Caleb filled a glass of water and ploughed heavily into the living room like an athlete after a long-distance race. Rand took the chillies he hadn’t spilled on the floor and swallowed them. He choked and coughed, comically at first but then just a bit scary. His face went red for some time.
Caleb sat on the couch, getting his breath back. Like most people, his breathing gradually slowed. Unlike most people, his resting state seemed comatose. He dropped the glass of water on the floor, then stared at it with a senile expression. Tam grabbed him more chilli sauce. She was painfully aware that he’d had some only twenty minutes ago. It was the Law of Diminishing Returns. But he was dying. There was no cure. It was never going to be perfect.
Rand pulled back a curtain and looked out at the yard. “It looks mummified,” he said. The headless Wreck was not an immediate concern any more. Tam fed chilli sauce to Caleb and felt secure for an instant, just tending him. Then she saw her hands shaking. Just like some ancient alcoholic who can’t lift a drink. And then she burst into a flood of tears. She bawled. Literally. The word “Bawl” could probably be discerned in her voice. Zelinski was at her side in a shot. He took her pulse and touched her cheek with the back of his hand. Then he announced, “You’re in shock.”
He told her to breathe deeply, and hurried into the kitchen. Tam tried to breathe but it wasn’t easy. She told herself that this was her world now, dealing with crises. She’d better get used to it and develop a technique. Some old counselling paraphernalia from school came to mind. Fear is normal. Panic is when the symptoms of fear frighten you even more, and you are immobilised. Accept the fear, realise what it’s about and let it go.
Zelinski came back with a bottle of Sunny Delight and a wet dish towel. “Your body needs to replace sugar,” he told her. He handed her the bottle. No glass. Then he rolled up the towel and sheepishly placed it on the back of her neck where it sizzled and steamed. She started to balance out.
“You okay, honey?” said Caleb. He squeezed her hand. His face was gaunt, ghostly. He was struggling.
“I’m perfect,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, and took a deep breath. “I need to tell you what we can see.” Tam felt that he knew he was on borrowed time. He needed to say something useful, and fast. Rand was relaxed. Zelinski was intense. They both stood over Caleb, watching him.
“I find it impossible to focus on things that aren’t moving,” he said. “They’re faded. Flat. Hard to look at. When things move, they come to life.” He rubbed the wound on his head, licked his lips. “Some things we see better. High contrast, you know what I mean? Sharp edges. And strong colours. If there’s nothing else drawing our attention, we move towards each other. Then towards the… thing, in the distance. The… cause.”
It was remarkable having a Wreck who could talk. But Tam wasn’t convinced that this was telling them anything. “Shouldn’t we concentrate on finding out more about Ep Rex itself?” she said.
“This is for you,” said Caleb, looking right at her. “So you can avoid them. Remember the song? Standing still works. Hiding your face and even your body will work too, like Frankenbogart.”
Zelinski suddenly seemed impatient. “Okay, so, what are we saying?” he barked. “Grey clothes? A helmet? Ski mask?”
Caleb took his time answering, while Tam gave Zelinski and evil glare. “Avoid black and white,” he said. “Clothes… loose. Something that disguises your shape.”
“Can we talk about the cause?” said Rand, and Zelinski puffed out a huge breath. Tam realised that this was what made him anxious. He wanted to talk about that more than the anti-Wreck dress code. So did Tam, actually. But not Caleb. He made several non-committal noises before he came to an answer.
“I don’t know what else to call it,” he said. His words slowed to a crawl. “It feels like a project. A journey, maybe. I can sense it in the distance.” A long pause. “The end. Omega. Combining. Heaven. Angels. We’re all one. We could be. This is not us. This is the beginning. We aren’t whole. The answer. It’s the answer. It’ll all end there.”
He stopped. His eyes were glazed. He held out one hand, facing West. He tried to get up. Jesus, he was leaving again. Rand pushed him down. Tam stood and slapped Caleb in the face hard. He almost didn’t react at all. All the chilli in the world was only keeping him cogent for minutes at a time. This was it. He was dying, now.