“Did you hear that?" Raymond whispered. "Listen."
"I don't hear anyth--" Carol began, her words cut short as Raymond clamped a hand on her shoulder, pulling her to a halt.
"Shh," Raymond hissed. They waited in silence.
The moon shone down on the park, the grass and lilac blooms and tulips alike all rendered in shades of grey. No wind whistled through the trees, no crickets chirped. There were no sirens in the distance, no howling coyotes.
"Are they listening?" Carol asked, looking at Raymond with wide eyes; he only nodded. Her words suddenly seemed very loud, though they’d been whispering all night in deference to the quiet sanctuary of the park, away from the world’s hungry eyes and ears, a world that always watched and always listened.
Behind them, a cluster of trees rustled soundlessly, branches quivering, trunks swaying slightly. From out of the darkness and into the silvery moonlight emerged a monstrous thing - an ear, disembodied, as tall as a man, its undulating lobe propelling it stealthily, silently through the grass, toward the young couple.
Raymond turned to speak to Carol, but when his lips moved this time no sound emerged - and from the corner of his eye he caught sight of the surreal monstrosity approaching them. Carol turned to follow his gaze and screamed, a fist pressed to her mouth - but her horror was muted.
Raymond and Carol clung to each other, watching helplessly as the thing advanced. It stopped at two metres away, and listened.
Carol and Raymond began to tremble. Raymond's weathered features twisted into a rictus of agony; Carol's chiseled good looks soon followed, her teeth clenched together so hard she felt they might shatter. For several seconds the couple shook and writhed, and then, in an instant, their flesh and clothing was ripped from their bones, sucked into the ear canal in a gruesome tide of blood and flying organs. The embracing skeletons stood in shocked silence for one moment, then clattered to the grass together, a brief tympanic flourish, the closing notes of a mad symphony.
Sated, the ear turned, retreating into the trees, its cochlea trailing behind. Somewhere, a coyote howled, and then a police siren dopplered nearby, rising and falling in pitch and volume in just a few seconds as it sped heedlessly past.
* * *
"Yup, that's an ear all right," said Detective Malcolm Judd, eyeing the severed appendage with a veteran's cool seen-it-all distance. It lay in the grass not far from the collection of bones a startled jogger had called in early that morning. The young officer who'd found the ear wasn't so sanguine, and was now vomiting his breakfast against a tree a few metres away.
"Hey detective, I found another one!" said another officer, pointing toward his feet. Judd ambled over and knelt to inspect the ear, waving the police photographer over with one hand. This ear was smaller than the other one, and hairless - younger, possibly female. Judd carefully tweezed it into an evidence bag once the photographer was done.
His partner, Detective Lorna Ng, tapped Judd on the shoulder. He rose.
"Mooney found ear number three by stomping on it and slipping on it," she reported with a grimace. "A little evidence contamination to start our morning."
"To ear is human," Judd quipped.
"Two stripped skeletons, three ears. Lunch at the Lumberfront says a fourth ear will turn up before the day is out," Ng said.
"No bet," Judd said. The detectives regarded each other, their eyes speaking volumes; it was time for experience to talk, but neither detective had seen anything like this: a killer who stripped the skeletons of his victims so clean that not a drop of trace evidence was left behind...except the ears. The medical examiner would tell them more, but an initial inspection showed no trauma to the skeletons - no bullet grazes or slash marks, nothing to indicate what had killed them. The bones were as clean as those Officer Mooney left behind on wing night at the Lumberfront. To make matters worse, footage and audio from the park’s security drones revealed nothing; the data had been corrupted somehow.
As it turned out, Judd should have taken Ng's bet; the fourth ear never turned up, probably gobbled up by a stray dog or carried off by a raven before the bodies were found. When the detectives visited the M.E. later that day, Doctor Reed was at a loss for words.
"It's like someone took a power washer to these remains," Reed said, his words tinny in the sterile environment of the autopsy room. "I've never heard of anything like it. As for the ears, the damage to the back of each ear is ragged...lots of bruising. It's almost like they were partially sucked into a powerful vacuum, then spat out, rejected."
Ng and Judd looked at each other. Reed shrugged. There was nothing more to say.
* * *
The case went cold. Within a couple of weeks dental records confirmed the victims to be 45 year old Raymond Green and his friend, 30 year old Carol Vanders. They'd been reported as missing not long after the initial discovery of the bodies. Neither had any enemies, they weren't sleeping together, both lived unremarkable lives; their digital signatures were clean, online activity within the normal range of harmless hobbies and mild paraphilias. No one, including their spouses, could explain why the victims had been out together so late at night on the evening of their murder, but interviews with friends, family and coworkers, who universally described Raymond and Carol as good people and upstanding citizens, revealed only that the meeting was in all likelihood utterly innocent.
No one would ever know why Carol and Ray had gone for that walk in the park to meet their fate, though eventually the circumstances of their doom could be, and were, guessed at by the few who deigned to read between the lines. Ng and Judd moved on to other cases. Summer turned to fall with inevitable splendour.
* * *
Kulbir Shardesh, a fourth year engineering student from West Sutani, was the next victim. His skeleton was found sprawled near the pebbled shore of Lime Creek, one bony arm flung over his head, one knee raised, as if he were doing the backstroke. His ears were found in the riverbed.
Ng and Judd resumed work on the case until two sour-faced, dark-suited agents of the National Board of Investigation stepped in, flashed their copper shields and took over. With Shardesh's murder taking place over the border, the federal agency assumed jurisdiction. Ng and Judd were nonplussed, but accepted the situation with weary resignation; they'd been here before.
The NBI, despite their bottomless resources, fared no better than the detectives. The murderer had left no clues, save an odd track that led from the shore and into the water of Lime Creek, as though someone had dragged a cardboard box across the beach.
13 weeks later Amanda Chelleberg, a data analyst at Boggle, notified her supervisor about a series of strange images captured by a roaming Boggle Maps car photographing a street in Les Femmes, South Assiniboia. While it was remotely possible that the raw images streaming from the vehicle could have been intercepted and faked, the timelines and technical hurdles made it unlikely. Except, of course, that the images were impossible, for they depicted a panorama of horror: a series of images that seemed to show a disembodied ear, at least two meters tall, telekinetically sucking the organs from a screaming man.
Chelleberg's report was escalated to senior management, who dismissed it as a prank until a senior vice-president saw a news report about a baffling missing persons case - a case in which the woman in question, one Ellen Gordey, had last been seen in Foolton, a suburb of Les Femmes. That vice-president, beginning to doubt his own sanity, phoned his brother-in-law, Special Agent Pilatus Norm of the NBI.
Norm was in Chelleberg's cubicle at Boggle headquarters the next morning at precisely 8 a.m. Chelleberg gave Norm a copy of the raw images; Norm hopped on the first available commercial flight to Les Femmes and escorted them to the Board's field office there. That accomplished, he rented a car and drove to the coordinates provided by Boggle, joining a hastily-assembled NBI forensics team combing the street depicted in the images.
"Nothing at the point indicated in the Boggle images?" Norm asked the first agent in earshot, a wiry, curly-haired rookie named Jones. The younger man shook his head. "If we don't find something soon I'm going to call public works and have a couple of guys check out the sewer system. It's possible a street sweeper came by and blew all the evidence down the drain."
It was a good guess. Even before the public works crew arrived an NBI woman found an ear precariously balanced on a sewer grate. The remaining ear and a skeleton were quickly recovered from the drain.
"I think it's time to kick this case upstairs," mused Pilatus Norm. He phoned the NBI's Deputy Director, who in turn met with the Director herself, who then arranged a teleconference with the head of the Confederation Intelligence Apparatus. At the end of that strained, incredulous call, the CIA man reluctantly agreed with the NBI head that the whole affair had grown bizarre enough that it needed the Cabinet's attention.
In this manner, step by irrevocable step, was the final, awful confrontation assured.
Prime Minister Goodluck Shariphnaristan's features remained impassive throughout the entire briefing, held in his old-world office on Parliament Mountain. His silver wire-frame glasses perched at the tip of his long, aquiline nose, his blue eyes alert, his famously prominent ears cocked at attention. He asked no questions, made no interruptions, not even during the presentation's most ludicrous moments.
When the women from NBI wrapped up their briefing, the projector spinning down with a clanking whirr, the Prime Minister removed his glasses, cleaning the lenses with a handkerchief of purple silk.
"Ladies," he said politely, "What you have shown me is hard to believe. I am being asked to accept the existence of a giant bodiless ear, which strips the flesh from the bones of its victims. A crawling ear, like something from one of those blasticolour cheapies from the 1970s."
The NBI women shrugged apologetically like chastened twins. Goodluck sighed. "I suppose I must ask the Defence Ministry to locate and destroy this thing," he said. "A giant ear! Like a demon from our darkest dreams.”
“Or our nightmares,” one of the women said.
The Defence Minister, for her part, was apoplectic.
"I thought the point of mass surveillance was to detect threats and prevent murders," she shouted, slamming a small but rock-like fist down on her desk. "What are all the phone taps and webcrawlers and drones good for if they can't pick up on a giant ear that's sucking the flesh from the bones of our citizens? Mithral, it's like a bad horror movie," she muttered, slumping back in her fine leather chair, closing her eyes and sighing.
"Boys and their toys," barked Brigadier Admiral Peter Adair. "Sneaking around looking for imaginary terrorists while real threats bubble up from beyond. But don't you worry, Ma'am, we'll seek and destroy that thing."
Whirling overhead in the Stygian blackness soared the Confederation satellites, their inhuman, Cyclopean eyes peering down at the world below, searching tirelessly for the macabre quarry loaded into their memory crystals. In the end it was the aging Keystone-11 ARS (Army Reconnaissance Satellite) that spotted the Crawling Ear. It was early Tuesday morning when the thing was spotted shuffling through Mandlebra's eastern desert, on a beeline course for the vast Tetra Cruces resort city - home to eleven million citizens and twice that many tourists. No longer merely larger than a man, the ear had grown; it stood a full four stories tall. It had been feeding handsomely.
The Defence Ministry mobilized for Operation Silent Slaughter.
The threat of the Crawling Ear was so beyond human experience that caution demanded a significant array of forces be readied to defend Tetra Cruces, and so it was done; a wedge of troops, tanks, APCs and rocket launchers formed a defensive line around the eastern side of the city while attack helicopters soared through the skies. But in truth, no one expected anything other than a very short, very one-sided battle, for even now a B-69 fighter/bomber was winging its way to the city at Mach 4 with a heavy payload of laser-guided death ready to rain down on the macabre menace. Images of the Ear's slow advance were broadcast around the world courtesy of uPhoni videos and GoProbe HD cameras mounted on independent drones by curious onlookers too stubborn, crazy or anti-establishment to heed the chaotic Defence Control Zones established by a baffled military; many troops believed it to be an elaborate exercise in any case, and certainly not worth shooting civilians over. That kind of cavalier trigger discipline led to a lot of unpleasant paperwork, and sometimes even mild discipline.
So there was plentiful high-quality footage (sans sound) of that fateful moment when the B-69 unleashed its fat load of destruction, the bomb falling earthward with silent, eerie precision - so precise, in fact, that the bomb dove straight into the Ear's canal. And promptly vanished. The ear had swallowed the bomb whole, even though the bomb was too large to fit inside the ear without causing a noticeable bulge.
The seasoned B-69 pilot responded expertly, putting his plane into position for a strafing run. Streaking toward the target at supersonic speed just ten meters above the scrub, sending tumbleweeds flying, the pilot's thumb hovered over the guns trigger, ready to spurt a lethal cloud of high-velocity rounds into the Crawling Ear.
But an instant before he could fire, the Crawling Ear squirted a thick, heavy stream of wax from its loathsome canal. It was like flying into a wall of mud. The plane flattened itself against the wax, killing the pilot instantly and destroying a $400 million aircraft. Flaming debris littered the desert floor.
The ear crawled forward, its pace unaltered even when its massive lobe slowly but inexorably crushed vehicles and careless humans beneath it. A dozen MeTube celebrities died in the first moments of that terrible day, either squashed by the lobe or stripped of their flesh by the bottomless hunger of the ear’s mad lust for information. Skeletons and smashed corpses littered the famous Goldway Avenue as thousands of rounds of ammunition hammered the creature, the bullets either disappearing down the ear canal or ricocheting from its fleshy frame.
Worst of all was the awful silence. The anguished screams of the fallen and the determined roar of the rockets were equally impotent in the face of the ear’s all-consuming quiet fury; it swallowed all sound, turning the battlefield into a high-definition silent movie, a postmodern apocalypse; a revolution televised, but silently.
Second Lieutenant Frank Oberte charged into the cone of silence that marked the ear’s sphere of influence, valiantly spraying depleted uranium rounds from his GAK-77 urban pacifier. He had no warning when a Big Dumb Bomb (BDB) fell short of its target, exploding behind him. The silent shockwave propelled Oberte beyond the ear’s quiet zone, into one of the marble fountains that lined Gold Avenue. Oberte’s bones shattered as he slammed into an artfully carved fish spraying water from its puckered lips. The water quickly ran red.
Remorselessly, the ear crawled on, attack helicopters, tanks and jets scurrying around it like so many harmless gnats.