Dr. Vandermeer woke up ponderously and unpleasantly, as if forcefully plucked out of a tar pit inside which he had just gotten comfortably numb and inert.
Lips shrunk from harsh dusty air; muscles wept flaccidly and emptily; head and neck complained of the fragility of fractured glass.
The manhandling wasn’t helping any.
This was no way to wake up after the tar pit. He should at least have had some time to recuperate on a lawn or a bed or a beach towel by the sea…yes, the sea…
“Wha…hey!” he mumbled as he was roughly hoisted upright. Water splashed his face. He finally forced his eyes open.
The hissing wasn’t made by waves but by bushes and weeds ruffled by the wind; the far-off babble wasn’t coming from beach-inhabiting holidaymakers but from…from…what the hell was this?
Two brutes were holding him up from both sides. Menacing brutes. Dressed in rags; long matted hair falling over unshaved, weather-beaten scowls; barbaric trinkets hanging on their necks and ears; nasty-looking cutting and stabbing and clubbing weapons in their free hands.
Dr. Vandermeer twisted his head around to see what exactly he had just stumbled over while being pushed around by the ruffians.
The rim of the cryogenic pod.
And he could now see overgrown ruins to one side, and an expanse of wild grass, fringed by forbidding woods, on the other. The sky was overcast, and strangely purple. A tent camp right out of some Genghis Khan reenactment lay straight ahead.
Some future he had been awoken into.
“Hey, listen here,” he addressed the scowler on his right, and made a half-hearted attempt to wrestle his arm free.
“Shappa, nah wayna!” snapped the man and jabbed him in the chest with the nasty short spike on his sword’s pommel. Not hard enough to draw blood, nor even break the tunic, but Dr. Vandermeer piped down instantly. He let the rogues march him to wherever their destination was, and tried to make sense of his situation and surroundings.
This wasn’t the future he had bet on being revived in, that much was clear. Civilization, at least in this part of the world, had collapsed. There was obviously no use in waiting for a cure for his Parkinson’s, or his bladder cancer. The pressing issue rather being whether he would survive the day at all.
And why was the sky purple? Some man-made catastrophe? Or a natural upheaval of some sort? Or maybe not even an upheaval, but a gradual change? There was no way to tell, at this point, how much time had passed since he had closed his eyes and drifted off.
The ruins fell behind and there was no more ancient dust in the air. The smell of vegetation and unclean thugs took its place.
He heard laughter, and saw a score of naked teenage girls—flower garlands hanging from their necks, designs painted on their breasts and bellies—dancing hand in hand to the tune of two flute-like instruments wielded by wizened skinny men.
Dr. Vandermeer heard shouts and grunts, and saw a score of naked teenage boys, some of them on the ground, wrestling each other; the rest cheering them on. Stern-faced grown males overseeing the scuffling with fierce concentration.
Rows of tents—with llama-like creatures chewing on the grass between them—now stretched on both sides. Talk, shouts, coughs, the braying of livestock, the piping whistles of what passed for music here. Pungent smoke of fires and cooking drifted over from left and right, making Dr. Vandermeer’s mouth water.
He felt himself strangely calm, suspecting that the reaction would hit later. In this case now was the time to try and make sense of the situation.
One: these people were obviously nomads—hence the tents. This was a temporary camp, not a permanent settlement.
Two: the ritualized dances and wrestling matches were probably seasonal rites of passage—hence the age of the participants. The boys engaged in obvious masculine trials of strength. The symbols sported by the girls covered mainly their breasts and loins, and were therefore most likely to do with fertility. Boys turning into warriors, girls turning into baby-machines—all that rot.
Three: the much vaunted autonomous generators of the pods had indeed performed as guaranteed; holding out, possibly, even beyond the collapse of the civilization that had produced them.
Four: these primitives had stumbled on the cryogenic pods inside the city’s remains, and were understandably unsettled in their rude, dim way. In all probability, his gruff captors were taking him to a figure of authority, who would decide his fate.
Dr. Vandermeer shivered, winced at the rumble of his empty stomach, and tried to force upon himself a belief that he could carve out a place in this wild new world. Perhaps he could offer this tribe his knowledge, if he could figure out how to apply it in a non-industrial setting.
It would be wonderful if other people from his age had survived the cryogenic procedure. Maybe they could pool resources and help these savages in transcending their current wretched level. A fine band of incurable patients trying to kick a nomad culture into modernity they would be. Come, young ones, and hearken to the legend of the wise frozen people who gave us knowledge and then all dropped dead within the year!
Dr. Vandermeer almost grinned at that point, but the initial curving of his lips hadn’t proceeded for more than a millimeter, when he heard the screams.
In this part of the camp there was blood and gore on the trampled grass. He couldn’t see where the screaming came from, and it was soon cut off, but he saw other things.
He saw human torsos gutted with professional jerky movements by loin-clothed, blood-splattered men, who placed the organs into separate bowls, flinging the useless bits to small, coyote-like dogs that skulked waiting for the treat—he saw other men flay the torsos and carefully tie the skins to dry—he saw skewered flesh darken as it dribbled fat over campfires—he saw crones bent over simmering cauldrons—he saw the ground tilt as it rose up to blot everything out.
His captors shook and slapped him back to consciousness and continued dragging him onward.
Cannibals. Bloody cannibals.
To them the cryogenic pods were no miracle—or not in the sense he had hoped. Maybe they thought their tribal gods had given them frozen food to celebrate their blasted initiation rites. Or perhaps they even had legends of a holy place of bountiful frozen food and thought they’d actually found it.
Dr. Vandermeer heard another scream, nearer. He saw a pool-shaped structure with a rim of mismatching stones. It was filled with what looked like blood. Two savages were holding a struggling man, in a TomorrowChance tunic just like his own, over the edge of the blood pool. A third savage, inside the pool, with feathery shoulder pads and a necklace of seashells, leaned in and swiped his hand under the poor devil’s throat. The man in the tunic went limp.
Another scream cut off.
Another body taken away to be gutted, flayed, and cooked.
Dr. Vandermeer saw a disheveled man with a bloodied nose being dragged into the same direction as him. “Hey, hello, you there!” he shouted.
The other man instantly turned, made eye contact, and shouted back, “Are you crazy? No way! This can’t be happening!”
“Look, we have to make a break for it! We have to do something right now!” shouted Dr. Vandermeer, and doubled up as the fist of one of his captors sank into his belly.
“This can’t be happening,” he heard again, over the blood pulsating in his ears. “No way is this happening! Hey-hey, donnn…”
The voice drowned in a brief, screechy bubbling.
Dr. Vandermeer saw the body of the man who was so sure that this couldn’t be happening being pulled away.
The doctor realized that his time was up.
At least I should take as many of them with me as I can, he thought franticly, trying to visualize the exact movements that would lead to that. An abrupt new thought derailed this feverish mental exercise: What if I don’t die while I struggle and fight; what if I’m only injured? I bet they ‘honor’ brave enemies with protracted torture. Better, perhaps, to go quickly and quietly.
He was mere feet away from his death, being borne relentlessly closer. A few desperate nasal grunts escaped him as his face screwed up into a trembling mass of fear.
No, no, no…not like this…
The crimson witchdoctor inside the blood pool glared at him with insane eyes and sang a low guttural medley and made circular designs in the air with his knife.
Insanity! thought Dr. Vandermeer desperately. A possessed act. They’ll think I’m ill and poisonous, or at least possessed by spirits. Surely they must respect people taken over by spirits!
He let out a sharp wail, instantly followed up with a burst of gibberish, and began trembling and jerking around and pulling crazy faces.
No one let go, but no one hit him, either.
“Gnn-gnii-gnuua,” squeezed out the doctor’s lips as his convulsions picked up tempo.
The witchdoctor shouted something. The two captors dragged Dr. Vandermeer back. He felt the pressure of their grips slacken.
It was working. It was working!
Dr. Vandermeer immediately sank to the ground, thrashing around and wailing and grunting and flailing his limbs and rolling back and forth.
He didn’t dare let up.
Soon, he wasn’t really pretending anymore.
He caught glimpses of looming figures gathering around him. He kept his consciousness small and weak, not daring to interfere with the fit, which was on a frenzied autopilot now.
A flute began playing, and his seizure quickly developed repetitive elements that reflected the twists and turns of the melody
Teen girls with symbols on their breasts and loins joined hands encircling him and danced and danced and sang.
Before long, one of them collapsed into a fit as epileptic as Dr. Vandermeer’s. Throwing up her legs and arms she writhed and jerked across the trampled grass.
Another girl joined in.
Throaty chanting was taken up all around.
Dogs barked. Lamas brayed.
A second flute added its melody to the festival.
EMILE DAYNE started writing in 2010, started getting published with indie presses in 2011. His two pen-names from that period are Harry Kane and Edward Keller. The books are SOUND OF THE DISTANT OCEANS, BRAIN STORM, THE BAD ASS BIBLE, and SHUDDER. His short fiction has been published by the likes of Pseudopod, Phantasmacore, Gothic City Press , Encounters Magazine and Pulp Corner.