There is a palace that is so secure that it has no doors, no windows, and no way for solid matter to get in or out. To enter, a person must pierce themself with small tubes that protrude from the wall and allow their blood, their animating essence, and their soul, to be sucked out, leaving a rubbery empty husk of skin and bones and shrivelled viscera that crumples up into a dead heap on the dirt. Their liquids are piped into the palace, wherein they are pumped into a new lifeless shell. Consciousness returns after the new vessel is fully inflated, and the guest attends to his business. To leave, the same process is undergone.
“What do yo mean it’s OK?”, he croaked cautiously. The stars in the viewport hung motionless as the stale air in the spacepod. The pilot’s low, even tone caught the cook off guard, and his face erected a quick sheepish smile to mask his contemplative hesitation.
He chuckled once, “uh, just exactly what I said. It’s OK to drink. It’s safe.”
The pilot smiled humourlessly to himself. “But I didn’t ask if it was safe. I just wanted to know we had enough that I could have this one right now.” Turning away from the control console, he faced the cook directly, ready to fully observe and analyse his response. ”Is there a reason why it wouldn’t be safe?”
”No, no. I just wasn’t sure what you meant. It was a vague question, you know.” He went back to reorganizing the remaining rations, then realized that the rations way out there in the corner might need some organizing too, and so pursued them to that end.
The captain watched the cook’s receding back, analysing the way it was carried, and what that meant about his inner thoughts. ”You can tell a lot about a guy based on the way his muscles hold onto his bones,” he mused quietly to the copilot. ”Incidentally.”
The copilot kept his focus on the temporarily impotent controls. Temporary, that’s the word the tech kept emphasising every time he was asked. Where’s the distinction between temporary and permanent? Ground bases on Venus, they call them permanent but only expect them to last for ten orbs. His own position as copilot, that was supposed to be temporary, but how long has it been? A few more revs of consuming the unrenewables and all their lives would become pretty damn temporary. He kept his eyes on the controls and obligatorily accepted engagement into the conversation. “How do you mean?”
The pilot was ready. “You see they way his muscles are all–I know, it’s hard to see them under the fat–but just look at the way his muscles are all hard and awake, clutching his bones tightly. That’s a sure sign he’s worked up about something. They’re all wrapped around his ribs and tight. Not much room to stretch them. Much more of that and they’ll start to fight back–twitch. That’s the next stage, that’s what they do. Just watch them. Keep an eye on them, that much I’ll say.” The pilot continued to watch them.
The copilot blinked a stolen glance of the pilot, and blinked his eyes back to the controls. “Yeah, this wait is taking its toll on all of us. Are you going to drink the Carrot Essence?”
The pilot forced a scoff. “There’s no need to get antsy, tech says we’ll get moving soon. Everybody’s fine.” He looked at the essence and rubbed his chin. He narrowed his eyes at the essence. He turned his head slightly and clenched his teeth at the essence, then let out a long angry sigh. Dropping his hands to his legs, he said, “I’m not playing his games,” and stood up. From the suddenness, and from uncertainty of the pilot’s next action, the copilot’s heart twinged and beat rapidly. He realized he didn’t actually know the pilot very well.
They’d served together for two orbs on this ship, and were strangers before that. The pilot was a native of Venus, and had that aura of impatience and immediacy all Venusians had. That didn’t bother the copilot; his homedome was on Luna so he was used to all kinds of people. But he’d never before been stuck on a dead ship halfway to the dead edge of the solar system with any of them.
The pilot walked out the room and the copilot’s blood took a moment to fizzle out.
She stares at me from the corner, but I don’t dare meet those eyes with mine. I glance toward her only occasionally, to ensure her restraints are holding. There’s no reason they wouldn’t still hold: I have by now become quite skilled at preventing her from escaping. But every time I look into those familiar eyes, see her face, and see what I’ve done to the person I love most, my empathy bewitches me and I’m filled with a single-minded desire to free her and tearfully apologise for the bruises and the sores on her wrists and ankles.
But, of course, that would be my doom. I know well by now that while her mind is still inhabited by one of the malicious souls, she will do all she can to cause me harm. Indeed, I have my own share of bruises, and worse, attesting to the ferocity and vigour with which the soul will employ the whole of her body — fists, nails, feet, teeth — to the end of damaging and destroying me. The arcane powers deep bellow this valley fuel its strength, and drive its lust for destruction and suffering. Motivated by the most uncompromising hate, this uninvited guest would act as the agent of chaotic entropy unfailingly, crushing and tearing apart all life as it went, for as long as its hapless host remained untorn and intact.
This valley, I was informed before our arrival, is infested by a cloud of evil souls. They enter the bodies of unvigilant victims, overthrowing the minds of any who are not constantly alert and on guard against their entry. And for many long weeks of forgotten quantity we have traveled, in our attempt to get through. My memory of the decision to take this road, against all recommendations and warnings from the local peasants and townsfolk, has faded into such a haze that it now more resembles an event told to me, rather than experienced by me. I return to it and dwell on it often in these periods of intensely dull peace when she is restrained. The deep self-loathing resulting from the deep regret of that misdeed, rather than altering the past to reverse that ignorant decision, as I foolishly, futilely hope, only worsens my health. My clothes are constantly damp with cold sweat, my muscles sore from never quite fully relaxing. My mind is in a sea of needles, constantly prickled, and I long for sleep. I am constantly at war with my body as it rages against me and uses any means it can to suck me down into sleep, not limiting itself to only blackening my sight, or refusing my request to move a limb. I have yet to surrender, however, for my allies, which make me strong, are the love I have for my wife, and the fear of the violent soul that inhabits her.
Yes, it is my wife that I must so desperately protect myself against! Never before could I have imagined such a perplexingly terrible thing: that my dearest wife, my overflowing font of gaiety and primary purpose in life, would be my greatest foe!
Oh, if only I could continue our travel and escape this valley! Dwelling is such great pain. Perhaps I could find, or fashion, a cage strong enough to contain a crazed woman. Yes, a cage of thick iron bars and a lock blessed by a hundred bishops, whose key I could keep safe on my person, never to use till the poisonous soul departs. I could place it upon a cart drawn by the steadiest oxen — to reduce to a minimum the antagonization brought to that deranged soul. These oxen would never fail, for I would bath them daily in the concoctions of alchemists, and let them drink their fill of the potions of wizards! No beast could harm them, and we would carry on through the darkest forests, never stopping, impossible to stop, with the infinite inertia of God himself until finally we are gone from this valley, never to return!
Now, where am I to find this cage? Who can produce it? Ah, what’s this? Whence came this hair that lingers in my lap and is in my fingers wrapped? Of course, it is my own, the source: my head, where it was grown! Fortuitous providence: a material for the cage! Divine inspiration — weaving: the method to build the cage! The path out the valley is found, our suffering ends soon. Look, wife, watch me construct! A cage of iron bars shall form in view of your occupied eyes. With my hair, and my unconquered determination, it will assemble itself. My sweat will be wizard potion, my blood will spawn oxen. Urine will mix with the spit of my mouth, as surely must be recorded the alchemists’ tomes. Wife, we shall be together unhindered again soon!