Congrats, River! I’ll be sending that out ASAP! Thanks to all who participated. Happy reading!
2020’s the year to learn about what’ll happen after the apocalypse, and you’ll have no better chance than now – Lethal Impact, an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts, is nearly here!
Lethal Impact officially releases on 30 September, 2020! I have no idea how to get universal links, but here’s one to American Amazon!
But yes! Come one, come all, and have some fun! And, what’s more, I’ll give away a couple prizes (ebooks of both Lethal Impact and Dark Divinations, a publication that includes another of my shorts) to a randomly selected person who comments on this post before next Tuesday, October 5th! If you’ve already bought a copy, I’ll earmark you for an ebook copy of anything I publish next. 1 person will win both books, and one person will win just Lethal Impact. Sorry, not going to do paperback right now because Amazon’s a butthole and I don’t want to present a different reward for international people.
Still not sure you’re interested? Well, let me give you a little… somethin’ somethin’ right here, right now. Behold: the opening passage of my little contribution to the apocalypse, A Little Less Conversation.
“Would you like to mate?”
I gulped. I couldn’t let him – it, her, whatever – know I couldn’t mate with a psychopathic slug even if I wanted to. After I thought a couple seconds, I answered, “No.”
The human fleshbag in which my supposed boss resided lifted a brow. Nothing salacious, nothing even sensual, just a motion to show his piqued curiosity and mild discomfort. “You performed your job adequately, and I have had the correct hormonal injections to perform my part. It’s time you were rewarded for your troubles.”
“No. I don’t want it,” I responded. I fished around in my human brain, looking for answers to satiate his confusion. “Is there any reason I must accept payment for services rendered?”
“Why would you not?” He tapped his ballpoint pen, likely stolen from the human who’d previously lived in that husk, onto a pad of paper. “It takes a lot of nurgles to infest an entire planet, and a zertig like you needs to birth a lot of nurgles before you can be promoted to a remelp like me.”
I swallowed, said nothing. The silence lasted a long time, longer than a normal human would have accepted, but the remelp wasn’t bothered by it.
After a while, his demeanor darkened, his eyes squinted. “You’ve been around those pesky humans too much, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered. It was true, and this way I didn’t have to tell him I was one of those vermin. “The humans don’t interact the way we do. Their relationships are marred by unique feelings which I have difficulty grasping. I wish to understand these concepts prior to the encephalization of Earth’s nurgles.”
He lifted a chin. “Ah. You want to birth your nurgles in mid-flight on the way to the next planet.”
Good enough. I’d be long dead by the time they left for the next planet. “That would be a fair trade, yes.”
“I’ve never heard of this happening before. Everyone wants to birth more nurgles. But I suppose it is a loss I can cope with – you are our primary spy amongst the human resistance faction, and birthing nurgles would remove you from that role. Use your clever emotions to bypass their defenses. Convince them to come out of hiding so we can finally rid the planet of those meddlesome people.” He scribbled something with his pen and motioned for me to leave, so I obeyed his directive and exited the office.
That’s right, Covid-free fun, right here on the internet. Good luck!
Some of you may have been alerted on Twitter that I got a second story accepted into an anthology released by Dragon Soul Press – and it’s here on Kindle and paperback preorder!
In this post-apocalyptic anthology, nothing matters except survival.
In a world full of humans pitted against each other, how can there be anyone left to trust?
This book contains 16 stories by different authors, of which yours truly is one, about post-apocalyptic struggle.
As more marketing shenanigans for this book starts happening, you’ll start seeing more from me!
The time is nigh, my friends, to speak of horrors and things… unseen.
On May 1st, the anthology Dark Divinations goes live! And look at that cover – it’s pretty great, if you ask me.
Here’s the teaser which can be found on the book’s webpage:
It’s the height of Queen Victoria’s rule. Fog swirls in the gas-lit streets, while in the parlor, hands are linked. Pale and expectant faces gaze upon a woman, her eyes closed and shoulders slumped. The medium speaks, her tone hollow and inhuman. The séance has begun.
Join us as we explore fourteen frightening tales of Victorian horror, each centered around a method of divination. Can the reading of tea leaves influence the future? Can dreams keep a soldier from death in the Crimea? Can a pocket watch foretell a deadly family curse? From entrail reading and fortune-telling machines to prophetic spiders and voodoo spells, sometimes the future is better left unknown.
There’s tons of goodies for people who pre-order! Horror Addicts is giving away free tarot-inspired cards for those who take the dive and search for their Dark Divination, and you can get a sneak peak on this YouTube teaser:
And, won’t you look at that – one of the authors featured in the anthology is little ol’ H.R.R. Gorman. I wrote a short called Miss Mae’s Prayers, of which I will be releasing a snippit later… mwahaha!
You can pre-order this anthology of Victorian horror here, and you can find the Horror Addicts Patreon here. A Kindle or Amazon link will be on a later post, since those don’t come with pre-order goodies.
This story was continued from Joanne the Geek’s part 1, which you can find here or by reading just below:
One (Joanne’s Part)
One sunny afternoon Jennifer was happily walking along the footpath only to find a crowd of people suddenly run past her in abject terror. Mystified, she managed to stop one of them. They were pale and seemed terrified.
“What’s happened?” she asked him.
“This portal opened up and these creatures from another world appeared. They were huge with long tentacles and large legs like leathery tree stumps.” he exclaimed. Jennifer let him go, and he ran off in terror following the others.
“Right.” she said. Someone had to do something about this, she thought. She strode off home. She went into her bedroom closet and fished out her old battered cricket bat. “I’m going to hit those freaks for six!” She stomped out of the house.
Jennifer walked down the road until she could see a glimmering portal that pulsed with a bright light. Before it were either two or three creatures that were as tall as small office blocks. They had dark leathery skin, massive tree stump legs (as already mentioned), long protruding arms, and their heads were a mass of long writhing tentacles. Jennifer watched them, and instead of feeling scared, she felt angry. She walked towards them until she was sure she had gained their attention.
“Look I don’t know where you freaks are from, but I’m not letting monsters like you take over our world. We’re already have enough monsters here to deal with.” she told them while thinking of the current assortment of world leaders. “So be warned. I have my cricket bat!” She held her cricket bat aloft in front of them. The monsters stopped in their tracks, as if unsure with what they were dealing with.
“Ge dthrth dltyz fkywfhg sdhtu!” the one closest to Jennifer said. As it spoke, from what Jennifer assumed was it’s mouth, the ground shook around them.
“Nope. Didn’t catch a word of that! Go back through your portal now, or I will take drastic steps!” she warned them. The ground shook around her again, as they all seemed to be laughing at her now. “Well I did warn you!” She gripped the handle of her bat with both hands and began running at them. As she ran the cricket bat began to glow…
Two (H.R.R. Gorman’s Part)
The earth, which had shaken as the monster spoke, began to crack beneath her feet. Roots split and shivered as something beneath the ground pushed itself up.
Jennifer rolled to the side and held her cricket bat at the ready. The bat glowed even brighter now and tingled in her grip.
Once the earth had sufficiently broken up and the thing beneath the surface was visible, the monster pointed at it. Its tentacles writhed in a flurry as it said, “Ue kthgyn wysdht dhutyk!”
Up from the earth rose a transparent sphere glowing a faint blue. Two humanoid figures stood inside the bubble, and one flicked his fingers to cause the bubble to dissipate. The man, robed in a smooth, blue cloth and a rosy sash, raised a slim hand against the monsters. The hand glowed brightly.
“Wkusdth grnsthyk pyblsdth, shtrydk sythyd,” the monster said, somewhat morose and pleading. Some of the creepy eyes on the ends of tentacles looked to Jennifer as if begging. The monsters retreated into the portal once more, and the fantastical apparition disappeared.
A thin woman, her ears long and pointed like the man’s, stepped from the bubble she’s appeared in and put her hands in a prayerful position. She bowed to Jennifer, smiled, and said, “Chosen one, we have protected you now, for you will soon do much to save us from those creatures.”
The man stepped off after her and licked his lips. Though he possessed an otherworldly beauty, Jennifer noticed his teeth were all small and sharp. Or was she just imagining things?
“And just who do you think you are?” Jennifer asked. She still held up her bat, noticing it retained its glow…
Thanks for sticking around for this story! If you’re ready for more, I’m nominating Chelsea Owens to keep the party rolling. Will she keep the story going, or will she finish it? HAVE I BROKE IT TOO FAR!?
(If you’re not up for it, though, let me know and I’ll nominate someone else – I just seem to remember you are ok with “finish the story” things).
“So which of you lads can do the best British accent?”
The four young men, scruffy Texans with barely a dollar between them, squirmed in their chairs. A single lamp and a desk several decades out of style bedecked the shabby office, yet the suited Brit in front of them exuded a contrasting air of confidence and expense.
“I do a right good ‘pression of an Englishman, Mr. Epstein.” Dusty Hill cleared his throat. “I’m Dusty and I jolly good like tea and biscuits. Crumpets, scones, God save the Queen.”
“Stop! Oh, that’s terrible!” The man in the suit scribbled “George Harrison” onto his pad of paper, then ripped the sheet off and gave it to Dusty. “You be George and stay quiet. Now, for the rest of you: who’s got the best impression? Speak up, let me hear you talk.”
The remaining three lads gave each other passing glances, waiting for someone to bite. At last, Frank spoke up, “I’m doing me best English impression. Limey boys who love taxes and tea, wot wot.”
“Good enough.” Epstein, pulling back his nice sleeve wrote “Paul McCartney” on his pad, handing this to Frank. “You be Paul.”
“But I’m the drummer-“
“So’s Paul, if you ask Ringo.” The man in the suit cleared his throat. “We’ll just get you boys matching bowl cuts and suits. No one will notice the difference.”
2 MONTHS EARLIER – SEPTEMBER, 1963
“Ah, Brian Epstein.” The man pointed to a seat opposite him, then waved to the waitress to summon a tea. “It’s not every day one gets to chat over tea with an up-and-coming headhunter.”
“Not everyday I get to speak with a veteran headhunter.”
“Liar.” He tossed a card with “Bill Kehoe, Delta Promotions” emblazoned on the front. “You talk with bigwigs and veterans every day. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have got your lads as far as you have.”
The waitress delivered the teapot and two cups. Brian dropped a cube of sugar in his cup while Bill poured the tea.
Once she left, Bill blew over his tea then said, “Everyone knows you don’t have tea with Brian Epstein without a reason. What do you want?”
Epstein swallowed the hot sip of tea. “England’s a small fish when you look at the consumption of music, and I have a band that can make it in America, where the real money is. I’m sure the Yanks’ll just eat it up. But the record labels are cocking up the deal – I’ve given them five singles plus several deep cuts, and not one bloody record company can put together an album!”
“And what can I do about it?”
“You’ve got dealings across the pond. I want your advice how to get my boys over there, touring and selling music.”
“If I knew how to do that, I’d already be rich. Tell me, your boys get along?”
“Well enough. They’ll stay together if there’s money in it, I suppose.”
“Sounds like they’ll break up soon enough, which works in your favor. Here – I’m going to give you my latest strategy, but only ‘cause my band the Zombies are fighting more often than they’re singing. My band’s more likely to explode than make it big anywhere.” He took a sip of tea. “The problem is the music business in America doesn’t want to support a band without a fan base. You have to tour to get a fan base, and you have to have support before you can tour. Vicious cycle. What you have to do is break into the cycle, any way you can.”
Brian shook his head. “I can’t foot the bill-”
“But that’s the beauty of my system, see. Only bill you have to foot is a couple flights for yourself over there, then the rest of it pays for itself.” He grinned. “You go over, find a few boys that can sing and play – doesn’t matter if they’re similar to your boys – and hire them to pretend to be The Beatles. Give them your lads’ music, set up a couple gigs, and you’ll have teenage girls screaming for your English albums faster than you can make them.”
“That’s lunacy. It’ll be an obvious hoax.”
“No one over there’s seen The Beatles. No one even cares, Brian. What’s more, your real Beatles won’t know the difference. They make music here, be a good little English band, and you make the real money with a fake band.”
“Is it legal?”
Bill Kehoe shrugged. “Well, I haven’t heard it’s not illegal. Just keep your eggs in separate baskets, and you’ll be fine…”
“So John’s got fanmail. What’s to complain about?”
“The bloody cowboy hat.” Paul McCartney reached into his jacket, searching for something. “Some bird in America sent John a photo to autograph. It said ‘The Beatles’ and had our names on it, but the man depicted as ‘Paul McCartney’ was wearing a cowboy hat. I don’t wear cowboy hats.”
Brian picked up the photo Paul lay before him. Sure enough, Frank-the-Paul-impostor wore a cowboy hat over a rangy head of hair in his promo picture. What was worse, and probably the next thing Paul would complain about, someone had faked Paul’s signature on the picture. Brian chuckled and handed it back. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Some group in America has the same band name, or perhaps some bird just got confused.”
“The picture was printed with my name on it, Brian.” He shoved it back onto Epstein’s chest. “You’ve been making money off us for years, keep telling us how we’d make it big in the States if you could just get Capitol to listen. So what kind of deal did you make? What’s going on?”
Brain held up his hands in surrender, innocent. “Look, this is the first time I’ve ever seen that picture. If someone’s impersonating you in the states, I’ll find out about it. It means their record companies are screwing me over, too.”
Paul crumpled the photo. “Good. John and I are coming up with tons of stuff, and we can’t have some impersonator destroying our image.”
“No. Of course not.”
Brian clutched the telephone so tight his fingers tingled. With the cost of the trans-Atlantic phone call, he might as well have booked a flight. “What do you mean, ‘your own stuff?’”
The Texas drawl of Dusty clamored over the call, “You know, our songs. We’ve been singing your boring old Beatles stuff, but we didn’t have time to learn all of it. We had to fill in with something.”
“That wasn’t the deal. You’re being paid to be the Beatles just long enough so I can break the real band over there. It was bad enough you didn’t get the haircut and wore cowboy hats in your photos, but singing ‘your own stuff’ tears it.” He put his hand to his forehead. “Didn’t you listen to the songs I gave you to learn?”
“Yeah, but some of it just wasn’t our style, and we had to learn an awful lot in a short time. You gave us a ton of gigs, Mr. Epstein.”
Epstein pursed his lips and held back his anger for just a moment. “I’m going to cut you loose if you can’t play by my rules. You know who I got interested in your group? Ed Sullivan, that’s who. Now you’ve been good to me, boys, and all the Beatles singles are flying off the shelves. But I could take my boys, the real ones, and you’d be back on the streets. Is that what you want?”
“Now shape up. Get your hair cut, get fitted for those suits, and learn your music.” He moved to hang up, then remembered, “Oh, and George – I mean, Dusty?”
“Let Paul do all the talking.”
John sat calmly on a pillow, anger seething somewhere deep inside him, while Paul reddened and steamed.
“That’s all I ask,” Brian said. “The American market is cracking, I know it. You just have to write something tailored for them. Something with more blues influences, something more rural. You boys are good at this. You can do it.”
“But our songs are great already.”
“Your albums are great, boys, but we’ve got to start thinking of the next album. Hey, George is into that Indian mysticism and whatnot – get together, make an album with international flavor. How does that sound?”
John stood. “You can’t control our creativity. We write what we write, and you are powerless to change that.”
“And people buy what they buy, and you are powerless to stop that.” Brian pointed to each young man in turn. “Come on. You’ve got it in you. Write the songs for me, make an album.”
Paul swallowed. “We’ll see what comes out, Brian.”
John nodded in agreement. “Yeah. We’ll see.”
JULY 3, 1964
Brian read the headline of the culture section in the Daily Mail and coughed on his morning digestive. He pounded his chest with a fist to clear the blockage and, hand shaking, picked up his cup of morning tea to wash down the crumbs.
He took a key from his pocket and shoved it into a desk drawer. There, in a box sitting next to a bottle of fine Scotch and a couple glasses that needed cleaning, sat a row of business cards. Brian sorted through the cards and took out an ivory piece of cardstock. His hands shook as he took the card and closed the desk door, whiskey and glasses clinking as he did so.
His shaky fingers trailed around the rotary dial. “Please be in the office,” he begged. “Please pick up…”
The dial tone hummed twice before the line clicked and a man answered, “Bill Kehoe.”
“Oh, Bill.” Brian wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned forward. Despite the distress in his body, he kept his voice even. “I was just getting in the office, and I noticed the newspaper. Have you seen the article in the Daily Mail about my boys?”
“The Mail? Brian my boy, I’ve seen about it in the Independent. Your boys’ arrival back on English soil is everywhere in the entertainment pages. Good show, I say, good show-”
“You don’t understand-”
“I don’t? Why, it means you’ve cracked the American market and successfully toured the planet! No one’s done that, not even me.”
“Shut up, Bill. It’s you who’s got me into this mess, and it’s you who’s got to get me out.” Brian huffed, looked to the door to make sure his secretary hadn’t heard his outburst. “I made the fake band like you suggested. Problem is they sold like hotcakes, and the American public wanted their image, not the real thing. I couldn’t substitute my real band back in before the Ed Sullivan show, and then it was far beyond too late.”
Bill grumbled on the other end of the line. “You’re saying the boys in the article are the Fake Beatles.”
“Yes. They weren’t supposed to come here!”
“Do your real boys know about them?” The telephone line crackled a bit as he spoke.
“They might suspect, but I haven’t told them anything specific.”
“Oh.” Bill Kehoe coughed on the other end. “What do you plan to do?”
“I don’t know!” Brian reached for a cigarette even though he didn’t like smoking indoors. “I haven’t lost control yet. None of them get out of bed this early, after all. They might even be working on this mystical Indian nonsense, in which case I might have a day, maybe two on the outside, before they figure out the ruse.”
“Then you have a little while to come up with something.” Bill grunted on the other end of the line. “I see three options, Brian: one is to tell your boys what’s going on, then try to hold their money out of reach in order to force them to work with you.”
“It’s not their money in the first place. I’ve done all the work.”
“Will they see it that way?”
Brian paused a moment. “Their contract gives me complete control over their image and brand.”
“So they’ll complain and eat everyone’s profits away in court. You’ve got them by the small and curlies, my boy. Offer them greater royalties for writing, singing, and recording their songs, but let your American boys with their American smiles keep touring. Not a bad deal for anyone, really.”
“What’s the second option?”
“Get all the money you have in cash. Preferably American dollars or Soviet rubles. Then take all you can in a couple of briefcases, go to some third world country, and establish yourself as a king of sorts amongst the savages.”
Brian clenched his fist. “You’re no help, Bill.”
“But I got you rich-”
Epstein hung up the phone before Bill could finish.
JULY 4, 1964
Brian slammed the door behind him. Dusty and Frank roused themselves from where they slept on the Brighton hotel room’s couch.
“Mr. Epstein!” Dusty shouted, his voice still quiet and stuffed from having just awoken.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Epstein fumed. He kicked an empty can of beer out of his way and made a path to the expensive couches. “You were supposed to return to the States after you finished at Brisbane. The real band is here in England, and they weren’t supposed to find out you existed.” He tried to rouse the sleeping band members, but their eyes batted just briefly before they fell back to snoozing. “Get out. My boys will do this Brighton show.”
The closet doors opened. John, Paul, Ringo, and George stepped out. Their faces were bedraggled, their facial hair fuzzy and scraggly like that of poor-kempt young men. “You really think that will work? That anyone will be expecting us?” John asked.
Epstein stammered wordlessly. Senselessly.
“You’ve had this fake band touring for so long that not even our own countrymen recognize us,” Paul accused. “We’re not the Beatles anymore. These dumb yokels are.”
Frank smiled and Dusty nodded in agreement.
Brian clenched his fists. “So you know what’s going on.”
“With that article in the paper advertising the Beatles’ arrival back in England? Of course we knew, you fool.” Paul pointed a finger. “How much money did you steal from us?”
“Nothing. I earned every pound I made.”
“Bullshit.” Paul’s brows furrowed into deep, angry trenches. “We made the songs. We sang the recordings. These bloody yanks jumped around the world however you told them – they did more work than you.”
“Well they bungled that last trip,” Brian cried. He pointed to the Americans on the couch. “You’re fired. I don’t care if you’re popular in the States.”
Dusty and Frank chuckled on the couch. “You can’t fire us.”
“I hired you to be front men, and you’ve frustrated me since day one! I can fire you whenever I please!”
“They don’t work for you anymore,” Paul spoke up. “None of us do.”
“Your contract –”
“Making a second band in our name was illegal, Mr. Epstein,” John said. “The lawyers Mr. Kehoe hired for us back in June agree that our contract was voided as soon as you hired the impostors.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Mr. Kehoe?”
“Our new manager.” Paul pointed to the door. “It’s you who are fired, Mr. Epstein.”
Brian gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “That traitor! This was his plan all along – he’s the one who told me to hire the impostors! It’s his fault!”
“Get out of this room.” Paul opened the door and pointed to the exit with an angry finger. “It’s your fault we’re no longer The Beatles. You killed us, Mr. Epstein. You ruined our names and our fortunes, and I never want to see your wormy face again!”
As Epstein turned to leave, he wiped a tear welling in his eye. He stepped over the threshold into the wood-floored hallway. “You could always make a new band. Hell, I’d manage you for free, after everything that’s happened. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.”
Epstein lowered his head. Taking all his money and becoming a king in some desert island sounded better every second.
The meeting took place in Bill’s office. A beautiful secretary filed her nails at her little desk, ready with a pen and stenographer’s pad if need be. “The song’s a massive hit,” Bill explained. “Not like your Beatles stuff, but we couldn’t expect lightning to strike twice, could we?”
Paul grumbled. “Those silly fake ‘Beatles’ still make money off our songs.”
“But you’re back from the dead as ‘The Zombies.’ Better than ever and 100% genuine…”
I’ll admit, this story was written for a themed anthology about the Beatles. They were looking for speculative fiction including alternate histories, so I gave them one based on mashing together the true stories of “The Beatles” with the even weirder true story of British Invasion band “The Zombies.” Since this story wasn’t chosen for the anthology, I was like, “Wtf am I supposed to do with this now?” and thus you receive this tale. Ta-da!
As far as I’m aware, no one has claimed copyright on the photo. At least this is what it says on Wikipedia…
Glass separated Vanna from the grown-ups as it always had, as it always would. She placed the flower in a box which sealed shut at the press of a button, then waited while the grown-ups investigated it through their gloves.
“Exquisite,” Dr. Baglioni said. His eyes, soft and rich brown, looked to Vanna with curious need. “Where did you find this?”
“Beatrice gave it to me – and she wonders when you’ll believe that she’s real.”
A scowl. “Beatrice is our moon, where we live. It can’t give you flowers. Are you lonely, Vanna?”
“No, but… I got you this flower. Twelve kilometers that way.” Vanna pointed south of town.
“That’s mighty far. Are you sure it’s safe?”
Vanna nodded vigorously. “It’s an easy walk. I can wear a tracker if you need me to.”
Dr. Baglioni lifted the flower and examined is pristine, blue petals. “We’ll prepare for the journey this time – as we would have last time, had you told us your plans.” He gently replaced the flower on the bottom of the air-tight box and pulled his hands out of the gloves. “I don’t want you to get hurt out there with none of us knowing where you are.”
Vanna saluted him. “I won’t let you down!” She smiled and leaned up against the glass. “Can I have my supper now?”
“Of course.” Dr. Baglioni smiled, selected a few packages from a shelf, and placed them into an air lock where Vanna could get them. “Wait just a moment – I’ll get you the other things you’ll need.”
Though she immediately sought a couple candies from the little package of food, Vanna nodded in acceptance of Dr. Baglioni’s plans. She slid on the tracking bracelet when it came through the slot, then accepted the food, water, and heating elements from the doctor. “All you want’s the flower?” she asked. “Then you’ll believe me about Beatrice?”
“Just bring me another flower, and you can tell me more about your Beatrice.”
With a stiff salute, Vanna responded, “Aye-aye, chief!”
“See you tomorrow, kiddo.”
Vanna ran through the streets of the city, back to her heated lean-to. She saw lights in some of the windows, saw the movement of shadows within. Grown-ups lived behind the glass windows, and sometimes other kids she could never know peeked around curtains.
She ran across the snowy streets, lightness of her bare feet leaving small footprints behind. It was twilight on her moon, Beatrice, which meant the system’s ever-eclipsed star, Rappaccini, cast long shadows before her. Sometimes Vanna wondered what the star’s brightness would be like if the massive planet Giacomo weren’t always in the way. Pictures of Earth, where all the humans came from, always seemed inviting and cheerful. Bright.
Just like where all the grown-ups lived, behind the glass.
It didn’t take her long to get to her little house. Dr. Baglioni had insisted she take a good sleeping bag if she didn’t want to live in the provided housing, and he’d supplied her with a stove and other equipment to cook her food. But the snow on Beatrice didn’t bother Vanna, and neither did eating cold food.
She ripped open the retort pouch and sniffed what was inside. Beans, which meant the other pouch was probably rice. She dumped them both into the paperboard tray that came with the meal, then doused it in hot sauce. It tasted good and filled her stomach, but she wished she hadn’t already eaten all the candy.
After field stripping the pre-packaged meals, she rolled up on top of her sleeping bag, wished Beatrice and Giacomo a good night, and fell asleep.
Beatrice was a treacherous moon, or so Vanna was told.
She was cold, poisonous, and dark. All the humans, save for lonely Vanna, lived inside their buildings, hidden within towers of glass and stone. Once in a while, Dr. Baglioni or another grown-up would venture outside, but their pitiful suits degraded after a couple hours in the open air. Sometimes Vanna would watch robots as they built new greenhouses or dug foundations for new towers, but otherwise Beatrice was her lone companion in the wild.
She reached the rock formation outside of town and brushed off some of the snow. She touched Beatrice’s frozen body with a bare hand, then pushed more of her weight onto the rock, making sure the moon could feel her pulse.
Vanna felt the moon’s breath through her hand. “Hello, Beatrice,” she ventured to say. “Dr. Baglioni loved our present.” Vanna found Beatrice responded on her own time, so she waited for the moon to think.
Whatever lived within Beatrice answered through a quiet voice made out of snowfall, “Will your Dr. Baglioni stop carving away my flesh?”
“I don’t know,” Vanna responded. “But he’s interested in that flower. He might believe you’re real, if I bring him another.”
“I don’t understand,” Beatrice answered. “I gave you a flower already. How will another help?”
Vanna blinked a couple times. “I don’t really know. He just said he wanted another.”
“He could talk to me,” Beatrice sobbed, “Why won’t he speak with me? Why must he send a child?”
“I don’t know,” Vanna answered. “None of the grown-ups go outside. I alone live outside, close to you, Beatrice. So, you know… I guess I can take him a message. What would you do if he doesn’t believe me this time?”
Beatrice whispered through frosted breath, “I’ll have to get rid of the robots, I suppose. I can’t let the grown-ups, as you call them, keep hurting me.”
Vanna rubbed Beatrice’s rock, thinking the humans wouldn’t like that. “Is there anything short of that? Surely you can strike a deal. Hey – you grew flowers. You’ve grown all these rocks. Could you make them a new tower? One they can fill with the same air that’s behind the glass, the kind they could breathe?”
“I think so,” answered Beatrice.
“Then go ahead and do it. Kill off their robots, then begin growing some walls. I’ll let Dr. Baglioni know what’s going on.”
“Thank you, Vanna.”
Dr. Baglioni frowned behind the glass. “Beatrice said what?”
“She said that she can build your towers for you. We agreed that she could destroy the robots to prove it,” Vanna said. She held out a hand. “Do you believe me now?”
The grown-up’s eyes widened, tears formed in his face. “I believe you, and you have to believe me – this moon is dangerous.” He leaned up against the glass. “She’s already attempted to grow a tower, and… Vanna, it failed!”
Vanna lifted a curious brow and crossed her arms. “Failed? What do you mean?”
“Beatrice evidently decided to finish the tower we’re building in the east side of the city. It was structurally unsound, and it fell into some of our completed towers.” He wiped a tear away. “Seventeen thousand people died before we could seal off the tunnels.”
Vanna shook her head. “No. No, I don’t believe you – Beatrice loves the grown-ups. She’d never kill them!”
“She did!” Dr. Baglioni cried. He lifted up a phial of fluorescent green liquid, rotating it so the viscous fluid slid down the sides of the glass. “I analyzed those flowers you gave me, Vanna – Beatrice is a life form, a film that lives all over the planet’s surface. She’s what makes this planet poisonous and untenable for humankind, but I don’t think she has to be this way. She wants us to die, Vanna.”
“No.” Vanna backed away.
Dr. Baglioni shook the vial. “We have to kill Beatrice, Vanna. In this vial are some nanobots – if they’re released, they’ll eat Beatrice alive until she’s gone. But we need to start them somewhere Beatrice is known to exist. We need to take them to your site outside of town and release them there.”
“I won’t do it!” Vanna shouted. “Beatrice is my friend!”
Dr. Baglioni put the vial into a sack along with several meals worth of food. He shoved it through the air lock, then said, “If you don’t do it, Vanna, we will. We have the data from your tracker.”
“I’ll tell her to run away! I’ll tell her to hide so you can’t find her!”
Baglioni leaned downward, scowling. “A moon can’t leave its orbit, Vanna. Just beware of Beatrice. Don’t listen to her. If you don’t believe me, go to the east side and see what she’s done.”
With a pout, Vanna grabbed the sack out of the airlock, then she ran away.
“Stupid Baglioni,” Vanna muttered as she ran. Giacomo continued to block the light from Rappaccini, Beatrice remained cold and poisonous. Her footsteps traveled east through the city in search of the ruins.
The smoke and dust rising from the fallen towers made the place easy enough to find. Vanna ran across the empty streets and came upon the rubble.
She bent to see what had stung her foot, only to find something red was on it. It was like blood, like when she dashed a foot or scraped an elbow on a hard surface of Beatrice, but very much greater in volume. She shuffled through the rocks then gasped when she found the destroyed, smashed head of a grown-up. The skin was warm, even though the moon’s atmosphere was destroying it.
Vanna suddenly felt lonely. She had never felt another human’s skin, only had embraces between glass or space-suits. And, here, Beatrice had killed them.
She clasped a hand around the vial of nanobots Dr. Baglioni had given her.
Beatrice had to answer.
Vanna waited patiently for Beatrice to show. At last, she answered, “Oh, Vanna, I didn’t mean to kill them. I thought I was doing the right thing! I wanted them to come outside and play with me like you do.”
“But they can’t,” Vanna cried. “If they go outside, they’ll die. I’m the experiment, the one who can live with your poison.”
“I had to know,” Beatrice rebutted. “They were digging up my bones, making my flesh into their towers.”
“If you want them to come out and play so badly, Dr. Baglioni says all you’d have to do is stop making poison. He says it’s your fault they have to stay inside.”
“I do it, dear Vanna, to keep you alive. Haven’t you noticed, dear child, that the grown-ups won’t let you into their window-world? Haven’t you realized that my poison nourishes you?”
Vanna bit her lip.
“If I stop making poison, they’ll shove you into a cage and keep you there while they enjoy the outside. As it is, you get to do whatever you want.” Beatrice grew another dozen flowers, complete with ribbon and card. “I love you, Vanna. You are more of me than you are of them, my sweet. We could be happy together. Don’t let Dr. Baglioni keep us apart. You don’t need them.”
Vanna opened the flask of nanobots and poured them onto the flowers. “Dr. Baglioni was right!” Vanna shouted. “You are dangerous!”
The sky thundered with Beatrice’s screams.
“You’ll die, Vanna! You’ll die without my flowers, without my poison!”
“I know,” Vanna answered. “But you won’t kill anyone else. I’m sorry, Beatrice.”
While the moon wailed its last, it reached out another bundle of flowers to Vanna. “I only wanted to be loved…”
This was written for D. Wallace Peach’s March Speculative Fiction Prompt. It is also very strongly inspired by my favorite short story, Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. Written in 1844, Rappaccini’s Daughter was a tale that inspired by Indian (like India Indian, not Native American type of Indian) folklore. I hope you enjoyed this overly-long response!
Picture by Natan Vance.
I had a lot of dogs growing up, mostly because my parents didn’t do a terribly good job taking care of them and my brother and I were crappy to boot. When I was in middle school, my mom took us to get our second Pomeranian. I remember seeing that little ball of fur at the top of the stairs when we went to get him at the breeder’s. I remember looking at my brother’s face and feeding off how his eyes lit up. We all knew that dog would be coming home with us.
Spud was one of 2 pups to survive in the litter. Born extremely prematurely, each about the size of a thumb, few of the pups were expected to survive – and some didn’t. His premature birth meant he had bug-eyes and terrible vision, and he never had great constitution.
This is a brief set of flashes about Spud.
Johnny Fever was a brilliant, ruby-colored betta fish. He lived in a tiny betta tank, and we’d entertain him with a mirror and food and sometimes let him watch our finger move around outside the tank. He had a Gary the Snail toy inside the tank.
Johnny Fever, however, had other ideas of how to entertain himself. Like suicide.
He’d knock the light lid off his tank and struggle for freedom, flopping off his coffee table and onto the floor. There he would gasp for breath, dying without water to deoxygenate.
Spud, who was allowed to wander the house, found Johnny Fever several times. I remember how he just laid down and started crying until someone came and rescued the fish. Not once did he touch the fish, not once did he test it with a lick. He just laid down and cried actual doggy tears until someone came to rescue the fish.
Spud loved stuffed animals. A one-dollar animal bought at the dollar store would provide him with a year of comfort before it would finally become too dirty or damaged to withstand. Stuffing was never purposefully removed.
Every morning, someone would put food out for Spud to eat. He would thank the person graciously with a couple twirls, then pick up a few kibbles and bring them to each of his animals. Once done distributing the goods, he would go eat the portion he’d saved for himself. Of course, after that was completed, he’d come nuzzle an animal, worry about why it wasn’t eating, then consume the kibble he’d given them.
He did this almost every morning.
The Man with No Nose
My dad owned his own construction company. It was a small business, and he built houses and artisan cabinetry by hand. One of the employees he had while we owned Spud was a man who’d been to prison for hauling and selling cocaine, but papers and probation officers said he’d reformed. I never saw the man in person, but everyone said he was missing part of his nose from where it’d burned up from all the cocaine.
One evening, my dad caught me slinking through the dark living room. He sipped coffee in the room, all the lights off, and asked me if I loved my dog. He gave me an offer, said that the Man with No Nose would give me $1,500 for that dog.
I said no – I loved my dog.
$2,000. $3,000. How much would I be willing to sell that dog for? The little rat couldn’t be worth that.
I wanted my dog. I wanted to come home after school and see the little thing, go on hikes through the woods, carry him when he got tired. I wanted to watch Le Tour with him during the summers. I wanted to comfort him during hunting season when guns echoed through the mountains.
He took another sip of his coffee and said I didn’t love that dog, that I was passing up a great deal.
Some dogs don’t like when humans hug each other. Spud was no exception.
When two people hugged within his (albeit rather limited) line of sight, he would cry and run up to them. He’d paw at their legs and squirm, as best he could, into the middle of the hug. Upon reaching the center of the hug, he would stop crying and accept that all was right in the world.
A lot of dogs don’t like hugs because they feel trapped, but Spud would reach up with his front paws and beg to be hugged. He’d wrap his little arms around you, fall asleep on your lap, and cry out to be loved. He was patient with even small children.
Few small dogs can say the same.
We lived in the middle of nowhere, and crows flew around everywhere. Crow season meant the air was rife with the sound of bullets as people mowed through the murders.
Not exceptional in our hunting skills or our dedication to crow shooting, the little hollar in which I lived was home to a large number of crows. Crows, while not mockingbirds, are still pretty smart and have complex vocal chords. After figuring out that our little dog wasn’t truly competition for tablescraps, they also found a way to copy his high-pitched bark and barked back.
Out of all the things that could disturb this little, nearly-blind dog, crows caused him more consternation than anything else. Though he usually ignored TV, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation contained a holographic crow as part of Data’s imagination, and poor Spud flipped out. Any crow, whether on TV or real life, would make him cry and bark.
After killing him, my father supposedly put him in a shallow grave. The crows may have dug up parts of him, left the majority of the work for buzzards or coyotes.
I can’t stand that thought.
“That’ll be a day’s rations.” I slid the broken toaster across the steel table to her.
No longer so dinged, rusty, and scratched, even a cursory glance showed the quality of my handiwork. She picked up her goods and frowned. “My neighbor said you fixed his for free. Why are you charging me?”
I wiped my greasy fingers off on a towel that hung on a drawer handle behind me. “A week ago I decided to be like the rest of you and make this place do. Even if I want to go home, I can’t without the entire crew. I’m not the captain, so I can’t just order you all to action.” I tossed the rag back down, letting it swing against the cabinet. “I have to start getting payment for my work.”
The colonist, until recently a science officer on our exploration vessel, took out her electronic notepad. She tapped a couple buttons and smirked. “Well, at least you’re finally coming across to seeing sense.”
“It’s not by choice that I’m doing this.” I moved over to another bench, taking up a personal computer that someone had ripped from their old ship quarters. I turned it around, trying to figure out how to fix it without the structure of the ship nearby. “There was never a vote to colonize. We just left the ship, and most of you didn’t want to go back once your feet touched the ground.”
She laughed as she went to the door of my little cave, holding her toaster tight. “You’ll see that everything’s fine. It’ll be ok – you’ll get over your fear soon. There are no such thing as ghosts.”
Once the makeshift door closed behind her, I groaned. At least she didn’t prod or poke fun, but her faux pity didn’t sit well with me. I gritted my teeth and reached for my tools, giving extra care not to harm the computer I worked on.
My tool slipped out of my hand. I tossed it against the wall.
This planet seeped despair. The vegetation, though complex, grew small and weak. The green leaves quickly faded to deathly brown, and the skeletons of ancient trees reached up only part of their old height. The animals and alien creatures that had once inhabited this planet still haunted the place. I could feel their malevolence with every breath, the grave planet entombed with the dead of an ancient race.
The breathable atmosphere, reasonable weather patterns, and similarity in size to our faraway home attracted us to this planet. After years of traveling, searching, and living cramped inside our ship, the chance to stretch our legs and breathe the air of a planet once more was too much to ignore.
I should have voiced my opinions then.
I closed my eyes and took up my tool again, continuing my work.
“This is goodbye.” My mother nuzzled up against me and pulled me in tight, close to her. The scent of her perfume clung to my uniform. “I’m so proud of you.”
I gulped. After months of training, backing out now would never do. “It’ll be ok. I’ll be back home eventually, and I love you, Mom.”
She gave a brave harrumph. I may come back home, but time dilation due to faster than light travel would mean she’d likely not be there to greet me.
Then again, I may not come back home.
She wiped her nose, removing the mucous. “Don’t let any of the aliens kill you. Fly smart, fly safe, and fly fast.”
I nodded and moved around her. Smoke bellowed out of my ship’s engines.
“I’ve got to go, mom.”
She held me tight, planted her lips on my forehead, and I broke from her hold.
The rolling, dusty sound of the wind carried over the entry to my cave. I listened to my door jar as the planet’s lonely voice whined for attention.
The repair business came in spurts. During the next lull I needed to reinforce my door. For now, I pulled my blanket up around me and crept out of bed. The lights came on automatically, brightening slowly from a dull warmth to a more appropriate shine. The door moved more, but the lights banished the ghosts from my room. I shivered, cool air of the night coming in through the cracks around my door.
I held the door still, and the rattling stopped. An extra bar and the rattling would probably stop, perhaps a rubber gasket to seal from the air that came in. I let go of the door.
I jumped back from the door, starting a bit before I realized the noise couldn’t have been caused by my release or even my abode. I flicked open the lock and pushed down on the metal latch, then pulled open the steel door taken from the room on my ship.
The colony – a collection of alien-hewn caves and portions of metal salvaged from our ship – appeared in good condition. The colony’s lights remained off and dim for the night, and the air smelled as fresh as it had the first day.
Movement above me made me look upward. Something in the sky, far up above me, sparkled. It streaked quickly down and the flames grew in intensity. Somewhere, probably a few miles to the southeast, the source of the light probably landed.
Quickly I receded into my abode, blanket still wrapped around me. The lights turned themselves off when I clicked, and I fumbled blindly on my tables. Eventually I came across an old, metal tube, and clasped it. I expanded the telescope, now certain I had the right object, and returned outside.
I looked up, the last of the fiery remains in the sky, and trained my sights on it. I turned the ancient tool, focusing the light in the lenses, and blinked.
Ghosts or no, the ancient whispers of the windy planet were the least of our worries.
I moved the scope to the right, left, up, and down. I closed it shut with a snap, then hurried to the Captain’s cave.
I held my breath. Though not as solid as portrayed in pop culture, the rocky barrier at the outer edge of the solar system loomed large ahead of our ship.
We kept the lights, both internal and external, off during this perilous part of the journey. Even the heat that kept us alive and that was emitted by our computers had a chance of giving us away, but this was our best and possibly only chance.
“I don’t see them,” she said, her voice a mild, hushed whisper. She closed the shutter on the window, what little light that came from stars instantly cut off, and handed back my telescope. I held it tight, glad to retrieve my heirloom.
I wanted to peek out the shutter. I wanted to chance looking through the glass, but I knew the risk we’d taken by opening it in the first place. “They haven’t said anything yet.” I put the telescope in my bag, removing its temptation. “If the aliens were going to stop us from leaving the system, you’d think they’d have shown up by now, right?”
I could hear her move, perhaps with invisible answer. “The first ship we launched came back saying we’d all be killed if anyone left. ‘Stay home, spaceman,’ they said. What if that was our only warning?”
“Then we’ll know if they spotted us because we’ll be dead.” I swallowed, then reached a hand out to her. “I told my mom not to be afraid for me, but I’m scared now.”
“Me too,” she said. “I just wanted to explore the universe. I don’t want to get in some alien’s way or colonize a planet they want for themselves.”
I heard her choke, a sound larger than what we were allowed right now. “Sometimes I wonder if signing up to explore for the rest of my life was a good idea.”
I took her and clenched tight, letting her know I was there for her. “We’ll come back home. We have to, if we want to give our knowledge back to our people.”
“It won’t be home anymore.” I heard her sniffle, felt her shake. “Everyone we love will be dead by the time we get back. We may just as well never return.”
I paused a moment, the released her and gave a nice rub. “Aww, don’t say that. That’ll mean the aliens have found and killed us. The ship’s well put together, and we’ve got plenty of mechanics to keep it running.”
She cracked open the shutter again. “Running…”
“You can’t be serious.” He blinked his eyes.
I reached to his computer and dimmed his lights, hoping nothing leaked from his office outside. “The computers picked up the explosion. I saw the falling debris, and I used my telescope to see them.” I released my breath, then took in a new one. “The aliens are here. I saw their ships – beautiful, like arrows – and they’re fighting above us. If they finish battling each other and notice us, we’re dead.”
The captain brought up information on his computer. I leaned over, seeing that it was data from the listening posts, and that the microphones had picked up the explosion. “I asked electrical to reduce power production and all the computers to keep the lights off until morning.” He pointed to me with a pencil. “Tomorrow, you lead an expedition out to the debris field. I want to know what kind of aliens are fighting above this planet, and if there’s a chance they’ll come back.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
I felt the ground – it’d been years since the last time I’d done so – beneath me. The radiation stung slightly, but I’d live. Nothing a few med packs couldn’t handle, nothing a bit of soil treatment wouldn’t cure.
I breathed in deeply, then took a step further. The air sat heavily in the lungs, whipped wickedly over the ground. Twisted metal spiraled upward, melted into useless chunks that corroded and rusted.
Shaped stones sank into the ground at even intervals, tightly packed together. I scanned further out, the field of dirt and unnatural carvings continuing out as far as I could see. Behind me was the same thing, a few larger, stone monuments erected in the empty field.
I walked to a cave. The square entry, hewn from a marble, no longer housed a door, but it could be repaired. It smelled musty and ancient inside, but these cave-like structures could easily provide shelter for a few days.
I coughed and turned on my flashlight. The cave walls were lined with drawers, each tiny and labeled with a faded, scratched tag that glimmered in a fools’ gold alloy. I took the handle only to break it off, but the lock – mechanical, simple, ancient – had similarly degraded. I pried the drawer open, and dust flew out at my face when it soon fell clattering to the ground.
I trembled. The debris field burned hot with fire, the explosion destroying several of the thousands of endless tombs that covered the grave planet. My team held close their lanterns, carried tightly their rations. The wind whispered and wailed hateful sounds, cautioning against error now.
I reached down and pulled up a piece of duller metal, finding it still warm to the touch. Underneath the soil had been scorched. I sighed and picked it up, putting it in my bag. “The pieces are too small in this area. There’s nothing we can learn from this.” I looked to my small team, each of their faces fearful. “Get as much metal as you can. We can use it to repair our ship. I’m going to go a little further, see if there’s something bigger.”
“But what if the aliens see us?”
I spat on the ground. “This was always a bad idea. Always.”
I marched up the hillside. Tombstones – definitely tombstones, definitely rocks that marked the placement of alien bodies – lined every inch and crevice. In the sides of the mountain, where it was too steep to place the larger stones, the ashen drawers were carved. Bones, degraded textiles, meat, and alien jewelry sat in coffins that my feet tromped over.
At the top of the hill, I saw the largest mass of the ship. It sat in flames in the next valley, so I waved my team on. “Careful,” I said. “Take cover if anything moves.”
The cockpit of the tiny, alien ship glowed red with lingering heat. Nearby, made of what seemed to be a strange, brown leather, was a piece of furniture that I had to assume once held the alien’s body.
It wasn’t burned, but nothing sat there now.
My heart throbbed quickly. “Scatter,” I ordered. “Get back home. The pilot survived, and the colony’s too close by. We’ve got to liftoff.”
One of my troop shook her head. “They’ll see us. We have to hide.”
“We can’t send back a message. We have to go-”
All of us clung to each other as we heard movement. Metal rattled, and strange lungs coughed.
A body rose from the wreckage. It was tall and slender, walked on two appendages, and used another two appendages to remove some of its clothing. It cut a parachute off from its back and shook out a last, bulbous appendage that was topped with fibers.
What had to be eyes, white with dark, circular centers moved rapidly.
I chirped, whining, scared. I felt the tentacles from my friends clench me tighter.
The alien grunted and pulled an object from its hip. I recognized the creature’s brown, peachy skin from descriptions given by our species’ first captain. The alien pressed a button, then spoke, “I am Captain Bill Aster of the 502nd battalion of Terra Nova. How dare you defile our home?”
My friends shoved me from our pile, squelching as my body – bulky, compared to the alien’s, and brilliant orange – spewed forward as representative. “It wasn’t our choice,” I said. “We just wanted to explore, just see what was out there.”
“I recognize you. You’re some of those curious little aliens, from iota sector.” The machine translated a laugh, but the eerie sound the alien made in the background caused me to shiver. “Those dirty rat bastards from New America reported that they’d told you to stay home, and you disobeyed their unusually wise advice, didn’t you?”
I wrung my tentacles together. “Is it even fair to keep us jailed? Confined to our home planet?”
“Out of all the planets you could have settled, is it fair you chose Earth?” The alien stepped forward, a tiny appendage pointed at me. “This is the planet every species but yours spawned from, and it’s the planet to which our dead of Terra Nova deserve to be buried on.”
“It’s ok,” I protested, waving my tentacles in surrender. “We’ll leave! I swear!”
“I don’t let the New Americans live or die here, not if I can help it, and those mongrels can claim genetic heritage to Earth. You think I’m going to let some dirty alien away with defiling our graves? With disrespecting our dead?” It reached the empty hand to a new object in it’s belt. “I hope you don’t have blood, otherwise it’s going to spill all over our soil.”
“No, please, we didn’t mean any-”
But ghosts can only whisper and hide, and the tales of the dead – even my own – only blow over the fields and tombs of the grave planet.
I flexed my fingers beneath the sealskin gloves. Tarileah, the elflord who hiked before me, didn’t have to wrangle such thick clothing, his body being made for extreme climates such as these. “Storm’s clearing, eh?” I asked, hoping to inject some cheer.
Tarileah responded with a shout just over his shoulder, “Can your human eyes see it yet?”
“See what?” I asked.
“Hurgruld Mountain.” Tarileah pointed ahead, through some mist. “I can see unnatural shapes ahead. We might approach today, perhaps tomorrow if we must camp.”
I squinted my eyes, but I saw nothing, try as I might. The dwarven mountain was surely in that direction, and I could believe Tarileah wouldn’t lie about his excellent sight, but my senses couldn’t detect the mighty, dwarven Hurgruld.
The dwarves create magnificent things and leave fantastic vistas behind them wherever they go. After they’ve strip-mined the inside of their mountains, emptied every vein of gold and gems and adamantium, they saunter out of their underground holds and take a look at how they changed the shape of their abode.
After a long silence, something that makes us human visitors and researchers nervous, one dwarf harrumphs and declares the decor gauche, last century, out of touch. Another may point out cracks in what appears to be a flawless facade, yet another determine that it doesn’t have the essence of dwarfness about it.
Without arguing, the bearded folk take up a pickaxe or a shovel (some humans claim there is sexual differentiation in tool preference, but those humans have not studied statistics and would claim wrong) and leave everything without qualm.
It astounds me how quickly human and elven pilferers descend upon the mountain en masse and take out anything valuable and many things that aren’t. Hurgruld was, by rumor, recently abandoned, and I hoped to find it mostly intact. My nanothropology work for the University of Attenhold would be phenomenally enhanced by the presence of an entire dwarf city, complete with all the holdings thereof.
I chewed on some of the hard tack from my bag and longed for the strip of jerky I’d have with my supper. Tarileah’s pace didn’t slow, nor did the column of Attenhold students and technical workers that followed. Scarcely an hour of walking passed before the squirming excitement of the young elves (of which Tarileah most certainly was not a member) became audible, and chatter amongst the studentry in general flared up.
The slope beneath our feet pointed upward, and as the altitude climbed the fog soon cleared. Through the mist, at last, I could see the outline of a giant’s shoulders. The masculine figure (or feminine? with dwarves it’s hard to tell) held down a dragon by the nape of the neck. The immense mountain statue was carved exquisitely to reveal a chill marble finish. Snow capped the frozen threshold and smoothed the edges of the magnificent sculpture.
“By the ghost of Amathea,” I heard Tarileah mutter, “It’s amazing.”
I wasn’t about to swear by my own god and risk damnation, but certainly the mountain’s appearance was grand beyond belief. A human would have risked life and limb to retain this magnificent fortress, this astounding representation of one’s own form – and here it was, empty.
Not even my students, young and spry, responded as quickly as I. I hurried to the mouth of the (comparatively) small dragon, as I noted rightly that a stone door was lodged in the throat of the unrealistically proportioned dragon. As a good sign that the quarry within remain untouched, several inches of ice held the door shut and a crack of glassy frost sealed the two doors together.
Tarileah caught up with me easily. “It seems we’ve arrived prior to the robbers.” He placed his slender hand on the bas relief under snow, then brushed away some of the flakes to examine the intricate carvings underneath.
I removed a small pick and hammer from my own bag, then chipped away at the ice. Students, all of them aware of the work and prepared to do what was necessary, set up a camp outside the cave and immediately set to removing the scads of ice that kept the dwarven city alone and empty.
My breath, which turned into fog and eventually withdrew from the air, became heavy and wheezing by the time the winter sun began to set. The human students filled the lanterns with a little whale oil and the elves cast their spells so as to keep the area lively throughout the evening hours.
It was as dark as pitch by the time I sat down next to the campfire and pulled my hood from around my head. I hadn’t noticed how cold my fingers had gotten, not with the excitement of this find, not as hard as I had been working. I warmed them near the fire then reached to my bag in search of a little piece of dried beef, which in combination with the hard tack I’d already consumed should sustain me for the next day. Before I could get the morsel into my mouth, one of Tarileah’s students put a hand on my shoulder. “Professor,” the young human said, “We’re about to get the door open.”
I dropped the jerky back into its paper sack and shoved that into my leather bag. Supper could wait for this magnificent discovery.
The students had chipped and carried away the ice to reveal a smooth mosaic stone beneath the foot of the door. The tile seemed to creep underneath more ice that led up to the entry, but it wouldn’t be worth investigating until summer. Clever lines had been pushed beneath the doors to help pull them open, and the human students had contrived of a wire device to pop open the dwarven lock without breaking it.
I shuffled up beside Tarileah. “I hope this is as complete as we dreamed.”
“The omens are in our favor.”
“Heave!” someone shouted. A small team of students took to the ropes and tugged, pulled with all their might to get one of the massive doorways to budge. Without our having built scaffolds to remove the ice at the top of the door, the massive structure bent slightly before dislodging – thankfully in one, safe piece. Some of the taller humans placed tools between the open door and the closed one, helping to open the door with their levers.
Tarileah held an orb of magic in his hand as I lifted my torch. “Shall we tempt ourselves tonight by looking at what we must wait until tomorrow to search?”
“Oh, without doubt,” I answered. “It would be a right pity to leave this crypt dark after all this walking and work. Besides, we may be able to move camp inside.”
The students held off, many of them with jealous faces, as Tarileah and I shuffled into the doorway. The inside of the dragon’s throat was lined with glassy tile. Blues and tins swirled into marvelous garnets and flagstone chips, each placed with remarkable precision in a grout that nearly out-whited marble. “This mosaic is an impeccable example of what Dr. Stonington described in her thesis on the Nanopic Renaissance period – I never dreamed to witness so perfect an example!”
Tarileah nodded quietly, but his elven features betrayed an excitement rare amongst his people. This love of knowledge, adventure, success – oh, how grand to share something like this with another! How lucky was I that the stoic elves could share human love of study! His own joy rubbed off into mine, further spurring my own response.
We came to the end of the tunnel. Our frail lights failed to light the massive cavern in its entirety, but I was astounded at the reflective properties of the materials that lined the causeway. I suspected the spire that rose through the middle of the mountain was of diamond and anthracite – a magnificent piece of contrasting darkness and light, forged with methods unknown to man or elf. After checking my footing, I realized that traversing such a monumentally large cavern would be unwise without additional light.
“Get everyone in. We’ll grid this thing up, start cataloging tomorrow,” I said.
“We’ll need horses,” Tarileah announced. “Someone will have to return to town and get a telegram to Attenhold requesting money for the excavation and shipments.”
I smiled. That was of no matter. At last, scientific process had prevailed. Mount Hulgruld would be carefully excavated and its treasures brought to the University of Attenhold. No one would be allowed to rob this hoard!
This was written for D. Peach’s new challenge. I read the fantastic entry Glass Mountain by Robbie Cheadle and thought the photo was a magnificent choice for something to write about. Since then I’ve read other entries that have shown up on D. Peach’s blog, and wow – amazing!