Howdy, readers. I'm going to be honest about this bit of fiction: it's fairly long. It is both the prologue and the first chapter of a completely different thing I've been working on. Which means I had the idea about two years ago, started it, stopped, started again, stopped again, rebooted it, rethought it, regurgitated, reduced it, enlarged it, and got enraged with it. Then I just started over and am much happier with it.
Should you choose to read on, you'll notice that the prologue is an entirely different flavor that the first chapter. That is correct. Don't think you stumbled into two different works.
As always, I thank you for reading, and I'd like any feedback you have to give.
And as always, I've only put the first few chapter of each on this page. I've also made it so you can read either the prologue and Chapter 1, or just Chapter 1 - for those of you who skip the prologue (which I don't understand).
Conduit Prologue – “Obelisks”
The hermit stepped out of his shack and into the sun. He covered his eyes with a leathery hand, squinted up into the sky. The sun seemed to be closer to day than usual – and moving quicker. The day would shorten if it was. Walking onto the hardpan dirt, he hurried around to the side of his shack where a split-rail fence surrounded his little garden. Rooted more in sand and loose dirt than in real soil, it was difficult to maintain, but not impossible. The straw-man propped in the corner helped keep the crows away, and they were as destructive on the few green plants as the sun was. He pulled a wide-brimmed hat off the straw-man and slipped it onto his own head. His eyes not yet adjusted to the sun and unable to see, he turned and stumbled over a rough patch of ground. He dropped to one knee. He rubbed the knee for a minute before standing and gathering his robes around him.
Glancing back up at the sun again, he blinked his eyes and struck out down the slight hill, away from the shack and toward the pen where he kept his goats. Tending the goats was at least a thrice-a-day venture: milking and feeding the morning, feeding in the evening, and watering them early in the afternoon. But it was a necessary thing. It took him only a few minutes to shuffle down the bare hill to the pen and check the trough. It wasn’t empty, but would be within the hour. He sighed as he always did, and reached for the nearby pump handle. Faded by sun and time, the once-blue handle was now barely gray. He used both hands to loosen it. When most of the shrill squeaking stopped, he pumped using only one hand. He rested his other arm atop the short fence and leaned against it. As he waited for the trickle of water to appear, he looked north toward the horizon.
The vast wall of the Kohina Mountains scratched a jagged line across the sky, its edges blurred by the clouds that frequently gathered across the peaks. He’d traveled there once. Storms of rain were common in the spring and summer there; in the fall the peaks were blanketed with frozen water –what the locals called snow. He’d played in it like a child, never having seen anything like it before. He’d seen it a few times, but in the Gethren Mountains to the west, where the tinkers lived. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, he’d load his cart and push it across the desert floor and up into their town. He’d trade what he could for more seeds and more wood. Nearly all the wood on his plot came from the trees high above the tinkers’ town. It would take him three or four days to make the journey, but in their vehicles, they could bring the load of wood in less than a day.
The first trick of water had started to splash down the chute and into the trough. He switched positions and worked the pump with his left hand now, found himself staring south into the rocky, rugged mountains he’d never visited. He had dealings with the dragon-men, but no interest whatsoever in visiting them. He’d never return from a visit to their town, or their village, or their city, or whatever it was they lived in. He’d never given them any reason to take him, but going to them would likely be reason enough.
Go here to continue with the prologue and Chapter 1.
Chapter 1 – Underpass
It wasn’t the story that sold him, as much as it was the faces of the homeless people that had told it to him, blank but watchful, like jurors in the courtroom. A half-circle of eight, all insisting in the truth of this urban legend – a legend he’d never heard, seemingly one only the street people of San Diego knew.
“Who’s been to this other world?” he asked. A few glanced around the half-circle at the others. One looked down. One looked up at the overpass above them. The rest just looked toward him.
“Reggie went,” a young woman in jeans and a long sweatshirt said. A couple of others countered her, said he hadn’t.
“Can I speak to Reggie?” He aimed the question at the young woman. She shook her head in return. Dirty long hair moved.
“He went there. He can’t come back.”
“Oh, that’s right. It’s a one-way trip, you guys said.”
“It is,” answered one of the older men, nodding. His matted beard scraped against the top of his shirt.
“Did anyone see Reggie go?” He glanced back at the young blond woman. Her eyes flashed then looked down.
“Anyone else go to the other world?” This time they glanced from one to another. “Little Dwayne went,” one said. “Mama Taylor went,” another answered. “John Parson,” a third said.
“None of them came back?”
They shook their heads or mumbled “no.”
“Has anyone seen these people since they left? Did they go together or separately?”
Separately, they said. Little Dwayne went a year ago. Mama Taylor a few months before that. John Parson a couple years ago. Nobody had seen any of them since they left. Chances were good that they’d either found a new place to stay, or more likely that something bad had happened to them; it was common among the homeless population anywhere to come to a bad end.
“So how do you know they’ve gone to another world? If they don’t come back to tell you, how do you know?”
“It got to be better,” a thin, balding woman somewhere between 50 and 70 answered. “Or they’d come back, right?”
“What if they just found a better place to stay?”
“Up in North County?” the bearded man responded, “don’t think so. Cops there would run them off. Best places are in the city, unless they found someone to take care of them.”
“All of them?” the young woman asked. “We’d have heard something.”
“What if something bad happened to them?” he asked, tapping his pen against his camera.
“Nah,” a small, hunched-over man waved his hands. “Something happens to one of us, someone hears.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Do I have time for another question?”
“Beside that one?” the balding woman said. He smiled at her, nodding.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Who started this story? Who was the first person to talk about it – John Parson?”
“What do you mean?” the bearded man asked.
“Who first started talking about it?”
The balding woman spoke:
“I don’t understand. We’ve always talked about it.”
The others nodded. The hunched-over man waved his hands again.
“I heard the story first time I was on the street – twenty-five, twenty-six years ago. It was old then.”
He thanked them for their time, handed out five-dollar bills, and sent them on their way with bottles of juice and bags of burgers. As they shuffled away, he was not surprised to see the young woman lingering.
“Tell me about Reggie.”
She looked up, shuffling from foot to foot in thin shoes. “He went through that door,” she said.
“How do you know?”
She bunched her hands into fists and touched them together.
“Because I saw him go.”
* * *
About forty miles north, there’s a place where the interstate crosses another road, he had been told. It’s just a nothing little road, not dirt, just old pavement. It connects an outlying neighborhood with a bigger road. Almost no one used that road anymore, not since they connected that village to a new bypass to the west. Underneath the interstate, two retaining walls, north and south, kept the soil in place. On the north shadowed side was a door in the retaining wall. Painted gray on gray stone, it was practically invisible most of the time. Only when the sun shone on it from between the lanes above could it be seen. Through that door led a passage to another world.
So the homeless said.
Go here to continue reading...