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Short Fiction: "The Day's Last Glow"

AeternisSep 11, 2020, 2:23:12 PM

Tacita lounged alone in the entrance of her thermal tent, staring up at the mountains and basking in the slowly fading narcotic warmth of yet another dose of annuska. Soon, the glow would fade enough that her problems of the world would return, and another dose would be required to prevent her from climbing to the top of a nearby sheer promontory behind which the sun had sunk and leaping off. For the moment, while the drug still plucked pleasurably at her senses, she was at peace.

Annuska had been Tacita’s vice as a youth, but she’d sworn it off the day she’d met Mac. He had never known about the habits she’d left behind. Even through the weeks Mac spent half a world away at Athenea and the entire months he’d spent off-world, she’d remained strong. In the darkness of the lonely, quiet nights when the remembered bliss of one more run of annuska promised to help her get through, she had pushed away the temptations, remembering that when Mac returned, he would chase the temptations away. He always did.

Now, of course, things were different. With annuska dulling Tacita’s senses, she could pretend that Mac wasn’t three hundred kilometers away in another woman’s bed, his wedding band hidden away in a little-used drawer he didn’t think anyone knew about. For the moment, she could pretend the medical bills from Martin’s lighter accident weren’t coming due, and that her brother, who had hung on for six weeks after the crash despite horrific injuries, would in two days be buried in the same cemetery as her parents. She could even pretend she hadn’t seen the marriage termination forms on Mac’s list of datasphere retrievals, and that somehow, everything was going to be okay.

Movement on the promontory scattered these detachedly morose thoughts. Tacita watched dreamily as a feral Heraklean mountain goat, its large, crooked horns jutting into the sky, appeared at the precipice, staring down as if surveying its territory. Heraklean goats were bigger than the original Earth stock, and in the dying light, she thought the creature quite majestic, even though her primary interaction with their kind was to eat their meat on special occasions.

When the trembling returned, and thoughts of Mac with another woman in his arms began to hurt again through the drug’s fading veil, Tacita rummaged through the tent to find where she’d put the rest of the annuska she’d purchased. 

When she found the tin, it was lighter than she expected it to be. There was only one dose left – one final brief window of pure bliss, before it was time to decide whether to head up onto the promontory and end it all or to head back to town and bear the unbearable. From a corner of the tent, Tacita's comm blinked furiously, indicating many unanswered messages and dropped connections. Even the thought of sifting through these and finding Mac’s divorce notifications and paperwork made her feel sick.

The remaining annuska promised one more reprieve, and to this refuge Tacita gratefully fled. Licking her fingers, she rolled them through the tin to collect the remaining dregs of golden powder. As a pleasurable tingling began to seep through her fingertips, Tacita rubbed the powder on her forearms, her neck, her collarbone, to speed its absorption. The trembling began to recede, as did all her troubles receded into the background. With a high-pitched, eager sigh, Tacita exited the tent, intent on feeling the starlight on her skin, but her limbs betrayed her before she made it two steps from the flap, and she fell to the soft, spongy moss, giggling at the absurdity that she had thought it possible to walk during the beginnings of an annuska run.

At first, she tried to watch the stars come out, but the dancing and cavorting of the fickle clouds obscured her view. Still lying on her back, she craned her neck to look at the promontory upside-down. The big goat was still there - either in reality, or in the warped world of the annuska run. It must have noticed the antics of the human far below, because it was watching her, just as she was watching it. Tacita, still giggling, waved lazily at the animal. It didn’t react.

As she watched, another figure climbed into view at the top of the ridge, standing next to the goat. It was a man, or a giant, clad in a suit of grey metal that reflected the rays of the day’s last light, which still fell on the far side of the peak. He was wearing a helmet or a cowl over his head, and the animal seemed not to notice him, though he stood only an arm’s reach behind it. Despite being unable to see the figure’s face, she thought him familiar; perhaps she had seen him before, in another hallucination.

As the solar disk sunk further behind the ridge, its reddening rays seemed to shine through the giant on the promontory. The metal suit seemed to become plates of interlocking Gothic armor, and his headgear became a helmet with an angular faceplate like the prow of a seagoing ship – Tacita had seen an ancient helmet like that in a museum once, many years before. But even as she wondered what this change might mean, the figure changed again – the armor faded and vanished. Underneath, she saw robes like those worn by the monks who lived nearby at Reynders Point. Unleashed from the confines of armor, a pair of giant, dark wings unfurled from his back. The giant's skin was deathly pale, and dark, loose hair hung from his head, hiding much of his face. He was looking down at her, and she no longer felt like waving.

Stepping up to the very edge, the winged man gripped the goat by its horn – any mere mortal that would dare to do the same would have been hurled off the edge by an effortless toss of the huge goat’s head, but the animal submitted instantly - and gently pulled it back from the cliff. As he backed away out of sight, the figure never let his gaze wander; his hair-veiled eyes stayed locked on Tacita until he disappeared from view. As he did, the sun, clinging to the horizon beyond the mountain, finally slipped below, and night came to the tops of the peaks in the distance.

Tacita blinked several times. Already, the annuska was fading again. She’d had hallucinations under its effects before, but she couldn't shake the feeling that the winged giant had been real. Still half-numbed by the drug’s afterglow, she staggered to her feet and stumbled toward the ridge where she’d seen the figure. Perhaps he'd left footprints or some other mark she could see to prove there had been someone there. It was a matter of life and death - hers - that she try.

If she had been sober, the steep hike would have taken twenty minutes. After staggering uphill through the dusk, at times forgetting where she was going and why, at others seeing her destination with crystal clarity, she finally reached the summit nearly an hour after she set out. Her tent, now far below, was illuminated by its own photocells, preventing it from being swallowed by the darkness creeping in from every side. Having brought no light except the blue glow of her wrist-computer screen, she dropped to her hands and knees, looking for any sign of heavy boot-prints that might prove that what she had seen was real.

As she searched, a deep, bone-shaking rumble filled the air. Tacita looked up just in time to see an orbital launch roar past, its belly seemingly close enough to reach up and touch as it climbed upward to the stars. There was a landing pad for orbital craft in her home-town, but it was almost never used – more likely, the spacecraft had just lifted off from the larger burg of Corinthea, many kilometers away. Though it was only above her for a fraction of a second, Tacita was enamored with the vessel's clean lines, its spotless, gleaming hull panels, and the way its rumbling vibrations filled her bones, cancelling out for just an instant the persistent post-annuska tremors.

Just as soon as it had come, the spacecraft banked sharply upward, and its roar faded, its glowing drive dwindling until it was only a moving star, then disappearing from sight entirely. The silence rung in Tacita’s ears, and she was alone again on the ridge. With nothing left for her in the world, the stars, slowly multiplying in the retreat of the day’s last glow, seemed a sympathetic audience to her tragedy.

As she turned her eyes back to the ground, Tacita spotted a single impression, which might have been a footprint. She touched the oblong patch of crushed moss and dirt gingerly. Though far from conclusive, Tacita decided this was enough proof for her - there had been someone on the ridge after all. She wondered where the giant had gone – there were no other prints, no lights, and no paths leading in any direction.

“Running won’t help.” She said, realizing only after she spoke that the words were meant to address the departing orbital craft and the giant man, who in her drug-addled mind were one and the same. "Other worlds are bound to be just as cruel.”

Even though it was true, it seemed like a pathetic counter-argument. Her choice of two unpleasant fates had been given a third option, and it didn't matter to her whether this had transpired by chance or through the work of an inscrutable guardian angel. If her life on Herakles was crumbling, why was she bound to it? “Fine.” Tacita said into the darkness. “We can try it your way.”

- - - - - - -

(Banner art by Matthew Lu.)

"The Day's Last Glow" is very unlike most of my "Cosmic Background" short stories. It was originally written to an image prompt I no longer have (the goat and the angel with the dark wings come from that image). Despite the upbeat and fantastical nature of the prompt, this became one of the more serious short stories I have written in the series.

Tacita, the protagonist of this story, would be well-served by being the subject of additional stories, but as of yet this is the only piece which uses this characer.