The Wind You Touch When You Run
By James Beamon
This pursuit starts as they all start, going after the Underground Railroad. It will end as it always ends, with us feeding the Minotaur. The in-between is where I tell tales.
I wipe sweat from my eyes while my son Langston squints under the blue-white light of this alien sun, scanning the swollen green and purple foliage for signs of recent human passage. He points his machete at a fresh boot print obscured by dense undergrowth. We pick up pursuit, south. It reminds me of a little-known facet of my favorite story.
“The original Underground Railroad ran south to Spanish controlled Florida a lot longer than it ran north,” I tell Langston. “I’m talking more than two hundred years, going as far back as the fifteen hundreds, and lasting until well after the Revolution.”
“Unless your railroad story leads to Talya, I’m not interested, Saul.”
This is the nearest I’ve been to Langston in six years and I see he’s grown into a strong man. We’re shirtless because of the heat and his skin is beautifully black like a scarab’s shell, free of all the gashes and scars I’ve accumulated in the jungle. His dreadlocks are tied into a crude ponytail that hangs down the center of his back. Intensity burns in his eyes as he navigates the jungle.
“What you want is through the wilderness,” I tell him. “She’s three hours ahead of us, which could put her ten miles out or ten feet depending on what she’s run into out there. Either way, we can catch her before nightfall.”
“Please, you mean have to catch her before nightfall. You know damn well no runner’s been found once night claims the jungle.”
Langston rushes ahead. The trees here are tall as redwoods and have bulbous trunks as if they are full of pus. I catch up with him and point my machete in warning at the thick green vines that dangle from the trees like the tangled hair of a sea hag.
“Our ancestors faced similar danger, those who ran south to Fort Mose and later to Fort Gadsden back before Gadsden put his name on it, when it was known only as the Negro Fort. It’s a different world, but we’re repeating the same history.”
“Then fill your historical role,” he says with more sneer than smile. His hand extends to the jungle looming before us. “Catch our slaves, Saul.”
I nod nonchalantly, as his words don’t sting. I deserve it. After all, I’m the one who invokes American slavery at the start of every run. The comparison fits. Fugitives run. This time it’s Langston’s wife Talya, the married couple James and Mina Wilder and recent Earth abductee Darren Ito. As always, as slave catcher extraordinaire, I lead the pursuit.
I steer around the sawbone trees and their scythe-like branches. When I give an especially wide berth to a large thicket of piranha flowers, Langston stops, shakes his head at me with stern disgust and spits at the flowers. They lash at it quicker than any cobra strike.
Langston looks at me. “Unbelievable,” he says. “You don’t think I remember how to prune piranha flowers?”
They’re easy enough to hack through and I’m an expert at it, but I don’t know what Langston remembers since I’ve trained him. He was young then at twelve, he’s young now at nineteen, and I haven’t survived jungle runs on Graysworld banking on the knowledge of youth. I shrug. “You’re not a runner.”
“But I am a survivor. I didn’t get that way from forgetfulness. I saw what jungle running got Arna and Countee.” I grit my teeth at the names, despite myself. “Now watch a natural survivor work.”
He proceeds to show me by expertly cutting the harmless looking, thickly corded stalks interwoven along the plant’s spine that act like tension springs. He then cuts the actual flower barbs, unable to lash out at him now without their spring.
I’m surprised he remembers. A lot has happened since he was twelve. Less than a year later he was torn from my household and paired with someone’s daughter so they could begin producing their own grist for the mill. Again, an echo of slavery days. As far as I know, he hasn’t stepped foot back in the wilds until now.
I don’t like how he mentions his older brothers Arna and Countee even less than I like how he calls me Saul. He speaks as if they were inferior, with casual indifference about departed souls he should have some feeling for.
“Your brothers were good runners. I showed them the same as I showed you.”
“Not the point,” he says as he continues hacking a way through the deadly plants. “Good runner, bad runner, irrelevant. Why be a jungle runner at all? dealing with sawbone trees, piranha flowers, bile pits, dagoruns, glow-wisps, marlies, devil-dragons and a dozen other killers. The jungle was made to win and it’s going to win. Honestly, I don’t know how you got by so long running it.”
We’re through the thicket. The canopy has thickened and blue sunlight filters through in glowing patches as if the jungle is trapped under the Carribean Sea. I can’t help but think of the trip I took to Turks and Caicos, back when I was Langston’s age, a spring break of beer and beach and a view of crystalline blue water that went on forever and ever. This thought reminds me of good friends I miss. Compared to their carefree company, Langston seems like a shark looking for a meal.
I lead the way through knee high reddrakes, the easy path since their toxic leaves have been thankfully chewed down by local grazers. The path descends into a curving gully leading away from the highlands.
“Why are you even out here?” I ask. “You sound like you’d rather be back in the village, voting on the next person we turn into ground chuck.”
Langston smiles. “See? That right there’s why. Making it onto the senate doesn’t come without making some enemies with it. You think I’d trust those people to do this job with Talya out here?”
Talya is Langston’s second wife. His first wife was taken from him and processed when he was sixteen, once medical exams proved she was barren. Talya’s the reason Langston left his soft seat in the senate house to venture into danger with a father he hasn’t talked to in years.
“I wouldn’t have worried,” I muse. “You’re a senator. No one would aim for Talya. It puts a target on their own back the next time you vote.”
His only response is to pull out his suppression pistol. I pull mine on instinct more than any real reason. The jungle is quiet. An instant later the realization dawns that it shouldn’t be.
Together, we begin to beat the flat of our machetes against the barrels of our suppression pistols. The sound rings out loud, hollow clangs. We keep at it beating, beating, beating, filling the silence with a righteous, raucous din. A moment later I hear the shrill keen of a dagorun directly behind and above us. It swings it tentacles from tree to tree in full retreat. These creatures resemble jellyfish, but with the black eyes and triangle teeth of Great Whites.
“Dagorun got close,” Langston says.
“Happens sometimes. That’s why runners need partners. Impossible to catch everything out here all the time, especially when you’re old like me and wondering about your new running mate. That was a good catch, by the way. I didn’t really believe you could fill in for Rippee when you told him to not to come, not until now at least.”
He shakes his head at my words. “Please focus. You’re a runner. I’m a senator. You should be doing this run better than me. Be useful or the factory’s going to claim you soon if the jungle doesn’t first.”
He speaks of the factory like a promise. I wonder if he’d put his own vote to me. He wouldn’t be the first senator to vote down their own kin to show their “impartiality” and “fairness” for choosing those they deem are the least of us. More and more of the newer generation is like Langston, detached from the bonds of Earth, the bonds of family.
“Thirty-three runs,” I tell him. “Forty-nine recovered fugitives. The most successful runner and the second longest enduring in the history of the village. And you talk of useful. Reminds me of Eugene Bullard. You know his story?”
Langston glares at me as if I was holding out a handful of salt for his wounds. He puts his suppression pistol away and takes a step deeper into the jungle, following an open path over a rocky outcrop, likely to get away from me as much as to pick up the trail.
“You might want to come back and look at this, Senator,” I yell at him as I kneel down.
He pauses, frowns, comes back.
“Eugene Bullard was the first African American fighter pilot,” I tell Langston as he comes to my side. I pull back some freckled-sumac to expose a partial boot print. Woman’s, maybe a size six. “Bullard fought in World War I for the French when his American homeland thought him too black and therefore too useless to fight. Earned fifteen medals from the French, including the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre. They called him the ‘Black Swallow of Death.’ He died in obscurity working as an elevator operator in New York, still unknown and unappreciated by his homeland. This bootprint isn’t more than two hours old – it hasn’t been baked dry. We’re gaining on them, if we don’t follow any false trails.”
I aim my machete off through a thicket of hornetbushes, which is the opposite way that Langston had been attempting to lead me. My smile makes no attempt to hide my feelings. Years of experience will always beat trudging through the jungle armed with a good memory and youthful arrogance.
“I got it, Bullard died.” Langston looks down at the boot print and nods. “Lead on.”
We walk for a time, tracking. Sweltering heat keeps us stewing in our own sweat while little nagaflies which look like tiny winged scorpions swirl and bite to get our blood. But no dagoruns or other killer creatures drop onto our heads. None of the plants try to inject us with neurotoxins. It is simply patches of blue light dancing upon green and purple foliage, gooney-shrubs and not-quite-redwood trees and krakenbushes with long stemmed white and orange flower blossoms. It is beautiful. The jungle’s most dangerous trick is showing you it isn’t constantly dangerous.
The trees thin out to provide a modest clearing. A solitary black boot rests against a tree at the opposite end. Before Langston can get past me, I bar his way.
I point at the jungle floor in the clearing, at the decaying leaves and vines glowing ever so slightly in the blue sunlight. They shine like that because they are coated. I stick my machete deep into the plant matter, to the hilt, and pull out a blade wet with translucent green slime. Langston nods knowing he was one misstep from plunging into a bile pit.
We carefully walk around the pit towards the boot. I can almost feel Langston trying to peer around me to get a better view.
“What size is it?” he asks. “Is it a woman’s? Think they fell into the bile pit?”
“Size six, probably a woman’s,” I say as we arrive at it. “But look. Severed foot’s still inside. Yet no blood anywhere. The boot was placed here, a setup.”
“A setup? You mean for us?”
“Most likely. To make us think they got swallowed up by the pit, or to lead us into it ourselves.”
Any cheer evaporated from Langston’s face. His brow furrowed in anger. “This is your fault.”
“They should be stumbling through this place, half ravaged and crying to come back, even if it’s as dinner for Grays. They’ve had training. Expert training.”
I smile. “Glad you finally acknowledge your old man’s an expert.”
“You think this is funny? Jesus, Saul, you made our job harder out here,” he says, making no attempt to mask his fury.
“I’m not your child to scold, son. Catching runners is a job that requires specialized training. I can’t help it if those same skills required to catch runners are the same skills runners need to run well. Nor can I help it if people believe the stories of a free town somewhere out here, where the Grays help our kind instead of eating us. I know I believe it. Not all humans eat meat, why not the Grays? Besides, it would mirror history, when the indigenous people of Florida helped our people escape slavery. Seminole means runaway, not a native tribe but a mix of free people. You need to watch yourself.”
The history lesson does nothing to change his angry countenance. “No, you watch yourself before a senator. Why would you teach someone such things?”
“I’m not the only jungle runner in the village,” I replied, my indignation rising to match his anger. “You made it your life’s work to avoid me, what I know, what I do, who I teach. So why are you so sure it was me?”
“You said it yourself, the most decorated. Second longest surviving. If someone wanted to make a go of trying to live in this deathtrap, who better to teach them?”
I stay silent.
“James is soft,” Langston muses seemingly unaware of his own anger or my reaction to it, “All books… would likely stab himself with his own machete every fifth swing. Mina’s terrified of this place. I think she feared it even more than the factory if you can believe that. That leaves Darren Ito. Did you teach him how to run?”
Darren Ito came with the latest batch of abductees taken from Earth by the Gray aliens. Like all fresh abductees, we train and show them jobs the village needs to find what they’ll be suited for. I recall he was pretty good when it came to running the jungle, but he volunteered for the meat factory instead. New abductees never volunteer for that—the work was too grim and disdainful for new arrivals—but it was a smart survival tactic. Meat handlers are virtually immune to being processed themselves. Meanwhile, running the jungle is practically a guaranteed early grave.
“Ito didn’t seem the type,” I say. “He’d rather cut people apart and put the pieces into slick packaging for alien consumption rather than risk his neck out here.”
“Somebody knows something,” Langston says. He squints at me with suspicion. “What about Talya? You were always high on family, even when I cut you off. It wouldn’t shock me to find you were trying to friend my wife to get close to me. So what’s up? You’ve been talking to her, pumping her full of your Earth stories? You tell her to leave me?”
There’s a tragic sadness to his questions that makes me regret taking this run. A human on Graysworld seemed a whole ‘nother species to a human on Earth. It’s the constant living in a village that is in reality a free-range meat farm, of knowing your next day was not only not promised, but could abruptly end by group decision. No one wanted to grow friendships because it was easier to lose strangers and enemies. So full of fear, stuck in a state of paranoia, everyone, always.
I look at my only surviving son, the one who told me when he was thirteen that he didn’t want to see me anymore because jungle runners die fast and there was no point. He stuck by that until this run. Even now he wants nothing from me other than a smooth run. I had hoped for otherwise, at least a chance for us to get to know each other, but realization strikes fast and sudden and shocking. And it leaves you drained.
“You think I endangered us,” I say, “or think I’m useless or conspiring against you, fine. Vote me into meat when we get back. Eventually we all end up on the dinner plate. But the trail’s getting colder and I’ve entertained enough of your bullshit.”
I turn my back on my son and pick up the trail again.
Moments later he gets in step behind me. “Okay, Saul, I’m with you. We still have to ‘feed the Minotaur’ as you call it.”
He remembers my metaphor. I am right to call it the Minotaur. Every year King Minos demanded from the city of Athens seven youths and seven maidens as tribute. As surely as I’m a slave catcher on the Railroad, King Minos lives in the Grays who demand processed, packaged meat every month. They leave it to us to decide who that will be. Lowly are those who stop producing within the village: the crippled, the sick, the old.
Lower still are those who flee. We always leave weight open until the end of the month to fill the quota with fugitives. This month we are still short two-hundred fifty pounds of meat, easily filled with one man and one woman. Langston and I haven’t discussed who because it seems fairly obvious to feed the Minotaur Darren Ito and Mina Wilder. Langston keeps Talya and we make an example of Darren. Being a meat handler gives no one free license to run.
Talk of the Minotaur reminds me of the hero of that tale. Although no one on Graysworld calls him Theseus, the persistent idea this person may exist flits across my mind.
“Maybe it was the Freeman who left the boot.”
“Please,” Langston says, batting my suggestion away as if it was a nagafly. “You used to tell us Freeman stories when we were little. I remember all of them and I’d rather not rehash right now.”
“Why? I distinctly remember you used to love those stories.”
“Because I don’t need romanticized talk of this fucked up place. Because your stories of the Freeman, like he’s some brave new world Harriet Tubman, got into Arna and Countee’s heads, kept them coming out here where the jungle chewed them up. The Freeman is a lie, a comfort people tell each other back at the village and I don’t need to be lied to. At the end of the day, it’s just a miserable myth that keeps fools running to their deaths out here in the bush.”
As if to prove the point, a devil-dragon lumbers into view. Of course, it’s not a dragon, nowhere near reptilian. Instead of scales, the thing is covered in what looks like large red calluses. It is big like elephants are big, with hairless rabbit ears and three-toed feet that bend back smaller trees as it pushes through the jungle. Its eyes are blind eyes, a milky blue throughout.
I hold one finger up, my sign to Langston to stay still. Do not move, do not crouch behind a tree, do not run. Devil-dragons don’t look for prey so much as react to prey. Standing still affords the only real protection, which is no protection at all if you’re in its path, as it will grasp you and bend your spine back like any small tree it folds over as it goes.
It is heading towards us. It keeps coming, growing bigger and bigger until the rest of the jungle has disappeared behind the monster. I can’t turn my head to look directly, but I can see Langston getting nervous. I can practically feel him and all that coiled, anxious energy. All we see in front of us is a looming tower of red calluses. Langston licks his lips and the devil-dragon’s head swivels toward the motion. It leans toward Langston, its ears angled like spikes, its milky eyes searching.
A rustle to the right gets its attention. A stinkpossum bounds away. The devil-dragon turns impossibly fast and tramples through the jungle in pursuit.
Quietly, through the bent and broken trees, we pick up the trail and continue our pursuit. We say nothing for a spell, even though we can. We walk. Finally Langston breaks the silence.
“Fuck!” he yells. “Quiet for the devil-dragons, noise for the dagoruns, speed for the marlies, slow for the plants and bile pits, not to mention all the other shit… and you want to believe some Freeman’s living out here. No fucking way.”
“We all need something to believe in, yeah?”
At this Langston laughs. He turns with a cruel sneer on his lips. “I thought you believed in your bullshit history. What was it you used to be… professor of African American studies? Look around! There is no African here, no American. There is only meat here. How soon will you be just that?”
I don’t look at Langston, but I talk to him as much as I talk to the jungle sweltering around us.
“Poplars are standing there still as death
and ghosts of dead men
meet their ladies walking.”
The sting of the nagaflies is nothing to the sting of memories of my eldest boy. He was skilled, a natural, and was able to somehow meet the jungle with optimism and excitement. The world devours that kind of enthusiasm. I turn to my youngest, answering the question on his face. “It’s from a poem called Southern Mansion by Arna Bontemps. He was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance, along with Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. You and your brothers were named after them. All of you were my living reminders of Earth and art and blackness and anything, everything but basic survival.”
Langston’s expression is deadpan. “How’d that work out for you?”
“You know how,” I say to the last of my progeny, the one most bent by this planet. I look around at the endless jungle. “Do you realize humans used to be more than this… even on Graysworld? The senate was made to lead village projects… escape being chief among those. Filling the quota was a loathsome side function, not the main event. Jungle runners used to run the jungle, mapping it out, trying to find a way out of it. Now we only run down fugitives.”
“You only run down fugitives because you can’t map what doesn’t end. When the Grays come for their meat, why do you think they come straight down in the spaceships instead of across the sky? This isn’t their home world. The whole planet’s a jungle, designed to keep us trapped. And the senate only cares about the quota because it’s the power of life and death. What else matters?”
“Love? Freedom? Family?”
“C’mon, Saul. Be serious. Those matter as much as stories of the Freeman, the superhero that can stay awake for all forty-two hours of a standard Graysworld day. The lone bushman whose skin is thicker than sawbone spikes. That bad motherfucker who can kill dagoruns by tearing off their tentacles.”
“Those stories bring hope.”
“No, they bring delusion. Escapism isn’t hope. If you want hope, get a seat in the senate, where you’re immune to the vote. You know what hope is? Hope is not having to worry about your intestines getting ground up and stuffed in a can.”
There are worse things to lose than your intestines. I’ve lost those things. I’ve listed them to Langston, who’s lost these same things but still doesn’t get it.
Maybe he does. He talks rough and cold but he is braving this jungle to get Talya back. The tension and fear of possibly losing someone could be turning him into a different person.
I track on in silence. The prints get fresher and fresher.
We enter a clearing and see them. The four fugitives. They circle a fire that hosts a stinkpossum roasting on a spit. They turn and face us, the slave catchers. They look worn out from the jungle. A purple bruise marks Talya’s cheek. Her lip is busted. Nowhere among them is the Freeman.
Langston brings his suppression pistol to bear. One round will incapacitate the target and activate tracking. A drone will deploy from the meat processing plant to retrieve the target. And that will be the end of it.
“Hi, honey,” Langston croons to his wife as he pulls the trigger. A blue bolt streaks out, enveloping her body. Talya’s body tenses as blue electricity crackles around her. The man next to her, Darren Ito, runs to catch her as she falls. I turn to Langston in shock. He is oblivious to me, his face hosting a cruel smile and eyes that dance with glee.
His pistol barrel slowly swivels past Darren Ito. It swivels past Mina Wilder, the once seemingly obvious choice for processing. It trains on James Wilder. And Langston’s sneer grows until Mina jumps between James and Langston’s pistol.
I see their story in Langston’s twisted face. It all comes together. And it’s enough to make me pull my suppression pistol.
“You should drop your weapon, Langston,” I say as I point my barrel at his back. “I may be old by your thinking, but I’m fast enough when I need to be.”
He turns his head slightly, keeping his pistol trained on the Wilders. “Has the heat baked your brain, Saul? What are you doing?”
“Telling stories. Tell me if this sounds familiar. It’s about a senator who wanted a married woman. To get her, he planned to vote her husband to the gallows. So the married couple fled.”
Saul turns his attention back to the Wilders. “What would you know about them? About me? About any of this?”
I look at the Wilders. Their look back to me is both plaintive and fearful.
“I know Mina Wilder doesn’t want you because of the way she put herself between her husband and your pistol barrel. I know you want her alive or her being in front of your barrel wouldn’t have stalled you. Her face is pretty, a bit dirty from the jungle, but it’s not smacked around the way Talya’s is. Is that enough to know about them? About you?”
“Please, you’re crying over Talya? You didn’t even know her.”
“Talya’s why you personally came on this run,” I reason. “You couldn’t trust anyone else because you’re a senator. No one in their right mind would’ve shot Talya. And you needed her shot.”
It all made sense. Darren Ito had clearly paid attention to every lesson I had taught on jungle running, the kind of attention needed if all you wanted to do was escape to begin with. Volunteering for the factory was a way to prevent getting a death vote while he found others who were willing to risk the wilds. He knew the key to survival is having someone to watch your back. Perhaps the Wilders came to him out of necessity and Talya out of desperation, but he gave hope to the hopeless, enough to brave this forsaken place.
“You’re going to put your pistol away, Saul,” Langston says. “You let the jungle take Arna. You let the factory take Countee and my mother. I’m your last son. There’s no one left, man.”
“I’ve told you a hundred stories, of noble ancestors and mythic heroes. None of them would contemplate doing what you’re doing. You know this is wrong. I’m asking you to be more human. And I’m absolutely telling you to holster your weapon.”
“Take a story from the Grays, old man,” Langston says, “the story of how they take what they want and they win because of it. Listen, Saul, you don’t have the stomach to stop me, so I’m going to do exactly what I came out here to do. Watch if you want to… maybe tell the story to whoever’ll listen.”
He raises his pistol, aims with deliberate care at the head of James Wilder. I am already aimed at Langston.
I fire first. The space around my son sizzles with arcing electricity.
Langston collapses to the ground subdued. The suppression rounds don’t kill because Grays place a premium on freshest possible meat. While the airborne collection drone flies to the tracking signal of the suppression round, all my immobilized son has are his own thoughts for company. Until he’s picked up and dropped into the meat factory to be processed alive, his inactive body hosts an active mind screaming his own worst fears, the ones that made him forsake me and jungle running to be a senator, and his hate of me.
What story from Earth compares to this? Orpheus lost Eurydice and Judas betrayed Jesus and I am neither and I am both. I don’t know how I feel about what I’ve done, but I’m not distraught. This world takes more and more of your humanity until you are nothing more than meat awaiting packaging. I feel like I took some of that humanity back today.
“What now?” Darren Ito asks as he lays Talya down and stands. “A senator’s getting processed.”
There was no going back, even for me. Especially me. I look at Ito. “Was that you? Back there with the boot?”
Ito nods. “Snuck it out the factory.”
I return the nod, respectfully. “Clever use of a shit job.” We would need that kind of cleverness out here.
The pursuit started the way the Underground Railroad had always started. It ended with us feeding the Minotaur. But like Ito said, what now? How does this new story go?
The jungle lies before us, full of incredible threats and impossible dangers. For this new story, I don’t know the ending. I know it starts the way Harriet Tubman started, with people coming together in the pursuit of freedom.
Maybe the Freeman’s out here, waiting for us at the end of the trail. Perhaps we’ve found him already, here in these successive moments between the start of the story and the end, the same place where Langston Hughes’ Demand lives, his dear dream of utter aliveness.
The in-between is where I tell tales. This time, I’ll tell my own.
“The Seminoles weren’t made in half of a run. Perhaps Freeman and his free town is over that next ridge. Or the next, in a place we name, we build. We should start running before the collection drone shows up.”
I lead the way. A gentle wind is blowing and I swear it’s the cleanest touch I’ve felt in a long time.
About the Author
James Beamon discovered awhile back that if he wrote down some of the stuff he randomly makes up all the time, people might print it. It’s been a semi-charmed life ever since with his stories popping up at F&SF, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction and a slew, or maybe a half slew, of others. An Air Force veteran who’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, James now lives in Virginia with his wife, son and a cat who thinks his part-time job is alarm clock, even on weekends. Especially on weekends.