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Story Excerpt

To Make an End
by William Preston

If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.
—Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower

  1. An Idle King

Last night had brought Shoshana’s first moments of belief. Isaac, her brother, had believed since the fringe idea had caught his imagination four years ago. Their parents had inexplicably vanished like thousands of others, lost like millions to more explicable causes in this ravaged time, leaving Shoshana to protect an obsessed adolescent. She had followed Isaac’s strange pilgrimage, thinking one day he would wake from it. But now they were climbing the final hill, and it seemed that her brother’s tale of a buried hero might be true.

They saw nothing as it actually was. The night vision of Shoshana’s exosuit revealed a dark green incline, amplifying her sense of unreality. Inside his own suit, Isaac saw the green world and the single red light near the hill’s summit as more real than any memory of their parents.

The snug, powerful suits eased the climb, but Shoshana stumbled more than once on the uneven, tufted incline, distracted by Isaac’s voice in her suit’s audio, talking to himself. The town lay three miles off, its few lights visible, and the siblings had to assume listeners as well as watchers, especially now that they were, incredibly, so near what Isaac, at least, had so long sought.

He mumbled the story of their years-long trials to himself; he didn’t mean to speak aloud, but some words leaked out. He shook with knowledge and the fear of knowledge. He expected to find a giant of a man enthroned and waiting like a statue of a king; or a beam to be seen everywhere, signaling that worthy people had found the passage; or a doorway to a world, under sea or in another dimension, where he waited for the call.

Last night, their third scouring the hill, they had shoved aside a knee-high stone, knelt above a dark opening, and fed a camera on a wire’s tip down a meter-wide tunnel ribbed like a human throat. The tunnel opened into a cavern the snake couldn’t quite plumb, but they had seen enough. With too little time till dawn, Shoshana counseled another day’s wait. Whatever was here had been here for decades; what would another day mean—except another day of relentless chaos and, though there were fewer these days, strange disappearances.

After their discovery, budging Isaac from the entrance had been harder than shifting the stone. Head still covered by the suit, he had called into the darkness as if he could be heard by anyone but Shoshana. She said his name until he stopped. Then they reset the concealing stone and marked it with the tracker.

Now they had returned. Shoshana tapped her temple to see the world true. A few stars and perhaps a planet or two made sufficient effort to break through the thin cloud cover; the new moon swam there somewhere. If only Orion had been visible, it would have completed Isaac’s reconstruction of this fantastic story.

Shoshana touched her temple again and squatted at one end of the considerable stone. “You with me?” Distracted by his own ongoing narration, Isaac vigorously shook his head to clear it.

“I’m fine, Shoshi,” he said, and they both heard how young he still was.

“Neither of us is fine. Now help.” Shoshana gripped her end of the stone, feeling the suit magnify her strength, a river current running along her arms, her thighs. Isaac mirrored her position. “On three,” she said. “Lift with your legs. Toss it to my left.” She counted up, they heaved, and Isaac passed every bit of his anxiety into the effort. The stone launched to the height of their waists, turned halfway over, struck earth on its side, and tumbled several meters downslope till an upthrust of rock stopped it. Their first thoughts were of being discovered. Below, a copse of trees they’d passed through and the dark, fallow field beyond gave up nothing, and nothing visible to their suits passed overhead.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Shoshana faintly moaned. She steadied her breathing. He was a black shape against the powdery green of the warm night. “We both did it. The suits are strong.”

“I know the suits are strong.” His voice was reedy with anger.

Her role, as ever, was to focus him. Take care of him.

“We’ll get it after,” she said. “The tracker’s probably still attached.”

His breath shuddered out. “Okay.”

She put her hands on the entrance lip. “How about if I lead?” He didn’t object, so she plunged forward headfirst, palms pressed to the tunnel sides with momentarily summoned confidence, feet bracing her once she was inside. The angle, terrifying, 60 degrees downward by her estimate, made descent impossible without the suits.

A few meters down, she told Isaac to wait; she thumbed her wrist lamp on and switched off the night vision. “With me?”

No dirt came loose where their hands touched. The tunnel glistened, smoothed by a sealant behind which pressed dirt, rock, and white roots that made Isaac think of intestinal bugs. “With you.”

Ahead of them, they knew from last night’s viewing, the tunnel leveled off before opening onto a chamber, but Shoshana couldn’t see past the turn, and panic tightened a band across her chest.

“Nearly there,” Isaac said; he had been counting down the meters.

When the tunnel leveled, Shoshana knelt and crept forward, the O at the tunnel’s end just ahead. Her jiggling light flashed into the chamber beyond, revealing nothing but another glistening wall. Isaac pressed against her back as she sat on the edge, her toes nearly at the floor. She slid to standing.

Immediately, light from an overhead array filled the space, revealing a curved ceiling of the same sealed dirt reaching perhaps three stories up and a cement floor twice as wide and mostly empty except for a waist-high white cylinder and, beside it, an upright man, facing them from inside a translucent amber capsule.

Isaac’s shouted “Ah!” shocked her. Shoshana touched her left wrist, causing the suit to split from the top of her head and from her fingers and feet. The black carapace folded as it retracted along her body, retreating dominos that slapped flat till the suit had collapsed into a thick necklace above her collarless shirt.

Her brother slipped awkwardly to the chamber floor, overwhelmed. On one knee, he watched his sister move toward the capsule before thinking to collapse his own suit.

Isaac said, “He’s here. He’s been waiting here.”

“He’s not alive.” She felt certain in saying it, and vaguely cruel in her certainty. Her brother had been right, but the search had been pointless. “This is a shrine.” She rapped the capsule with a knuckle. Not a hollow container, but solid, gold-hued as an ancient insect trap. Within, behind distorting ripples, stood the naked man. She thought he might be tall, but the cylinder did not extend to the floor, so his height was hard to gauge.

Isaac hung back as his sister circled. Years, it had taken: finding the clues, unearthing the complex narrative that would lead to the Old Man, who now, at this most needful time, had been found. Isaac said, “You’re wrong about that.”

At the figure’s back, Shoshana found a metal plate running the height of the capsule and a segmented metal arm connecting the plate to the floor. She laid her hand on the capsule. No noticeable warmth or coolness; the temperature of the chamber itself, a little cooler than room temperature.

A click from the chamber’s far side alerted them both. Shoshana came around the capsule to find her brother frowning at the wall; a semicircular hole the width of a human hand had appeared just above the floor. The next moment, what appeared to be black insects, countless, poured from the opening and spread into the chamber like water, a ceaseless and widening flow, the sound like wind through stiff grass. They reached her brother first.

“Suit!” she shouted, as at a touch it could instantly cover his head, but he was engulfed before raising a hand. He fell backward. A moment later, the black mites, whispering onward, swarmed up her legs, some slipping inside her leggings, and what most surprised her was that she also hadn’t lifted a hand. She fell sideways against the cylinder, snatched a last breath, and shut her eyes.

The wave enveloped her—plucking at her skin, her clothes, eyelids, rummaging in her ears, scratching her scalp, and she wondered who else would find this trap—who might discover their bodies—now that they had removed the lid. Many times, she had imagined the failure of their quest, but always in terms of finding nothing and having to return to the damaged world her brother’s fantasies had helped obscure. Nothing like this. A weightless, bereft calm gripped her.

She thought of Isaac lying engulfed. She was eleven when he was born; she remembered the home birth, her parents calling her into the room when he’d arrived, and how his small fists shook at the new and unfamiliar world.

That image roused her. She flailed her arms, rolling on the floor. Her right fist smacked the capsule. She forced her remaining air from her nose and mouth to clear them. Then, as if a shroud were ripped away, she was free. Blinking rapidly, getting to her feet, she slapped at herself, but she appeared to be clean. The swarm had poured down from her and retreated.

“Robots,” said Isaac, also standing and seemingly unharmed. They both watched the last of the dark mass withdraw into the hole from which it had emerged.

She flexed her fingers and rubbed her hands together. Smooth. “They . . . cleaned?”

“I guess we triggered it.” In that way he had, his gaze lost focus as he thought through a problem. “Maybe we registered as debris. Or the room runs on a cycle, but the timing seems pretty suspicious.” He brushed at his hair, dark curls like her own. “How do we get him out of there?”

Shoshana pressed her lips together and stared at Isaac till she was sure he had taken the full weight of the look. “What makes you think we can? What makes you think we’re supposed to?”

He pushed his face toward her as if pushing against her look. “This isn’t a burial chamber. There must be machines and computers concealed all around us. He’s being preserved. Hey. Hey.” A fat blue button projected from the white cylinder’s side. “That’s new!” They came closer. On the button were printed PRESS and ME.

“We’re in a children’s story,” Shoshana said.

“It is a story. We were meant to find this.”

“Maybe not ‘we.’”

“Anyone who followed all the clues. Now we do the next thing.”

He slammed his palm onto the button, and she cried out.

Immediately, faintly, machineries went to work inside the column. The fist-topped platform split, opened—the siblings stepped back—then slid into the floor, leaving a red, waist-high metal stand. Atop it, a vise-like holder gripped what appeared to be a short tuning fork; beside it lay a cube-headed metal hammer. The stand’s open side faced the amber capsule. Isaac read aloud the black words on the stand.


Shoshana made an uncertain sound.

Isaac said, “This is why we came all this way.”

“I know why we came. But I don’t like . . . He’s been here for . . . decades, right? Decades. And we’re making decisions over the course of minutes.”

“What’s your point?”

She exhaled loudly. “It’s not a point. It’s a feeling.” Her hands went to her hips and nervously pinched several times. When her brother moved slightly, she snatched the hammer from its stand. He thought she might toss it away, but she waved it about.

It felt too light, inconsequential.

“Maybe you should stand farther back.”

He did.

She took two practice strokes, flexing her wrist. “Here we go.” Standing clear of the sound box, Shoshana struck the hammer to the fork, more lightly than she’d intended. She heard a low tone, but it might have been a sound her ears always carried.

Isaac studied the amber capsule. “This popped,” he said. “A little pop sound.” They listened. “Do it again.” Hands clenched, he shook his arms in a gesture of strength. “Use a firmer grip. You could use the suit.”

“Not yet.” Shoshana set her legs farther apart, steadied the hammer as much as her nerves would allow, squinted, and struck. This time, a solemn tone, no mistaking it, unfurled through the chamber. Isaac touched the back of his neck; hairs stood up. The amber capsule cracked along its length and moments later collapsed into fragments, the man inside tumbling from the platform to the ground.

Shoshana dropped the hammer. Already, the capsule shards had changed to liquid, becoming a film on the floor and rivulets along the naked body of the man, who lay prone, facing them. Yellow water leaked from between his lips. He was nearly the same color the capsule had been, but darker. Isaac moved; he took hold of the near shoulder and lifted to turn him onto his back.

“No. Face down. Get that stuff out of him.” Shoshana freed one of the man’s arms from beneath him and straddled his back. She spread her hands below his shoulder blades, locked her arms, and put her weight forward. Isaac fell back onto his bottom. Again and again his sister drove downward till a fat jet of bronze liquid gushed from the man’s mouth. Shoshana jumped up. The man’s arms came alive, palms slamming the floor. He coughed and gasped, and Shoshana pulled Isaac to his feet. They clutched each other.

The floor around them darkened as the liquid soaked in. The man waved the pair away, moaned, and expelled more fluid, hacking and spitting the last of it. He got his knees under him. Water drained from his nostrils and the red corners of his eyes. He blinked, flicking water from his lashes. He made to speak but croaked instead.

“What can we do?” Isaac asked. “I’m Isaac Hochstein and this is my sister Shoshana. We found you. We followed—”

The man put one foot to the floor, arched his back till he faced straight up, then rose. He seemed to fill out as he stood—still slender with age, but more substantial. “How,” he managed, then cleared his throat roughly. “How did I get here?” The voice was thready, but the siblings saw alertness in the eyes.

“You don’t remember?” Shoshana asked.

The man surveyed the arrangement around him, the blank platform, the metal arm, the tuning fork. He nodded and cleared his throat again.

The Hochsteins thought of the names. The Stone Avenger. The Big Man. The Still One. Tom. The Man Himself.

The Old Man.

“Why did you bring me back?”

Isaac said, “The world is ending.”

The Old Man drew in breath, rising even taller, then let the air ease out. “Of course it is.”

*   *   *


  1. Made Weak by Time and Fate

Neither sibling saw what he did at the platform, but it dropped into the floor and the floor slid closed. Steps from where the platform had stood, an oval bureau, topped by a computer screen, rose up. The screen flashed, flickered, and came to life. Colorful icons—too small for the Hochsteins to make out—appeared against a dark background.

With his right hand the Old Man touched the screen in several spots at once; his left hand opened a drawer to extract a slender plastic bottle. Still with one hand on the screen, he unscrewed the lid, shook a capsule into his palm, and replaced the lid. Isaac’s fingers twitched in attempted emulation. His father had tried to teach him a few sleight-of-hand tricks with cards and coins, but Isaac could never master such deftness. “You’re too focused on watching yourself,” his father had said, several times. “The aim is to fool the other person. You can’t fool yourself.” Isaac had thought that wasn’t true, though it often came to mind.

The capsule went in the Old Man’s mouth. He said, “Vitamins,” but he might have been talking to the screen, from which he now lifted his other hand.

A silver faucet and washbasin emerged from the bureau’s side. At a gesture, water ran. Isaac wondered how long that water had waited in the pipes. Water should run for a full minute before it was drinkable. Too soon for Isaac’s comfort, the Old Man bent to the faucet to gulp. Another drawer: a cloth to towel his face. More work at the screen, more touches to the console. Isaac’s attention did not waver, but Shoshana’s did, settling on the tunnel that had led them here. They had been careful, but that meant nothing. They had found the Old Man. Impossible. But now they might themselves be found.

Numbers filled the computer display. Both hands hurried over the surface as the numbers rapidly changed. Beaded water continued to slide down the Old Man’s naked back. He made one final tap at the screen, then opened another drawer and withdrew a stack of clothing.

“I’m pleased to inform you—though you likely knew this—that I am not inside an elaborate computer simulation.” Both siblings looked elsewhere as the Old Man dressed. “It was my one concern. That and never waking up. Two concerns.” He paused. “There was a third . . . ”

“We could have told you we were real,” Isaac said.

Buttoning a beige shirt, the Old Man stepped close. Isaac had learned to read his sister’s expressions, but new people took time, and this face . . . it was like no other. It wasn’t only the age. Most people’s eyes did one of two things: look inward or look outward. These eyes did both at once in a face that seemed too still. Was that kindness? Anger? The wrinkles added to the inscrutability.

“Albert Rhys—the Mental Manipulator—had the ability to create believable imagery merely by speaking to you. You couldn’t distinguish what was real from what he imagined for you.”

Isaac wanted to speak, but had too many questions.

Shoshana shifted one foot, a soft scraping sound. “How did you defeat him?”

The Old Man turned, but looked around the chamber rather than at her. “I truly don’t recall.” She followed his gaze as it lingered on the chamber’s edge, but there was nothing to see. He rolled one sleeve to his elbow. “I’ve known beings who live inside the solid layers of the earth. Their exhalations provoke vivid hallucinations. I used to hear them constantly, like a radio playing in another room. I saw what they saw, events that might happen, but more likely events that bled through from elsewhere. I don’t hear them now. My long . . . absence might have cost me that connection.” He stood on tiptoe. “I once funded government research into special mental abilities, looking for people who could tap into the consciousness of others.” He settled back to his soles. “Hm. I’m talking too much. And it’s 2031.”

“Can you connect to the Wave?” Shoshana asked, and at the same time Isaac said, “You’ve been in here since when?”

“What’s the Wave?”

“The internet after the internet,” Isaac said. “After Firefall. The solar flare.”

“No. We’re sealed away here. For security.” Shoshana saw that this made him think of something, but he busied himself again at the bureau. A remarkable quantity of necessities emerged from the drawers, including a bag into which he palmed objects his huge hand obscured. He knelt to put on rubbery shoes, then stood with studied slowness, looking at his feet.

He brought what might have been a playing card close to his face, moved it away, drew it in again. “We thought this might happen.” Now he plucked forth eyeglasses, square and full-rimmed. He tugged on the ear fittings, which appeared flexible, squinted at the card, then set the glasses back. Two attempts later, he slid a pair farther down his nose and said, “That works.”

Isaac said, “There were robot spiders.”

The Old Man regarded him over the spectacles, through them, over again. “Cleaners. You took too long to open the capsule.” He slipped the glasses into his shirt pocket and once more pressed the towel to his face. “The system mistook you for debris. The cycle—” He draped the towel on the basin’s edge. “You didn’t know the procedure.”

Shoshana pointed where the tuning fork had been. “We followed the instructions.”

“Lopez’s humor,” he said as if it made things clear. “You got lucky. If you’d taken too long, defensive systems would have kicked in. You’re saying no one sent you.”

“We sent us,” Isaac said.

“This was mostly my brother—”

“We followed the signs. I figured out your puzzle.”

“We’ve been looking for years.”

“It took two years of serious searching,” Isaac said. “We should have started sooner.”

The Old Man sought something in each of their faces. Each of the Hochsteins expected a different question than the one he asked. “Why?”

Shoshana thought to begin with one event, but then she considered what preceded it and then what preceded that. “You’ve missed a lot,” she said, but it wasn’t only that. She and her brother had their own story.

“Everything’s terrible,” her brother said.

“Really it was the disappearances that prompted my brother,” she said. “Maybe that’s minor compared to everything else.”

“Who has disappeared?”

“Thousands,” she said, but before the word was done, her brother said, so loudly she flinched, “Our parents.”

The only sound then was her brother breathing loudly through his nose. He might have been headed for tears.

Shoshana thought of drones slipping overhead and the hole in the hill. They had both disabled their wide gray wristbands, their connections to the Wave, but she glanced at hers anyway. “Shouldn’t we be going?”

“We certainly should.”

“Can’t we do things from your base?” Isaac asked.

“This isn’t a base.”

“We can go to our house,” Isaac said. Shoshana didn’t like the sound of it, bringing this stranger with them, even if he were some kind of heroic figure.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s just us in the house. We’re renting for a month. The town’s about three miles.” He pointed in what he knew to be the proper direction.

“Town. There was no town that close when we built this.”

The siblings could not resist exchanging a look.

The Old Man pursed his lips. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Isaac said, “The town is here because you were seen near here.”

“People live here,” Shoshana said, “because they’ve been hoping you’d come back. There are, I don’t know, dozens of these towns across the country. A few in other countries. It’s a small movement.”

“South Africa, Korea, In—

Shoshana said, “Look, I’m worried they’re going to find us.”

The Old Man pointed as Isaac had done. “People from the town.”

“Uh. Yes and no. Whoever’s got drones flying overhead. Maybe someone in town’s doing it. We’ve been here only a few days.”

“Ten days,” Isaac said. “The other sites have drones, too. We’ve been all over. We’ve been following the clues.”

Even Isaac could see that the Old Man was dissatisfied with these answers. Suddenly there was too much spit in Isaac’s mouth. It tasted awful.

“When we get back to the house,” Shoshana said, “we can use the Wave and explain.”

“I’d advise against any trackable lines of communication. Could you have been followed?”

Isaac put up his hand. “We bought these stealth suits to hide us.” He tapped his black necklace and the suit slipped over him. The Old Man said nothing. Isaac recollapsed the suit. “We brought one for you. They fit themselves to the user.”

Shoshana pulled another set of black links from a bag clipped to a belt loop. Perfunctorily, the Old Man clipped the links around his neck. Shoshana saw something occur to him. “Did you reseal the entrance?” he asked.

“It’s open,” Shoshana said, while Isaac said, “It’s just a boulder.”

The Old Man headed toward the tunnel, Shoshana calling out a few instructions about the suit. He paused at the opening, engaged the suit, and smoothly pulled himself up. Shoshana gestured her brother ahead of her. “Lamps off,” she said. They both restored their suits and followed the Old Man, who had not waited.

The way up seemed shorter, and ahead of him Isaac could see the Old Man climbing toward the pale glow of the night sky. Isaac emerged to find the Old Man facing the town.

Shoshana came up beside him. “There’s a marker on the stone,” she said, switching to night vision but momentarily disoriented.

“I have it,” the Old Man said, already heading downhill. He squatted on the stone’s far side. Isaac hurried to join him.

Once they had lowered the boulder, the Old Man crawled around its perimeter. He set his hands and shoulder against the stone to make what appeared to be a minor adjustment. Shoshana thought how incautious they had been the previous night and perhaps on every night they’d ventured into these hills or gone on nighttime excursions in other cities and towns.

The Old Man had begun walking. “Tell me everything while we move.”

“Can I start once we’re down the hill?” Shoshana asked, wanting to focus on the descent. He didn’t reply, so she took a few steps, then halted abruptly. The Old Man blocked her path.

“You said the town is here for me,” he said. “But you don’t want anyone in town to know you’ve found me.”

“That’s right,” Shoshana said.

Isaac raised both hands as if presenting a marvel. “We’re the apostates.”


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Copyright © 2024. To Make an End by William Preston

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