John Gone, страница 21
John crashed into the side of a tall, sandy dune. For the first time since he’d put the watch on his wrist, he’d not landed peacefully on top of a toilet seat. Instead, he found himself prostrate, turned sideways, and implanted in a mound of sand.
Grains of that sand, swirling in the wind off the mound, entered his nose and mouth as he shallowly inhaled. He painfully craned his neck to the side and fought one of his eyes open. Rolling desert filled his vision as howling winds filled his ears. John heard a muffled voice calling his name against the swirling air.
“John! John!” Mouse called.
John regained more strength in his body and moved his left arm out to steady himself. The movement had an opposite effect than intended; he quickly lost his lodging and twisted down the dune with a small cavalcade of sand following just behind. He ended on the ground two feet below with a rush of sand piling down upon his back.
John forced a pushup and rose to his feet. Night had fallen, wherever he’d landed, but a large full moon illuminated the edge of each mound of sand rising from the ground around him. The landscape was prosaic, looking as if a lifeless programmer had copy–and-pasted the image of a generic sand dune over and over again in some lazy attempt at creating a desert panorama.
“John!” Mouse called again against the wind.
John lifted his bag all the way to his face and maneuvered its flap over his head to protect his mouth and eyes from the wind as he spoke to Mouse.
“Hi,” he said.
“What’s going on?” Mouse exclaimed, crawling from the pocket. The robot turned its head to the left and right before quickly ducking back inside. “I can’t come out or Mouse will get sand in its joints. What is this? Some sort of sand storm?”
“It’s not a sand storm,” Kala replied. “Sand storms are much more intense than this. This is just a windy day in the desert. If it was a sand storm, you’d know it.”
“Where’s the toilet?” John asked.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone is around,” Kala replied. “I’m sure you can just go anywhere you’d like. Just please remember to turn the watch in an opposite direction.”
“You know what I mean,” John said.
“You must have jumped into an area with no nearby bathrooms,” the doctor answered. “Honestly, I don’t know. We hadn’t done any tests in remote areas. Interesting results, though.”
“Or maybe someone had been using that dune as a bathroom,” Mouse added.
“Thanks for that charming thought,” John replied, dusting as much of the sand as possible from his face.
“You need to move,” Kala said. “The temperature is going to cause you serious problems before long.”
“Now that you mention it,” John shouted above the wind, “isn’t this a bit chilly? I thought deserts were supposed to be hot.”
“In many parts of Africa, sunset occurs around 6:00 P.M., meaning the sun’s been down three hours already in this time zone,” Kala said. “And it’s only going to get colder.”
“Africa? Why not the Middle East or Australia?” John asked.
“Have you noticed that Cerastes Vipera over there?” Kala asked.
“The horned viper,” Kala clarified.
John lifted the flap on his bag and looked around. Soon, he saw a coiled snake watching him from just a few feet away.
“Ahh!” he exclaimed. “What do I do?”
“You see,” Kala continued, “there are three primary varieties of the sand viper, but this one is specifically native to the African regions. Did you happen to notice those demonic-looking horns above its eyes?”
John had, indeed, noticed the demonic-looking horns.
“That’s why I concluded Cerastes Vipera,” Kala finished.
“Kala,” John said, “seriously, what do I do? I’m freaking out here, man.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Popielarski,” Kala said. “I’m not an outdoorsman. Just stand still and keep speaking loudly. Don’t worry; it probably won’t bite you. The sand viper isn’t as aggressive as it looks, and their bite isn’t generally fatal, even if it does bite you, which it probably won’t.”
“Great, I’m totally not worried anymore.”
“We’re most likely in the Sudan or Egypt,” Mouse said, changing the subject back to geography.
“Very good!” Kala exclaimed. “Because?”
“Well, we’re supposed to be going further with each jump, right? So, it would stand to reason that we’ve travelled somewhere east of France,” Mouse explained. “If we combine that fact with Dr. Kala’s assessment, it puts us in one of those two locations.”
“Very good,” Kala said. “There’s hope for you yet!”
“I don’t see how any of this helps,” John said.
“It might help you more than you think,” Mouse retorted. “If we’re right then you barely jumped farther than France, relatively speaking. And if that’s the case, then maybe you bought yourself another jump. Kala?”
“In the interest of honesty and disclosure,” Kala said begrudgingly, “yes, this lowers the death risk of a sixth jump, though, only slightly.”
“That’s great!” John said.
“I suppose,” Kala replied, “though regardless of if you were only to jump five feet left from here on out, a seventh uncontrolled jump would kill you regardless. You’ve only gained more time, or as I would describe it, more risk. Anyway, let’s move on. Time is passing.”
John peered toward the spot on the ground where he’d seen the snake minutes before, finding nothing but sand there now. The viper’s disappearance made him more apprehensive than its presence.
“Which way?” John asked.
“Robot?” the hologram asked.
“East,” the robot replied quickly.
“Very good,” Kala said. “And why?”
“I don’t know,” Mouse admitted. “I was just guessing.”
“East, Mr. Popielarski,” Kala said through a tired sigh.
“That way, Mr. Popielarski,” Kala continued, extending an arm and finger to John’s left.
An hour and a half passed with almost no discussion between the companions. The whipping wind blowing against the small microphones located in both the hologram and the robot made hearing anything that John could have said while walking impossible.
A cloud passed in front of the moon and the desert fell into darkness. The air was cooling, and the effect of its chill on him was amplified tenfold. He turned his messenger bag to the front of his body and placed both of his arms inside it for warmth.
As the cloud moved past, John suddenly saw another desert life form in front of him. This time, however, though horned, it failed to inspire feelings of dread and panic. It was some sort of antelope, completely white, save a pitch-black beard hanging beneath its neck. Two bell earrings dangled from its left ear. John cautiously approached it.
“Anuket, what have you found?” an old man called from behind the animal. “That’s not water, you silly thing.”
The elderly man stood six feet tall and was so thin that the uncovered patches of his skin showed John the precise shape of his bones underneath. He wore brown cloth around his neck, face, and head, and white cloth strips around his arms between his elbows and wrists. The rest of his garb seemed cut from a single piece of thick light-blue cloth held onto his body by three thin ropes: one around his waist, two around his shoulders under his arms.
“Do you have a name, traveler?” the man said.
“John,” John choked out, not realizing how dry his throat had become in such a short time.
“Here,” the man said, pulling a handmade canteen from the rope around his waist. The container was nothing more than two pieces of leather sewn together with an opening fashioned from a reed at its top. John accepted the man’s offer and drank. The water tasted odd, but John continued to drink until the man spoke again.
“How long ha
“Not long. An hour, maybe two.”
“Impossible,” the man replied. “We are deep in the sands. Where did you come from?”
“I don’t remember,” John lied.
“Ra has tricked you,” the man said. “This happens.” He looked over John’s strange clothes once more and looked up at the stars for some cosmic data invisible to John. “Okay,” the man said. “Put your hand on Anuket’s horn. You come with me.”
John followed the man’s instructions and held onto one of the antelope’s tall, spiraling horns. It shook its head to his touch, and the bells on its ear rang loudly. John was startled by the beast’s stir, but before he could let go of it, the thin man put a large, dry hand around John’s and held it tightly to Anuket’s horn.
“It means she likes you. Come. It is not far from here.” The man removed his hand from John’s and began to walk.
“Anuket is highly skilled at finding water, though she drinks little to none herself. Once, she waited over a year before drinking,” he told John.
“Is that possible?”
“Of course!” the man exclaimed. “Anything is possible if the Gods will it so. And Anuket is special chosen of the Gods. She is theirs, and also is them.”
“What’s your name?” John asked.
“Thutmose,” the man answered.
“Where are we going?”
“There,” Thutmose said, pointing a long finger beyond a dune. Behind the sand and wind was a small hut built as one might expect a hut to be built if it were upon solid ground. Its walls were made of wood and clay and its roof was weaved with dried fronds and branches. It wasn’t long before they arrived at its entrance.
“How is this here?” John asked. “How can something like this be built on the sand?”
“I have a secret,” Thutmose said. “You can let go of Anuket now.” John released the antelope’s horn. The animal gave him a long lick across his arm. John wiped off the slobber and looked to Thutmose who was leaning down to the ground near his pet’s feet.
Thutmose brushed the sand away from under him and revealed short, green and yellow grass just beneath it. Anuket leaned down and munched on the plants.
“I am built on solid ground. It only looks like the sand because you had not seen deep enough,” the man said, winking his left eye. “Let us go inside.”
John followed him through the entrance to his hut, ducking underneath a faded red cloth flap. The inside of Thutmose’s home seemed oddly larger from the inside than it had from the outside. At its center was a small circle of rocks approximately two feet in diameter. John approached and looked into it. Water rose to its brim.
“Anuket brought me here two years ago,” Thutmose explained. “This is extremely rare to find. I have built my entire home around it.”
Thutmose lit a small lantern, and John looked around the surrounding hut. Small slats of wood adorned the walls horizontally, supporting small idols, various plant leaves and cloudy jars. At least two sections of the walls seemed to be fashioned as altars.
“What do you do?” John asked.
“I walk the sands. Sometimes I find strange young men with strange clothes and give them water,” Thutmose replied.
“I mean for money,” John said.
“Are you trying to tell me that you are not paying me for this service?” Thutmose asked.
“Well, um--” John stumbled.
“A joke. Please.” Thutmose gestured at a small woven rug next to his well. John sat and Thutmose did the same.
“I do not make money,” the man said.
“How do you eat?”
“Sometimes I do not. When I do, I trade water for it with some of the roaming tribesmen.”
“So you search the desert for water?”
“I am a priest,” Thutmose said. “That is what I do.”
“Oh,” John remarked. “Your English is very good.”
“Yes, thank you. It is actually almost my first language. I grew up in a city where it is very common,” he explained.
“You left the city for the desert?” John asked.
“Well, yes,” the priest said, allowing himself a small laugh at John’s comment, “but not by choice.” He paused and looked to the faded red cloth at the entrance. “Someone approaches.”
“I don’t hear anything,” John said.
“You do not have ears for the sand. The wind is broken; the ground is stepped upon. You must sit quietly now. Do as I say,” Thutmose ordered.
“You don’t understand,” John said quietly, standing to his feet. “I know who that is outside. We need to leave.”
Thutmose grabbed him by the pant leg and pulled him back to the ground. “Sit,” he said. “One does not run from one’s home.”
“But,” John protested.
“Have faith,” Thutmose said. The man stood briefly and sat back down cross-legged on top of the well at the center of his tent.
“John, go. Now!” Kala yelled from the watch.
Before John could move, the hut’s flap was pulled open, revealing a man with a thick strap of cloth around his mouth and neck. His hair was the color of the sand and parted diagonally across his scalp due to a large scar where it could no longer grow. On his body, the man dressed in tattered clothes of varying sizes, some too small for him, others too large. In his right hand, the man wielded a large curved knife. His other held a bulky leather sack that rested over his shoulder and across his back. This man was not an Advocate. John sat still and watched him.
The man with the knife yelled something to Thutmose in a language John didn’t recognize. Thutmose replied calmly in the same tongue. The scarred man stepped closer to the priest and waved his knife in front of Thutmose’s eyes as if he had not yet noticed it. Thutmose remained seated, quietly listening as the man with the knife continued to yell. Thutmose said something more, and the scarred man lunged at him. His blade slashed Thutmose’s abdomen, turning his robe red with blood.
John rose immediately. Thutmose, not moving from his posture or position, raised his hand at John in a gesture to stop. John slowly seated himself at the signal, unsure of what he could do to help anyway.
The man with the knife looked back and forth between John and the priest, confused by Thutmose’s reaction to his cut. He fixed his sights back onto the well.
An uncomfortable feeling of helplessness washed over John. This man who’d given him water, listened to his lies, and brought him to his home was now injured, maybe dying, and John had done nothing to stop it. He looked again to the scarred man. He seemed crazed ... or was that fear?
Arms at his side, Thutmose stood as if his body wasn’t spilling blood, walked to the side of his hut, and lifted a small tree branch from one of the many thin shelves on the wall. John wondered for a moment if he meant to wield it as a weapon against the knife. Instead, he brought it to the man who’d cut him and began to speak.
Suddenly, he snapped the branch mid-sentence. The scarred man shook when it broke, and slowly moved backed toward the entrance of the hut. Thutmose carefully walked to his well, filled his canteen, and offered it to the man. The ragged man nervously accepted it and quickly dashed back into the desert only a moment after.
Thutmose ambled back toward the well and collapsed to the ground. John bolted to him and untied the thin rope from his robes. Beneath them, he could see the extent of the still-bleeding wound. The cut was long, but not deep. He unwrapped the cloth from Thutmose’s left arm and dunked it into his well.
“Stop. Please,” Thutmose groaned. “Wring the water back into the well. Do not waste it on this wound. There is only so much water.” John didn’t move. “Please! Do not waste it!”
John brought the cloth back above the well and wrung it out before laying it carefully on Thutmose’s wound.
The desert priest rose slowly, and wrapped the rest of it around his stomach. “Thank you,” he said. “I shall be fine now.”
“Before we were interrupted,” Thutmose explained, “I was telling you that I did not leave the city by choice. My beliefs were not welcome there. First they mocked me, but soon that mockery, as mockery often does when not met with anger, turned into anger itself. Men threatened my life and desecrated my home.
“I fled into the desert, never returning, where I walked the sands for months, barely alive, trying to survive as an animal might. That is when I found Anuket, and when Anuket found the well. The Gods had spoken, and I vowed to never abandon their gift.”
“But who was that man with the knife?” John asked.
“Just a thief, thirsty and scared,” he answered. “I have never met him before today. He must have seen Anuket eating outside and guessed the reason for my hut.
“He told me that he would kill me if I did not give him my home and this well that it protects. I told him I would not leave, and that this well was a gift from Anuket. He raged, and as you saw, sliced my belly with his knife.”
“What did you do with the branch? Was that some sort of curse?” John asked.
“Curse? No. A lesson,” Thutmose said. “I asked if he was a strong man. He nodded yes and bared his knife. It was then that I broke the branch in front of him. I offered it to him and asked him to repair it. He did not understand, so I explained to him that any man can destroy, but only the strongest among us can heal and fix that which a weak man breaks. I then asked him to heal my wound. He knew he could not do so either.”
“So, why did you give him the water?” John asked.
“Because that is why he came and why he carries that knife. I wanted him to understand that he could have had the water, had he asked, and that he could still have it, even after wronging me. I also did not want him to die. The man looked close to death, and being weighed in such condition would not bode well for his immortal being. All weapons weigh heavier than the feather on the final scales that balance us.” Thutmose rose and rubbed his stomach where the knife had cut him. “Thank you for the bandage.”
“Don’t thank me; it’s your bandage,” John replied.
“Yes, but you applied it. Thank you,” he said again.
“It’s a miracle you’re alive. Any deeper, and that knife could have killed you.”
“There are no miracles, John,” Thutmose said, sitting back on his mat.
“How can you not believe in miracles? You’re a priest.”
“The many Gods have shaped the world. The miracle, if there must be one, is the system that they have created. Ra is the sun that shines on Geb’s grass. Geb’s grass is fed upon by Bastet’s cat. Bastet’s cat is eaten by Amun’s jackal. Amun’s jackal passes the cat into Hapi’s Nile, which feeds Geb’s grass. It is a simple way to explain a complex system. One should not look at the world and see a thousand miracles. Again, there is but one miracle, and that is the Gods themselves who have created a world where creatures, plants, rocks, and air can grow and develop to work together and for each other.”
“You mean like evolution,” John said.
“Yes, though I fear your definition may hold too narrow an understanding,” Thutmose replied.
“Science doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?” Thutmose asked. “Science enlightens people to the ways of the Gods. Priests study tirelessly for those truths in texts, so why should they not also study what they see before their own eyes? Is that not more so the gift of the Gods? Is that not worthy of our understanding? I am not well-versed in the sciences, but I hardly damn their practice.”
“Then let me show you something,” John said, pulling Mouse from his bag.
“Hello,” it said, waving its arm.
“Ammit!” Thutmose exclaimed, stumbling backward from the robot. “What is this?”
“A robot,” Mouse said, walking toward him across the woven mat.
“I do not know this word,” Thutmose said.
“It’s like a telephone that can walk around. My friend is on the other end of it. It’s just a machine,” John explained.
Thutmose crawled toward it and held out his finger. Mouse latched onto it lightly and shook it up and down.
“Oh my,” Thutmose said, laughing. “This is truly amazing. Truly amazing! I thought I had heard a voice before that man came into my hut. It must have been you.”
“That was me, actually,” Kala said, appearing on the watch’s face.
Thutmose’s eyes widened at the blue hologram. “This is a man’s soul,” he said, staring at Kala.
“I hope it’s not mine,” John said.
“Very funny,” Kala replied.
“This is the same idea as the robot,” John explained, “but made of light instead of metal.”
“This I will never understand,” Thutmose whispered, leaning close to Kala.
“Boo!” Kala yelled, raising his arms like a Halloween ghost. Thutmose stumbled back quickly.
“John, if you do not mind the question, why are you here?” Thutmose asked.
“It might be difficult for you to understand.”
“Perhaps,” Thutmose said, “but speak truth, and I will know it.”
John did his best to explain. “This watch on my wrist won’t come off.”
“Stuck?” Thutmose asked.
“Yes, and permanently as long as I don’t have the right tool,” he answered. Thutmose nodded.
“Every day, there is a time that it takes my body somewhere in the world, different each time. I can’t control it. That’s how I ended up here without a water bottle.”
“How do you move? Do you fly?”
“No, I just disappear. Then I appear again somewhere else.”
“Truly, this is a God’s work.”
“There is no magic deity at work here,” Kala interjected. “It’s just science, albeit complicated science for the likes of a hyper-religious rustic.”
“As I have said before,” Thutmose said, moving his finger through Kala’s visage, “I do not believe those two ideas are separate.”
“There are two men chasing me,” John said. “They’re trying to kill me. Usually they would have shown up by now. Maybe they couldn’t track me through the desert.”
“Unlikely,” Kala said. “Don’t ask me how to track someone in the sand, but if it’s possible, they know how to do it. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that this hut is probably the only structure for miles. It makes for an astoundingly obvious hideout.”
“So, everyday this happens at the same time?” Thutmose asked. “A cycle of appearing and disappearing between different places in the world?”
“Yes,” John said. “I told you it would be difficult to understand.”
“I understand perfectly,” Thutmose said. “You are on a journey of maat.”
“Yes. It is difficult to explain in English, or any language made of spoken words. It is reality. It is truth. It is the stability upon which we are able to exist.”
“Enough of this ridiculous waste of time,” Kala interrupted. “We need to move on. Who knows where the Advocates are.”
“You’re right, who knows?” John replied. “They may be right outside waiting for me. We’re staying.”
“Maat is balanced by time and cycles,” Thutmose continued. “Your clock also operates like this. You pass from one place to another and back as Ra passes over Geb and back through Duat, only to pass over Geb again the next cycle.”
“I’m sorry,” John said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Thutmose smiled. “Ra is God of the sun. He rises and he falls. There was a time when this was not so, and Ra stood across the sky always.
“There was a magical creature, Apophis, the serpent of chaos, who became angry with Ra the Almighty and sought to destroy him. Because he could not hide from the sun’s light, he fled to Duat for his plotting, a place deep beneath the Earth where the s
“Eventually, the day came when Ra the Pharaoh was out of time. He could do nothing to stop the aging of his mortal form. His spirit descended into Duat, where Apophis lay waiting, expecting a weak, worried spirit, easily snared and destroyed. But Ra was not weak; he was accompanied by two companions whom Apophis had not expected. The companions were strong and wise. Apophis attacked the group, but, aided by his companions, Ra triumphed. He ascended back into the sky, lighting it with his glory until the time came again to descend to Duat, where Apophis lay waiting still, magically healed from old wounds. It is the cycle that happens each day and night, and the triumph of Ra is the light that surrounds us.”
Thutmose leaned in toward John and placed a hand on his arm. “John, I believe what you are doing is important. Do not let these agents of discord find you. Have faith that you do the Gods’ work. They will watch over you and provide for you, as we watch over and provide for them. They will protect you as you descend and ascend.” Thutmose stood slowly and collected the two pieces of broken branch from his shelf. He brought them back to John and placed them in his hands.
“Never rely on violence, John,” he said. “But also, do not run.” John opened his bag and put the pieces inside.
“Running is all he can do,” Kala argued. “The men chasing him have guns.”
“Losing yourself is a fate worse than death,” Thutmose answered.
“And yet if one dies,” Kala retorted, “one has no chance to find one’s self again if lost.”
“Guys,” Mouse interjected, “this argument is pointless. We can’t run. We can’t go anywhere. Look.”
Thutmose turned and looked at John’s body. It lay unconscious on the ground.
“Does he travel now?” Thutmose asked.
“No, not yet. But this happens sometimes before he does,” Mouse explained. “Kala, we can’t leave, even if he does wake up. The cold will kill him and, if he passes out again in the sand, he’ll drown in it. We have to stay.”
“I won’t argue your logic. We stay,” Kala said, as if it were his decision.
Thutmose stood, then sat next to John’s body. He remained there for the entirety of the night, guarding over John as he had with his well, watching vigilantly for the agents the boy had mentioned to arrive at his hut. They never did.