Monday, October 5, 2009

Daily Story 173: Mud and Bones

The drums are still audible through the rain. The rhythm is fast, a stuttering bass heartbeat that keeps me on edge. The deep sound cuts through the jungle like a foghorn and I can't tell any longer which way it's coming from. Is it closer? It is on more than one side? When I read about this from the warm, dry safety of my office on the orbital station I dismissed the drums as psychological warfare. It's easy to say that when it's just words in a report but when you're tired and sleep deprived and have lost both shoes to the sucking mud that covers the jungle floor you are reminded that our psychology is not under our control. Yes, it's psychological warfare. And it's working. Have they found my tracks by now? Even with the water coming down in sheets and the mud flowing over to erase any signs of passage I feel like they must know where I am. This swampy tangle of trees and vines and waist-high fungus has sheltered them for as long as it existed. They were here first, when the planet was nothing but dust and wind. They're very nearly a part of the jungle, and I'm trespassing.

---

Just two weeks earlier Mennah had greeted me as I stepped onto solid land for the first time in what felt like forever. She placed a lei of native flowers over my head and kissed me on each cheek - something my briefing had prepared me for.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," she said. Between the cryostasis and the fact that everyone on Earth had most likely died of old age before I reached the orbital my arrival to the colony really was like a rebirth. The thought of all that time brought me to my first task, and I got right down to business as we walked.
"Do you really believe the drummers are descended from terraformers?"
The smile dropped off of her face, and she nodded. "It was thought of as a suicide mission to keep from getting anyone's hopes up, but there's no reason they couldn't have lived - and all of the colonists are accounted for."
It was impossible to imagine. That initial batch of scientists knew they weren't likely to survive but they volunteered so that they would have the privilege of dying on an alien world. They started the terraforming process, and then the war broke out on Earth and civilization nearly came to an end. Thoughts of following the terraformers were completely forgotten.

---

I don't know what happened to the rest of the search party. I know some wanted to turn back when it started raining, and others would have run as soon as the drums started up. The writing appearing on doors, the tiny blood-soaked dolls that turn up on doorsteps, it has everyone nervous. I won't give up, though. They're human, and there's no way they can hide in the jungle forever. Just because the orbital can't spot them doesn't mean they're ghosts, it just means they're clever. The drums stop and their sudden absence is somehow terrifying. I can hear voices everywhere, indistinct through the sounds of water. I turn and there in front of me is Mennah, her face obscured by muddy hair that's tied in strange uneven knots. There are items entwined in the strands, bones and feathers and twigs. Her uniform is torn and bloody, and the skin on her hands has a grey tint. Her chest lifts as she takes a breath and I find myself wondering if it was moving at all before.
"We left them to die," she says in a faraway voice, "And their bones became one with the new world. Our people are a virus, a foreign body that must be eliminated. If we believe, and repent, we can be taken into the fold after death. We can become one with the soil of the new world and leave the sins of Earth behind."

---

Mennah's body was like all the others; her mouth was sewn shut and strange symbols had been drawn across her chest in a mixture of dirt and blood. The doctor pronounced her dead and wheeled her into the refrigerated morgue to await autopsy. She was the fourth to be found, but the first since my arrival. I visited her, cried as I looked down at her laying pale and naked on the table. I locked the door as I left, and headed back to the town square for a drink - but just as I arrived the drums started. They seemed to come from everywhere, and the streets cleared as doors slammed and locked. I knew there were rumors of ghosts, of vengeful spirits, but most of the colonists had arrived in the last ship ten years ago - surely ten years isn't enough to revert to childish superstitions. I defiantly stayed outside with a handful of others, trying to pinpoint where the sounds were coming from. After a while the drums faded away into the distance and I returned to the lab since I was unable to sleep. I could see the morgue's door hanging open as I approached. Mennah was gone, along with her personal effects - the door was still locked, opened from the inside.

---

"Mennah, listen. They've drugged you, do you understand? You need to come back to the colony with me."
I can just barely see her smile through the knotted hair, and she holds her arms out as if to embrace me. "Do not fear death. Your soul will be kept safe. The pioneers who first stepped onto this planet were forced to wander until they built bodies of the earth, but they offer better to you."
I'm backing away, but I freeze as I see forms rising from the mud. They're human, under there somewhere, I'm sure of it - but even with the rain the thick mud doesn't seem to be washing away. The voices are still drifting around me, in some language that sounds familiar but that slips away when I try to listen closer - it's like trying to hold onto the memory of a dream. The drums are starting again, slower this time, and Mennah has pulled something from her pocket. Coarse black thread and a bone needle.
"Your spirit will not escape and wander. Come, be one with the heartbeat of the new world."