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The Empty Man

by Michael Mathews

Table of Contents
Part 1 appears
in this issue.

“This woman,” Dascott said, hoping to change the subject. “Does she know the whereabouts of the Empty Man?”

The woman waited, still stooping in the same position, while Zihn translated.

“She says this Empty Man visited her only once, many years ago, but she won’t discuss her own troubles until after you’ve eaten. Perhaps it is best if you accept her gift.”

It suddenly occurred to Dascott that it might be some exotic poison, her intention to trundle away with his supplies even while he lay convulsing and drooling in the dirt. No, he decided, Zihn had assured him of complete confidentiality in all of his arrangements, and he’d only been in the area a few hours. It would have been impossible for her to have contrived such a clever arrangement in so short a time.

He looked back to see her nodding vigorously. Managing a smile, Dascott finally reached out and picked up the cake, dangling it between two fingers as if it were a wet sock.

The woman immediately dropped to the ground and sat gazing up at him, waiting.

He gave a small chuckle, and then stuffed the entire lump in his mouth at once. At first, his intention was to chew as little as possible and simply gulp it down whole, but in spite of its appearance, the flavor of the cake made him pause and then savor the experience. The entire thing seemed to melt into a sweet gush of butter and some flavor like toffee or rum, he couldn’t be sure.

“My God!” he smacked, when he could speak again. “What was that?”

“You are pleased?” Zihn asked. “The cakes are made with the butter from yaks grazed only on spring grass, the honey collected from hives in the southernmost forests by hand. They take half-a-year to prepare.”

Dascott looked down at the wrinkled little peasant. He supposed he must seem like a god to her. “Thank you — tell her thank you, very nice indeed. Tell her I approve,” he said, nodding to her

The woman flushed with pleasure.

“Now please, ask her about the Empty Man. Where did she see it, exactly? Can she confirm that it looked like this?” He handed the display screen to her.

She peered at the image of the droid as she conversed with Zihn for several minutes. At times she became quite animated and then almost broke down in tears as she spoke.

“What’s she saying!” Dascott finally demanded.

“She says she has been most unlucky. Much of her family was killed during the war. When the central government began digging their mines here, all the men were conscripted and forced to work underground in aid of the war effort. It was very difficult. They survived the massive bomb strikes from the Western Coalition, though their herds were all killed. And when the tribal elders finally refused to participate in the war any more, the central government forces came and executed nearly all of the men, including her husband and two of her brothers. Only her sister and baby son survived.”

Dascott nodded gravely towards the woman, who was looking at him with alarming fierceness now.

Zihn continued, “They hid in the mountains that winter, many froze or starved, and when they came down that spring they discovered they had been hiding for nothing — a truce had been declared seven months earlier.”

Dascott was about to interrupt now and ask what any of this, sad as it was, had to do with the 2035 Assasin, when Zihn answered the unasked question himself. “Then they discovered the mines had been poisoned with radiation. The children began to get sick and die soon after playing near them.”

“Oh!” Dascott said, suddenly livening. “Tell her I understand now. It makes perfect sense! The Coalition would almost certainly have used a droid, dropped in by plane perhaps, to carry radiation bombs down into deepest sections of the mines. A perfect application for the Assassin!”

Zihn, hesitated. “Are you sure you want me to tell her —”

“No, no, it doesn’t matter. Ask her if she’s ever actually seen the Empty Man herself. Can she verify it’s actually this one?” He indicated the display screen she still held.

“He came to her six years after the end of the war. The entire province had been completely cut off by the government, as it still is today: payment for its rebellion. But she’d managed to survive, along with the few remaining members of her family. They felt they were blessed, and the tribe began to grow strong again. They rebuilt their herds from wild goats and yaks they’d captured, and as they have always done, they travelled the mountain pass each spring to the summer grazing lands on the other side. But each year one member of their tribe would be, ah, what is the word — killed by big cutting?” Zihn paused, fluttering a hand in front of himself.

“Lacerate, dissect, dislimb?” Dascott offered. He really couldn’t think of any better words than that.

“Disembowel!” Zihn finally said. “Yes, that is it. The Empty Man selects one person from the tribe as payment for the use of his pass. The pass cuts through the old mines and that is his home now. He is only plastic and metal, you see, so each year he searches for one human soul he can take for his own. He cuts out that person’s insides, like so,” Zihn made a violent motion with his hand across his chest, “and he takes their soul. After that he can be happy, and he goes back inside his mines again.”

“And her sister was —” Dascott motioned across his chest.

“Yes. It is the price that must be paid, for using his pass.”

“I see. Most unlucky indeed. If you could rush her a little though, can she actually verify that it is a droid?”

“No, I’m sorry. He came to their yurt at night when they were asleep. She says that her soul was too sad, because she missed her husband too much. But her sister was younger and had a sweet soul, so he took hers instead. But she only knows this from a dream, she never saw him herself.”

Dascott was becoming annoyed now. “After all that, she never even saw the droid?” He became even more impatient as he waited for Zihn to translate the question for her.

“She says no.”

He hardly noticed the answer; he’d begun to feel slightly nauseous from the overly rich cake. “Please, can you just get her to move now, so we can pass. I’d really like to get to the mines before dark.”

“Certainly,” Zihn said. “It is only a little further now.” He bustled the woman and her goats up the side of the pass, and then gestured towards the trail ahead. “Just a little further,” he said.

* * *

In spite of himself, Dascott began to doubt the possibility of his theories now. Everything hinged on the possibility that the folk-tales were based on a truth: that, just possibly, after all these years, a droid still existed — functioning even! — lost in the remote mountains of this abandoned war-zone. He tried to reconcile the goat herder’s version of the story with what he knew, but it didn’t make sense that the droid would only kill once whenever the tribes moved through.

Dascott had prepared extensively for this trip, reading every document he could get, not easy considering so much of it had been classified by the military and had to be obtained by careful — and expensive — bribes, but nothing came to mind. Perhaps, he thought bitterly, it’s all just ghost stories after all.

He paused again, sweating and trying to catch his breath. He was somewhat alarmed to realize Zihn was no longer visible. But he was too exhausted to care anymore.

Then a small answer started to form in his mind, and like an unravelling thread he followed it. The droid would have had to fight its way into the mine — no problem for the 2035 Assassin, its hand-to-hand combat skills were said to be a thing of beauty — but if its power unit had been, say, partially damaged in the process, it could have been rendered incapable of fully recharging. It would, in essence, tire easily. Theoretically it could take weeks or months for it to recover from the energy spent dispatching even one extremely unfortunate human transgressor to its killing zone. He went over it again to be certain it all fit, and a smile began to spread across his face as he admired his reasoning.

He was suddenly jolted out of his thoughts by the sound of a stone clapping down the side of the pass. Instinctively he drew his rifle. Perhaps it was just Zihn, he thought, or another goat herder, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. He raised the gun’s scope to his eye and sighted along the edge of the ridge. Only dry shrubs and rocks.

Still his finger hung above the trigger and his entire body strained to detect any sign of life in the pass. The smallest click sent him reflexively swinging around, firing into the rocks behind him. Only a group of grasshoppers reacted, all leaping crazily away from the string of miniature explosions.

Dascott let out a small sigh of relief and lowered his gun, unaware of the shape rising up behind him like a shadow. Had he seen it, he would have admired its gleaming arms and recognized the rows of blades designed to kill. The knives were a remarkable feat of engineering, a wonder to behold really, but by the time Dascott turned they were only a blur of automated stabs and slashes, moving too fast to even see.

* * *

From where they sat waiting, the old woman smiled at the sound of Dascott’s echoing screams.

“The Empty Man likes his soul,” she said, holding up her bag of cakes with pride.

Zihn, helped her up off of the stones. “Yes,” he said. “It seems the Empty Man likes all kinds of souls. I think we would do well to arrange these expeditions more often.”

She patted Zihn on the head and smiled, then hurried to gather the goats up for the trip through the pass.

Copyright © 2005 by Michael Mathews

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