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Davis, Jerry - Down In The Canyon

By Annette Harrison,2014-06-11 23:22
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Davis, Jerry - Down In The Canyon

     DOWN IN THE CANYON

     ? 1997 by Jerry J. Davis

     Jason didn't understand most of what his parents told him,

     except the part where he should never go near the canyon where the

     mists came out. "Never ever go near there," his father said. "If

     you fall in we wouldn't be able to get you out." He told Jason

     there were monsters down there, and that if the fall didn't kill

     him, the monsters certainly would.

     Jason had seen the canyon twice, once when the worker robots

     were building the fence, and once after the fence had been torn

     down. Everyone seemed upset that the fence had been wrecked. It

     happened during the night, and there were large claw marks in the

     brown dirt all around the twisted metal. Jason's father said that

     whatever had done it was very strong, and probably very large.

     The canyon cut across the brown landscape, running from the

     distant hills all the way to the sea, passing the edge of the

     settlement on the East side. The settlement had been placed beside

     the canyon because of the mists. Jason's computer told him that

     the mist was made up of tiny droplets of water, and this water

     helped the settlement's plants grow.

     The plants were everywhere, surrounding Jason's home and

     lining the roads and filling every little spot in between. "Earth

     plants," they were called. "From the homeworld." Jason liked to

     walk among them, especially the trees, and wonder what it was like

     to be on Earth.

     The other kids were usually out playing among the trees, or

     out at the edge where the robots were doing the new planting.

     Bradley Rosewald was there, as was Frederick Turney and his sister

     Stephanie. They were the three that were of about Jason's age.

     Stephanie, who was tanned and dark-haired like her brother, was

     pinching her nose in distaste. "It smells here," she complained.

     "That stuff is pooo-cheee."

     "Dad says it smells a lot worse when they pull it out of the

     ocean," Frederick said. "Before they take the salt out of it."

     "Why do they have to put it in the ground?" Jason asked,

     watching as a large autonomic tractor laced the soil with the

     green, odorous slime.

     "It gives the plants something to eat," Bradley Rosewald

     said.

     "To eat?"

     "Of course. Don't you know anything, Jason? This soil is

     sterile, it has no nutrients in it."

     "Oh." Jason decided he'd ask his computer what "nutrients"

     were when he got home. "How did the soil get sterile?"

     Bradley rolled his eyes. He was the oldest of the four, with

     bright blond hair and a freckled face. His eyes were a shining

     blue. "What a question," he said, and didn't bother to answer.

     As they watched the robotic equipment toiling in the endless

     brown dirt, a mist drifted in from the East, mingling with the

     plants and blocking the sunlight. The temperature dropped a bit

     and Jason felt his jacket warm up to compensate. He still felt a

     chill, though --- he knew perfectly well where the mist was coming

     from.

     "Hey," Bradley said. "Let's go peek over the edge."

     Frederick was all for it. "Yeah, let's see if we can see the

     monsters." He and Bradley stood up, and took several steps toward

     the East. Stephanie stood up, looking unsure. Jason was transfixed

     with horror.

     The two boys stopped, turning around. "You coming?" Bradley

     said.

     "I can't go there!" Jason said. "My parents told me never to

     go there!"

     "We've been there thousands of times," Frederick said.

     "There's nothing to it."

     "We throw rocks down there," Stephanie said. Her voice was

     quiet, her eyes on Jason. "You won't tell, will you?"

     "You throw rocks?"

     "Yeah," Frederick said. "Once we heard this long, mean growl.

     Grrrrrrr! Like that."

     "What's wrong? You're too precious to your mommy and daddy?

     You're so special 'cause you 'naturally born?'" Bradley was laying

     the sarcasm on thick. "I think you're afraid. You're afraid 'cause

     you're still experiencing your birth trauma."

     "I am not!"

     "You are too. Natural babies have birth trauma, that's why

     they're cowards. Dittos like us aren't afraid of anything."

     Bradley turned away. "Come on, Frederick."

     Frederick motioned for his sister to follow, then turned and

     walked off after Bradley. Stephanie looked after them, then turned

     back to Jason. "Please don't tell."

     "I'm not afraid," Jason lied. "It's just that my parents told

     me never to go there."

     "Me too." She gave him a deep, meaningful look which Jason

     didn't understand, then turned and trotted to catch up to the

     others. Jason saw her fading into the mist and his feet took on a

     life of their own, one foot stepping in front of the other,

     carrying him after her even as the rest of him yearned for the

     safety of home.

     There were pine trees, there were walnut trees. There were

     apple trees. There was a field of corn. He caught up to them and

     followed without a word, staring at Stephanie's back and the

     strands of her hair as it bounced with each step. They came to a

     clearing and the mist grew thick as paste. This was as close as

     he'd ever been; about fifty meters beyond was a edge that dropped

     down into mystery and nightmares. The last time he was here it had

     been with his father, and that had been scary enough.

     They walked about a half dozen meters through the mist and

     then Bradley motioned for them to stop. "Listen," he whispered,

     and was still. Jason listened, expecting to hear a monster's

     growl. Instead he heard a low rumbling sound, a noise so deep and

     hard that it seemed to come up from the ground itself.

     "It's louder this time," Frederick whispered.

     "What is it?" Jason asked. "Is it the monster?"

     "No, you dunce. It's water."

     "Water?"

     "Of course, water. There's a river down there. Don't you know

     anything?"

     All Jason knew about the canyon was that he was supposed to

     stay away from it. But it stood to reason that if water mist came

     drifting out of it, then there must be water down there.

     "The water's warm," Frederick said. "It goes through a place

     where the ground is really hot. My father took me there once,

     because he works in the power plant up in the hills."

     "It's geothermal," Stephanie said. She pronounced the word

     very carefully.

     They continued deeper into the mist, and the rumbling of the

     water grew much louder. When they came across the ruins of the

     fence, Jason knew they were a mere meter or two from the edge. He

     was so scared he was shaking, but he was determined not to show

     it.

     The ground under their feet was soft and wet from the heavy

     mist. Frederick dug a porous rock out of the mud and tossed it out

     into the void. That was the end of it --- it simply vanished. They

     listened to hear if a monster growled, but there was only the

     rumble of the water.

     Bradley bravely made his way over the bent posts and strewn

     metal cables of the fence and to the edge itself. He crouched

     there, peering over. The mist was so thick that Jason could barely

     see him, and occasional drifts made him disappear altogether.

     After a moment, Frederick joined him.

     "This is crazy," Jason whispered. Stephanie, who was standing

     very close to him, said nothing. He felt her hand suddenly grab

     his, and she took a few steps forward. He followed, each step a

     thing of torture. At any moment he expected some horrible creature

     to leap out at them from the mist, something with red eyes, gaping

     mouth and razor sharp claws.

     On the other side of the ruined fence was a large, damp rock

     and just beyond a section of ground that had sunk down a half

     meter. Two meters beyond that was the edge. Jason and Stephanie

     sat down on the rock, their feet on the sunken shelf, and threw

     pebbles into the canyon.

     "My dad's computer has pictures of plants and stuff from down

     there," Frederick said. "They're native plants, way different from

     the trees."

     "Primitive," Stephanie said. "Dad says they're just learning

     to come out of the water."

     "They're all gooey looking, like jelly. The leaves are

     black."

     "My dad has pictures of them too," Bradley said, making it

     sound like it was all old news to him. "He's got pictures of some

     of the monsters, too."

     "The big ones?" Frederick said. "With the long teeth?"

     "Yeah."

     "Mean looking?"

     "Yeah."

     Jason seized upon an idea that would get them away from the

     canyon. "I've never seen pictures of the monsters," he said. "My

     mom told me they would only give me nightmares."

     "What a baby," Bradley said.

     "I'd like to see them. Can we go look at them?" Jason heard

     the pleading tone in his own voice, and knew his reasoning was

     obvious. He was surprised when Bradley missed the opportunity to

     insult him. Instead, Bradley backed away from the edge and stood

     up.

     "Yeah, okay," he said. There was a hint of relief in his

     voice, like he too had been waiting for an excuse to get away from

     the canyon.

     Their feet still on the sunken shelf of dirt, Jason and

     Stephanie stood up. When they did, Jason felt the ground begin to

     sink away from him. For a split second he had a chance to turn and

     leap away, but he saw Stephanie lose her balance and fall forward.

     He tried to grab her, and in doing so lost his chance.

     Jason remembered hearing Bradley and Frederick's yells

     receding above, and the feeling of falling. He and Stephanie were

     still on a flat section of ground but that ground was sliding down

     into the canyon. The falling sensation ended for a moment and then

     he was face-first in the mud, and still they were sliding. The

     only thought going through his mind was a kind of wonder, thinking

     with certainty that he was now going to die.

     It seemed to go on and on. Jason had plenty of time to

     reflect on what was happening. The section of dirt slowed a bit

     and hit something, which split it into sections and made it

     disintegrate. Still they continued downward, rolling now, mingling

     with the damp soil. They crashed through some dark, slippery

     branches and plunged tumbling into warm water.

     Dirt was still coming down on top of Jason while he was

     underwater, but then the current carried him away from the slide.

     He was thrashing and kicking, not knowing which way was up, not

     knowing how to swim. Never in his life had Jason been in water

     deeper than a bathtub. He had no idea what to do.

     His knees scraped rock and he pushed up, breaking surface. He

     gasped for breath and looked around in terror. He could see

     clearly --- the mist was above him. It hung like a ceiling several

     meters over the water, and below that the air was crystal clear.

     He could see black plants, water, and boulders. He grabbed

     desperately at the boulder near him before the current could pull

     him away, and crawled on top of it. It was rounded and smooth,

     very unlike the porous and abrasive rocks he was used to --- it

     stuck out like a little island about seven meters from the West

     bank. Jason sat, hugging his knees, not knowing what to do. He

     couldn't believe he was still alive.

     Then he realized he was alone. "Stephanie!" he shouted.

     A ghostly imitation of his voice called back: ". . .

     Stephanie . . . Stephanie . . . Stephanie . . ." It was his echo,

     but he'd never heard one before. It scared him and kept him

     silent, thinking that the monsters were mimicking him. Indeed, far

     across the water, near the opposite bank, Jason could see long

     dark shapes moving against the current. The sight made him

     shudder, and he remembered what his father had told him: "If the

     fall into the canyon doesn't kill you, the monsters certainly

     will."

     He looked around frantically, wanting to get away from the

     water and up onto the bank. It didn't look possible, as the rocks

     didn't lead to it, and the water looked deep. He glanced back

     toward where he'd fallen in, and only saw dark rubbery plants.

     Despite his fears, he called out Stephanie's name once again.

     Again the echoes came back to haunt him. There was no reply, and

     she was nowhere in sight.

     There was a loud splash, and Jason turned to see a long black

     figure in the water next to the rock. Five times as long as Jason

     was tall, it slid through the water with an eerie undulating

     movement, two bulging eyes protruding from the water each the size

     of a grown man's fist. The eyes were black on black, with no hint

     of pupil. It came edging against the current toward the rock where

     Jason was huddled. Jason screamed and leaped headlong away from

     it, jumping as far as he could toward shore. He floundered in the

     water, splashing, keeping his head above the surface. The current

     helped, carrying him closer. He managed to catch hold of a rubbery

     plant and pull himself to the bank, scrambling out of the water.

     Tiny, multi-legged animals skittered away from him, and a couple

     odd-looking things with spring-loaded tails launched themselves

     into the air. The gooey mud and the plants smelled horrible, but

     Jason scrambled through them without a thought. It was all a

     desperate tangle until he stumbled into what looked like a pathway

     made by something very large. There were thousands of huge claw

     marks in the mud at his feet.

     Jason called out once again for Stephanie, and followed the

     path back toward the place they'd come sliding down the canyon

     wall. It was easy enough to find. The plants were all torn up and

     half buried, the path wiped out entirely. Jason searched through

     the mud and the plants and looked out across the river, but saw no

     sign of her. He turned around and headed downstream, hoping to

     find her there.

     Every once in a while he called out her name, learning to

     ignore the ghostly echoes that followed. The path led up and away

     from the river, up into the mist. The mist slowed him down. At one

     point the path widened and he stopped, peering through the

     swirling white. The path split and lead two ways, one heading down

     to the water, one up toward the canyon wall. Jason chose the path

     that lead toward the water.

     The rush of the water grew particularly loud, but above it

     Jason heard something odd. It was a high, hard snorting sound. He

     stopped, turning around and staring through the mist. It was

     there, a looming shadow in the path, a huge head on a long thin

     neck with thick, whisker-like feelers. The body stretched out into

     the mists and disappeared, too big to see all at once.

     Snorting air through nostrils at the top of its head, it

     moved forward, feelers tapping at the ground and waving in the air

     in front of it. Jason gave off one startled yell and ran headlong

     down the path toward the river. At one point he stumbled and fell

     in the mud, and while scrambling to his feet chanced a look behind

     him. The creature was following, waving the feelers blindly in

     front of itself. Jason had a sudden inspiration and jumped

     headlong through the plants, away from the path, and up against a

     large rounded boulder. Pressing against the boulder he waited,

     hardly daring to breathe. He could see the beast through the

     tangle of glistening black branches. It continued on past, waving

     its feelers and moving along with a bobbing motion, it's

     serpentine body going on and on. The legs were thick but short,

     and Jason saw the long, bony claws that had made all the tracks.

     Each claw was as big as his arm. By the time the body was past, he

     had counted five pairs of legs. The tail was held up in the air,

     away from the ground, and had a long ridged fin.

     After it had passed, Jason cautiously made his way back out

     to the path and followed along behind it, ready to turn and run if

     the beast stopped. His fear had diminished considerably, as he

     thought of the creature as stupid and probably blind. It was big,

     though, and that made him feel comfortable. He couldn't imagine

     anything attacking it. Walking behind the big dumb creature was

     probably the safest place he could be.

     As Jason neared the river he passed below the mist line, and

     for the first time he saw the whole creature at once. The sight

     chilled him. It was twice as big as his house.

     The monster walked in its serpentine way down to shore and

     plunged into the water, disappearing under the surface. Jason

     stood as close as he dared to the spot it had gone in, then

     realized he was out in the open, and turned to walk back toward

     the foliage. His foot caught on something and he tripped, and as

     he stood back up he looked to see what had tripped him. It was a

     metal cable, half-buried in the mud.

     He stared at it, concentrating. It was part of the fence. It

     looked like one of the creatures had gotten tangled in it and

     pulled it down into the canyon. Jason followed it with his eyes

     down to the water, saw it had been haphazardly strewn about here

     and there, then saw something that made him shout. Stephanie was

     out in the river, clinging to the fence.

     Jumping into the warm, dark water, he pulled himself along

     the fence out to where she was. The nearer he got to her, however,

     the less he liked what he saw. Only an arm and a leg were out of

     the water, and as he reached her he realized she wasn't clinging

     to the fence at all. The current was holding her pressed up

     against it. Jason grabbed her arm and pulled her head out of the

     water, grimacing as it lolled about, liquid dripping out of her

     open mouth and nose. "Stephanie?" he said.

     Her skin was still warm from the water, but the color was too

     pale. She wasn't breathing.

     "I'll get you back up, Stephanie," Jason whispered. "They'll

     fix you." Still holding her arm, he pulled her toward shore using

     the mangled fence as a lifeline. As he did he realized that the

     fence not only led to shore, but up the side of the canyon itself.

     He could see it, a trail of smashed plants along the shore and a

     line tracing up the canyon wall and into the mists above. Jason

     hadn't even dared to hope of finding a way up, but there it was.

     He managed to pull Stephanie up onto the shore, and lay her

     on her back. Her eyes were half open, and it seemed like she was

     looking at him, but she wouldn't move. "You're just scared," he

     whispered. "You saw the monsters, and . . ." He didn't finish.

     Watching her eyes, he moved his head back and forth but her blank

     gaze didn't follow.

     A dark, sad thought kept coming to him, but he pushed it

     away. He desperately pretended it wasn't there. Standing up, he

     looked carefully at the track of twisted fence. On his own he

     could probably make his way straight up to the wall of the canyon,

     but carrying Stephanie? No. It was too much a tangled mess, with

     cables and rubbery branches wrapped around and strewn here and

     there. Jason bent down and tried to pick Stephanie up in his arms,

     but her body was so limp it made it hard. He ended up dragging her

     along the claw-marked path, making it as far as the junction

     before seeing another one of the monsters.

     This one was smaller than the first, but seemed more alert.

     It came down the path from the canyon wall waving its feelers and

     snorting. Jason saw eyes that looked like black glass imbedded in

     its head. They seemed to be staring at him, and he gasped in fear

     and dragged Stephanie back to the spot where he'd hidden from the

     other one, pulling her through the branches and up against the

     boulder. The snorting sound followed him, and he saw the feelers

     enter the tangle of branches and the head poke its way through.

     He pulled Stephanie around the rock and beyond, pushing

     deeper into the tangle. The beast followed, reaching the boulder

     and pushing it out of the way. The boulder rolled up onto one side

     and tottered. Jason, struggling to pull the both of them through

     the tangle of rubbery plants, felt something hit him lightly on

     the leg and then on his shoulder. He looked up and saw feelers

     wavering around his head and a large mouth slightly open, easily

     big enough to swallow both Stephanie and himself at the same time.

     "Go away!" Jason shouted at the thing. "Leave us alone!" He swung

     angrily at the feelers, and managed to connect.

     At the same time, the teetering boulder lost its balance and

     rolled over, landing on one of the creature's feet. The creature

     snorted once, then reared up with a loud, huffing grunt, turning

     back to attack the boulder. Jason watched with a sense of

     satisfaction, thinking he had scared it off. He heaved a sigh and

     turned around, then took a hold of Stephanie and resumed pulling

     her through the tangle.

     He found the fence and was able to follow it to the canyon

     wall. The mist was thick up here, but through it he could see

     large holes dug into the sandstone and claw marks going straight

     up the wall. The fence, twisted as it was, made a good ladder, but

     Jason couldn't climb and hold onto Stephanie at the same time. He

     stood with her body crumpled at his feet, wondering what to do.

     Somewhere in the foliage behind him he could hear one of the

     beasts crashing around.

     Finally Jason pulled Stephanie's jacket off of her and used

     the sleeves to make a sling. He looped it under her arms and over

     his, then managed to get to his feet. He was wearing Stephanie

     like a backpack, but it was a heavy backpack. Taking one more

     determined breath, he started climbing up the twisted, fallen

     fence.

     The crashing and snorting sounds of the beast came closer.

     Jason paused in his climbing and looked around, but he could see

     nothing through the mist. He resumed his climb, going slowly,

     making sure of his grip. His burden was heavy, and it wasn't long

     before he began wondering just how far he'd be able to climb

     before he gave in to exhaustion.

     The snorting sound was right below him. Jason looked down and

     saw a shadow in the mist, and feelers tapping at the wall just

     under his feet. It motivated him to climb another several meters,

     but then he had to stop and hang on. His breath just couldn't come

     fast enough, and Stephanie felt twice as heavy. She was pulling

     him down, trying to make him fall. Jason was starting to get angry

     about it. Why did she have to go to the canyon? he thought. Why

     did she make me follow her?

     Jason realized he was wasting his strength trying to carry

     her up the wall. He had to face it, she was dead. She had drowned

     in the river and there was nothing he could do about it. Hanging

     there in the mist, he began to cry. He felt so hopeless.

     Then the fence moved. The cables in his hands tightened and

     gave off a peculiar twang, and he and the fence slid down and over

     a meter. The monster was still below, and it was climbing after

     him.

     From above, he heard voices. Distant, grown-up voices.

     "There's something climbing up the fence," a man's voice shouted.

     "Another one of those damn things is coming up here!"

     Jason yelled out for help as loud as his tired lungs could

     muster, then he hung there, panting. Once again, he felt the rude

     tapping of a feeler on his leg, and in annoyance and spite he gave

     it a kick. The monster gave off a fierce snort.

     "Heeeeeelllpppp!" Jason yelled. He tried climbing some, but

     couldn't. It took all the effort he had left just to hang on.

     "There's a kid down there!" someone from above was shouting.

     "One of the kids is down there!" He heard scrambling sounds, like

     boots sliding on dirt, and little rocks came tumbling down on him.

     "Hang on, kid!" the man's voice yelled. Another, more distant

     voice shouted: "We found the kids!"

     The monster's head lunged upwards, huge claws raking at the

     canyon wall. The feelers were all over Jason now, tapping,

     prodding. The head moved slowly up and back, nose coming down, so

     that the mouth was level with Jason's shoulders. Claws sunk into

     the sandstone to either side of him. The snorting sounds were very

     loud, and close together, like the creature was excited.

     "Hang on, kid!" came the call again from above. Jason could

     feel vibrations in the cables, like there was someone making his

     way leisurely down toward him. The feelers were slapping up

     against him so hard they were nearly knocking him off. He saw the

     gaping mouth opening and the long, sharp-looking teeth a meter

     away, and he couldn't climb up. Instead, he began climbing down.

     The creature leaned forward to bite, but its nose hit the

     sandstone a half-meter above Jason's head. It snorted and pulled

     back. Jason climbed down another few meters. The creature moved

     its head back and forth in frustration, unable to bend its neck

     down far enough to reach him.

     Jason heard more yelling from above, but couldn't make sense

     of the frantic words. He kept looking at the huge mass of the

     beast's grey-green belly an arm-length away. There was a horrible

     scraping sound as the beast's claws slid over the sandstone --- it

     was lowering its body so that it could reach him. Jason climbed

     down further.

     "Kid!" a voice yelled. "Kid, keep as close to the cliff as

     you can!" After a moment, there was a series of hard, loud

     concussions. Claws raked past Jason, digging deep furrows into the

     cliff wall. When the beast's head passed it snorted a spray of

     cold, sticky blood. It fell away into the mist. There was a loud

     crash below, then angry thrashing. Looking up, Jason could see a

     pair of boots descending toward him. In a moment he saw the man's

     face, and recognized him as one of his neighbors. Hanging from his

     shoulder by a strap was a smoking rifle.

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