This week’s experiment in flash fiction was brought to you by PSYCHOLOGY! Everybody’s got it (according to Miss Adelaide).
The Personified Subconscious Department
By H. M. Snow
The lights dimmed to practically nothing. At the same time, a giant screen lit with footage of a small apartment bedroom.
“That did it.” Twenty-four grasped the tiny hands clinging around her forehead.
Nine came out of the shadows to help free Twenty-four from the clinging infant. “Strange,” said Nine. “A baby, turning up in one of Herself’s childhood dreams.” He gave a vigorous tug. “You can let go now, Three, you know.”
“It isn’t that simple.” The infant was midway through a transformation from human to a sort of plumber’s putty with a humanoid shape. “This one’s a real strangler. Give my fingers a pry, would you?”
With their combined efforts, they managed to separate Twenty-four and Three so that Three’s transformation could continue to completion. Twenty-four rubbed her forehead. She too was fading back from human to humanoid putty. “How are things going, Two?”
“The Haste is going well. No time for a proper shower, of course, but what can you expect? Herself has to be at work in ten minutes.” Two, as efficient as ever, had nearly completed her transformation, leaving only traces of Herself’s sister still visible in Two’s features. A buzzer sounded at Two’s elbow. She pressed the button. “P.S. Department, Two speaking.” After a few seconds, she pursed her gray lips. “I said P as in Papa, not B as in Bravo, and you know it. You aren’t funny, you know. Now what is it?” She listened again. “That can’t be helped. It’s the Haste. Accidents happen. Just cope with it and stop complaining.” She pressed the button to cut off the conversation. “Sophomoric humerus and his prank calls. I sometimes wish we could cut the nerves to that one and be done with him.”
Other numbers were busily tidying away the props into cabinets around the edge of the room. Nine stood quietly thoughtful in the midst of all the tidying.
“What’s on your mind, Nine?” Twenty-four patted her comrade on the shoulder with some care, avoiding the spiky skeletal underpinnings that stretched Nine’s putty-gray skin. “You’re thinking a lot after this one.”
Nine smiled distantly. “Lucky number Twenty-four,” he remarked. “And when I say ‘lucky,’ you know I simply mean the number that Herself finds most appealing.”
“You get to be Herself’s dream self more than any of us. Can you think why a baby might appear in a common childhood dream? The other details were accurate—the wallpaper,” Nine pointed to the pattern fading on the walls. “Exactly the same. The dressers, same.” He stopped one of his fellow numbers in the process of pushing an eight-drawer dresser with tarnished knobs toward one of the storage cabinets. He slid open the top drawer. “Finding her sister’s clothes in her dresser should have produced enough agitation to wake her up for the Haste. It’s a classic ‘threat of appearing in public naked’ dream, with sibling issue overtones.”
Twenty-four nodded. “And?”
“And,” stressed Nine, “what’s a baby doing here? Herself is more or less indifferent to babies. I don’t understand.”
Overhearing from nearby, Three asked, “Must we understand?”
The bustle of numbers tidying came to a sharp halt. A few of them shushed Three. But Twenty-four only said, “It pays to listen to Nine. He’s the one with the skeletal structure, after all. The number Nine isn’t bestowed at random. You know how Herself feels about ‘Nine’—almost like she feels about ‘Twenty-four.’”
“Only completely different,” Three added.
Twenty-four smiled. “We’ll just take the baby under consideration. It might be something emerging, you know, with age. Herself is getting to that point in life.”
This caused a murmuring among the other numbers. It was Nine, however, who said, “It doesn’t seem like Herself at all. Even at her age. That’s why I said it doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t,” admitted Twenty-four. “But we’ll take it under consideration. That’s our job, after all.”
Two called out, “The Haste is at departure stage. Haven’t you got the props tidied away yet? It’s nearly time to process the work experience again, and you know what an ordeal that is.”
“That’s an ‘All hands on deck’ if ever I heard one,” quipped Twenty-four. “Let’s go, everybody. Work stress waits for no number.”
Bonus: More of Miss Adelaide’s Psychology, courtesy of YouTube:
Once the thunder of Esau’s bellow faded from the room, Steve said, “What’s up?”
The gigantic man of hair pushed a stack of paper scraps into Steve’s hand. “We need you to go shopping. Now.”
“I went yesterday—”
“These are special things,” said Esau. He kept twisting backwards as if looking for someone. “Hard-to-find things. You must go now and find them. Don’t come back until you find them all.”
Steve looked at the different scraps. “Okay. No problem.”
“You must find them all before you come back.” If Esau’s eyes had been visible—Steve still wasn’t sure Esau had eyes, in fact—but if he had them, and if they could be seen, Steve was sure they would have been round and earnest just then.
Leaning away from the mass of hair leaning toward him, Steve said, “I got it. Find them all, then come back. No problem.” He surveyed the lists quickly. “Nixie doesn’t want anything?”
“No!” shouted Esau. Then the giant hair-man collected himself. “I mean, nothing you can handle.”
Once out on the sidewalk under a muggy summer sky, he gave no more thought to Esau’s manner. Steve rarely gave a thought to his coworkers’ eccentricities anymore. Instead, he began to sort through the pages. No one at the Foundation collaborated on shopping lists. Everyone wrote separate lists—even Tom and Banji, the two-sided man—and handed them all to Steve, expecting him to sort through them and make sense of the miscellany. This was the oddest collection of lists he had yet seen, including a little something of everything from an obscure brand of hoof polish for Boroka to unpronounceable electronic components for Marianas Wildemann herself. “Mmm,” Steve remarked to himself. “This might take a little longer.”
It took him just over three hours, in fact. Steve prided himself on knowing just about every shop in the city. He had applied to most of them during his extensive job search. Being thorough rather than brilliant, Steve had researched every business in order to make a good impression during interviews. Though none of his work had succeeded in bringing him gainful employment—as far as that went, the only time he had gone in blind to an interview, he had been hired—the knowledge came in useful now, because no one at the Foundation had yet been able to stump him, not even the most esoteric requests. He preened himself on his way back to the Foundation. “Three hours, fifteen minutes,” he said. “That must be a record or something.” The only hitch was that half of Marianas Wildemann’s components had had to be ordered, and the salesman wouldn’t commit himself on a time frame for the shipment’s arrival.
Steve went to the milking lab first. Ricky’s order was restless inside its opaque plastic bag, and Steve wanted to deliver it before it either stopped squirming or escaped. “Hello?” he called out. One light in the back of the lab still glowed. Ricky was nowhere to be seen. “Weird,” said Steve. He consulted his watch. As he thought, the late afternoon milking session should have been in progress. He found an empty glass tank just as the first fang-puncture stabbed through the plastic bag; once he dropped the bag and its contents into the tank, he had just enough time to fasten the screen over the top before the plastic began to shred and something glossy, green, and angry spilled out. Steve stumbled backwards as a squirt of venom arced through the screen, missing him by a matter of inches.
Nothing else in the shopping bags was alive, so Steve went back to the vault, where he meant to deliver Tom’s and Banji’s orders. The vault was even emptier than the milking lab. This, to Steve’s mind, meant that a staff meeting must have been called while he was away. “Good,” he said, still talking to himself. “I can hand everything out in one place, if I’m in time.”
Still, something didn’t seem right. The lights were on in every corridor, for one thing. The lights never had been on during previous staff meetings, since many staff members were leery of bright light. Not a sound echoed from the rec room either. Thus Steve wasn’t altogether surprised to arrive and find the public areas empty and oddly dank with humidity. Since the handles of the canvas shopping bags were now digging into his fingers, he deposited the shopping in the middle of the room, where no one would trip on it. “Where is everyone?”
A babble of voices resounded in the distance, as if several of his coworkers had decided to answer his question. Steve followed the babble until he could pick out which voice belonged to whom.
“Zis is no joke,” said Bartholomew.
“I never said it was,” Boroka replied, in that tone of voice that meant she also had tossed her black hair and twitched her silky tail in displeasure. “But Esau’s so skittish!”
“Because of vat happened to Isabella last time—”
“I know, you pompous bat, I was there, so don’t lecture me. Does this look like one of your university lecture halls?”
“Enough,” said Marianas. Her voice had that faintly tinny quality that meant she was suited up to go out. “Boroka, do you smell anything yet?”
A long, deep inhale followed, and then a sigh. “Nothing.”
“Then we can be sure Nixie hasn’t thought yet to head for the front door.” A beep—Steve knew that sound as the activation of the intercom system that was wired through Marianas Wildemann’s pressurized suit—resounded just around the corner. “All teams, report. Any sightings yet?”
After a few seconds, Ricky’s voice came over the speaker. “Nothing on the garage side.”
“Nothing on the—” Waldo’s voice broke off in a storm of fizzing and confused shouts. “Found her,” he yelled cheerfully.
“Cafeteria.” A note of urgency entered Bartholomew’s voice. “Zat is not far.”
Esau grunted. “It is a good thing that we sent Steve away in time…” He broke off when Steve rounded the corner.
All four of them stared at him. Steve said, “What?”
“Boroka, Esau,” said Marianas, “take him back upstairs. Do not leave him alone, and do not leave the building. We cannot afford to let Nixie outside. Bartholomew, you’re their advance guard. I’ll turn off the lights so you have a greater range. I’ll find Waldo’s group. Carol can manage, I’m sure, but we can’t run any chances.”
Esau’s burly arm shot out and wrapped around Steve’s torso twice. Then the trio took off running, with Steve dangling in midair between them. He was at Boroka’s eye level, so he said, “What’s up?”
“Nixie, darling. It’s her time of the month.”
“What does that mean?” Steve blushed. “Not that I want to pry if it’s something personal…”
Boroka laughed in such a way that Steve’s blush deepened. “It’s personal to you, darling. Water nymphs go a little crazy when the tides are highest. You are human, her natural prey, and she already likes you. She will come for you. But do not be afraid, little man; we will protect you. If you wish to scream, however, it may inspire me to defend you better.” Her dark eyes mocked him.
“Nixie doesn’t seem so scary,” Steve noted thoughtfully. “She’s always a little crazy.”
Esau’s voice rumbled at his back. “No! You don’t know what she’s like!”
“Esau is afraid of her,” laughed Boroka.
“What if Isabella gets in her way again?”
“Again?” Steve asked. By this point, his voice came out strained from the loops of burly, hairy limb that coiled around his chest. “What happened last time?”
Esau shuddered. “Isabella used to be a fine girl, as tall and strong as I, until she tried to restrain Nixie in her time of the month.”
“You cannot blame Nixie for that,” said Boroka. “It was you and that hair dryer.”
“But Isabella was–”
Ahead of them, Bartholomew interrupted. “Vill you two be silent? I cannot hear my own echolocation vith you two bickering so loudly.”
They emerged into the lobby, where Ricky awaited them. His featureless white face turned instantly in their direction. “She’s headed this way.” He extended a thick, three-fingered hand toward Esau. “Behind me.”
Steve landed hard on the carpet between Ricky and the wall of windows, where Esau dropped him.
The intercom crackled. “She’s in the plumbing! I repeat, Nixie has gone into the plumbing,” reported Marianas Wildemann. “Be aware of any faucets or fountains in your near vicinity.”
All of Steve’s defenders shifted to orient themselves toward the lobby water fountain.
“STEEEEEEVE!” Waldo came sprinting out of the corridor.
At almost the same time, the water fountain exploded off the wall, shooting an indigo geyser to the ceiling. Nixie’s voice, amplified twentyfold, echoed Waldo’s cry in an entirely different tone. Waldo flopped on his face and did not move again, but as Steve gazed upward at the twenty-foot Nixie looming over him, he heard Waldo’s voice close by his ear, saying, “Don’t worry, Steve. I’ve got you covered. Big brother Waldo won’t let her drown you.” Breathing became a struggle. Steve’s vision blurred. He collapsed to his knees. As he ran out of oxygen, Steve saw Nixie dive down toward him , arms eagerly outstretched. A huge brown object crossed his line of sight. Then Steve passed out.
He awoke to the groggy sight of a featureless white face only inches from his own. “Steve? Steve, don’t move.” An oxygen mask covered Steve’s nose and mouth. “Just breathe deeply.”
Beyond Ricky, Marianas Wildemann stood with her many-jointed arm propped against what might have passed as her waist. She spoke to the air in front of her. “So you thought, rather than risk Nixie drowning him, you’d asphyxiate him first, Waldo? You are not breathable. You might have killed him. Now get back in your suit. Ricky will make sure you haven’t left any part of yourself behind.” Her tired exhale resonated inside her helmet.
Ricky lifted the oxygen mask. “Stay still. Just answer my questions for now. What is your name?”
“You just said it,” said Steve. “Twice. My name is Steve.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“In the lobby, on the floor.”
Ricky hesitated. Then, as if in a burst of inspiration, he said, “Where does one purchase the Occidental Freckled Toad Snake?”
“Tickle,” said Steve.
“T.C.L.E.,” Steve explained. “Twin Cities Lizard Emporium. Ask for Sal. He sells them at cost from his own private breeding program. The ones you get from Rare Reptile Rescue are twice as expensive and less healthy. Sal says… if he doesn’t sell off one or two every month, they start eating one another and the venom gets too concentrated…” Steve grabbed the oxygen mask for another few breaths.
“I wondered why the quality had gone up,” Ricky replied. Over his shoulder, he called out, “It’s Steve. He’s himself.”
“I’m relieved to hear it.” Their boss came to stand over Steve. “You must be very shaken, Steve.” She reached out her hand to help him sit up.
Still clinging to the oxygen mask and its portable tank, Steve said, “What happened to Nixie? Is she all right now?”
“They’re working on containing her for the moment. When the moon moves out of its current phase, she’ll be back to her usual self again and most relieved to know that she did not harm you. Nixie is very fond of you, you know, Steve.”
Because he was still shaky on his feet, Steve let Ricky and Marianas Wildemann support him on either side. Their feet squelched on the sodden carpet as they followed the trail of water down into the research area. They arrived outside the vault just in time to see the staff sealing up something that looked like a large helium cylinder. Its narrow window was indigo and showed one large and mournful eye. On the floor, a massive hair clog stretched limp across their path.
Izzy hovered next to it, giggling in a manic fashion. “Boroka,” she said, “bring me the hair dryer!”
“Yeah,” said Steve to Marianas Wildemann, “what’s the story about the hair dryer?”
“The same happened to Isabella last year, at Nixie’s strongest tide. She sacrificed herself to stop Nixie from going out into the city to look for humans. Esau was in a panic afterward. He borrowed Boroka’s hair dryer in an attempt to bring Isabella back to herself more quickly. As it turned out, Esau and Isabella are composed of a different type of fiber than human hair. When subjected to a prolonged blast of hot air… oh, dear,” Marianas said as Boroka returned with the hair dryer as requested.
Izzy switched the dryer to its highest setting and, with a drawn-out diabolical cackle, began drying Esau. Wherever the hot air struck, Esau’s mass of hair crinkled and shrank.
“Well, you can see what happens. It has taken Isabella nearly a year to grow back again even to this short length. She snubbed Esau for weeks after it happened, and Esau pined terribly for her. I do hope they reach an understanding after this,” sighed their boss. “These workplace romances…”
Steve glanced back at the industrial cylinder, from which Nixie’s eye kept gazing adoringly at him. “Uh-huh,” was all he could say in reply.
Okay, I admit it: I sort of cheated this week. The story this week was partially written already, but I had put it back into storage for reasons I no longer remember. That, and it’s a sequel to a previously written short story, so I have to include both of them for it to make sense. The upshot of all this is that you get two stories instead of one. I shall now post the first one, because it’s getting to be extremely trying to type with my dominant index finger mummified in gauze and tape:
by H. M. Snow
Astonished, Steve pulled himself up straighter. From the moment he had taken his seat, he barely had raised his eyes, but now his hopelessness melted away in surprise. His fidgeting fingers contracted around the topmost button of his second-hand suit coat. “What?” he blurted. As if to punctuate this exclamation, the button popped off, arced through the air, and clattered against the smooth hardwood floor.
“How soon can you start?” The interviewer behind the desk beamed at him, ignoring the button’s flight. “You’re exactly what we at the Wildeman Foundation want for our team!” His glassy blue eyes tracked Steve’s movements with a fixed, almost sightless stare, inconsistent with the energy and expression of his gestures.
“Wait… You read my résumé… and you liked it?”
“Loved it, Steve—you don’t mind if I call you Steve? You see, Steve, you’re an everyman. You’ve worked as a… let’s see…” The interviewer picked up the résumé. His odd blue eyes fixed on the sheet. For an instant, a chance reflection made those eyes flash with pale light. “Waiter, retail clerk, custodian, research volunteer. No degree, no profession …”
Steve flinched at this summary of his existence. “And…?”
“See? You’re the perfect everyman! Your work experiences, your life experiences—all of it makes you ideal. You’ll be a real asset to the team.” The man pushed back his leather chair.
Steve rose likewise. “I’m hired?” The minimalist décor reflected his face in a dozen gleaming surfaces. Each reflection showed a plain man in his mid-twenties, with stunned brown eyes gazing out from under a disheveled shock of brown hair. In build, he fell between tall and short, his frame neither thin nor plump. His face showed no striking intelligence. In fact, in his astonishment, Steve appeared rather more foolish at that moment than he deserved.
“If you want the job, it’s yours.”
“But—but—what is the job?”
“You read the ad: ‘Help wanted, no experience necessary. Training, lodging, and meals provided. Some personal risk involved,’” quoted the man. “Wrote it myself. Snappy. Bright. Gets the idea across in only a few words. Just a couple questions, Steve, before I show you around the old place. First: would you consider yourself a man of nervous disposition?”
Steve blinked. “No.”
“Excellent! Are you a family man, Steve?”
“Ah, well, that’s probably for the best.”
As the man pushed open a set of swinging doors, Steve blurted after him, “Um, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Did I forget? Sorry. I’m Waldo. Like the picture-hunt book.”
“Waldo,” Steve repeated.
“That’s right.” Waldo led him with springy tread down a long, unmarked corridor. On the other side of a second pair of swinging doors, Waldo called out, “Morning, Tom. Morning, Banji.” He waved cheerily at a man seated at a desk on the left. “This is Steve. He’s new.”
“Morning, Steve.” The pallid, graying man lifted eyes that burned like two candle flames. His right-hand fingers ceased entering numbers on a calculator. Then he turned his head and twisted his shoulders aside to reveal a second head, this one belonging to a man of African descent, craning as if looking backward over the first man’s shoulder. “Good to meet you,” said the second head, also with orange candle-flame eyes. A second desk faced away from the corridor, and a second pair of arms had paused in the midst of tapping a sheaf of papers into a neat stack. The dual man returned to his original pose so both sides could return to work.
“That… that… that was…” gibbered Steve as he trotted after Waldo.
“I know,” said Waldo brightly. “Until I started working here, I’d never seen an actuary before, either. Tom and Banji came to us from a research facility the government shut down. Unethical experimentation, I heard. But don’t worry—the radiation should have worn off by now, so they’re safe to be out of the vault. Morning, Ricky!” He tapped on a window in passing.
Steve gawked into the lab on the other side of the window. A broad, blank face framed by thick horns sat on a pair of burly shoulders clad in a white lab coat. A thick, three-fingered hand gave a preoccupied wave; the other hand held a glistening serpent’s coils.
“Milking time,” continued Waldo. “Never distract Ricky at milking time. Let’s see who’s in the garage.” He turned left so abruptly that Steve kept going straight for a few strides before realizing that his guide had disappeared. By the time Steve came scrambling along after him, Waldo had launched a new conversation singlehandedly. He only stopped chattering when he pushed open a door on the right. “Anybody home?”
Vehicles of all sorts occupied the gloomy, cavernous garage. A gurgle from the shadows startled a little squeak out of Steve. A trickle followed, then a congested sigh, and finally a voice: “What is it, Waldo? I’m busy.” From under a nearby truck, a dark puddle oozed across the floor.
“Hey, Nixie, this is Steve—he’s new.” Waldo tugged Steve by the lapel until the newcomer released his white-knuckled grip on the door frame.
The puddle quivered. “Waldo! I’m not even dressed—!” Then it flowed under another vehicle, causing Steve to stumble backward. Something clattered against the far wall. After some rustling and a long noise like a bathtub draining, there was silence. A petite, indigo-skinned girl in coveralls inched demurely into view. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you, Steve.”
Steve bleated like a baby goat.
Waldo went on regardless, “Lots to see yet. Buh-bye, Nixie.” He towed Steve out by the lapel. “Oho, Steve, I think she likes you! Cafeteria ahead—and the most important person in the whole Foundation: Carol.” He grinned. “This is Steve—he’s new.”
An entity like an upended octopus, with a stubby humanoid torso rising from among its many limbs, coyly wriggled twenty-odd elongated digits at them from behind the lunch counter.
“Carol makes the best vegetarian cuisine,” continued Waldo as Steve’s sharp acceleration dragged him out of the cafeteria. “Word to the wise—don’t talk about meat. Just don’t. And here’s the residential wing. Sort of early for blackout, isn’t it?” He strode forward despite the thick darkness. “The boss lady must be up and about.”
“She woke early to chair ze staff meeting,” asserted a voice to their left.
Waldo wheezed, “Morning, Bartholomew; this is Steve—he’s new,” as he pried at Steve’s chokehold.
“Doss he try to strangle everyvun zat vay?”
“I haven’t gotten around to asking him what he does for fun,” gasped Waldo, freeing himself. “Did I miss anything at the meeting?”
“Only housekeeping. Velcome, Steve.” The slap of rubbery wings followed. A flare of blue-tinged light revealed Bartholomew to be a four-foot-tall bat with bandy legs. He extended a stumpy hand in greeting. At the end of the handshake, Bartholomew had to pry his hand free, not because of Steve’s grip but because the little suckers covering Bartholomew’s palm had adhered to Steve’s skin. “Ze numbness vill vear off shortly,” said the bat matter-of-factly.
“If the boss lady is up, I’d better introduce Steve to her. Later, Bartholomew.”
The bluish light vanished. “A pleasure to meet you, Steve.”
“So, Steve, what do you do for fun?” Waldo asked as he dragged the new employee by a limp arm. “We all have our hobbies. Mine is model trains. I adore model trains. Well? Don’t be shy.”
“I… bowl sometimes,” ventured Steve.
“Bowling! That’s great!” Waldo pounded on a metal panel. Over the hollow boom of his knock, he cried, “Good news for you, Esau—new guy for the company bowling league!”
The wall vibrated with the huge rumble of a voice from below, replying, “Sweet!”
Waldo strode onward, his chatter filling in Steve’s silence while Steve blindly gripped the shoulder of Waldo’s Armani suit coat and followed in the dark. When Waldo halted, Steve ran into him and rebounded so hard that he fell to the floor. “Here’s the boss lady’s apartment.” A low, resonant tone filled the corridor when Waldo touched a button on the wall. Having rung the bell, he bent down and hauled Steve to his feet.
The door hinges creaked. “Yes?” The voice, feminine and commanding, was as resonant as the doorbell had been.
“Good morning, boss lady! I brought you Steve, the new guy. Steve, meet the boss lady, Marianas Wildeman, the brains beneath the Wildeman Foundation.”
After a soft click, a dull grayish light grew around Steve. A hand, dead white with blue veins, reached out through a pitch-dark doorway three yards in front of him. It reached, and kept reaching, and kept reaching. By the time the third elbow-joint extended into the dull light, Steve tumbled in a heap on the floor once more.
He woke from his faint with a wild shriek.
“Beautiful,” crooned a husky, hot-blooded voice. Kneeling by the cot where Steve lay, a stocky female with rust-red skin shook out her black hair. Her black eyes danced. “Don’t waste it here—” She stretched out a massive pair of wings and stood on four horsey legs. “Wait until you’ve got your audience, darling.” She grabbed him in a headlock and, without turning, dragged him backwards to the end of the long room. A large hatch opened behind her to reveal a carpet of city lights not far below. Wind whipped at Steve’s clothes as he struggled to free himself. “That’s the spirit!” shouted the creature as she backed toward the hatch. She spread her wings and let the wind take her.
Steve screamed all the way to the ground, but he stopped trying to free himself until they touched down. His shrieks had gained attention from shoppers all along the busy street where they landed. The flying horse-bodied woman beat her wings twice before taking off again. Steve stumbled backward from the stinging wind of her take-off, her husky voice still pursuing him: “Run, little man, run away fast.” But all around him, people stood transfixed, lacking the good judgment to flee. “Are you all insane?” Steve bellowed. “Run for your lives!”
His voice rent the stillness. Abruptly the street flowed with screaming shoppers, pushing and trampling in their frenzy to get away. Steve led the stampede.
Three and a quarter hours later, a fire truck pulled up alongside Steve as he trudged back toward the city lights. The truck stopped, its passenger door swung open, and Nixie in her coveralls leaned out. “Hi! Want a lift?”
Steve merely grabbed the frame of the truck and climbed into the passenger seat as Nixie slid over to take the wheel again. He slumped in his seat.
“Fifteen miles at least,” said Nixie. “That’s impressive. And you were on your way back. Not bad for your first day. I bet you were on your high school track team, weren’t you? If you weren’t, you should have been. How far did you run, anyway?” Steve’s silence made her glance at him. “Tired? Don’t worry. We’ll be home in a couple of hours.”
The truck rumbled past the city limits sign and exited the highway under another sign that read, Airport – Next Right. Nixie cruised past every security checkpoint until she reached an enormous hangar, where an equally enormous cargo plane waited. She drove the truck up the ramp into the aft cargo hold. Once she parked the fire truck, Nixie looked to Steve. “Coming?”
He kept staring at the dashboard without seeing it. By the time the plane touched down two hours later, Steve hadn’t moved more than his eyelids. This time it was Marianas Wildeman herself who came to him. She wore armor, not unlike an astronaut’s pressurized spacesuit. Here in the patchy light of the cargo hold, Marianas was revealed as an asymmetrical creature, one long arm folded behind her head, two splayed legs in front and another in back to form a tripod base. Her head was oval, perched on a spindly neck that arched forward from the center of her chest, but her face was humanoid behind the clear visor. “Steve.” Her voice held a maternal tone. “We’re home, and we need to have a talk. Will you come out now?” Her long arm unbent, all four elbow-joints of it, to open his door.
Steve slid down from the high cab. Like a sleepwalker, he followed Marianas Wildeman through the cavernous garage to the residential wing, back into the darkness. This time, some flitting shadow pressed into Steve’s hands a pair of night-vision goggles. Through them, he gazed around a rec room crowded with an extravagant variety of life forms.
“You did a marvelous job on such short notice,” said the winged horse-woman as she fluffed her hair and preened her feathers. “Such a scream I have not heard in ages! Delicious! It inspired me!”
“I thought you seemed rather carried avay,” said Bartholomew dryly.
“I was carried on the wings of my muse!”
As this argument burgeoned, a huge pom-pom of hair bobbed across the floor to Steve. “Do you drink coffee? Tea? Soda?”
“Coffee,” said Steve dully.
“Black? Cream? Sugar?”
“A man after my own heart,” declared the hairball as it bustled away. It returned with a ceramic mug balanced atop its flyaway strands. “Careful—it’s hot. Can I get you anything else, Steve? Can I call you Steve?”
Steve drew a deep breath. “I don’t care what you call me—just tell me what the hell is going on here?” The last half of the sentence rang out as a piercing cry that arrested everyone.
Once she regained her aplomb, Marianas Wildeman said, “But Waldo must have told you…?” Steve’s bewildered face made her draw herself sternly erect on her stumpy tripod. “Boris, Nixie, bring Waldo here. Now.” When the two staff members had gone, Marianas bent her head. “What can I say, Steve? I’m sorry. I thought you knew—we all thought you knew. We rehearsed the script, for the love of—!” She sighed. “No wonder we’ve had such trouble filling the post.”
Nixie returned, dragging a rigid Waldo behind her. “He’s gone again. His suit was hanging on the rack.” She dropped the empty body with a thud. “And I found this.” She offered up a rough, misshapen tube with a tiny set of train tracks protruding from one end.
Marianas took the tube in her gaunt hand. She examined it from all sides. “Ah. There’s the script: papier-mâché for a new railroad tunnel. Look—” She pointed at the tube. “The original want ad. What did he take to the newspaper office, I wonder?”
Wordlessly, Steve took from his pocket the tattered newspaper clipping and gave it to her. She read it and started to laugh. Then she sighed again. “I’m so sorry, Steve.” She tossed the clipping into a trash can. “Let me explain.”
“I’ll go put out the bait,” said Nixie.
“No, he’ll come back once entropy catches up with him.” Turning to Steve, Marianas said, “The Wildeman Foundation is a group of freelancers. We are hired by various governmental and private agencies to take care of highly dangerous situations. Naturally, we prefer to keep our private lives private, so usually we stage little scenes to distract people from what’s actually happening—like tonight, for example. It was Boroka’s turn to act as decoy, pretending to attack a popular shopping district. Esau acted as the hero who defeated her.” Marianas gestured toward a hulking, furry man with no neck.
Esau gave Steve a solemn thumbs-up.
“There were bombs planted under eight of those stores,” continued Marianas. “Domestic terrorism. While Boroka and Esau played their parts aboveground, the rest of us were underground, neutralizing the threat. Your job tonight, your entry-level position, was to clear the area of as many onlookers as possible. You did such a splendid job of getting them to run away that we all thought you knew you were supposed to.” She paused to gauge Steve’s response, but he offered none. Then, simply, she told him, “We’d like you to stay on. Please.”
Steve’s eyes searched the rec room. The staff hushed, awaiting his reply, but he just sipped his coffee. “Good coffee,” he said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
The hairball plumped itself up with pride. “Isabella… but you can call me Izzy.”
Steve took another sip. He spoke carefully measured words. “When I came here today, I figured this was my last chance, and a long shot at that. I’ve been out of work eighteen months. I’ve filled out sixty-four applications in the last six months alone. Two got as far as an interview, not counting this one. Then the bank took my house. Almost everything I have left in the world is in public storage off I-94. Yesterday I sold my car because I couldn’t afford the upkeep.”
A collective sigh met this declaration. Izzy extended a thick braid to pat Steve’s knee.
“So… that’s my job, is it? Spreading panic in the streets?”
Marianas smiled at him. “You’ll be involved in all our planning. Whatever your role, you need never lie to people about the danger involved. It is dangerous work. But that wouldn’t be all. Once you became familiar with the Foundation, you would become our public face. As it stands, most of the time we must rely on Waldo because of his suit.” She nudged the empty shell before her. “You know as well as any of us why that isn’t working. He means well. I will give him that much. The trouble is that Waldo hasn’t got much in the way of short-term memory. We named him Waldo because we’re always searching for him. He’s basically a sentient gas, really. We made the suit for him, to keep him grounded. We write scripts and rehearse meetings to prepare him, but he keeps veering off on his own little tangents. We need someone reliable, someone normal humans can relate to.”
Swallowing the last drops of his coffee, Steve said, “I always wanted to be a comic book hero, ever since I was a little kid.”
“This is serious work,” said Ricky.
“Saving the world is serious work,” Steve shot back. “Why do you figure people love comics so much?”
Marianas laughed. “You’ll fit in around here just fine.”
Sequel should be up in just a few minutes mire. More. Gahj! Thjis finger is really getting to mne!
“Eirian,” began Peter in a subdued voice. “Bertie wants you to come to town with us.”
Eirian finished polishing the mirror he held before he bothered to look up at his old friend. Even when he finally looked, he said nothing.
“Bertie and Rhonda decided,” Peter continued, “that Rhonda and Lew should go down to spend some time with Faina in the town.”
“No, no, not at all,” Peter hastened to say. “They’re taking him with them, but as he’s still encased, he didn’t have much to do with the decision. Dil has always been a bit slow anyway, bless him. So we’re driving them down today, this very morning.”
Eirian set aside the polished mirror and picked up an unpolished one. “And what has this to do with me, Pedr?”
“You ought to know,” added Peter’s wife Bertie as she wedged herself into the doorway of the workroom. “Get yourself up, Eirian. It’s past time you saw something besides mountains.” She snatched the polishing cloth from his grasp. “Don’t you grunt at me, Eirian; I won’t have it.” Then Bertie rolled out a barrage of Welsh that brought a dour frown to Eirian’s face. By the time she had finished, however, she had Eirian standing and ready to follow her out the door.
They found Rhonda, Peter and Bertie’s daughter, outdoors on the plateau beside a gray minivan. She smiled up at Eirian so winsomely that not even he could scowl at her. At her feet sat a bowling bag with a wide clear strip along the top. Seeing Eirian looking at this, Rhonda said, “Isn’t it clever? Faina found it for me.” She tapped the bag’s sole occupant, which had the appearance of a mottled gold-leaf ostrich egg. “This way, Dil can get sunlight while we transport him!”
“Do you have everything?” asked Bertie.
“Checked it three times, Mum.” Then, with a touch of her mother’s stern voice in hers, Rhonda shouted, “Lew! Stop playing! It’s time to leave! Ah, look at you— you’re filthy already!”
A boy just a bit smaller than Rhonda came trotting up to the minivan. “But Mum—”
“Don’t you ‘but Mum’ me, mister,” warned Rhonda. “I may only be a little bigger than you right now, but I’m still your mother and I’ll grow a lot quicker than you, since its my second go-round. I told you to keep yourself tidy!” She took out a handkerchief and scrubbed at the streak of dirt that marred the boy Lew’s cheek. “At least there’s time yet. I can put you back in order on the way.” She dragged her son into the back seat of the minivan. From there, she asked, “Eirian, can Dil sit with you on the way? I’ve enough on my hands with this one.”
Eirian took up the bowling bag and set it on the middle seat before climbing in after it. Peter took the front passenger seat while Bertie squeezed in behind the steering wheel. With everyone buckled in, she set off down the mountain tunnel road at a reckless clip.
When the van skidded to a halt, it was in a visitor’s parking spot in front of Tenney Elementary School. Peter opened the side door and slung Dil’s bag over his shoulder so that Eirian could climb out. Then he lifted his daughter and his grandson down to the ground in that order. Rhonda took Lew firmly by the hand so he could not dash about and inspect everything.
“You do not intend to take Dil in among the humans in that state,” said Eirian.
“We can’t very well leave him in the van,” Bertie countered. “He’s safer with us.”
“What’s more,” Peter added, “we’re meeting with Dr. Wade. He’s one of our contacts here. He already knows a little about us.” He led the way inside the school. To the lady behind the front desk, he said, “We have an appointment with Dr. Wade for pre-enrollment.”
“Welcome to Tenney,” beamed the secretary. “I’ll just call Dr. Wade and let him know you’re here.” She took up her phone and had a hushed conversation. Hanging up, she declared, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”
And, as promised, within only a few seconds they were approached by a compactly-built African-American man. “Hello…” His eyes went to Eirian first, and then to Peter.
Peter put forth his hand. “Peter Brown. We meet again, Dr. Wade.” They shook hands.
“Come to my office. My assistant has put all the paperwork together.” Once inside his office, Dr. Wade said, “I barely recognized you, Peter.”
“That’s understandable. When I was here last, I was no bigger than Rhonda. This is my wife, Bertie; my daughter, Rhonda; and my grandson, Lewelin. We call him Lew. And this—”
“—must be Eirian,” said Dr. Wade as he finally approached the final member of the family. “I’ve heard about you from Miss Brown, sir. I’m honored to meet you.” He held out his hand and waited until Eirian at last accepted it. “So! According to Miss Brown, we have one going into second grade and one into kindergarten.” He looked from Rhonda to Lew. “I hope you enjoy your time here. Miss Rhonda, you must be on your first renewal. That’s what you call it, right? Renewal? If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re very young to have started that already.”
“It wasn’t part of the natural cycle,” said Rhonda. “I got caught in battle with an enemy head and a swarm of offspring. I took too much damage. The renewal cycle served as a life-saving method.”
Dr. Wade nodded gravely. “I’m sorry to hear that. Your husband must have had to take up a lot of the slack, raising your son while you were incapacitated.”
“Not at all. Dil was beside me in battle.” Rhonda nodded toward the bowling bag sitting at her father’s feet. “My mother took care of Lew for us.”
“May I?” When Peter unzipped the bag, Dr. Wade leaned forward to examine Dil. “Well! I never expected to see one of Miss Brown’s folk in that stage of renewal. Amazing. But, if you were hurt at the same time, why is he still…?”
“Dil was hurt much worse than I.”
“Well, I hope he gets better quickly. But I shouldn’t delay you just for my own curiosity. Here are the papers.” Dr. Wade returned to his desk and led them through the business of enrolling Rhonda and Lew, commenting only, “Miss Brown requested to have Lew in her class, since its his first time out in the world. Mr. Johnston will be your teacher, Miss Rhonda. He’s not acquainted with the children of the light, but he’s really laid-back. I think you’ll enjoy being in his class.”
“Is Mrs. Jorgenson still here?” Peter asked.
“No, she retired last—” The phone rang. Dr. Wade apologized before he answered it. He listened for a few seconds. “Again, huh? Send him down. I’ll talk with him.” When he hung up, he said by way of explanation. “Walter. You’ve met Walter, haven’t you? He has some rough days. I don’t blame him. I remember how hard it was, back when I was like him.”
Walter made his entrance in a clamor of protests. The middle-aged woman who herded him seemed glad to turn him over to the principal and retreat. “I just wanna see Faina!” Walter yelled.
“Walter,” said Dr. Wade, “remember you’re supposed to call her ‘Miss Brown’ when you’re at school.”
“She said I could call her Faina, ‘cause I’ve seen them!” Walter froze. The presence of visitors had broken through his outrage at last, surprising him into silence. Then he studied Eirian with intense focus. Recognition came to him. “I’ve seen them! They’re here again.”
“Where?” said Eirian.
Walter pointed through the wall of the principal’s office. “Outside.”
Dr. Wade picked up his phone and dialed. The intercom tone sounded. “We are having a practice lockdown with security team in place. I repeat: we are having a practice lockdown with security team in place.” Once off the intercom, he said to his guests, “Don’t worry. We have protocols set up for this.” He picked up his two-way radio and a mirror from the windowsill.
“Walter, you stay here with me.” Bertie patted her ample hip so that Walter wandered over to stand beside her. “This is my daughter Rhonda, and this is Lew. They’ll be coming to school here with you.”
Peter and Eirian followed Dr. Wade out into the corridors. “It sounds official to say ‘security team,’” said the principal with a laugh, “but really it just means I patrol the hallways with the mirror Miss Brown gave me while she handles the threat herself. We’ve installed a mirror at each intersection, as you can see—” He pointed to a small convex mirror high on the wall at the corner. “Most of the staff use them to avoid collisions with the custodial carts, if they notice them at all. Only a few of us can actually use them as they’re made to be used.” Dr. Wade paused near an emergency exit. Checking the playground through the window, he said, “There’s Miss Brown now. I’ll bet you want to join her.” He unlocked the push bar and let the pair outside.
Eirian started forward, but Peter grasped his elbow. “No. Wait and watch. You need to see what she does here,” he said in answer to the hard glare he received from Eirian.
Clouds skimmed over the sun, throwing the town into light and shadow alternately. The wind tossed the tree branches and raised a ceaseless hiss from the leaves. On the wind-blown playground, one figure made leisurely progress toward the fence. Faina wore gloves and picked up rubbish to put into a plastic bag. She appeared to have no set destination, but her steps tended always toward the darkest corner of the playground, where the old trees cast the deepest shade. Light flashed off a metallic chip bag as she scooped it into the bag she held.
The wind howled as if stung by the flash.
“There’s a lot of them,” Peter observed.
“The offspring always run wild,” said Eirian, “until the head that controlled them regenerates.” He spoke in a neutral tone, but his body remained tense.
Faina picked up a dented soda can, causing another flicker of reflection to pierce the shadows beneath the trees. The shadows squirmed and writhed. Only the children of the day, or a human who had survived the enemy, could have seen the mass of offspring undulating there in a towering viscous tangle. When the heavy clouds covered the sun, the mindless offspring oozed out into the open, only to recoil when the clouds passed. Meanwhile, Faina drew nearer to them in her casual manner.
An especially broad and rain-heavy cloud slid across the sun. The offspring broke free from their corner like an oily wave, sweeping toward Faina. Her stride never faltered. At the last possible moment, light flashed beneath the cloud, quick and sharp as a blade. Heat flared and vanished, leaving behind it the thunderous explosion of superheated air. In a moment, the offspring disappeared. In the next, greasy shadows coated the ground, to be dispersed by the sun as it emerged from cover.
Faina tied the plastic bag shut. When she turned, her expression was for a few seconds fierce rather than cheerful. Even when she caught sight of the two awaiting her, her eagerness had a bloodthirsty edge to it that softened as she ran to them. “You’ve come!”
“You have a little…” Peter tapped his finger against his cheek. “Just there.”
Faina took a tissue from her skirt pocket and wiped shadow spatters from her face. Then she presented herself before Peter for inspection. “Better?”
“You can check for yourself.” From the side pocket of the bowling bag, Peter produced two hand mirrors. “They’re finished.”
“здорово!” she exclaimed.
“What is wrong?” said Eirian abruptly.
Faina gave him a blank gaze.
“You only lapse back into Russian when something is wrong.”
But Faina waved a hand in dismissal of Eirian’s concern. “I’m still tense from battle. Nothing is wrong. These are beautiful! I must find something special to show Marta my thanks.” She handed one to Eirian. “That’s yours.” Her eyes gleamed in challenge.
Contrary to all expectation, Eirian accepted the mirror. “You gave my last away.”
“Walter needs it, poor child. He must be upset now. His room is next door to mine, so I’m sure he could see all that.”
“He’s in Dr. Wade’s office with Bertie,” Peter offered. “He was the one who told Dr. Wade what was happening.”
“I wondered who gave the warning. I’d better get back to my class. Oh!” She unclipped a set of keys from the lanyard around her neck. “This is the front door key. You can settle Rhonda and little Lew without me, I’m sure. Don’t leave before I get home, though.” She used one of her remaining keys to let them back into the building. “Oh! Let Dr. Wade know it’s all right to end the lockdown, please, Peter.”
As they returned to the principal’s office, Eirian said, “Something is wrong.”
“Why would you think that?”
“She ignored me. She never does so, to the point where it’s irritating.”
Peter shrugged and did not reply. His wife was not so tactful later on, when the subject came up on their way to Faina’s house. “I expect she’s annoyed with you. She can cover it up well when she’s calm, but she wasn’t calm, was she? But why do you mind? You don’t want her attentions; you make that clear every time you meet.”
“She lives apart,” said Eirian. “I worry for her. I am responsible for her.”
“Then you’ll have to find a better way to worry for her than the way you usually choose,” said Bertie in triumph. “You can start when she gets home.”
Eirian did not respond. He slouched in the middle seat of the minivan, using his shirt hem to polish to exquisite brightness the mirror Faina had given him.
Before the story, a confession: I am mildly obsessed with flashlights. They qualify as one of the things of which one can never have too many, in my world. It’s light in a tube. What’s not to love? Anyway, on with this week’s short story.
by H. M. Snow
Julius Singleton hung up his phone with a sigh that ruffled the open magazine in front of him. He tapped a pen against the page in a monotonous staccato. Then he flung the pen irritably across the room. Julius got up and crossed his small apartment with restless strides to retrieve a coat and a bulky black telescope case from the closet.
Setting out afoot, Julius burned off his restless energy walking east toward the hills outside of town. From time to time he had to switch the case from right hand to left until he reached the tangled wooded slopes. Then he kept the case in his left as he used his right to grab handholds in aid of his ascent. The gaps between the saplings were often filled by thorny shrubs, so it took Julius some time to reach the bald summit. There he opened the case and began assembling the telescope. Although sunset was more than an hour away, Julius set up the telescope for a view of the only celestial body that would be visible that night: the almost full moon, anemic now in the light of day.
A loud sonar ping! sounded from inside his coat. Julius pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Hey. Yeah, I heard back today from the last one. No, a call– the director herself. Same as all the rest: not enough experience.” Julius exhaled in frustration. “No, Dad, we’ve been over this. I don’t want to hang around here all my life. I want to be where the firsthand research is, not grading papers in some high school.” He uttered a weary laugh. “Astrophysics and elementary school, Dad? Be serious.” After an extended period of listening, Julius responded, “I’ll keep trying for now. Yeah, I’ll keep you posted. Mm. Tell her I love her too. Later.” He put his phone back in his pocket and stared at the sky.
The sunset flamed a smoky orange and magenta in streaks across the sky, but the sun’s last colorful display faded to night. Julius scowled at the amount of light pollution from town. “This is as good as it’ll get,” he grumbled. Standing, he bent his long body a few degrees and put his eye to the finderscope to begin his night’s viewing.
He had studied the full moon many times, in textbooks as well as through a telescope, but still he drank in the sight. When his back grew tired, Julius sat down on the grass with a sketch pad on his knee, drawing the lunar terrain from memory and rising only at rare intervals to refresh the image in his mind’s eye. This exercise scarcely demanded a tithe of his attention, which sank inward so deeply that he often went quite motionless with tip of his pencil resting on the paper.
It was during one of these periods of contemplation that Julius became aware of a quick tug at the back of his coat. His first startled thought was that a squirrel had attacked him from behind, because the tugs ascended his back with agility. Then little claws dug into his scalp. The weight of a small furry body landed atop his head before launching from there to his telescope, triggering true alarm in Julius. He jumped up and swatted the creature down to the ground with the unconsciously illogical shout, “Don’t touch that!”
A shrill wail went up as the furry shape hurtled downward. All around, an answering wail arose from many more shrill voices. Julius took a step backward. At his feet, a thin chatter of syllables made him fumble for his keyring, where he kept a miniature flashlight. Its narrow beam showed him two creatures that were certainly not squirrels. The foremost was a lean, scarred little primate not quite as high as Julius’ knee. Its greenish-gray fur bristled, and its moth-eaten tail flicked back and forth in an angry rhythm. Its yellowish eyes with their slit pupils glared at Julius. It was obviously trying to shield the plumper, smaller primate huddled on the ground behind it.
They remained in this pose for several seconds as though mesmerized, Julius by the sight of the strange creatures and the creatures by the beam of his flashlight. The foremost creature’s tail stopped its angry lashing and lowered little by little. Then the elder creature turned reluctantly and herded its young kin away from Julius.
Julius used the flashlight to follow the creatures to the edge of the hilltop clearing, where the light illuminated dozens of pairs of yellowish eyes for just an instant. Then they vanished. A minute or so passed before Julius dared to avert his attention, but the hilltop remained quiet. He collected his telescope and used the flashlight to pick out a safe path down the hill back to town.
On the following evening, the night of the true full moon, Julius returned to the hilltop just before sunset. This time, along with his telescope, he brought a small battery-operated camping lantern. He found the hilltop just as he had left it. His sketch pad lay in a rumpled heap on the ground near the marks of his telescope’s tripod; his drawing of the full moon had been torn out. On the page behind it were three small smudgy handprints and a footprint to match. Julius set up his telescope as usual and waited for the sky to darken.
The sky was remarkably clear that night. The creamy yellow moon looked enormous above the horizon. Julius turned on the camping lantern and set it on the ground several feet away from his station. The darker the night sky, the brighter the lantern appeared. Julius busied himself with his finderscope, pretending not to hear the whispers around the edge of the hilltop clearing. Peripheral vision showed him weaving shadows that vanished as soon as he looked directly at them. It seemed at first that his presence would deter them. But as the moon rose, so did the whispers, as if the little creatures could not contain themselves. Before long, dancing figures between a foot and eighteen inches tall surrounded Julius so that he had difficulty pretending not to notice them. Whenever he turned his head, they would scatter, but the moonlight drew them back out into the clearing time and again. The vocalizations he had heard during the previous night’s encounter were nothing compared to the high-pitched chanting and laughing that rose from the hilltop in the dark.
As Julius had hypothesized, his lantern attracted them. Because it was strange to them, they would not stay near it for long, but they darted forward to touch it and retreat from it in almost the same movement. They seemed to realize after a time that it was not dangerous. Then they danced around it, the young amongst them especially.
Julius struggled to maintain his facade of indifference. He gave it up as a loss when a tiny clawed hand tugged at the knee of his trouser leg. Between the radiance of the full moon and the light of the distant lantern, he gazed at the creature standing beside him. In its hand was his drawing of the full moon. Its yellowish eyes gazed up at him with equal curiosity. It pointed to the picture and up to the sky.
Julius pointed from the moon in the sky to that on the page.
The creature offered up the paper to him.
Julius accepted it and, after a moment’s thought, returned it to the creature. He observed how the creature’s gaze kept drifting away from him toward the moon, so he acted on impulse and pointed to his telescope. He stood up to put his eye to the eyepiece. Then, meeting the creature’s gaze, he pointed from the eyepiece to the moon above.
The creature ventured closer to the telescope but would not touch it. It took a little persistence and ingenuity on Julius’ side to realize that it had taken his meaning, if not his words, from the night before and would not touch the telescope until Julius gave his permission. It disdained the offer of a hand to lift it up to the eyepiece. Deftly and delicately the creature climbed the tripod on its own, only to waver and nearly fall back to the ground upon its first view through the telescope. For nearly a full minute the creature stared at the moon through the telescope as if entranced. Then it gave a piercing cry that brought all the others near. One by one, they looked to Julius for permission before climbing up for a look at the moon. The littlest ones, still unable to climb, rode on the backs of their elders. They were so nimble and lightweight that the tripod never shook. When the last of them had had their view, they broke into a celebratory dance all around Julius’ feet.
The next few days were busy as he returned to his job hunt. Then it rained without ceasing for two days. He was unable to return to the hilltop until more than a week later. He brought the lantern again, since it was useful to him as well as interesting to the creatures. This time they did not hesitate in coming out of the shadows, but there were fewer of them. As Julius watched them, he noted that the little ones were not with them. The only ones who appeared were the elders, those with the scars and the ragged plumed tails. Their demeanor was different as well. They clustered around the lantern and groomed one another by its light. The moonlight sparkled on their fur as on water. Some of them had new scars, and others bound up fresh wounds with leaves and grass. Those who were not injured brought with them slabs of bark that they scraped with edged rocks. Julius, observing this, caught the gaze of the elder creature who had confronted him on the first occasion.
He did not need to frame the question with gestures and facial expressions. The creature seemed to sense what he wanted to say. It took up the bark that it was shaping and held it up like a breastplate. Then it returned to its work, scraping the rough side smooth and drilling holes in the corners with a fine-pointed stone. Lastly the creature threaded the holes with woven cords of grass and tied the breastplate onto its own chest with the aid of a companion.
A change came over the assembled creatures. No more did they bind wounds or work on their primitive armor. Now they were armed, ready for something. The one Julius was watching rose up to its full eighteen inches of height. It pointed at Julius, pointed then to the lantern and lastly pointed toward the city lights spread out at the base of the steep hill. There was a stern glint in its yellowish eyes that caused Julius to pack up his things at once. His last view of the creatures revealed a battle formation as they charged into the darkness.
Their attitude unsettled him, though he was accustomed to wandering alone in the dark nights, telescope case in hand. As he picked his path through the brambles and the young growth forest that clung to the hillside, he flinched at the smallest rustle of the undergrowth. The night seemed unusually dark, darker than it ought. Worst of all was the moment when Julius stopped to catch his breath and heard the undergrowth hissing without the aid of wind or his own passage. Then something prickly stabbed his ankle, like a nettle caught in his sock. Julius yelped in pain.
A shrill cry answered him as a few of the creatures from the hilltop sprang out from cover, their wild yellowish eyes all that could be seen of them. They dove at Julius’ feet. The stabbing pain withdrew, but the undergrowth rattled with the noises of a skirmish. Julius swung the lantern around just in time to see a clump of black needles explode into powder. Three moonlight creatures, one of them Julius’ particular acquaintance, stood panting with spears at the ready. The powder left behind by their enemy hissed through the leaf debris in a downhill trickle. Julius’ friend among the creatures again fixed him with a commanding stare and pointed to the city lights with heightened urgency. Then it and its comrades vanished into the undergrowth.
Julius retreated in swift obedience, or as swift as his throbbing ankle allowed. By the time he reached his apartment, he had stopped trembling but his limp had grown more pronounced. He pried off his shoes and socks to find a raw, swollen patch of skin spreading across his ankle. Its surface was rough as though torn by multiple tiny hooks. Julius cleaned it as best he could, applied some antibiotic ointment and a large adhesive bandage, and went to bed for the rest of the sleepless night. By midmorning, his injury hurt worse than originally, so he limped out to his car and drove to the nearest urgent care clinic.
Some days passed before Julius was able to walk unhindered again, at which point his first action was to go shopping. He picked up a pair of sturdy work boots at the first store, coveralls and a pair of Kevlar®-reinforced gloves at the next. At the local home improvement store he picked up a large clublike LED flashlight, an assortment of smaller flashlights and a headlamp. He drove rather than walked to the outskirts. Leaving his car parked at the bottom of the hill, Julius climbed through the tangle to the hilltop and scanned the ground with an idea to find tracks. Astrophysics graduates are not known for their woodcraft skills, however, and Julius soon gave up on that plan in favor of a general search along the wooded slopes. He noticed without immediately noticing the scent of smoke drifting on the breeze. When the scent at last registered in his mind, Julius searched until he saw a thin tendril rising from the undergrowth. It came through a crack in a massive old fallen tree that must have rested in that same place for decades, long before the current woods had been seeded.
He climbed astride the mossy trunk until he could stretch far enough to peer through the crack that ran half the length of the tree. The smoke stung his eyes until the breeze shifted. Then Julius saw the fire’s source. A flat stone had been dragged into the hollowed trunk. On it smoldered four parallel mounds, each one about eighteen inches long. One of the creatures, thin and white with age, crouched beside the pyre and murmured soft chants while fanning the embers. Tears matted the coarse fur around its eyes.Three others sat a little apart from the pyre. One shredded leaves into thin strips, while another spun the strips into thread and the third wound the thread into skeins. All around them, the remainder of the creatures slept deeply. Julius noted that few among them were uninjured.
It was such a peaceful, somber scene that Julius dozed off lying atop the mossy tree. When he woke, it was to a pair of yellowish eyes about an inch away from his face. Julius started upright. He recognized the creature as his acquaintance from before. It gave him a plainly exasperated stare and pointed downhill toward the town.
Julius shook his head. “You helped me; I want to help you.” He spread out his collection of small flashlights on the bark and showed the creature how they operated.
The creature observed this demonstration. Then it pointed at Julius. When this produced no reaction, it pointed again more emphatically. Still getting no sign of comprehension from Julius, it gave him a peculiar look, as if pitying his stupidity. It pointed to its own torso. “A-jats.” Then it pointed to Julius a third time.
“Oh!” Julius pointed to himself. “Julius.”
The creature Ajats jumped back down into the hideout. Among the shrill syllables that passed among the creatures, “Ju-ji-iss” occurred often. Ajats reappeared, collected one of the little flashlights, and disappeared into the tree trunk for another several seconds. Light flashed from inside. A long “ooooh” followed. Then Ajats and the rest of the most heavily-scarred creatures climbed up in their bark-and-grass armor. Julius watched, apparently forgotten, as Ajats distributed the remaining flashlights. Just before the creatures took off into the darkening dusk, Ajats patted the huge flashlight and pointed downward at the tree trunk.
This time Julius understood at once. He nodded and turned on his headlamp. After the fighting creatures vanished, he chuckled to himself. “I must look like a lighthouse to them.” He settled himself in to defend the hideout.
It was the night of the new moon and cloudy, so that even the stars were obscured. The wind plucked at Julius’ coverall. He perceived a hiss that had nothing to do with the wind. Flicking the switch on his flashlight, he scanned the undergrowth but only caught a hint of movement at the beam’s edge. Then he felt a scrape alongside his work boot. Alarmed, he looked down. His headlamp caught a mass of black needles before it could flee. The fist-sized attacker disintegrated to powder when the light hit it, but another peripheral flicker told Julius that it was not the only one. He searched the darkness with headlamp and flashlight, but the attackers were frighteningly fast. They moved like centipedes, using their hooked-needle appendages as legs when not attacking with them. More than once they snagged Julius’ coverall leg, but he got into the rhythm of clubbing them with his flashlight before they got a firm hold.
Barbed pain tore across his face without warning. Julius retained just enough presence of mind to turn the flashlight’s beam on himself. A spiny thing of monstrous proportions burst into sooty powder right before Julius’ eyes. He coughed, fanning away the dust. The soot settled on him in a thick layer rather than sifting away. Then he realized that other flashlights were shining into his face. The fighters had encircled him, weapons and flashlights poised and ready. Their enemy’s sudden disintegration appeared to have taken them by surprise. Then they raised a wild, piercing cry of triumph.
They crammed Julius inside the tree trunk hideout. Several of the creatures began dabbing at the blood that streamed from his cheek. Whatever ointment they dabbed on him stung like antiseptic and smelled green, like trees under the sun on a still summer day. The white-furred creature from earlier climbed up on Julius’ knee and offered him a drink from a shallow bowl. He accepted without much thought and then coughed so hard that the creature slid off his knee. “It burns,” he gasped.
A titter ran through the group of creatures.
Shortly afterward, Julius’ head began to sag forward. He blinked heavy eyelids at the half-dozen young creatures who danced in single-file, carrying his large flashlight on their shoulders. Then, as if someone had switched him off, Julius fell asleep.
When his eyes opened next, they blinked against the thin morning sunlight that shone through the crack in the tree trunk. He was alone. The creatures had gone while he slept, taking the little flashlights he had given them and leaving in exchange a rectangle of woven-leaf cloth covering the gash in his cheek and a small doll of twisted grass lying by his head. He took both items home with him and kept them as souvenirs, to look at whenever he was tempted to doubt that such strange events had really happened.