|Behold the Animated Skin|
image from http://halloweenmachine.net
After a two-week interlude due to the author having to battle the flu, Jeb is back on track.
People climbing down are staying in the area near the creek. Soon … I count twenty and multiply … nearly three hundred people will throng the creek banks. I get a joke ready about what will happen if I have to stand in the water too long when I get down there. I might melt?
“When will we hunt?” says the Kosi-entity in Arley’s animated skin.
Is it her or is it the eater who encircles my wrist with Arley’s strong old fingers?
I’m afraid to pull away. Scared I’ll pull her over. Petrified of what will jump loose if she falls. We survey the grassy slope with all the hundreds of people cluttering its middle lower half.
“What will we hunt?” I say. I hope Kosi at least realises that the people below are not to be thought of as prey. Will it make a difference?
Someone in the suit laughs with girlish glee and releases my wrist to twirl on the spot. Does Kosi know that the suit’s eyes are dim and old and only glint where they might once have sparkled and that her laughing lips have cracked and are bleeding?
Her teeth are grey outlined with black. In behind them …? Fear sweat prickles me.
But I do need to see. I step nearer. Ardrey would’ve noticed but I don’t expect Kosi to already know the skin so well that she can make use of its perceptual circuits and I have to test the alien entity. I ignore what it might know. How else to …?
I don’t finish the thought. What if it is a mind-reader?
Arley’s face doesn’t change its expression, hard as I find it to believe that the entity knows nothing about facial expressions when it has been using the skin for a while.
“I stocked the place with a bunch of people that came through in their totem forms,” the Kosi-entity says.
I stare into the open mouth whenever the flow of words allows it. The tongue is marked out geometrically. It shines and glitters in segments as the meat within stretches and contracts to shape the words.
“There’s a stripy old dog with them,” Kosi says. “It told them they should hide. Should be fun finding them.”
I hear stripy old dog but can’t yet attend. I search for more places on Ardrey’s skin to see what I saw. Her ankles.
Her skin there is blocky with amulet-shaped bumps. Like mine on the top of my foot. Mine with half a dozen. Hers an unbroken expanse under her skin.
Catching one of her wrists like I’m friendly, I stroke my thumb lightly over her arm bones.
I feel the same-sized partitions outlined under the skin as the segments on the tongue, segments that are the same size as the amulet I found in the Yellow City and having the same dimensions as the cherts abiding under my foot-skin.
I let the wrist slide gently from my grasp. The eater also in the suit can’t know what I discovered.
“Did you even hear me?” the Kosi-entity says.
She’s suspicious? “You said stripy old dog when you’re talking about a striped old thylacine?” I say.
When I first woke up on that platform in the white hall, also called Reception, Mongoose was in his Totem form. The second time I woke, he was gone. The Kosi-entity brought him here? I look around. Where?
The news about Thyal is whispered from group to group. “The old shaman has them. He will keep them,” I hear.
They are right. With Thyal in charge of that group, I shouldn’t worry about them. I start to edge toward the place where people are being lowered from the ledge.
My move to come down off the cliff convinces people that we will be staying a while. Those already on the slope begin to climb and clamber toward the top. There’s gasping, a few sobs here and there and some cursing backgrounded by the murmuring of a crowd helping and comforting each other, and planning their survival in this new place for the next few hours by finding a safe place to sit.
The people who chose to bring up the rear are still coming through the membrane. Limber is here now too. Uncle Puma. Jackal. Half a dozen of the others. Then Red-tail.
A man resting against the cliff-face is pulled back through the membrane with such force that his scream is cut off abruptly.
Lithe shouts. Ibis shouts.
For a minute there’s a shocked silence as we all wait. What now?
A blood-spraying thing comes hurtling through the place where everyone came through. The unfortunate man’s head bounces off the ledge and splashes into the creek.
“Time to get out of here,” someone says and the people remaining on the ledge start to risk their life and limb by jumping the distance, not waiting to be helped.
I’m infected with everyone else’s hurry, and slip and slide down from the cliff. It’s real stone, I graze my hands and they sting.
Shaking them one at the time, I clamber up the grassy slope.
Most people bunch in little groups no further than about halfway up, as that region is furnished with an arc of stones that make sitting easier. I also choose myself a place behind a stone that is set in deep enough that it isn’t going to dislodge.
Looking around I wonder at the serendipity of the stones being placed just so. I don’t think so. I mean, no serendipity. We all look like an audience attending a show. Which, right this minute, consists of the Ardrey-skin life-suit still standing on the ledge. It’s like the stage from where one or the other of the entities in play will make an announcement.
I’m not wrong.
“I have a feeling … oh how good it is to have feelings!” the Kosi-entity says. She slumps a little. “Despite that they aren’t all that comforting.”
Then she is silent.