The Empty Man
by Michael Mathews
part 1 of 2
Zihn stirred a dusty sandal through the the broken clay bowls scattered in the dirt and waved. “Here, you see, they leave him offerings?” he called over his shoulder.
“Offerings?” Dascott wheezed, straining to climb the last few yards to where the old man was standing. “You mean they worship the damned thing?”
Zihn turned. “Worship?” he said with surprise. “No, I don’t think you understand. The offerings are not because they worship the Empty Man. It is because they fear him.”
Dascott’s soft face flushed with anticipation and he bent to examine a shard of pottery, the first tangible evidence that his dream would soon become a reality. With a sense of relish, he pulled the rifle from his shoulder and rechecked the ammunition chamber.
“The locals,” Dascott said, eyeing the site of the gun, “they’ve definitely seen the droid then?” His voice rose in an oddly feminine way, considering his otherwise beefy appearance.
But Zihn only swept his arm towards the trail rising ahead of them. Once they were moving again he explained: “The tribes that pass through this area are simple people: nomads and herders. They depend on the land and weather to survive. They are, what you might call, superstitious, with many gods and many demons. But the story of the Empty Man is known to all: even the very youngest child has been warned by his mother to watch out for the Empty Man.”
Dascott’s elation began to ebb at this remark. He slid the rifle back over his shoulder.
A broad smile instantly flashed across Zihn’s face, surprisingly white teeth glinting against sun-withered skin. “Do not worry, Mr. Dascott,” he said heartily. “Zihn knows these mountains as well as anyone. If the Empty Man is here, Zihn will take you to him!”
The two men trudged on, ascending upwards into the rugged gorge. Zihn moved easily across the scattered boulders, leaping deer-like from one to the next, but Dascott, panting in the thin air, was forced to make frequent stops to sit and rest. He gulped water from his canteen and then allowed himself a few minutes to study the landscape rising up around him. With each new makeshift altar he saw, his confidence grew.
By late afternoon the pass had begun to widen and level off, and Dascott had, at last, managed to catch up to Zihn. He found the old man sitting amongst the packs, boiling a pot of pale, yellow tea.
“You should rest. Here, have some,” Zihn said, offering him a small bowl filled with steaming liquid.
Dascott lowered himself heavily onto the ground, and, still trying to catch his breath, raised a hand in refusal. When he could speak again he asked: “Is it much further?”
“Not long.” Zihn smiled politely. “You are very eager to meet the Empty Man?”
“Android,” Dascott corrected. “Army issue, Assassin class, 2035 series — if my theory is correct.” He pulled a note screen from his coat, and after tapping a few keys, handed it to Zihn. “It would be an incredible kill — a first — unique even by black market standards. After almost thirty years, to actually witness one, in the field...” His eyes flashed at the thought of adding such an unusual mount to the trophy room of his ranch-house estate.
Zihn studied the display carefully. “Yes,” he said. “This may be the same one. But you intend to shoot the Empty Man if you see him?”
“If? Look here,” Dascott said, plucking the display back from the old man, “not more than an hour ago you promised me you could take me to this — Empty Man. I can assure you, you won’t get a dime unless the terms of our contract are met.”
“Yes, of course, Zihn will take you. It’s just that, perhaps, he is not so easy to see. It is said that the Empty Man can make himself invisible.”
A small scoff escaped Dascott’s sweat-dewed lips. “I suppose,” he said, “to a simple goat herder, technology as sophisticated as a 2035 Assassin might appear to be magical, but I happen to have studied every document ever written about the droids of the Third Siberian War, and I assure you I am not suffering from any such superstitious fantasies. I don’t expect to encounter any ghosts, bogeymen or invisible androids on this trip.”
Dascott traced a finger lovingly across the diagram of the android’s trilmenite exoskeleton, stopping at the vulnerable spot just below the neck. Nothing magical, he thought, just a machine with weaknesses and vulnerabilities like any other quarry. One clean shot through the power unit there — he stabbed his finger at the screen — the equivalent of a heart-shot on a big cat or gorilla.
“It’ll be a shame to damage such a beautiful specimen,” Dascott added, “but I’m perfectly prepared to. This rifle happens to be loaded with the most advanced trilmenite-piercing ammunition ever made, completely illegal of course, even to possess.”
“Naturally,” Zihn agreed. “Your gun is obviously very strong. But if the Empty Man cannot make himself invisible, perhaps he can travel through the stones, or turn himself into an insect. You might not know where to shoot your strong bullets.”
Dascott clenched his teeth in silence, his gaze fixed on the image of the robot. It was pointless to try to explain such sophisticated technology to a relative primitive. The old man had said it himself: they were simple people.
He glanced up at Zihn, who was still smiling politely at him. Dascott gave a sniff of a laugh and forced a smile back, quickly turning away to stare off into the mountains that fell away below them. They must be up around 10,000 feet now he mused. In fact, he thought with some pride, he may well be the first Westerner to ever witness this particular vista.
But a small sense of nervousness began to creep up inside Dascott as he realized just how isolated he truly was. Even the few members of his private organization who knew his location wouldn’t be able to help him if one of the local peasants decided to push him over a cliff and make off with his pack.
No, he thought, that would be foolish even by their simple reckoning. The nature of this hunting trip required the guarantee of several millions of kilodollars. His arrival alone, smuggled across the northern border, had cost him nearly a million in bribes. And the particular tribe which ruled this area would earn a payoff many times that, should he acquire his prize. Still, he worried, they might be so primitive they wouldn’t understand the whole idea of money even if he handed it to them.
“I am sorry to interrupt your resting,” Zihn said, with a little bow. “The journey is only a little further, but the path is quite steep, with many dangerous cliffs — it will take some time.” The old man was stooping to lift the packs as he spoke.
“Please, allow me,” Dascott said, jumping up. He gave a gracious smile as he pulled his own pack away from the man, and then slung it over his shoulder. No sense taking any chances, he thought.
* * *
The final leg of the trip sapped what remaining strength Dascott had left in his thick legs. With the extra burden of the pack and the ever thinning air, he was forced to stop even more frequently. Then, as they reached the high pass the only other soul he’d witnessed in the mountains, a squat little woman driving a small herd of goats, appeared ahead of them.
“What’s she saying?” Dascott asked, when he’d caught up again.
The three of them were standing in a small sea of bumping and leaping little goats. Zihn and the woman spoke in rapid, lilting syllables that were unrecognizable to Dascott.
“Very good,” Zihn said, giving the woman a respectful nod and then turning to Dascott. “She says she would like to give you a gift.”
Dascott wrinkled his brow, bemused. “A gift?” he said. “I can’t imagine what she could possibly have that I would consider a gift.”
“Only simple,” Zihn said. “A cake. She wants you have it.”
The woman edged forward, bent and smiling broadly. She held the little cake in front of herself in cupped hands, a gesture of offering.
Dascott wasn’t sure he wanted to touch the gritty-looking bread, let alone eat it.
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Mathews