The Last Liferock
Sticks shimmied down into the hole from the half-completed tunnel, holding the sledge near the head and moving as quietly as possible. He didn’t pause to let his eyes adjust, there wasn’t enough light down here for an unaugmented human to see by. Instead, he pulled out an ultrasound emitter and switched on his contacts. The blackness resolved itself into a blue-washed version of a cave or natural grotto. Right below where he was hanging was the body of the ork miner who had broken through the floor a month ago, a dry riverbed of blood followed the gentle curve of the floor west and downwards.
With care, the shadowrunner let himself down the rope and onto the floor, careful not to drop on the body or step in the powdery dark brown trail. A broken stalagmite jutted from the ork’s stomach, the rounded crystalline tip caked with filth, her callused hands still wrapped around it. Poor bitch. By accounts, she’d screamed for almost six hours. In his ultrasound vision, the corpse was the almost the same color as the cave. Carefully, Sticks took off a glove and touched her cheek. It was like fondling a statue; she’d been petrified.
Sticks sniffed the dry air and looked around, Sticks found another stalagmite nearby and gently touched it; dry as a bone. This cave or grotto was dead. Sticks unhooked himself from his rope and let it dangle. Following the trail of blood, Sticks felt and hear his own heart beat a little faster as the sounds and smells of the Ork Underground faded away. Either some sorcerer had put the miner out of her misery, or something down here had done that to her, and nothing natural could survive in a dead, sealed up cave.
As the cave grew colder and freezing sweat slowly trickled down his ribs, the shadowrunner’s thoughts grew darker. A gorgon, maybe. He hadn’t signed on to this thing to become a dragonslayer, and gorgons were some of the nastiest of the breed. Sticks could picture the thing worming through the tunnels on its belly, dry scales slithering and leaving that slight groove that the dried river of ork blood was following. It might be a pale thing, pigmentless, cut off from the light; Sticks realized he’d never know what color it is, because the ultrasound vision everything would be shades of bluish grey and bluish black.
Abruptly, the trail of dried blood ended and pooled around a stone hand. In life, if it ever lived, the figure the hand was attached to would have been larger than a troll. The statue thing was in a fetal position, half-buried in a kind of depression in the stone. A womb, he though, and then quickly brushed aside. He knelt closer to get a better look, moving the ultrasound emitter at different angles to catch the faint echoes.
It was worse closer up. Parts of it looked like a statue carved straight from the rock, the flesh of a forearm smooth and clean, only to end in a withered stump of a hand that looked like the roots of a petrified tree. The statuesque, elongated head had cracked, or been broken, and a piece the size of a dwarf baby’s fist had fallen through; the wound showed the smooth dome of the skull and a brain pan empty save for a few gently curved shards of stone. Sticks didn’t touch it; the stone-man was the same texture as the rock it had come from, the same texture as the petrified miner before.
Laying the sledgehammer down carefully, and clipped the ultrasound emitter to his climbing harness, Sticks sat down set about taking a paper packet of shade out of one of his waterproof pouches The shadowrunner tried not to think about what else the boccor One Nail might have slipped into it when he sold it to him as raised it to his right nostril and took a quick snort.
Ants were crawling through his brain. Ants crawling over his skull, in his skull, copulating behind his eyes, crawling under his skin, white mucous flecked with bluish-black dripping from his nose as the ants slithered in the skin between his toes and just
beneath the flesh of his spine. A pounding pressure built up in his sinuses and his blue-dyed vision tinged purple then red as Sticks felt like he could crawl right out of his skin—and did.
On the astral, the cave was worse, sterile and desolate and painfully dark, clear of any of the light or pattern of life; the living earth itself seemed muted and shadowy, only Sticks’ own body below him seemed vibrant and bright. The only other thing of real substance was the rock the stone-man was half-merged with, Sticks could discern it clearly—the aura gave the impression of immense size and gravity. Then it spoke to him.
The rock didn’t exactly speak, but it emoted; the feelings were very clear, very distinct, and Sticks had to remind himself they weren’t his feelings at all. Closeness and pressure, like sleeping in the embrace of a group of lovers—no, brothers...and the smell and feel and taste of rock. Shock, loss, like when they told him his mother had been gutted by her pimp. Sticks realized it was telling him a story. Joy turned to sadness, like the stillbirth of his son. Grief. The horrible pain of absence in his chest, and then it grew worse. Each loss compounded on the other, no joys in between, the absence growing larger with each death until there was nothing. Sticks felt like a hollow image of himself, a lifeless Sticks-shaped statue. He was losing track of time, the thing wasn’t just emoting now, it was triggering old memories in him. An old nightmare, buried alive, but this time he was dead, and the worms bored through his flesh and he could see it, objectively, like an outside observer. It wasn’t him though, it was the ork woman. He pain made patterns on the astral, the dull warmth of her lifeblood awoke the echo of life in the stone. It was lonely, it was lonely, it was lonely. The spirit of stone tried to enter—
Sticks felt his chest churn, trying to will himself against seeing the scars on his chest, the stains echoed on his aura, the image of the larva-thing dropping on his chest. With an effort, Sticks was brought back to himself. The ghost of the stone was surrounding him, probing him. His astral form convulsed in rage, and the ghost withdrew a little, stung. Sticks followed up, expelling the yin he had stored with every attack, returning the fear and revulsion and loneliness the spirit had awoken. He pictured mountains crumbling, stone breaking, rock shattering. The ghost struggled. It didn’t matter.
Some time later, Sticks returned to himself. The bluish glow of the cave seemed brighter, now, compared to the darkness he had faced. His body ached, and the scars on his knuckles had split open like he’d been punching the bag for days. He tasted the gritty, sickly perfume of the shade in the back of a raw and parched throat. Before he left, he picked up the sledgehammer and smashed the stone-man to bits, and the bits to gravel, until no one could say it had ever been shaped like a man.
Sticks wiped the blood from his nose and recalled a bit from an old flatvid movie scanned to trideo and broadcast on the free networks they got at the orphanage, some ancient black-and-white Japanese period piece called The Tale of Heike.
Like a fossil tree
Which has borne not one blossom
Sad has been my life
Sadder still to end my days
Leaving no fruit behind me.
It was all the eulogy he was willing to spare for a stone ghost that had tried to eat him. He turned away from the rock and back toward the light and life of the Underground.