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The Last Day of the Great Laibon [a story]

by Michael Robbins

This story is dedicated to my father.

 

Kiana had been in the wilderness alone. It was against protocol, and exactly what she needed. That’s what she told herself anyway. Lions came to nuzzle her belly, rumbling softly, perhaps due to that acute animal instinct for knowing when something was wrong. Usually they scattered when the Old man came around.

The first time was on the first day of the month, on the first hour past noon. Of course it was. He popped around a tree on those sand scattered Kalahari plains and waved. Kiana started, then bent over the hand-held UV monitor in both her mitts and muttered, “It’s not real.”

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On the second day, at the appointed hour, he climbed into the sun-screened Jeep with her with a cheery “Hello!” Her grip tightened knuckle white on the steering wheel. “You’re not real,” she repeated, almost as a mantra. Her bright green eyes shunted her off onto a vision, flashing to the live-feed six weeks past, to the same man, now more emaciated than he’d been at their last contact, seemingly plied with ever-more tubes in every vein. She blinked, jerking to the side, but the man was gone, at least for now.

Twice more she saw him, at a distance paralleling her as she did her job, collecting genetic samples from the indigenous wildlife. It wasn’t normally dangerous work, but it was always better to work in teams. Especially on the Kalahari with its hundred-degree-plus temperatures, sparse grasses, pale sand pans and gnarled camel thorn trees clawing infrequently at the sky. On the sixth day, it almost cost her.

Kiana had sampled some weaver birds but hadn’t been paying enough attention to her surroundings. Which was how the cheetah had stumbled into her. They literally tripped over one another. Luckily Kiana rolled one way and the spotted cheetah the other. Her heart hammered at her ribs with startling ferocity. That was nothing compared to the snarl issuing from the big cat.

Its eyes were cloudy. It must have an older cat who stumbled carelessly into the noonday sun and been blinded. With all the other adverse effects of climate change it couldn’t have been helped. This was not helping her at all, though. Her limbs were still trying not to move. She didn’t seem to have much control over her shrill breathing, something the cheetah’s ears tuned in on with terrible accuracy.

That’s when the Old man stepped around her, waving both long arms and yelling, startling the cat enough that she could get off a shot with her tranq pistol. It took a couple of shots to flatten the agitated beast, but it was done.

The pistol thunked to the brittle yellow grass as the Old Man swung back to her with that familiar grin. “That’s why you shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” he said. “Baby? What’s wrong?”

“…please stop,” she whispered, her overflowing eyes burning. “…god, please stop…you can’t be here…”

“I don’t see why not. The cheetah seemed to agree with me.”

“B-but, Poppa, you’re gone. You’re…y-y-you’re…”

It all came spilling out, all the tears dammed for the past six weeks, all the suppressed emotions, stealing her breath, choking her. The Old Man returned from the truck with a paper bag for her to breath into. He held onto her with soothing words as she hunched over herself, hyperventilating for how long, an hour? All she was able to choke out in all that time was, “forgive me.”

“What for, baby?” he asked.

“I-I wasn’t there, Poppa. I-I didn’t come for the end.”

“The cancer was pretty far along this time. There wasn’t a lot anyone could do.”

As he’d done when she was younger and brought home every stray dog in the neighborhood, teary-eyed, he now dabbed her cheeks with a kerchief that was the same safari-brown as his sleeveless shirt and shorts. “It’s okay, Baby. Say what’s really bothering you.”

She could look at him now, into the smiling eyes that had raised her, the face now smoothed of all aches. “Is heaven real?” she asked.

“It’s better than heaven,” he shrugged. “Go on. You can do it.”

“I can’t.”

“What, the little girl who frolicked with lions? That’s not who I remember.”

“That’s just it. I didn’t want to remember you like that, all wasted away. I wanted you to be strong in my memory. I wanted to remember all the fishing trips with you and Momma. I wanted to remember that big hug you gave me when I came home from my mission.”

“You can still have that. Nothing wrong with that.”

“But I-I’m not ready.”

“I wasn’t. Nobody’s ever ready. That’s okay. I have faith in you, baby.”

“Does Momma hate me, for not coming home?”

He blew a raspberry out the side of his mouth. “Never. ‘Worried’ is more like it. You should give her a call.” Together they stood. “I’ve been allowed this one visit. I’ve probably overstayed it already. Why don’t I help you load that cat in the cage before I get back?”

This was done in no time at all. As she slammed the metal cage shut in the back of the Jeep, he tipped her chin up, chucking her on it. “I’m proud of you, baby.”

She ducked her head with a smile. A stiff breeze whipped through her bones and he was gone. In the depression in the grass where he’d stood, there remained a small red book of Psalms, the one he’d always carried with him for forty years. The one Momma swore she’d buried with him.

Summoned by Kali: a story

Wow. It’s all green.

The professor will probably shit when he reads this report. This was supposed to be a rescue mission.  Floating inside the belly of a tardigrade wasn’t part of the plan. Still, navigating the microsphere wasn’t so tough. In some ways it was similar to free fall in zero gravity. This water bear bore me with remarkable alacrity now that I was inside it, if one can assign such values to a microbial anthropoid thingy.

I’m trying not to touch anything. I should be thinking of my own survival, floating in this thick interior jelly, but…this specimen was unique. Its feeding stylets actually shifted into a fissure in the upper part of its snout, which enabled it to ‘devour’ me without harm…. shit, those phrases don’t really belong together, do they?

A flap had opened in its digestive bulb after its intestinal tube pushed me through. That allowed me to slide into its lower body cavity, in the segments between its third and fourth pairs of legs. Here I was wedged between his spinal ridge and that intestinal tract that ran like a big ugly worm throughout the length of its chubby body.

If I pressed my face to its inner membrane I could breathe; these bugger’s respirate through the pores of their skin anyhow. I wasn’t alone either. There were swarms of beach-ball sized nodules–no, eggs, in this fluid-filled cavity with me.

All this for a woman who hated me. Lady Smirnoff was jealous of my position with the Professor, thought he favored me over her. Funny thing was, I was never aware of having any ‘position’. He saw her as a capable lab assistant. Me, I always called him Professor but I thought of him as a second Dad.

Jealousy had driven her to steal an experimental shrinking formula from Dr. Chen’s biolab. It worked, after a fashion. She surprised me in the lab and gave me a hefty spray. Then she watched as a alien grub devoured me.

That the plan failed was only on account of the formula’s unstable nature. Let’s just say that grub experienced an explosive end, once the shrinking effect wore off. I fought back before she could douse me again. Her tanks ruptured on a lab sink, exposing her to ten times the dosage I received. All that was left of her after that were her clothes. Fortunately the biolab was able to refine the formula into a stable element for this mission.

Apparently the goal lay ahead. Mama Bear was ambling along a string of lichen toward this gorgeous orchid floating improbably in this microscopic soup. Its spreading petals displayed a blood red aperture, a bowl tapering into a rounded pitcher vessel. As if aware of our approach, the skin of the pitcher became transparent, stretching over four projecting fingers pawing at its interior. The fingers curled into claws before its waxy outer skin smoothed over once more.

And above said orchid floated my host, I suppose, the goddess who’d been guiding and testing me up to this point. Dark hair that absorbed all color from the spectrum billowed around an oily blue face. Fangs indented the corners of her full red lips while a necklace of skulls rattled across her neck.

Eggs poked my bare thighs as we bobbed in this baptismal chamber, waiting to be discharged unto the world. The question becomes how this mother tardigrade intended to eject me. If I recalled my studies aright, baby tardis get excreted through the anal chamber to make their way in the world–oh crap, that’s not how–

A gush of fluid flooded its torso as a narrow tube squeezed me out of my host. God, do I feel like an ass–! …Stop that. After orienting myself, I paddled to her as the tardigrade lumbered on about its own business. Four arms beckoned and gods, she was as naked as I was. “Welcome, daughter,” she intoned.

I sighed and waved, “Hi, Mom.”

“Oh, you’ve sweated up a storm, child. You’re going to be in no condition to carry your burden home. Come, drink.”

A cup was raised. I hadn’t noticed the empty eye sockets and grinning teeth until I’d taken it in my hands, shaking now as I raised it to my lips. Thankfully instead of worms it tasted of ice-cold water; just water. I drained that, and the second skull thermos she detached from the band around her perfect waist. 

Still I held back, suddenly uncomfortably aware of my own state of unclothedness. Shivers rattled me; and yeah, the fact was that I could not look this manifestation of Kali in the face. “Gaze upon me, mortal,” she chuckled.

I gazed down at the underside of my bare arms. “I-I can’t, not as long as you’re wearing that face.”

Her upper left palm, red as blood, cupped my cheek, so very warm. I hadn’t thought about how frigid this place was in a while, if at all. “Does this face displease thee?”

“No–I mean, yes! Gods, you’re gorgeous, it’s just–I know you’re really not her. I-I see Mama lying dead, on the floor by our bed, every time–it just reminds me–“

“C’mere, little vine.”

Just like that my head shot up. That was her voice–! With my guard down, four strong arms drew me to her bosom. I rested my chin on her shoulder, inhaling the scent of incense and perspiration, blood and jasmine all intermingled. Muscles oiled with sweet alms flexed in a protective cocoon. “Why have I found favor with you?” I whispered.

Hands stroked waist and shoulders as her warm breath brushed my neck. “The pure of spirit are rare in the mortal sphere, more so in the realm of gods. It would be sacrilegious to tarnish such a spirit, especially one that has survived so many perils.”

“Huh. You haven’t seen me with the freaks I’ve encountered.”

“Wanna bet, kiddo?”

I jerked back, enough that I was staring nose to nose into my mother’s eyes. That long forgotten smirk was there for a second, and then there was only Kali Ma. Red palms stroked both my cheeks. “Innocence is a state beyond sexuality. It is possible to possess such purity even when the flesh is weak.”

“Doesn’t feel weak when I’m turned on.”

We both shared a laugh. “And now,” Kali said, “I suppose you will want to view the prize, the object as it were of your quest.”

Her arms stretched to their full length as I gazed over the rim of petals. At first I only saw vague shapes in the darkness, two blue mounds twitching and pressing over a reddish scalp. The blue flesh parted and a face tipped up. Our eyes met but no recognition flickered in her glassy stare.

I’d spent weeks scrutinizing every microscope in the observatory to find her. The Professor would pass me the odd assignment to take my mind off her. Somehow, I finally found her. Or maybe I was allowed to view the inescapable horror she’d been subjected to. Maybe it was a challenge our host knew I couldn’t ignore.

 Her skin was the whitest shade of pale, with sweaty cheeks sunken. But this was unmistakably the missing Lady Smirnoff. The rest of her body was lost in a quivering fluid mass pressing into her. The mounds flopped over her face with a wet slop and she was gone again. “Is she all right?” I asked as Kali pulled me close again.

“That depends on your definition.”

“Why hasn’t she tried to escape?”

“Where is there for her to escape to? The hallucinating incense infusing that bulb have convinced her that our bodies have melded. It was easy to maintain the delusion with an extension of our musculature around her crippled form.”

“Crippled?”

“Her encounter with an amoeba was not so fortunate as yours. She has lost the lower half of her right leg. Have no fear, I can detach myself from her at any time. But I needed her to reflect on her life choices, on the karma that had brought her to this state. And I wished her anguish for the terror she had inflicted on thee.”

“I think she’s got it. Kali Ma…Mama…will you grant me the boon of releasing the Lady Smirnoff to me?”

“She may not recognize you now. Not much of her feeble mind is left.”

“I-I don’t care,” I panted. “I need to bring her back.”

“She is not likely to thank you.”

“Huh. That’s what the Professor said. Please, this is inhuman.”

‘Neither are we.”

“Yeah, well,” I ducked down, staring down at my wringing hands. “I am. I’m human. I-I know she did this to herself, but…I can’t leave her. I don’t understand why but I don’t hate her. If only you could understand.” I kept staring down even though I could sense Kali’s gaze on me. Her lips pressed to my forehead. The words she spoke were my Mama’s.

“You couldn’t abandon her to a hopeless situation, the way I’d abandoned you on the Lost Ship.”

“It wasn’t your fault…”

“So. That wasn’t so hard, wasn’t it?”

I shrugged. “I’m still not sure how I’ll get back. Your tardigrades burst all my nanobots, and the growth formula they were carrying. Even if we can get home, we might both be stuck at this size.”

But then Kali held a capsule under my nose, right before she quickly withdrew it and tucked it back into one of her waist pouches. “Not so fast, silly me. That was a disintegration pill. Here’s…no, wait, that’s another shrinking pill. Fear not, I’ll find it. Take this,” she muttered as she absent mindedly handed over the sword in her upper left hand

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked.

“Dance, of course. Join me in the Dance of Kali.”

“I-I can’t dance.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, I…”

“Yes.”

“But I never…”

“You would deny Kali, who wears your mother’s face?”

“No, I’m just saying…” What was I trying to say? I kept staring down, muttering words to myself: “Om Hreem Shreem Kleem Adya…” “I’ve never danced before. I don’t know how.”

Her upper right arm stretched tight as she took hold of mine, now also extended straight. “Fear not. It’s easy. Follow my steps.”

But there were too many questions. What was this supposed to accomplish? How was this going to get the pair of us home, and at normal size? What was normal anyway? Why’d she have to take my mother’s–

“Shhhh…no more questions. Let your thoughts flow.”

I was about to protest further before this Kali apparition blew into her palm. A cloud of fine dust pecked me full in the face. Breathing was a reflex so I sucked it right up my nostrils and…and…what purty colors they are, swirlin’ an’ oscillatin’ rainbow suckers.

Everythin’s all fuzzy an’ dreamy. Why’d my stomach drop, an’ where these other two arms come from? No, I gotta be dreamin’. My shoulders ain’t really brushin’ up to another pair o’ shoulders rotatin’ an’ poppin’ in their sockets like dey always been there. Heyyy, my palms was red all over, all four of ’em.

Big Blue Babe pressed her hands inna mine, gobs of fingers strokin’ the back o’ my four hands, an’ objectively, Kali’s one gorgeous bitch. “Now I knows you actin’ like a gob,” I giggled. “My mama wudn’ make me hallubsin–hallub–she wudn’ do dat.”

“Is that all you’ve noticed? Suppose I imagined an extra pair of arms growing out of your ass?”

“Eyyy, dis is my hallub–hallu-oooo!” Somethin’ pushed between my cheeks–! I took a gander over both right shoulders just as somethin’ silky, bushy an’ red wit’ white stripes swished from my butt.

I guess when yer stoned dancin’ is easy. Kali’s moves wuz like oil, fluid an’ smooth an’ so precise. With my four palms pressed to hers, I could kinda trace her movements. Her sidewise shuffle led me forward an’ pushed me back, while our arms wheeled in flowing clockwise circles.

The hard part wuz knowin’ which Kali to follow. There wuz ‘nuther Kali overlaid on top of the first one, all fuzzy an’ trailin’ rainbow colors. Didn’t nobody line up the 3D projectors right? Well, so wat? Anythin’ she could do–

OWWWW! I popped the socket in my hip steppin’ too far out. And she kept on, raisin’ her hands in the prayer position, bobbing her head side to side. I followed as her arms flowed up an’ around, feet sliding side to side and back. Our tails counted time as dey swayed to balance us. Our upper palms came together as our heads zigzagged, sharp yet synchronous.

It wuz just me an’ Kali, skifflin’, hand in hand, countless fingers interlocked while Mama’s bootiful lashes batted like butterfly wings. Mebbe it wuz ‘cos we wuz on the same wavelength but some minutes in, it hit me that we been doin’ the same singsong chant: “Om hreem shreem …adya kalika param…” Kinda like that.

A really absurd thought entered my mind as I pirouetted…hey, with this sword I could kill Kali. I dismissed it quick, largely ‘cos even in this state I was repulsed that I ever thought. Besides, this wasn’t Kali facing me, just another aspect of her. That’s probably why she took Mama’s face in the first place. Judging by her toothy smile and slow shake of the head, she already knew what I was thinking anyway.

At some point Kali-Mom eased away. I wuz ‘lone, an’ somehow I didn’ mind. My legs still pranced, touchin’ on water molecules as dey traced her movements as if dey’d always knowed how. Her sword was still in my hands. Our chant grew louder, more authora…authora–more bossy.

Kali floated ‘hind ‘er orchid bulb, gesturin’ hypnotically over its petals. A shadow rose over the inner rim. An’ there she wuz, Lady Smirnoff floatin’ feather-like over her former prison. The left shoulder o’ her skinsuit wuz torn down t’ the upper bicep an’ yeh, her right leg was gone below the kneecap. Her stern scowl musta mellowed on ‘count of her zombie-like torpor.

Despite her emaciated state, she wuz hot in that glistening crimson skinsuit. Oh my gawd, it emphasized every voluptuous curve. You jus’ hang on, gorgeous, we’s gonna gets you outta here.

Now I nebber used a sword ‘fore, but somehow I knew what I hadda do. With an “om hreem shreem” I held my upper hands pointin’ up in supplication, blade straight an’ true as we cut a 180-degree arc in the space facin’ us. On the “adya kalika param“, I followed with a reverse cut…I think. Some of it’s kind of a blur. An’ then it wuz like sunrise over the Moon.

Light poured in us, radiant godlike an’ pure, and ohmygod so toasty–! Even as I bobbed over to take the Lady in my arm an’ arm an’ arm an’ arm, I wondered how Kali’d administer her potion to us, whether with another puff in our snozzers or a dab on our tongues–

Kali answered with a bucket drenched over our heads. Already our skins stretched taut as muscles bulged beneath ’em. There was no time for anything else as Kali braced herself on the rim of her orchid and with both feet booted us into the vortex…