped his hanger and fell to his knees, his body yanking my cutlass from a shaking hand. I stood there panting. I was suddenly surrounded by people, but all I could see was Bob reaching down to grab at the blade.
My vision went tunnel, a blurry ring of gray around Bob’s fingers desperately slipping on bright red blood, the metal easing out only an inch at a time. He was grunting, anger and pain.
A man with a cat’s head, dressed in brown robes, moved into my tunnel vision. I took a step back, feeling the dirt squeeze between my toes. The monk grabbed the cutlass and pulled it out with a visible pressure against the blunt edge. My engineer brain told me that was to minimize further damage.
Bob exhaled and fell forward onto his hands.
I glanced at the people standing around me. Humans, humans with cat heads, humans will lizard heads, humans with skull-like faces. Flesh drawn tight around the bone.
“How?” I asked nobody in particular.
Sirhan landed on my shoulder, his feathered wing brushing my ear. “Why not?”
A raven with the mind of a human was questioning my doubt that humans could have animal heads. I was done. I did not understand this world. Or did I? If someone was reborn as a raven because he thought he might, wasn’t any rebirth possible?
The monks were gathered around Bob, touching him gently. His back was heaving with breath. Blood was oozing from the slit I had made in him.
“Did I kill him?”
“He’ll be fine,” a lizard face growled sympathetically. Her scaly tail whipped back and forth. “We can fix him right up.”
So, I wasn’t a murderer. I scanned all the men Bob had killed. Their cocked hats, their hangers, their pistols. Danny had refused to give me a weapon, but I had all I wanted now. And, I was relatively sure I could use them.
“Take the holster vest off him,” I told the monks. “That’s mine now.”
After the dead men had been cleared away—to where I did not know, part of a growing category of things that I did not understand—I was led away to sit with the abbot in a small shrine inside the monastery, a stone room the size of an efficiency apartment with pink-and-green Persian rug and a half-scale statue at the end, a female with dark eyes and lips that were a little too large. She had nice breasts and hips, too, which were also maybe a little too large for reality.
At her height, though, she looked like an overdeveloped tween. I felt a twinge of sick guilt.
There was a single square window letting light and air in from the left. I was suddenly and intensely curious why it wasn’t triangular. Weren’t the faces on the half-human monks the same as the faces in the hotel where I had stayed? I realized I was just struggling to make sense of things. Architectural consistency. A rule that binds and makes other rules.
Bob’s gun vest was a loose on my frame. I would need to drill new holes for the buckles. The weight of the pistols dragged at my shoulders. I could fix that, easily, with very simple tools.
The chairs were wicker-work. Mine creaked every time I shifted, which I was doing quite a bit because the guy in the other chair just sat their staring at me, matching my discomfort with dispassion. He looked about my age, which everybody in the World Facing did. It meant nothing. Ambiguous features, but at least human, and clueless brown eyes. Maybe multi-racial. He was basically giving me nothing.
“We heard your talk,” the abbot said. He had an accent. I couldn’t place it, but there was something too articulate about it for a native to English. “About the world changing to our expectations.”
I felt the corners of my mouth lifting.
His face was blank. “Galileo is a poor example.”
I felt the corners of my mouth retreating. “I have better ones. Dinosaurs. And disease.”
He shook his head. “The animals told us that the octopus want you safe.”
They want me safe? I thought they wanted the world safe from me. It suddenly occurred to me that Hiral could easily have dragged me into the waters and drowned me while Várion was distracted with the fire. She was that strong. Was she just being kind?
The abbot permitted himself a tiny grin. Only on the left side. My instincts told me he was about to elicit a response. A test. “Because change is not always bad.”
I smiled at that. A bit relieved. Maybe I wasn’t a Doomsday weapon after all.
His face was disappointed. His eyelids dropped on me. I had failed the test.
“But, it almost always is bad. And change is always dangerous.”
“So,” I sighed. “There’s a struggle between good and bad here, too.”
The abbot’s head tilted to one side. “A clearer struggle. We are one step closer to the Unified World.”
“And, I’m on the evil side of that struggle. Because I could change things.”
“You are an EDP,” he said, “an Exceptionally Disruptive Person.”
I tried not to find that funny, but I failed. I chuckled and he grinned back.
“I’m an EDP?”
The abbot frowned and nodded. Then grinned. “I was in business before coming here. Sales, then human resources, acquisitions, strategy. We like our acronyms.”
“Sounds like a long résumé.”
His face receded back into its monk-like serenity. “I was lucky. I died very old. Old enough to have abandoned many youthful confusions and ambitions. Some of them were stripped from me against my will, but had resigned myself to that. I was ready for death. But death was not ready for me.”
My mind raced with how the World of Things might make for better people than a world where nobody aged. Where violence was the only way to die. I remembered something about a Grandparent Hypothesis, that human culture took a huge leap forward once people started living long enough to be around when their grandkids were growing up.
Something about the elderly passing down wisdom. An insightful resignation to things that experience had taught old people could not be changed. It made sense. I needed that wisdom.
But, my attempts to make sense of the world were impinged upon by the abbot’s last comment.
“Death was not ready for you,” I said, “yet here you are. You didn’t drop into the sea and go on to the World Undifferentiated.”
He shook his head. “That’s how death lets you know, John Randolph.”
I hadn’t told him my name. Had Sirhan or Kinsey let it slip?
“Most of the souls from the World of Things do not drown in the sea. They never did. It’s a myth. The seas only started spreading very recently. If most of the dead for centuries came here to live without aging or disease, this world would be very crowded by now, no?”
I tried to work out the numbers in my head, but realized I had no education for an educated guess. It was probably a huge number. I elected to take his word for it.
“Most of us never come here to stay,” he said. “Some are sent back to try again.”
“Most are ferried straight to the Unified World by the company men.”
The company men. Shipping stuff to the World of Things, opportunities or whatever, and other stuff back to Heaven and Hell. I honestly did not want to think about this shit any more. Why was the abbot quizzing me about it?
“So, why—” My throat grew tight, but I had no breath. “Why the fuck are we here? You? Me?”
The abbot’s chair creaked, finally. He was sitting up straighter. He was grinning.
“There is the question, Mecánico Jack.”
Not a question I wanted to deal with. Or a nickname I wanted to deal with.
“What about the others?”
He was again unreadable. Annoyingly serene.
“The animals have elected to stay with you. The humans, who were innocent of your engineering, chose to flee to the plantations.”
“For the record,” Sirhan said from my right shoulder, “I didn’t want you to see this.”
We were near the top of the monastery, on a wide platform with a tower in the middle. At the apex of the tower was a copy of the statue from the shrine, but full-size in the bright light of the afternoon sun, like a grown-up version of the over-developed tween. The forest canopy all around us was swaying in the breeze. Gathered among the green were ravens, hordes of them, silently studying the events on the platform intently.
“Most of them aren’t reborn humans,” Sirhan said. I felt Kinsey shift her feet on my left shoulder. Her furry tail was draped over my neck. I found myself wondering if it were prehensile.
“Most?” my mouth voiced. “Most of the ravens?”
Sirhan ruffled his feathers. “Sorry about this. I hope you don’t take this as indicative of us.”
I glanced at Kinsey. She gave me an nervous monkey smile.
The men Bob had slain were laid out in rows in a square around the platform, covered in saffron cloth. Somewhere among them, I guessed, was the one monk Bob had shot. The living monks stood in remarkably disciplined rows at the edges of the platform, heels uncomfortably close to the stone edges, staring at the bodies with their varied heads. The cat heads had spotted fur. The lizard heads were green-and-gray scaled. The skull faces were pale and grinning.
At some unheard cue, the monks stepped forward in unison, reached down and pinched the edges of the cloths between finger and thumb, then drew them back. Dozens of cold, blue faces stared into the sky. The monks dropped the cloths in unison at the feet of the dead.
The ravens swooped in as the monks marched in perfect lines toward the doorways leading into the tower. The black birds set to the corpses with a hunger. Pecking and cawing.
My cheeks yanked my lips aside. It was… gross. The noise was unnerving. Sirhan’s feathers ruffled. I suddenly remembered that he had said not all of the ravens were reborn humans. That meant some of them were. I felt Kinsey’s right hand grab the hair on the back of my head and shoved me forward, like I was a horse she wanted to start trotting. I took her cue and followed the monks back into the monastery.
As we fell into the shadow of the ancient temple, I felt my mouth move. “What now?”
Kinsey hopped on my shoulder. “What do you want?”
Looking at the back of the monk in front of me, his furred cat tail rocking back and forth toward my feet, I felt myself considering the issue. What did I want? Another quiz from the abbot? Another confrontation with Yellowbeard’s men? A flight to the plantations, or uphill into the steep and wooded wilderness of the Right Breast?
“I want to get the fuck out of here.”
And, I had no idea what I meant by “here.”