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No rain has fallen here in four hundred years.
Gabe knew this was true, knew it even though he stood on a stretch of ground where knowing anything for certain was iffy. The desert did that to you, especially this one, where there were no Gila monsters, no cacti, no Arabs gliding majestically on camels. You couldn’t be sure about anything in a place that hated you. It fooled you every time.
Gabriel Traylin stared across the nighttime desert, smoking his way to some future, ghastly cancer and thinking about the improbable dryness around him. Four hundred years, not a single teardrop from the sky. The Atacama Desert of northern Chile made the Mojave of his homeland seem like a floodplain. Precipitation here was measured in millimeters, and even then it came only as an infrequent fog. The billion crystal stars overhead were no more mysterious than this desolation, this empty skull of earth. What happened here happened nowhere else: the complete and bleak denial of all life.
“Like a few women I’ve known,” he said to himself, only half meaning it. Always the comedian, even when he was alone. He should’ve done stand-up at eighteen instead of Stanford. After all, there wasn’t much difference in being a penniless comic and being a doctoral candidate free-falling through student loans. He knelt and crushed the remains of his cigarette on a stone that had never known the slickness of dew.
Behind him loomed the observatory, as huge and silent as a ghost ship.
The astronomers from the European Union had constructed the facility in 2008. The planet’s arid edge provided their twenty-meter telescope a view of the heavens utterly unobstructed by even the thinnest ribbon of cloud. No radio waves muddied the sky. Few planes ever passed. Though the Atacama might be inimical to life, when you were talking about peering at ancient starlight, it was the most coveted seat in the house. Gabe was as bad as the rest of them, arrogant in their mapping of galaxies too damn far away to matter. At twenty-nine, he was also the youngest, which somehow bought him pardon for his sin.
The vainglory of Galileo, Rubat called it.
Oh, that Rubat. Spoke like a poet but had a panhandler’s sense of hygiene. He’d promised to give Gabe a lift into town—Gabe was running low on comic books and smokes—but odds were strong that he’d forgotten. Gabe was just about to return to the observatory and track the man down when something flickered in the dark.
A hundred meters away in the wasteland, only vaguely revealed in the shower of starlight, something moved.
Not simply moved, but glided.
Gabe stood up, the cigarette butt between his fingers.
The figure traveled east to west, smoothly, with the fluid dexterity of a prowling cat or a gymnast. Of course, no mountain lions dwelled here, for there was nothing to hunt. And as for gymnasts or any other member of the human race … as far as Gabe knew, no one lived out there but the ghosts the Chilean natives claimed to see occasionally, spirits of the dehydrated dead.
So what is it?
He stepped away from the bulk of the observatory and advanced a dozen paces into the dust. Because there were no exterior lights that might interrupt the astronomers’ work, Gabe knew he would be invisible to whoever was out there, so long as he held still. The chill in the air pricked at his arms, as he hadn’t bothered to grab his denim jacket before stepping out for his smoke. The Atacama might be a desert, but it lay in the rain shadow of the secret-keeping Andes Mountains—the lee side, where the air was drained of all moisture by the mountaintops. At several thousand feet above sea level, the Atacama was not a sea of broiling Sahara sand but a bitter vacuum that scarred the planet like an acid burn.
Ignoring the cold, Gabe tracked the moving thing with his eyes, now certain this was no illusion, no phantasm cut from the black paper of night. It swept steadily but not swiftly, little more than a dark shape on a darker background and thus all but indistinguishable. It could have been anything. Or anyone.
Gabe heeded his own command. What the hell was he doing? In the six months he’d been stationed down here, stumbling along the trip-wired road of his doctoral research, he had never once seen anything out there in the barrens. He knew what Rubat would say. The gliding figure was an outlaw of some kind, a Chilean thief out to swipe a few liters of gasoline from the observatory’s garage. Rubat refused to trust the natives. He was a prejudiced Yemenese astrophysicist who assumed the locals would one day come for the foreign star-watchers, bearing torches and handmade rakes.
Gabe liked the curmudgeonly Muslim, even though—strangely—he’d never seen his face.
But there was no time to think about that now. The thing out there in the night cruised steadily west. Gabe had never considered himself exceptionally brave, and this was no time to win the Bronze Star. He wasn’t about to go out there and tangle with whoever that might be—though he also had no intention of letting him break into the garage and make off with the gas. Without working vehicles, they’d be forced to call for an airlift, because walking in this waterless world was tantamount to traipsing to the gallows.
Whatever it was, it rippled like oil on dark water.
“Who are you?” Gabe spoke softly, the words barely leaving his lips. Hugging the building, he kept his eyes on the figure and moved with it. By now he was almost certain it was a man, though a man who moved without sound. The land was as quiet as outer space, and Gabe should have heard the interloper’s footfalls. Yet there was nothing but the increasing rhythm of his own pulse.
Could be Bigfoot’s cousin.
Gabe raised an eyebrow at this rogue notion. Last weekend one of the locals had told him the story of Gigante de Atacama, a giant who supposedly roamed this lifeless land. Just like Sasquatch of the American Northwest, Gigante was always a blur when captured on film.
A blur not unlike the one that moved tonight through the dark.
There were two reasons why he’d chosen astronomy as a profession. The first one was the chance for solitude; he’d never been gregarious, which he blamed on his condition. The second reason was because he loved the idea of Things being out there. Things not found on Earth. Things that built the universe.
Or, likewise, Things that roamed the desert night.
Shit. He had to go and he knew it.
Safe in the knowledge that the darkness would conceal him, Gabe paralleled the runner’s course. A few seconds later it became apparent that Gigante wasn’t headed for the garage but rather toward the power shed.
The pair of burly 500-kilowatt generators was the observatory’s failsafe. Those diesel-driven behemoths, resting on industrial-grade vibration isolators and weighing over eight thousand pounds each, provided the facility with full and uninterrupted power in the event of an outage, ensuring that the computer servers kept crunching data without a single binary morsel of the company’s investment being lost. As nearly everything inside the observatory was computerized, right down to the shower cubicles, electricity was their patron saint, hallowed be thy name. Sabotaging the generators would—
“Why?” Gabe whispered. “Why would anyone care?”
He had no answer for that. Terrorists didn’t need a reason. Or maybe that man running so smoothly through the night was not a terrorist but an anarchist. Or an eco-terrorist. Or a religious fundamentalist. Or some other kind of pissed-off ist. The list of suspects in the modern world was endless and probably known only to the CIA and certain staff members at the National Enquirer.
The figure kept moving. Gabe gave chase.
They closed in on the power shed.
The generators were housed in a corrugated steel outbuilding on a concrete foundation that had been poured by local workers but funded by Swiss taxpayers. Though the Quest-South Observatory was a public project jointly governed by twelve different European governments, it was no secret that the Geneva-based aerospace corp, Zubriggen Global, was the leading commercial financier. Gabe had never met anyone from the famously neutral Switzerland, but he figured they wouldn’t be so impartial when it came to punishing those who threatened the operation of their South American Taj Mahal.
He considered turning tail and fetching reinforcements. What if the guy had a weapon?
Forget it. There wasn’t a single warrior among the observatory’s inhabitants who could lend any decent assistance. In fact, they all dwelled at the opposite end of the dial, pushing the needle toward maximum geekdom. Gabe himself was as close as they came to being cool, and that was only because he knew his Chuck Palahniuk as well as his Roger Penrose and didn’t look like a total wannabe when wearing a leather jacket. Then again, he knew that the hallmark of the true geek was self-delusion.
He kept going. His footfalls sounded too loud to his own ears. He only hoped the intruder was so intent upon his task that he wouldn’t hear his pursuer. Gabe named him the Midnight Messenger, like the name of a comic-book character, and then suddenly the Messenger wasn’t running anymore, but slowed down as he approached the power shed.
Gabe was close enough now that he was certain this was not Gigante but rather a man, one who was lean and not exceptionally tall. His features were nothing but brushstrokes of shadow.
Where had he come from? He’d run from the direction of the desert’s heart. As far as Gabe knew, there was nothing out there but ghost towns that had supported the nitrate mines before the tunnels were abandoned years ago. The mines were now closed up, the towns empty husks, like places in an old Western film, where doors banged in the wind and a slight weight of menace hung in the air. No one had lived out there since the forties, when synthetic nitrate squeezed out the last small demand for the natural stuff. Nothing remained of the old saltpeter families but their rubbed-out towns and cemeteries.
The Messenger slipped around the shed’s corner and vanished.
Clinging to the hope that the night would conceal him if he kept low, Gabe advanced around the opposite side of the building, keeping about five meters from the metal wall. No overhead lines ran from the shed to the observatory; the cables were buried. The shed hummed faintly. Inside was a million euros’ worth of hardware. Though the control mechanisms were in a secure room down the hall from Rubat’s quarters, anyone inside the shed, standing between the generators and a full megawatt of juice, could shipwreck the project for weeks.
Gabe slowed as he neared the structure’s far edge. He sank to his knees, then lower still.
The stars roared silently. Their lion’s call was a hundred million years old, and far older. Gabe knew the names of many of them. He was rotten with people and had perhaps only two real friends, but he was a blood brother with every silver light in the night sky. He lived for those moments when they spoke to him. And he always spoke back.
The darkness shifted.
The Messenger appeared from around the far corner, and then did something that made him entirely human.
He bent over, put his hands on his knees, and tried to catch his breath.
Why are you running? Gabe, who had theories for everything from the nature of God to quantum foam to the man on the grassy knoll, had no theories for this. There was simply no reason why a lone man would be running across the most desolate place on Earth in the middle of the night.
Just as the Messenger was straightening his back, something struck him in the head.
The man’s skull snapped sharply to the side. Though Gabe could see him only in silhouette, it was clear that the motion was unnatural. A second later, there was a sound as faint as a sigh, and then the Midnight Messenger collapsed.
Gabe turned, half expecting to see Gigante with a fistful of rocks, but there was nothing but the hovering dark.
When he looked back, biting down on his lip, the erstwhile runner was only a heap on the ground.
Gabe held his breath. Then he exhaled softly and waited. The figure remained crumpled and motionless. Though something had clearly hit the man in the head, the hand behind the projectile was nowhere to be seen. Considering how dark it was, the desert might have been full of assassins, and Gabe would never have known.
Get real, Lucille.
Still the Messenger didn’t move. He might have been—
“Don’t be dead,” Gabe whispered. “Jesus, don’t be dead.” He wanted to turn around but instead got himself moving toward the prone figure. He advanced slowly, heartbeat wild in his wrists. His life was uneventful. He studied spectrometry readings and watched the Syfy Channel like a proper nerd. He rarely drank to excess. He’d been laid only once in his life. Her body had been as divine as that of a Vargas girl, and Gabe had stitched the memory of it forever in his mind, though he could not say the same for her face, which had made no impression on him. All in all, that wasn’t the math of a life that added up to this kind of business, this pawing on all fours across a desert in Chile at one in the morning toward a stranger who was possibly dead.
Forget possibly. Gabe got close and saw the blood.
At this proximity, the rods in his eyes received just enough light to reveal the dark halo on the ground around the man’s head.
Had there been any decent light, Gabe knew, he’d see that the man’s body had become a desert shade. The Atacama was said to have such power. It transformed drifters into itself; it sapped the moisture from you; it turned you into a mummy.
The Midnight Messenger had died in a sweat. The odor of unwashed skin hung in the air. The man’s pants were shapeless in the dark, but his shirt revealed a few dimensions: long sleeves, buttoned at the collar, formerly white. One of his wrists was clunky. Gabe leaned down and decided it was a watch, one of the big, rambunctious chronographs favored by sportsmen. Now that he had a better angle, Gabe saw the dial, the tritium hands glowing at the time of one minute past the man’s death, and counting.
Not just dead, but murdered.
Expecting an attack, Gabe spun around. His eyes swept back and forth, but the night gave up no secrets.
Had the killer run away? Or was he still out there? And how the hell had he been able to see at such a distance in this thunderous dark?
Sweating despite the cold, Gabe returned his attention to the fallen runner. Maybe it wasn’t too late. He found the man’s wrist and clasped it too tightly to feel a pulse. He took a breath, forced it out, released some pressure, prayed for a pulse.
He felt nothing … or perhaps he did. Was that his own heartbeat in his fingertips, or was this man still alive?
His eyes, for no reason at all, went to the man’s face.
You’d think by now he would’ve stopped trying. But no. Here he was again, scanning the facial features—nose, mouth, eyes and ears creating the usual symmetry—but coming up with only a meaningless haze.
Ever since he could remember, Gabe had been face blind.
The term the neurologists used was prosopagnosia—the inability to differentiate between faces. Gabe had grown up recognizing his mother by her clothing, her slender wedding band, and of course by her voice. But her face had appeared no different from that of his father, nor of his uncle, nor of Dan Rather when he’d read the nightly news. Friends encountered at random around town were strangers until they spoke. He could meet a man a dozen times and still not know him at the thirteenth handshake, unless his suit was cut a certain way, or his lip was pierced: Some damn thing had to stand out, or every face was literally and utterly the same. It wasn’t that faces appeared as a blur. Gabe could see every detail. But a developmental aberrancy in his brain made it impossible to compare those details to other faces. He recognized his own face in a mirror only because he knew he was standing in front of it. But show him a photo of himself and a headshot of Ernest Borgnine, and Gabe’s odds of pointing to himself on the first try were heads or tails.
He told hardly anyone about it because nobody ever believed it. Besides, he’d learned to compensate like a son of a bitch.
Little good that did him now. The Messenger could have been his brother and he wouldn’t have been able to tell without checking for Ronny’s birthmark on his inner elbow.
Who are you? he wondered. It was his most repetitive thought, sounded every time someone met his gaze.
Who are you?
Face blindness aside, what Gabe had here was a shitstorm of trouble. He ran both hands through his hair, trying not to freak out but feeling his body tilt that direction. Where was the rock? For some reason he had to find the missile that had done this, evidence that Gigante was truly out there, picking people off.
There was no rock.
Damn. If there was no rock, then that meant—
Gabe closed his eyes.
The Midnight Messenger had been shot. And because Gabe hadn’t heard the whipcrack report of gunfire, it implied that the weapon had been outfitted with a sound suppressor.
Gabe bolted to his feet, aimed himself at the lightless observatory, and hurtled toward it. He would never recognize his mother’s face, but he knew her laugh and gentle touch, and he recalled with sudden clarity how she’d whispered Love you, Peekaboo the day he’d left for Chile. He was still a kid, really, and had no business being down here, having grown up in the shelter of his room, away from the accidental social encounters that might cause his condition to bring him grief. Gabe thought of her as he ran, wondering how far he’d get before the next whispered gunshot sent him down, to slake the Atacama’s endless thirst with his blood.
Copyright © 2016 by Lance Hawvermale