Monday, May 4, 2015

A weird tale

I may have given up on the dream of writing creatively for a living as soon as I left university and entered the real world (not going back there again), but I can only consume so much of other people's works before I feel guilty and need to give something back, however paltry. Maybe I'll write a story a month? Not going to happen.

I wanted to call this 'Gob of Death,' but feared that might compromise the tone somewhat. Then I resorted to silliness anyway, never mind.

Octopus photo credit, before I forget: Alexander Semenov.

The Devourer of the Dark!

Four suited figures made their way across the desolate landscape from the sanctuary of their vessel towards the mysterious monolith. None was accustomed to this alien environment with its strange gravity and hostile atmosphere, but only the youngest was visibly struggling. His first trip out. His companions gave him the courtesy of pretending not to notice.

"We're here," the Captain unnecessarily announced as they stood before the earthwork. An angular pillar the size of a man, it was carved from the same rock that lay all around in abundance, but its precise dimensions and eerie function left no doubt that it was not a product of nature.

"Are you sure this is the right weird alien monolith? We shouldn't try over there?" the Pilot jested.

"Incredible," the Archaeologist enthused, tenderly stroking a smooth edge through his glove for an indeterminate length of time before an advisory cough from his captain helped to snap him out of his reverie. He avoided eye contact with the pilot; he already knew the precise smirk that would be decorating her beautiful face. Did she have any idea how her persistent mocking tormented him?

"You've seen the footage from the Akabei mission," the Captain confirmed, but continued with the exposition anyway. "It took them three days of trial and error to work out how to work this thing." He pointed to the slot in the centre of the pillar, above which was a legend in unhelpful exotic symbols. "It took a few trips back and forth to the ship, rummaging through supply drawers and detaching equipment, until they discovered that this was just the ticket." He held out a silver coin, which glinted in the harsh sunlight.

The profile of their sovereign rolled neatly into the crevice and disappeared with a clunk. Suddenly a hatch dropped open, almost taking the Archaeologist with it. The Pilot didn't bother to hide her amusement as the Captain and the Cadet helped the blushing man regain his balance, if not his composure. They stared down into the forbidding darkness and even the bravest among them had to fight the urge to venture no further. That was, after all, why they were here.

"Why was this closed up anyway?" the young man asked. "If the other team already opened it?"

"Each must make his sacrifice," the Archaeologist theorised, only afterwards realising he'd said that aloud. Looking around, it hadn't been received well.

"That's just one of many questions," the Captain coolly replied. "Let's go get some answers."

* * *

The smooth walls reflected the brilliance of their torch beams to bring artificial daylight to the labyrinth, its featureless vacancy casting no shadows except at junctions. No one had any concept of how old this place was, nor what civilisation, living or dead, had constructed it, but to see it so perfectly preserved — just like new! — was astonishing to the Archaeologist. He strained to keep this fascination to himself, this time.

There was no similar sense of wonder in the Captain's voice, only confident authority. "Split up," he ordered. "We need the layout of this place. Each take one of these." He handed out data pads from his pack, which already displayed a navigation app. At present, this included just their four wandering avatars and a few simple parallel lines; they would build a collaborative map of the maze as they went along.

"I suppose I'm the pink one," the Pilot grumbled.

"Well, you are the girl one, dear," her commander joshed with presumably ironic chauvinism. The two of them shared a smile built on years of professional camaraderie, trust and who knows how much else. The Archaeologist noted that his own avatar was, appropriately, blue.

"You remember what the mission log said," the Captain continued. "They already searched these levels and didn't find anything until they got down to the tenth. All the same, that was the last we heard from them. Be on your guard. We'll search in teams." He directed his final comment at the young cadet. "Clyde, you're with me."

* * *

The Pilot headed out into the unknown, as was her nature. The Archaeologist caught up, delighted at the chance for enforced bonding. "My dad taught me the secret of mazes when I was a kid," he bantered. "You'll never get lost as long as you keep to the left... or was it the right? Well, probably the same thing."

The Pilot stopped in her tracks at a junction to watch her companion diligently trace his path all the way around a dead end before coming back to join her. "You can't take those as read?" she wondered.

He didn't let it get to him. "We don't all navigate for a living. Feel free to take a punt when we come across the next mysterious relic that needs deciphering." Was that a smile he glimpsed before the helmet turned away? Maybe he'd finally cracked it. He just had to be his irascible self after all.

"So what do you think happened?" she asked.

"Right now, I know as much as you. You read the transcript."

"So we should keep our eyes peeled for invisible monsters?"

"A little caution wouldn't hurt, yes." His torch beam wobbled. "Anyway, that could be a reference to various things. Some sort of camouflaged wildlife... booby traps. Be careful where you're stepping." He pointed his light at the floor and walked straight into the node with an undignified yelp.

"I'll be sure to do that," the Pilot said as she helped her crumpled comrade back to his feet. "I assume this is one of the 'nodes' they talked about?" A smooth globe stood at shoulder-height in the centre of the junction, supported by a slim pillar. It may have been made of toughened glass or polished stone, but whatever the material, it was dull and reflected little light.

"Yes," the Archaeologist similarly assumed, unable to glean anything more useful than that from his scanner. "There are supposed to be four of these. One in each corner on every level. Supposedly they found one that was glowing, but I'm not getting any energy readings. If it ever did have a power source, it's dead now."

The Pilot's tone was no longer sneering. "They said these are what summon the... whatever it is."

The archaeologist was flustered. "We don't know that there is a something. All we have to go on is a scrambled transmission that could be the ravings of a madman."

"I wouldn't let the captain hear you say that. That's his brother-in-law you're talking about."

The Archaeologist mulled this over. "And the kid?"

"His nephew. The missing captain's son."

"I did wonder. I'm just the academic, nobody tells me anything."

* * *

The groups reconvened after their uneventful search of the level. As anticipated, it was empty apart from the four inert nodes.

"I don't think we need to check every level," the Captain decided. "Let's head straight to the tenth to find our men, then we can explore further on the way back up, if necessary." The way down was through another hatch, close to the one that led to the surface. They located these hatches on each level with ease and had to count aloud to keep their bearings as they passed between identical layers of a seemingly endless ziggurat. This illusion was finally dispelled when they reached their destination and found the hatch to a potential next level sealed shut.

"Is that it?" the Pilot asked, looking to the Archaeologist for insights. "Have we reached the bottom?"

"It's one possibility," he replied, again not receiving any help from the scanner. "Unless there's more work to be done."

"What are you talking about?" the Captain snapped. He evidently had little patience for academic types.

"Just another possibility. That whoever or whatever made it through those first nine stages didn't make it past this one."

"This is not a game," the captain snapped. "People have..." He chose his words carefully for compassion's sake. "We don't have time for this. This is where the last message was sent. Exercise extreme caution. If you find anyone, radio immediately. If you see any-thing..." He distributed four revolvers from his pack. "We'll be ready for them this time."

"Great," the Archaeologist groaned as he handled the unfamiliar tool. "If this is a first contact situation, it's nice to know we're showing our best side."

"There's already been contact," the Cadet piped up, doing that thing where you click the ammo into place or whatever it is.

The Captain nodded approval. "Let's move out."

* * *

The Captain and the Cadet retraced their steps based on the layout from ten floors above them, and soon enough they came across another dull node. "Is this where Dad sent the message?" the young man asked.

"If it was, he isn't here any more," the Captain astutely observed. "Neither are his supplies. That could be a good sign."

"He said the creature... devoured. 'There was nothing left,' that's what he said."

"He may not have known what he saw. A thing that's here one minute then vanishes the next, that doesn't make any sense."

"They activated this. He said, when they arrived, all four nodes were active, glowing. They touched one, and it brought the creature. It killed three of them, he only heard their shouts. He told us, he was going to try again, to activate a second node. To see what happened, try to understand..."

The radio crackled. "Captain, we've found something." The captain pulled out his map. In the bottom right corner, the pink and blue team members hovered around a white circle. "It's one of the nodes. It seems to be... active. But where's the power coming from?"

"Do not make contact," the Captain ordered. "We'll finish mapping this section and join..."

"Whoops," the radio sheepishly apologised. "I didn't mean..."

Their senses were suddenly assaulted as the chamber was bathed in ethereal, blinding ultraviolet. The Cadet covered his ears against the deafening howl as his commander hugged him close, wincing against the bombardment, squinting as he readied his weapon. Through the white noise he discerned another sound, two sounds, two horrible sounds. Male and female voices crying out for their lives. And then it was over.

"Report," the Captain barked into the radio, but beneath the residual ringing in his ears there was no reply, not even static. He glanced at the data pad and his fears were confirmed when only the red and orange avatars remained. He dropped the pad and freed himself of his pack, the Cadet doing likewise. "Stay close," he ordered, and led the way gun-first to the far corner of the maze. They found the node, now dull and lifeless, and nothing else. No bodies, no suits, no equipment.

"Devoured," the Cadet chillingly confirmed.

"That's it. This mission is over. We're getting the hell out of here," the Captain commanded. "I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do. We can't get your father back, and I can't risk your life too. I shouldn't have let you come in the first place."

"I had every right!" his nephew adolescently insisted.

"I know. But this is over, we're leaving right now, and I'm going to make sure this place is buried. Come on." They headed back to the hatch that led to the upper level, only to find it sealed shut.

"What do we do now?"

"They can't stop us that easily. We just need a toolkit." The pair retraced their steps to where they left their own packs, only to see the now-familiar sight of absence.

"But they were right here!" the Cadet panicked. "When things were already back to normal. How could it...?"

The Captain cocked his weapon and swept the area. "It's still here. It's always here."

"Then why can't we see it? Why hasn't it...?"

"It's hiding. It only has power when those things are active, it doesn't dare face us on our own turf. Maybe it knows we can kill it too. But it's still hungry, scavenging anything we leave behind as soon as our backs are turned." He punctuated each of his theories with shots fired into the emptiness. Wherever the whatever it was was, it was hiding out of sight.

"But what can we do?"

The Captain considered their next move. "We can't break that hatch open without our tools. And our tools are in the belly of the beast, if they're anywhere. That's our only shot. And without spare ammo, every shot counts."

"No!" the young man protested. "We can't!"

"I'm sorry, but we can't waste bullets firing into the darkness. We have to face our enemy, and the only way to do that is to open the final seal. This is for me to do alone, you wait here."

"What makes you think I'll be any safer here? I'm the weaker target, it could be circling me like a vulture just waiting for you to flick that switch."

"Because you are protected here. A long stretch, clear lines of sight, no place to hide. Even if you were firing blind, you couldn't miss. But as for me; those nodes are hidden right in the crannies. It'll be on me like a shot, but it may not reckon for my 20 years of combat experience. And besides..." He pulled a pack of emergency rations out of his suit pocket and tore open the foil. "I'll be leaving breadcrumbs to follow."

* * *

Following some compulsory weak protestations and gradual acceptance, the plan was enacted. The Captain radioed when he reached the final node, glowing with ethereal luminescence. "I'm here. Get ready to fire those warning shots."

The Cadet aimed his weapon, arcing left and right, quivering. "I'm ready," he lied.

"Alright. On my mark." The Captain peered back around the corner and was satisfied to see that the morsels he'd dropped in his wake had already disappeared. Dine and dash. Doubtless the coward had scarpered around the next bend, but he could feel its presence close by, its hunger. They were both poised to make the kill.

"This is going to work," he comforted into the radio. "Trust me. I'll be back with the tools, we'll cut our way out and get the hell off this rock."

"I believe you. I've always believed in you. That's why I became an aquanaut. To be like... my father."

"Your father was a good man."

"He was. He is. Both of them."

"Um, how did...?"

"Mum told me. She said Dad never knew."

The Captain swallowed. "I was always very proud." The bonding over, he held out his weapon and readied one of his other arms to activate the node. "On my signal, fire. Three... two... one... fire!" He heard the warning shots ring out in the distance and pushed his tentacle to the globe, letting rip all his remaining bullets into the chaos ahead of him and hitting... nothing. In the disorienting confusion, he dropped the useless weapon and his torch and raced on all eight legs towards the sound of the screams, but when the world flashed back to normal, he found himself alone in the darkness. Almost alone.

His son's torch and radio were strewn on the floor. Evidently, the creature's insatiable hunger was abating and it could now afford to leave morsels for later. The distraught commander collapsed and removed his helmet, letting the precious water pour away and willing the poisonous air to take him before those infernal jaws could. He picked up the radio in one of his tentacles and made a final transmission he could only pray would be heard.

"This is the final report of Captain Blinky," he wheezed. "Mission: failed. No survivors. Pilot Pinky, Archaeologist Inky and Cadet Clyde all died with distinction. You won't find our bodies, so don't try.

"I can see it now. Hiding in the dark. It's still too cowardly to take on a dying man. It's patient. It consumes. That's all it is. Hunger personified. If you get this message, do this for me... bury this place. Let this son of a bitch starve and don't get curious again. It's hell out here. We never should have left the sea.

"It's going dark now. It's approaching. I hope you like my taste, you bastard. Better make it last, because this is the last meal you're ever... gonna..."

The final remnants are cleared. A door opens, a new level awaits.

Dave Warburton
Davao City, Philippines
May 2015

Influences: It's