- Author : Vivian Shaw
- Narrator : Robert C. Eccles
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
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PseudoPod 655: Black Matter is a PseudoPod original.
“I’m an aviation nerd with trainwreck syndrome, so air crash investigation is a subject dear to my heart. Having watched documentaries on (and read NTSB reports about) ever so many crashes, I began to wonder what it might be like if the investigators had one last secret fall-back option when no clear cause for an accident could be found, and what it’d be like to be that fall-back option. I write fiction in which the supernatural and the ordinary exist side-by-side — monsters and magic are real, if not commonly understood — and the idea of a practical necromancer contracted to the NTSB seemed like an obvious conclusion.”
by Vivian Shaw
… when all those legs and arms and heads… shall join together at the latter day and cry all “we died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left…
—Shakespeare, Henry V
It’s easier if you use a finger. If you have a finger to use. I don’t have fingers, on this one. What I have is a case full of samples, in tubes, and I can already tell this is a complete shitshow: they’re hopelessly garbled, mixed up together in a cacophony of terror and pain that gives me the kind of headache that will last for days. I need to get out to the site.
They don’t like people poking around, of course, during an active investigation, but I’m nominally part of the National Transportation Safety Board – got the blue nylon jacket with the letters on the back and everything, like some overgrown high-school kid who lettered in nerd instead of football. I’m allowed access to the crash site, it’s written down in the rules, and if I pick up fingers that don’t belong to me it doesn’t technically fuck with the chain-of-evidence protocol. Sometimes I get lucky and find what I need right away, soaked into the cockpit: human flesh and bone pulverized at the point of impact to a pink soup which nonetheless is capable of standing up, on this latter day, and telling me a tale. Sometimes I don’t, and it takes longer.
I’m strictly last-resort. When everything else is coming up empty, when both black boxes and the quick-access recorder, if there is one, are useless; when they cannot from the radar track and transponder data work out why the plane did what it did, when there’s no obvious evidence of explosion and the pilots didn’t say anything useful to ATC and all the shreds of aluminum and rubber and plastic are keeping their secrets to themselves – when they simply do not know enough to determine probable cause – that’s when they call me, and it’s always four a.m. when that call comes through. Stacy, we got one. Pack up your crystal ball and shag ass, we need you.
(Stacy, like Stacy’s mom, only it’s my last name: Devin Stacy. I’ve heard all the jokes, believe me. The dead might travel fast, but by and large they can’t come up with original wit.)
This time it’s in West Virginia, just around the first knuckle of the finger it hooks intimately up into western Maryland: halfway along one of the old earth-wrinkle mountains, between a couple of nothing towns. The fact that the nearest burg is called Mount Storm is too fucking Lovecraft for words, so I try to ignore it, even as my little chartered Cessna lines up on short final for the local airstrip. At this point in the investigation the Board is apparently desperate enough to pay for a helo to get me from here to the wreck, rather than a rental car, and I can’t help thinking of that mad static-buzz cacophony of wails and screams that came through when I tried the samples back in my own lab: something terrible happened here, something so far inexplicable and terrible, and it is up to me and the contents of my little black bag to explicate it.
Let me try to put this in perspective. The Board doesn’t like to let on that it occasionally has resort to the services of such as me – understandably, because remember how bent out of shape everybody got when the fucking FBI got exposed for paying psychics for help – and so instead of freelance necromancer my official NTSB consultant title is contingency communications specialist. It means exactly nothing, and that’s the point; when they were still sending up the space shuttle, they had a protocol for contingency abort, which was a cute way of saying something’s gone very badly wrong, the mission is kaput, and everybody on this ship is going to die. “Contingency” in bureaucratese means “probably fatal.”
What I do is I create a certain very specific and controlled metaphysical atmospheric situation, within clearly defined bounds, in which it is possible for the recently deceased to communicate with the living. This in itself isn’t really hard. Kids in their parents’ garages have tried it, with a bit of clear quartz and silver and some blood from a wincing safety-pin stick, a couple of birthday candles, and gotten a wavery ghost of something juuuust long enough to scare them off fucking with this shit for life. I’m all for that. Freak ‘em out hard enough and most will do the mindblock thing where they can honestly swear later in their lives that they never even touched anything occult.
It’s the ones who do come back for more, after the initial terror, that you have to keep an eye on. I was one of them. I know.
It’s a bumpy landing, and the Cessna driver apologizes, once we’re taxiing: “Not among my best, Mr. Stacy. I sure hope you find out what happened to that plane, everyone here is kind of – freaked out, a little bit, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I know exactly what you mean, and you did fine, not your fault about the sudden crosswind, you handled it. You get that a lot here?”
“More than we used to. It’s always been kinda rough when there’s wind coming down off the mountain, but I think it really has gotten worse–”
He stops, as if he hadn’t actually meant to say that, and I just nod and unfasten my safety belt. “You did fine,” I tell him again, and look at his nametag, “Cody. Thanks for the ride.”
“Mr. Stacy?” he says, before I can get out.
“They said they don’t know why it happened. Is it – they don’t say that kinda shit when it’s really a bomb, right? This isn’t just like – some cover-up?”
“No. They don’t. That’s the first thing they’d look for, is any evidence of an explosive device – petaled edges on fragments of fuselage, chemical residue, that kind of thing. They have to rule that out first.”
“And they didn’t find that stuff?”
“No. Not so far. It doesn’t appear that there was anything that – went off, and broke the plane apart.” What I do know is that the wreckage of the engines was found with soil and grass deep inside, chunks of earth chewed up and swallowed by the spinning fans, clear evidence they’d been turning when the plane hit the ground.
“But you’d find it, if there was?”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “We’d find it. We’re good at finding things.”
The night air, when I crack the door, is both wonderful on my face – sharp coolness, the touch of rain – and carries with it even at this distance what I immediately recognize to be the smell of a crash site. It’s a sick kind of cocktail: raw avgas, churned soil, the acrid stink of burning upholstery and carpet, rubber, plastic, aluminum, and underneath of that the reek of decay. Of bad death. It’s summer. They’ve been out here for days now, whatever’s left of them. From what I’ve already been told they hit the ground at no less than four hundred miles an hour: some of the sampled remains I saw might have been put through a blender, and others torn apart like pulled barbecue, anonymous pieces. Meat and chemicals, I once heard it described. (How fast it is, that phase-change, from living people with mortgages and children and sales goals and futures, into meat and chemicals. You would not believe how fast.)
I have to be imagining it. There’s no way that stink could be this strong, miles away. I shake my head, and pull my scene-kit bag out from the Cessna’s little excuse for a cargo area; shoulder the bag, give Cody the Pilot a little sketch of a salute, and trudge, head-down against the worsening rain, toward the tiny airport building.
You really don’t get used to the smell. You think you do, and then every single time it rises up to grab you by the throat and try to hoist your guts up your esophagus. It doesn’t help to think of it as just a collection of chemicals, decomp products: butyric acid, methane, organic compounds: it still hits the senses like a blunt-force blow. People have described it as sweet. To me it’s a salty kind of stink, black-green and grinning, ready to surge out of hidden hollows with the roar of a million flies. Here it’s overlaid with the other stinks of burning plane-parts, but it’s still present and unignorable.
It takes me a minute or two to settle, once that smell hits me. I’m used to it. I really am. I’m standing there with my scene bag in one hand and my eyes shut, taking slow careful breaths, and I should absolutely not have shut my eyes because barely twenty yards away someone yells “Hey Stacy, man, nice of you to join us! You got your magic wand and shit all ready to go, cause we’re kinda on a time crunch here!”
I open my eyes. Of course it’s Chief Investigator Wayne Dooley; I knew that, I’d read the goddamn briefing they sent me, but I must have blocked it out of my mind. “Hi, Dooley,” I say. Dools. The Doolmeister. Doolarino. He hates them all. “I hear you guys are stumped, huh?”
Dooley is leaning on a chunk of fuselage, ankles crossed, the picture of casual command. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” he tells me. “Headquarters said they were shipping you out here, that’s all. Guess they want to cover all their bases, the quick and the dead.”
“You found the recorders?”
Dooley’s face changes a little. “Yeah,” he says. “Toast. Both of ‘em. No QAR, either. Can’t get jack nor shit off the tape, and the guys back home have been trying.”
“What happened to it?”
“Lousy luck, I guess; the CVR is in pieces, the FDR chassis is still kinda recognizable but the tape’s just shredded away like confetti, so you better get to work, Mr. Wizard. We need to know what killed this plane.”
I know we do. Because if we don’t figure it out, it might happen again. This was a 757, a workhorse aircraft, reliable as a Honda Civic, not subject to the 737 rudder hardover shit that had been traced back to a second-party manufacturing issue or the 737-MAX’s charming habit of flying itself straight into the ground; there had been zero airworthiness directives issued for the 757 in years, and this airframe hadn’t thrown anything even slightly weird at the last maintenance checks, a month ago. “We got no ground witnesses?” I ask.
“None. Farmer who saw the fireball from miles away called it in, but it took her a while to get somewhere with cell signal. Real patchy ‘round here, a lot of interference.”
“Lovely.” I take off my coat. “Get your guys off the scene, Dooley, for a couple minutes, I gotta do my thing.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You do your thing, Stace. You do that.”
Already I can feel it. Mostly the dead kind of keep to themselves, but at places like this — places where a lot of people died at once, died badly — there’s a kind of high-pitched mental yammering that threatens to do the sparkly-headache thing to me every single time. I don’t even really have to get out my chalk or my crystal pendulum to hear what they have to say — but I do it anyway, for clarity, and because Dooley and his goons are watching me.
The circle, first. I pick my way through the wreckage, some of which is still smoldering days after the crash, and with my eyes shut I can locate what used to be the cockpit by its deeper weight on reality. I get as close as I can before bending over to draw the circle around myself with the special chalk. I do it right the first time, because this shit is expensive, ground-up dead men’s calcined bone isn’t that easy to come by; and as soon as the circle closes I can feel the difference. It’s very much like the moment when you’re climbing or descending in a plane and your ears suddenly pop: an opening, an equalization of a painful pressure differential. Inside the circle I’m safe, and I can do the rest of it without having to watch my back — or to care about being watched. To Dooley’s people I’m no longer visible at all.
There’s a series of little white marks along the side of my left forefinger, like a tiny ladder of scars, one for each scene I’ve worked over the past couple of years. It’s the easiest place to cut that doesn’t put tendons in immediate danger if I get too enthusiastic, but I’m running out of finger — have to use my own, here, not anybody else’s — and it’s with some care that I take out the little folding knife and say the words over it. There’s room for one more cut on this digit, if I am careful, and I am.
The thin shrill pain of the knife-blade is almost welcome in its familiarity, and a line of blood springs up behind it, purple in the mercury-vapor floods Dooley’s people have set up around the scene. I say the words, and touch the chalk-circle marks here and here and here with my bleeding finger, and in my other hand the quartz point grows suddenly first warm and then hot, almost too hot to hold. Yeah, this isn’t going to be difficult. This isn’t going to be difficult at all —
— it’s always weird watching them come up from the center of the circle, as if rising to the surface of some unthinkable lake. First the head, then the shoulders appear. This is the captain. I can tell it’s the captain by the stripes on his shoulder-boards, which is just as well because he no longer has a face. I’ve seen the file photos of the crew, which right now aren’t doing me a blind bit of good: this could be anyone, a churned mass of meat with holes in it, a few scattered white things that look like rice but are what used to be this poor bastard’s teeth. And he’s screaming.
As soon as he comes up through the circle he is screaming, and the sound comes in as if from a long way away, like somebody’s turning up a volume knob in a steady zoom from zero to eleven. I’ve tried earplugs: they don’t do a goddamn thing, this isn’t sound I’m hearing with my ears but with my mind. The only thing you can do is grit your teeth and tell yourself it’s going to be over soon, and try to calm the person down — but these are people frozen in the instant of a terrible fucking death.
Pilots are trained to respond calmly to emergency situations, and part of that is remaining capable of perceiving changes in their environment even in the middle of incredibly stressful conditions. This one goes on screaming for a little while longer before I register on his radar, and the screams die away into a kind of retching gasp. He isn’t seeing me with his eyes, any more than I am hearing him with my ears: he no longer has eyes with which to see, but at this time and in this place he can perceive me. I know what he sees: a shortish, rumpled man, on the tubby side, wearing a blue NTSB windbreaker and a pair of battered rubber boots. The only thing that visually sets me apart from Dooley and his crew is the collection of amulets around my neck which are glowing faintly through the fabric of my T-shirt.
“Sir,” I say. “Captain Warner?”
The faceless head tilts. He’s still making rather unpleasant choking sounds; it will take him a little while longer to discover he no longer actually needs to breathe. “My name’s Stacy,” I tell him. “I’m an investigator with the NTSB. We’re trying to find out what happened to your aircraft. Can you tell me what went wrong?”
Sometimes this part is easy. Sometimes it’s a question of there was a fire and we lost all ability to control the aircraft, or there was a huge bang and the cabin depressurized and then we had no horizontal stabilizer function, which translates to half the tail of the fucking plane came off; sometimes it’s we lost an engine and the shrapnel cut through our hydraulic lines, or we had airspeed/altitude disagree warnings and hit the ground while we were trying to figure out what the fuck was happening — that one’s more common than you’d like to think — but it’s clear already that tonight ain’t going to be one of the simple jobs. Captain Warner is staring right at me with the eyes he hasn’t got, and now he is reaching out toward me with a hand that’s still partially intact, slicked with blood like he’s wearing a bright-red patent leather glove, and oh boy sometimes I wish the Board had more than one tame necromancer on their fucking payroll. Sometimes I wish that quite a lot.
In the circle he can touch me. Outside the circle we’re as substantial to each other as a cloud; in here the planes we’re inhabiting intersect, and his hand is cold as what’s left of it closes around mine, cold and sticky — I can feel the sharp jagged edges of broken bone inside the flesh, and then I am no longer standing on the ground at all.
The cockpit floor beneath my feet is whole, its structural integrity unbreached, and beneath it is the ground, five and a half miles down: a rumpled green blanket in which the wrinkles are not creases of fabric but of rock, old mountains pushed up by the Appalachian orogeny three hundred million years ago. I am standing behind the pedestal that separates the pilot’s and first officer’s seats, looking directly out the 757’s front windows at the classic spreading anvil of a huge thunderhead, and in the seat to my left Captain Warner is looking at it too. The first officer is drinking coffee and has not yet noticed what Captain Warner and I have seen, which is that although the cloud directly in our flightpath must be ten miles wide, black and throbbing with flickers of lightning like bad thoughts in a vast and disturbed brain, it is not showing up on our weather radar at all. The rectangular LED screens underneath the artificial horizon on both sides of the cockpit are clear and black, with no sign of the roiling green-yellow-red fan-shape echo of the storm ahead of us. It’s not the devilishly misleading radar shadow phenomenon, either, implying a clear path through a visible stormcell when in fact the precipitation is too dense for the radar beam to make the two-way trip through it, registering as a blank space on the display: right now there is no reading at all. There is simply nothing there.
We are flying directly toward the storm at better than four hundred miles an hour. It seems to be centered on the very top of the tallest part of the mountain-ridge just ahead. I get the very clear feeling that Captain Warner does not want to fly into it, and this is not just because he is not an idiot, it is because there is something wrong with that storm, something very wrong indeed — why isn’t it pinging on the radar, nothing else is giving weird readings, green across the board —
“Hey,” says the first officer, finally looking up. “The fuck? Where’d that come from?”
And despite the growing urgency of the situation Warner seems frozen, mesmerized, staring at the thing, his hands loose on the control-column yoke. He’s got a class ring on his right hand. The ring won’t make it through what happens next: the finger on which it currently rests is no longer there on the hand that is clasping mine outside this snatch of recorded memory.
“Dave?” says the first officer. “You okay?”
He doesn’t reply, and the airframe creaks around us as the plane slams into the edge of turbulent air surrounding the storm — and it is a heartbreaking eight seconds longer before he seems to snap out of his trance, shaking his head to clear it. In another second he has closed his hands tight around the yoke and wrenched it to the left, sending the Boeing in a steep bank to port in an effort to avoid the storm, but he knows and I know and the first officer now knows that it is much too late because we are now past the fringe and in it — immediately violent turbulence strikes, shaking us like rats in a trap, like dice in a cup, like anything you want to fucking name — behind us the passengers scream, and I can hear luggage crashing down as the overhead bins shake open — the windows are blank grey-black except for the white-violet flares of lightning all around us, it is as if the plane is held in the grip of some terrible hand that is drawing us into the very heart of the storm and still the radar screens are black and clear —
And in the last minute before the final bolt of impossible lightning spears through the 757, frying flight controls and avionics all to hell and starting spot-fires in the insulation of the cabin (it shouldn’t do that, it shouldn’t be able to do that, planes are hit by lightning all the time and they don’t auger into the fucking ground like this one did) I see it. Captain Warner sees it, and therefore so do I, and when the bolt hits and the brilliant explosion of light blanks out the view I am unspeakably grateful.
I open my eyes, and then open them again, and I am still staring into the meat that was Warner’s face, and he is looking back at me. His hand — the remains of his hand — is still grasping mine, and for a moment, briefly, he squeezes my fingers. Then he is gone, and the night springs back up around me, all the smells of a crash site overlaid with the distinctive burned-tin stink of magic. The rain on my face feels like a blessing.
When I scuff out the remains of the chalk circle with the tip of a boot, Dooley’s goons jump at my sudden reappearance. I take a little more time than strictly necessary to wrap a bandaid around my finger and stow all my amulets away, because fuck if I know what I’m going to tell the Doolmeister. What I’m going to put in my report. What I can say.
In the end I go with “Weather,” and he gives me the look I deserve. We’ve walked some distance away from the center of the site, and a little of the horror is fading, but it must still show in my face because he actually asks me if I’m okay.
No, you obtuse fuck, I think. I can’t even tell him this entire mess is another hail-ingestion engine flameout situation like Garuda or TACA, back in the eighties and nineties: he knows as well as I do that both engines were turning just fine when they hit the ground.
“Yeah, I’m okay. It was — a lightning strike. Particularly bad one, fried all the systems and started a fire, immediate loss of control and subsequent crash. I strongly recommend telling the FAA to issue a warning to all carriers to avoid this area, adjust their routes to the north or south by — maybe twenty, thirty miles, because seriously dangerous weather conditions like that are extremely likely to occur.”
“A lightning strike,” Dooley repeats.
“Yeah.” It’s not exactly untrue, either: there had been a lightning strike that fried the plane’s controls, but I’m not telling him the rest. I meet his eyes: you wanna try it, be my guest, let’s see how you like talking to someone without a face, and after a moment he looks away with a little whatever, asshole shrug and cups his hands to his mouth in a makeshift megaphone.
“Lewis, Johnston, Reed,” he calls. “Lightning. Fucking lightning. Quit screwing around and look for arcing and fire damage on the wiring harnesses, and someone get on the horn to HQ, tell ‘em we got a preliminary.”
Just like that, I’m done: out of sight and out of mind. To Dooley I no longer exist. In another situation I might mind how easily he relegates me to background interference; right now I’m intensely glad of it. What the labs will find is not inconsistent with a major lightning strike. It’s good enough for government work, as you might say, and — that’s good enough for me, and possibly for poor bloody Captain Warner. At least the conclusions will show that he and his first officer were not at fault, unless someone wants to play the drove his damn plane right into a lightning storm card, and I know that if they can get anything off the flight data recorder it wouldn’t show a damn thing that Warner should have paid attention to. Those radar screens had been absolutely black.
Act of God. They happen, sometimes. It won’t go over well with some of the Board leadership, but it’s close enough, and it’s better than concluding the accident report without a finding of probable cause. They don’t like leaving things marked undetermined; it’s bureaucratically untidy, a loose end trailing from a file drawer that should have been neatly tucked away.
But as I walk to the waiting helo I think again of what I can’t put in my report: what I saw in that last moment before the flare of brilliance blotted out the world. In that second before the end of it I had looked down at the mountaintop five miles below our feet, and something vast had looked back at me, and seen me. It had seen me very well, and it had smiled.
There’s something in that mountain, something that draws down the lightning to amuse itself. Something that likes to make storms that don’t show up on radar traces, and pull living creatures into them, and close the hand of the storm around the fragile little tubes of metal and the soft parts inside, shake them blind and broken, watch them fall five miles straight down into a distant rose-bloom of white fire. Something that is far older than people, old as the wrinkled rock of the mountain itself, something that has perhaps slept for a very long time — but is awake now, and hungry.
I wonder what has woken it.
I can’t stop thinking about that, even as the pilot beside me twists the throttle, lifting the collective gently, and the brightly-lit field of wreckage – both human and mechanical – falls away beneath us with boneless, weightless ease. How it had looked up at me.
How it had smiled.
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