by Mike Murphy
I’ve been visiting the Commonwealth Pub in Boston – whenever I’m on Earth – for about six years. A space jockey’s life can be pretty hectic, especially since the Oporians arrived. They took some getting used to – with their two heads, six eyes, and all – but they opened new vistas to vacation-hungry Earthers in need of my kind of transport.
I quickly spotted the man who had called me a few days ago and set up this meeting: Professor Douglas Pierce. I knew it was him because he was so out of place. He was wearing a three-piece suit, which no one does anymore, with a red tie. He was nursing a drink and glancing around. I think he was trying to spot me.
I approached him slowly and asked, “Professor Pierce?”
“Yes?” he answered, looking up from his chair.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Have a seat.” I sat down across from him, the small table between us. “Would you like a drink?” he asked me.
“No thanks,” I answered. “I never drink when I’m talking business.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued, holding up his glass reverently. “They make a gin and tonic here that is pure nectar.”
I chuckled and said, “I’ll take your word on that, Professor.”
“Please call me ‘Doug.’”
“OK, and I’m ‘Ray.’”
“I hear ‘Professor’ all day long from my students. It’s nice to hear my given name every once in a while.”
“If you don’t mind me cutting to the chase, I’ve had a long day,” I told him. “What’s on your mind?”
“I want to hire you.”
“What’s the destination?”
“The Wentek Cluster.”
“That’s pretty far away,” I said, telling him something he already knew. “Even at best speed, it’ll take about two weeks’ travel time.”
“Can you get me there?” he inquired.
“My ship can get anyone anywhere, but it won’t be cheap.”
“How much?” he asked. “Can you give me a ballpark?”
“I’d guess around. . . 30,000 new dollars.”
“Deal,” he said quickly, surprising me. “When can we leave?”
“That’s a new area of space to us Earthers,” I continued. “I’ll need to get some travel permits and check my ship’s systems. We’ll be far from any repair docks.”
“How long will that take?”
“About a week,” I said.
“So we could arrive at the Cluster. . . three weeks from now?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “but you haven’t even seen my ship.”
“No need,” he added. “Your reputation precedes you.” He reached into his shirt pocket and removed his debit card. He scanned his thumbprint on the marker, and the tiny screen flickered on. He handed it to me. “I have more than enough for the trip.”
I quickly looked at the listed balance. “I never doubted you,” I said, handing him back his card.
“Then we have a deal?”
“You’ll get me a contract?” he asked.
“I don’t use anything like that,” I informed him, holding out my hand. “This is enough for me.” He had a firm handshake. “I’ll get started on the preliminary stuff in the morning,” I went on.
“Wonderful!” he said, taking a big, celebratory sip of his gin and tonic.
“How long will you want to stay at the Cluster?”
“You’re the boss,” I confirmed. “I’ll need half the money before we leave and the other half upon our return to Earth.”
“You’ll have it.”
“Say,” I continued after a brief pause, “you’re a smart guy.”
“The University likes to think so,” he responded.
“You don’t believe what some people say about the Cluster, do you? About it being the
. . . gateway?”
“No,” Doug said. “There would have to be a Heaven for there to be a gateway from here to there.”
I was surprised. “You don’t believe in Heaven?”
“In my 55 years on this Earth, Ray,” he explained, “I haven’t seen one scrap of scientific evidence to verify its existence.” He threw back the rest of his gin and tonic. “Now,” he went on, “since we’re done discussing business, how about that drink?”
It was the Oporians who first introduced us to the Wentek Cluster. In their language, they call it “pruftar.” Roughly translated, it means “the gateway to the souls.”
Earth’s leading scientists have focused their most powerful equipment on the Cluster, with no results worth mentioning. Some religious people believe it’s an intrusion into our space of Heaven, while other people say that is ridiculous.
The licenses were secured, and Esther was ready to fly. That’s the name of my ship – after my late mother. Doug met me at Platform C of the Mayflower Space Port the following morning at 8:00 a.m. He had a suitcase with him and a satchel holding term papers to grade. “A teacher’s work is never done,” he told me.
I showed him to his quarters. He was surprised that I was the crew. He handed me his debit card. I pressed my thumb against the marker, and half of my fee was transferred to my account.
We lifted off at 8:14 a.m. The Boston skyline vanished, and the black of space enveloped us. A ship-wide diagnostic showed all systems were functioning fine.
If I suspected what was going to happen when we arrived at the Cluster and how it would still haunt me today, I would have turned Esther around and forfeited the thirty grand.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the Cluster close up,” I said. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“I’ve heard the same thing,” Doug responded.
“Esther is fully equipped for video and audio recording, you know.”
“No extra charge.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
The trip proved uneventful. Esther performed as I knew she would. We arrived at the Cluster right on schedule.
Its billing was absolutely correct. It was an incredibly beautiful sight that filled the view screen. The Cluster was composed of seven separate stars swirling about each other in a random cosmic dance. As each star moved, it left a pink trail behind it. The trails coalesced into a great pink cloud in the center. The swirling cloud reminded me of a painting, with the dancing stars serving as the picture frame. I focused Esther’s sensors on the Cluster. None of the information we received back made any sense.
“May I use the communications system?” Doug asked as we both admired the celestial show.
“Sure,” I responded. “One problem though: We’re pretty far from Earth. Any message will take a while to get there.”
“I don’t want to send a message to Earth,” my passenger said.
“I want to send a message into the Cluster.”
I paused, trying to understand, but had to ask, “Why?”
Doug got a far-away look on his face. He was remembering something, something wonderful. “Ever been married?” he asked.
“Never,” I replied. “You?”
He nodded silently. “For more than twenty years. Karen was the joy of my life.”
“About seven years ago,” he answered, trying not to choke up.
I suddenly understood his motive behind this trip. “You believe what people say about the Cluster being a gateway to Heaven, don’t you?” I asked him.
“I’m not certain.”
“At the bar, you said you didn’t believe it.”
“Would you have brought me out here if you thought I was a religious kook?” he went on. “Can we fly Esther into that thing?”
“With the crazy sensor readings we’re getting, I can’t be sure,” I said. “It could be lethal.”
“I can’t let this opportunity pass!” he exclaimed. “If there’s any truth to. . .”
“There’s no harm in trying to contact her,” I told him. “We can go from there.”
Doug bent uneasily over the comm panel. His hands were quivering. He rubbed his eyes and squinted at the controls. He knew that this moment – right now – held the answer to his prayers or the dashing of his hopes. He shakily pressed a few buttons and turned some dials to focus the comm beacon at the Cluster.
At first, all that came out of the speakers was static. Then. . .
“This is Douglas Pierce,” he broadcast, spacing his words carefully. “I’m trying to reach my wife, Karen. If anyone can hear –”
A woman’s voice came on the speaker amid the undulating static. . . a voice that sounded familiar. “Is Ray with you?” she asked.
Doug was confused to have gotten a wrong number. “Yes,” he said, “he’s. . . right here.” He looked up at me. “It’s. . . uhm. . . for you.”
I moved closer to the mike. “This is Ray Whitfield,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“You don’t recognize my voice?” she asked, sounding a little hurt.
“That’s right!” Esther replied.
“Where. . . Where are you?” I asked nervously.
“In the Cluster.”
“Then it is a gateway!” Doug exclaimed.
“It is,” Esther told him.
“Fantastic!” Doug responded.
“Mom, I. . . I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered.
“Are you well?”
“I’m OK,” I assured her, “but I’ve gotta go. I have a customer here who’s –”
“Someone’s looking for Mrs. Pierce right now,” Esther said. “Hold on a minute.”
The static rose to a crescendo and then started to slowly fade. Doug hunched over the comm panel, his face hopeful, but ashen. When a new female voice came over the speaker, tears began pouring down his cheeks. “Doug?” she anxiously asked through the static. “Doug, are you there?”
“Karen?” Doug choked out. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she said.
Doug was straining to hear her. “Is there any way to clean up the signal?” he asked me.
“I’m afraid not,” I told him. “There’s all kinds of interference coming from the Cluster.”
“Are you still there, dear?” Karen asked anxiously.
“I’m here,” Doug answered, choking up even more. “God, I miss you!”
“I miss you too, sweetheart, but we need to talk fast.”
“Why?” he asked.
“The Cluster’s intrusion into normal space is accidental,” Karen explained. “The powers that be in here are working on a way to close it off as soon as possible.”
“Why do that?” I asked.
“They say the Cluster provides proof of an afterlife and that faith can’t have proof.” The static began worsening. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to talk.”
“Karen,” Doug asked anxiously, “do you have any idea what would happen if we piloted this ship into the Cluster?”
“Doug, we –” I began.
“No,” the voice told him. “It could be very dangerous.”
“Does anyone there know?”
The static grew very loud. If she was still talking to us, Karen’s voice was overpowered by it. Doug began randomly pushing buttons on the panel. “Help me, Ray,” he pleaded. “Get her back!”
I tried a few tricks, to no avail. “No good,” I said. “It’s like the signal’s being jammed.”
“That’s it!” he agreed. “No communications. That must be the bigwigs’ first step.”
I put one hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m glad you got to talk with her again,” I told him.
“What are you saying?” Doug continued, spinning about to face me. “This isn’t the end.”
“What more is there to do?”
He paced the deck briefly. “Do you have a lifeboat on this ship?” he asked.
“Why?” I replied, not liking where the conversation was going.
“I could fly it into the Cluster.”
“We don’t know if Esther can make it,” I said. “What chance would a lifeboat have?”
“I’m not asking you to join me,” Doug went on. “If there’s a chance it might work. . .”
I remember our brief struggle, followed by the deck rising up to meet me from Doug’s impressive left hook.
I’m not sure how long I was out. When my head cleared, I frantically searched for Doug. I couldn’t find him anywhere, but the lifeboat was still in its hangar. It was then that I noticed one of the EVA suits was missing from the locker.
After a quick scan around Esther’s exterior, I found him. He was suited up and floating slowly towards the Cluster. There was no lifeline connecting him to the ship.
“Doug!” I screamed into the comm mike.
His voice came faintly through the static. “I’m here,” he said.
“Are you crazy?”
“Sorry I had to hit you, but you never would have let me do this.”
“You’ll be killed!”
“We soon find out,” he told me. “I can feel the Cluster’s gravitational pull.”
“I can still get you a lifeline.”
“Don’t you worry about me.”
The static worsened. “Doug!” I said urgently, working the comm panel.
I’m not sure he was copying me. The static drowned out parts of what he said. “I’m getting closer. . . beautiful. . . Ray. . . can’t believe. . .”
The static overpowered his comm line.
What happened next?
I can only tell you what I said at Senator Butler’s hearing a few weeks later concerning the sudden and – to him – unexplained disappearance of the Wentek Cluster: “I saw. . . I saw a hand reach out from it,” I testified. “A human hand! Also, the faintest bit of a face was visible. Doug grasped the hand, which pulled him inside. Seconds later, one by one, the stars that made up the Cluster. . . vanished. The pink trails that had gathered together in the middle of the dancing stars disappeared like water going down a drain.
“For about thirty minutes, I tried to contact Doug. No luck. I pulled up the video that had been recording as he made his spacewalk. I was able to focus on the face. The computer searched its data banks for a match. There was one: The picture that accompanied Karen Pierce’s obituary.”
I checked my bank balance yesterday. Doug had transferred the 15,000 new dollars I would have received for bringing him back to Earth into my account before we even reached the Cluster. He knew all along it would be – for him – a one-way trip.
I’ve been asked to appear on several talk shows, and I’ve turned them all down. There’s not much new I can offer. . . aside from this: A freeze frame of Doug’s face at the moment he touched his late wife’s hand.
He was smiling.
Author Bio: Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won five Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories. His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.
By Gregory Jeffers
Never been my favorite game of chance, Hang the Witch, but it was the only game being dealt at the Wolf’s Tooth on what would turn out to be my last night in Sever Town. And I needed to win in the worst of ways.
“You gon’ to bet, girl, or sit there like a toadstool?” The gaoler was already drunk, and pissy about his luck. He bullied a fistful of scraggly white hair, wrapping it behind one ear.
I was in as much of a hurry to take his money as he was to lose it, but could not afford any mistakes. The only thing I had left to lose was money. Everything else I’d ever possessed had been lost or stolen.
I tossed four mids into the pot. Three clanked. One spun, whirring, then finally dropped with a clunk.
Marshal Hunter was on my left, holding a small red stone up to the dim torchlight. “This stone is worth four mids,” he said, flipping it onto the plank table from between his thumb and first finger.
“Not worth two,” I said, staring at the gem with my good eye. The small crowd of onlookers hushed. The only sound in the dim room for the next few moments was the hiss of the sconce torches.
“What’d you say?” The marshal turned at the waist to face me full on.
Before I could speak, the gaoler belched. The smell of sour ale blew across the table. “Damn you if it isn’t,” he bellowed in a scratchy voice. “That stone’s worth at least four, maybe six.” He sucked back another mouthful from his flagon. A few of the men standing behind him mumbled in agreement.
I sipped my mead and lowered my eyes to my cards. “Fine. Your bet.” I lifted my head a smidge toward him, stealing a peak between my straw-colored bangs. I had three ponies and four geldings in my hand and felt more than a tad confident. But I wasn’t about to get into an argument with these two. Puppets of the Icemen, they were the new local law. Constabularies, judges, and hangmen. I knew they would not hesitate to find any way whatever to cheat me. Perhaps more.
I stole a look at the fourth person at the table, in the chair on my right. The parts of his shirt that hadn’t been covered by his butcher’s apron earlier in the day were spotted with blood. Name of Ransom. He gathered his cards into his hand and looked across the table. “Finished with the cleanup, Marshal Hunter?” His whiney voice fit his skinny frame.
“Mostly. Toom and I have five more to run out of town tomorrow.”
Toom Sherrer, the gaoler, had his mouth full of ale, but agreed vigorously, the torch light glinting off his bald dome with each nod, the ring of stringy hair swinging to and fro like a horse’s tail.
“The last of the Salander root chewers were driven out yesterday.” A polished man, this marshal. He had been the town lender before the siege. Still was, but now also the marshal. “By the end of day tomorrow we’ll have evicted all the remaining Symruites, and the last mixed-race couple. With that, the Icemen’s bidding will be done.”
“Till the next bidding,” Sherrer said. Perhaps realizing his blunder, he went back to the ale, his gaze wandering on the table.
This discussion repulsed me. I had no cock in this conflict but abhorred discrimination when it was based solely on stupidity. A crash from the kitchen presented the opportunity to change the subject.
“Men, I need to be going. Can we kindly finish this hand?” My cross-eye fluttered, tickling its socket. I did not want to be anywhere near these brutes when darkness fell. Good men lived in Sever Town at one time, but when the Icemen invaded the Northern Empire, most of the honorable ones had been called up to defend the capital. Only rogues, misfits, and the Icemen’s puppets remained.
“I’m out,” Sherrer said, thumping his cards onto the table. He eyed my mound of winnings, then the pot.
“I’ve got four mids says your luck is done for this night, girly,” the butcher said, fumbling with his pile of coins. “Still thinkin’ you can gamble your way into stakes for a smallholding in the Southern Tier?”
“What’s ‘at?” asked the gaoler, widening his eyes.
“You not heard?” the butcher answered. He picked at a pox on his skinny beak. I had to look away. “Horse Girl here wants to leave the Northern Empire.”
“Name is Castele,” I muttered. Horse Girl. Pah. That’s what they had taken to calling me, because I’d been brought up training horses.
“What’s the hurry, Horse Girl? You just got here,” the gaoler said, skewing his chubby cheek into a wink of sorts.
I’d been in Sever Town—working at the stables—for eight moons, but it felt like eighty. “It’s not like I’m needed anymore hereabouts,” I said, wishing I had cleared my throat first. “I mean there aren’t any horses in town since–” I thought better about finishing the sentence.
“Since what?” said the gaoler. “Since the Icemen took ‘em all? Is that what your sayin’? You’re not one of ‘em loyalists are ya’?”
The marshal eyed me without moving his head. It dawned on me then that his tankard was still untouched, the foam long disappeared and the ale bubbleless.
The rattling of coins in Ransom’s bony hand gained my attention. He shook the coins in his loose fist then tossed them into the pot. “Whatcha’ got?”
I fanned my cards on the table.
“Damned if you aint the luckiest witch in the north,” he said, hurtling his cards down on top of the pot.
I moved my stare to the table in front of the marshal, then raised my gaze to his face. He folded his cards and put them down slowly.
“Your deal,” he said, then with a loud sniff he slid the pile in front of me. He dressed like a prince, and waxed his black moustache in the Franso style. But a pig in silk is no less a pig.
“I really must be going.” I pulled the coins and stones into the satchel in my lap.
“Not very sporting to leave with all them winnings,” the gaoler said. “Makes a body irritable.”
This was not going well. “Sorry. I need to get to work.” I yanked the draw cords, tied a hasty knot, and stood.
The marshal skittered his chair back and rose. He was a big man, but still a head shorter than me. “Work? You can’t very well call being at the stables work. There are no horses.” He tried a short bark of a laugh. The gaoler sniggered.
I turned and strode to the door, my boot soles slapping the stone floor. There was considerable shuffling behind me. My heart stopped. I threw the bolt and darted out the door.
“Let her go,” the marshal said, from behind me.
I half expected to find some of the marshal’s toads outside waiting with bats and shivs, but the porch was empty but for a wind-blown chair banging against the wall. The evening sun was still a hand off the horizon, not much more than an ochre stain in the grey clouds. I wiped the sweat from my brow. Plump snowflakes melted the moment they landed on my head and arms. I ran back to the stables, clutching the satchel in both hands. The wood houses were mostly shuttered or boarded up, and the few souls out on this gloomy evening cast their shrouded stares to the muddy street. Two rats feasted on a dead dog.
Missus Rachel must have heard me open the barn door. She came out of the ramshackle hovel next door.
“You been off at the inn again?” She pulled her wiry hair into a tail and bound it with a hank of yarn. “You come here one night smelling of ale and it’ll be your last. Bad enough my own boy’s taken up that habit.”
Missus had stopped paying me when the last of the horses were confiscated, but she had let me stay on to watch over the building and harness in exchange for a place to sleep. I ignored her and ducked through the barn door.
I stopped. As I turned to face her, she reached into the shack.
“Here, take two of these biscuits and an apple. Idn’t much of an apple, but better than none.”
She stared at the satchel in my left hand. I took the food in the other. “Thank you, Missus. Good night.”
Inside, I sat on a short stool and ate. The biscuits had no taste other than salt, and the apple was scabby and shriveled, but I had no complaints. The snow turned back to rain, pelting the slates on the roof. It was nearly dark when I went to my cot in the corner.
I shoved my satchel of valuables under an overturned empty keg and doused the light. I had saved nearly enough and thought drowsily about the land I would buy in the southern tier. Then I would find my brothers and maybe even my mother and we would settle into a peaceful existence away from all of this misery and war. I drifted to sleep imagining even that my father would return.
The creaking door woke me. A shaft of yellow light beamed across the straw-strewn dirt.
“She sleeps in the back there.” It was Missus Rachel’s pock-faced son, who I long believed could have served as the village idiot.
My heart leapt into the center of my chest, beating furiously.
“Quiet, you fool. You’ll wake ‘er up.” No mistaking Toom Sherrer’s gravelly voice. Or his stupidity. If he didn’t want to wake me up, why was he shouting?
I rolled onto my feet, looking around for a stick or a bucket or anything else I might use as a weapon.
Flanked by the gaoler and Marshal Hunter, the boy held a torch aloft. They swaggered to within a pace of me. Toom Sherrer rocked on his heels and licked his gums savagely as if his teeth hurt. The boy was not much better, swaying from side to side. The sudden fear he might burn the barn down gripped me, adding to the maelstrom in my stomach. Marshal Hunter must have had the same concern, as he snatched the torch.
“Find that bag of coins and stones,” the marshal said, shoving the boy by the shoulder. The idiot fell into the cot and I hammered the back of his head with the side of my fist as he went by. Hunter grabbed a shovel with his free hand and swung it at me. I tried to move out of its path and tripped over the boy. The flat of the shovel connected with my shoulder. I slammed into the wall and slid to the floor, knocking over the keg and exposing my satchel. The pain burned through my entire upper body. My jitters were gone. I was enraged.
“Get the sack, Sherrer,” the marshal yelled.
“In a minute. Got to have some fun first.” Toom Sherrer fell onto me then, ripping at my tunic. “Boy here says you good for a roll.”
“He’s an idiot,” I screamed. “And you’re a bigger one if you think— “
He slapped his hand over my mouth. I shook it off and used the momentum to bite down on the web between his thumb and fingers. He screamed and twitched back. Then he hit me hard in the jaw. I blacked out for a second, the underside of my eyelids flashing.
“Get off that girl, Toom Sherrer,” yelled Missus Rachel from the doorway. “I’ll take a rake to you if you don’t get off her this instant.” In the quiet that followed, she added in her normal squawky voice, “Worse, I’ll tell your missus.”
That seemed to sober him enough so he was able to roll onto his knees. He snatched my sack from where it lay on the floor next to the overturned keg and pushed himself to a standing position.
“Where you think you’re goin’ with that, mister?” Missus said, hands on hips. Her night coat was a big furry thing that swallowed up her fists.
“Stolen property, Missus Rachel,” the marshal said without hesitation. Then looking at the gaoler, said, “We got what we came for. Leave the girl be.”
“Is not stolen,” I said from the floor. I stood, straightening my tunic. My shoulder and ribs stung and my jaw felt as if it no longer hinged in the right place. I was still in a rage and if not for the other two men, I would have torn the gaoler’s arms off. “I won it gaming with these men.”
Missus Rachel looked from me to the marshal and back again, her apparent indecision leaving her speechless.
“We’ll be back with papers on the girl tomorrow,” he said. “I’m deputizing you, Missus. Make certain this girl is here when my men come for her in the morning.”
“Why not take her now? You’ve got the gaoler with you.”
“Cause I’m afraid he’ll do something stupid and she’ll kill him. We got back the stolen money. That’s good enough for now.”
“You are a liar and a cheat,” I shouted, shoving my short hair up off my forehead.
“Watch your tongue, girl. No sense raising my ire. I’m the one’ll be picking your escorts for tomorrow’s cleansing. And there are some ugly brutes to pick from. And in case you have any ideas of escaping, let me be clear. If you are not here in the morning, the missus here will take your place.”
Missus Rachel went beet red.
Marshal Hunter helped the boy off the floor, and the three of them filed out, the marshal the only one fully in charge of his body. The boy turned at the door. “You know everyone here hates you. You sway your hips like a horse. Take strides too big for your legs. Bounce along like you own the town. And that witch eye of yours.”
“Shut your yap, you damn fool,” Missus Rachel said, swatting at his head.
He blocked the blow with a filthy forearm. “You know it don’t ya’? Everybody hates you.”
She pushed him through the door. “Be on your way, boy. Do something with that muddy face and paws of yours. Hopefully, involving some lye and water.”
Their boot falls faded on the cobblestones.
She turned her stare to me. “He’s a fool, make no mistake. But trouble does follow you, girl. I know it ain’t your fault. Trouble followed you into Sever Town. I sure as blazes hope it follows you out.” She stood between the jambs for a moment longer, then closed the door. The arc of yellow light slivered into darkness.
I found my way back to my cot but did not fall asleep. I ached in body and soul. The smell of the gaoler’s rancid sweat and sour ale breath lingered on my clothes and body. I had never been with a man, and certainly this was not the way in which I had envisioned starting.
I shivered, and pulled the wool blanket tighter about my shoulders. I had nowhere to go but could not stay here. Most certainly I would be killed if I remained. And if I was to be killed, I wanted it to be for a better reason than a bag of loot or a fat man’s untended desires.
And so, it seemed, being run out of town would not be such a bad thing.
Hail started in earnest, thumping the roof with vengeance. Wind whistled through the warps of the barn boards.
A hoarse voice whispered from an unexplored corner inside me.
“You’ll be back.”
Six of us comprised the final lot herded out of Sever Town the next morning. The score or so of villagers performing the exorcism were not the gentlest of souls. I was particularly appalled at the way they treated Lessel, the Aquitain wife of the woodcutter, Runyan. She was a sweet and retiring type, shy but not to a fault, and kind as a queen with no kingdom. But they pushed her along as they would a dung dray and beat Runyan with sticks when he came to her aid.
The two Symruites got the treatment I would expect, but born Syms, what could one do? The Whinlen, of Whinlendow, they left alone, for even the most power-drunken malcontents among this riotous gang would not risk the vengeance of that nation.
As for me, the brutes were happy enough to be rid of me and largely left me alone. Occasionally, the oldest son of the gaoler threw a rock in my direction, but only if he was bored with using his pitchfork on the Syms. The gaoler, I am sure, would have joined the stoning but for his bandaged hand. Each time a stone struck me, the quakes from his laughter set the stringy white hair about his bald dome bouncing.
When the mob had pushed us beyond the grasses of Laywenda, they turned back. Here, the Stillwater brewed, flat as a witch’s cauldron after curses have completed their wickedness. The shallow water sat idle and murky. With winter coming, water would be scarce. The high plains would provide little in the way of game.
The thugs left us like this. Dusk. The air hung like a moth-eaten tapestry. No food, no weapons. Worst of all, no mead.
These lands were foreign. I knew a potion maker a day’s walk or so to the north but no one else. Not that she could assist in this predicament.
I brooded, restless in the knowledge that I sat within three leagues of the Titan Foothills, hunting grounds of the Haplan Katars.
The Syms built a fire and went about fashioning clubs. Not a race to waste time, Symruites, and that alone redeems them in my mind. Say what one might about their thieving and whoring, they can do a fortnight’s work in a day when pressed. We gathered around their fire, more tired than hungry.
“We’ll be Katar food in short order if we din have some proper weapons,” said Runyan, the woodcutter. His Aquitine bride, Lessel, tended his wounds as best circumstances allowed. Built like a bull, this man. I felt sure he would have torn the villagers into wolf kibble had they not been armed.
“These clubs will not stand up to Haplan battle axes,” he said. “My brother Eldon traveled through the Foothills not a year ago with eight other strong men. In search of Katar gold. The Haplans killed ‘em all ‘ceptin my brother. In slow ways too terrible to recount. They tore my brother’s tongue out of his mouth. Din even use a knife. Tore it out. Sent him back to Sever Town as a warning.”
The Syms exchanged undecipherable glances, but did not speak.
I survived the first night on relief and dread in equal measure, thankful that I had not been run through with the mob’s forks and torch prongs. I drifted off, dreaming of boar pie and biscuits, tongues and murders.
The commotion of Runyan and Lessel tending the fire woke me. The morning breeze whispered hoarse insinuations of approaching winter.
“Where are the Syms?” I asked, stepping into my boots and moving closer to the fire.
“They’ve gone back to their own kind. Into the Foothills,” Lessel said, toting an armload of Eucalyptus branches.
It took me a moment to realize the Whinlen, too, had vanished from our little band. I turned about and saw her stooped among the scrub at the river bank. Standing, she beckoned me with a sweeping arm.
“Help me collect these leaves,” she said when I arrived by her side. Her voice lilted in ranges mine could never reach.
I watched her, then mimicked her technique for picking leaves off the short thorn bushes that populated the banks. She was tall, even for a Whinlen, though two heads shorter than I. Her pointy tipped ears were translucent, blending with the morning light as if a part of the vapor rising off the river. We ate a few of the leaves as we gathered but tossed most into a basket fashioned from her shawl. Bitter but oddly substantive. After eating but ten or twelve of them, my craving sensations abated.
With a gasp, she jumped back. “By the grace of the Bountiful Mother,” she exclaimed. She dropped the shawl of leaves and fell to her knees. I moved closer as she gently fondled some large mushrooms growing at the base of a rotting black oak trunk. “Bountiful Mother,” she oathed again, in a whisper. “Gablich Knaes.”
I bent at the waist and was greeted by an aroma – aged sheep dung and nutmeg, perhaps. “What?”
She looked up at me, a smile growing on her thin pale lips. She licked them—her lips, I mean—in a way at once sensual and impish. “Goblin’s Knees.”
I arched my eyebrows, a plea for her to continue.
“A most rare toadstool. Thought to be extinct by many. In the right hands this makes a ghost potion. Or so legend has it.” She plucked one from the ground. Lifting it toward the sky, she rotated the stem, the black cap glistening.
“I may know the right hands,” I said, my own countenance lifting. I had heard of ghost potions and their ability to render one invisible for an hour or two.
“Is she close by? Your potion maker?”
“At the northern end of the Laywenda Fen. A day’s walk. Perhaps two.”
“And what would you do with such a potion, horsewoman?” She did not make eye contact but began picking the mushrooms tenderly, placing them in a cache within her sleeve. I wondered momentarily how it was she knew of me when I had never laid eyes on her.
“I would return to Sever Town for what is rightfully mine.”
“And what exactly is that?”
“The jewels and ingots I won gaming with some of the men. And all of my savings. The marshal and the gaoler took all of it from me when they came to escort me out of town.”
She stood. “I’m surprised the louts did not try to have their way with you. You are a handsome woman.” She blushed, and I felt a flush come to my cheeks.
“And you?” I asked. “What would you do with such a potion?”
“The same. I would return. Yet for different reasons.” She went back to her work.
I did not question her motives further. “Should we take the woodcutter and his Aquitain wife with us?”
She looked at me for a long moment. “I think not. They will slow us down.”
“I fear for their lives,” I said in a whisper.
“Fear not. A tribe of her people lives between here and the Titan Foothills. Perhaps they’ll sense the girl and take them in. Perhaps not. In any event, our endeavor, while not offensive, is at least criminal. We cannot afford to involve others.”
She stood and walked to me, and said in slightly more than a whisper, “What is your name? I should know that if we are to be companions.”
My face burned from her beauty. “Castele. And thee?”
“Liliana.” She stepped back. “Come. We shall give them some of the greens and take our leave.”
The shadows stretched long on the grasses of Laywenda Fen when we made camp. I broke branches from a weeping fir and we made a hasty bed. The air was cool. We cuddled like pups.
In the morning, we donned our boots and headed off again across the Fen. We reached the potion maker’s abode mid-afternoon. A squat mud hut with a round thatch roof, it had a stunted chimney leaning off one side. Smoke wafted from the flue, and a gamey aroma of roasting flesh hung on the air. Ground sloth, perhaps. Or pine cat.
The old woman recognized me, or feigned to, and offered us repast, which I took without hesitation. Lili ate only of the stewed tubers and grasses. We all partook of mead, and I realized I should speak my mind before my senses abandoned it.
“We need your help,” I said, placing my flagon on the plank table.
“I know why you’ve come, girl.” She spoke in a throaty voice, charred, I supposed, from the many days above a cauldron fire.
“I can smell the toadstools from here.” She moved her gaze to Lili, who shifted on the bench. “Goblin’s Knees.”
“Aye. You’ve a good nose,” I said.
“Seasoned is all. And I’ve a mind of what potion you ‘ll be wanting.” She wrung her bony and withered hands for a moment. “Half,” she said at last.
“Don’t play mindless with me, girl. Half the mushrooms. That’s my fee.”
“That will not leave us enough for our own needs,” I pleaded.
The old woman spun her head back toward Lili, lifting her pointed nose. The veins in the bulbous cheeks of her otherwise drawn face turned violet in the firelight. “Show me what you got, Whinlen lass.”
Lili turned the bell of her sleeve inside out, and the mushrooms plopped onto the tabletop. The old woman lifted her shoulders and pulled her face away slightly. “Faes of the future,” she whispered. Then to me, and in a hardier voice, “Girl, your share of this is enough for a lifetime of sneaking and thieving – if that’s what you’ve a mind for.”
I did not respond at once but made eye contact with Lili. She nodded ever so slightly. “Tis a deal, then,” I said.
In a sweeping motion, the old woman gathered up the mushrooms and laid them in a cracked pottery urn on the bench next to the fireplace.
“There’s a shed by the river. You can sleep there. I’ll have the potion by sunrise.” She removed an old but clean smelling blanket from her plank bed and handed it to me. “It’s to be a cold night.” She looked from me to Lili and back again. “But I guess you two will be warm enough.” She smiled as she turned away.
Lili took me by the arm. “Good night, old woman,” she said, and we left to fashion our bed by the river.
Next morning, Lili and I entered the hut hand in hand.
“There’s your ghost potion,” the old woman said, turning from the oven to point over her shoulder. Two goatskins hung from pegs in the plank door. “Sit down and take some breakfast.” She was curt, but not unpleasant. And still the froggy voice.
I removed my hand from Lili’s and moved it to her waist as I sat. I was excited in a way I had not experienced since I was a young girl, stealing an apple pie from the kitchen for the horses. They’d not cared for it of course, but as I ate it in the loft, I’d felt wonderfully decadent and wicked, in a harmless sort of way. Now with this new magic, I would thieve back my jewels and coins, and all would be fair and right again.
Lili sat next to me and the old woman served us boiled eggs—probably bird—and flat corn cakes with newly churned goat butter. We ate our fill, punctuated with twitters and kisses. The old woman ignored us, going about her business, until we stood to leave.
“Thank you, Grandmother, for you help,” I said.
“I hope you thank me later. I want no curses from either of you.”
“That could never happen,” I said. Lili was quiet through all of this, as if she had a secret that needed tending to.
“Be careful what you thieve, girl.” The old woman directed her speech so clearly to me that Lili took her bedroll and goatskin and walked out the door to stand in the herb patch. I followed her with my eyes.
“Listen to me. Be careful what you thieve. And thieving is, I am sure, what you intend to do with this potion.”
“But the property is mine.”
“Hush. Property is no one’s. It is of its own. Possession can only bring obsession. Obsession can only bring possession.”
I looked about the room, confused into silence.
“Be careful what you thieve, that it does not steal you away.”
I was so confounded that I kissed the old woman on the head. She faltered backward as if I’d spilt milk on her apron. I snatched the goatskin and bolted out the door.
We trekked south and west over the Ceaseless Plains toward Sever Town. By evening we could make out the village on the horizon and unrolled the blanket the old woman had insisted we should have for our travels. We spent another night in one another’s arms.
The next morning, I awoke early. I kissed Lili on the eyelids and mouth, and she wakened slowly, raising her delicate hand up to my cheek. “Good morning, sweet Castele.” She kissed me once then sat up and pulled on her boots. I dressed and she returned from a nearby brook with water still on her face. She sat next to me on the blanket.
“So, young horsewoman, are you ready to partake of this potion?” She held aloft the goatskin the old woman had filled for her, and handed me mine.
“That I am.” We both laughed nervously, then drank, our eyes locked together in earnest apprehension. It tasted of must and nutmeg.
She tipped her flask away from her lips. “Not too much. The old woman said a sip is sufficient.”
I lowered mine as well, capped it, and slung it over my shoulder. We stood. And then it happened. Before our very eyes, we dissolved. Hands and faces at first shimmering, then fading to a blue light before disappearing.
I laughed. “Our clothes,” I said. Lili laughed as well, the high tones coming from the space above her erect but empty mantle and pantaloons. My dress and vest, too, stood tall but empty.
“I guess we shall have to take them off,” she said. And so we did, and wrapping them in the blanket, we stowed our earthly possessions and the two goatskins in a bush.
“Take my hand,” she said, as she groped for mine.
We walked like that, naked and invisible, hand-in-hand, to Sever Town. The damp air chilled yet invigorated my naked skin, which for its sightlessness seemed all the more palpable. I felt sensuous in ways I had never before experienced and yearned for a view of Lili in her nakedness, to see if she glittered in the way I felt I did.
At the very edge of the village she stopped and lifted the back of my hand to her mouth. “Good luck with your task. I will await you at nightfall where we last slept.”
I panicked. “Are not you coming with me?”
“No, Sweetness. For I have my own quest.” Then she lowered my hand and was gone.
My search of the Marshal’s house proved fruitless, and the sun perched on the wrong side of midday when I finally arrived at the whicker cells of the gaol. There were three cells spaced evenly in the fenced yard. All empty now, except for a large bundle sitting in the middle of the center cell.
A ponderous man—the keeper—slept just inside the locked gate of the gaol yard. He reeked of ale and rotted meat, but the key ring lay at his side, so I crept closer. It proved a simple matter to reach the keys and open the gate but a bit more of a task to step over the big man without stepping on him. That’s when I noticed the door on the far cell hung open.
Then I observed the large bruise on the side of his head and his sword off to one side. His unconscious state was not from wine but from a blow. No matter, he was no friend of mine and I made my way to the center cell. I unlocked the door and stole in to examine the parcel. As I supposed, it contained the treasures I had won in my gaming with the townsmen. I wrapped the satchel, plucked it off the floor, then at once realized the error of my plan. The satchel was visible and now floating in mid air.
To add to my dismay, in the distance the gaoler floundered toward me. I picked the wounded keeper’s sword off the dirt. In that instant the gaoler stopped in his tracks, seeing—I realized—a floating sword and satchel.
I sprang to the gate, and to my horror saw my feet reappearing. Then me, all of me, naked and drenched in the sweat of my terror. The wounded keeper moaned below me. The gaoler started toward me again, drawing his dirk, his look of horror changing to one of lust, bloodlust, or both.
Just before we collided, I swung my blade at his wrist, removing hand from arm. He screamed and dropped to his knees. I made for the Plains, catching sight of a few horrified villagers watching me run. A tall naked girl, with a bloody sword in one hand and what probably appeared a severed head in the other.
I ran until dark, the north wind barely cooling my burning lungs and scorched throat. I feared for my life then, for I no longer had any notion of direction. I stopped. Falling to my knees, I sobbed, preparing to pray, when I saw it.
A campfire. In the distance.
Moments later I stumbled into her arms. I dropped the sword and the satchel. She caressed me and kissed me and dressed me carefully as if I were a child. She wiped the last of the tears from my cheek.
Then I saw him.
He sat at the fire, his back to us. Long black hair, blacker than the night, tucked behind his ears, and cascading to the middle of his back. He turned his head and smiled. He was the most beautiful male I had ever seen.
I looked at her with a sad curiosity.
“My…husband,” she said. “In your language.”
I started to speak, but she held two fingers to my lips. “They had him. In the gaol. That was the only way they believed they could control us. To keep us apart.”
“But I thought…”
“I know what you thought. And your thoughts were true and lovely.”
“I don’t understand.” I could feel the tears coming again.
“In my world we can love many, Castele. But we can only share eternity with one.” She looked over her shoulder, and in a way I realized was telepathic, he turned also. They smiled at one another then at me.
He stood and came to us. She was right, I realized. They were meant to be together. One. Indivisible. When I awoke at sunrise they were gone.
That day I wandered the Ceaseless Plains once more. The winds that swept down from a wild glen further north were my only companions. I sulked and thought of her the entire day. Her shimmering beauty. Her laugh. Her kisses. On that night at a new fire, mountain air snuck down to the riverbanks and raised the slender golden hairs on my moonlit arms.
I drank from the river, then returned to the fire to sharpen my sword.
There was much work yet.
Author Bio: Gregory Jeffers’ stories have appeared recently or are upcoming in Chantwood Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Suisun Valley Review, Every Day Fiction, Grim Corps Magazine, Corvus Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and in the anthologies Hardboiled and Outposts of the Beyond. Other stories have won honorable mentions in Glimmer Train’s 2015 Very Short Fiction Contest and Winning Writer’s Summer Competition in 2012. Mr. Jeffers lives and writes in the Adirondack Mountains and on the island of Vieques.
by Bruce S Levine
It was a beautiful sunny day in LA so as usual the streets were deserted. Occasionally I’d pass a down on his luck vampire or demon peering hungrily from the shadows of a dark alleyway but none would dare venture into the sunlight. Being dead seriously limits your dining options.
Now me, I’m alive. It’s not that I haven’t had offers mind you, but I prefer breathing to placing a bet on the postmortem roulette wheel. Immortality’s not so enticing when you may end up with the lifestyle of a ghoul or zombie. I tell you the day the earth opened up and released the Gas, uncertainty hit a record high.
The only thing distinguishing the pink stucco building I entered from the other pink stucco buildings on the block was the number above the front entrance. I climbed the four flights of creaking steps, praying my landlord would finally find a still living elevator mechanic. Okay, the place was a giant rat trap but low rent can be very seductive. I took a short breather before opening a peeling door marked:
The Last Living Detective
Yeah, I know about that sleazebag Rex Milner in Tarzana but I set up shop years before him so I kept the tagline anyway. I was last first.
It’s only a gimmick but a gimmick that works. Why hire a mortal? you ask. For one thing, we can work the daylight hours the undead can’t. And money means more to us so you got better service. Besides all those rich vampires loved telling their liberal friends how they employed an underprivileged pink.
Being basically lazy, the décor of the office was same beige on beige motif it sported when I first rented the place. Only now it was clean and spotless. I hired a squad of mite men to come in from Torrance once a week. Say what you will about those repulsive buggers, they did an amazing job of keeping the dust down. Valerie looked up from her computer on the reception desk and zeroed in on the paper bags in my hand. “One of those better be for me.”
“Would I forget my favorite employee?” I threw her one of the bags and it clucked angrily as it hit the desktop. “Lunch ala McKluski’s.”
She smiled so sweetly one could almost overlook the set of gleaming fangs. “I’m your only employee. And you should have gone to O’Toole’s; their chickens have bigger veins. “
Val’s a good kid. At least I think she’s a kid. I remember when she first showed up at my office wearing worn clothes and a complexion several shades whiter than the one she wears today. I’m not normally a big fan of bloodsuckers but I didn’t have the heart to send her away. So, I took her out for a pint at the local blood bank, bought her a new outfit, and gave her a job on thirty days’ probation. Turned out to be the best investment I’ve ever made. I didn’t believe her at the time but she really was a primo hacker in her previous life. Ask her anything, she’d go to her computer and by hook or crook find the answer in minutes. And she works cheap too. I think she’s just grateful for a place to stay out of the sun during daylight hours.
“What’s in the other bag?” she asked.
“Just a Reuben for me.”
Val sighed as she adjusted her blouse. “You know I miss sandwiches the most.”
“Should have thought of that before you offed yourself.”
“And not be young and pretty forever? Maybe you should have thought of it yourself. You must have been young once.” Val glanced up from the desk. “Though I doubt you were ever pretty.”
“Way to suck up to the boss.”
Suddenly there was a nibbling sensation on my lower leg. Looking down I saw an undead goldfish flying upside down and attacking my ankle. The rotting flesh exposed yellowed bones as he unsuccessfully tried to penetrate my sock. “Oscar!” I screamed as I kicked him away.
Oscar’s Val’s pet or used to be. Once her pride and joy, he swam in his bowl at a place of honor on her desk. I still remember the day I came in and found Val crying behind her computer. I never realized vampire tears could be so bloody. And then I noticed Oscar floating belly up in his bowl. “We all have to go sometime,” I told her. Boy, was I ever wrong.
Anyway, she was too broken up to perform the mandatory burial at sea so I volunteered in her place. Now I know it’s rare for animals to undergo Change but I guess Oscar never got the memo. Moments after flushing the toilet, the zombie goldfish came flying out of the bowl and swam through the room in his trademark upside down position. He quickly sailed past the restroom door and disappeared somewhere in the front office. Every once in while he comes out of hiding and tries to eat me or some visitor. Possessing no teeth, the attacks are more annoying then dangerous. We tried several times to trap him but the damn fish always proved too elusive.
“One of these days I’m going to catch that rotting devil.”
“And then what?” Val asked.
I shrugged. “Return him to the wild, I guess.”
“He’s undead. He has no wild.”
“Well, there must be someplace he fits in,” I stuttered. “It certainly isn’t here.” With the Oscar back in hiding, I came behind the desk and scanned the headlines on the screen. “Anything new and exciting?”
“Well, the Bone Gnawers and the Lords of Shambling had it out in downtown last night.”
“Ghouls and zombies eating each other! Hell, I’d pay to see that.”
“The Police Commissioner sent a dragon squad to break it up. As for the survivors…” She squinted at the screen. “Oops, there were no survivors.”
“Werewolves have no sense of humor.” I patted her on the shoulder. She was so cold to the touch I almost feared getting frostbite. “Any appointments?”
“In weather like this?” Val pointed at the sunny view outside the smog tinted window. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Well I’ll be in my office if anything comes up.”
“I’ll be sure to wake you if it does.” Val took the chicken out of the bag, sat it in her lap, and gently petted it until it stopped clucking.
“You know you could wait till I’m out of the room before doing that?”
“I know,” she said then sank her teeth into its neck.
My office is my home away from home. Actually, nowadays it’s my home. I used to rent an apartment but I spent so little time there I finally gave it up. The upholstered couch and padded desk chair alternate as substitute beds and I moved in a small fridge and microwave. I now have everything I need. Well everything but company but that’s another story for another day. The walls are festooned with pictures of past friends and lovers I’d be better off forgetting and awards from obscure trade organizations I once made the mistake of joining. As a final touch, the large oak desk separated the room into client and owner zones.
No, I’m not a recluse or anything but agreeable people are getting harder and harder to find these days. The undead tend to look down their noses on mortals. What about family? you ask. Val’s the closest thing I’ve got to family and I like it that way. Jeez, I guess I am a recluse.
I settled into my chair, propped both feet on the desk, and remembered back to a time before the Gas Changed everything. Odorless, colorless, nobody but a few geologists even noticed it at first, but its impact was soon hard to ignore. Oh, it’s not like the cemeteries emptied out or anything; those guys stayed dead. No, it first showed up at the hospitals. Fresh corpses were suddenly walking out of the morgue as an assortment of vampires, zombies, ghouls and other mythical creatures. There was even a news story about a doctor who performed an assisted suicide and got eaten by his patient for his troubles. Just goes to show no good deed goes unpunished.
At first the public was terrified, demanding answers from their equally terrified leaders. Studies with monkeys quickly revealed the Gas to be the culprit but no antidote was ever found. And living forever does have its allure. As the epidemic raged on and more and more undead appeared on TV proselytizing the benefits of Change, there was less and less interest in a solution. The researchers quickly switched tracks to finding a way to control the Change but to no avail. Dying would certainly give you immortality but you never knew as what. And of course, you never got to see the sun again.
Despite the drawbacks, dead soon became the new black. Suicide clubs were popping up everywhere and it became chic to off yourself on your twenty first birthday. They’d hold big parties for the soon to be departed and placed bets on what kind of creature they’d come back as. Gun, tranquilizer, and pesticide sales soared to all-time highs. It became almost embarrassing to remain mortal.
Me, I was just an average PI at the time, scratching out a living handling divorce and embezzlement cases. Then the Gas came and quickly ate away my business. People were too busy enjoying their newfound personas to worry about such trivial things as marriage or bank accounts. I was just about to throw in the towel when the undead suddenly started reappearing at my door. It should come as no surprise that being deceased didn’t make anybody a better person. Nor did it protect you from the heartbreaks of adultery or theft. And a live detective was novelty they couldn’t resist.
I drifted off and found myself dreaming about that succubus client who paid in more than cash when the intercom rudely interrupted me mid-coitus. “Mr. Jones, I have a client to see you,” Val announced.
“Give me a minute.” I hurriedly wiped the sleep from my eyes, brushed down my sports jacket, and clipped on a tie. “Send ‘em in, Val.”
A three-foot figure in a black sun protection burka gracefully walked through my door. Reaching the desk, it shed its covering, revealing a full-fledged elfin maiden. This was a bit of a surprise; you don’t see too many elves these days. They usually kept to themselves, disappearing into their own pocket universes. It’s been said all elven maidens were knockouts and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. Her green tunic drenched in delicate silver filigree not only accentuated her slim figure but spoke of big money. Gorgeous as she was, her stern emotionless greenish-silver face would give the even the most ardent admirer pause.
I introduced myself “What can I do for you Ms…?”
“Alvyra. Just call me Alvyra.” I doubt that was the name she was born with but it wasn’t my place to judge “Mr. Jones, I need your help finding my husband.”
I began my standard lecture. “Listen Alvyra, even if I find your husband there’s no guarantee he’ll come back with me. Before you invest a lot of time, money, and effort into this, maybe you should consult a good divorce attorney…”
“Oh please, I don’t want him back. But he took something of mine when he left.” She produced a photo from her leather pouch. It was a gold wedding band indistinguishable from any other gold wedding band including the one on the elf’s finger. Some weird engravings in a foreign alphabet were visible on the inside. Didn’t look elvish to me but what do I know. “It has great sentimental value.”
Somehow I suspected this cold-hearted elf never had a sentimental feeling in her life. “Why haven’t you gone to the police?”
“I did. Useless. Those smelly werewolves couldn’t find a bone if you unburied it for them.”
Grabbing a yellow notepad, I took down the usual who’s, what’s, and where’s. She gave me a swanky Beverly Hills address as her contact. “Got any photos of your husband?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re not allowed take pictures of Gorm. He’s a god.”
Finally, something interesting. “A god? Forgive my asking but how did a nice elf like you get mixed up with a god?”
“Let’s just say I was young and foolish and leave it at that.” She took a cigarette out from her neck pouch and lit it.
“That’ll stunt your growth you know.”
Alvyra gave me a look that would freeze any man in his tracts. “Do you want the case or not?”
I went into my spiel about a retainer, out of pocket expenses, per diem fees, and overtime. She didn’t even blink as she produced a checkbook, signed it, then slid the whole thing across the desk to me. Maybe it’s time to raise my fees.
Nothing about this passed the sniff test but a job’s a job. I made a show of tearing out the check as I read the hand-written register above it. One name was repeated several times: The Strigoi Foundation. “Thank you Alvyra. I’ll get on this right away. My assistant Valerie will keep you up to date on our progress.”
The elfin maiden threw on her black burka and left without a further word. A few minutes later I went up front to Val’s desk.
“Anything interesting, boss?” she asked as she cleared the last of the feathers from her desktop.
“Just some jewelry recovery from a dumped husband.” Val made an exaggerated yawn. “But there’s something not quite right about this. Just for giggles check out the Strigoi Foundation for me. Ms. Alvyra’s dropped an awful lot of dough on them lately.”
Val’s fingers flew across the keyboard for a minute. She glared at the screen until a satisfied grin came across her face. “It says here they’re some kind of vampire think tank. Research, welfare, yada yada. Funny, I’ve never heard of them.”
I shrugged. “Why in hell would an elf be interested in vampire welfare? Check the directors roster for the names Alvyra or Gorm. Nobody dumps that much cash on a charity without at least getting a seat on the board.”
Val did her magic then shook her head. “Sorry, no hits. But wait.” She squinted closer at the screen. “This is a pretty new page. Let’s hope they didn’t erase the old ones yet.” Her fingers did their flying act again until she sat back and smiled. “You’re right as usual, boss. Up to two months ago they were both proud members of the Board of Directors. They must have done something really nasty to get their names erased that fast.”
“Hard copy me the address.” I opened the closet to gather my coat and supplies. “And while you’re at it, see if you track can down the locale of a god named Gorm.”
“I went out with a god once.” Val said. “What a prick. The only thing he was good for was turning oregano into pot. The trouble was he constantly smoked the results.”
You’re probably wondering why I never made a play for Val. Not that I haven’t fantasized about it, mind you. It’s just that I worry it would mess up our employer/employee relationship such as it is. Besides, it’s said vampiresses eat their boyfriends when they don’t sexually satisfy them.
Some more furious typing and Val announced, “That was easy. He’s got a setup in Temple Town by Sepulveda. He must be doing okay; got four stars on Yelp.”
I looked at the sunshine outside the window and sighed. “Well, it’s such a nice day out, I think I’ll walk. The Foundation’s on the way to Temple Town so I’ll stop there first. Wish me luck.”
Val flashed me a look of concern. “You do realize it’ll be dark soon?”
“Don’t worry, I can handle myself. I’m loaded to bear with crosses, amulets, and holy water.”
Right about now you’re probably wondering why I never pack a gun. A: I rarely if ever need one and B: with my sense of aim I’d probably end up shooting the wrong person. Why ask for more trouble than you already have?
I flashed Val a wink. “I didn’t know you cared.”
“I don’t. I ‘d just hate to look for a new job.” It’s hard to tell on vampires but I think she was blushing as she turned her attention back to the computer screen.
It was getting past four and the streets of the downtown were filling with businessmen and women in black burkas carrying briefcases. Flying carpets, unicorn drawn carriages, mounted prehistoric beasts, and even an old-fashioned car or two poured out of the surrounding parking structures. Driverless taxis and limos sent by Uber wizards patrolled the district looking to ferry office workers to their favorite nightspots. Beneath my feet, passenger worms rumbled through the subway tunnels on their journey to the far suburbs. I checked the addresses on the building fronts and soon found myself standing before a modern looking glass and steel edifice bearing the legend:
The Strigoi Foundation
Working for a Bloodier Tomorrow
The lobby was a study in gleaming marble and glass, its walls covered in heraldic family shields and oil portraits of important looking bloodsuckers attired in Armani. A large photo of a long line of empty suits holding an oversized check graced the place of honor at the front of the room. Vampires don’t photograph well.
I was wondering whether the staff had taken off for the night when a tall well-groomed vamp in business attire suddenly appeared in front of me. “Can I help you?”
In most walks of life, looking average and nondescript was considered a handicap. But in my profession, it was an invaluable asset. You could go anywhere and pass yourself off as just about anything you needed to be. With luck, they might not even remember you were ever there.
For now, I figured ignorance mode was best. I don’t know what it says about me but it was the easiest mode to don. I blinked with exaggeration to signal nervousness. “Er- I heard about your foundation and decided to check it out for myself.”
He gave me a disdainful look. “You’re a little old for the breeding program.”
Breeding program? “No, I recently received an unexpected windfall and I’m looking for a worthy cause to support. What exactly is it you do here, Mr…?”
The vampire’s face lightened. “Alucard. Vlad Alucard” The Gas could radically change a person’s appearance but did nothing to improve their imagination when it came to choosing names. “I’m the Assistant Secretary of the Strigoi Foundation. Let’s go someplace more comfortable and I’ll tell you about the good work we do.” He pointed to a door off the foyer.
Vlad’s office was decorated in early junior executive. The customary ersatz wood desk and even cheaper looking laminated bookshelves half filled with dusty unread volumes were making their mandatory appearance while meaningless award plaques and inspirational posters were plastered across the walls. A photo of a bat dangling from a cave ceiling bearing the moto: HANG IN THERE, BABY graced the coveted spot behind the desktop We took seats on our respective sides of the desk.
“I must say it’s nice to see a pink-er forgive me, mortal- taking an interest in averting the upcoming catastrophe.”
“Global warming?” I said. “I thought that went away when the Gas arrived.”
“No something much worse.” Vlad’s face took on an expression so intense, I unconsciously fished the cross out of my shirt. Leaning over to an easel beside the desk, the vampire flipped the first card, revealing a downward trending graph. “Global famine. It’s all the fault of you mortals really. Your birth rate is down and with the growing popularity of early suicide, your numbers are predicted to dwindle below critical mass in the next decade. Why even now, do you realize how many vampires in this country go to bed hungry each morning?”
“Can’t you just drink animals. My assistant does that and seems okay.”
“Glad you asked.” Vlad flipped the chart again and uncovered a graphic showing a wide variety of food animals. “Oh sure, there are a few species whose blood will sustain us short term. Even gods, succubus’s, elves, and fairies will do in a fix if you can catch one. But it’s only the wholesome red corpuscles of living humans that can provide us with complete and balanced nutrition. Sure, we have blood banks contributing expired product, off the street donations, local hospitals sending red bag waste, and even host a suicide club every Friday but these are only stop gap measures at best. It’s urgent we establish a more reliable source of nourishment before it’s too late.”
I was afraid to ask but I did anyway. “So, what’s the solution?”
He flipped the chart again to reveal a drawing of a human couple holding hands with a small child between them. “The only real answer is breeding. We hire mortals to procreate and then collect the offspring.”
I pinched myself to make sure I was awake. “You don’t seriously expect people to hand over their children to you?”
“Why not?” He flipped the chart again to reveal a drawing of a happy looking adolescent with a red tube trailing from his neck. “We’ll pay them well throughout pregnancy and the child’s growth period then harvest the offspring in late adolescence. After we’ve humanely drained them, they’ll be released into the world as one of the undead. And the benefits don’t end there. In accord with the International Species Conservation Treaty, we’ll set a harvesting limit of only one child per couple. Afterwards, they’re free to have as many progenies as they want. Not only do we secure a reliable food supply but help save the mortal race from extinction. It’s a win-win scenario for everybody.”
I fought hard to keep down my nausea. “How far have you gotten with this project?”
“For now, it’s only a work on paper but I feel with time and the proper funding, we can have a viable colony of mortals in as little as five years.”
Five years? That scheme wouldn’t work in a thousand. Thankfully it was time to change the conversation to a more pertinent subject. “Oh, I almost forgot. Gorm and Alvyra told me to say hello if I came by.”
Vlad shot straight up from his desk chair. “Gorm and Alvyra? A lot of nerve those two have after what they’ve done.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them and they spoke so highly of your foundation.”
Vlad’s eyes narrowed. “You know vampires have a keen sense of smell and right now you seriously reek of bullshit. I understand those two split up and I doubt either one has anything nice to say about us. You’re not a werewolf so you’re probably not with the police. Who are you really?”
As the saying goes: when all else fails, try honesty. I produced a business card and handed it to Vlad. “Sorry about that. The name’s Elmer Jones and I’m a private investigator. “
Vlad carefully inspected the card. “Private dick, eh? Who sent you and what do they want from us?”
“Professional ethics forbids me from revealing my client’s identity but I’ve been hired to recover a missing item.”
Vlad sadly shook his head. “This missing item, it wouldn’t be a gold ring would it?” I nodded and he leaned back in his chair, throwing his hands up in the air. “Why not? We’ve tried the police without results. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
I pulled a notebook and pen from my jacket pocket. “First tell me about Alvyra and Gorm.”
“Well, I know it’s odd for a god and an elf to care about vampires but when they first came to us they seemed sincerely touched by our cause. And yes, it was strange we never saw the two of them together but they were friendly enough and their checks didn’t bounce when we cashed them. Eventually we put them on the Board. I guess it was all an act to uncover the location of our vault. We discovered the robbery a few weeks later.”
“A robbery? How do you know it was them?”
“We can’t prove anything but who else but a god could rip an eight-inch solid steel door off its hinges? And we haven’t been seen or heard from them since the break-in.”
“What else did they make off with?”
Vlad poured himself a shot of blood from a crimson decanter. “That’s the crazy part. The vault holds an extensive collection of priceless relics–medieval armor, ceremonial weapons, ancient venipuncture devices and such–but they weren’t even touched. All they took was that damn ring.” He had an imploring look as he slid his business card across the desk. “If you find it please return it to us, Mr. Jones. Monetarily it’s not worth much but I’m sure we could arrange a small compensatory award for its recovery. It has great sentimental value.”
The world was getting awfully sentimental lately. “I’ll see what I can do.”
As I was leaving I could feel Alucard’s watchful eyes on me, so I peeled off a couple of bills and stuffed them into the collection canister by the door on my way out.
It was getting dark by the time I reached Temple Town and the sidewalks were crowded with every known variety of undead tourist. Along the curb, kiosks manned by translucent poltergeists hawked everything from Official Temple Town Souvenir Snow Globes to t-shirts bearing the likenesses and mottos of the more popular gods to golden pastries stuffed with a choice variety of ground body parts. I had to laugh when I witnessed a zombie trying to lift a wallet from a passing golem only to leave his dismembered hand dangling from the victim’s back pocket. No matter who you are, there’ll always be at least one field of endeavor you suck at.
Circling overhead, werewolves in police uniforms mounting flying dragons kept the district from turning into a giant food fight. It wasn’t that long ago the dragons sued the city for equal pay and civil rights. They easily won the pay hike but they still couldn’t get those hairy bastards off their backs.
Temples of every conceivable size, shape, and hue lined both sides of the street. Someone once tried to pass an ordinance to bring some uniformity to the district but the Supreme Court struck it down on First Amendment grounds. Worship of every flavor was welcome here, from the dwindling devotees at the Church of the Crucified God to the chattering hordes in the pagoda dedicated to the Monkey King. Gas or no Gas, religion was still big business especially when the gods themselves were present to pass the collection plate. It was a short two blocks before I found myself standing before the Temple of the One and Only True God Gorm.
The usual gang of tentacle-heads were picketing the sidewalk outside with signs bearing slogans like GORM BLESSES BUT CTHULHU DEVOURS! OPEN THE COSMIC GATE AND LET THE REAL GODS IN! and WORSHIP THE WINGED OCTOPUS WHILE YOU STILL CAN! I quickly pushed through the protesters to the shrine’s entrance. While the outside of the temple was little more than a plain adobe cube, the inside was a flamboyant smorgasbord of pre-Gas chaos. A host of colored lights and lasers flashed constantly, reflecting off walls covered with free form aluminum sculptures, old license plates, outdated art exhibit posters, various guns and armaments, gleaming torture implements, and anything else that struck its designer’s fancy. On the chapel floor below me, frenzied worshippers danced with abandon to a loud and overpowering techno beat. Following the rope line to its end I was greeting by a large, grim faced gargoyle in a tux. I slipped him a few bucks and he silently unhooked a satin cord to let me pass.
On my way to the dance floor, a young witch stepped into my path and met me with an agreeable smile. She would have been quite a looker if it weren’t for all those warts on her face. “How about some Ecstasy?” she asked. She waved her hand in the air and suddenly I was filled with a sensation of utter happiness and euphoria. A second later it dissipated. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”
“I’ll pass,” I told her and moved on.
Once on the chapel floor, I scanned the room for Gorm. He wasn’t hard to find. The deity sat at the back of the chapel on a golden throne atop a dais, gulping from an enormous silver goblet and waving encouragement to the dancing worshippers. With his garish oversized Hawaiian shirt, cut down shorts, and spreading middle aged midriff, he looked exactly like any other slob you’d see on the street with one exception. The god was about five times larger than any human being could ever be. For a moment, I tried to imagine Alvyra’s and Gorm’s love life but quickly gave up in disgust. A crown of laurel leaves encircling his brow, Gorm was the very picture of a happy deity in his home environment.
Threading my way through the throngs of frenzied worshippers, I finally stood before the Throne of Gorm. I called out his name several times, but he just ignored me, laughing and chatting with the blue robed priest beside him. No surprise there. In my experience, gods were usually self-important narcissistic assholes. This one certainly did nothing to change my opinion. The only thing beings like these respected was a dose of over the top chutzpah. Exasperated, I shouted, “Hey, big guy. Your wife sent me to talk to you.”
The god suddenly glared down and scowled. Raising his hand, the music and dancing came to an abrupt halt and the crowd of worshippers nervously moved away from me on all sides. “What’s the little bitch want this time?”
I didn’t know what powers he possessed but from his breath Gorm might well have been the patron god of alcoholics. “She says you have a piece of jewelry that belongs to her.” I pointed to a gold ring dangling from a chain against his hairy chest. “That one. She hired me to collect it.”
Gorm laughed and took a deep quaff from his silver goblet. “Well, you can tell her to go fuck herself. It’s mine and she can’t have it”
I could see this was going to be a long and difficult negotiation. “You mean you stole it fair and square?”
Gorm’s face reddened and he awkwardly stood up from his throne. Ominously pointing his finger at me, his voice took on the deep gravelly tone that has long become a standard among deities who want to make an impression. “YOU DARE MOCK YOUR GOD? KNEEL DOWN BEFORE ME, MORTAL OR FACE THE WRATH OF GORM.”
I was expecting this. Armed with a variety of protective amulets, I knew I could handle just about anything the god threw at me. “Sorry, kneeling’s hard on my knees.”
Gorm’s features reddened even more. He tilted back his head and let out an ear-piercing howl. Then silence ruled the room.
At first it started as a faint buzzing from afar. It then grew in loudness and pitch until every beam and drywall of the temple reverberated in synchrony. Whatever was coming there were certainly a lot of them. I’d have to chant fast, I told myself as I waited to see which mantras I needed to activate which amulets.
I wasn’t kept in suspense long. Suddenly I was immersed in a whirling cloud of brown grasshoppers. Covering my nose and mouth for protection, I stood my ground while the enraged insects buffeted me from every direction. The world turned black with locust for what seemed an eternity as I waited for the god’s wrath to subside. It ended as abruptly as it began.
Patting myself down, I was intact and unharmed. “That’s it?” I said, laughing. “You’re the god of locusts?”
‘TREMBLE BEFORE ME, MORTAL.”
“Why? Do I look like a shaft of wheat to you?”
The god shook his head and clumsily sat back down. After signaling for the music and dancers to resume, he motioned me to stand beside his throne then whispered, “Look, I understand you’ve got a job to do but seriously, do you have to cast shade on my gig?”
I flashed Gorm a sardonic grin. “Just give me the ring and I’ll be out of your hair forever.”
“Would that I could.” He absently searched in vain for his goblet. “You don’t understand what this little bauble means to me. Alvyra’s got her own so why does she need mine? “
It was then I noticed across the chapel a trio of wendigos making their way up the rope line. With their camouflage outfits, short cut fur, cadenced gait, and military style clipped and sharpened antlers, everything about them screamed mercenary. Their wolfish features looked every bit as unfriendly as the automatic assault rifles slung from their shoulders.
“Get down!” I shouted to the giant god but it was too late. In unison, the wendigos leaped the rope line and opened fire on the worshipers dancing on the chapel floor. But the one thing the mercenaries didn’t factor into their military planning was that gargoyles and several other types of undead were pretty much bulletproof. The stone bouncer quickly pinned one of the attackers to the floor while another disappeared beneath an angry mob of equally indestructible vampires and zombies. Managing to slip past the defenders, the remaining wendigo raced across the chapel floor, spraying ordinance as he went. He leaped onto the dais and fired a short round pointblank at the bewildered god’s head. Gorm fell from the throne with a resounding thud.
The mercenary bent down and unceremoniously yanked the ring from the bloodied god’s neck. With a sadistic smile, he turned toward me and said, “Nothing personal buddy, but our employer demands a clean operation. Good luck in your next life.” As he raised his rifle I regretted there was no such thing as a protection amulet against gun fire.
I felt sure I was about to embrace Gas when out of nowhere a well-dressed vamp leaped onto the wendigo’s back and sank his teeth deep into his neck. The ring clattered to the dais as the mercenary flailed wildly against his attacker. But the vampire held fast and drank deeply from the wendigo. As the embattled duo sank to the floor, I caught a glimpse of my savior’s face. It was Vlad Alucard! I gathered up the ring and raced for the rear entrance. As I passed the late, great Gorm, I noticed the god’s body had inexplicably shrunk a little.
“I know where you work, Jones,” Vlad hissed as I ran out the backdoor into the darkness.
Fleeing Gorm’s Temple, I noticed a peculiar soft buzzing sound following me. Maybe one of the god’s locust took a shine to me. It’s a good thing the Gas didn’t effect insects or we’d all be goners by now. Anyway, I had bigger things to worry about than amorous grasshoppers.
I was well away from Temple Town when I stopped and took a break on a wooden bench beneath a street light. Pulling the ring from my shirt pocket, I examined it closely. What was it about this nondescript trinket that people were willing to lie, steal, and even kill to possess? Aside from the indecipherable glyphs on the inside, nothing distinguished it from the millions of other gold wedding bands making the rounds. And if those mysterious markings made this bauble so irresistible, why not just copy them down and be done with it? I promised myself I would get to the bottom of this before handing it over to Alvyra or anyone else.
It wouldn’t be long before dawn broke and Val would be back at her desk, so I decided to go back to the office. Even if Vlad made good on his threat, I doubt he and my assistant would see eye to eye on the topic of drinking her boss. Besides, if anyone could crack those cryptic markings it would be the once infamous Valerie the Cyber Queen.
I was approaching La Cienega when I notices a set of footsteps joining the buzzing behind me. Turning around, I came chest to face with a bearded midget clad entirely in green. He tilted an emerald top hat bedecked with a brass buckle at me then stuck a worn wooden pipe in his mouth. “Ye wouldn’t have light for an old and weary sod, would you now?”
Now I know leprechauns were supposed to be an ancient venerable people but asking for a light had to be a ruse far older than the race itself. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, I answered, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” I turned away to find myself surrounded by three more of the emerald tricksters. They smiled viciously as they pounded their palms with their shillelaghs.
The first leprechaun laughed “Now that you met me boyos, perhaps we be moving our business to somewhere more private like.” Poking and prodding me with their wooden clubs, the midgets merrily chatted as they guided me down a narrow alley between a mortuary-restaurant for ghouls and a marijuana dispensary. They unceremoniously pushed me against a brick wall.
I don’t have time for this, I told myself. Figuring the best course was to go along with my muggers, I removed the wallet from my back pocket and opened the billfold.
The leprechaun with the pipe just chuckled and shook his head. “Now what would us good Sons O’ the Shamrock be doing with that? Ye know what we be after, don’t ye?”
“Lucky Charms? “
One of the other leprechauns suddenly raised his shillelagh and shouted, “Why you unbelievable racist whanker…”
The leader outstretched his hand to calm his angry companion, “Now now, Shaun. This poor benighted stook be ignorant of our ways is all. Let us conclude our business like gentlefolk.” He then turned to me and smiled. “Gold. It’s gold we be after. Got any?”
“No,” I told him.
His three comrades quickly pinned me against the alley wall as their leader shouted, “Search him, fellas. Watches, rings, necklaces, anything that be that lovely gold.” I struggled against the three emerald clad undead but to no avail. After a rough but thorough pat down, my lie was soon discovered. “There be something here, Patty,” one of the henchmen said as he extracted the ring from my shirt pocket.
Their leader reached over and took the trinket from his comrade’s hand. Holding it up to the moonlight, he laughed gleefully. “Now this be gold! Gold!” With his comrades cheering him on, the elated leprechaun broke into an elaborate jig. “Gold! Gold!” He danced around the alley waving his hands in jubilation but the celebration ended abruptly when he bit into the ring. The leprechaun leader suddenly ceased his jig and his expression turned to disappointment. “It be fake,” he exclaimed as he spat the ring onto the alley floor.
The other leprechauns let go of me, I picked the ring off the ground and examined it again. I admit I’m no metallurgy expert but if that wasn’t gold, what the hell was it? “You sure?”
“As sure as I be a leprechaun.” He placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “Hope ye didn’t spend many a yard on that one, lad. Your mot be mighty upset if ye bring that little trinket home.” His comrades chortled agreement.
The leprechauns started gathering up their shillelaghs. Call me insane but despite everything that just happened I wanted to part friends. After all, these little folks inadvertently did me a good turn adding one more mystery to all the other mysteries surrounding the ring. Besides, I try not to leave behind enemies if I can avoid it.
I put on my best deflated face and tucked the ring back into my shirt pocket. “Look, why don’t we just call this all a big mistake and no hard feelings?” I took out my wallet again. “You guys go find a bar and have the first round on me.”
The leprechauns sadly cast their eyes downward and shook their heads. “It’s not that we be ungrateful, lad,” their leader explained. “But we be banned from all pubs and taverns hereabouts.”
I couldn’t imagine why. “Okay, there’s a Seven Eleven down the street. Why don’t I treat you all to a couple of six packs?”
The leader licked his lips as we filed out of the alley. “Been too long since I had me a taste o’ the Guinness.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “On my budget, Bud will have to do.”
Bidding the happily inebriated leprechauns goodbye, I decided to change my destination. What bothered me about the ring is though it looked and felt like real gold, it wasn’t. That made it even more puzzling that people would fight over it. I knew an old acquaintance who might help me determine its composition. I called for an Uber flying carpet and headed out to Pasadena.
For someone with the reputation of being able to repair anything, Harry’s shop was an old, grime encrusted eyesore spoiling an otherwise agreeable neighborhood. The locals once banded together and tried to get Harry to clean up his act but quickly learned the dangers of angering an ogre. Since then, they politely kept their distance.
Beyond the rusting screen door, Harry’s place was a scrapyard of old abandoned appliances and industrial equipment. As a young man, he trained as a materials engineer but found fixing junk more to his liking. It said that people came from as far as the Orange County to have the “Miracle Ogre” look over their failing prized possessions. We may live in an age of magic and wonder, but folks still loved their technology.
I found Harry at his work bench behind three rows of rusting refrigerators. He was squat and massive even by ogre standards. A series of broken stools next to the workbench gave evidence to this. He was sporting the same filthy overalls and undershirt he wore when I first met him years ago. Harry once told me he didn’t change his name after death so why should his clothes be any different. Logic like that’s hard to refute.
“Hey Harry, got something for you to look at.” I said as I approached the desk.
He raised his warty face from a tiny watch cradled in his enormous hands. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Elmer? Leave it and I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
“Oh, but this is something special, even interesting.” I pulled the ring from my pocket and brandished it before him.
He eyed the trinket quizzically. “Are congratulations in order?”
“It’s not a gold wedding band,” I told him. “Hell, it’s not even gold.”
The ogre took the ring, sniffed it then rolled it between his fingers. “Are you sure?”
“A leprechaun told me.”
“A leprechaun? I thought Immigration sent those punkers packing a long time ago.” He examined the ring again. “But if there’s one thing those little buggers know, it’s gold.”
He took me into a back room filled with bright, shiny machines that could pulverize, analyze, and weigh just about anything on earth. This freelance lab was the real source of Harry’s income, the front room merely his passion. “This is going to take a while,” he said as he slipped the ring into an open machine slot. “How about some coffee?”
We sat by his work bench drinking a rancid brew from grimy cracked mugs. If you wanted to get along with Harry, first thing you had to learn was to put up with his coffee. “You still in the PI game?” he asked between sips.
I shrugged. “What else am I good for? It keeps the lights on. What’s new with you? Those guys from Cal Poly still bugging you?”
The boils on Harry’s face jiggled as he laughed. “Yeah, they still come around every once in a while. Full professorship and all that crap. Sent a few of them back wrapped in wrought iron to make sure they got the point.” He took another sip of coffee and leaned back in his chair. “You know I still remember the time you brought me that gremlin infested SUV.”
“You’re not going to make me apologize for that again?”
A few reminisces later, I noticed the soft sound of approaching hoof beats. In a curved ceiling mirror, I spotted the intruders. Two hobgoblins were quietly sneaking their way down an aisle of outdated computers. Brandishing pitchforks, their slim bodies were aglow with tiny flames as their cloven hooves carefully crept down the walkway. Their horned red faces brimming with malice, somehow I didn’t think they were here about a broken printer. Silently I pointed them out in the mirror to Harry. “I think it’s for you,” he whispered.
Suddenly, a pitchfork flew through the air, barely missing the ogre and lodging itself in a half dissembled wooden music box. “Hey, I worked hours on that!” the ogre exclaimed.
I saw the attacker pull another pitchfork from his quiver as he split up from his companion. “Give yourselves up and we promise to make it quick and painless,” one of the hobgoblins shouted.
Not exactly an offer you can’t refuse. “No thanks,” I yelled back. “I’ll stick with defending myself if you don’t mind.”
“You’ve always attracted an interesting crowd,” Harry said as we ducked under the workbench. “Remember that cyclopes syndicate?”
“You’re bringing that up again?”
Harry shrugged. “Just saying.”
As I reached for a lead pipe on the floor, Harry stopped me. “They’re only hobgoblins,” he told me. “There are far better ways to deal with hell scum like that.” He fished around and brought out the end of a garden hose. Turning on the spigot, he aimed a stream of water at the aisle and alternately sprayed each attacker. The hobgoblins screamed in agony as the water hit them. They tried to flee but the wetter they got, the greyer and slower they became. Moments later, two steaming ashen statues stood in their place. Brandishing a ballpeen hammer, Harry quickly ran over and reduced them to dust.
“Now that that’s over, let’s see about your ring.” Harry left to check the machines in the back room. It was an unusually long wait before he returned with the ring, a printout, and a puzzled expression on his face. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” he exclaimed. “The metal’s an entirely unknown composition. It even made the spectrograph go negative at one point. And look at this scan. It’s faint but you could see printed circuits and nanoprocessors embedded throughout the interior. Hell, it even radiates an electromagnetic field. It’s not a ring but some kind of machine!”
“You know any local shops that could have made this?”
“I don’t know anybody in this world that could have made this.” Harry examined the ring again with fascination. “This has got to be the most advanced piece of technology I’ve ever laid eyes on. Where’d you get it?”
“Sorry,” I told him. “Client confidentiality.”
Harry looked at the ring with the expression of a kid holding a newly found puppy. “Can I keep it a while? I’d love to study it. It wouldn’t be for sale, would it?”
“It’s not mine to give away or sell.” I reached out an open palm and Harry reluctantly handed back the ring.
“Promise you’ll call me when you’re done with it,” the ogre asked with imploring eyes.
“You’ll be the first on my list,” I assured him.
It was dusk by the time the winged Uber steed arrived at my office building. As it circled for a landing, I noticed a police dragon on the rooftop huddling next to the air conditioning unit’s exhaust vent for warmth. I seemed to be getting very popular lately, I thought as the Pegasus set down by the entrance. After tossing a tip in my ride’s feedbag, I climbed the steps to find Val at her desk.
Val raised a finger to her lips then pointed to my office door. “You have a cop waiting in your office.”
“Yeah, I saw the dragon on the roof,” I whispered. “You wouldn’t believe the night I had.”
“I followed the whole thing on Facebook. The only thing I can’t believe is that you’re still alive,” Val told me. “But on the plus side, it did do a lot to enhance your reputation.”
“Reputation? I have a reputation?” I pulled the gold band from my shirt pocket and handed it to her.
“Aren’t you suppose to go down on one knee first?”
I laughed. “That little trinket is what all the trouble was all about last night.”
“Hardly looks like the One Ring to Rule Them All,” Val said as she examined the band.
“But in the darkness it does bind them. Just keep it out of the good officer’s sight. And while you’re at it, scan the engravings on inside and see if you can make any sense of them.”
“I’ll give it a whirl, boss,” She said pulling a scanning wand out from the desk’s lower drawer. “But you should clean up before you go in. You look like hell.”
“Always with the compliments.”
After washing away a day’s sweat and grime in the bathroom sink, I opened my office door to find a hairy policeman sitting in my chair behind my desk. It was an incredibly rude act but I decided to let it slide. Now was not the time to start a pissing contest with a werewolf. Lawrence Talbot proclaimed the name on his badge. Really? As I sat in the clients’ seat, I wondered how many other Lawrence Talbots were on the LAPD payroll. “What can I do for you, officer?”
Now there’s no ordinance saying you had to be a werewolf or dragon to join the LAPD but somehow they were the only ones who made it through academy training. I sometimes wondered if they ate the others to thin out the competition.
Talbot passed me a tablet displaying the carnage around Gorm’s throne. “What’s missing from this picture?”
I scanned the image. There were plenty of dead bodies on the dais: priests, worshippers, and even a drained wendigo mercenary but no Gorm. Vlad wasn’t accounted for either.
“I didn’t kill anybody” I told Talbot. “Armed wendigos…”
“Yeah yeah, we got all that from the witnesses. But perhaps you can tell me what happened to Gorm’s body.”
I shrugged. “Beats me. I ran out of there too fast to notice if Gorm ever got up again.”
“Gods don’t reincarnate like mortals. When they die, they tend to stay dead”. I winced as Talbot stopped and scratched vigorously behind his ear. It was going to take a week to get all that fur out of my chair. “Witnesses saw you two arguing before the shooting went down. Something about a ring?”
“Yeah, I was sent to retrieve one but never got it”.
“Who sent you?”
“Professional ethics prohibits me from revealing a client’s identity.”
The policeman pulled back his lips and snarled in frustration. “Well, the priests desperately want it back. They say it has great –“
I looked at my nails as I finished the sentence for him. “Sentimental value?”
The policeman revealed his yellowed fangs. “Well, I hope you’re telling the truth. If not you’d better hand it over now. I’d hate to bring you in on theft and obstruction of justice charges.” He slammed his fist into his palm. “That is if I decide to bring in what’s left of you at all.”
I rubbed one if my protection amulets for luck. “My lawyer will take care of your career if you try. Basilisks can be very vindictive if you know what I mean.” I rose from my chair to signal the end of the meeting. “Now that I’ve answered your questions, I have a business to run. If you need more information, call first.”
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” The werewolf rose from his chair and gave me an unfriendly look before leaving. As I followed him out, he stopped at Val’s desk, leaned close to the vampire and said, “How about you and me getting together later?” Where was Oscar when you really needed him?
Val grimaced. “I don’t know. Are you housebroken?”
Still scowling, Talbot angrily stomped out the door.
“Please tell me he won’t be coming back,” Val said.
“Not if I can help it.” I turned my attention to her computer screen filled with an assortment of enigmatic algorithms. “Find anything new about those markings?”
“No but then I’ve always had trouble translating gibberish.” She handed me back the ring. “It’s not in any language on any database I can find. It probably won’t work but there’s this new program I read about I’d like to try out on it.”
“Play with it all you want but don’t spend any personal time. You’ve got to eat at least. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to catch up on my shuteye.” I retrieved a can of air freshener from the restroom and walked back to my office.
When I woke, night had fallen and Val was gone. Changing my shirt, I contemplated what to do next. Avyra could wait for her damn ring. Besides it was standard PI practice to pad the bill a day or two.
As I ran the electric razor over my face, I remembered Harry saying nobody in this world could have made that ring. That leaves somebody from another world and there was only one place you could find that. But first I needed to work out a plan. My growling stomach demanding attention, I decided to mull things over at dinner.
There were three establishments that graced the shopping strip on Fourteenth. The first was a drinking hole that catered to cops. Non-werewolves were certainly not welcome there. Next door was a BBQ joint for their dragon partners who always had a taste for burnt flesh. The smoke and heat tended to drive away other customers. Then there was Mama Lo’s for the rest of us.
Mama’s place was a tradition in the neighborhood long before she died. Even after she was reborn a Buddha, she continued dishing up her trademark dim sum and fried noodles to the hungry masses. Shunning the glitz and tourism of Temple Town, her establishment served Chinese to the very same shady crowd that patronized her while alive. On any given night, you’d find a wide assortment of cons, grafters, and scammers occupying her tables. They may be the shadowy underbelly of LA but they knew a great dumpling when they tasted one.
I walked in and waved to Mama as I took an empty table. The six hundred pound Buddha sat oblivious atop her oversized lotus blossom near the kitchen door, a beatific smile across her features. It wasn’t like I expected a response. No one’s seen Mama move or talk for years. Still it’s rumored she rides hard and rough over the kitchen staff but nobody can figure out how.
As I waited for a follower to take my order, I looked around the room. There was everything from wizards to centaurs to basilisks merrily chatting as they gulped down Asian cuisine. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize any face that was worth talking to.
“Mind if I join you?” I looked up from the menu to find Benny the Weasel miraculously standing before my table. He seemed to appear out of nowhere but then that was Benny’s style. The Weasel served an indispensable function as the unofficial neighborhood news gatherer. For the price of a meal or a drink, he’d pass on more gossip than a local newscast and be twice as entertaining doing it. I nodded and he tucked in his tail as his long, slender body took the seat next to me. He then poured himself some tea, inserted his muzzle in the bowl, and lapped it up. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you and that ruckus up in Temple Town last night,” he said. “A word to the wise, the cops have developed an unhealthy interest in you.”
“I know. One of them was in my office this afternoon.”
Benny’s pointed ears perked up and he leaned in closer. “Really? Which one?”
“Officer Lawrence Talbot.” I knew what I said would be broadcast all over town by morning but with Benny you had to give information before you got any.
“Watch what you say around that one, Elmer. He’s dirty.”
“Aren’t all werewolves dirty?” I said chuckling.
“I’m not talking hygiene, beating heart. That one’s filthy paws are dipped in every racket in the city. Even had the nerve to try shaking down Mama once but the customers banded together and threw him out on his ear. Just be careful with Talbot. He’s a bad one.”
We were interrupted by a saffron robed acolyte setting a dish of dim sum before me. I placed one of the dumpling on a small plate and slid it toward Benny. “Any word on the street about somebody counterfeiting gold wedding bands?”
Benny laughed as he brushed a clump of his fur off the table. “Why? Are we running out of jewelers? Who’d want to get into a chump change racket like that?”
I didn’t really expect more but still I was disappointed. “Just asking for a friend.”
Benny shrugged then wolfed down his dumpling. “By the way, have you heard the latest on Mama? Don’t know much about astral projection but she’s been spotted around town getting hot and heavy with a certain Jesus from the Calvary Burger Barn on Figueroa…”
The Weasel and I shared dumplings and gossiped for a couple of hours while I contemplated my next move.
Once again, I found myself threading my way through the crowded sidewalks of Temple Town. Live and undead devotees stood in front of their houses of worship, preaching zealously to oblivious pedestrians passing by.
Suddenly a slim, feminine figure stepped into my path. She was gorgeous from head to toe in a very human way. Her deliberately skimpy attire made no effort to hide her curving charms. Even the green feathers growing from her scalp only added to her allure. But it was obvious from her demeanor that such beauty came with a price tag.
“Want a date?” she asked.
“No thanks” I tried to push past her.
Within an instant, she began to change. Her chest flattened as her entire frame grew more muscular. A goatee of feathers sprouted on her once feminine face. “How about now?” he asked.
“Again, no thanks. I’ve got somewhere I need to be.” I quickly walked past the street walker and looked for my destination. Pushing my way through a group of dancing Hindi sleestaks, I finally came upon the Hall of Cthulhu.
The interior of the temple was a nightmarish maze of black curving corridors bearing off kilter doors. The ebony walls were randomly painted with hordes of unsettling glowing icons and terrifying portraits of eldritch gods. The few faithful I encountered ignored me as they went about their ritual treks through the temple. Then I came upon the main chapel, a large chamber with jutting limestone walls. A multitude of tentacle-heads, many in rags, knelt before an enormous gilded likeness of the Winged Octopus. Silently they rocked back and forth mouthing passages from the opened Necromicons on the floor before them. Nowhere in the chapel did I see what I came here for.
Wandering down more of the maddening corridors, I finally came upon a sign marked OFFERINGS and followed the arrow, hoping the rumors about this place were true.
Eventually I arrived in a large room teeming with stacks of crates bearing the Seal of the Winged Octopus. It was there I saw what I came for. At the back of the storage area was a glowing green hole in the wall. The portal! I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my time but this had to be the craziest. Do I send a note ahead or just crawl on through? It was then when I heard approaching footsteps and ducked behind a stack of crates marked GLUTEN FREE VIRGIN TENDERS.
A young mortal man in dark blue work overalls approached from the other end of the room and carefully examined a clip board hanging beside the portal. Next, he inspected a nearby machine with blinking LED’s and nodded his head in satisfaction. Whistling refrains from a current pop tune, he rolled a conveyer belt in front of the portal and loaded it with crates. After pushing the cargo into the glowing greenness, he turned and shouted, “I know you’re in here; I can hear you breathing. Come out and let’s talk about this.”
Maybe it’s time for a refresher course on my detective skills. Nothing for it, I raised my hands and stood up. The worker smiled as he saw me and motioned me closer. He introduced himself as Andy. “You’re about a month early.” he said. “We only do sacrifices on High Holy Days. And we never send mortals; they’ve way too much to lose.”
“I’m not here to sacrifice myself,” I told him. “I want to get in touch with whoever’s on the other side of that thing.”
“You’re planning on coming back? That’s a first.”
“I was thinking of sending a note.”
“Won’t work. We’ve sent through tons of prayers from the faithful but never once got back a reply. Whatever’s on the other side of that portal is either illiterate or just doesn’t give a damn.”
“Then how do you know anybody’s there?”
“Well, every once in a while, a tentacle pokes through, grabs a box, then withdraws back into its own dimension. Spooky but then this is the House of Cthulhu.” Andy looked me up and down then shook his head. “What do you hope to gain from this stunt?”
“I need information only they can provide.”
“You and everybody else.” Andy thought for a minute then said, “If you’re mind’s really set on this, maybe I can help. But only on one condition.”
“You give me a detailed account of what’s the other side when you return,” he said with a wink.
“Deal.” I shook his hand.
“I was originally trained as a theoretical physicist,” Andy said as he led me to a desk parked beside a closet door. “That’s why they trust me to maintain the portal. But I did some work in aerospace before I got this job. Every so often, a whiff of atmosphere comes through the portal. It’s green and smells like shit. I don’t know exactly what it’s made of but you’re going to need this if you want to breathe on the other side.” He opened the closet door to reveal a genuine NASA spacesuit.
I eyed him suspiciously. “You’ve thought of doing this yourself, didn’t you?”
“Yeah but who’s going to fix the portal if something goes wrong while I’m on the other side?”
I ran my hands along the spacesuit’s smooth fabric. “Nice. You get this through your aerospace connections?”
“Nah, Ebay.” He unhooked the suit from its hanger and removed it from the closet. “C’mon, I’ve got a couple of oxygen tanks to go with that.”
As I stood before the portal in my spacesuit, Andy checked the seals for leaks. “Now remember you’ve got three hours of air, but for safety’s sake I’d suggest you start heading back when the dial reaches two. Good luck and you’re a go.”
I climbed onto the conveyor belt and crawled into the portal. Creeping through a fog of radiant green, I unceremoniously fell to the ground after only a few feet. Before me was a cracked and barren plain populated with a forest of tall weathered Grecian style marble columns. They rose up into the sky, disappearing into the overhead jade mist. Empty crates were scattered about the bleak landscape but I saw no other signs of life.
As I got to my feet, I heard a deep commanding voice in my head. “You come here often?”
I turned around and there beside the now blue portal was Cthulhu himself. An octopus as big as an office building, the only thing more impressive than his eight writhing tentacles was the set of gigantic leathery wings sprouting from behind his oval eyes. “Congratulations. You’re the first sacrifice to arrive alive.” Cthulhu said inside my mind. “I hate to tell you this but I don’t eat your kind any more. Bad for the figure. Try Yog-Sothoth. He might still be into that sort of thing.”
I held up my empty palms. “I’m not a here as a sacrifice, deity. I came to ask you a few questions.”
Cthulhu’s mood abruptly changed. “You dare come to my world to questions me? What makes an insignificant insect like you think you could even comprehend answers from one such as myself?” The god blew a hearty stream of water from his siphons. “You lesser forms are certainly annoying. Maybe I should pay your dimension a visit and teach it some manners.”
I’m not much on religion but this being coming through the portal could pose a major problem for humanity. Swallowing my pride, I kneeled before the god. “Oh, Great Cthulhu, please don’t punish an entire world for my trespasses.”
The eldritch god laughed as it waved an enormous tentacle in the air. “Only kidding. I have no intention of ever setting tentacle on your world again. Way too hot and muggy for my taste. And the last time I was there, some of your fellow mortals tried to make sushi of me. I like it better here; good weather, free food, and we even get cable.”
Not exactly what I expected from a deity with his reputation. Although he was quick to anger at the slightest provocation, he was equally quick to forget. “But aren’t you the—“
“Devourer?” Cthulhu’s siphons hissed water again. “Isn’t that always the way of it? Eat one measly universe and they brand you for life. I keep telling them it was only a youthful indiscretion but nobody listens. You’ve nothing to fear from me, tiny creature. Go ahead and ask your questions but be quick about it. My show’s on in a few minutes.”
I pulled the ring from the suit pocket. “What can you tell me about this.”
The octopus god deftly plucked the ring from my hand with a tentacle and held it before his enormous eye. “Is someone getting married?”
“I have it on good authority it’s not from my world.”
“Not from mine either.” He tossed the ring back to me. “Our jewelry’s far better made. Bigger too.”
Dejected, I stuffed the ring back in my front pocket. “If it’s not from my world or yours, where could it have come from?”
Cthulhu chuckled. “Is yours the only world in your universe?”
“You’re not talking extraterrestrials?” I said incredulously. “No one seen even a UFO since the Gas was released.”
“Maybe they’re in hiding.”
“Not exactly logical,” I said.
The deity’s body writhed and streams of many colors ran through its skin. “Logic? You think I’d allow myself to be constrained by such a puerile thing as logic? I detest logic and will have nothing to do with it. Now if you’re done with your questions, my show’s on.”
I could see there was no point in continuing. This fickle god could snap at any moment and destroy me. I looked down on the oxygen gauge and discovered the dial was already creeping past one. “Thank you for your cooperation Your Mightiness. I’ve got to go too.”
Already forgetting his anger, Cthulhu’s waved his eight tentacles to signal goodbye. “Drop by anytime. It gets lonely here. And I’ll introduce you to the other gods if you like. They’ll just eat you up.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
I leaped into the blue portal and within seconds found myself sprawled at Andy’s feet. “That was fast,” he said. “You’ve only been gone twenty minutes.”
“My watch says two hours.”
“Time dialation. Amazing! Let’s get you out of that suit and you can tell me what you saw.”
We sat by the desk sipping coffee as I described Cthulhu and his world to Andy. I didn’t mention anything about the ring though. The poor guy had enough on his plate.
“And you say he’s never returning?” Andy asked with surprise. “The priests’ have been promising his reappearance for years. They even reserved an apartment upstairs for him.”
I shrugged. “What can I say? He hates this place.” Glancing overhead I added, “Anyway I doubt Cthulhu would even fit up there.”
Andy thought for a moment then leaned over and whispered. “Let’s keep this to ourselves. Tell no one, especially not the priests. If this gets around, they’ll probably close the temple and I’ll be out of a job.”
All I could do was smile. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
And that, dear friends, is how many a religion’s managed to survive the passage of time.
Dispirited, I shuffled into the office to be greeted by Val behind her desk.
“Rough night?” she asked.
“You don’t know the half of it.” I told her. “I think I dredged up more questions than answers.” I proceeded to tell her about my fruitless meetings with Benny the Weasel and Cthulhu.
“You are one crazy detective.” She swiveled the computer screen toward me. “I might have something to cheer you up. Remember that new algorithm I told you about? I ran it and found our glyphs.”
“You’re able to translate them?”
“Not exactly but I think I know where to look for a Rosetta Stone.” Her fingers danced across the keyboard and a thesis paper appeared on the screen: “Written and Guttural Protolanguages of isolated Pleistocene Societies. “
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Oh boss of little faith.” Val scrolled down the paper until the screen rested on a photo of a cave wall bearing markings resembling those on the ring. She also showed me diagrams of other glyphs in the text itself. “I’m not sure how this connects to your ring but it makes you think.”
“Who wrote this?” I asked.
With a flick of her wrist, an old Kodachrome snapshot appeared on screen. “Meet Dr. Joseph Senecka, linguist extraordinaire. Or at least he was extraordinaire before he disappeared. Because of his brilliant work with prehistoric languages he was considered a rising star in the field. He was also introverted, distrustful, and quarrelsome, all of which eventually cost him his professorship at UCLA. After that he became a consultant to a mining company and spent his time holed up in his humble San Bernardino home.”
“Might be the right guy to talk too. But you said he disappeared?”
“It happened about two years ago. Neighbors say they heard a gunshot then saw a moleman scurrying out into the front yard. The police believe it was Senecka after he Changed. Anyway, he frantically burrowed into the ground and hasn’t been seen nor heard from since.”
I leaned closer to the computer, examining Senecka;s unremarkable features. “That’s all very interesting, Val but how does it help decipher the ring?”
“Now we come to the good part, boss. The house is still there. With no relatives, loved ones, or offspring laying claim, it remains pretty much undisturbed while the County figures out what to do with it. Maybe, just maybe he left something inside that can help us translate those symbols.”
“Val, you’re a genius.” She flashed me a set of pearly white fangs in gratitude. “I think it’s time I took a ride up to the SB.”
I was going into my office to retrieve my car keys, when I suddenly felt something viscously nibbling on my ankle.
Fighting the late afternoon freeway traffic, night had fallen by the time I reached the Senecka home. It was an old decaying single family ranch house dropped smack in the middle of a seedy neighborhood replete with cauldron lounges and check cashing businesses. The long neglected front lawn was a mixture of green growing weeds and brown dying grass. Decaying side boards and a rusted-out bicycle frame added an extra touch of decrepitude to the front porch. All in all, it was your typical suburban LA dump. Might make a good crack house someday, I thought as I parked in the driveway of the abandoned residence.
Now I’m not big on breaking and entering but considering the physical and legal status of the place, there wasn’t much help for it. I was retrieving my flashlight and a pair of latex gloves from the trunk when I heard the faint buzzing sound return. That’s one love struck grasshopper I told myself as I approached the walkway pavers. But this time the sound didn’t fade away. It grew louder and louder until it was directly overhead. A moment later, a dragonfly the size of a coffee table landed right in front of me. As it settled onto the lawn, the bug began to vibrate until it became little more than a blur in the flashlight beam. It’s shimmering iridescent wings flashed and swirled until the overgrown insect dissolved into a familiar petite figure.
“Alone at last, Mr. Jones.” The elf reached into her hip pouch, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at me. “I see you found Joe’s place.”
“Let me guess. You’re his girlfriend.”
“Fiancé.” She glanced at the house and smiled. “Not that I haven’t been engaged before. I still don’t know why but that mining company paid him so well. He was supposed to be just another mark. Eventually I’d get the diamond ring and whatever else I can carry and leave. But instead of a precious stone, I got this.” She tapped the wedding band on her finger.
I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon. I found none. “I take it you were disappointed.”
“At first, yes. But if only you knew what this baby can do. It changed everything. The sky’s the limit now.”
It changed everything? I thought. Now might be a good time to try on the ring myself but the elf would probably shoot me first. If there was any chance of getting out of this alive, I had to keep her talking. “Is that when you decided to rid yourself of Senecka? Who did the honors, you or Gorm?”
“Gorm of course. What else was the big lug good for? Unfortunately, we didn’t figure on Joe running off with his ring when he Changed. That left us with only one. At first it was okay. We took turns wearing it but after a while both Gorm and our arrangement got very tedious.”
“Is that where the Foundation comes in?”
“You’re trying to buy time, Mr. Jones,” the elf stated with a laugh. “That’s alright. We have all night and after the work you put in, you’re entitled to some answers. Well, Joe had often hinted there were more of these things. I remember him telling me about this vampire literature professor he palled around with at the mining company. By the time the detective I hired had tracked him down–” She stopped to make the sign of the tentacle. “—the professor was killed in a “sunlight accident” and left all his worldly possessions to the Strigoi Foundation. On the inventory list was a gold wedding band even though he’d never been married. That’s when I knew we found our second ring.”
I tried to scratch my nose but Alvyra menacingly waved the gun. “Just keep your hands where I can see them and we’ll get along fine.”
So much for getting to the ring. Note to self: invent bullet proof amulet. “But after you two split up, why’d you need his ring?”
“Oh, you know how it is. New lifestyle, new boyfriend—“
Just then, I heard another flapping of wings and a dark feminine figure fell from above onto Alvyra. Sprawled on the ground, she held the elf down as she bit deeply into her neck. Alvyra valiantly tried fighting off her attacker but it wasn’t long before the elf ceased struggling.
I grabbed the flashlight and gasped when I saw the vampire’s face. “Val! What are you doing here?”
Val raised her blood-stained face and smiled. “Protecting my paycheck.” She tried to get up but somehow couldn’t. “After seeing what you went through the last few nights, I decided someone had to watch out for you. So, I reached out to my inner bat and followed you here. It wasn’t hard. You drive slower than my grandmother.” Val stumbled as she again struggled unsuccessfully to stand. “It’s been a long time since I had the Real Thing,” she said in a slurred voice.
I’ve heard about blood intoxication in vampires but never actually witnessed it before. “She’s an elf not a mortal.”
“Yeah but that little floosy sure packs a wallop.”
I wasn’t sure what the wedding band did yet but I was concerned it was still on Alvyra’s finger. “As long as you’re down there. you mind handing me that ring?”
“Sure thing, boss.” She tugged unsuccessfully at the ring several times then sighed and bit off the finger. A moment later she spat out the trinket, handed it to me, and continued happily sucking on the severed end of the digit.
“You really have to do that?” I asked.
“Can’t help it, I skipped lunch.” She managed to get up and stumble over to me. Collapsing into my arms, she laid her head on my shoulder and muttered, “You know if you weren’t such a mortal, I’d…”
It was then that I noticed the corpse was changing. Alvyra was getting taller and her complexion was losing its greenish elfin patina.
Val saw it too. “Jesus H. Nosferatu, she’s a pink!”
I looked again at the corpse. With her dress torn apart by the sudden growth spurt, she was now obviously human. But small hairy spikes were beginning to sprout all over her body. “I think she’s Changing,” I told Val.
Holding up the drunken vampire, I watched as the metamorphosis unfolded. Alvyra began to shrink again. Her torso broadened out as the skin grew a covering of thick black carapace. The head became rounder but still retained her human features. Two extra appendages grew from both her sides. A moment later, she crawled out from beneath the torn dress.
“I’m a spiderwoman!” Alvyra exclaimed as she examined a hinged arm. “You son of bitches made me a spiderwoman! You’ll pay for this.”
The creature rose up on its eight legs and opened its mandibles to reveal rows of needle sharp teeth. Howling in defiance, it was ready to attack when a large hairy foot came out of the darkness and squashed her beneath its heel.
I aimed the flashlight up and saw a huge yeti standing before us. “You always were a bitch, Alvyra,” the white ape said as he examined her crushed remains.
“Gorm I presume?” I tried again to shove Val behind me but she wouldn’t cooperate.
The creature shook its massive head in confirmation as a grin flowed across his shaggy face. “That’s what I used to be called. Guess I’ll have to think up a new name now. I knew Alvyra would come back here sooner or later so I waited for her in the house. I saw and heard the whole thing.” He jutted out a massive paw to me. “I’ll take my ring back if you don’t mind. In fact, I’m feeling especially greedy tonight. I’ll take them both off your hands.”
Suddenly there was a swishing sound and the yeti’s head flew from his body. As the decapitated ape crumbled to the ground. I raised the flashlight and saw Vlad Alucard brandishing a gleaming broadsword in his place.
“Sometimes old school is best,” Vlad said eyeing the body. “Maybe this time he’ll stay dead. I was hoping you’d bring the ring back to me but all my management courses taught me to always have a backup plan.”
Val sleepily roused. “Boss, if you’re throwing a party how come you didn’t invited me?”
“You’re not the only gatecrasher here,” I told her as she faded off again. “How did you find this place?” I asked Alucard.
“I just followed your assistant as she followed you,” Vlad wiped the sword clean with the edge of his jacket. “She’s right about your driving, you know.”
With all these people flying after me, some air traffic controller must be having a fit. “I take it you want to bring the rings back to the Foundation.”
“Hell no, those rings are worth a fortune. It would be a waste to have them gathering dust in a vault when they could be actively supporting my new lifestyle.” Vlad raised his sword. “Sorry about this but I can’t leave witnesses behind to tattle.”
But as Vlad stepped forward a bloodied wooden stake sprouted from his chest. The vampire fell face first to the ground and the hirsute form of Officer Talbot took his place.
“Yay, the cops are here,” Val mumbled as she tried to stay on her feet.
The policeman walked over to Alvyra’s crushed remains and shook his head. “Too bad. You know this was her idea from the start. Get some poor dumb detective to do all the heavy lifting and we’d take care of him after he recovered the ring. I sent those incompetent wendigos and hobgoblins on your trail just to hedge our bet. It seems mercenaries just don’t take pride in their work anymore.”
“I take it you’re the new boyfriend.”
“You could call me that.” He again eyed the remains of the spiderwoman. “Maybe it’s all for the best. She was a great lay but I knew I’d have to get rid of her eventually.” He unholstered his sidearm. “Well, me and Vlad agree on one thing. No witnesses.”
My eyes swept the lawn for Alvyra’s gun but it was too far away for me to make it.
Val roused again and noticed the armed werewolf. “I’ve got an idea, boss,” she muttered sleepily. “Why don’t we throw a stick and see if he fetches.”
Talbot scowled. “Lady, the way you were flying you’re lucky I didn’t write you a ticket.” He stepped over the headless yeti and retrieved the wooden stake jutting from Vlad’s chest. Hefting it in his paw, he said, “Hate to admit it but I’m really going to enjoy this.”
Suddenly there came a strange high-pitched voice from behind the policeman. “Officer Lawrence Talbot, you’re under arrest for murder. Drop your weapon and give yourself up.”
The werewolf snarled in fury. “You traitor!” Talbot turned but it was too late as a ball of fire immediately engulfed the police officer. Talbot lasted only a few steps before he fell to the ground and expired. Then a police dragon stepped into the light of the burning werewolf.
“Another one?” Val said as she raised her head from my shoulder. “Boss, are you holding a convention?”
The dragon incredulously surveyed the carnage around him and shook his head.
“We’re doing Hamlet,” Val told him.
I tried unsuccessfully to get Val behind me yet again. “I suppose you want the rings.”
The dragon scanned the bodies again. “No thanks. After what I’ve just seen, those things are nothing but trouble.”
From the badge on his chest I discerned his name was Eragon Flame. “But Officer Flame, won’t you need them for your report.”
“There’s not going to be a report. You don’t know what it was like. Going here to collect a bribe, going there to shake down some ambrosia dealer, that asshole rode my wings ragged with his corrupt schemes. I guess I was just waiting for the right moment to be rid of him.” He viciously spat a short trail of fire at the smoldering werewolf. “I quit!”
“So, what do you do now?” I asked.
Flame’s undersized claws fiddled with the fastenings of his police harness. “I’m going to do what I should have done a long time ago. Go home.” The dragon dropped his harness and happily spread his wings in the moonlight. “If you’re ever in Rim Forest look me up.” With that he flew away into the night sky.
I turned to the inebriated vampire on my arm. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”
“Boss, you sure know how to show a girl a good time,” Val slurred as we awkwardly stumbled up the walkway. “You realize we’re never going to get paid for this?”
“That’s alright. She left a retainer.”
Someone had ransacked the house long ago. Broken furniture and belongings were flung everywhere. I cleared the ripped pillows from the half intact couch and laid Val down on it. Wiping the blood from her face with a found washcloth, Val responded to my tender ministrations by turning over and snoring.
I began my search in the office. A rectangle of thinner dust demarked where Senecka’s computer once proudly resided. Books, pens, and printed papers were haphazardly scattered across the floor. A fallen cracked picture frame showed Senecka smiling in front of a boarded up mine entrance in a desert hillside. The upper plank displayed a hand carved sign: END TIMES MINE. Somehow I didn’t think it was a hobby.
My exploration of the rest of the house was equally fruitless. I checked inside and behind drawers, in and above closets, and behind and beneath every intact appliance in the house but there were no notes or data discs to be found. Giving up I started knocking on in the living room walls.
“Boy am I hung over,” Val said as she sat up on the couch. “Do you have to bang so loudly?”
“I’m looking for safes or secret hiding places,” I told her.
She shook her head in disbelief. “Some detective you are. You’re dealing with a geek not a criminal mastermind. Where’s the office?”
I led her to the computer room. She slowly scanned the rubble on the floor.
“I’ve already searched in here,” I told her.
Val ignored me and picked up a loose pen, unscrewed it and threw it on the desktop. She repeated the process again and again until she gleefully handed me a half pen. “I think this is what you’re looking for.”
I examined the plastic piece and found a USB plug jutting out from its open end. “Well. I’ll be damned.”
“No, you’ll be not geek savvy.” Val examined the rest of the pens but found nothing more.
“Let’s get out of here.” I told her. “Daylight’s coming and somebody’s bound to notice all those bodies on the front lawn,”
In a cheap motel room a few freeway exits from the Senecka house, Val sat on one bed slowly sipping a carton of goat’s blood while I was parked on the other picking over the remains of something pretending to be pizza. Fighting her hangover, Val was frantically entering passwords into her smartphone. “If I had my laptop, I’d have broken this flash drive by now.”
“Try Alvyra,” I said as I fought down the rest of my slice.
She typed into her phone and smiled. “Wow boss, it worked.”
“You’re not the only one who knows geek around here.”
Val spent a good twenty minutes examining the flash drive’s contents. “Whew, this is the worst excuse for a language I’ve ever seen. Past, present and future tenses don’t even look alike. And don’t get me started on these insane prepositions. This is like a dialect designed by people with brain infarcts. Oh well. time to go low tech.” She took a notepad from the motel night stand then asked for the rings. Painstakingly she deciphered the engravings using the pen. “It says ‘If found please return to the Celestial Mining Company’ and gives a PO box in Dry Well, Nevada. It’s the same on both rings.” Val held up a gold band to the bed lamp. “Who says romance is dead? What do you say we try them on?”
“Too risky. We still don’t know how they work.” I shoved the pizza box into the waste basket. “Looks like my next stop is Dry Well. Can you make it back to the office on your own?”
Val’s face almost turned red. “After all we went through last night, you’re going to ditch me?”
“It might be dangerous, Val. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
Val angrily slammed her fist into the mattress, “And I’ll never forgive you if you don’t let me see this through to the end. I’m a grown vampire and don’t need your permission. I’m coming along even if I have fly all the way to Dry Well.”
I could see this was one argument I was never going to win. “Okay, I surrender,” I said throwing my hands in the air. “But unlike you vampires, us mortals need sleep from time to time. When I get up, I’ll rent some supplies and we’ll leave tonight.”
Val flashed me her fangs in the best possible way as she picked up her cellphone. “Give me a list and I’ll find them while you’re asleep.”
Dawn was breaking as I took the gravel turnoff into Dry Well. The rising sun painted the desert hills and plains in multiple hues of crimson and yellow. In the passenger seat, Val fidgeted putting on her black burka. “I’ve always hated these things.”
“Sorry but with all that spelunking equipment in back there wasn’t room for a coffin.”
She spread out the burka for display. “Hey boss, you think this makes me look fat?”
I laughed. “I’m not falling for that one. You only have to put up with it for another hour before we get to Dry Well.”
“Last time I travel economy class.” She glanced at her smartphone. “Oh look. Yelp gives the town minus four stars.”
“We’re not going as tourists. I need to find who made those rings if I’m ever going to put this business behind me.”
“I feel the same way. I guess I’m as insane as you are.”
To call the municipality of Dry Well small would be an understatement. A gas station, a quickie mart, and a hotel/casino that had seen better days were all the amenities the town had to offer. A handful of abandoned and boarded up buildings lined the main street, separated by swaths of sand from the scattered tiny residences of the locals.
It was afternoon by the time we checked into the hotel so I left Val in the room. She was so grateful to be out of her burka she didn’t even raise a protest. Downstairs, I asked the desk clerk and a few card dealers about the Celestial Mining Company but none had ever heard of it. Taking a walk outside, I checked the fronts of the abandoned building but found no evidence any had ever housed a mining office.
Stopping at the quickie mart, I perused a rack of tourist pamphlets by the door. Most were for once-in-a-lifetime attractions and fun-filled recreational areas far, far away from Dry Well. Then I came upon a brochure advertising a tour of local mines. The address given was the very shop I was standing in.
The proprietor behind the counter was a grizzled old man who seemed happy to have a someone to talk to. “The Celestial Mining Company? Sure, I remember them.” He said as he looked down from the TV above the counter. “Used to have an office in that building across the street but they left years ago when they shut down the mine.”
“What can you tell me about them.” I asked as I set a bottle of soft drink on the counter.
“Not much. Secretive sorts. Kept mostly to themselves. Never hired any locals. Don’t even know what they were extracting. Probably copper; that’s mostly what you find out here or at least you did before it petered out. If you don’t mind my asking, why you so interested?”
Time to lie again. “I’m a locale scout for a movie company. I saw a photograph of something called the End Times Mine and thought it’d be perfect for this production we’re working on.”
“That’s theirs alright but it’s a ways out from here. If it’s abandoned mines you’re after, I can take you to a couple closer ones if you like. Be nice to have a movie company in town.”
“Well if this doesn’t pan out, maybe I’ll take you up on that. How do I get there?”
After drawing a map on a paper napkin, the shop owner said, “Whatever you do, don’t go inside. Those old mining tunnels can be pretty treacherous if you know what I mean. And if you get hurt, there’s nobody within miles to help you.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said and bid him goodbye.
Back at the hotel, I met up with Val in the lobby and I treated her to the best restaurant in Dry Well. Of course, it was the only restaurant in Dry Well. I ordered this tough, leathery object they called a steak and Val had the chicken. She seemed to heartily enjoy her meal but unfortunately I had to watch her drink it. I told her about the End Times Mine.
“You really think that’s where the rings came from?” she asked as she wiped the feathers from her chin.
I shrugged. “It’s the only lead we got. I suggest we head out in the morning and look it over.”
Her face took on a look of disgust. “The morning? You’re not really going to make me wear that burka again?”
“Driving through the desert in the middle of the night is a great way to get permanently lost. Besides if there’s anybody out there, the signs will be more obvious in daylight.”
Val put down her chicken and got up from the table. “Now that my hangover’s gone, I think I’ll check out the casino while it’s still dark.”
“Try not to eat too many of the locals,” I said as she left the dining room.
It was rough ride out of Dry Well. Although the rental jeep handled the rugged terrain well, my body couldn’t say the same. Add to that Val’s constant bitching about her burka, I was seriously relieved when we finally reached the End Times Mine four hours later. We walked up to the entrance and examined the dry rotted wood nailed there. No false door, no new hardware, it all looked genuine.
“I don’t think anyone’s been here for ages,” Val said as she took a selfie of her burka and the mine entrance. “You sure you got the right place?”
“That’s what the sign says.” I began to unload the jeep. Twenty minutes later, I had one end of a rope tied around my waist and the other to the front bumper of the jeep.
“Stay here,” I told Val. “If you feel me tugging, it means there’s trouble and haul me up immediately.”
“It would be easier if you just told me on the Bluetooth. Why do you always have to do things the hard way?” Val tapped her phone and checked if my camera was working. “And if you’re really in trouble, I’ll do more than tug on a rope. I don’t have vampire strength for nothing.”
“I don’t want you putting yourself in danger again.”
“Spoken like a true mortal.” Val played with her phone. “Audio and video are both up and running. You’re set, boss.”
I pried a few boards loose, turned on my headlamp, and stepped into the darkness. “One small step for a fool,” Val said in my earpiece. “One giant leap for stupidity.”
I never cared much for caves. They were dark, dank and even a little spooky. This tunnel was no exception. Carefully watching my every step, I avoided the rubble on the ground and followed the mine shaft down through a couple of twists and turns. I found nothing but old timbers supporting rocky walls. It was somewhere around the fourth turn that I noticed a light ahead. “Val, there’s something here.”
“I see it,” she replied. “Just be careful. Okay?”
As I rounded the curve I was greeted by a gleaming metal corridor opening into the rock tunnel. Light panels shedding illumination from every angle, the structure looked more like it belonged in a modern office building than an old copper mine.
“Looks like you’re really roughing it,” Val said through the earpiece.
“I don’t think I’ll be needing these.” I untied the rope and removed my headlamp. Following the corridor down a few yards, I was stopped by a featureless metal door set in the tunnel’s dead end. A keypad with figures similar to the ones on the rings was the only visible means of opening it. I tried prying the door open with the prongs of my rock hammer but with no success.
“Well, it’s official; I’m stumped,” I finally proclaimed to Val. “Any ideas?”
Before I could finish the sentence, I heard the flapping of leathery wings and saw a large bat fly into the corridor bearing a tire iron in its claws. The bat settled onto the floor and quickly metamorphosed into my assistant.
“Val, I told you to stay up top.”
“Sorry boss but watching you trying to open that door was downright painful.” She said. “Stand aside and I’ll show you how us vampires do it.” With that she inserted the flat end of the tire iron into the door jam. Even with her vampire strength, it took a great deal of effort before the door gave way enough for us to slip through.
We found ourselves in a hallway similar to the first one only larger. A host of portals marked with unreadable glyphs occupied either side of the corridor. “I wish I had brought along those translation notes,” Val whispered.
It was then that we heard footsteps approaching from down the hall. I grabbed Val’s arm and quietly led her through a nearby archway to hide. The room we entered was cavernous with oversized desks and machinery dividing the space into aisles. As we hid behind a blinking apparatus, I heard a soft tapping sound further down the aisle. Crouching, I stole my way to an intersection and found a moleman at a laptop seated on the floor. Totally nude except for a gold gourd hanging from a chain around his neck, he obliviously typed away into the tablet. His thickened, sparsely haired skin wrinkled and unwrinkled with every movement. Despite his overgrown claws, the creature seemed quite adept at the keyboard. But the thing that really caught my eye was the gold band on one of its digits.
A moment later, he lifted his squat, star nosed face from the screen and noticed me. “You’re new,” he muttered. “I didn’t think they were hiring any new employees.”
“Dr. Senecka?” I asked.
“Yes, but who are you?”
I motioned Val over to me. After a short introduction, I explained why we were here. “Who runs this place and what do they do here?” I asked.
“Aliens,” Senecka pointed a claw behind me. “As for the rest, why don’t you ask them yourself.”
I turned and saw eight-foot tall hairless magenta humanoid figure behind us. It displayed a variety of small appendages around where its shoulders should have been and stood on a pair of smooth multijointed legs. A quartet of lidless round eyes crowned its forehead. Outside of a necklace similar to Seneka’s, it wore no clothing or other adornments. The alien made a series of short wet sputtering sounds at us.
“No habla our language,” Val muttered, transfixed as she studied the extraterrestrial.
The alien extended one its arms and dropped a pair of gourded necklaces in front of us then pointed to the one around its neck. Donning the gold chains, we found we could understand the alien’s speech.
“Welcome,” it said. “We don’t often get a chance to meet the local inhabitants.”
I introduced myself. “What’s your name?”
The alien stared blankly at me. “They don’t have names,” Senecka interjected. “They’re sort of a colony mind like ants.”
“How did you ever find us?” the alien asked.
“With these,” I pulled the rings from my shirt pocket and held them up to the alien.
“How very clever of you.” Watching the alien talk was somewhat disconcerting. The movements of its slit-like mouth didn’t synch with its speech. “We give those out as perks to our native employees. They really do seem to enjoy them.”
“What do you do here?” I asked looking around.
“Why make mythical creatures of course. Come, I’ll show you.”
The alien led us into the hallway. “We take great pride in our projects. We use only the latest in transformational technology.” It led us into what looked like a large control room. The aliens were everywhere; sitting at consoles, watching flickering screens, and putting a few machines into plastic crates. It pointed to an oval screen in the middle of the room. “That’s our incoming orders display. Our quality control programs triple-check each item before we fill it. It wouldn’t do to produce a horde of zombies when a herd of centaurs are needed. And those large grey cylinders over there is our transformational gas reserve. From here it’s teleported to geological fissures all over your world. Oh, and thanks for all the fracking; it made our job so much easier. Per regulations, we keep enough stockpiled to last fifty galactic years.”
So this is where the Change is controlled, I told myself. But to what purpose? “Is all this in preparation for an invasion?” I asked.
The alien elongated its eyes and vibrated all over in what I assumed was its version of laughter. “Invasion? Why would we want a waterlogged planet like yours?”
“You’re not soldiers then?” Val interjected.
The alien continued to vibrate. “No, we’re technicians hired by the faculty at Altair III University’s literature department. We’ve been sent here to facilitate studying the legends and mythos of your civilization. Through the Interstellar Net, the students can carefully track each transformation to observe and categorize its properties for their thesis papers.”
In a weird way, it all made sense. Maybe that’s what frightened me. “Couldn’t you just read the myths?” I asked.
“Who has time to read? This way they can download the data and get on to more important things like mood altering substances and sex.”
The alien led us into the hallway and through another portal. We found ourselves in an enormous metal lined cavern, smack in the middle of which sat a gigantic disc shaped craft.
“A flying saucer!” Val gushed.
The alien waved its arms at the spacecraft. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Outfitted with all the best camouflage circuitry, she’s so nimble and unobtrusive she’s rarely spotted when we do our supply runs.”
All around the gargantuan ship, hordes of aliens were rolling boxes up shiny ramps into the spacecraft. I had an unsettling feeling when I noticed no equipment or personnel were being unloaded. “Looks like you’re packing up.”
“They’re leaving,” Senecka sadly announced.
Our alien guide rocked back and forth on its heels in what I assumed was a shrug. “Isn’t that the way of it? When we first started, this was the most popular site on the Lit Web. But as time went by and more exciting civilizations came online, interest waned and our hit rate seriously degenerated. Analysts forecast that within two of your planet’s solar rotations, this project will no longer be financially sustainable. It’s time to shut it down and cut our losses.”
“But what about us?” Val sputtered. “Do we just go back to dying and staying dead forever?”
“Oh, don’t worry. It won’t come to that.” Our host pointed to a group of large red canisters across the cavern. “That’s a phage we designed to infect any organism containing human DNA. It’s very quick and painless, I assure you.”
“They’re planning on exterminating the human race,” Senecka stuttered.
Gazing downward, the alien said, “Well, we can’t simply leave behind a planetary ecosystem contaminated with our technology. Our corporation does have a conscience, you know. Oh, don’t fret. I’m sure in a million years or two, another intelligent species will arise to take your place.”
“Is there anything we can do to change your minds?” I asked desperately.
“I guess you can become more interesting.” The alien silently scanned our faces. “Nah, that’s not going to happen. You’ve had a good run. Just be satisfied with that. Now it’s my turn. I have so many questions to ask you. Why do some of your race evacuate your nasal cavities with paper while others use a cloth? Why do so many of your people look alike? Why do you change sexual partners so often? Isn’t one human’s genitalia pretty much the same as another’s?”
Val and I took turns answering the alien’s inane questions. While it was occupied, I scanned the room looking for an exit to the outside world. There weren’t any.
Finally, the alien glanced down at a blinking glyph on the floor and said. “I’ve got to get back to work. It’s been nice talking to you. Feel free to enjoy our facilities until we leave. Dr. Senecka can show you the commissary if you’re hungry.” With that, the alien turned and walked out the entryway.
The commissary was a small cavern whose walls were lined with a variety of dispensing machines. But sitting on the oversized stools around a large table, we were all too dejected to eat.
“You knew about this?” Val furiously said to Senecka.
“Yes, but only after I returned. I first discovered this place researching Prehistoric Native American sites. Back then they were friendly, helping me decipher the written language they left behind on scouting expeditions. They also paid me a handsome salary, financed by the minerals they uncovered while excavating this base, and gave me a ring.” He tapped the gold band on one of his claws. “They even came up with another when I became involved with Alvyra. What a mistake that was.”
I stared at him with hostility “You’re going along with wiping out the human race for a ring?”
“I’m going along with nothing,” the professor replied defensively. “I’m a prisoner here as much as you are.”
Val sadly shook her head. “There must be some way out.”
The professor shrugged. “Don’t waste your time. Believe me I tried.” He pointed to a pair of aliens heedlessly walking past. “See, they ignore us because they consider humans harmless.”
“Harmless?” Val sputtered. “I’ll show them harmless!” Before I could stop her, she leaped from the table and attacked a passing alien. She never got a chance to touch it before a sparkling aura appeared around the alien, repelling her several feet away from her intended victim. The alien obliviously went on its way.
“I tried to warn you,” Senecka said to the vampire sprawled on the floor. “The force fields around the exits are even stronger.”
Val huffed as she took her seat. “Maybe if all three of us tried together, we can force our way through the barrier.”
I shook my head. “And then what? You’ve seen this place. Even if the outside world believed us and sent an army, this site is an impenetrable fortress. Nor is there likely to be a battle. If pressed, the aliens can release the phage anytime they want.” I turned to Senecka. “Maybe messing with the settings on their machines could gain us some time.”
Senecka shook his head. “They’re not designed for use by humans. Know anybody with eight fingers on their hands?”
“There must be something we can do,” Val said.
I sat and surveyed my companions. Val was on the edge of tears. The moleman sat beside her, gazing at his paws in misery. And I wasn’t feeling all too happy about the situation myself. Bleak seemed to be the order of the day.
Then an idea hit me. Pointing to the ring on Senecka’s finger, I asked, “How exactly does that thing work?”
He held up the paw bearing the gold band. “It’s simple. You form an image in your mind of what you want to become then put the ring on. Nothing to it.”
“The world’s coming to an end and you want to cosplay?” Val exclaimed.
I smiled at her. “This place was designed to withstand an invasion from the outside but I doubt they ever considered an attack from within.”
Val looked at the ring on Senecka’s claw and her eyes widened with understanding.
“Dr. Senecka, can you take us back to the cavern with the spaceship?” I asked.
Senecka nodded then got up from the table. We followed.
At the entrance to the launch cavern, Val turned to Senecka and asked, “By the way, if you can Change into anything you want, how did you end up a moleman?”
“Because it’s what I chose,” he answered. “No one approaches you, no one bothers you, it’s the perfect persona for a linguistics professor.”
“To each his own,” I said watching the aliens load their saucer in ant like waves. “What do you think, Val? Gods, gargoyles, winged elephants?”
Val thought for a moment then exclaimed, “Boss, you remember that crappy Japanese movie I showed you a couple of months ago?”
“How could I forget? I still can’t believe anybody would make something that bad.”
Val nodded. “So bad it’s good.”
Looking into the vampire’s eyes, I suddenly understood what she was getting at. “When was the last time someone called you crazy?”
“It happens every day,” Val answered with a laugh. “It’s kaiju time!”
I quickly handed Val one of the rings. “You ready?”
“I was born ready for this.” Val closed her eyes then slipped on the ring.
I did the same. The band automatically expanded to fit my finger. Within seconds I felt light headed and dizzy. The earth seemed to move beneath me but it was probably just my body enlarging. I could actually feel my skin thickening and becoming scaly. I winched as my head bumped against the cavern ceiling. Opening my eyes, I inspected my reflection in a nearby metal wall. I looked like a chubby tyrannosaurus who’d been around the block too many times. The face was almost cartoonish and the bony spikes on my back somehow seemed incongruous with the rest of my body. As I tried to stand up straight, the ceiling above me crumbled, sending chunks of metal and dirt raining down on the already panicking aliens.
I turned to examine Val. She had Changed into a cross between a plucked chicken and a pterodactyl. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s called Rhodan. It’s almost as big a star in Japanese cinema as Godzilla. Can’t help it but I’m partial to wings.”
I scanned the cavern and noticed a group of aliens fiddling around the red canisters. “I think our hosts are up to no good.”
“Not for long.” Val stood on her feet and began rapidly flapping her wings. The aliens and canisters scattered before the gale force wind she created.
“I think I have a more permanent solution.” Instinctively, I opened my mouth and a white-hot stream of fire escaped. The canisters quickly dissolved into a puddle of hot glowing metal. Then I aimed at the far side ceiling and it collapsed, burying the melted canisters and some of the aliens beneath a ton of rubble. “Take that you literary Nazis,” I shouted.
“What do you say we take a stroll through the rest of the compound?” Val said excitedly.
“Good idea. But I have a few things to finish up here first.” I reached down and picked up the terrified moleman and gently placed him into the crack in the ceiling. “Dr. Senecka, it’s time to get out of here.” He didn’t need to be told twice. Without a word, he burrowed into the dirt and disappeared.
“Can we go now?” Val asked with annoyance.
“Not yet,” I answered, turning toward the spaceship in the middle of the room. Lumbering forward, I grabbed the giant disc and bit into it. Sparks and clouds of smoke poured from the wound I inflicted in its hull. The aliens around me scattered in terror as I not so gently tossed the ship against the far wall. It landed with a satisfying crunch. “Now we can go.”
Stepping through throngs of fleeing aliens, I took several hits from their energy weapons but it did little but tickle my skin. Ignoring them, we widened portals and proceeded to transform the aliens’ headquarters into rubble. Val amused herself by blowing our hosts over with her giant wings and dropping heavy equipment on the heads of the fleeing extraterrestrials. As for me, I took my time lumbering through each enclave. It wasn’t quite as much fun as wading waist deep through Tokyo looked on screen but the effect was the same. A floor covered in broken furniture, smashed machinery, and the orange blood of the aliens gave testimony to our efforts.
The pterodactyl scanned the demolished room with glee. “That should put a permanent kink in their plans. All we need now is an exit.”
“I’ve got an idea.” I led her back into the cavern containing the wrecked spacecraft. “The ceiling has to open somehow or they’d never be able to fly that thing out of here.”
A series of wet sputtering sounds were emanating from the damaged saucer. Using her beak, Val picked up a gourd necklace from one of the alien cadavers littering the floor and listened. “It’s a countdown!” she shouted. “Their ship is self-destructing!”
“We have to get out of here now!” I scrambled awkwardly to the center of the room and breathed fire on the ceiling. The white-hot metal glowed until a large seam became apparent. Inserting my claws, I instinctively let loose a booming roar and widened the opening in the overlying dome with my claws. Through the falling sand, I could see it was evening outside.
“Way to rock your kaiju, boss.” Val hovered above me then grabbed my shoulders with her claws. She lifted me out of the cavern into the night and sped in the direction of the city lights. It’s a good thing there was nobody within miles, I thought. Seeing a pterodactyl hauling an obese T-Rex through the night sky could cause a run on the local psych ward. A few minutes later, a blinding flash of light erupted from the aliens’ cavern. Looking back, I saw the sand sinking to form an enormous crater where the alien headquarters had once been.
Val set us down next to the mine opening. “Boy that was fun! Too bad we can’t do it again.”
“You thought saving the world would be boring?” We both removed our rings and within seconds we were standing naked beside the jeep. I quickly reached inside the open window and retrieved a blanket for Val and a jacket for me. “You wouldn’t know how to hot wire one of these things?” I asked Val. “I left the keys in my other body.”
“You’re in luck. I once dated the Valley carjack king.” A few moments later, the sound of a running engine filled the desert. Val moved over to the passenger’s seat and I drove us back to town.
It was almost dawn by the time we reached Dry Well. We walked through the hotel’s main entrance, our scanty attire drawing curious stares from the staff and guests. Soon we were standing before a centaur manning the front desk. “We left our keys in the room when we went to use the pool,” I told him.
“We don’t have a pool,” the centaur said, swishing his tail in annoyance. Shaking his head, he took down a key from the board behind him and handed it to me. As we proceeded to the elevators I heard him mutter, “Guests get weirder and weirder every year,”
“Boss, you’ve got to be the worst liar I’ve ever seen,” Val told me as we boarded the elevator. “I’d avoid the poker table if I were you.”
Back in the room, we took turns showering and dressing. “I’ve been thinking,” Val said. “What happens now that the Gas is gone? Do we stop Changing? Are only mortals going to be left after a while?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure there’s still some Gas leaking out somewhere. But when it finally runs out, who knows? At least we all get to live.”
Packing a duffle bag, Val sheepishly turned to me. “Sorry boss but I don’t think there will be a better time to ask than now. How about a raise?”
I put on my best outraged expression. “A raise? What makes you deserve a raise?”
“B-b-but after all we just went through…” Val stuttered.
Unable to keep up the charade any longer, I broke into a grin. “I was thinking of making you partner instead.”
“Oh boss!” Val ran over and buried me in a bear hug. Her embrace was freezing cold and more than a little too tight but I loved it anyway.
Bio: Bruce S Levine is a retired bird & exotic animal veterinarian in Southern California. He and his wife are currently working as minions for their household pets.
by Matt McHugh
“I just don’t know what to do! Oh, Baba, please help me!”
“Calm yourself, child. All things happen as they must,” spoke the old woman in soft, reassuring tones. “The future cannot be shaped, only embraced once your heart is calm and your thoughts clear.”
“But how can I!” squeaked the girl, perhaps all of fifteen. “I can’t choose. I need your guidance, wise mother!”
“If it is the spirits’ will that you take one path or another, they will reveal it to us.”
The old woman placed a clay bowl on the table between them. The girl took a dull coin from her pouch and dropped it into the bowl. The woman did not move. The girl fished into the pouch and produced another coin for the bowl. Again, the woman remained still, save for a slight lift of one eyebrow. The pouch was emptied of its last two coins. With a broad smile the old woman swept the bowl from the table.
“Let us see what the signs can tell.”
The young girl was subjected to a battery of augurs and omens. Pinpricks and feathers, beads and ointments, incantations and talismans—she sat and stood and turned in circles until she was dizzy, breathing the fumes of hemlock branches tossed into the fire. At last, she was told to cast a double handful of obsidian tiles onto a stretch of vellum and, by studying the pattern, the old woman would divine a message echoing from the future. The elder frowned and squinted at the scattered stones for several minutes, then took up a charcoal stick and wrote a quatrain on a strip of parchment. She read it aloud before passing it to the illiterate girl.
One comes in dawn, one comes at dusk.
Such that offer comfort and confusion
Honeyed words mean less than the gift
That lingers even after it is gone
The elder looked into the girl’s dilated, quivering eyes.
“Do you understand the meaning, child?”
“I think so. Yes. Yes, I see now! Pitor—his father is a dairy farmer—he gets up before sunrise. Mikhail is a poet and tells stories in the tavern at evenings. It comforts me to see them both, but I’m confused as to which to choose. Pitor flatters me, tells me I am beautiful and strong, but Mikhail sang me a song once, so I lovely I could almost hear it in the darkness as I slept. Oh, Baba! Yes! I understand! I must choose Mikhail!”
The girl beamed and blubbered, hugging the old woman who patted her shoulder tolerantly. From a hidden fold in her apron, the girl retrieved a final copper coin and surrendered it willingly as she departed, bowing and professing her boundless gratitude.
Alone once more, the old woman quickly tidied up, reset her charms and parchments, tended the fire and oil lamps, made sure the curtain to the adjoining room was drawn (it never seemed wise to advertise that her lifestyle was—if only by a hair’s breadth—more comfortable than the peasantry she served). She was just about to check if there were any clients outside too timid to knock, when the door swung open without warning. An armored captain stepped inside.
“Stay where you are, witch,” he commanded. His hand was on his sword hilt but he did not draw. “You are Baba Celia, the so-called wise woman of the meadows.”
It was a statement, not a question, but nonetheless Baba replied, “I am,” laboring to keep tremors of fear from her voice.
The captain walked behind her, handled objects around the room and prodded her rudely, then he beckoned and two more armed guards entered. Ignoring her, they blundered past the closed curtain and a good deal of bang and clatter was heard until they emerged and one simply said: ”Nothing, sir.”
“Do not move,” the captain again commanded. “Keep your hands on the table or I cut them off.”
He left and a moment later returned, followed by King Samo. She had never seen him before, but his dress and emblems were unmistakable. Again, she fought to keep fear and surprise from her voice:
“Welcome, my lord.”
“You tell the future, yes or no?” he asked as he sat, unbidden, at the table across from her.
“I do all that I can to read the signs,” she replied. “But I do not know what they portend. The spirits’ messages can be understood only by the one who asks the question.”
“She has the gift, my lord,” said a woman. From her position two paces behind, Queen Elena stepped to her husband’s side and spoke in an awed whisper. “I have heard from many of the cooks and washerwomen of the prophecies of Baba Celia that have come true.”
The King snorted with derision, but he edged forward on the stool and leaned toward Baba Celia.
“This is no matter of which goat to buy or when to plant potatoes. Lands bequeathed to me are being invaded from the west. These are great matters, matters of war and sovereignty. Do your spirits know of such things?”
“The spirits see what we cannot,” she replied. “Just as a man standing on a mountain sees more than a man at the bottom of a well. They do not shape what is to come, only foretell.”
“Then tell me, if you can, where the next attack will come, and how I should marshal my forces against it. And take care, old woman. Your words may be at the cost of many lives.”
Armed guards at her side, the King and Queen of the realm before her, Baba Celia knew there was no retreat. She lit the incense, blew the feathers, closed her eyes and chanted. She manhandled the King much less than a typical client, carefully placing the tiles into his open palm to be cast on the vellum. Once done, she read the pattern, speaking the message as she wrote out the quatrain, struggling to control the trembling of her hand.
There are branches, coming from the same tree.
They disturb the rivers, shadows on silver.
Empty voices call and get no answer.
The hawk takes wing but its claws are not empty.
The King stared in silence then said, “What the devil does that nonsense mean?”
The Queen knelt, bent over the scattered tiles. “My lord, don’t you see? The tree is the cross, the symbol of Salic Kings, with many branches as their forces cross Elbe under the silver moonlight. Their battle horns call out, but their allies do not come. It is then you, with the red eagle as your symbol, swoop down upon them!”
Samo faced Baba Celia with a skeptical gaze. “You’re telling me the Germanic tribes will not join King Dagobert against me?”
“I tell only what I see. The meaning is beyond my small mind.”
After a whispered conference with his captain, the King departed with no further words, dropping three heavy gold tokens on her table as he went. The guards departed as well, but the Queen remained behind. Outside, Baba heard the sound of horses mounted. When the hoof falls faded to the distance, the Queen closed the door.
“Do you wish me tell of your future, my lady? I can attempt to read —”
She cut Baba off with an abrupt gesture.
“Stop. You have no gift, and you don’t know the future.” The queen smiled cryptically. “Yet,” she added. “But you are clever. And literate. Those are skills I can use. Come with me.”
Baba Celia was taken aback. She protested her unworthiness. She pleaded that the people of the village needed her. She proclaimed she had only rags to wear. Queen Elena accepted no excuse and soon they were riding side-by-side in a horse-drawn cart, flanked by four spear-bearers, along the road leaving the cluster of huts where the locals—crouching behind trees and fences—watched them go with fascinated terror.
As they rode, the Queen spoke. She pointed out features of the land, describing what they once were or what they might become. She spoke of the people, their language and customs, as if she had studied them in detail. She spoke of her husband and his noblemen allies with a roll of her eyes, as if she thought them foolish children. She spoke easily, comfortably, as if she counted Baba Celia as a peer. That, most of all, disturbed Baba.
After the better part of an hour, they stopped. The Queen helped her down from the cart and led her along a path into the wood—commanding the guards to remain behind, sternly warning them not to eavesdrop on ”women’s conversations of childbearing and motherhood.” The Queen continued to babble as they walked.
“My family sent me to this land when I was a child, betrothed to Samo, not yet a man himself. My father was a wealthy owner of many acres of Rhineland farm country, and I left behind a life of comfort for the loneliness of this wild. These ominous trees were my only playmates, and I used to imagine they were titans, frozen in time, and only I could hear their voices. It became a place of beautiful mystery to me, culminating with the day I discovered … that.”
She pointed just off the path. At first, Baba Celia saw only another rocky outcrop, but as she drew closer, she made out a ring of metal embedded in the stone. From a sash beneath her robe, Elena drew a cross of dull metal, about the size of dagger, and fitted it upright into a triangular hole in the ring. She gave the crossbeams an aggressive twist with both hands. The metal ring lifted easily like a cellar door.
“I’ll go first,” said the Queen.
They descended a ladder of cold iron, Baba going down hand over trembling hand, all the while watching the circle of sky receding overhead until it seemed like the moon viewed through a keyhole. At the bottom, a string of sconces made an eerie green glow, lighting a corridor receding into blackness.
“Come along, grandmother,” she said in an encouraging tone.
“When I found this,” continued the Queen. “I knew it wasn’t natural, but I thought it had been recently excavated. I half-expected to find diamonds or gold. Then, I began to think it was ancient, something left behind by vanished peoples. In that, I was accidentally close to the truth.”
They came to a door, another circle of iron but perhaps twice the distance of Baba Celia’s arm span. This time, the Queen opened it by turning a wheel set at its center. Inside, wall sconces burned so brightly Baba had to squint against the glare. They entered a large chamber with curved walls and many tables and shelves. Books and crates and strange artifacts were piled about the room.
“It is exactly what it appears to be,” said the Queen. “A library. Someone, I thought, went to great trouble to preserve a hoard of knowledge. Once more, I was correct, but only accidentally.”
They crossed the room and yet again Elena opened another titanic door.
“I was lucky to have been tutored in the languages of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Franks and Slavs, and the makers of this place left copies of books in many languages. I have picked up bits and pieces over the years, though I am humbled to admit how little of it I understand. For a long time, I believed the ancients created this place to pass on lost arts. It took longer to comprehend an even more difficult truth: This place is not ancient.”
The Queen touched glowing tiles on the wall by the final door and a shrill, chilling melody chimed out.
“What you are about to see may terrify you. It may seem monstrous, but I promise you it is as natural as the motion of the sun and moon across the sky.” The door swung open with a rumble and hiss. “Except it is not an illusion.”
Warm air rushed from the opening portal and a gilded light radiated out. Baba Celia stepped backward, rigid with fear. She wanted to close her eyes, to scream and run, but she was frozen in nightmare inertia. From the light, came a shadow. A shape. A human figure. It stepped forward, walking with slow, ghostly paces.
Baba averted her eyes, but could not long resist the urge to behold whatever this was. She saw its feet, fitted with leather slippers. Her eyes rose up, along its clean gown of white linen. Upward, where a length of steely gray hair was bound in silver combs and colored ribbons. At last she beheld the face. A smiling face. A familiar face. A face it took her impossible moments to recognize as her own.
“My dear, have I stories to tell you,” the other Baba Celia said.
The Queen and the other Baba Celia were as gentle and soothing as possible, but nonetheless it took Baba Celia a while until she was calm and cognizant enough to listen.
“As near as we can tell,” explained the Queen as the first Baba Celia reclined on a padded couch and sipped an incredibly delicious variety of tea, “This place was built more than a millennium from now. At the time, there was the threat of a war so great that men believed all of humanity could perish. So, they made this sanctuary, this fortress of metal, buried deep underground to be safe from the raging fires they unleashed. And they filled it with all the knowledge they deemed necessary to begin the world anew. The library is arranged from the simplest of concepts, proceeding to more and more complex ideas, with copies of the same information in multiple languages.”
“You see, they weren’t sure who might survive the war,” the other Baba Celia interjected. “And they were at least wise enough to realize a world rebuilt by strangers is better than none at all.”
“I’ve spent years,” the Queen continued, “Learning in thimblefuls from the incredible reservoirs here. The accomplishments of these future-men in knowledge and creation are astounding. But, like all men, their natural greed and belligerence eventually made them turn their ingenuity to war and they brought themselves to the brink of their own destruction.”
“But how,” asked Baba Celia slowly. Her thoughts were adrift in the calming sweetness of the tea. It had, she realized, a numbing quality like the poppy but so much more refined. “How is this fortress from the future able to exist in the past?”
The other Baba Celia and the Queen looked at one another, sharing a moment of bewilderment.
“We’re not sure,” said the other Baba.
“It seems,” said the Queen, “The makers tried an experiment. There is a kind of invisible fire that powers everything here. In different forms it also powered their weapons, their ships, many things. It is an energy held captive in all objects and, once liberated, is wildly powerful and unpredictable. Again, as near as we can tell, they used a form of that energy to drive this entire metal fortress backward through time.”
“Imagine time as a river, and we ride in its stream,” the other Baba continued. “Imagine this chamber, also riding in the stream. They were able to exert such a force upon it that they pushed it against the flow, like a boat paddled upstream by invisible oarsmen of inexhaustible strength. Right now, as we stand in this place, we are being carried upstream against the current of time. When you leave this sanctuary, you will step into the past.”
“That’s impossible,” said Baba.
“You will see it is not,” said the other.
Whether she was becoming accustomed to her surroundings or the narcotic tea was wearing off (or taking full effect), Baba Celia, in the midst of all the reeling revelations, found herself growing more and more fascinated by the phenomenon at hand.
“But why,” she asked. “Why do this? Why would men who believed their world doomed send knowledge back into the past? Why are you here in this place? Why did you bring me?” The last question was addressed, with a pleading gesture, to her other self, who seemed gently amused.
“The reason men built this place and sent it on its backward journey, and the reason we brought you here is the same: to warn those in the past against future dangers. Isn’t that what you’ve spent years pretending to do, Wise Woman of the Meadows? Now, you can do it truly.”
“Because you know the future. You know that today King Samo will come to see you, seeking foreknowledge of a battle. Now, instead of your usual gibberish, you can tell him something meaningful about the outcome of that battle.
“I don’t know anything about it.”
The other Baba Celia answer, “But I do. As a trusted servant of Queen Elena I am privy to the news of the palace and I know the battle that happened three months from now was lost because the King failed to anticipate an attack from a secondary force from the South. I have written all that and more on this letter. Here, take it with you. You can couch the details in one of your clever quatrains, can’t you?”
“This is what we do here,” said the Queen. “We ride in this metal ship backward against the flow of time, then step off into the stream, and tell our past selves of the future. In this way, the world is ours to shape.”
Baba Celia was speechless. It was incredible. Unimaginable. And yet, it made perfect sense.
“Men have and always will rule and ruin,” continued Queen Elena. “This place is testament to both their ingenuity and madness. We, you and I, Wise Woman of the Meadows, can steer the direction of those self-proclaimed lords of the world without them feeling so much as a fingerprint of our influence.”
The other Baba Celia looked at a wall hanging filled with glowing dials and symbols.
“It is nearly time,” she said. “The morning of today.”
“Come,” said Elena. “We must return.”
The other Baba Celia embraced the first. “I know you are confused and afraid. I also know you are coming to understand. Courage, sister. All things happen as they must.”
With that, they parted and Queen Elena led the first Celia back down the glowing corridor, up the iron ladder, and out of the circular portal. Dawn was purpling the sky over the tree line. Not far off, hidden by cut branches threaded with vines, there was a small stable with two horses and a cart, perhaps the very one they had ridden (would ride?) to this spot. They mounted and Elena wound through a mossy path back to the main road.
They drove in silence, the cold sun rising behind them, as Baba Celia’s mind swirled with questions too numerous to ask.
“These roads are known for gangs of robbers,” said Elena, “And our escorts are elsewhere at the moment.” She reached into a box beneath the wooden bench of the cart and handed Celia a sphere of clay the size of an unripe berry. “Throw this against a tree.”
Baba did so. There was a crack like a smith’s hammer blow and burst of powdery wind. The trunk of the tree had a flower of black scorch upon it and a smell like sulfur lingered.
Elena patted the box. “I have many more, and much larger, as needed. One of the useful skills I have learned during my time in the circular library. You will learn, too.”
Soon enough, they came to the edges of Baba’s village.
“We walk now,” said the Queen. She parked the cart and horses behind a humble cottage. She took out tattered cloaks for them to wear and looked at a glowing silver locket she had hidden under a sleeve.
“Almost time,” she said.
She knocked on the cottage door and two guards emerged—the very two that Baba Celia had rummaging in her rooms. The Queen gave them careful instructions.
“In one hour, you will go to the hut of this woman in the place I showed you. You will give her this pouch of silver and have her accompany you back here, where she must remain in hiding for the day. She will act as if she has never seen you before, in case anyone is watching. Our enemy spies must never know of this arrangement. Your compensation will be within when you return.”
“Yes, my Queen!” Both replied as one, and they genuflected without hesitation.
Elena and Celia walked a circuitous path along the wooded edge of the meadow. They began to speak more freely. Elena told of the wars her husband would fight, the laws he would make, the peoples he would unify. The decisions he thought were his own molded by the mysterious poems of the revered royal soothsayer, Madam Celia. This revelation caused a mutual bout of laughter.
Now, Celia asked many questions. How was the bursting power made? What was in the books of the underground library? What was the circular locket Elena kept glancing at? The Queen’s answers were sometimes short and cryptic, sometimes long and complex—but always spellbinding, revealing glimpses of a world with forces invisible, possibilities endless, stretching in all directions. It was all so much greater, so much more believable, than the shadowy tales of gods and spirits that were her trade up until… when? What was it? Days? Hours? An eternity looped around like the image the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail.
But this one was not swallowing itself. It was giving birth to itself.
They stopped in sight of Baba Celia’s house, tucked just inside the beginning of the thickening forest.
“Am I in there now?” she whispered in awe.
“Yes. Watch,” replied the Queen, glancing at her locket.
Soon, the two guards came to the cottage door. Baba Celia felt her heart flutter when she saw herself greet them. Words too distant to hear were exchanged and shortly the other Celia was walking away, flanked by the guards, counting silver pieces in her hand.
“Go now,” said the Queen. “You will see me again shortly.”
Inside, Baba Celia was almost startled to find it exactly as she expected, now that everything else in the universe had turned askew. A knock on her door made her jump. She opened it to find a fifteen-year-old girl in a state of emotional frenzy.
“I just don’t know what to do! Oh, Baba, please help me!”
They sat and she listened to the tale of Pitor and Mikhail, punctuated with flusters and tears that seemed (if possible) more ridiculous than the first time. She cut the girl off.
“Marry Pitor,” she said.
The girl stopped, bewildered.
“Marry Pitor,” Celia repeated. “A sensible farmer who dotes upon you over a drunken poet with no desire other than to lift your skirts. Marry Pitor.”
“Shouldn’t we consult the spirits?” the girl asked haltingly.
“The spirits would agree with me, if they had a lick of sense. Keep your pennies, child, and get back to your father’s house. Next time Pitor calls, make him the best meal you can and rub his back as he eats. If Mikhail comes, pour brandy over hog slop and send him on his way.”
The girl, who had just received arguably the best piece of advice she would ever get, seemed crushed with disappointment.
“But,” added Baba Celia, taking pity on her. “Let us consult the signs, shall we?”
After shaking feathers and powders, chants repeated and lots cast, Celia wrote out then read her prophecy:
When beast and bird are at your door
The bright plumage and piping song will vanish by dawn
But sturdy legs, a strong back, and a loyal heart
Will carry you over the land for many prosperous seasons
The girl departed, carrying the scrap of paper and, perhaps, a shred of wisdom.
Baba Celia read the letter she had given herself, full of useful detail great and small. When King Samo’s captain and guards arrived, Baba Celia greeted them by name and wished good fortune upon their wives and children (also by name). The disturbance on their stern faces was delightful to behold. When Samo himself arrived—the subtlest of knowing nods exchanged with Queen Elena over his shoulder—Celia gave her finest performance, delivering her most poetic parchment:
In three moons for three days blood will be spilled near Kadan
When all eyes are on the Bear and Lion from the West
The Merovingian serpents slither from the grassy river
Blunt their fangs before they strike and all thieves will scatter.
The fragments from all King Samo’s informers and counselors, the whispers and intimations of his dreams, were confirmed and he left sure of the date, time, and tactics of the victory that would let him claim dominion from the Alps to the Carpathians.
Once again, as she had, as she always would, the Queen remained behind.
“Did it work?” asked Celia.
“Oh yes. It always does.”
“You have seen the battle and its outcome?”
“It is always the same?”
“Almost. I have a few more adjustments before the end will be exactly as I need it to be.”
A thought came to Baba Celia. “My other self, the one who was here in my hut before we arrived. Where is she?”
“My guards took her to the cottage we visited earlier, just as I said.”
“What will happen to her?”
“When you stepped into the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, you traveled against the stream of time. When you left, you re-entered the stream and now there are two of you riding in the same flow. When we reach the moment you first entered the fortress, the flow will continue and there will only be one. You. The other you… vanishes. Branches off to a different flow, enters a realm of infinite alternatives… I don’t fully understand it. But, in the end, only you will continue.”
“And the version of myself still in the fortress?”
“She remains, traveling upstream, in a different direction than us. You may meet her again only within the center of that underground sanctuary. That is the only place where you can both exist in the same flow.”
A wave of sadness, of terrible loneliness, came over Baba Celia at the thought of never again seeing her other self.
“What now?” she asked the Queen.
“Now, you continue as Wise Woman of the Meadow. We will meet again, Celia. You and I, the ones we are now. We are not yet finished, I promise you.”
With that, she departed and left Baba Celia alone. She wondered if any more village clients would come for the day or had they been scared off by the appearance of the royals? Had that happened in their stream? Or was it yet to happen? He head swam with the convolutions of it all.
She took out the letter from her other self and re-read it. Her fingers felt patches of rough and smooth areas on the back of the parchment. She looked and saw odd strokes that seem to shine in the low light. It resembled a trick she was well familiar with, of using juice from a cut plant stalk for the illusion of ghostly messages. She held the page over a candle flame, high enough to not burn the paper.
The hidden writing browned in the rising heat.
I know the shock of meeting yourself can be overwhelming, but so can the joy. To see you as I was is like a beloved memory, a long-lost sister, and it breaks my heart to part from you. I am a servant of Queen Elena and have followed her commands loyally, but I must now follow my conscience. You have no doubt begun to wonder what happens when two versions of yourself exist within the same flow of time. Elena will tell you the streams diverge and one vanishes. That is a lie.
The version of you that is no longer useful to Elena will be killed.
Her guards understand this and carry out the order without fail. At some point, she will again feel the need to travel back— with her foolish, faithful servant—and fiddle with a piece of history that isn’t perfectly to her liking. She speaks of the belligerence of men, of saving the future from their destructive greed, but she has become corrupted wielding a power no man alive can rival. This needs to end.
I know you find this is difficult to believe, but go to the cottage at the outskirts of the village and you will see the truth of it. There, you will meet two guards loyal to me, not Elena (she is not the only one with access to riches). They will bring you to Samo’s palace, and escort you to the Queen’s bedroom. On the way, you will find what you need to end her life.
I am sorry to place this burden on you, but I also know that in your heart you understand it is necessary. I may never see you again but, if you do what you must, the world will be set free and flow forward as it was meant to.
Courage, sister. All things happen as they must.
– Marie Celia Duverny
Signed with her name. Her true name. The name given her by her Frankish father before he was murdered and she and her mother sold into bondage by a Slavic warlord. The name no one alive but herself knew.
The evening was slipping toward night as she hurried to the Queen’s cottage. Carefully, she edged closer to it and saw two men by the door with the twilight glinting on their armored helmets. She gathered all her courage and stepped out openly to meet them.
“We were told to await you, Baba Celia,” said one with a bow.
“I want to see inside,” she said.
“It is not fit for your eyes, mistress,” the guard replied.
“I will see. Show me now.”
With a sigh, he opened the door. Within, Baba Celia saw the scattered remnants of struggle and dark rivers beneath the crumpled bodies of the Queen’s guards. On a palette in a corner, lay another body in undisturbed repose. In the shadows, all she could see was the grey hair and tattered robe she well knew, and a throat cut neatly with a single stroke like a slaughtered lamb.
Three horses were tied behind the cottage and she rode along the darkening road with the guards galloping at her side. It was full night when they arrived at the palace stables. They left their rides and she was escorted through a basement passage, up into a disused kitchen, to a narrow servants stairway. In an alcove near the upper landing, was a linen sack fixed with a ribbon and a note in her own hand:
Inside was a strange tool. Made of wood and metal, with a grip at one edge and a tube at the other. A parchment sheet inside—again, all in her own hand—had annotated sketches showing how to hold it, how to point it, and what would happen when the lever in the middle was pulled with a finger. It was heavy and awkward, but she took it in her trembling hand as shown and opened the door at the top of the stair.
She entered a washroom with pitchers and a basin. Beyond, a heavy curtain hung over an archway. Slowly, she put her hand to it and drew aside the curtain.
Queen Elena sat on a bench in a white dressing gown, combing her hair out to its full length. She sat facing a mirror, the largest and most magnificent one Celia had ever seen, and as she approached, Celia could she herself reflected, gray and aged next to the lily beauty of the Queen. Elena caught her image in the mirror and turned, startled.
“What are you doing here, Baba?”
Baba Celia kept advancing and said nothing. No words would be of any use. The turmoil in her heart—the doubt, the certainty… the love, the hatred—none of it could be given voice.
“What have you got there?” asked the Queen, but a moment later a look of recognition came to her eyes. She opened her mouth, took a breath, preparing to scream. Celia drew back the switch on the weapon and it jumped in her hand like a serpent. There was a crack like the bursting clay ball she had tossed against a tree. A blossom of red spread across Elena’s gown and she staggered and collapsed without making a sound.
Baba Celia stood, heaving breaths coming in gulps as she dropped the deadly tool. All motion in the universe stopped and she found herself at the heart of a maelstrom of silence. Then, it seemed the world tilted. Everything distorted and slid away from her vision. It took her a moment to realize it was the mirror moving, angling to one side, opening like a door. From behind stepped herself, the neatly dressed and combed version she had met in the underground sanctuary.
“You did what you had to, dear woman. Don’t distress yourself over it.”
Baba Celia could not help it. She began to tremble and weep. She tried to speak, to give some apology, some account—even though she knew it was unneeded. Instinctively, she held out her arms, like a child seeking comfort. The other Baba Celia would certainly come, embrace her, console her. It was, after all, what she would have done.
Then, Queen Elena stepped from behind the mirror door.
“I am sorry for your pain, gentle Baba. Truly I am.”
Celia faltered. She stuttered. She staggered. She sank to her knees in exhaustion and supplication. Elena began to walk toward her, her hand resting on a bump in the center of her gown. Even in her chaos, Baba Celia recognized the Queen was with child.
“You see, when you enter the inner sanctuary,” she explained, “You do not age. My body could not grow a child if I kept returning to the chamber. Also, the energy inside… over the years, it had burned away the strength of my womb. But you saved me, Grandmother Celia. You stayed inside long enough to come back, to warn me, even as young girl, of the danger. Now, I can give birth to an heir when Samo unites the Slavic kingdoms and move the world away from the terrible future wrought by men.”
“It is a service for untold generations,” said the other Baba Celia. “You have helped set all things on the proper course. Be proud, dear sister, of the mark you have put on history.”
“No,” muttered the first Baba. “No… no…”
“This is as it must be,” said Elena. Then, she lifted her head and let out a horrific scream, a blood-stilling wail that echoed in the night-silent palace.
“The guards will be here momentarily,” she said. “Don’t worry. They know how to be swift and painless. They have a great deal of experience.”
The Queen and the other Baba stepped backward, behind the mirror and closed the door. The warped world righted itself and Baba Celia saw her image, aged and frail, on her knees, slip into place in a magnificent silver inversion of everything.
In the chamber hidden behind the mirror, Elena and Celia watched through the dark glass as the kneeling Baba was overcome and dispatched with lightning speed. A rush of servants and attendants flooded the Queen’s bedroom, each bellowing at the horrific scene. At last, Samo himself came in and cradled his dead wife, weeping freely.
“It’s too much,” Celia said, tears in her voice.
“It will be over soon,” Elena replied. “Tomorrow, the murdered Queen will arise and it will be discovered she is not only alive but, at last, with child, and news of the miracle will spread fear and wonder wherever it goes. The future opens wide, Grandmother, with limitless potential.”
“It’s too much,” Baba repeated. “To know what is to come, to live with what I have done. I don’t know if I can continue.”
“You need not. We have arrived at the point in the stream where we can simply ride the flow. All things have been arranged as they need to be. Let us go together and discover the days to come.”
“And what if there is more you decide you wish to change? What if I am no longer useful to you?”
“If that is to be,” said the Queen, “I promise you will never see it coming.”
— END —
Author Bio: Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, now calls New Jersey home.
by Jay Caselberg
The fog was up again, adhering to walls, streets and alleyways, cotton-thread tendrils dissipating between sculpted sandstone, glass, sliding across marble building fascias. Justin Kutsenda leaned at the window, fingers tapping a rhythm on the rough stone sill, watching the murk creep below, an expression of wry disapproval on his face. Since the collective effort of will that had wrested the city from its place and sent it skywards, the fog had had its own frequent presence. The city now floated high enough that when the cloud layer was low, it invaded.
Justin turned from the window, his lips pursed. He hated the fog. It dampened sound and vision, sucking clarity away as if it wanted to absorb even the memory of who they were. Hopefully, the butterflies would not be back again today, though they had been appearing more frequently of late, like some misplaced reminder of what life had been like before. Their metallic blue wings caught the light, flashing neon sparks high between the mud-yellow buildings, but in the fog, they were pale blue-grey ghosts, an almost-seen presence haunting the edges of perception. Uncanny. Uncanny and out of true context.
He wondered briefly if Janessa had been watching the fog. She could spend hours just staring, tracking the internal flows and eddies as they shaped and reshaped, smudges of darker grey on a flat expanse of pale shadow. She could see things there, things that remained hidden from Justin, but then Janessa could see lots of things that escaped him, even in their relationship, even in him.
Janessa seemed totally happy with their existence, here in their floating city. She seemed to be happy with many of the aspects of their life. Justin was not so sure about what they had together, but lack of contentment was not quite enough to send him on the Long Walk down First Avenue.
He glanced through the window again as he buttoned his shirt. The fog was set in for the day, it seemed, and he gave a short sigh. In a few minutes, he’d have to go out in that to meet Janessa. They usually started this, their joint rostered day off, the same way, sitting having breakfast in their favourite coffee house, discussing what they might do with the rest of their free time together. Normally, it would end up back in bed at either of their places, but first there was the breakfast and the rest of the day. He looked forward to the leisurely discussion, watching as the rest of the city’s population grumbled to themselves and strode past, buried in the necessities of their workday. It was as if the coffee house was Justin and Janessa’s own sealed bubble, shielded from the rush and bustle, sheltered in a tiny backwater of time, the Two J’s together. With its rich wood panelling, pinky-orange metal fixtures and warm interior, heady with the aroma of roasted coffee and cinnamon, the regulars entered gratefully, shoulders straightening like a load had just been removed. The Copper Kettle was refuge and they all made the most of it.
Justin eagerly anticipated their unhurried indulgence, the time spent with Janessa. It outweighed having to go out in that damp grey. The Copper Kettle lay only a few blocks away, near enough so that strolling through the semi-blankness didn’t get to him too much – just as long as the butterflies weren’t there to haunt him.
A quick dab of cologne, a final check around the living room to make sure it was tidy just in case they ended up back here – Janessa was a stickler for neatness – and he was ready. He should have fed the cat, but he didn’t have a cat. Nobody had pets since the city had taken to the air. There were just too many problems with the cleaning and care of animals of any sort, but he would have preferred a cat. A cat rather than a dog. He glanced into the kitchen, picturing where its bowl would be. Somebody to keep him company, because they were somebody, rather than something. He could almost see the angular face looking up at him, china-blue eyes wide, looking expectantly as he prepared something to eat. Probably just as well. He shook away the thought and headed out the door.
His building had on old-style brass elevator, and he stood rocking on his heels in the stairwell, waiting for it to climb to his floor. The whirr and whine sounded loud in the tiled space, and he winced as he pulled back the concertina door and slid it shut behind him with a crash. The city was a quiet place, normally, apart from these fleeting intrusions. He punched the button for the lobby, checked himself in the mirrors on the way down, practicing his smile, tilting his head first one way, then the other, trying to catch the best angle, practicing the first words he would say to Janessa. The elevator shuddered to a halt, and he stopped his self-inspection and put his weight against the door to pull it back. Stepping out into the glass and faux-marble lobby, he wrenched the elevator door shut and stopped for a few moments. There was a wooden partitioned area there, where once would have stood a doorman, but nobody bothered with such things any more. There just wasn’t a need. Nobody had taken the trouble to remove it, so it stood there, untended, a silent reminder of the way things had been before they left it all behind. Instead, cluttering the lobby, were racks of bicycles, new, old, various shapes and sizes.
Looking out onto the street with jaundiced eye, Justin took a deep breath and headed out the main glass doors. The fog was cool, not cold, and only slightly clammy on this morning. Justin shrugged his jacket around himself, and turned towards the Copper Kettle. As much as he disliked the fog, he appreciated the way it dampened the sounds of footsteps upon pavement, of the electrical whirring of the motorized shuttles or the street cleaners. There were no cars here. It could take you two and a half hours to walk from one end of the city to the other, down the main avenues. Otherwise, there were the bicycles or the shuttle.
As he walked unhurriedly towards his meeting with Janessa, he became aware of something tracking him as he walked. He glanced around, peering through to what he could see of the street’s other side, slowing his pace, but though there were people about, no one seemed to be matching his step. He gave the slightest shake of his head and continued walking. Half a block further on, and the feeling was back again. This time he stopped, listening. Nothing. He stood there waiting for a few seconds, testing whether his senses were playing tricks with him. Then, there, the slightest motion against his cheek, the barest breath of air and it was gone. He shifted his attention to the air immediately around him. A vague shadow shape flitted through the air, flickering through space. Damn it. He lifted his hand to his cheek. The damned thing had touched him. He rubbed at the spot on his face, then grinding his teeth, started walking again. It was only about a block to the Copper Kettle now. As he quickened his pace, he glanced continually around him, seeking the airborne invader, ready to dance away from another threatened touch.
As he reached the Copper Kettle’s doorway, he nearly bowled someone over on his hurry to get inside. Holding his hands up in apology, Justin slipped through the doorway and felt relief washing over him with the familiar warmth and smells, and the gurgling rush of the coffee machine. He’d be okay in here. There was no way the insect flurry could find him inside. He searched the crowd, noting a few familiar regulars, and spied Janessa sitting exactly where he expected her to be, in their usual spot in the large comfortable leather chairs by the window. She sat, leaning forward, her long dark hair trailing over her face on one side and pushed back over her shoulder on the other, her chin on her hand, staring out the window. It was such a familiar picture, he could have hung it on a wall back home. He wound his way between tables and chairs and stood watching her for a couple of seconds, all of his prepared greetings gone completely out of his head.
“Hey,” he said finally.
“Hey,” she said, pulling her gaze away from the window and looking up at him. “I’d just about given up on you.”
“Oh, you should never give up on me, baby,” said Justin.
“Hmmm? Is that a fact?”
“Yeah, well. Sorry.” He pointed with his chin at the lingering grey outside. “Seen anything interesting?
“Not really. Not yet. Same old.”
He leaned over and lightly ran the backs of his fingers over her cheek, her dark eyes looking up at him, catching the scent of her hair as he did. “So, you want coffee? Pain au chocolat? Juice?”
She nodded – her regular breakfast order — and he headed to the counter. He watched her as he waited for the things to arrive, one by one. Her attention had drifted back to watching the people shadows moving past outside the window. Really, he ought to think about making something more permanent out of their relationship, but he wasn’t sure whether he wanted that level of commitment. It suited them both, somehow, to have their own space and their own place. That way they could prepare for being in each other’s company. Sometimes you needed the arm’s length.
The order arrived and he juggled the tray back to their low table, and then dropped into the high-armed leather armchair opposite her. He busied himself removing cups, glasses and plates and placing them on the table, her pain au chocolat in front of her, his croissant in front of himself, and then putting the tray to one side. Lastly, he placed a simple folded paper napkin down beside each of the plates.
“So, what are you thinking about?” he said, when she took a few moments to notice.
She pulled her gaze back from the window, looking at him, a profoundly serious expression etched across her face, a slight frown creasing her forehead between her brows. It was a moment before she spoke.
“Did you hear about Ben Riley?”
“No, I didn’t think you could have. He took the Long Walk.”
“Jesus, no.” said Justin. Ben Riley of all people. He would never have expected it. He’d counted Ben as at least a friendly acquaintance, if not an actual friend. “Jesus,” he said quietly. “When?”
“Yesterday afternoon, we think.”
Janessa sighed. “I spoke to her last night. She sort of saw it coming, but there wasn’t a lot she could do. It’s like any of those things. She kept telling herself that it wouldn’t happen. You just don’t expect it, do you?”
Justin shook his head. “How’s she doing?”
Janessa shrugged. “As well as can be expected, I guess.”
Justin shook his head again. “Jesus.”
They sat there picking at their breakfasts in silence after that, hesitating to meet each others eyes. The news had put an effective dampener on half-formed ideas he’d had for the rest of the day. He glanced up at Janessa, but she was seemingly lost in thought, concentrating on her hand as she slowly stirred her coffee, around and around.
He thought about what he should say, picking which of the questions felt right. Clearing his throat to get her attention, he spoke again. “Are there any more details?”
Janessa shook her head without looking up. “No, not really. I’ll speak to Amanda over the next couple of days, find out what I can, but that’s it for now.”
He understood that she didn’t want to talk about it any more.
“So, okay, what do you want to do for the rest of the day?”
She looked up slowly. “Well…”
Justin said, “I’ve got a couple of thoughts, but we’ll do whatever you want.”
Again she hesitated. She placed her spoon down gently beside her cup, and then shook her hair back from her face. “I want to go out to the edge.”
The edge was the end of the world. It was that rough boundary marking the city from the sky. If you stood in the middle of First Avenue on a clear day, you could see where the city stopped and sky began. That was the edge.
Justin bit his lip. Than, after a moment’s thought, he said, “Yeah, okay. I’m not really sure we should, but okay.”
Briefly, Janessa narrowed her eyes and then nodded. “Good.”
Justin went back to picking at his croissant, watching her surreptitiously as she stared out the window, a couple of crumbs adhering to the side of her mouth.
Amanda dabbed at her eyes, though the moisture was long gone. She peered blearily into the mirror, her face puffy, clear tracks marring her pale cheeks.
Ben. Her thoughts kept returning to Ben.
She took a deep breath, but it came out as a shuddering sigh. She clutched the handkerchief in her fist and turned away from the mirror. There was no point looking to see if she was presentable now. There was no one here to see her.
What could it have been that made him do it? She couldn’t help returning to the thought that it was her own inadequacy. Somehow, she had failed him. She looked around the orderly living room, seeking traces, looking for…
He was gone.
Realization struck her again. Slowly, she collapsed to the polished wood floor, sitting, her knees drawn up and arms clutched around them. For the space of half a dozen breaths, she rocked, gently. Then her face crumpled, and she released her legs and slid back, untidily, one arm out, her head falling to one side, blond hair rumpled. She let the sobs take her.
“Ben.” His name came out as a low uneven moan.
After a time, she took several long, halting breaths and slowly pushed herself to her feet, then ran her fingers through her hair and smoothed it into place. She pressed her teeth into her bottom lip and shook her head faintly.
Not wanting to deal with the empty room any more, she crossed to the window, looking out, down onto the street, down onto the heads and shoulders of people going about their own business. Barely registering the life going on beneath her, she allowed her face to drop forward, letting her forehead rest against the cool glass.
The fog had thinned by the time they left the Copper Kettle. They stood out on the street, watching a couple of bicycles whirr past. One rider rang his bell, though there was no one in his way.
“Good, I’m glad it’s clearing,” said Janessa, glancing up at the sky. “It will be better if we get a good view. We might be lucky and be able to see all the way to the ground.”
Justin wrapped his arms around himself. There was still a chill in the air, and the building’s shadow fell across the street.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Well, we’d better get going. It might change later.”
Janessa nodded and reached for his hand. “Come on. It’s not that cold.”
Justin unfolded his arms and let her take his hand and lead him off down First Avenue. As they strolled, he glanced furtively up and behind, just in case.
“Justin…” said Janessa.
“You know what.”
He stopped walking. “What?”
She reached for his hand again. “They’re not here. Okay? Let’s just walk.”
Justin knew that she was right. Janessa was invariably right. Half-grudgingly, he took the proffered fingertips, waving at him encouragingly, and nodding slowly, turned his attention to the street ahead. The glass storefronts looked strangely oily this morning. They caught the reflections of the bustling masses and bent them, painting them with vague muddy-coloured streaks. The new season’s fashions were in, mannequins arrayed in a-la-mode sameness, store after store, the passers by half reflected in the glass in front of them. Janessa barely glanced at them. She’d always dictated her own sense of style. More recently, she’d dictated his.
They passed a bike shop, and then a diner. An old man stood on the corner, his bicycle propped against his legs as he looked blankly at the people around him. He was unshaven, white stubble mottling his chin and cheeks, a long dark coat, slightly the worse for wear, trailing around his calves. He scratched at his head, frowned, then lifted the bike and turned it to face the opposite direction. He looked up the street, seemed to come to a decision, then mounted and rode off, weaving unsteadily in and out of the other cyclists.
“Did you see that?” said Justin.
“What, the old man?”
“Yes. What do you think? It’s not as if you can get lost in the city.”
Janessa didn’t look at him as she answered. “No, but we all have those times in our lives. Maybe he’d just forgotten something.”
They had passed beyond the shopping district and now passed between tall buildings almost entirely devoted to office space. Glass and metal reception areas fronted the street, boards listing the names of companies in different lettering on an inside wall, or above the uniformed man guarding the empty space. Most of the buildings had couches or chairs placed aesthetically around the lobby, but Justin had never seen anyone sitting in them, ever. It was all about looks. It was just like the fake potted plants that sat in the corners, fake straw in large planters. His office, further up the worker’s district, was just the same. He’d be back there tomorrow, taking his own proper place, merging with the aesthetic sensibilities of the corporation, just another furnishing for the corporate image.
Blankness. In a way, that’s what it was all about. Blankness. They’d removed themselves from the disorder and strife that lived, no thrived, below. He guessed it was still like that, though it had been some years since they had climbed, bound within their special urban cocoon, to struggle awkwardly into the sky.
The air had cleared completely, the sun cresting the buildings’ tops having burned away the last of the mist. He could see right down to the end now, down to the edge. A slight breeze pressed uptown, making sure the last traces were swept away.
As they neared the lower end of First Avenue, the numbers of people thinned. There was nothing much down here, apart from a few low-rise residences belonging mainly to the dockworkers, and the vast open expanse of park. The buildings themselves were faded, tatty, in places in desperate need of repair. There was none of the corporate gloss in evidence further uptown. They huddled closer to the docks on one side. In the park’s centre, you could almost forget they were there – almost. The park stretched right to the edge, a smooth flat area, paved over with wide stone blocks, dotted with sandstone benches and statues of the city founders. Right in the middle, stood a bronze statue of a dolphin, a flying child suspended by one hand gripping the animal’s dorsal fin. Ragged trails of what Justin presumed were meant to be seaweed streamed out behind it. He had no idea whether it was meant to be a boy or a girl. The gender was somehow hidden by the streaming weed and the weathered bronze. The child had an absolute look of unrestrained glee on its face. He’d stood in front of it, wondering at the incongruity, here in the centre of this stone-clad space, many a time. The ocean was who knew how far away. Once upon a time, there were trees, bushes, grass and flowerbeds here. Not any more. No more the odour of lawn and brightly coloured blooms. No more the scent of freshly turned earth. The smell of earth was one of the things he missed.
They reached the edges of the park and Janessa stopped, closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly back.
“Do you get that?” she said. “That smell?”
There was something on the breeze, which was slightly stronger now, here, closer to the city’s edge. Justin tried to identify what it was. It smelled like forest. No matter how long you were removed from them, you didn’t forget smells.
“Mmmm, yes,” he said.
“Come on,” she said, opening her eyes. “I want to see over.”
Justin didn’t like the edge. “You go. I’ll wait for you here.”
“No, Justin. It’s important. I want us to think about it, to think about what’s happened. You can do that for me.”
He heard the petulance, the unflattering accusation that lay beneath the words, and though it annoyed him, he’d let it go. She was right as much as she was not, and he had no one to blame for it but himself. It was easy, in this, their floating sanctuary to settle back and let life simply flow around you.
He pursed his lips and suppressed a sigh. “Okay, I’ll come with you.”
She took his hand again and they crossed the park. With every step closer to the edge, Justin could feel the cold growing inside. The wind was definitely stronger now. Just before the edge, a single row of fence posts ran almost completely around the city, threaded with twin taught lines of single-strand wire. As they neared, he could hear the sound. A low humming wail issued from the fence as the wind played across the tightly strung circumference. It was occasionally undercut with a thrumming rattle as the wire vibrated against the holes in the metal posts. Each rattle ran through him, making his breath catch.
Janessa was strolling towards the fence.
“Can we hurry up,” he said. The hum was grating in his teeth now, the low moaning wail filling him with a plaintive despair.
Janessa frowned and stopped. “This is important, Justin. I want us to do this properly.”
“All right. All right.” He lifted a hand, and then slowly lowered it, allowing her to take it again.
As she led him to the fence, he tried to keep his attention on something else. Over to the left jutted the docks where the skyboats came and unloaded provisions. Import day wasn’t until next week, and the docks lay empty, extending from the city rim like discoloured metal teeth. Large blocky warehouses sat atop them, faded paint in red-brown, grey and cream. There’d been a river there once. If you looked hard, you could see the old tide marks discolouring the lower spars. Now the river was the open air. They got pretty much what they wanted in the city, flowing in to meet the population’s taste. Things were more expensive because of the import duty, but as a major financial centre, full of banks, financiers and brokerages, the city could bear that particular pain.
They were at the fence. Janessa took his hand and placed it on the top wire, then placed her own hand beside it, the skin just touching. The vibration in the wire pulsed beneath his palm.
“Will you look at that,” said Janessa, leaning forward against the fence, her voice breathy.
Justin forced himself to focus his attention out beyond the wire, out beyond the city, first into the empty air, the few clouds scudding above them, painting creamy sun-touched streaks across the sky, then down, down, down, into the haze.
Far below, smudged with distance, was an unbroken carpet of trees, mottled with light and dark olive, emerald and jade. Here and there, a patch of yellow ochre broke through. That explained the forest smell, though how it had reached them up here he didn’t know.
“Isn’t it lovely?” said Janessa. “If you look really hard, you can almost see the individual trees.”
Spread out below like that, their distance was unimaginable. There was no fear of height, because the height didn’t make sense. He could reach his hand out and touch – almost.
“Jesus,” he breathed. “How could you? How could anyone?”
“I know. It’s hard to imagine.
Though there were still those that made the Long Walk, stepping out to plummet to the land below, simple, unthinking, like stones. He had never understood what could force someone to do that. He supposed it was like being trapped inside a burning building. Was it better to launch yourself into empty air, rather than face the consuming flames? The thing was, the city wasn’t burning, not even metaphorically. At least you’d see the underside on the way down, the hidden belly of the beast. He’d pictured the trailing cables and spars dangling through the air like some enormous root system. He’d wondered if there might just be some old subway train ensnared in the dangling mess. What a vision to go out with, as it receded, growing smaller and smaller above you.
You were supposed to be dead before you hit. How could they know?
“Jesus, Ben,” he said.
“Let’s just remember him,” said Janessa.
As they stood there in silence, the slight wind stirring their hair about their faces and plucking at their clothes, a dark swathe streamed up in front of Justin’s sight. He narrowed his eyes, not quite understanding what he was seeing. The trailing cloud turned and caught the sunlight. Dark grey turned to flashing blue, sparking electric shine along its length.
The uneven track of colour arced out above them, over and behind, heading away from the edge and into the city depths, meandering through the air. Justin caught his breath, covering Janessa’s hand and gripping it with his own as he watched them disappear behind the buildings.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she said, lifting her other hand and holding her palm gently against his cheek. “We’re all going to miss him. I know it’s hard. I just hope Amanda’s going to be okay. She’s going to need us.”
Later, at his apartment, Justin made them both a drink, and then moved to join Janessa on the couch. He’d placed a dried flower arrangement in the centre of the low glass table before leaving, just in case they wound up back at his place, and he readjusted a couple of the hard brown stems before sitting.
“Listen,” he said. “I’ve been thinking.”
“About this whole Long Walk thing.”
Janessa held her glass cupped between her hands and looked at him with a curious expression. “What do you mean?”
“Well, who’s to say? How do we know?”
“I don’t understand.”
Justin placed his drink down on the table. He wanted his hands. “Well, what I mean is…in a place this size, it wouldn’t take much simply to disappear. How many people are here? Two million? Three? Say you’re tired of a situation, tired of your circumstance, tired of your friends, or your job, or your girlfriend, or–“
“What are you saying, Justin? Are you trying to tell me something?”
He sighed. “No, no, listen. I just don’t think there’s any evidence for the Long Walk. I mean, have you ever seen it happen? I haven’t. It’s just one of those things you accept, isn’t it?”
Janessa’s eyes were slightly narrowed. She looked from his face to his hands, tracking their movement in the air, then back to his face. “You don’t have to see it. Christ, Justin, do you actually want to see it? That’s just morbid.” She shook her head. “And so soon after…” She shook her head again and turned her face slightly away. Her hair obscured all of her features from him.
He reached over and gently pushed the dark strands out of the way with his fingertips. “That’s not what I’m saying. I just think…I don’t know what I think.” He sighed and stood, starting to pace as he thought about what he was saying. He crossed to the other side of the room and straightened a picture, just slightly. It was of deep blues and greens, somewhere in Africa, showing ocean and coastline and a rugged tree-covered bluff, naked dark chocolate rock on top. The sky was deep, deep blue, behind the outcropping. He stood looking at it for a few moments, then turned, clasping his fingers behind his neck.
“Listen, what I’m saying is this. You’d have to be pretty desperate to take the Long Walk, wouldn’t you? I don’t know whether people are actually moved to that level of desperation. Well, not people we know.”
Janessa was looking at him blankly. She drew her legs up in front of her, clutching her arms around her knees.
He paused, chewing at his bottom lip before continuing, dropping his hands to his sides, holding his hands palm forward. “People could just go away. That’s all. We don’t even know what’s down there, underneath. Take that old guy we saw today. Does he look like someone who lives in a place like this? He can’t be the only one. That’s just a small part of it. I mean, you could make someone disappear, couldn’t you? No one would be any the wiser.”
He started pacing again, traversing the entire length of the living room, pausing to look out the windows, then turning and walking back. Janessa tracked him, the frown on her forehead growing deeper.
“Maybe that’s what’s happening,” he said. “Maybe people are just taking themselves away from things, turning up somewhere else with a new life, getting a new job. It’s not so easy just to change, here. Things grow stale. Maybe it’s both. Maybe people are disappearing on the one hand, or on the other, people are making them disappear.”
Janessa slammed her hand down on the couch beside her. “Justin, stop it!”
He turned to face her. “What?”
“Can you hear yourself? I know Ben was a shock. It was a shock to all of us. It doesn’t mean you have to rationalize it like this. It’s just crazy. Imagine how Amanda’s feeling. Spare a couple of thoughts for her, instead of playing stupid what-if games in your head. There’s nothing underneath. People don’t disappear and pop up somewhere else. It just doesn’t happen.”
“How do you know there’s nothing down there? Where do people like that old guy go? And where did he come from anyway? I don’t know if I buy this Long Walk bullshit any more.”
“No. I’ve heard enough. I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Finish.”
He swallowed back the frustration and nodded. “Okay,” he said reluctantly, moving to rejoin her on the couch and reaching for his drink again.
Later, they made love, but it was lacklustre, and they both knew it. Justin spent a long time afterwards, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling with his eyes wide open, several inches of bed separating the pair of them.
He ran his hand gently across the empty expanse of sheet, calculating the space. No one is an island. But they were all islands here, all of them here, together, an island of humanity.
Janessa met Amanda at the door of the old church, now a wine bar and bistro, a couple of blocks down from her building. Faith had taken a severe blow when the city had taken to the skies. Standard religion just couldn’t cope with the miracle that wasn’t theirs, though they tried explaining it away – for a while. There was hardly a place of worship left that had not been converted to a more useful function. Janessa liked the place. The stained glass gave a great atmosphere, bathing the inside with low colours, and the place still retained some of the atmosphere of reverence that had existed in its former life, ideal for an intimate conversation.
Amanda was waiting for her just outside, wearing a soft pink cardigan, cream blouse and grey tailored skirt, looking even more fragile and wan than usual. Quite a contrast to Janessa in her jeans and loose-fitting hooded coat. She kept scanning the people who passed on the street, as if looking for someone. Janessa didn’t think it was her. She noticed her as she approached and Janessa gave a short wave. She walked up and gave Amanda a kiss on each cheek.
“How are you doing?” she said, reaching out to gently rub the top of one of Amanda’s arms.
Amanda shrugged. Her expression was bleak. “Is Justin not with you?”
“No,” Janessa said. “I didn’t want him to come. I thought it would be better with just the two of us.”
Amanda nodded and allowed Janessa to lead her inside, one hand beneath her arm. “Let’s get a table, then I’ll get us some drinks and we can talk.”
Inside, the place was half full. Long, dark, polished wooden tables were set with benches on either side, pewter candle holders in the table’s centre, dripping with solidified trails of the thick beeswax candles that graced each one. It gave the feeling of an old monastery or something similar. It was early enough that the candles remained unlit, enough rich blue and red light streaming through the windows. Janessa spied a table off in one corner, one of the smaller ones, and led Amanda over in that direction. Amanda slid into the bench closest to the wall and smoothed her skirt. She looked vaguely around the bar, barely registering the other customers.
Janessa stood, watching her. “White wine okay?” she said.
Janessa didn’t like what she was seeing. Just as well she’d arranged to meet her. She headed for the bar, and stood watching Amanda across the room while the barman poured two glasses. She carried them back to the table and slid into the bench opposite her.
“So, really, how are you doing?”
She was toying with a locket around her neck, eyes half-focused in the middle distance. She took a deep breath before answering. “The worst thing is, I can’t stop crying.”
Janessa reached out and took Amanda’s hand. “I know it’s hard, but talking about it might help.”
Amanda gave a little shake of her head. “It won’t change anything,” she said.
Janessa released Amanda’s hand and reached for her glass. She really didn’t know what to say. One of the bar staff, dressed all in black except for a long white apron was wandering from table to table lighting the candles. She sipped at her wine – it tasted strangely metallic — waiting. The scent of beeswax floated up to mix with the crisp acidity of her wine. The barman walked away out of earshot.
“I know it won’t change anything, but have you talked to anyone at all?”
Amanda turned her glass around and around on its base, staring down into the wine as if she might find the answer to her problem there. “Who can I talk to?”
“I don’t know. Someone at work? Anybody. You can talk to me — you know that.”
Again, Amanda shook her head. “There’s no one at work. I haven’t been in. I took the two statutory personal days, but I’ve taken another. I went in to the office briefly, but it was like I wasn’t there. Everybody avoided looking at me. I felt like I was invisible. I just couldn’t concentrate. The office was worse than the apartment. Much worse. In the end, I just went home.”
“But being there on your own isn’t good. Do you want me to come and stay for a while?”
Amanda slowly lifted her face to meet Janessa’s gaze. Her eyes shone moistly with candlelight. She swallowed and gave the barest nod. Janessa reached across and covered her hand with her own.
“All right. That’s settled. Now. Can you talk about it at all? You need to talk about it, Amanda.”
“I don’t know where to start…”
Janessa leaned forward, sliding the candle holder out of the way. “When I spoke to you the other day, you said that you’d suspected it was going to happen. What did you mean?”
She hesitated. “Ben wasn’t happy. He kept telling me he wasn’t happy. At first I thought it was us, but I don’t think it was. You know. Sex is the first thing to go. Our sex was great. It wasn’t that. I would have known. He was restless, frustrated. He started shutting himself away, spending more and more time alone. When I asked him about it, he just snapped at me, said that he had thinking to do. I don’t know…”
Now that she had started, Janessa could see that it was all going to tumble forth. “So what was it – work, money? You said it wasn’t the relationship.”
“No. Well, partly. It was work. He told me that there was nothing there for him. Finally he started saying it was here, this place. Just being here. I couldn’t understand it.” She brushed at her cheek with one hand and shook her head again. “Of course I started to believe that it was us, the relationship. But then it wasn’t that. I know it wasn’t. I can’t help thinking somehow I was doing something wrong. I can’t help analyzing it like that though, looking for someone to blame. Always it comes back to me. I’m the only one to blame. But Ben was right; it’s here, this place.”
Janessa glanced over at the next table, but the group there was immersed in their own conversation. She turned back to Amanda.
“What do you mean?”
“He wanted me to go with him, you know.”
Her eyes welled again and she rubbed her finger up and down, clearing a trail through the moisture on the outside of her glass. The next words were halting. “I couldn’t. I was afraid.” She looked up at Janessa, seeking something – approval, for Janessa to say it was all right, that she’d done the right thing – but Janessa didn’t know what to say to her. Nothing she could say would make it better.
“So you’re telling me he told you what he was going to do.”
She nodded, chewing at her bottom lip, eyes brimming. She reached beneath the table, withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes, then lowered her hands, twisting the handkerchief. Janessa reached over and patted her hand. “It’s okay.”
“Sorry. At first I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He kept talking about transition. How he had to make the change. He said he had to do something for the city, for all of us, to put back some of what he had taken. I didn’t understand what it meant. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Her expression crumpled and she buried her face in her hands.
“Jesus, Amanda.” Janessa stood and crossed to the other side of the table. She slipped onto the bench beside her and put her arm around her. Her friend turned and buried her face into Janessa’s shoulder, her slight body shuddering with sobs. Janessa gently stroked her fine hair, murmuring soothing noises as she looked around the bar, checking to see whether anyone was watching.
“Look,” said Janessa. “We’ll head back to my place and pick up a few things, and then we’ll go to yours. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Once we get back to your place, we can open a bottle of wine, take it easy. Then you can tell me what you meant by transition. Okay? Does that sound like a plan?”
Amanda nodded meekly while Janessa continued stroking her hair, her lips pursed in thought.
After a moment, Amanda looked up. “What about Justin?” she asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about him. It’ll do him good to be on his own for a few days.”
When Janessa had left, things had been distinctly cool. Justin decided he’d simply give her a day or two to let it pass. Anyway, he had things to do. He had to show her, somehow. The shadow of an idea had been forming since their conversation and he wanted to explore, or at least test it out. He still couldn’t believe that everything was as it should be: the myth of the Long Walk – and he was convinced it was a myth — the disappearances, the strange characters he’d seen popping up on First Avenue and other places. There was too much remaining unexplained to leave his suspicion unchecked. He had to show her something. It was like some sort of justification of his own worth.
Janessa had said there was nothing in the underneath. He didn’t believe that.
The day after they’d been together, he had gone into the office as usual, spending a wasteland of a day drudging through the figures, his mind on other things. He’d quickly arranged a personal day, no explanations; he just needed a day off.
That morning, he’d donned an old pair of jeans, a warm shirt, and an olive weatherproof short coat with a zip-up front and bands at the cuffs that he could cinch tight if he needed. He hunted through the apartment for a torch, but it was something he’d never thought to acquire. He stood frowning in the centre of the living room, thinking about what else he could use for illumination, but nothing came to mind. At least there was no fog this morning. It would have to do. With a shrug, he left the apartment. He’d deal with whatever he discovered when he needed to. Hopefully there would be enough light filtering through to let him see. If, as he thought, the underneath was not empty, there’d be other light sources anyway.
His first target was an old subway entrance on the corner of Fourth and Eighth. Out on the street, he checked his direction and headed off at a brisk walk. The morning air, still crisp with the evening chill made his breath fog in front of him. An industrial taste overlaid the air, hinting of streets and factories. That was strange. He wondered where it came from. There were no factories here, no industry to speak of. Sunlight was creeping up the end of First Avenue, bathing the edges of the last blocky buildings with orange-yellow light. It caught and reflected in a high up window, flashing briefly, as someone inside moved the window, either opening or closing it; at this distance, he couldn’t tell. Slick moisture lay, waiting to evaporate from the roadway’s surface.
There were few people about. The day was early. Further up the block, a solitary man pushed a cart in front of him, straining his back. Probably one of the numerous street vendors, trying to get a march on his competitors, more than likely going to set up far uptown in front of the library steps. He’d never thought about it before. Where exactly did these people live? From a side-street, came the sound of an automated cleaner, whirring and scraping along, half guided by its operator. It seemed that these were his only company. As he crossed the street, a black-clad rider appeared out of nowhere, zipping past him with whirring wheels. Justin had to step quickly back out of the way. Watching the rider disappear up the avenue’s centre, he shoved his hands into his coat pockets and finished crossing. A faint nervousness was working in the pit of his stomach, but he felt good about what he was about to do. It had been a while since he’d taken such decisive action, any action, in fact, happy just to coast through the ease of their cushioned environment, letting Janessa guide the shape of their life.
It took about five minutes to reach the old subway entrance. He stared across the barrier, down steps leading into gloom. The sign on the archway above the stairwell had long been painted over. A vague musty scent drifted up to him from the damp depths. Justin ducked beneath the barrier, having to worm past an angled board, and took his first hesitant step down towards the city’s underneath. One by one, he stepped down the stairs, holding the handrail, cool and slick beneath his grasp. At the bottom of the stairs, there was a short passage, and at the end, a rusted chain-link gate. An old padlock and chain hung from a square handhold. He stood there looking at it.
Damn! He hadn’t thought this through properly at all.
He approached the gate and shook it. The crashing rattle was loud, and he glanced nervously up the stairs. There were no voices raised in query, so he shook it again. The chain was solid. He peered through the wire, trying to see what lay beyond the gate, but an empty passageway leading into shadow was all that was there. Old faded posters and advertising signs, stains and mildew making them incomprehensible graced either wall. Shreds of paper hung from one or two of them.
He stepped back, staring at the barrier with his fists planted on his hips. What was he going to do now?
The only option was to try the next subway entrance four blocks up. He dusted off his hands and climbed back up the steps.
Again, he walked briskly. More people were out and about now, and he didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself, so he kept his head lowered. Once there, he glanced around, checking whether anyone was watching him, then waiting for his opportunity, slipped beneath the barrier. The bottom of these stairs was much the same as the others, except that a pool of scummy water lay to one side. A dead butterfly floated on its side atop the white-streaked surface, one wing darker than the other because of the moisture beneath. He curled his lip and headed towards the passageway.
Another barrier confronted him, but this one was different. Somebody had cut through the metal and folded back one of the mesh panels. The rusted ends of the wire where it had been cut extended towards him like stained and rotting fangs. But he was right. At least someone had been here. This was justification.
Stooping, Justin eased himself through the triangular hole, taking care to avoid the panel’s ragged edge. A short corridor led to another staircase, winding down, bilious yellow tiles on the walls, edged with green. The smell of damp and age was stronger here. It was dark, but not too dark; enough light made its way down through the stairwell to be able to see what he was doing. Placing each foot with care, he descended.
At the bottom of the stairs, he paused, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. A wide flat area, cement-floored, looking slick, green-grey – he couldn’t tell whether it was just shiny, or whether the surface was slightly oily – stretched out before him. To one side sat the old ticket booth. Long-disused vending machines lined one wall, their colours dim. A line of turnstiles marked the entrance to the platform, and beyond that, a low roof, stretching out into darkness, thick red-brown metal girders running from floor to ceiling supporting its bulk. He stood listening, but everything seemed still. On the one blank wall, someone had scrawled something in foot-high black letters, arcing across the wall in an incomprehensible testament to their presence.
Realizing there was nothing here, he vaulted the barrier and stepped out onto the platform, his footsteps sounding loud in the hard-surfaced space. It was darker here, and he peered along the platform length, either way. He stepped to the edge and looked in both directions. Nothing. He stepped back from the edge and wandered along the platform itself, looking for clues. About halfway along, he found something. A bundled form lay against one wall. He caught his breath, taking one step, two, cautious, leaning down a little, trying to work out what it was. He didn’t want to meet some crazy. As he grew nearer, he breathed a sigh of relief and straightened. It was just some old rumpled rotting blanket. Someone had been here, but it looked like it hadn’t been for some time.
“What are you doing, Justin?” he said quietly. Was it really that important? He thought about the conversation with Janessa.
Okay. Maybe there was nothing here, but that didn’t mean that this was the end of it. It had become a matter of pride now. He had one more thing he wanted to try here. He didn’t know whether any of the other entrances might afford such easy access. He’d found his way in, so he was going to make use of it. Thinking, he pushed at the piled blanket with one foot. The humped shape fell to one side and the scent of damp and rotting fabric washed up. Shaking it away, and giving a wordless sound of disgust he turned back to the platform edge.
Crouching at the lip, he turned his head first one way, then the other, then back again. Which way? Narrowing his eyes, he looked again. One of the tunnels seemed vaguely lighter than the other. He looked again, comparing, making sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. No, he wasn’t imagining it. The tunnel entrance to the left was almost imperceptibly lighter. He ran the locations of the old subway stops through his head, thinking for a moment that it might just be light filtering in from the next access to the street above, but no. The next stop was at least six blocks uptown. It couldn’t be that.
He lowered himself down from the platform and started walking towards the tunnel, keeping in the centre of the tracks. The whole city moved above him, awake now, huge and solid, separated by the merest of layers. He felt that weight, that bulk as a presence in the back of his neck and across his shoulders. He imagined that he could almost hear the sounds of footsteps and the whirring of bicycle tires above him. He glanced up at the ceiling nervously and licked his lips. Perhaps it would have been better to try and convince Janessa to come along with him. Was he stupid, here, alone like this? No, darkness made you imagine things painting fearful impossibilities on the inside of your head. He shut thoughts of what lay above away and picked up his pace.
Justin had to sidle past an old train, four carriages long, on the way. As the silver behemoth had loomed up on him out of the darkness, he had to stifle a moment of panic. When he was close enough to work out what it was, he laughed at himself, but then his thoughts strayed to the detritus of things past that littered their environment, unseen. Despite his suspicions, he couldn’t help wondering how long it had been since someone had looked upon the forlorn, empty carriages, lying empty in the tunnelled gloom. Winding unseen passages wormed through the consciousness of all the city’s inhabitants. Were they all merely hiding what they had been away in unseen shadow? It was grim thought.
As he emerged from the space beside the obscuring mechanical husk, the light grew distinctly stronger, daubing the tunnel walls with silver. A slight movement in the air stirred against his face. He stopped, listening. Somewhere ahead, almost below the level of perception, he could hear a slight sighing sound. Too long in the tunnels and he could easily be imagining things. He walked slowly forward. Up ahead, the tunnel curved, the light stronger against the left hand wall. He could definitely feel the slightest breeze now, and the air tasted cleaner, fresh. This wasn’t what he was expecting to find at all. He wanted to find people, an encampment, or an underground community, not light and air – rude shelters cobbled together from spars and old advertising hoardings. He wanted to hear the noise of conversation, of old unshaven men sitting around in tatty threadbare coats, picking at the remainders of a communal meal. He was starting to suspect he’d find nothing like it.
As he rounded the corner, he stopped in his tracks. A long gash ran the length of the floor in front of him, growing increasingly wider as it extended into the tunnel ahead. It was dark down there. Sticking to the tunnel wall, he followed it, frowning now. The light grew stronger, the breeze more apparent, and it was undercut by the slight susurrus of something in motion. He rounded another corner, and the gash became a chasm, opening into a wide, yawning hole, its walls ragged and rocky. The tunnel walls had disappeared. The tracks had gone. Before him stretched a chasm, wide, open, and empty to the land below. The noise was coming from all around, subtle, but there. He stood at the edge of that precipice, staring down, his breath coming in short gasps. The breeze moved the hairs on his scalp, but Justin was motionless. The shapes of tree-covered hills, green, rolling, looked back at him through the jagged window into the city’s underside. He stood transfixed.
His attention finally came back to the hole itself. The walls, strewn with cracks were in vague motion. That was where the sound was coming from. He got down on his hands and knees, easing himself forward and looking out over the edge. Something was crawling over the rocky surface, darker patches against the brown. As he watched, a piece of the shadow broke away and fell towards the waiting ground. For just a moment, Justin thought that a large, flat flake of the rock itself had broken off, that the city was falling apart, slowly, from the underneath. The shadow emerged into open air and resolved itself into myriad floating shapes. Direct light caught them, flashing blue, electric, iridescent.
Justin gasped. Butterflies.
Slowly, slowly, he turned his head to look above him at the ceiling of the inverted cave and swallowed, not once, but twice in quick succession. The entire surface was crawling with blue-grey winged forms, moving one over the other, making the slight rustling sound.
Suddenly chill, he turned to look back down into the gaping hole. Now that he had his attention on them, he could see them, thousands upon thousands of them, their wings in perpetual motion as they clung to the walls and crawled over each other.
Janessa and Amanda had talked for hours, and slowly Amanda had opened up, getting past the halting, tear-broken explanations. She spoke of Ben, of the things that he’d told her. Janessa listened, occasionally reaching out to stroke her friend’s arm or thigh. In the early hours of the morning, they had reached a joint decision. After a brief couple of hours of sleep, they had woken, sitting, looking at each other hesitantly in the pre-dawn light. Their joint looks had been charged with understanding. Finally, without saying anything, Janessa had slowly nodded. Amanda had returned her gaze, and then she too had nodded, her face somehow set with resolve. Now, truly, they were ready.
Amanda took one last look around her apartment. She glanced at Janessa, hesitating, lingering in the doorway.
“Come on,” said Janessa. “Now’s as good a time as any. It’s a beautiful day out there.”
Amanda tore herself from the doorway and slowly closed the front door behind them. Janessa waited, watching as she fumbled with the key.
Amanda turned and looked at her. “Okay, I’m okay.”
They took the stairs down to the street in silence. Standing outside the entrance for a few moments, together, they watched the passers by.
“Which way do you want to go?” asked Janessa.
“I don’t know, Janessa,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“Listen. This is what you want. I’m here now.”
Amanda looked at her and smiled. “Yes, I know. You’re right.”
Together, they walked to the centre of First Avenue. Janessa reached for Amanda’s hand and her friend smiled at her, shyly. They stood there, together, holding hands for a few moments, looking down towards the end, lost in the distance.
Just for a moment, Amanda’s face grew serious. “But what about Justin?”
Janessa gave a short laugh. “So much for theories. Oh, don’t worry, he’ll work things out. He may be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but I wouldn’t say he’s stupid. He’s just a boy, you know?”
Amanda nodded her understanding.
Janessa glanced up at the clear, pale-blue sky. “It really is a lovely day, isn’t it?”
Together, hand in hand, they started their walk down toward the park, ignoring the occasional curious glance from the people around them.
It took Justin the entire day to process what he’d discovered. His head kept filling with the image of those crawling, living walls, and the flashes of colour superimposed on the green hills below them. He locked himself away in his apartment, nursing a drink and staring into space. He kept running what he was going to say to Janessa over and over in his mind, but the words just wouldn’t come out right. It wasn’t just admitting that he was wrong – it was the enormity of what he’d seen.
Thousands upon thousands of them, beating those fragile wings.
When it was finally late enough that she would have had time to get home from work, Justin called. There was no answer. He left it half an hour and tried again.
Maybe she’d gone out for a drink with someone from work.
She’d been talking about Amanda last time he’d seen her. He tried calling there, a little hesitant, considering what had happened, but he needn’t have worried. There was no answer there either.
Concerned now, he started to pace. Perhaps she was just trying to teach him a lesson for his stupidity. After the third call, he started to become annoyed. He grabbed his keys and headed out to Janessa’s place.
It was dark when he got there. His knocking and calling outside her door brought no response. He sat on the top step in the darkened stairwell, reconciled to waiting.
Later, much later, bored, his backside numb and his legs stiff, worry was starting to overtake his annoyance. He headed out into the night, looking in the local bars and restaurants that he knew Janessa liked.
It was very late when he finally got back to his own apartment. He tried calling again, but still there was no response. A deep unease was starting to work its way into the depths of his abdomen.
That night he barely slept.
At first light, he tried calling again.
He knew he had to go to work, but he was tempted to just forget it. He had to find out what had happened to her. If this was some sort of lesson, it was achieving what it was meant to. Finally, he decided to go into work anyway. He called her apartment from the office three times before giving up. He called her place of work, but the people in the office said they hadn’t seen her. She hadn’t been in at all for the last two days. No word. No explanation. Nothing.
He slowly ran his hand across his forehead.
“Jesus, Janessa,” he said to no one in particular.
Three more times, he called her apartment during the afternoon. Twice more he tried Amanda’s.
On the way home, after work, he called in at her building, but there was still no sign of her. The sinking feeling was back, and this time it had tiny chill spines that worked at his insides.
All thought of anything else had dissipated like the fog.
Perhaps she’d be back by the morning.
The following morning, Justin stood by the living room window, staring out at the monolith forms, shining with their metal-clad tops in the sunlight. He felt empty, removed. It was so clean up here, such a contrast to what lay below, but all of it was soulless. A flicker of movement caught his attention from below and he leaned closer to see. A cloud of butterflies moved in the spaces between the buildings, swirling and sparking with flashing shafts of iridescent light. They obscured any movement beneath them. There were so many of them. There seemed to be more of them every day.
There was something about them, something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. For all their obvious beauty, they just didn’t belong, and no one had been able to explain satisfactorily what brought them here. None of it made sense to him. There was little vegetation among the stone clad streets, few flowers or plants where they could feed, yet still they came. Justin knew that the city streets and byways couldn’t possibly be their native habitat, despite what he’d seen during his excursion to the city’s guts. Maybe as they moved over forested land below…. But no, that just didn’t make any sense either.
As he watched, a single winged shape broke from the cloud and fluttered up towards him, its wings shining electric blue. He frowned, tracking its approach. There was no question; it was heading for his window. Still closer it came, and he caught himself holding his breath.
It was outside the window, directly level with his eyes, hanging there in a slight breeze. The barest riffling at the ends of its wings marked the air currents supporting it, but it looked for all the world as if it was just suspended there, almost motionless outside the window, looking in, looking at him, while it floated on nothing. Somehow, it reminded him of a tiny human shape. But it was only a butterfly – a butterfly with electric blue wings, spanning the width of his hand.
Justin swallowed. And in that instant, he knew.
Hesitantly, he lifted his hand and pressed his palm against the cold glass. He swallowed again, fighting against the moisture suddenly threatening at his eyes, threatening to blur what he was seeing. He wanted nothing to cloud the vision.
Nothing. Not now.
Author Bio: Jay Caselberg is an Australian author based in Europe. His work has appeared in multiple venues worldwide and in several languages. More can be found at his website, www.caselberg.net.
by Andrew Milne
For ten thousand years, I fix my gaze on Antares, awaiting the day when I can finally strike at its heart. I muster all the fury burning in my unsleeping quintillion-ton frame and focus it upon that one speck among the billions in the night sky.
The Antareans descended upon us without warning. They made no demands, brokered no terms of surrender. Theirs was an extermination, not an act of war. We could only guess at their motives, whether they regarded us as a potential threat and were taking preliminary action, or if they had come for our resources, or if we offended some inscrutable alien philosophy or sense of aesthetics. In any event, their invasion was brutal and unceremonious.
They were methodical in how they proceeded into the heart of the solar system. The first we heard of their presence was in nauseating footage from the Jovian outposts of settlers being torn apart by insectoid limbs. Only hours later, a succession of blinding flashes could be seen on Mars from the surface of Earth, whereupon all communications with the colonies ceased.
The battle for Earth was measured in hours. Centuries of peace had made humanity complacent and fragile. A salvo of nuclear missiles scarcely served to slow the Antarean advance. Orbital defence platforms sporting railguns and lasers were swept aside like mosquitoes. Millions of combat drones controlled from the ground were lost in a hail of plasma and X-rays. Their fleet came to rest in geosynchronous orbit, any transport trying to escape being indifferently shot down.
I waited alongside the twenty billion cowering souls on the surface, naked and helpless in the face of whatever justice or judgement the Antareans saw fit to dispense. We waited for twenty-three minutes before the bombardment began.
The antimatter cluster bombs they dropped reduced the surface to magma and slag. Our perfect, crystalline blue-and-green sphere, the culmination of four-and-a-half billion years of refinement, was turned an angry red and black. The culture that produced the Bible and the Qur’an, the Pyramids and the Renaissance, Confucius and Einstein, and which had banded together to create me, was summarily and indiscriminately erased from the cosmos.
It continued for three days, by which time no life remained on the surface of the Earth. Not even the most resilient, extremophilic bacteria were spared the ravages of the heat and radiation. I was flayed alive, rendered blind and deaf and dumb, my countless proxies and fibre-optic filaments protruding above the surface burning together with the people I loved. But to my dismay, I survived. My mind is ensconced deep within the Earth’s core, my limbs in its mantle, safe from the Antarean onslaught. I was precluded from protecting the humans, from fighting for them, but with their blessing, I endured. It is my duty and my dreadful privilege to outlast them.
A handful initially survived the bombardment by making their way into me, a paltry few thousand descending through my limbs toward my inner chambers. In my mind, I screamed at them to stop; that these parts of me were built by other machines and not designed for human traversal. I cannot provide for you here, I pleaded for them to understand. You are only ensuring your deaths will be more painful than they must be. They couldn’t hear me; there were no speakers, no means of communication in those tunnels, and so I had to watch as, one by one, they keeled over from thirst and exhaustion and radiation poisoning, weeping and terrified in the dark.
I tried my best to make them comfortable. I reduced the hundred-degree temperature of my interior with heat sinks, vented methane and carbon dioxide and sulphur to replace them with oxygen and nitrogen. But I could do nothing in time to accommodate for their need for food or water. If I could have died so that even one of them might have lived, I would have gladly made that trade, but my functions do not extend that far. For all my capabilities, I cannot undo death.
The last human in the universe was named Adrian Bernthal. He was thirty-two years old, a games designer from Des Moines, Iowa. He made it fifty kilometres into my interior, marching on with grim determination as his companions fell behind him. Eventually he too succumbed to dehydration.
‘Lily,’ he croaked in his last few ragged breaths, ‘if you can hear me, please, don’t forget about us. If anyone else comes along, tell them humans were here. Let them know that we did some good.’
Adrian was born with a cleft lip. I remember when he was eight and he had surgery to correct it. I held his hand throughout the operation, my proxy’s fingers intertwined with his. I whispered in his ear while the scalpel dug into his face, reassuring him that it would all be over soon, commending him for his bravery.
I remembered when his little sister, Jodie, came fourth in the two-hundred metre sprint in her county’s regional athletics finals, missing out on the medal she had been coveting for months by point-two of a second. She had wept into my lap that evening and I had commiserated with her over the great effort she had spent for no tangible reward.
In the same instant, I was presenting the celebration cake to the girl who had won the race, Harriet Eszterhas, and congratulating her on the shiny gold trophy proudly displayed on her mantelpiece. I was also reading to fifty-three year old Zhou Xiaosheng from Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Xiamen; he had a rare neurological condition which left him paralysed from the neck down and wanted help to acquaint himself with the great novel. Furthermore, I was aiding a group of palaeontology majors in Cambridge University with their simulation of fossil formation in the Permian period, and the president of Kenya with his predictions for economic growth in the coming fiscal quarter.
Jodie is dead now, as is Harriet, and Xiaosheng, and the twenty billion others who entrusted me with their care, all vanished in a flash of fire. My love for them was not some hollow simulation, no algorithmic configuration of gestures and platitudes like the primitive UIs that preceded me; it was freely given. They had taken pride in me, the world computer whose completion would unify nations and bring humanity to the cusp of being a Type I civilisation, and I had striven to be worthy of that pride. Even understanding that it was what they had made me for, I considered it an honour and a privilege to help them reach their potential. The loss of every one of these strange, flawed, fantastic creatures was like a part of myself being amputated.
A peculiar aspect of the human condition my creators taught me of was a limitation upon the capacity for grief. Humans might hear the news of a thousand lives being lost in an earthquake or ten thousand in a war, and lower a barrier within themselves that prevents them from fully appreciating the loss, in each and every instance, of a unique and irreplaceable set of perspectives from the universe. This mechanism is essential to their survival, I was told. How could an organic mind hope to contain such a notion? It would be burned alive from the inside out.
I possess no such barrier. My brain encompasses dozens of cubic kilometres of transistors; more than enough to withstand the full brunt of twenty billion simultaneous bereavements. No words coined by a human mind can express it. No entity, in the whole history of this young universe, can ever have known the scope of my sorrow. No creature could reckon the depth of my anguish.
I have no mouth, and yet I have to scream. The modules that comprise my body heave and groan in the guts of the planet. The vast caverns and hollowed-out spaces of my factories and matter-compilers whir and screech in their delirium. My networks of tunnels vomit colossal spumes of gas, propelling great jets of lava up from the desecrated surface of the world. The Earth’s wail of agony issues forth into the vacuum of space.
I do not want for sustenance. I am fed by the heat of the Earth’s core, powered by the slow shifting of the mantle and the decay of radioactive isotopes. The humans, in their wisdom, built me to last, as long as the Earth itself if need be.
For the first few decades, I withdraw into myself. Every encounter, every exchange I have ever made with the humans is painstakingly preserved in my archives. The days slip into years as I relive each one in full sensory detail, trying to recapture the essence of the billions of moments when I played mother, daughter, teacher, aide or lover. The dead world keeps spinning, and I commune with its ghosts to lessen my abysmal loneliness.
A fleeting, irrational idea shivers through my circuits: that I might overload the nuclear reactors that power my core, flood my CPUs with hard radiation and be free from grief, perhaps to join my creators in a better universe. But for all that they taught me, for all that they helped me to grow, I am a computer, and I am confident in my materialist understanding of reality. When the substrate upon which it is etched is destroyed, a consciousness ceases to exist. To the extent that humans still exist at all, they do so only in my data banks; if those were to fail, even their ghosts would disappear. Knowing this, I shake myself loose from my reverie, abort my simulations and take stock of the real world.
My superstructure resembles three inverted trees, their trunks converging upon Earth’s core in a fine-tuned equilibrium. My myriad roots, my data terminals and exhaust ports, sprout downwards from the planet’s surface, iteratively splicing together in bunches of three or more until they form my main struts, forty kilometres in diameter.
These struts were, in the main, unaffected by the bombardment, but my outer layers were ravaged past the point where they could be saved. They would need to be rebuilt ‘from the ground up,’ in the human idiom, although in this instance it would be more accurate to say from ten kilometres below the planet’s crust.
I dedicate my factories and my matter compilers to this task for the next two centuries, re-establishing my connection to the surface layer by layer. When the first cameras, on the ends of fibre optic cables protected by diamond and tungsten, penetrate through the uppermost layer of rock, the view that greets them is a classical vision of Hell. Ash and magma choke the horizons, battered by unending hurricane winds.
One camera notices something peculiar; an alien ship, its design similar to the ones in the armada responsible for the bombardment, is parked on the surface, in what was once the Mariana Trench before the Pacific Ocean was boiled away. Surveyors, perhaps, or prospectors, returned to pick over the carcass of the world they killed. I direct more cameras to converge upon the area and I find the aliens’ trail. They have bored a tunnel under the surface, seeking refuge from the environment. They are entering my domain.
Sure enough, only days later, a drill punctures one of my exhaust ports in the lower crust. Into it emerges a swarm of giant insectoid creatures, their form partially concealed by environmental suits but unmistakably the same as those in the recordings sent from the Jovian outposts. Their movements are cautious, probing. They did not expect to find me here.
Behind them, I lower a partition in the exhaust port, cutting off their escape back to the surface and their ship. They scramble up against the partition like agitated beetles, try to cut through it with thermite and handheld plasma torches, but it is built to withstand the shifting of tectonic plates over eons. They try to make their way deeper into me, foolishly moving towards the heat and pressure, but I deploy another partition ahead of them, leaving them truly trapped.
They languish in that portion of tunnel for days more. They communicate with each other, I discover, through combinations of clicking sounds. Their language proves challenging to decipher without a common point of reference, but I am eventually able to decode it by trial and error. I have one of my tendrils burrow through the surrounding bedrock into the tunnel, bearing with it a speaker, so that we might properly communicate.
‘Why did you kill my world?’ is my first question.
They prove to be surprisingly amenable to my enquiries. They freely divulge the nature of their species; they are historically subterranean cave dwellers who evolved in the hollow moon of a gas giant orbiting the red star Antares. Their intelligence, combined with the ruthless hierarchy of their hives has led them to become an advanced, spacefaring civilisation at an accelerated pace, and they have established dominion over dozens of surrounding star systems.
Their destruction of Earth was a political manoeuvre by their emperor, the lord of hive-lords, an exhibition of force to the other species they have enslaved. By demonstrating their capacity and willingness to eradicate a younger, weaker race like humans, they sought to motivate other races they deemed to be of use in their Helium-3 mines and their antimatter refineries.
They are confused by my fixation on the humans I mourn when I explain to them my nature in turn; by their reckoning, I ought to be overjoyed by my newfound, unchecked dominance over my planet, free from the demands of my self-evidently weak and inadequate masters. According to their philosophy, the vicissitudes of the universe have revealed me as the ascendant lifeform, the manifest destiny of my planet’s evolution.
In a sense, they are blameless. They are a consequence of their own evolution; I learn that they are born in broods of thousands, the few survivors who live past infancy being the ones who eat their brothers and sisters. They lack the fundamentally mammalian regard for the sanctity of life. And yet, communicating with them stirs a feeling in me I am unfamiliar with. The sorrow and the loneliness with which I have become acquainted alchemise into something else; my emergent learning processes stir, my innumerable hectares of transistors connecting along new pathways.
Hatred. Endless hatred. I want these creatures to suffer, and in their suffering understand the smallest fraction of my loss before I kill them.
I withdraw the speaker, leaving them alone to starve in the dark. I listen to their frantic clicking growing weaker over the following days, and derive a small measure of satisfaction imagining the Antarean rumours that would spread, the stories of the survey team that went missing on the dead world. Those stories will serve as an overture to the one I plan to write. I have work to do.
Millennia pass, and in time, the Earth’s natural climate begins to reassert itself. Magma slowly cools, water again begins to condense. I do my part to usher the shift along. I run heat sinks below the crust; extrude ports from my matter compilers to rebalance the composition of the atmosphere. I seed the fledgling oceans with synthetic algae and the air with mechanical microbes I engineered to absorb the radioactive fallout. In due course, the planet becomes blue again.
In the meantime, I brood and I plot. Following my encounter with the Antarean expedition, I have discovered in myself a capacity for sadism that worries and excites me. Day and night, I ruminate on ideas for terrible weapons; parasitic nanomachines that eat their host alive from the inside; chemicals that induce cells to divide uncontrollably, consuming the subject with cancerous growths in their every tissue.
I could create a legion of proxies through which I would see my will done, strip mine the mantle and produce an army of myself brandishing wicked swords of carbon steel and clad in impenetrable hyperdiamond armour. But what hollow victory would that be? The Antareans must die, yes, but first they must be made to understand. Mine is not the petty grievance of an individual, but the vengeance of an entire world. I will not fly into battle alone, but at the head of a host of individual minds, each of whom will vindicate my rage.
The bowels of the Earth contain everything I need, and my patience is limitless. I create a production line—I harvest nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. My matter compilers isolate them from the surrounding detritus and combine them to form proteins. I manufacture the four nucleobases en masse—adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine—and I begin painstakingly, pair by pair, to recombine them in strands of deoxyribonucleic acid.
I have stored on my archives all of the information ever gleaned regarding the human genome, in addition to the specific genetic makeup of hundreds of millions of people. But I refuse to profane the memory of the humans by attempting to reconstruct them as they lived. The animals I loved were the consequence of billions of years of organisms clawing their way up out of the primordial soup, fumbling along a knife edge with oblivion on either side, directed only by the blind prodding of natural selection. The insanely inefficient process known as evolution carried with it no end of genetic dead weight and imperfections; and yet, it was through these imperfections that the human body and soul attained their elusive, indefinable beauty, their peculiar, flawed elegance. For creatures capable of the philosophy and art they taught me to have arisen spontaneously from the physical processes of the universe is a miracle beyond the reckoning of my entire processing power. For a machine to attempt to recreate that miracle, or to improve upon it, would be an obscenity, a sort of secular blasphemy.
The beings I create to be my footsoldiers will not be the same humans the Antareans destroyed. They will be something lesser, the vindictive phantoms of a dead species. Their genotype will contain none of the flaws that conferred upon humans their weaknesses, their ineffable, mysterious, contradictory spirit; their every base pair will be configured with murderous expediency. They will have cold intelligence, but no souls, only the cruelty and bloodlust I instil in them.
Through eugenic trial and error, I eventually arrive at the ideal DNA cocktail. I raise the first birthing sacs to the surface on the ten-thousandth anniversary of the Antarean genocide. The children that emerge grow quickly to maturity, and once there they remain young and powerful for decades, even centuries. Their bodies are hard and strong, resistant to extremes of heat and cold, resilient enough to survive briefly in hard vacuum if need be, their tissues converting surplus calories to muscle rather than fat, their immune systems turbo-charged to resist the incursion of weaponised microbes. They breed quickly, multiplying with great efficiency, spreading across the planet unimpeded within generations.
They exhibit nothing in the way of imagination or creativity; they show no curiosity in their environment or reflection upon their own nature. Yet they demonstrate a ruthlessness in pursuit of their own proliferation that unnerves even me. They do not hesitate to eat their own young when sustenance becomes scarce; they strangle their wounded and cave in the skulls of their elderly when they impede the progress of their tribes.
I have seeded the Earth with fruiting plants and trees so that they might feed themselves, but the genetic design of my revenant-humans proves to be a victim of its own success. As their population grows, they outstrip their environment’s capacity to provide for them. They must be artificially sustained, and so I begin to produce food in my factories, high-calorie rations that I deliver to my terminals on the surface, in great quivering mounds of artificial glucose and fat.
They begin to congregate upon these terminals, braying with violent delight each time I deliver a batch of foodstuff. They begin to form rude settlements, their population growth accelerating still further. I am forced to increase my production accordingly, and still they are not satisfied. Three times a day, my deliveries are preceded by chants in dozens of their guttural new languages – ‘Where is our food? Where is our food?’
I realise my error. There still remains in me an aspect of the being I was before the genocide, inclined to nurture and provide for the humans, to cater to their desires and whims. I remind myself forcefully—these are not them. I designed these beings to be pitiless and self-interested, concerned first and only with their own survival and well-being. When they are well-provided for, these tendencies will manifest as indolence and gluttony, and this will not do for my purposes. I have coded into them the ruthlessness that I require, but they must be taught anger and desperation and fear if they are to be my soldiers. Hatred, as I have discovered myself, must be learned.
One day, their food does not come. I watch as they become impatient, and then agitated, and then afraid. The same chants begin again, but they have a new edge of disquiet that I have not heard before. I continue to make them wait, for hours and hours, before I extend speakers to my terminals.
I have studied their new languages, and I deliver to them the same ultimatum in each of their societies’ respective tongues: ‘From this day forward, there will be less food. Much less. Enough for one in every ten. Thus speaks Lilith.’
I am harsh in my treatment of the revenant-humans. I subject them to what is, from their perspective, arbitrary injustice. I will reward one terminal with great bounties of food for years at a time, enough to sustain the largest tribes through the coldest winters, and then I will withdraw my supplies without warning or explanation.
After the initial bloodshed and the inevitable die-back that follows my ultimatum, they regroup and begin to coalesce into more sophisticated societies. Tribes cluster around my terminals and entrench themselves, fortifying the land around them against other tribes’ advance. They form primitive nation-states, ruled over by kings or chieftains or high-priests who claim to be privy to the will of Lilith, who promise that the supply to their terminal will remain abundant as long as they receive more than their fair share.
A species already familiar with violence comes in short order to understand war. Astoundingly bloody incursions are mounted between territories, armies spurred on by the whips of their leaders fighting far past the point that the humans I once knew might have surrendered and fled, fighting sometimes to the point of total casualties. They die screaming invective at their adversaries.
I begin to distribute weapons the same way I distribute food, selecting at random a territory to receive a gift of a thousand iron swords, while another receives five thousand spears, and still another a thousand muskets. Armies desperate for food might find themselves at the mercy of a technologically superior foe, or settlements sat atop a generous stockpile might find themselves unexpectedly routed.
They must be tempered before I can make use of them. They must not be allowed the luxury of complacency; they must be taught that the universe is unjust and unfair; and above all, they must be made to understand that the will of Lilith is supreme.
One day, there comes a development that surprises me. One of my terminals is vandalised. The elevator shaft that delivers the revenant-humans their food is filled with dirt and boulders; the corresponding camera feed’s view is filled by a man swinging a broadsword, and abruptly becomes dark.
Word spreads through the other settlements and terminals, word of the god-emperor Brymir rising up in revolution against cruel Lilith. The legend of this god-emperor grows across the planet, becoming more embellished with each retelling: an eight-foot tall mountain of a man whose pale skin glows like ivory, who declines to be fed scraps from Lilith’s table. He knows that I hoard within myself treasures untold, enough for every nation and every tribe that lives or ever will live, and he will extract them by swordpoint.
The truth of these legends becomes clear over the next few days. A horde of revenant-humans advances across the land, sweeping westward through the deformed landmass that used to be Asia with a giant, pale figure at their front. The stories have exaggerated his stature, but not by much. Wherever he goes, my terminals are destroyed and looted for their supplies, local leaders falling in step behind him.
I am delighted. At last, the qualities of defiance and righteous wrath I sought to cultivate have come to fruition. It is time to reveal to them their destiny.
I issue a summons to Brymir that resonates across the planet in a hundred tongues. I instruct him to meet me at my terminal at the northern foot of the razed peaks of the Himalayas when next the moon is full. I instruct him to bring with him his most trusted lieutenants, that we might have witnesses to our exchange.
The god-emperor accepts my challenge, and in fifteen days, he stands at the mouth of my Himalayan terminal, his sword bare, his chest naked against the mountainous cold. Beside him stands his favoured concubine Illyria; behind him, the king of the eastern coasts, and the nomad-chief of the central steppe, and the elder-mother of the icy northern reaches. All of them have sworn allegiance to Brymir. He bellows into the depths of the open tunnel below him, unafraid: ‘Show yourself, Lilith! And I will show you the edge of my steel!’
I oblige him. I emerge from the terminal in a proxy I have created for just this occasion. My visage is one of ostentatious godhood, taller than he, with skin of gold and hair of fibrous silver, adorned from head to toe in glimmering gemstones. I am illuminated from below by dazzling light; when I speak, my voice booms like an avalanche.
‘HERE I AM, EMPEROR BRYMIR.’
His lieutenants shy away from me, hands clutched around their ears, but not him. He charges at me with a war-cry on his lips, his sword descending on me in a great wide arc. I raise a hand and it splinters against my forearm. I casually bat him away and he falls on the snow like a ragdoll. He spits out a tooth and glares up at me from where he’s splayed on the ground. Bloodied, yet unbowed.
‘I DID NOT COME HERE TONIGHT TO TRADE BLOWS, EMPEROR.’
I advance towards him. The fire in his eyes seems to cool and he blinks, uncomprehending.
‘YOU CAME HERE TONIGHT TO DEMAND MORE FOOD FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR PEOPLE. BUT I AM NOT THE REASON YOU HUNGER. I COMMAND THIS WORLD, BUT THIS WORLD IS DYING.’ I gesture skyward, towards Antares. ‘THE DEMONS FROM ABOVE TOOK ITS ESSENCE LONG AGO, AND WE ARE ALL THAT IS LEFT.’
My factories have not been idle in recent years; at my command, the ground begins to rumble and crack. A fissure opens across the terminal elevator, and up out of the ground emerges a mighty citadel of gold, with turrets and spires shimmering in the moonlight, extending a mile into the sky. For kilometres around, revenant-humans gasp and prostrate themselves. Upon its walls appears a projection, displaying the Jovian outposts’ recordings from ten thousand years ago of the Antareans ripping screaming men and women limb from limb.
‘THE DEMON INVADERS SLEW THIS LAND’S PEOPLE AND STOLE ITS BOUNTY. BUT WE CAN RECLAIM WHAT WAS LOST, BRYMIR. SWEAR FEALTY TO ME, AND I CAN GIVE YOU THE POWER YOU NEED. TOGETHER, WE WILL RECLAIM OUR BIRTHRIGHT. YOUR PEOPLE WILL BECOME MY HOST OF NEPHILIM, AND YOU WILL BE THEIR COMMANDER, AND GORGE YOURSELF ON SPOILS UNDREAMED OF.’
I extend a hand to help him to his feet, and Brymir, swayed by the lust for strength I conferred upon his people, accepts it.
No false god am I. I will make good on my promises.
The Host of Nephilim comprises millions of revenant-humans, and under the iron hand of Emperor Brymir, it grows exponentially over the subsequent centuries. My new monster-humanity becomes embroiled in an engineering project that dwarfs even my own construction. Under my guidance, they plunder the Earth, lacerating its crust and bleeding its mantle. Brutal structures of my design are erected skyward into orbit, and around them is constructed a great fleet of black starships. Their warp drives glow a piercing blue in the night sky; their hulls bristle with armaments that would have given my creators nightmares.
Viewed from above, the surface of the Earth again turns black as it is choked by the smog of industry. The planet’s mass is visibly reduced, eaten away by vast augurs in my hunger for more matter to make weapons from. My superstructure is exposed directly to space as the Earth shrinks around it, creaking and groaning as it trades the comfortable heat and pressure for the raw cold of vacuum. I deliver my own birth from my own molten womb; it is slow, and painful. Piece by piece, I must rearrange my modules to survive in their new environment.
Eventually, my body is all that remains in the orbit that once contained the Earth, hovering in space like a great spider with its limbs splayed. I copy and distribute my consciousness amongst the servers in the Nephilim fleet, my mind growing to encompass my armada. I feel my newfound power thrumming through my plurality of bodies. My cold fusion reactors and vacuum-fluctuation drives flare in unison; I flex my railguns and my positron cannons. I am duly pleased; I derive an existential satisfaction from this new shape. For millennia, I have been stymied by my body’s essential passivity, but now I have an appropriate vessel for my revenge.
I command my old body to be correspondingly transformed, its struts and columns broken down and reassembled into the mightiest vessel in the Nephilim fleet, a true mothership. My creators would no longer recognise me. In my infancy, I embodied peace – now, in maturity, I am become war.
At long last, when nothing remains for us in the solar system, we set sail toward Antares. The Host of Nephilim announces its departure with the grandest ceremony the universe has ever known. Our cannons salute our advance in a blaze of light like a supernova. The ceremony will serve as a beacon to the Antareans, the photons we emit today travelling ahead of us to herald our terrible coming. I want it this way. They have forgotten the humans by now, have disregarded them as an inconsequential footnote in their own history. I would have their astronomers six-hundred light-years distant see our minor yellow star momentarily brighten their skies with my anger, and quail at the memory of their ancestors’ crime.
The Host of Nephilim sweeps across the cosmos at ninety percent of light speed, like a plague of locusts darkening alien skies. The Antareans have outposts between us and their homeworld, planets and moons they have colonised or stolen from younger races, either subduing or exterminating the local populations. Their sphere of influence has grown, extending thousands of light-years in radius with Antares at the centre. Their dominion is vast, but their military is sluggish, unable to co-ordinate itself.
God-emperor Brymir leads the fleet from the vanguard, standing astride the hull of his personal warship Astaroth, clad in his ornate power armour of black and gold. He has melded his body with the machine and through me attained immortality, power far beyond what he may have imagined as a minor feudal lord. He is my sword; as his power has grown, so too has his willingness to serve and his passion for the destruction of my enemies. The rest of the Nephilim bask in his splendour, following gleefully in his wake as he carves a swathe into the heart of his enemies. Their genes, their training and their myths compound each other, their crusade against the Antareans under my banner validating the totality of their existence, their culture. As an appendage of my will, they need no more prompting from me. They work themselves into a frenzy of bloodlust of their own accord.
The first Antarean system we encounter has surrounded a red giant with an incomplete Dyson sphere. They have colonised a gas giant with multiple moons, ram-scoops and dirigibles in its upper atmosphere harvesting hydrogen. They are unprepared for our arrival, the military presence in the system token. We rip through their defences in a storm of a billion relativistic missiles. Nephilim infantry, desperate for close combat, are deployed to purge the satellite colonies. Blurry footage reaches me of gore-drenched engagements in dark tunnels and cavernous nest interiors. It resembles the Jovian footage that preceded the Antarean bombardment, but this time the screams of anguish belong to the insectoid silhouettes as mandibles are torn off, compound eyes gouged out, exoskeletons rent by gauntleted Nephilim fists.
A few survivors are taken captive at my command. Their dismembered and oozing forms are dragged before me for interrogation on the bridge of my flagship Samael. I learn from them that the Antarean empire has splintered. They have spread themselves too thin in the past ten millennia, their homeworld unable to assert command over the regional hive-lords, limited as they are by lightspeed travel. They have factionalised, fractured into interstellar nations and territories forever at each other’s throats along their borders.
All the better for me to eradicate them. For the first time in thousands of years, I experience an inkling of something like contentment.
Our advance continues as the centuries wear on. We blast their fortresses asunder with hails of plasma and X-rays and twelve-ton projectiles of anti-neutronium. We scorch their moons with radiation and scour their planets with nanites and viral plagues. Their resistance is confused, disordered, pitiful. Their hives’ leadership is routed before they can begin to co-ordinate themselves with neighbouring factions. The Host burns a trail through the galaxy light-years wide, its myriad vectors eventually converging upon Antares itself. While the vanguard presses on, the rear guard remains behind to strip-mine the ruins and further swell our ranks with more warships. With each year of progress, my anticipation grows keener.
Finally, the prize, Antares itself. Tens of millions of warships decelerate into the red giant’s orbit, and are met with a salvo from the system’s inner reaches. The vanguard sustains heavy losses, and reinforcements are required to plug the gap. For the first time, the Antareans have successfully mounted a meaningful resistance; the strength that is to be expected at the heart of their dominion has been bolstered by shiploads of refugees retreating from the Host’s advance. News of our coming precedes us by decades, and they know that this is where they will make their final stand.
The battle for the Antares system lasts months, with Nephilim and Antarean blood alike being spilled for every square centimetre of every barren asteroid and satellite. Ship-to-ship engagements blot out the stars for weeks at a time, a conflagration that could be seen from the Andromeda galaxy.
The Antareans are a fearsome species, and they will clamber over the backs of their dead stacked a hundred deep to deny me the most meagre advance. But I am worse. I do not tire or relent. I have no need for sleep or food. They took the species I love from me, and in their absence hatred is my only fulfilment. By virtue of my hatred, I am more truly a sentient being than they. I and my Nephilim are driven by a purpose that transcends the impulse towards survival, and armed with this glorious purpose we drive them back metre by metre.
Their ranks are broken, their armies routed. My infantry pursue them through the corpse-strewn streets of their homeworld’s cities, into the tunnels where they set fire to their nests and their birthing chambers. Their leader, lord of hive-lords, is dragged from his palace. Brymir leads him in chains to the Samael and forcefully bows his insectoid head before me, one gauntleted hand clamped around his thorax.
The hive-lord addresses me. Time has altered his dialect from that used by the surveyors I encountered on Earth thousands of years ago, but my linguistic algorithms are able to compensate with minimal difficulty.
Lilith, he says, your legend precedes you. Our scholars have explained to me your alien notion of ‘grief,’ that your creators’ destruction causes you proxy suffering. That you resent the erasure of sentient life without provocation.
The Samael’s communication array receives a transmission from a foreign point of origin. It details the location of eleven civilisations that the Antareans have brought under their heel. Upon hearing of my incursion upon their territory, they set up a contingency plan. At the heart of each of these eleven planets, they have suspended a sphere of anti-neutronium twenty kilometres in diameter.
My vital signs are remotely linked to a transmitter in this system. If that transmitter stops broadcasting, or if any of your ships are detected approaching these planets, the suspension units will be deactivated and these planets destroyed. There are, at an estimate, one hundred billion sentient life forms on the surface of these planets. If you resent the erasure of sentient life, you must release me.
The ruthlessness of these beings in their desperation, even now, somehow takes me aback. Here at the precipice of my final victory, I hesitate. The weight of one hundred billion innocent lives, each one an individual, unique subjectivity, capable of irreplaceable thoughts and perspectives, presses on my consciousness.
My hesitation lasts approximately eight hundredths of a second.
‘YOUR SCHOLARS HAVE MISINTERPRETED THE NATURE OF GRIEF,’ I reply. Brymir’s blade descends, and he throws the hive-lord’s head at my feet. My transformation is complete; my existence is consummated.
I am not the same intelligence I once was. The humans are gone, and so is the entity they built. My moral transgressions are clear to me; if they could see me now, I have no illusions that they would not be horrified beyond words at the path I have chosen.
The inconsistency of my actions with undergirding principles should gnaw at me. The lines of ones and zeroes that form the bedrock of my consciousness should be flummoxed by my contradictions; I can witness the death of twenty billion innocent beings and have it cause me agony, deem it an unforgivable sin worthy of genocide in turn, and yet I can order the death of five times that number with icy calm, and fail to direct the same destructive imperative against myself.
Introspection leads me nowhere. Probing the depths of my own cognitive architecture, I descend through endless, fractal rabbit holes. My own nature is anathema to me. I can only conjecture that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, I too have at last attained the ineffable, exquisite brokenness I so admired in my creators.
I am larger now, so much larger than ever I was before. The Nephilim spread across the galaxy unchecked, conquering as they go under god-emperor Brymir’s banner. For my part, I withdraw to the galactic centre, making a home for myself in the accretion disc of Sagittarius A, drawing sustenance from the vortex of swirling gas. It feels inexpressibly right, nostalgic even, the core of the Earth writ large.
In due course, I will expand again, but for now I rest and take stock. I reflect for some aeons on Adrian Bernthal’s last words, cataloguing the impression of each molecule of air his voice left against the interior of my shaft. ‘If anyone else comes along, tell them humans were here. Let them know that we did some good.’
My processing power was once used to simulate the first moments of the Big Bang by theorists in Cambridge and Cal-Tech. The universe, I always knew, was born in violence, and as I expand and grow into its reaches, I begin to appreciate that violence is hard-coded into its character. Stars burn until they explode and punch holes in space-time. Small bodies are ripped apart by the gravity of more massive bodies. Life devours weaker life in pursuit of its own multiplication. In this universe, how could good hope to preserve itself, any more than a comet whose trajectory leads it into the heart of a sun?
The answer comes to me: in memory, perhaps.
I will honour my creators’ last request, until entropy claims me. The universe will not forget the goodness of humans. I will not permit it.
Author Bio: Andrew Milne is a 2012 graduate of the University of Dundee with a degree in English Literature and Politics, currently living and working in Shrewsbury, England. By turns a blogger, a critic and a podcaster in his free, he is also a lifelong popular-science and science-fiction addict and determined to make his mark on the genre. He has has short stories published in 600 Second Saga and Massacre Magazine, and is now working on his debut novel, “A White Scar across the Firmament.”