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Art by Melissa Mead

V is for Vámonos

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.

The Explorer hacked her way through the dense jungle foliage, the ruins of her riverboat smoking and sinking beside the rotting pier behind her. Night was falling, and only the fire from her burning ship provided illumination.
The Explorer's brown skin had darkened further on the long journey, and though her black hair had grown out, she'd hacked it back to a sensible bob with her knife. Her faithful backpack--so full of useful things, from medicines to signal flares to extra ammunition--hung tattered and patched and nearly empty from her bony shoulders.
The magical, loudmouthed map--which had led her to this place of savagery and loss, as requested--was rolled tight and stuffed in a leather tube to muffle its constant recitation of the route they'd followed to get this far: "Central Station--The River--Colonel D.'s Camp."
"They're all dead," her companion said. "Muerto." He was a monkey, though she didn't think about his species much; he was simply her loyal friend. He'd started this journey wearing his iconic red boots, but they'd rotted off his feet weeks ago, and she'd taken to calling him Shanks since then, because his exposed shins were mangy and hairless.
"Only the people are dead," The Explorer said, stepping over the bodies that sprawled in the camp's pathways. Dark shapes slunk among the sagging huts like predatory shadows, and an ammonia smell--the piss of jungle cats--suffused the air. "The animals are fine. My cousin was always better with animals than he was with humans. Humanos."
"Do you think you can bring him back?" Shanks asked.
The Explorer paused, squinting into the sky. Here, near the center of the camp, with the trees pushed back by the axes of the Colonel's laborers, she could clearly see the stars shining in the sky. But the stars were no use to her. Why had she ever believed otherwise? "I can bring his body back," she said. "But will I be able to bring his mind back? His soul? Alma? Those may be lost forever. He may have traded them away for whatever power he found here." She sensed a movement, deeper in the camp, something that wasn't a jungle cat. "Cousin!" she called. "Primo! I've come to take you home."
Her cousin emerged from the shadows, and his voice and body alike were thin and indistinct. "You... they sent you...."
"No one else would come," The Explorer said. "You must return with me, or you will be lost. Perdido."
He looked around, muttering to himself, shaking his head. "I had such plans--immense plans. I was on the threshold of great things..."
Somewhere a jungle cat roared. The cats had all forgotten to speak in the language of humans, if they'd ever known. They had become beasts. How long before her cousin forgot to speak as humans did? "Come with me," the Explorer said. "Vámonos."
The Colonel took a step, wavered, and collapsed. Shanks helped her construct a makeshift litter, and they carried the Colonel to his own ship. Some of the crew still lived on the boat, hiding from the wild cats the Colonel had allowed to overrun his camp. Most of the crew were humans from local tribes, though there were also apes, and the navigator was a sloth.
The Explorer gave orders on her cousin's behalf--the family resemblance was enough to make the crew cower in fear of her--and they traveled up the river, following the cursed talking map's directions. The Colonel's fever was intense, as if his body were trying to burn out the things he'd experienced in the jungle, but he had moments of lucidity. In one such, he pressed a bundle of letters and a photograph, tied up with shoestring, into her hands, telling her in his low paranoiac's voice that she must hide his effects from the crew, who would steal them if they could.
The letters were mostly just his name, written over and over, sometimes in print, sometimes in cursive. The photograph, though, was a picture of the Colonel in his youth, cradling his beloved companion from those days, a baby jaguar. The Explorer looked at the photo for a long time.
Before they made it halfway back to Central Station, the Colonel's fever worsened. The Explorer knelt beside him as he opened and closed his mouth, trying to speak, and his eyes seemed to become a pair of pits descending into infinite darkness. "The horror!" he whispered. "The horror!"
They buried him, if you could call it that, in the river. The Explorer and Shanks made their way back home, eventually, and she stepped into the house of her family, where everyone from parents to cousins to tias to abuelas had gathered to await her news. The baby jaguar was there, too, no longer a baby, eyes as dark as the Colonel's had been at the end.
"I'm sorry," The Explorer said, her gaze taking in everyone assembled. "I could not bring him back. But I was there to the last. He died in my arms."
The jaguar lifted his head. "Did he say anything?" he said, hopeful. "About me?"
The Explorer almost said, "Lo siento," but then she thought again. "His last words," she said. "They were, 'The jaguar. The jaguar.' He was thinking of you at the end."
The jaguar began to weep.
The Explorer hurried through the crowd, nodding and smiling at the people she passed, but unwilling to engage in conversation. She stepped onto the back porch and looked at the trail that led into the trees. She knew, from experience, that the trail could lead anywhere, and everywhere. She had her backpack; she had her map; if she spared a moment to call out, she could have her loyal monkey companion, in his new red boots.
But she did not set off exploring. From where she stood, every path seemed to lead only to the heart of an immense darkness.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
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