LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Last Stand at Cougar Annie’s, by Scott R Jones

BK Last stand at cougar annie's Illustration.Pure Helen has a catchphrase she uses whenever she takes Andy down. She calls it a joke, but it isn’t, because jokes are supposed to have a funny bit at the end where you laugh.

We laugh anyway, because she wants us to. It’s expected. She’s our leader. Best rifle in the Clayoquot since Cougar Annie herself; she claims to have shot as many Andy as Annie did cougars. That’s not her preferred method, though.

I watch her lead a pack of Andy out of the fog and straight to the docks at the bottom of Fourth Street without looking over her shoulder once. She dives in, treads water and shrieks with joy as most of the pack follow her in to gnash their teeth and claw uselessly and drown around her. The weight of their leaden malformed bones pulling them under.

“Ladies only!” she hoots as we help her onto the Galatea. “No boys allowed!”

It’s not a joke. Barely a catchphrase. More a painful statement of fact. She’s Pure Helen, and she’s kept us alive for fourteen years. She’s Pure Helen and we laugh because she’s insane. I hand her a towel as Mandy starts the big diesel. The Galatea shudders and lurches out into the channel past Strawberry Island.

“Nothing’s really changed,” Pure Helen says to me as she squeezes seawater from her dreads. “Never were any decent men in this town.”

*

The sisters like to talk about where they were on the day the world changed. Who they were with and what they were doing when the first reports started coming in.

I didn’t come to the edge of things because I wanted to keep in touch with the world. That’s what the Clayoquot is: the Edge. Tofino is the end of the road, literally. The #4 ends at a big dock. Next stop: Japan. So I missed those first reports, but I can tell you what I was doing that morning, all the same. A bear had managed to get into the lumber room at the side of the house up on Lone Cone, drawn by who-knows-what. Maybe nothing, maybe it was just curious. A young black bear, not two years old. Overturned the kayak stand next to the outer wall, went through the screen on the high window and tumbled in. Couldn’t figure its way back out.

We watched it through the open window, Terry and I. I remember the way its eyes rolled back in the sockets, showing bright crescent moons against the black, and the smell of it filling the space and rolling out at us in waves rank with fear and rage. Terry wanted to unlock the door on the other side and let it swing wide. He’d bolt for the safety of the deck as the bear escaped. Fresh off the bus from Winnipeg only six months before, Terry imagined himself a surfer and a nature boy. That’s what salt water and good weed every day does to you.

I’d lived in Tuff City eight years, so I knew it was a stupid idea and I told him so. Then I called Animal Control.

By the time I got into work at the hotel, everybody was talking about it. No one knew what was going on, but they were all talking, just the same. Watching the same feeds.

The reports in the morning were mostly from America. They said riots, terrorism, anarchists. All of which we were used to hearing, used to feeling superior about, but this time there was something more to it. Something excessive. In the afternoon the reports said biological attack. By nightfall they were coming in from all over the globe and they said epidemic.

Then, over a week, or maybe less, the reports began to scream pandemic. Panic. Failed military-industrial mega-complex experiments, something to do with the manipulation of the human morphogenetic field. The reports howled mutation, mindless super-soldiers, monsters in the streets. Run, hide, save yourselves. This station will continue to broadcast for as long as we’re able. The reports hissed black science and death.

Death to everyone with a Y-chromosome, no matter their gender identity. Or almost everyone. Those who didn’t die were few, maybe one in five thousand, but they changed and it was enough to end things.

The andro-terata. The monster-men.

Andy.

The pundits called it Circe Syndrome, after that witch from the myths. Clever, but wrong, because Circe’s victims became harmless pigs. Not Andy. Andy killed. Andy raged and burned and slaughtered. Animals, women, girls. Old men and boys who’d lived to change into Andy but were too weak. Andy killed everything it could. Andy was very hard to kill.

Tofino got lucky. It was the off-season, and our male population (never large in the first place) was down. All the men died, save two. Those two killed a hundred of us. Maybe more. Lucky.

Terry didn’t change.

Towards the end of our first year at Cougar Annie’s, a girl killed herself. She’d had a hard time of it with Helen, who insisted she drop the tomboy act and wouldn’t let her shave her head. Worse abuses. It wasn’t going to get better, and she knew it. We all knew it, tried to ignore it; a luxury, really, maybe our last one, one she couldn’t share. So she tied her ankles to a cinder block and dropped it off the side of her float-home in the bay.

She wasn’t the first, not by a long shot, but she was the only one to leave a note. Ragged conspiracy-theory scratchings about four-dimensional hex-tech armour and weaponizing the World-Soul. She wrote that Uncle Sam had made a pact with Satan back in 1914 and it had taken him this long to come up from Hell to collect.

It wasn’t deep, where she’d gone down, and the water so clear there, with the sun at midday. You could see her on the bottom. Face like the moon surprised to find itself anchored under water. Pure Helen wept with the rest of us, but later she was steel.

“She was right about the Americans,” she whispered to me that night. “But this wasn’t Satan’s work. This was Gaia, making honest men of them at last. Ending their reign. This was the goddess bringing balance to the world again. We should be grateful,” she said.

I said I was, but I was thinking of a cinder block.

*

There’s only one reason to take the Galatea down to Tofino anymore, and that’s to repaint the message on the big dock. We do this in the spring, to make sure the crude map of Hesquiat Harbour and the giant invitation are clear and readable after a year of rain and sun and saltwater wash…

NEXT STOP COUGAR ANNIE’S GARDENS

FOOD SHELTER SANCTUARY!

SISTERS ONLY! ANDY-FREE!

(since 2035)

We don’t need anything from the town; the last useful items were removed a decade ago. Pure Helen insists on making the trip every new moon, though. The goddess tells her to go. Go and kill Andy if she finds him. And she does. There’s always a few that find their way past the choke-point barricades at Long Beach, through the pit traps and the deadfalls on their way to the end of the road. The really tough bastards: the lizards and the apes, sometimes the big cat ones. And sometimes there’s more than a few. Whole packs of Andy, drawn by who-knows-what. Maybe curiosity, if that’s something they still have. Hell, maybe the goddess.

Pure Helen would go on her missions alone, if Mandy and I didn’t take her. I’m beginning to think we should let her.

When we get back to Cougar Annie’s, some of our sisters meet us at the dock. Shell with her bright hair and teeth and ridiculous optimism. Seekoya and Birch and Star, who used to be our girls. Grown now. The old Ahousaht and Hesquiaht grandmothers in their cedar-weave robes and ratty Cowichan sweaters. There are fifty-seven of us left. There used to be more. Now we could fit everyone on the dock, but it’s only these few faithful who bother to show.

How many Andy did we kill? they want to know. How did we kill them? Pure Helen grins and leads them up the trail to the Gardens where the other sisters join us, to the Big Board under the eaves of what used to be the Interpretive Centre. The numbers under the SHOT and BURNED and MISC columns don’t change today, but DROWNED goes up by thirteen. It’s the fastest-rising column. Andy can’t swim, but he’ll follow a woman right into the sea to sink like a stone.

Pure Helen turns from the board and launches into the old speech. My sisters cheer at the right moments: thanks to the goddess for a good hunt, and thanks to me and Mandy, her able lieutenants. Loud cheers for the new numbers on the board. The planet is less thirteen monsters, which means we’re that much closer to the moment when Gaia resets everything. The men were removed for a reason. This is the time of testing. Gaia will reward our faith in her, if only we stay the course, stay pure. Purge Andy from the planet, and reject all that led our species to his creation, to the brink of death.

We will live, we sisters. We faithful daughters of Gaia. How we will live, that’s where the faith comes in, and it’s not part of the old speech. Pure Helen calls and we respond. Some less enthusiastically than others.

We’ll feast tonight: the salmon we smoke in the late autumn and winter, the venison we cure in the spring. We’ll get drunk on our blackberry wine and our shine. We’ll get high and fuck. It’s always like this after she kills a lot of Andy. I can see the blaze of triumph in her eyes. Before dawn, Pure Helen will leave our warm bed and retreat to some cold green grove to commune with the goddess.

My sisters used to have another question for us when we docked. Did we find any other survivors? That used to mean women and men, back when we still thought there might be normal men out there. Then just women.

And then they stopped asking.

*

My bed is empty when I wake.

The marine layer this morning is thick, damp wool that the weak sun takes hours to burn away and when it does finally, around noon, a yacht is revealed, anchored in the mouth of the bay. A sleek thing, all matte black and chrome and injection-moulded fibreglass polished like ivory; a real luxury job. It’s unusual, and the sisters whisper, excited and nervous. I draft Mandy and Shell to come with me on the Zodiac. We bounce out across a light chop. I chew at my bottom lip and watch Mandy as she checks our rifles. These things don’t always go well.

She’s called Maggie’s Dream, which calms me somewhat. When they have freshly painted names like New Hope or Christbride is when we get really nervous. The women moving around on deck as we approach are clearly not of that type, though. Lots of waving and shouting. They seem happy to see us, but I’m still not taking any chances. I signal Shell to cut the engine when we’re still well out of range.

My voice through the bullhorn gives me a shock: I don’t say much these days and when I do it’s always quietly. I keep the questions light, informal. Who are you? Where are you sailing from? What’s your purpose here? The basics, though the answer to the last question is often the telling one.

Whoever the captain of Maggie’s Dream is, she’s not on deck with her crew. She’s behind black tinted glass and I get my answers through loudspeakers I can’t even see.

“Hello! I’m Captain Maggie Tuckwell, sailing from Port of Seattle. We’re a research and outreach vessel. We’re not looking to resupply here, if that’s a concern. Is this Cougar Annie’s Gardens?”

Americans. I answer the captain with my own questions. What sort of research? What kind of outreach? Behind me, I can feel Mandy tensing like a muscle around her gun.

“Genetic research,” she answers. “And humanitarian outreach, of course.” I can hear the smile in her voice as it booms out across the water. “Is there any other kind?”

I glance back at Mandy, at her slack face and glinting eyes. Shell shrugs her shoulders. Humanitarian outreach could mean anything. I put the bullhorn to my mouth again. I want to know, specifically, what they are offering.

“Well, a fresh start. For one thing.”

The women on deck are smiling, hooting, waving. One blows a kiss our way before stepping aside and letting a very small person come to the rail. I don’t even notice that I’ve let the bullhorn slip from my hand until Captain Maggie speaks again.

“Children, for another.” Two of the crew hoist the very small person onto their shoulders. It waves. Arms like slender twigs. A girl, maybe eight, nine years old at the most.

“Is this Cougar Annie’s? We’d really like to come ashore, if you’ll have us.”

*

They have their own launch, as sleek as the yacht. It slides out from a berth in the stern; the captain and two of her crew follow us to the dock. Their jumpsuits are clean and bright in the reflected sun off the water, and I catch myself smoothing out the more obvious creases in my poncho. Mandy gives me a look I can’t place.

“I’ll go find Hel,” she says as she steps to the boards and ties us off. The launch churns up the water on the other side of the dock, Captain Tuckwell and her crew all smiles and close-cropped fair hair. I hold up a hand to Mandy and shake my head: her look this time is easy to place, and we engage in what amounts to a brief staring contest while Shell, always our best ambassador, bounces over to the Americans, her arms wide in welcome.

Tuckwell’s lieutenants don’t volunteer their first names and the names they do offer, Lockwood and Brady, feel clunky on my tongue.

It’s a short hike to the Gardens. I decide there’s no point in asking our visitors to stay quiet about the miracle they have on board. Between Mandy and Shell, everyone will know in under an hour, and if Mandy doesn’t run and track down Pure Helen, someone will. The trail is thin and we’re single-file as we walk. Tuckwell is chatty behind me. She already knows a lot about us.

“Glad to be finally seeing Annie’s Gardens. What a woman! Ordering her husbands through classified ads. Widow with nursery and orchard wishes partner. Widower preferred. Object matrimony. How many did she go through, anyway?”

Four, I answer. The first two died, the third wasn’t cut out for remote living, and the fourth, a drunk, tried to run Annie off a cliff in an attempt to get the property. She doubled back, and ran him off with a shotgun instead.

“Amazing. Last of the pioneers. We figured there’d be a settlement here, just from the topo maps alone, so I did a little search on her before this trip…”

“You have internet?” Shell gasps.

The taller blond lieutenant, Lockwood, laughs. “Back at the crèche, sure. It’s limited, but you know Seattle. Town’s wired up. Gates was good for something.”

“The crèche?” Shell asks.

“Military research facility,” Tuckwell says. “Well. Ex-military, I should say. Most of it underground, which you’d think would be great, defensively, but it took a lot of work by a lot of brave women to make it safe. Not like here. This is a great defensive position. Any trouble with the males from the land side?”

Behind her, Mandy grunts. “None. Escarpment. Canyons. The rivers. Helen knew we’d be safe from Andy here. Helen knew Andy would like an easy approach. Helen has the bless—”

“Men always did,” Tuckwell interrupts. It’s hard to miss the emphasis she puts on men. “Even before they changed. It’s what got us here today. Well, it’s not that way anymore. It’s hard. A hard world.”

“You seem to be doing alright for yourselves,” Mandy growls.

I can’t help myself. Before Tuckwell can respond, I turn and face her and the whole line stops in their tracks. How, I ask her. There’s a species of panic breeding in my chest as I speak. I am thinking of Helen and her speech for the sisters. I am thinking of every whispered pillow-talk sermon she ever gave me. I am thinking of the moon under water and that girl on the yacht. How have they done what they’ve done?

Tuckwell puts a hand on my arm with an easy casualness that tells me this is not the first time she’s been asked. Her eyes are grey and serene as she speaks, but I am not calmed.

“Let’s talk about that in a bit.” Then she leans into me, brings her lips to my ear. I catch hints of cinnamon and mint on her breath. Toothpaste. Actual not made from baking soda and tea-tree oil toothpaste.

“I’m familiar with your situation,” Tuckwell whispers. “There are things your Big Sister… Helen, is it? There are things Helen will need to know and I can tell, already, that a certain delicacy will go a long way with her. OK? So let’s go find her, and a quiet place to talk. Alright, honey?”

Her honey makes me bristle even as I realize that bristling is only what Pure Helen would have me do when I hear an endearment like that. I look up to see Mandy staring at me, and I jerk my chin towards the trail. She nods and runs ahead of us.

*

“What’s she like?” Tuckwell asks me once we’re settled in the Interpretive Centre, the sisters chatting loudly with Lockwood and Brady on the deck outside. “Helen?”

Strong, I say. Capable. Fierce. A survivor. I leave out insane.

“Kept your people alive. Yes. A local? From before?”

Her mother had been born on the front line of the Clayoquot Sound clearcut blockade in ’93. Her grandmother had surfed Chesty’s and Cox Bay when the #4 was nothing but gravel and mudslide. Hippies back to before there was a word for them. Pure Helen was about as local as you could get.

“And her father? What’s her surname?”

I shift in my seat. My eyes are hot, my tongue feels thick and dry in my mouth. I barely remember my own. There are no fathers, no surnames here, I say, and I can see Tuckwell’s eyes narrow just a little at the slight pause I place between sur and name. No sir names, is what I said. She’s just Helen, I say. Pure Helen.

“Hm. That her score sheet out there?”

I nod and mumble. Mostly, I tell her. Everything recent, anyway.

She sighs. “That’s a lot of dead men.”

I correct her: it’s a lot of dead Andy. I correct her, but my heart isn’t in it. Tuckwell leans toward me across the table and gathers up my hands into hers.

“Look. I’m a decent judge of character and I’ve seen this before, all up and down the coast, from Monterey to Haida Gwaii. So, I’m just going to be straight with you, because you seem like a smart girl to me, someone who can see what’s happening to your people. You need to know that the world is changing out there. It’s not going back to how it was, but it is changing and we need smart women, women who know what needs to be done and aren’t afraid to do it. Wise women for whom superstition is just not—”

She is interrupted by the joyful roar from fifty-five throats outside, praising Gaia. The sisters, welcoming their Big Sister home with the news. Children. There are children in the world. A girl, on the yacht in the bay. Moments later, the door opens and Helen is framed for a moment in the light. She steps inside, followed by Mandy and Tuckwell’s women.

One look at her bright face and the white crescents of her eyes and my heart is a cinder block, held in trembling hands.

*

Sometimes these things don’t go well. When it ends, it ends quickly.

“As I mentioned to your girls here, we have a facility,” Tuckwell explains. “In Seattle. The crèche. It’s secure. My friends here? Former Marines.”

The shorter blonde, Brady, coughs and smiles. “Nothing former about it, Captain.”

“Once a Marine, always a Marine, Captain,” says Lockwood.

Tuckwell waves a hand at them and chuckles. “Oh you. She kids. There’s no active military anymore to speak of, is what I meant. But yes, we’re secure, thanks to women like these. And connected. We’ve gathered as many scientists and medical professionals as we can. Hell, I’m one of the lead geneticists on the project. Just doing my coastal tour here. Look, long story short, we’ve cracked this thing.”

“Cracked it.” Pure Helen’s voice is dry and soft. She doesn’t look up from her own hands where they rest on the table. “You mean you’ve cured Andy.”

“Not exactly. Though that is one of our goals, of course. We’ve had no luck reversing the morphogenetic changes in men. That could be years down the road. Or never. But we have managed to—”

“You catch Andy,” Helen whispers. “You don’t kill him. You catch him, and you cure him.”

Tuckwell glances at me quickly.

“No. As I was saying, we have managed to dial back the symptoms of Circe Syndrome, using suppressant hormone therapies and tranquilizers. Our patients are still more beast than man, but they’re pliant. Pliant enough to let us run our tests…”

I ask her what kind of tests she means. Helen’s shoulders twitch as I do, and I hope I’m not the only one to notice.

“DNA testing, mostly. Whatever else Circe may be, and it is a lot of things, the symptoms don’t affect everything. Sperm viability? Motility? Unaffected. Perfectly normal, in fact.”

“You fuck them.” Helen’s hands remain flat on the table, but her knuckles are white all the same. “You fuck Andy?”

I want to scream at Tuckwell, scream at her to get out, to run right now, but my tongue is numb in my mouth. She keeps going.

“That’s… OK. Let me back up here. At the crèche? No, no we don’t. Can’t risk it. Everything’s put in cold storage, and we inseminate our volunteers artificially. For control purposes. And we’ve had nothing but success! That at least you have to understand. We’re rebuilding! I haven’t even told you how many kids, girls and boys, healthy, normal boys, we have running around the crèche…”

I hear myself breathe the question. I sound far away, my own voice unrecognizable. Maggie Tuckwell doesn’t let her eyes leave Helen’s face as she answers.

“When I left on this tour, there were eighty-three children. Fifty-two girls, thirty-one boys. That was a year and three months ago. But, in answer to your question, yes, we also have our outreach program. For this project to truly succeed, we need as many breeders as possible over a large area. I mean geographically and genetically. Maggie’s Dream isn’t the only vessel we’ve fitted with the necessary—”

Humanitarian outreach. Helen’s insane, but she’s not stupid. It ends quickly.

“Damn Americans. Damn whore Americans. They’re not men. They’re Andy.” Pure Helen turns to me. “You see what the goddess has to fight here? Andy is on the boat. They’ve got one on the fucking boat!” Pure Helen kicks away from the table, stands and reaches for the 9mm she keeps tucked in her jeans at the small of her back.

“Fucking blasphemy!” Mandy chimes in. The good sister.

Lockwood and Brady are professionals, though, active military or not. Actual lieutenants, soldiers, not like Mandy and me. Did we even think to pat them down when they arrived? If we had, would we have noticed the compact Tasers on their belts and known them for what they were?

Pure Helen goes down quaking before she can raise her gun, and Mandy follows a second later. I’m still standing, but I’m shaking almost as badly as the women on the floor. The Marines are bent over them and suddenly there are zip ties at their wrists and ankles. Tuckwell pushes her chair back, stands and opens the door. Outside, in the fading light, the sisters shuffle in awed, uncertain silence, their eyes wide. Nothing like this has happened before. Tuckwell steps outside. She turns to me.

“I hope that was delicate enough for you?”

I nod, and bite my lip as the Marines cart the stunned women out of the room.

“Seen it all before, honey. We’ve learned to come into these things prepared. You can come with us, if you like. I really hope you do.”

She turns to address the sisters. The door swings shut and I’m left alone in the darkening room.

*

In the end, only seven of us leave for the crèche of our own free will. There are bunks for us in Maggie’s Dream. It’s cramped, but not as cramped as the brig where they put Pure Helen and Mandy. Tuckwell wants to be sure I understand.

“We just can’t afford people like them in the world. Not now, not with so much at stake. They’ll be secured in Seattle. Re-educated, if that’s possible. We can check on your sisters every few years, re-state our offer. Give them time to sort themselves out without her influence…”

I don’t know if she means Helen or Gaia. I do think Mandy might come around. Helen, though? We’re entering the Salish Sea, three days south from Cougar Annie’s, and her screaming prayers to the goddess still wake us up at night. Helen will stay pure.

Their cages are at opposite ends of the yacht, but if she’s loud enough, she wakes Ben from his drugged sleep. That’s what the Americans call him. They tell me it’s good for him to have women around, so that he gets used to our presence. Everyone takes a shift sitting with him, even the eight-year-old girl. They call her Dee. I don’t know who her mother is. I think that’s how they like it.

We’re new, so we’re not required to sit with him. I do watch him sometimes, from the other side of the bars.

Whatever it is they’ve done, Tuckwell was telling the truth: it’s not a cure. Ben is still Andy. He isn’t as bulky as he could be, but his hands are too broad, his jaws too massive, his pelt too coarse and thick. When they strap him into the harness, he doesn’t resist. Gentle Ben, they say. There’s a look in his eyes, though. When I watch him. I don’t know if it’s gentleness. Whatever it is, they tell me we should be grateful for it. They tell me I’ll get used to it.

That’s the bit where I laugh.

*

Issue 13 (Winter 2017)

Story copyright © 2017 by Scott R Jones

Artwork copyright © 2017 by Brandon Knight

Scott R Jones is a naturalized sorcerer and reformed Lovecraftian living in Victoria, British Columbia. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and podcasts. He’s the author of When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, an auto-ethnographical approach to religious practice derived from the Cthulhu Mythos. He’s also the editor of the anthologies RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond, Cthulhusattva, and the upcoming A Breath from the Sky: Unusual Stories of Possession.

Brandon Knight is an illustrator from the UK and is currently working as concept artist in Birmingham, as well as illustrating on a freelance basis. He was a winner of the Illustrators of the Future in 2016, awarded in LA.

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2017 by in Stories.
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