Phew, I barely made my self-enforced deadline for this one. I wrote it today and just finished an initial proofread and revision. This is more raw than some of my other stuff, in more ways than one, as you’ll see (not that what I usually post is polished; that’s not the point of this exercise, really). It’s a sci-fi story, kinda, and it brings back at least one familiar face if you’ve been reading these stories (and another, if you read stuff of mine beyond the 26 Stories tales). Things are starting to come together for my mythos, I think.
I’m also trying to employ some of what I’m picking up from critiques at the DFW Writer’s Workshop; namely, that I’m wordy and take to long to get to the story. Hopefully, this grabs you right away.
In any event, enjoy the story!
Jonah and the Leviathan
The Axis Mundi’s sensor array detected the rogue planet with enough time to perform the necessary adjustments to guide the ship through Hawking Space. It would seamlessly re-calculate to avoid the damaging gravity shadow that would have torn the ship down to its component atoms and strewn them across at least this universe, if not others. Instead, some glitch or hiccup in otherwise stable subroutines opted to drop the ship into real space, to the surprise of the Mundi’s captain, Jonah Carthage.
Jonah had been hauling cargo in his behemoth of a cargo freighter for most of his working life, and he could count the number of times the Mundi dropped from Hawking due to gravity shadows on one finger. Given the severity of failure to course correct and the energy consumption it took to spin an SH drive back up, the systems in these ships were infallible in replotting courses on the fly. As point of fact, the operator’s manual literally stated, “course correction algorithms are infallible.” Why they even existed in the first place could probably be chalked up to a time when computer systems were programmed by humans instead of other, smarter AIs. Hell, most ships didn’t strictly need non-AI captains, but the too-human need to be “doing something” hadn’t gone away with the Singularity. Most ships like the Mundi had full crews—and she could easily support a crew of a hundred or more—solely to stave off the negative effects of deep space isolation.
Jonah, however, flew alone. The isolation was all he had ever wanted, and so the Mundi mostly flew herself, with him along for the ride. He would push the occasional button when the ship’s AI deemed is safe for human intervention. He thought the Mundi must have liked him, or pitied him, to give him jobs to do, but he didn’t complain. He didn’t know for certain what she thought, because he’d deactivated her “personality” systems (another human drive; humanize the AIs to make them relatable) because even a sympathetic AI’s voice was more connection than he wanted. He knew she was there, though, which was enough, he supposed.
He didn’t bother to turn the personality systems back on to find out what dropped the Mundi. It was easy enough to read the displays and see the rogue planet—invisible through the canopy in the pitch black of space but represented in the spatial modeling suite in stunning detail—drifting there, just a few thousand miles from his location. It was a mild curiosity, but hundreds of thousands of these wandering, star-less orphans had been detected and cataloged. He might get a small finder’s bonus from the trade guild if it wasn’t a known object, but little more. He was about to re-plot his course and begin the process of spinning up the drive, when the Mundi’s display highlighted a surface anomaly. Without his intervention, the render of the planetoid expanded as the eyes of the sensor mapping dove down to the craggy surface. Racing past mountains and over canyons, the view soared along a nearly flat plane, then stopped over a single mesa. Enhancing further, the plateau of the mesa grew, and there, resting on top of it, was what appeared to be a door.
“Huh,” Jonah muttered, his little used voice hoarse.
The door stood on its own, not attached to any walls or building. It looked older; “vintage” or “retro” would apply. Paneled wood. Door knob. A knocker that, had Jonah seen doors that looked at all like this instead of the flat panels that “whooshed” open and closed as he approached them, would likely be brass. There were three numbers above the knocker as well; 901.
The Mundi’s display posed one simple line of text to Jonah directly: This should be investigated.
Jonah was hard-pressed to disagree.
* * * *
Jonah did not particularly relish time in one of the ship’s smaller surface drones. He liked even less the claustrophobia of the EVA suit that he now wore as he stood on the barren surface of the mesa, facing the strange door. The Mundi rested behind him, dwarfing him, its cargo bay opened like the maw of a great leviathan. He wanted to return to the comfort of her innards; to wander the endless corridors and enjoy the space therein. Even loaded with cargo as she was, he could spend months in different parts of her and still not retrace a pathway. Out here, on the planet’s surface, he was much more aware of the thin layer of polymer fabric that separated him from vacuum and radiation and micro-space dust that would rip him to shreds without the protection of a suit, hull, or planetary atmosphere.
And yet, as he stared at the door, standing in its frame with nothing behind it, he couldn’t bring himself to turn back. It called to him. This antique portal, he knew, would open to somewhere else. There was no question in his mind that this wasn’t just a doorframe left standing on a planet hurtling through space as some form of art installation or joke. It wasn’t something a bored spacer had left here on the extremely small chance that someone else would discover it, to their confusion.
Jonah wanted to open the door, but he didn’t do it right away. Instead, he reached out and did the only polite thing.
* * * *
The corridor inside the doorway was narrow, white walled, and trimmed in brown, faux-wood baseboard and molding. It felt old, like something out of a movie from the twentieth or twenty-first century. Pictures of indistinct people in gray or sepia tones were surrounded by ornate, gilded frames. Soft light came from an incandescent lamp on a side table. Jonah only recognized these things because he had watched a lot of media on his various trips. This place was in the style of an old New York (before the flooding) apartment. Somewhere, even though the EVA suit should have been sound-proof, he could hear the scratchy sounds of an old radio playing music, and the steady “tick, tack” of some mechanical device. The song wasn’t known to him, and as he tried to focus on and understand the words, they became harder to discern, as if they active fought against understanding. The ticking of the strange device was interrupted by the dinging of a bell, followed by a mechanical ratcheting, after which the ticking started up again.
He walked along the hallway, toward a second closed door at its terminus. A warm, flickering glow trickled out from below it. The radio and the clacks were coming from this room, and like the first door, he knew that he was going to open it and knew it would be a place much different than this one.
* * * *
The apartment hallway gave way to a cramped cave, in the middle of which danced the flames of a small fire. Jonah’s first steps into this room were on a spongy surface that made wet sucking sounds as he walked. The smell of rotten meat assaulted him, and he gagged almost instantly. With sudden fear, he realized that his EVA suit helmet was now gone. On instinct, he forced all of the air out of his lungs, expecting to at least slow the effects of decompression as he frantically searched for his helmet. As he did, he saw that the smell came from the floor and walls themselves. They were not rock, but the sickly red and yellow of putrid tissue and muscle. Cancerous growths were prominent, blackened with tumors and undulating with the rippling of the flesh. He gasped, horrified as something that appeared to be a maggot the size of his arm pushed its way out of a pustule and, using large, wicked pincers, tore chunks out of the putrescence.
Jonah threw up, suddenly thankful that he could—apparently—breath the air here, and more importantly, that his helmet had vanished, preventing him from coating the inside with partially digested ration packs. As the acidic bile of his vomit mixed with the smell in the air, Jonah threw up a second time, until wracked by dry-heaves.
“That’s fine,” a croaking voice said behind him, jolting him and causing him to spin, the soft floor giving way under his feet and sinking him up to his ankles in rot. “I don’t think we’ll notice a little added mess in here, will we?” Jonah found himself face-to-face with the withered husk of a man whose advanced age he could only guess. He stumbled backward, his foot still caught in the hole he’d made in the “floor,” and fell.
“Who… what… where…” Jonah floundered.
“I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Or rather, I do, but I can’t answer. Or I won’t.” The old man looked confused and scratched at the beard that stretched down to his navel. The white hair was wispy and thin, which did nothing to conceal the fist-sized lice that crawled therein. “I’ve been here for a long time. Or a short time. Or I will be here for a long time. Time…” He glazed over. “Time, time, time…” He trailed off, lost in thought, looking for all the world like a grotesque statue of an ancient corpse. Jonah scrambled to his feet and walked toward one of the walls of the cave, looking for the door that led back to the apartment, and back to the surface of the planetoid.
“Time!” The old man yelled, again startling Jonah, who had so far only found a tunnel of flesh and cartilage receding into darkness. “Time is… broken here. Broken time.” Now the man scratched at the back of his head, wincing as he did.
“Who are you?” Jonah asked, stringing together his first complete sentence in months.
“I’m… many things. And no one thing. I was a king, once. And will be. Or am…” The old man swirled his hands around his head, frustrated. “All at once, and none at all.”
“How do I get out of here? Back to my ship?”
“Oh,” the man dismissed, “you can’t.”
“That’s… there was a door back there. And my ship is…” Confused, Jonah looked around, still seeing no door, though he was positive he’d just stepped through it minutes ago. Or was it hours? Days?
“No doors here.” He reached behind his head again, as if expecting something to be there. “Where did it go? Where did they put it?” Ignoring Jonah, he looked around on the ground, finally brightening. “Ah!” he said. “There you are!” He reached down to grab the severed end of a tube-like tendril of old flesh that was dripping with puss. The old man put the cable of flesh against the back of his head, smiling a mostly toothless grin. He let go, and it fell to the ground with a splat. The smile faded.
Jonah tracked the line of flesh as it snaked along the ground. It stopped at what he could only think of as the top of the body of a large, fish-like corpse. The fish’s eyes (if that’s what it was) were gone, leaving only empty sockets. Its mouth lolled open, revealing a mouthful of long, needle-like teeth. Jonah shuddered, terrified at the remains more than anything else about his current predicament. The eye sockets seemed to contain something in the blackness. Some malevolent, utter darkness that seemed alive on its own.
“It won’t stick. You there!” The old man said, snapping Jonah out of the trance he’d fallen into while gazing into the thing’s eyes. “Can you help an old man out?”
“Make this,” he flapped the end of the flesh-tube that he’d retrieved from the ground at Jonah, “stick. Back here. Where it belongs.” He gestured to the back of his head.
“I just want to get back to my ship.”
“Yes, yes, fine… put this back and I’ll get you to your ship.”
“Can you do that?”
“Can I do what?”
“Get me back to my ship?”
“My… the Axis Mundi. I left it parked…” he gestured vaguely in the direction the thought he’d come. “…back there.”
“I tell you what,” the man said. “I can get you back to this ship if you do something for me.”
“Help you put that back?”
“How did you know?”
“You,” Jonah stammered, “you already asked.”
“Did I? Oh…” The old man held the tube to the back of his head again. “I’ll tell you what, if you help me put this back…”
“You’ll get me to my ship. I know.” Jonah crept close to the old man, who waited patiently. When Jonah got to him and moved behind him, he saw that the old man did, indeed, have a festering wound of his own on the back of his skull. A few strands of long gray hair hung there, barely covering it.
“Well!” the old man snapped. “Take this and put it there. And make it stay.”
Tentatively, Jonah took the flesh-tube in his hand, glad that the thick gloves of his EVA suit hadn’t gone wherever his helmet had. It was soft in his hands, and for a moment, he felt that the only thing that he should do would be to squeeze it until it collapsed. To yank it out of the fish corpse and throw it all onto the fire. Instead, he pressed it to the old man’s head, gently brushing the hair out of the way.
“Yes, good,” the old man said. “Now, sew it on.”
“I… have a welder.”
“Does it join flesh to flesh?”
“I… I think so,” Jonah said.
“Then do that.”
“It’s going to hurt.”
“Pain is relative. And fleeting. I need this, young man. I need it.” The voice held such desperation.
“Okay.” Jonah pulled the micro welder from his suit’s tool belt. He flicked it on, and the blue flame ignited with a hiss. He had half hoped that it wouldn’t have worked. Taking a deep breath, he pressed it to where the tube met flesh. The skin began to boil and blister immediately. If it hurt, the old man showed no sign. Quickly, as the flesh began to scar together, Jonah worked his way around the circumference, until finally he was finished.
“Ah,” the old man, signed, practically in pleasure. “Yes, that’s what I needed, boy.”
Jonah walked back around to the front of the man. The man was smiling, a new clarity in his old eyes that hadn’t been there before. The thought of eyes drew Jonah’s back to the fish thing he’d soldered the old man to. Was there something in those eyes that wasn’t there before?
“So, can you get me out of here?”
“I can, young man.”
Jonah sighed. “Thank you. So,” he looked around, “where’s the door back to my ship?”
“I can get you out, but not to your ship. That way is barred to you forever.”
“What?” Jonah asked. “You said you could get me back to my ship!”
“Did I? I may have, but I wasn’t feeling like myself when I did. Can’t trust a confused old man, can you?”
“But you’re still…” Jonah was about to say he was still a confused old man, but there was new vitality in the old man’s eyes. The skin was beginning to show some color.
“My dear Jonah,” the man said, now certainly looking healthier, “you should count yourself luck that I am going to allow you to leave at all. It’s a gift I’m giving you.”
“A gift? And how did you know…”
“Not for helping me with my… difficulties. That doesn’t mean anything. Someone would have come along and helped anyway; could have been you or it could have been someone else. I had such big plans for that person. No, it was the other thing you did that has convinced me to be merciful. Besides,” he continued, “I can save my intent for those who put me in this prison of flesh and rot.”
“I… but… what did I do?”
The man smiled as the body of the fish behind him—the body that was not part of his own—heaved with life. “You knocked.”
* * * *
Jonah tumbled to the ground in the middle of a vast, white-sand desert. He rolled onto his back and took in air that was stale and dry but didn’t smell like spoiled meat and death. Above him, the sky was a sickly yellow. He thought that perhaps there was a sun behind a layer of clouds, but the more he stared, the less he thought that there were clouds. The yellow seemed to be the sky’s natural color, and if there were stars there, he couldn’t see them.
He sat up and saw where he had arrived. The mummified remains of a giant beast of some kind, something fleshy and gray, with a gaping circular mouth, scabby ridged skin, and empty eyes (at least ten or so sockets, containing nothing… not even the unnerving blackness of the fish inside wherever it was he had been). It was easily as massive as the Axis Mundi. It had large fins (though there was no body of water here to suggest its natural habitat) and several tree-trunk like leg stalks. From where he sat, it seemed that he had exited the beast from its maw. This creature was old, though; it couldn’t have been what he was inside just moments ago, a still rotting creature, feeding maggots.
Jonah shuddered, trying not to dwell on that. He truly did sense that he had been given a gift, and that whatever the man had originally intended to do to him would have been far worse than being left alive on some alien landscape.
He stood, carefully, as the great beast held court over a sprawling kingdom of nothing. Turning to take in his surroundings, Jonah saw with a start that he was not alone.
A young girl of about ten or so, with dark curly hair and what had once been a bright and colorful sundress, now dirty and faded, watched him. She, in turn, held the hand of what Jonah initially thought was a woman in a robe or a child’s caricature of a ghost, colored in black. Two eyes looked out from a slit in the robe, and he vaguely recognized it from old Earth books and something religious or cultural. The covered woman tilted her head at him, then looked down to the little girl, whose sparkling eyes turned up to meet the wraith’s. Jonah scrutinized at the tall woman and was startled to see that the black robe was colored like a bruise; more angry purple than black. He recoiled as he realized that the robe wasn’t fabric, but the woman’s flesh, fused to her body and shaped into the remnants of the vestments of an outdated civilization.
“You’re lost,” the little girl said, having turned back to Jonah.
“I am,” he agreed. “Where is this place?”
“This is the Golgotha.”
“Is that a planet in a specific system, somewhere? The Perseids, maybe?”
“The Golgotha just is.”
“Great,” he said. “I need to find a transmitter.”
“It won’t do you any good, this transmitter you want.”
“Kid, even a standard transmitter can broadcast over Hawking space, and…”
“No Rabia,” she said, apparently to the woman, “I don’t think he understands.”
“I don’t understand what,” Jonah asked, addressing the tall woman.
“Here,” the little girl said, holding out her other hand to him. “We shall show you just how lost you are.”
Jonah looked at her hand, to the desert of white sand, and back up to the starless, cloudless yellow sky.
Without a word, as certain as he had known that he’d had to land to investigate the door, and had known to knock first, he reached out and took the little girl’s hand with the oversized glove of his EVA suit.