The Galapansky Bridge
In the empty stillness, their footsteps echoed eerily, as though they were being followed. They talked little, as their voices sounded too loud in the surrounding silence. One empty town gave way to another, then that one too dwindled away behind them. As noon approached, buildings began to appear, signaling their entrance into a city; albeit a minor one.
A billboard to their right announced: WELCOME TO ZAGSO! Cathim’s little brother!
The illustration below the text anthropomorphized the city of Cathim as a tall, stern big brother beaming proudly down at its scruffy, but lovable, little brother.
Too bad the brothers got whacked, Mike thought to himself.
“Look at that.” Callie said, breaking the silence.
She pointed at a large water fountain in front of a building ahead to their left. The fountain wasn’t on, but it was only a short distance out of their way, and in a shady area.
“Let’s take a breather over there.” she said, “I need a break.”
“Alright, let’s rest a bit.” Mike said, “We should go ahead and have lunch there while we’re at it.”
The building had a sign in front of it, half of which was illegible due to a dark purple fungal growth, which was halfway through the process of obliterating it. The still-legible half said: URIST CENTER.
They reached the fountain, and looked in.
At the bottom of the pool, aside from a few rust-colored coins, was a thin film of the purple fungus stuff.
“Oh, ick!” Callie said.
Still, the benches in the shade around the fountain were clean enough to sit on; and so they did, releasing their burdens to the ground beside their feet with great relief.
Callie took out three sodas, while Jon removed his backpack. Mike rummaged through the small ice chest.
“The sodas aren’t that cold, I’m afraid.” Callie said, passing the cans to Mike and Jon, “If the ice in the big chest hadn’t turned to water, I woulda tossed a couple of cubes in the bag.”
“Wanna dog?” Mike asked her, lifting a hot dog.
“I’m more of a cat person.” Callie said, then laughed at the look Mike gave her, “Yeah, give it to me.”
Mike gave her the dog, and then got one for himself, as Jon busily constructed a ham sandwich.
“I wonder what this place is,” Callie asked, as she munched on her hot dog, “Or was.”
“It’s a Tourist Center.” Jon said, “I guess if you were a tourist, they’d tell you where stuff was and such. They’d give you pamphlets and flyers with hotel numbers and restaurant locations; junk like that.”
“I guess they don’t have much to brag about these days.” Mike said, “Zagso’s not exactly a beehive of activity anymore.”
Jon, sandwich still in hand, walked over to the front of the building, which faced them.
“Let’s check it out.” he said.
The door of the building was glass. Jon put his head against it to get a good look inside. The glass moved, and he saw the door was open.
“Hey!” he turned back toward Mike and Callie, “They left it open! Can you believe that?”
“Don’t go in there, babe.” Callie called out.
“Why not?” Jon asked, looking back inside, “I’m a tourist.”
Jon opened the door, and entered.
From where they sat, Mike and Callie could see him look around, then walk beyond their line of sight.
“Some monster’s gonna jump out and bite his head off in there.” Mike said, “You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Callie said, through a mouthful of hot dog, “I know.”
Jon soon re-emerged from the tourist center; the final remnants of his sandwich in one hand, and an old yellowed pamphlet in the other.
“I found something.” he said, waving the pamphlet.
“Hey Jon,” Mike said, “Have you ever in your life seen a scary movie? Do you know what happens to idiots who break off from the pack to go investigate the old dark Tourist Center by themselves?”
Callie ignored him. “What was it like in there?” she asked.
“Empty, creepy, and smelly.” Jon replied.
“Hey! Just like our house now, Cal!” Mike said.
“There’s a lot of that purple fungus crap in there too,” Jon continued, “On the walls, the carpeting, everywhere.”
“What did you find?” Mike asked.
“An old pamphlet.” Jon said, “The only one. Found it at the bottom shelf of an otherwise empty pamphlet rack.”
He looked at the front section, and read it aloud: “Welcome to Zagso! The little city beside the big city!”
He unfolded the pamphlet.
“Oh, there’s a map!” he said.
Mike and Callie moved in to get a closer look at the map.
It was a map of both Zagso and Cathim. It wasn’t very detailed; Zagso was a small amorphous blob, Cathim was a big amorphous blob, and both blobs were connected by the Galapansky Bridge, which spanned the Caracul River. The map also showed, in a basic fashion, some of the major arteries (drawn as thin red and blue lines) in both Zagso and Cathim; as well as pictograms depicting all the favorite tourist haunts.
“This could be useful for when we get to Cathim.” Mike said.
“Yes, because you know I can’t wait to go see the Fantasta-Dome.” Callie said sarcastically, “I hear it seats thousands.”
“You won't have to wait in line, at least.” Jon said.
He folded the map, put it in his pocket, and dropped the crust of his sandwich in the fountain. It plopped silently on the thin film of purple fungus, which then began to ooze over the crust, and devour it.
The three got on the road again.
After another hour of walking, their road dipped and passed under four freeway overpasses. The area underneath was nice and shady, but something of a wind tunnel. It was also spooky as hell, as the wind seemed to shriek like a banshee around them.
Then, their road became a freeway itself, rising up over the other roads, and affording them a scenic view of devastating emptiness.
As they descended once more to ground level (they came to love the descents, they made walking easier), something in the parking lot of a big-chain grocery store off to their right, caught Jon’s eye.
“Hey! Look at that! Do you see what I see?” he said.
“What?” asked Callie, “The Bes-Mart?”
“The parking lot, I mean.”
“It’s a nice parking lot, as parking lots go.” Callie said.
“I think he means the stray shopping cart IN the parking lot, Cal.” Mike said, in his best ‘I’m talking to an idiot child’ voice.
Callie flashed them a sly smile. “Yes, I know!” she said, “C’mon. Let’s go get the damn shopping cart.”
For the second time that day, the three veered off their road. They ran into the empty, oversized, Bes-Mart parking lot.
Jon reached the cart first, and gave it a roll. The wheels were sticky at first, but remembered their long-forgotten vocation, and began to roll better after some pushing.
Jon looked up as Mike and Callie neared.
“It’s rusty, and one of the wheels is a little loopy, but she’s good to go.” he said, putting his backpack and duffel bag into the cart.
Mike and Callie followed suit, and likewise unloaded their burdens into the cart.
“Dammit.” Callie said, “The child seat is rusted shut, and here I was hoping for a ride.”
“We can take turns pushing it around.” Jon said, “A half-hour per person. And since I was the one who saw it first, I’ll go last.”
“And since Callie was being a smart-ass,” Mike said, “She can go first.”
“Alright,” Callie said, grabbing the cart’s handle bar, “But if we get another good descent, I’m jumping in there and riding this mother down!”
They walked ever onward.
An hour passed, then another.
Yet another still.
Callie was into her third shift with the cart, when they finally arrived at the entrance to the Galapansky Bridge.
There the three stood and stared at the bridge span before them, which started in clarity, then disappeared at the half-way point into the haze which covered all of Cathim like a pall.
“You guys ready?” Mike asked.
“Yeah.” said Callie.
“Let’s do it.” said Jon.
The Galapansky Bridge received them with open arms, while Cathim beyond it awaited their arrival in dead silence.
There were a few abandoned vehicles on this half of the bridge, but their path was clear. Below, the dark waters of the Caracul River shimmered like black satin. The air all around them seemed pregnant with both breathless expectation, and sinister intent.
“We’re being watched, you know.” Callie said.
“Have been, from the very beginning.” Mike replied.
“Stop it.” Jon said.
Upon reaching the cut-off point, where the haze just seemed to start, as if held back by an invisible plane; the three stopped.
Mike, ahead of the other two, extended his hand in a slow and cautious manner, to touch the surreality before him. His hand slid into the haze side, to no apparent ill-effect. Mike walked into the other side, and the others followed.
They entered a twilight world, where the sun’s rays struggled to pass through the thick mesh of haze. That something was wrong here, Mike already knew; but now he could feel it as well. The Voss Vedu’un was not only polluted, it was lifeless; like water in a dirty jar, left to stagnate on a dusty cupboard shelf for years and years.
Callie sensed it too, and looked repulsed. Jon alone seemed unaffected…but that was about to change.
“AHHH!” Jon shouted all of a sudden, and then doubled over, as if sucker-punched.
His face contorted with pain, and choking sounds emerged from his mouth, as he fell to the ground and went into a fetal position.
Callie and Mike went to him, and saw Jon’s eyes and fingernails begin to blacken; as did his veins, which snaked thin traceries of darkness across his face and arms.
“What’s happening---?!” Callie started to ask, but cut herself off with a screeching yelp, as she too doubled over and collapsed in agony.
Before he could react, Mike spasmed with what felt like a sledgehammer blow to the stomach. He fell to his hands and knees as mind-blowing pain blossomed throughout his whole body, like an electric shock. His throat swelled to the point that all vocalization was impossible; and every inhalation felt like acid in his lungs.
As his eyesight began to darken, he looked over to Callie and Jon. They were both convulsing on the ground, too far gone in pain for rational thought; as he too would be within seconds.
Then all would be lost.
They had walked only a few steps into the haze, but the cut-off point between haze and clarity might as well have been a world away. Mike stretched his hand toward it, but it was beyond his reach; and movement was now impossible.
His hand still outstretched, Mike called forth the Voss Vedu’un; not the dead one within, but the living one outside.
To his despair, whatever power it was that circumscribed the haze was also a barrier to the Voss Vedu’un outside. He could sense it strain against the barrier, eager to reach him; but the barrier held it back, and Mike could no longer force the issue.
With the last of his strength of will, he sent a thin streamer of fire from his hand, up towards the barrier, and through to the other side.
He hollowed out the streamer to make it, in effect, a straw; through which he siphoned untainted Voss Vedu’un energy from beyond the barrier.
The Good Stuff poured in through the fire straw, and flowed down, right through to his outstretched hand.
Relief, like undiluted joy, followed as he pulled more and more fresh energy into his body; using it to heal and reverse the effects of Sinestri’s curse on his body, pain being the first of these.
Now healed, Mike no longer needed the fire straw. His power and focus now at full strength; he pushed the Voss Vedu’un on the other side to break through the barrier, and come to him. It obeyed.
He went over to Callie and Jon.
They were almost too far gone. Both had their eyes, mouths, and nostrils sealed up with what looked like shiny black tar, along with their backs and extremities; and there were places where their clothes merged with the “tar” as well.
Mike laid his hands upon them, drew the Voss Vedu’un into and around them, and worked hard to bring them back. Not an easy task, as the curse had taken deeper root in them than it had in him.
After two minutes of concentrated effort, he drew them back from the brink, and completed the healing process. The black tar withdrew and disappeared, and even their clothes were now back to normal.
Mike sat back against the railing, and breathed a sigh of relief.
That had been altogether too close.
Jon got up with a heavy groan. He sat up and looked over at Mike.
“Okay, what the hell was THAT?!” he asked, “Was it just me?”
He looked, and saw Callie beside him; still out.
“Not Callie too?” he asked, dismayed.
“All of us.” Mike said, “It was the curse. Once we walked in here, it hit us like a sack of bricks. It was touch and go there, for awhile; but I managed to pull us out of it.”
“What was happening to us?” Jon asked, “Was it like what happened to your Dad?”
“No. What happened to my father was dissolution.” Mike said, “What was happening to us here was transformation. Sinestri’s curse was turning us into something.”
“What were we turning into?”
“I don’t know, but the people of this city were all stricken by this curse; and that includes my mother.”
Callie moaned and stirred.
Jon went to her. “Is she gonna be alright?” he asked.
“Yes.” Mike replied.
Callie opened her eyes and saw Jon looking down on her.
“Good morning, sunshine.” he said.
Callie smiled. “Mike saved the day again, didn’t he?”
Jon nodded, and helped her up.
“So is everybody okay?” she asked, looking a tad woozy.
“Everybody but you, hotcakes.” Jon said.
“That hurt like the purest hell, dinnit?” she asked, “I’m gonna hafta check my underwear after that seizure!”
“Thanks for the imagery.” Mike said, “Are you gonna need a privacy moment?”
“Nah, I’m okay. It’s just that---Hey! Look at the haze!”
Mike and Jon looked up and noticed that the haze, at least around the bridge area, was dissipating. Mike could see the Voss Vedu’un pour in through the hole he had made in the boundary; renewing and reabsorbing the stagnancy within. Though the city was still thick with it, the dissipation factor would soon plunge clarity and light deep into its murky heart.
“What does this mean?” Callie asked, “Is the curse lifted?”
“No,” said Mike, “This was the city’s Voss Vedu’un. It was unable to flow like it’s supposed to, because of the strict boundaries of Sinestri’s curse; so it went to rot, and turned into this haze.”
“What the hell is a Vosveduwon?” Callie asked; though the word sounded familiar to her. Perhaps she had heard it before, at some point.
“It’s the invisible sea of magic all around us. It’s sort of like water; when it flows, it’s clean and clear and life-sustaining. When it doesn’t, this happens…” Mike gestured with his hand toward the haze, “So I made a hole in the barrier to let some of the good stuff in and, like the proverbial crack in the dam, it’s starting to break through. But the curse is still active; the haze was just a side-effect.”
“If it’s still active,” Jon said, “Won’t it affect us again?”
“If it was going to, I think it would have done so by now.” Mike said, “We can consider ourselves immunized.”
“Which leads to the big question,” Callie said, “Just HOW do we put a stop to this curse? It’s what we’re here to do, isn’t it? No one has said it in so many words but, what the hell are we here for if not that?”
“If so, then it’s up to you, Mike.” Jon said, “You’re the Ma’jai.”
“If that’s true, then we’re screwed.” Mike replied, “Because while I was able to stop the curse from taking us over individually, pre-transformation; to free the entirety of the long-ago transformed people of Cathim, I would have to break the curse. A curse is like a spell; you take it out with magic words and gestures and the like. Remember Rufus Kantry in the Rough Country? Remember how he removed Sinestri’s spell? I don’t know how to do any of that.”
“You’ve gained a helluva lot of new talents since we left Murgent, Mike.” Jon said, “So it’s possible that the answer to this problem still lies within you as well.”
“Either way, I think we should get going again.” Mike said, “Cathim awaits.”