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Like a Rolling Stone

The fat man was interesting. A tourist, of course, who had only come to Qoyllur Rit’i to rubberneck. Zimm had seen him on previous days down on the plain below the ice, walking around the campsites set up most recently on the Sinkara depression. There was no mistaking his shape; Zimm figured he must weigh at least three hundred pounds, which ruled him out as a typical festival pilgrim. Plus, the fat man hadn’t brought altar candles with him up to the still night-darkened ice, nor did he stop to recite the liturgies—bah, superstitions—he’d watched the natives take part in. His clothes were completely Western. He wasn’t carrying a light; he moved slowly, with determination, studying each step. Surely, Zimm assessed, he was aware of his limitations and had tasked himself with fighting them through perseverance. Zimm had a very high opinion of perseverance; it was even greater than his already great respect for discipline. He liked the fat man, though that wouldn’t for a second keep Zimm from eliminating him if protocol required it.

A little after midnight, through his biovisor, Zimm had seen the fat man ride up a ways on horseback, then hand over the nag and continue on foot, going noticeably slower than the rest of the climbers, but with method, with rhythm, probably counting steps, planning breaths and pauses to rest. It didn’t seem like the fat man’s first time climbing a mountain, he thought, stashing that observation in the detailed and abundant mental archive with which he fed protocol. Years of training had granted him a certain instinct for fishing out relevant information where there seemed to be none.

From his niche, high up on snowy Colque Punku, Zimm went on observing the bulky but distant figure, following its progress step by step over ice studded with pilgrims, each one furnished at least with a lit candle. From time to time he switched to infrared. Infrared was entertaining. Sometimes, on nights when the weather changed abruptly, from the lowest parts of the glacier a noise rose up that almost could not be called a noise; it was a kind of push of air that he felt in his carotids, his cheeks, his stomach, almost making him nauseous. Zimm knew that the entire middle and lower part of the glacial tongue was broken into large blocks of ice and that the sound came from their settling: ice cubes the size of buildings shifting one or two inches beneath the mountain, which would only thunder seriously if they ever came completely apart and collapsed the glacier’s edge. (Of course they never did that: only small blocks tumbled down, melted, and silently disappeared.) But in those partial, constrained movements, the enormous ice blocks writhed to their limits and vibrated to recover their shape, and that to-and-fro produced that vague sound, that occasional complaint, soft and deep, that you heard more with your skin than your ears. Zimm could have sworn then that with his infrared implant he could see that sound like a lilac-colored reverberation at the edge of the blocks (normally a uniform indigo shade) that were complaining. His instructor sergeant wouldn’t have believed a word of it, and the geek who’d designed the damned gadget would say such a thing was impossible. But he had seen it. And since catching the sound’s elusive St. Elmo’s with an infrared biovisor was a matter more of perseverance than luck, whenever it happened Zimm chalked up a small victory. He also got less bored.

For now the infrared was unnecessary. The starlight bathing the glacier now pocked with a constellation of candles, as well as the tenuous dawn barely breaking through behind him, offered enough light to make out even the expressions on the fat man’s face. Of course, Zimm saw him greenish on his neural screen. Although the sergeant instructors called this a color display, the targets’ faces showed up as shining greenish-white blotches, as if making it easier to imagine them as aliens . . .

The fat man had stopped to talk with a group of local women, señoras who all that night had been sliding along the first ice chutes, the ones on the east side of the ice tongue. Suddenly he walked away from them, moving with curious determination toward the center of the glacier, but then some outcroppings of ice to the south hid the man from Zimm’s sight. He turned to attentively follow a conflict that seemed to be breaking out a little higher up, on the flat area near the large gray undulations that marked the end of the “social area” of the Sinakara ice tongue. One group of natives was arguing with another: another of so many such fights and conflicts, maybe rituals, that as a privileged spectator of Qoyllur Rit’I, Zimm had watched start, escalate, and come to blows and, if the wind was favorable, to curses he could hear with cutting clarity from a quarter-mile away. The two bands in this fight were no more interesting than any of the others, except that one of the two (the one that seemed likely to win) was led by his most conspicuous target, a certain person of interest that he’d been studying for days: a giant native man about whom Zimm had orders to gather information. A lot of information. He was monitoring the situation through his bio-instruments—thinking about returning to his surveillance of the fat man, calculating that he should be back in the line of sight—when something on the south side of the glacier produced a kind of mineral cry or moan, an implosion of crystal, a mental whine of crushed glass that Zimm had never heard before and that, though it ended abruptly, in some way went on sounding in his inner ear. He opened his mouth and swallowed deliberately to balance the pressure. He attributed the sound, at first, to moving ice under “his” mountain; he knew that the perch on Colque Punku where he spent his days and nights was creaky and unstable, but the new noise had come precisely from the area where the fat man had been headed. He judged that if the elements [Solitary Fat Man] and [New, Alarming Noise] shared space in some way, he had to find out.

But he didn’t find the fat man where he expected. He used an accessory that let him widen the view of his biovisor even further, and he searched his surroundings methodically in a typical search grid. Then he saw him, much further down than where he’d last seen the fat man. But he was an inert body, fallen on his back, obviously wounded or dead. The fat man’s mass was unmistakable: it had to be him. Right away he noticed something even stranger and he switched to a higher magnification.

The body wasn’t whole.

Surprised, Zimm pulled his face away from the accessory and expelled a torrent of air through his headsuit. Thinking, calibrating possibilities, he blinked several times before returning to the eyepiece. Suddenly the loose fragments fit together. That extraordinary screeching had been artificial: it hadn’t come from the ice, but from a weapon.

It was certainly interesting that someone was copying his methods on the very same mountain; still, it posed a serious problem. A hidden adversary who was (also) able to do that to a human target at night and from very far away was something he should, at least, be informed about. Although his own holographic camouflage would completely shield him to human eyes, he didn’t know what capabilities this other had, and the next victim could very well be him. And that noise! His teeth were still remembering it, as was the hair on the nape of his neck. He hadn’t liked it at all. No weapon he knew of—and he thought he knew of all of them—moaned on so many wavelengths: its echoes were still scratching at his hypothalamus, his cerebellum. His trained mind went on yellow alert and in half a second the juices and enzymes had started dispersing throughout his body. He had to act. In little more than a minute he cut the distance separating him from the fat man’s body in half; wrapped in the nothing of his hologram, he emerged again on the glacier’s surface, invisible as ever.

But not this time. There was nothing. And worse, there was no one. At least, no one who emitted the heat one would expect from a body of warm blood, and neither (he dared think) from the exhaust pipes of motors or electric actuators . . . worse still, there was nothing that reflected the visible light. Or the ultraviolet. Or the other three spectrums his biovisor allowed him (which the instructor-doctor who’d implanted them had jokingly referred to as “Ozma,” “SETI,” and “LGM”), and which an ever more worried Zimm used to sweep his surroundings again and again.

Nothing.

Sure, he was perfectly comfortable inside his thermochemical balancing system—a web of warm fluids circulating through the network of tubular vessels sewn into his clothes. And sure, imagination was not his strong suit. But there, at night in the heights of that dismal mountain in the Peruvian Andes, Zimm began to remember the legends told about that mountain, terrible legends that the protocol prepared by his Commander had wisely exploited . . .  and he had to admit he felt a chill. Because, in effect, there was a stubbornly invisible thing decapitating people on that mountain.

And this time it wasn’t him.

“Sabádo” © Enrique Prochazka. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.