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The Stone Ship

Little is known definitively about the stone ship.

The wreckage lies under 345 feet of water in the Black Sea. The anoxic waters of the sea preserve any organic material from the ravages of bacteria, so the ship and its cargo show remarkable lack of degradation. Despite its nickname, the ship may never have been seaworthy. It measures 80 cubits in length and 50 in width. The ship is constructed in the style of ancient Greek triremes, fully rigged to sail and bearing banks of oars, yet the hull is constructed of a stone material.

The ship was found during a sonar scan of the sea bed, for it lies beyond the limits of casual divers. Initially estimated to have an age from AD5-7, the ship was presumed to be the wreckage of a mercantile vessel due to its cargo.

In 1979, a diving expedition manned by a mixed crew of Turkish and Greek divers set out to explore the wreck. It was this expedition that discovered the nature of the ship, and brought up cargo for examination. What was presumed to be market goods turned out to be offerings to an unknown god. The divers lowered the estimated age from AD to BCE 5 or earlier upon examination of the ship’s odd construction. The offerings equally puzzled the crew.

The ship was laden with fat-necked amphora, stained a vivid maroon not present in any extant samples of Roman or Greek pottery. The urns were mostly intact and still sealed, one diver claimed they could still hear liquid inside. The divers also retrieved a sack of what was found to be birdseed laden with iron pellets.

The diving crew made plans to return to the site later. However, when it came time to weigh anchor, one of their number was missing. Basri Ataman had been diving with a partner, yet had failed to surface with the crew. His partner could give no explanation for the oversight.

The rescue crew found Ataman sitting cross-legged among the amphorae on the ship. He had wedged his feet in such a way that he would not rise, even after death. His eyes had turned red from subconjunctival hemorrhage.

A crew of three were able to unstick his body from the wreck, one used his oxygen inhaler to inflate Ataman’s suit to send him quickly to the surface.

At this point, the divers had no further interest in the site. One, however, found something next to the broken amphora Ataman had been sitting on. He brought the object to the surface with them for further study. In the dying light of the day, the crew examined the small statuette.

The ‘little goddess’ (as they dubbed her) was pure gold with lapis and garnet inlaid in the form of a skirt and blouse. Her hair was in the familiar style of Greek frescoes, colored with pine pitch. Where her eyes should have been, however, were two curling projections not unlike ram’s horns.

The divers had interred Ataman’s body in the hold and had plans to return to the wreck after depositing it on shore. They never got a chance.

A gas leak originating from the cargo hold ignited at approximately three in the morning. Most of the crew were killed. The captain and one diver, Phillip Markos, escaped with third degree burns. The captain managed to pilot the crippled ship to shore before expiring from his wounds. Markos was transported to a hospital in time to receive lifesaving skin grafts over three-fourths of his body. He lived two more years before a hotel maid found him dead in the bath. He had a purple scarf tied tightly around his neck, and his eyes bore subconjunctival hemorrhage. Though the coroner found the scarf had not been tight enough to cause asphyxiation, his death was ruled a suicide.

Of the statue, only Markos’s word and a single kodachrome photo remained. Markos denied knowledge of the statue’s whereabouts, only that he was awoken several times before the disaster by a peculiar droning noise originating from the cargo hull.

The amphorae were transferred to the Antalya Museum and sealed against further study. They and the photograph of the statue are now presumed lost during Turkey’s coup d’etat of 1980.

Later expeditions to the stone ship have been unsuccessful. Divers tell of a murkiness that surrounds the site, one that handheld lights cannot hope to alleviate.

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The Old Man

The Old Man was a tree that sat like a bad tooth in the middle of nowhere. It was bigger than any tree had a right to be, alone in a place bare of other trees. Little dogwood saplings struggled at the edge of his territory, but the Old Man sat kingly in the middle of everything.

No one knew why it was called the Old Man, only that the name stuck. It was like an artifact left over from another time. A forest so tall and deep it sent man’s progenitors screaming for the open country. It only had green leaves way high up in the crown. It didn’t have proper climbing branches, just a bunch of knots from where limbs had broken off boiling over the surface. No one would want to climb this tree, anyway. No telling what lived in the hollows.

The town grew up near the tree, not the other way around. There wasn’t enough of anything to make much of a town. Not enough land to farm. No metals, no minerals, not even a salt flat. The only reason you lived in the town was because you had been born there, and the only reason you had been born there was that you were going to die there.

There was a saying in the town: “go tell it to the Old Man.” The implication being that no-one cared. No one actually told the Old Man anything. No one stuffed screwed-up pieces of paper in his knotholes to wish or ward away bad things. The Old Man didn’t care.

As these things do, something rankled enough that some of the men got a mind to pull the Old Man down. They would stay up long nights in the town’s only alehouse, drawing diagrams in the dirt so as not to waste paper. No one told them off because everyone knew that they would never do anything about it. It was only when the men lined up at the edge of town with chains and hooks that the panic started.

Everyone in the town had an unspoken belief that the Old Man was alive. Not in the dim way of animals, or even the blind way of other plants. The Old Man knew and tolerated the town only so much as they left him alone. Now this would be breaking the rules, which lay unwritten in their simple hearts.

The men were young and strong, otherwise they might have been pulled into the swamp and had their mouths filled with peat by their fearful neighbors. Instead, the townsfolk watched as they went whistling on their way.

They had laid out a careful plan, priding themselves on hours of thought. The ground was too swampy to be a proper foundation for anything. They decided to scoop out a trench next to the tree and pull from the safety of a far bank. In a show of fun, one of the younger men decided to shimmy up to the top of the tree with the help of a hook and chain. He came back quickly and altogether sombre, reporting the green at the top was not leaves but a hearty moss. This made the men feel they were intruding on something beyond them, so they set to quickly making it recognizable with work.

When their shovel-holes began to fill with water, when the sun showed red on the lip of the valley, the men knew they were done. They looped long, thick chains around the trunk and relayed them to the closest, firmest bank they could. They had a coal cart and a team of oxen besides. They hitched the chains to the cart and whipped the beasts, who strained and pulled as hard as the loam beneath their hooves would let them.

The cart pulled in half.

They hitched the chains to the yoke and whipped the animals again.

The yoke broke in half.

By braiding the chains, the men were able to make a makeshift harness for the beasts. They also pulled with their own sinewy limbs. Their curses could be heard from the town, where many an obediently fearful man would rush for the safety of his hovel. Every little superstition they had ever invented swelled in a tide of abstention. They broke straws, turned cats out-of-doors, made foul concoctions to set out in bowls so the evil would hover around it rather than enter homes.

As the last sunlight died, something finally happened. The crack could be heard as far away as the next town.

Seeing as it was dark, folk were reluctant to investigate. But the few remaining able-bodied men in town gathered lanterns and set out, shaking, into the swamp.

None of them knew what to expect in the dark. They imagined the Old Man moving, writhing like an angry polyp, a thousand devils churning out of a broken stump.

They came upon the bank and the men and the chains and the oxen, all laid out in a state of disrepair. There was no sign of the Old Man. He was not in his roost on the opposite bank, nor was his waterlogged trunk in the swamp.

The oxen were dead. The chains pulled apart by mighty stress. Some men lay floating the dark water, some sprawled out where they had fallen. All dead, all with a terrible strain on their faces.

All but one.

Like the wind sawing through a broken plank, one man was breathing his last half-in, half-out of the water. They fished him out and held the lantern close to his face as if that might revive him.

His eyes rolled in his head, his mouth babbled inconsistently. They could only extract a little from his ranting before he expired as well.

The tree—” he gasped, “hateful—it ain’t a tree, you hear me? Whatever’s beneath the ground—that thing is the root!”

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The Maze and the Monster

“I am aware of your skill,” the king said, “so you and you alone have been tasked for this. It must be exactly to life. Exactly.”

Daedalus bowed low, averting his eyes as was proper. “But your majesty…I don’t quite understand. What does the queen need with an artificial cow?”

“You have heard the rumors?”

Daedalus chanced a look. The king was grand and impassive, more like a statue than the marble bust he had already commissioned. The crown omnipresent in every depiction of the man shone with the sun’s fire.

“I…suppose I have, your highness. Most defamatory and foul, unsuited for your divine spouse.”

“Pasiphaë has a most unusual taste,” the king commented without emotion, “and my love for her leaves her beyond reproach. If she wishes to share congress with a bull, so be it.”

There was no warmth in his words. Finally Daedalus nodded. He had his own child to feed, not much younger than the suckling princess.

“It will be done, your grace.”

 

The two men walked a great stone wall.

“The walls will be in excess of nine cubits?”

“They will, your grace. And even then, the labyrinth will be enclosed. There will be no hope of escape for anything inside, be it prisoner or…otherwise.”

The king nodded grimly. “The queen passed in birth to that monster. Pierced by its horns.I will not claim it as my own, merely sentence it to the life it has earned.”

“If you’ll forgive my forwardness, why not just kill it, your grace?”

The king grimaced. “Obviously, Zeus has cursed my family. What else would explain it? I cannot risk further fall from favor with the gods.”

Daedalus swallowed. He had been waiting to ask the question for some time.

“My king?”

The king was looking down at the maze with the air of a man hunting fish in a pool.

“The queen has only just given birth?”

The king smiled grimly. “Given life, and then breathed the last of her own.”

Daedalus licked his lips, which were drying too quickly. “Only—you commissioned me for the bull not four months ago.”

The king’s face was unreadable. “Yes, Daedalus?”

The inventor gave up. “A most unfortunate birth.”

 

The labyrinth’s doorway was the last thing to be finished. Wrought iron gates were lowered into place, amphorae filled with oil stood in place of lamps.

The inventor stood beside the king. His own son climbed the ramparts. The little princess watched from the ground, her skirts tucked around her legs.

“The maze is a thing of beauty, Daedalus.” The king made a gesture of benediction. Daedalus smiled, but looked beyond the king to his son. Icarus balanced along the outer structure. The palace guards watched him closely.

“This lock is most ingenious. Show me how it works?”

Daedalus stooped forward and showed the king the sliding cylindrical puzzle that locked the outer gate. It was as fine as anything he had ever built. For the first time since Daedalus had come to court, the king smiled.

“No beast could work that with their crippled paws?” he asked, and then laughed sharply. Even the guards winced at the sound. Daedalus saw Icarus descending from the roof and rushed to help him, eager for the excuse. In his hurry, his carelessness, he knocked the king. The king stumbled, and the crown that seemed eternally fixed to his head fell.

Daedalus gasped. Minos covered his scalp with his hands, red-faced and trembling with fury.

Daedalus earned a place in the labyrinth. Of course, they did not expect the designer of such an elegant prison to stay for long. Even after he escaped, Daedalus refused to talk about the court of Minos.

 

“So you see, I have been hungry for company ever since,” Phaedra said.

Theseus sprawled out on plush rugs, eating from a plate of figs. He was shining from the bath she had recently bade her handmaidens to give him.

“So you did not mind, even when you thought me a commoner?”

“Have you lived as a prince your whole life?” Theseus was silent. “Then it does not matter. You are who you are, and you are here to end suffering.”

Theseus scoffed.

“Was it not you who told me that?”

“It was.” Theseus swallowed a mouthful of fruit and washed it down with wine. “But I meant my people’s suffering.”

“All suffering is one suffering. We suffer too. Not only is my father hated and feared, but the whole kingdom. Our merchants are charged tariffs too steep to make a living, our sailors are pelted when they sail into port.”

“Yes, but my people’s portion of suffering far outstrips yours. Any relief besides theirs in my quest is incidental.”

Phaedra’s eyes sparkled in the dark. “But even so.”

She gave him thread and a kiss from lips as red as pomegranates. The fresco of the queen in the throne room was almost a mirror of the girl, though she had Minos’s chin and something diabolically clever hiding in her face.

 

The labyrinth stank. It stank of bones and old meat and fear. When the princess had played in it, it was smooth stone and exquisite carvings. Something had carved out a path of suffering through every hall. Lamps were broken or upset, any ornamentation was brutally scratched from the stone. The place was terrifying even before he got to the bodies.

The youths from the last year’s lottery. Theseus felt the skin on his back tighten. Most sprawled out where they had fallen, hands up to fend off some attacker, nude as Theseus himself. The sword he now carried had been wedged in a ventilation crack by the south wall, the sandals hanging from a torch. He took them, thinking of the youths who could have been spared with their blessing.

Theseus swallowed his fear and studied the bodies.

There were bite-marks, and flesh missing. But the flesh was only gone from a few select places, and not much was taken. Hardly the ravenous cannibal monster, a seabird would have pick the bones cleaner.

Theseus heard a shuffling of steps and stood. It was not weeping or wailing, so it could hardly be another youth.

Then the monster hove into view.

Theseus gagged.

The thing did not look like a bull. The horns growing from its head were strange, stunted things, beyond that the resemblance failed. The face was half-formed and twisted in agony. Its body seemed to have grown at different rates; one leg massive and the other still child-sized gave the creature its shuffling gait. Though the evidence lay before him, the creature did not look like an insatiable scourge. Its body was famine-thin, its cheeks and eyes hollow.

The creature put a hand out. Instead of a bellow, it gave a piteous mewl.

Theseus struck without thinking. Later, he could not tell the princess whether it was from fear or pity.

 

Phaedra watched him, dark eyes attentive. Her resemblances to her father seemed more pronounced in the half-light of sunset.

“So you have slain it. You know for certain?”

“Yes.” He did not tell her he struck it again and again, stabbing away the parts that looked human.

“Then I suppose I am yours?”

“Are you?” Theseus asked, “with so little courtship? With prince of a small kingdom who grew up as a commoner?”

“What else is there for me?” Phaedra asked lightly, “I am princess of a vainglorious kingdom, daughter of a slain tyrant.”

Theseus could not look at her. “So he really scalded to death in that bath?”

“Well,” Phaedra said, “he won’t be commissioning any more labyrinths.”

Her garnet jewelry sparkled like blood in the light of the sun. When they made love later that night, Theseus had to close his eyes, so unsettling was her appearance.

 

Something woke him. Something he could not place.

Years of training told him to breath naturally, ear out. No sound out of place, the boat gently creaked back to Athens.

His left hand cupped the princess’s head, his fingers dug into the thick waves of her hair. He flexed them, and felt it again. The thing that woke him.

Hardly daring to breathe, Theseus sat up. He parted the princess’s hair, finding two hard nubs crowning her scalp.

“It was quite obvious really,” Phaedra said.

Theseus started. Her eyes hadn’t opened. Had she been awake this whole time? Had she been expecting him to find them?

Phaedra sat up, sheet clutched to her breast. When he couldn’t see her body, Theseus couldn’t stop himself from imagining it twisted and horrible. In his mind, it looked like the creature’s body.

“I sent you in there to stop suffering,” Phaedra said softly, “do you still insist, even now, that you were the only one suffering?”

Theseus cleared his throat. “I told you. Any other cessation of suffering is incidental.”

Phaedra smiled. “And yet I thank you, prince.”

 

They did not moor in the island’s cove, but off the shore. Theseus and a few sailors launched a skiff, Phaedra’s couch loaded into the middle. Every swell shook Theseus’s heart, he watched Phaedra’s face, always. Even the shudder of landing was too much. He held his breath. Phaedra stirred, sighing prettily, but did not wake.

The sailors carried the couch to a small knoll, which would afford Phaedra all too clear a view of the departing ship.

Theseus kissed his ring and left it by her feet.

Phaedra opened her eyes just as the ship flew sails again. She smiled up from her pillows as the prince strode about on-deck, never looking back.

“And again,” she said, “I thank you.”

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A Matter of Public Welfare

On the television, Stephen Nilch wiped away a tear, black armband riding up his bicep. The news ticker ran:

GRIEVING FATHER’S SAFETY VICTORY/COUNTY TO IMPLEMENT CHANGES AFTER SIX-MONTH PUSH/SEVERE DENT IN JAYWALKING INCIDENTS EXPECTED

“They ever gonna let this go?”Keith asked. He had his feet up on his desk in the sheriff’s office, WORLD’S GREATEST GRANPA mug in one hand.

Stuart, fire marshal, was watching the crews out the window. “Slow news week, I guess. This ain’t Vegas.”

Half of San Andreas avenue was already parted by a chrome fence, now the crews in front of the station dug holes and filled them with cement.

“Who’s paying for this?”

“You are, natch.” Stuart let the blinds fall back into place. “Can’t say I’ll be sorry to see less crackheads cutting across traffic.”

“Crackheads? This is Holover Point. Where they getting crack, out by the cider press?”

Both men chuckled over a well-worn joke.

Keith heaved forward a little. He pointed with an index finger missing everything up to the first knuckle.

“Did they really survey this stretch of land before they put this into motion, or did bleeding hearts grease the way?”

“Not sure what you mean by that.”

“I mean, this might have some unintended consequences, is all. No disrespect to the boy.”

“No disrespect,” Stuart parroted.

“But I don’t think they thought this through.”

 

The accidents came before the fence even finished. Crossers impatient for the light were forced to jog along the fence until they spotted a gap, which was usually the center turn lane. This often ended poorly.

Worse were the mysterious hit-and-run reports that began happening in the dead hours of night. Drivers were breathalyzed and, more often than not, found sober. The unfortunate pedestrians were not found at all.

Public consensus held that the fences, while an admirable idea, were proving ineffective.

 

Stephen Nilch strode into the station. He was much taller than on television, though his grieving-yet-proud expression remained.

Keith said, “oh shit,” and extinguished his cigarette in his coffee.

Nilch nodded to him. “Sheriff.”

“Nilch,” Keith said cautiously.

“Some…indigent has dismantled a section of fence near Ponderosa court,” Nilch said crisply, “I would like to know what you’re going to do about it.”

“Well, hello to you too.” Keith forgot and took a drink. He made a wry face. “Look, we can’t be out there 24/7 protecting your pet project—”

“–the public interest,” Nilch interrupted, “is what you are here to protect, and that fence is part of it.”

“Why should a fence need protecting? And how the hell did they get that thing out of there, are some kids running around town with some bolt cutters and a chainfall?”

Nilch said “fix it,” and slammed the door behind himself.

 

Keith scratched his soul patch and surveyed the hole. It was quite a hole.

No signs of cutting, and the torn ends bent.

“Like something just ripped it out,” deputy Parrish said, probing an edge, “but there’s no torn foliage, no damage to the curb–”

“All right, CSI Glendale, I get your point,” Keith said, dusting off his hands, “this wasn’t a car hopping the curb and taking it out. So what the hell does that leave?”

Parrish found a swatch of rough brown hair on a wire point and gingerly maneuvered it into a sandwich bag.

Keith sighed.

“Maybe it was kids.”

 

Keith was tucking into a pastrami on rye when Stuart walked in. He was dressed in torn jeans in a t-shirt, all splattered with red mud.

“Good god, Stu. You been burying stiffs in the garden again?”

“Night class,” Stuart said sheepishly, taking a seat in one of the folding chairs, “I made you an ashtray.”

“Swell.” Keith napkined away a smear of mayo. “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“I had a thought the other day. Also, I just nearly missed running over someone.”

“Yikes. Well, who should I put out an APB on?”

“Seven feet tall, indistinct features, disappears into thin air when you try to follow him. Ring any bells?”

Keith looked across the desk. His sandwich flopped forgotten onto the plate. “You are shitting me.”

“It all adds up.”

“No it don’t. That’s like saying five and three make seven.”

“But in algebra—”

“Listen, shut up for a second.”

Both men looked out the window.

A car, which had been presumably traveling down the road until recently, was skewed diagonally across the lawn of the funeral parlor opposite the station. When Stephen Nilch exited the car holding his neck, both men groaned audibly.

 

“You, officer.” Stephen pointed his finger like a sword, “I have an incident report to make.”

“For god’s sake, Nilch, don’t talk. And quit moving your head.” Stuart moved to cup his skull.

Keith whistled at the dent in the front of Nilch’ station wagon. “That’s some corn.”

“Are you joking? I just nearly died.”

“You just hit someone with your car,” Keith said, “do I really need to remind you where the law’s sympathies lie here?”

Nilch clammed up sullenly.

“Where’s the body?”

“That’s just it,” Nilch said bewilderedly, “I got out of the car to check—”

“And he disappeared,” the other two men said in unison.

Nilch looked from one to the other.

“Do you want to tell him, or should I?” Stuart asked.

“I’ll go, he hates me already.” Keith gestured to the road. “Nilch, there’s something about this road. The fence was a bad idea.”

“Not that it was a terrible idea,” Stuart cut in, “it might even be good, somewhere else.”

“But it just so happens that right here, it cuts across the migratory path of the Yeti.”

Nilch said, “What.”

“The Yeti. The Sasquatch. Bigfoot, skunk ape, Gigantanthropus crypticus, call it what you will. These suckers chose right where we’re standing to migrate.”

“Get the fuck out,” Nilch said.

“Look, hear the man out,” Stuart urged.

“Shut up, Jimenez.” Nilch jabbed his finger at Keith’s jugular. “You. You have no call to mock me like this. My son is dead—”

“Look, no one’s saying it’s not tragic,” Keith said, “whether or not it would’ve happened if you’d taught him not to run across the street in the first place.”

Nilch made a strained noise.

“But the fact is that this fence is preventing the yeti from moving pastures.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Well, look at it from their perspective,” Stuart said, “they’re gentle creatures, not used to this modern world. It’s sad. One century they walk across a dirt path from one field to another, the next they get run over by a glowing-eyed monster screaming out of the dark, leaving behind only a crumpled skin that may have belong to a gorilla and their rank stench. Sad state of affairs for such a majestic and idiosyncratic animal.”

“You people are insane,” Nilch said, stepping back.

“You’re in denial. What the hell do you think keeps this town afloat? The mill? The postcard sales alone paid for the repaving of main street. Look—” Keith put a hand up. “Leaving all that, the fence hasn’t done much in the way of good. People still try to cross the damn street at midway.”

“No, no, no,” Nilch interrupted, “you don’t get to talk to me about yetis and then suddenly pull back. I’ll have your jobs. Both your jobs.”

“Well,” Stuart said, “if that’s the way you feel.”

Both men watched as Nilch got back in his car and gunned it. The motor turned over with a heavy cough and the car laboriously backed off the sidewalk. Both men waved.

Nilch made a three-point turn, steering with one hand while he shot them the bird with his other. He set the car straight and accelerated. The headlights illuminated a figure standing in the middle of the road. Every hair seemed to absorb the light, the eyes refracted back the headlights in deep red. The car swerved, jumping the curve with one tire and tearing a chunk out of the fence. The horn blared. The figure stalked back to the edge of the road and disappeared into the shadows.

“Majestic creatures,” Stuart said, “they’ve got a natural curiosity. Sadly, that doesn’t come bundled with natural caution.”

“I ever tell you the time my daddy shot one?” Keith asked. Stuart shook his head. “worst meat I ever had. Didn’t melt in your mouth, it disintegrated. Stunk up the deep freeze so bad we had to get a new one.”

Both men looked to the car. Nilch’s head lay against the steering wheel. Keith sighed.

“You fish him out, I’ll get the kit.”

The office smelled like a dead skunk when he opened the door. The sandwich was gone from the plate.

Keith shook his head and grabbed his emergency kit. “Worse than the Jackelopes.”

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The Yeseni Vampires

The Yeseni are  almost a complete cypher; aside from a few polychrome ceramic vessels and bone utensils that could easily have belonged to a neighboring tribe, there are few physical markers of their existence. What sets the Yeseni apart from their surviving neighbors is a single tomb.

The tomb was discovered after archaeologists drained a reservoir to examine what appeared to be submerged village. Along with the hut bases that had been visible from above-surface, there was a platform a distance away from the village. The platform was 2 meters in circumference and carved with a shallow sun-relief. Post holes indicated the area had once been fenced in. The ornamental nature of the platform, and its isolation from the village, led to speculation that it was of ceremonial importance.

Upon excavation of the platform, the crew found that a well extended beneath it. Crude depth markers set the well’s shaft length in excess of 30 meters. When a pump continued removing water past the capacity estimated for the space, the well was deemed part of a subterranean river and the pump was switched off. When the well failed to refill, an aide was lowered into the shaft and found the large interior space that would be dubbed ‘the crypt’: a perfectly circular room 4.5 meters in diameter. The walls held no torch sconces, leading to theories that light was discouraged in the small space. The floor was packed clay mixed with ash.

The floor was divided into sixteen partitions, and nine of them occupied by stone sarcophagi. Sarcophagi, and the complex burial customs that accompanied them, were not previously thought to exist in the area. Each held a sun-relief that mimicked the platform’s carved design. The sarcophagi were almost completely one piece, it was finally deduced that a small section at the end of the stone tube could be removed, providing barely enough space for a small adult to squeeze through. The sarcophagi were impregnable; archaeologists found that opening the end of one could not be done without destroying the integrity of the structure, so they delayed it until proper facilities could be established.

At this point night had fallen on the surface, so the crew regrouped and planned for the next morning’s operation. The floor of the chamber was still under six inches of water; this would necessitate removal so the crew could explore unhindered the next day. They had brought no photographic or videorecording equipment, so it was never fully established whether the murals existed before the second day of exploration.

The discovery of the murals was not without some furor, as the first team to enter the tomb had brought adequate lighting and were resolute that they had not seen the decorations.

The crew took photographs and film of the well’s murals, the first of many of what would become infamously significant. The murals were thought to be entirely non-representative, no figures, plants, or animal life could be discerned from the geometric patterns. The patterns themselves were theorized to be a crude kind of written language.

The cerulean present in the murals they guessed to be a formula similar to Han blue, the red a mercuric sulfide. The violet remained a mystery. It was too color-fast to be a vegetable pigment, and mineral violets had not been synthesized until hundreds of years after the projected age of the tomb. One dig member thought it to be obtained from some now-extinct Murex relative. All pigment conjecture aside, the question of how the murals had remained colorfast for so long remained unanswered, seeing as the walls were not limestone and no substitute fixative could be detected. The sarcophagi were fashioned from flood basalt, the room’s fixtures from a white alabaster not found in the area.

By now the archaeologists had developed a rhythm of work on the tomb. The site could only be worked by a few shifts a day because workers developed pressure headaches, presumably from the tomb’s depth. Three mild incidents of narcosis were reported in the first week. The next discovery was falsely attributed to mild cerebral edema: several crew members of an evening shift claimed the murals were more bright and saturated than their first sighting. At first dismissed, the claim was verified when the photo rushes arrived from the temporary darkroom set up in a nearby town: the murals had indeed become more vivid since the first day of observation. What was more, the phenomena was not confined to the tomb’s walls. A magazine abandoned overnight showed a marked increase in ink saturation; what was more, the photographic subjects had warped in the moist air, appearing to gain sunken hollows in their cheeks and eyes.

The shifts were commuted from three a day to merely one, and this only lasting fifteen minutes. Even so, the observers within the tomb noted visible changes to the murals within their presence. The geometric patterns began to have a derogatory effect on the crew, one ended up being airlifted to the city after collapsing from an epileptic seizure(no epilepsy had been extant in his family history.)

Seventeen days after the dig began, crew reported an auditory hallucination: knocking. They claimed it was not a knuckle-rap as one might hear on a door, it was more like the flat of a hand testing a surface for solidity. The hallucination did not decrease with time and distance from the pit. More and more crew members reported flu-like symptoms, but blood tests showed no increase in white blood cell count or any other typical response to a viral infection. Finally, the dig was halted when the dig foreman suffered a minor cut to his finger and the wound failed to clot. The foreman lost around two pints of blood in an hour. While he was flown back to the city for emergency procedures, a supposed “pump malfunction” caused water to pour back into the tomb. The shaft was flooded to 2/3 its original volume, the tomb itself presumed submerged once again.

The local government has since designated the area a national heritage site, replacing the stone platform and barring any further archaeological operations. Many of the original crew retired shortly after the dig.

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The Ceiling Goes On Forever

The census men were the only ones who dared travel between floors. There were roaming monks, true, but they never braved the stairwells where savage families sometimes waited to surprise travelers with bared teeth. Hardly any more civilized than a hallway, sometimes.

Quol was taking census in an anteroom. The patriarch’s crude floor dialect was hard to translate, yet Quol caught mention of a greatspace discovered somewhere to the west. Quol gave it no mention in his papers. There were always spaces being discovered, always a few stairs away, always just beyond reach. Someone knocking down a flimsy man-made wall to discover genuine chamberwood. The substantiated claims had gotten to be less and less since the parlorkind had ceased the practice of entombing their dead that had invariably ended up driving them back out into the halls.

Rumors, however persistent, were still rumors.

Quol sought refuge with an alcove family, sleeping face to feet in a space protected only by a curtain from the hall. He took tally with a bit of burnt bannister. Ink stores had run perpetually low since he had parted ways with Jom five stairways ago. With any luck, Jom was now floors above him, hacking his way through the incomprehensible dialects of that story.

Next he caught rest on a wide stone stair. He gathered runnel from the condensation that formed in the vaulted ceilings far above his head. There was a lone turd on the stair above him, but thankfully no sign of its maker. A crudely scratched depiction of genitalia stared him in the face as he ordered papers to drop off at the nearest library. Perhaps he could get new inkwells, too.

Sadly, travel brought no respite, only more family census. A girl from a parlor twittered about greatspace as Quol sketched her family tree. Room patriarchs pointed him in circles. The space was always just the next hall over, tantalizingly close but never approachable.

He moved through a hall that had been cannibalized so heavily that even stone was missing in places. The few roomers were taciturn, often he had only time to do a rough headcount before doors slammed on him.

There was a single door at the end of the hall. Quol expected it to open up on a smaller passage, but instead a rough-headed woman looked up as the door swung free. Small children gathered in her skirts, homespun cloth accented with gilded strips cut from a drape.

Through miming and gestures, Quol made himself understood. The matron’s crude speech was hardly better than stair dialect. Quol could see from her face she thought the same of his sharp librarian tongue. He suspected they were a stair family that had taken over a parlor space, but refrained from saying so. Indeed, she spoke of the room being empty and unnaturally cold when they arrived, but thought nothing of it until they destroyed a section of man-made partition. Instead of the closet or annex they had hoped for, there was a strange patch of wall. Quol deciphered from her crude idioms that it was unlike any wall they had seen, transparent as the ice that formed on stairwells sometimes. The room beyond it was massive, larger than even a ballroom, with an odd, rough carpet and a ceiling far beyond what they could fathom. It was uninhabited, and ultimately barred from ingress since the place gave them a strong sense of foreboding.

The woman asked if he would like to see it. All tasks forgotten in the sudden lust for new knowledge, Quol stepped inside.

Though everything in Quol’s instincts screamed at him that it was merely a ruse, that they would lead him to a closet to cut his throat and steal his pack, he thinned a smile on his face and followed her through smoky rooms made with flimsy partitions. The men were elaborately bearded, the women were buried under shawls and rugs.

The man-made wall was still in place. Quol thought he had been taken for a fool, until he noticed that it showed signs of being removed, then clumsily re-attached. A door was cut asymmetrically into the wood, it was this that the matron now pushed open.

There was no fire. Quol could not see how they lit the room, until he realized the light was coming from the wall itself. It was indeed transparent, but not ice; he pressed fingertips to it and found it merely cool, not cold. The matron watched him, unimpressed.

“He other already here,” she buzzed in her crude tongue, “other travel-man books. Step through wall.”

Quol stopped cold. With the fingers of his free hand, he made the sign of a banded cap. The matron grunted, grasping her elbow in an obscure gesture of confirmation.

Jom. Jom had been through here. And what had befallen him?

“Step through wall,” the woman repeated. “through. Down.”

Down. That was simple enough. But—through? The wall, though clearly transparent, was solid as anything.

The matron bade him away and hefted a catch. The wall slid up into itself, a mechanism Quol had never seen anywhere else. A rush of air hit them, fresh and somehow sweet, but strange. It smelled not of a room abandoned to the annals of time, but of something Quol could not place. The woman, now that her task had been accomplished, shied away from the opening. She would not even put her hand through, so Quol did. There was no noticeable change in temperature, nothing screaming out of the void to pierce his hand. So what was the source of trepidation?

Quol had made up his mind almost before this moment. He would be a pioneer, he would be the one to explore this space successfully. Signing and speaking, he had the matron step back. The opening, while easily wide enough to accommodate a man, balked at his census pack. He was just reconsidering the wisdom of his decision to wear it through the passage when his strap caught in the crevice between walls, pivoting his momentum and shooting him out the opening too soon. For a moment he hung farcically suspended, then the strap snapped and his weight sent him plummeting down.

The pack was both his undoing and savior. Quol fell three-quarters on his side, his impact spread out enough that he was merely painfully winded, not broken completely. He gasped sharply, and was unable to take a breath for agonizing seconds. The ceiling reeled about him a woolly gray that stretched off in all conceivable directions but the one he’d come from—that was a wall so impossibly tall that it made his eyes hurt so he shut them.

Quol concentrated on slowing his breathing, making sure his limbs were in working order. When he could finally sit up he wiggled off his pack, painfully twisting his limbs in a few places, and grabbing a draught of water.

After this rest he took proper stock of his surroundings. The carpet beneath his feet was unlike any he’d ever seen, thick, rough, and fragile. He teased a frond with his hand and it broke with a crisp snap. The floor beneath it had rotted completely, the spongy texture was welcome after the fall.

Quol could see the place he’d fallen from. It looked like the only bright eye in a dead face. It sat some distance above him, the sharp pain in his side reminded him of how far it was. There were others, shining and, he assumed, carrying the same properties as the wall that dropped him. There were even a few on his immediate level but they were blank, blocked off presumably after generations of lost family members or perhaps never open to begin with.

Movement caught his eye.

The wall, perhaps his only salvation, was sliding down by degrees, or perhaps design. Quol opened his mouth just a little too late to shout as the wall slid shut with a final-sounding click. Darkness rushed to fill the space beyond. He could only pray that the matron had the good sense to block it off until the proper authorities could study it.

Quol looked around. The floor was vast and met the horizon seamlessly. A greatspace, perhaps the greatest space ever known. The weight of its size pressed down upon him, he found his breath becoming short and his blood rising in panic. He shut his eyes against it. There was no body, if Jom had fallen he had lived long enough to drag himself away at least. He forced his eyes open again. An unbelievable distance away, Quol saw a crimson dot against the fragile green. He hiked to it.

The space yawned all around him. He looked continually behind him and to either side, expecting an ambush at any moment. There was only the crumpled shape before him, which grew sadder with the closing distance.

Jom had fallen on his pack. His eyes fluttered, alternating between a vacant stare and rolling back to the whites. Quol knelt by his fallen colleague. What had the schism been about? The matter of whether parlortongue was merely a dialect of ballroom or a language in its own right? The legitimacy of stair pidgin? Nothing that mattered now. Quol dropped water from a flask into his palm, dribbling it on Jom’s eyes and forehead. Jom’s eyes focused and then glazed. He may have injured his head in the fall, but then how had he staggered so far? Quol felt his skull. Nothing immediately noticeable.

“Jom,” he said.

Jom looked up with a start, as if he had not realized there was really another person present.

“Quol,” he rasped, “O god, it’s got you too.”

Quol knew better than to nod. “Are you hurt? I can provide aid—” but Jom was shaking his head.

“No, save your water. No stairs, no pipes, no faucets.”

Quol felt a dread that had been circling his mind descend. He had been wondering that, but more immediate matters had temporarily pushed it away. How would they find food? Water? Even if they weren’t attacked by an outside force, how would they live?

Jom’s eyes were wandering. Even if he had no physical injuries, something had proved too much for his body to handle. Quol shook him a little.

“Hold on,” he said, “we have made a discovery to shake the ages. All we need to do is get back and report it.”

A choking sound came from Jom’s throat. Quol realized he was laughing.

“Get back?” he said, voice raising to a cracked shout, “and how? The way is blocked and the ceiling goes on forever and forever and forever and forever AND FOREVER–” he broke off in a coughing fit.

Quol gave him water and attempted to nurse him, but Jom slipped away slowly as the ceiling darkened through some unknown mechanism. Jom could see no light fixtures, not even a fireplace. It was as fascinating as it was terrible.

Quol closed his eyes against the reeling vertigo. He spread Jom’s blanket, upheld by their packs to form a flimsy cover. Then he sat, stroking Jom’s feverish hand, wishing he could crawl beneath it too and deny the blasphemy above their heads.

“It’s okay,” he lied, “I have dragged you back under ceiling. You’re safe.”

Eventually, Jom’s hand went cold.

Quol left him tucked under the blanket, unable to bring himself to plunder necessities from Jom’s pack, even if he no longer needed them.

There was no cover for Quol. The wall sat uncompromising behind him. He was too afraid to leave the safety of its facade, yet it could offer him no comfort. He should move. He had to move. He would never get anywhere otherwise. But the room was dim, and the ceiling went on forever.

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The Machine’s God

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How it started:

I went to bed with a fever once and didn’t wake up for nine days. They told me I was incomprehensible, delirious, what came out of my mouth was like a traffic jam of words and animal noises. I woke on the tenth day feeling hungry. I made myself a fried egg sandwich and then I went to my workbench and built the first one.

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The first:

It came to me in my fever dream. I dreamt of fire, of warm, liquid metal. There was no struggle, I simply held the material in my hands and it seemed to shape itself. I didn’t truly know what I had made until I turned it on. My sister came in the door when I had it in my hand. She lost half the hair on her head. She’s forgiven me since then, but I don’t know if I ever will.

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The next:

I locked my first creation away under my floorboards. For all I know, it’s still there, under the rotting remains of our old house. The next I tried to manufacture with caution, but the work leapt ahead of my hands before my brain could object. This one scuttled away under the armoire. We didn’t find it for weeks, only its leavings. All the jam in the house missing, teacups broken, and the cat found stark raving mad in the closet. The search ended when I was putting on my greatcoat to go out one day and heard a crunch under my left shoe. I felt bad, despite myself.

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The apex:

This was the one I came to regret the most. It seemed so innocuous when I finished it, made of old pig iron scraps and watch springs. I remember how it fit to the curve of my palm. But then it disappeared for a month. By this time we were used to the machines disappearing for a time after their birth, usually they turned up none the worse for wear. I began to worry when I heard the new mayoral candidate use words I myself had coined, a trip to town hall confirmed my fears. It had grown…and with growth had come a thirst for power. Before I could consign it to the dust, half the town was uninhabitable. Forgive me.

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The demiurge:

By now they became as pets, or children. Small in my affections. I had created what seemed the entire gamut of terrestrial life, the insect, the dray horse, the worker bee. It was inevitable that I create something of a deity for them. It wasn’t a bother at first. It merely floated around the rafters, sermonizing the others in a series of squeaks and clicks. The others were quiet when it did that, so I let them be. Later that week I discovered a small shrine on the highest gable of my new house. The others were sacrificing themselves, hurling their tiny bodies to the ground below. Well, there was nothing else for it. I got my wrenches and went to disassemble it. The task nearly got the better of me, but in the end I trapped the thing in the furnace. The flame was violet for weeks after that.

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The reaper:

I am old now, my hands have lost their surety, and I get lost in conversations I held decades ago. Like any proper machine, I am winding down for the day. A few of them, my machines, my children, pile at my feet, watching. Even if I knew how to talk to them, I would have nothing to say. They are all of them self-sufficient, and seem to take care of themselves. Yet they seem to look to me for…something. No matter. I am busy with my very last creation. It is not black, nor does it contain skeletal parts, but the function should be obvious to all who lay eyes on it. I start it up and hold my arms out for final judgment. One slice and I am machine undone.

____

Special thanks to Bill Draheim, who nicely collaborated on this post.

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Papers Found in a Burnt-out Jeep

The first few pages of this entry come from a personal journal from Colonel [name redacted at descendant’s request] the journal was in poor condition, owing to the humidity of the tropical environment.

–so far South we practically had to swim for cover. What’s more, the ruddy natives around here are worse than the Poonjabs. Every attempt to communicate ends with a shower of spears. I’ve never met a people so intolerant of outside influence, almost as if they know why we’re here. If Eddington has been and gone before us I shall never hear the end of it.

Jan 1, 184(5? 7?)

We’ve managed to settle in, though lord only knows when they’ll discover us and flush us out again, like bloody partridges. We’ve tried every language in the book, even the valley tongue that Pelgrom picked up as a curiosity, but these people have no interest in talk. As soon as you open your mouth, they set to such a wailing as I have never heard before, like they’re trying to drown us out. Twist suggested creeping to their huts and setting fire in the middle of the night. Serve the mongrels right.

Jan 7, [years obscure]

I was right. They’ve been trying to keep us from the far shore. The little blighters even sabotaged the longboats, though they didn’t have the courage to do it in daylight this time. Thank God for Mssrs. Smith and Wesson. Upon closer viewing, yes, the farther shore does have dwellings on it, along with people. They already seem a friendlier bunch, waving to us from shore, almost entreating. They even wear clothes, like civilized men, though I’ll leave that conclusion to our first meeting.

January [numbers blotted out by a different ink than the body of text was written with]

Eddington may have been here, but he had only whet the native’s appetites. We were greeted as royalty when we landed, the few English words they had learned parroted back at us without thought to proper structure. They touched our guns and books and made a great show of friendliness, gave us a proper welcome. I may be able to unseat that redoubtable cad in their hearts, though they are a hungry bunch. They signed the contracts, no questions, only entreated us to speak and speak more. They took the bits and baubles we gave them, then, curiously, handed them back after only a day’s enjoyment. Twist unraveled the mystery when he dropped a trinket–lac! The clever little beasts had copied and cast their own. We took it all in good humour, the poor beasts seemed embarrassed on being found out.

The big man is called something that he casually translates to Flatwater. A fine gent, in his own way. He was very insistent on speaking only English, though when he heard Pelgrom possessed knowledge of the Dutch language he added that to the table. Eddington had a Dutchman, come to think of it. I will usurp that shiftless company man if it’s the last thing I do!

February[further date obscured]

[this entry is almost completely illegible, due to ink smear and what is certainly a questionable mental state by its writer]

Stood right over me. Yes. Likable fellow. Smiles all the time. Phibs(?) gone. Pelgrom gone. No more speaking in Dutch, my knowledge isn’t enough to keep up with Flatwater. He seems to be taking it well, and speaks English better than any given Yorkshireman. Good fellow, smiling(?) fellow. The other night I saw Janos by the fire, speaking rapidly as if under duress, while one of the Yaris tribesman roasted over coals. Flatwater woke me from that dream and told me the fever had taken my mind to a strange place. Bless him, likable fellow.

I know that the rest have all gone, probably killed by those Yaris bastards. Flatwater tells me their knowledge will live on. Small comfort, bringing civilization to these mountains. Yesterday, caught him taking a peek at my books. Cheeky fellow. Good man. Perhaps I will endeavor to teach him to read, when I feel more like myself.

[the next entry has been heavily obscured by ink. Radiographic imaging shows the entry to be one word: “FUCK”. Manufacture of the ink dates it at 1970, most likely from an American India ink producer]

7/12/1973

Well, we’ve made it here, and save for a little censorship I have left Colonel [name redacted]’s journal intact. The jingoistic rhetoric present in his text serves as a pretty good depth maker for our progress here.

The Yaris are now much fewer in number than when the expedition made contact, European-bound tuberculosis is the main culprit. How sad that the first people responsible for discovery were also the downfall of these peaceful people?

Despite an initial hostility, we have made contact with the Yaris remnants. They agreed to assist in our study for a small stipend of food.

7/13/1973

How odd. There is another, more advanced settlement not too far from our location, probably the Yaro described by the colonel. But when we pressed the Yaris to explain why they did not call upon their more prosperous neighbors for help, they went quiet. Our communication is not perfect, but I think the idiom they used closely translates to “tongue eaters.” We tried to convey that we have dealt with cannibal tribes in the past, but the chief used the chopping sign I have come to understand as “wrong.” Well, whatever the tribe’s personal prejudices, we have decided to initiate contact with the tribe across the lake.

7/15/1973

Finally. After a period of coy courtship, the Yaro greeted us with open arms(not forks!) The Yaro chieftain, who asked us to call him Flatwater, said that a land dispute some generations ago fueled this feud. He expressed regret for the Yaris people but then again, one cannot offer help where none is wanted.

They are a friendly people, showed us around every inch of the village. It is very similar to the Yaris village, minus the squalor, and so clean. It’s almost a resort. The chief expressed great regret that we were leaving at the end of the day, and made us promise to return. In a cheap pulp novel, this would have been an ominous irony, but there was nothing but good cheer as we pushed away from the shore.

7/20/1973

I have told the Yaris chief of our contact with the other tribe. His reaction was odd, but not unexpected. His warriors fell silent, while he himself turned to the wall and said a phrase which more or less translates to ‘you are death.’ I am unsure of the noun context, whether “death” and “dead” are interchangeable. But the message behind it is clear: we are no longer welcome. On leaving the chief’s hut, everyone, man, woman, and child, turned their heads away. After some deliberation, we have decided to cohabitate with the Yaro, as they have been much more accommodating.

7/22/1973

Contact going swimmingly with the Yaro. The people are much more open to experience and share their own.

Something strange I noticed the other day. The Yaro have a common pattern that appears on clothing, baskets, even the walls of houses. It is almost exactly a duplicate of a similar pattern the Yaris use to label dangerous things, such as a patch of quicksand, or the mating path of a bear.

7/24/1973

The Yaro speak English! I was eavesdropping on a farmer and his friend while tilling yams, and found a few English phrases mixed in here and there. When pressed the chief admitted that yes, they had had some previous European contact and was afraid that it would prejudice us towards them. I assured him that we already knew, and communication has picked up accordingly.

7/29/1973

He’s dead. A young man from the Yaris village snuck over here, a guardsman mistook him for an enemy and left him dead from a throat wound. I told the chief we would return the body to the Yaris as a gesture of goodwill, despite his protests.

7/30/1973

The Yaris did not seem surprised to see us. The chief assured us the victim was a headstrong young man, who thought he could reason us into leaving. He remained stone-faced as I regaled him of our exploits with the Yaro. He spoke only when I asked him about the pattern.

He said: long ago, there was a brilliantly-colored beetle that would lie in wait on the forest floor for a toad to come along. The toad would immediately eat the beetle on sight, but the beetle had a strange poison in its body that allowed it to survive being consumed. The beetle would eat the toad from the inside, working for days until the toad was only a skin-shell. Then it would crawl away and repeat the process.

When I remarked that we had seen no such beetle, the chief did not comment.

8/9/1973

They’re picking up more English at an astonishing rate. American colloquialisms have worked their way in, no doubt to the lament of English explorers past. They have also constructed duplicates of some of our equipment through some kind of tree resin casting, how fun!

8/13/1973

Phillips came to me this morning. He was waiting by my pillow as I slept.

He said he’d talked to the Yaris man when he came to the village. He’d actually been shot as he was leaving, according to Phillips. I was half asleep, so bear with my faulty recollection: the Yaris man warned Phillips that this was an impostor village, and that the Yaro had been waging a campaign of terror on his people for generations for they refused to speak in Yaro presence. He said the Yaro were not men, but low things that had not even looked like men in the time of his ancestors. They had been echo creatures, mimicking wildlife cries and the shouts of hunters, leading to the Yaris tradition of remaining silent during the hunt. He said the Europeans “fed” them, so that they matured into the people we see today.

Phillips wandered off as I tried to talk sense into him. I may speak with the chief my concern.

8/21/1973

Philips is dead. He’d been gone for days, but they only just pulled his body from the water. The chief thinks he set out in a canoe for the other side and hit an eddy he couldn’t handle. The chief gave his condolences, but refused to let us leave until he could assure our safe passage.

8/26/1973

The Yaris village is gone. Looks like it was razed to the ground. All of us got sick from last night’s dinner. I don’t feel safe here anymore.

9/5/1974

well, THe dEcision to staY turned out to be Correct. Under The circumstances, Our Failing equipment Forcast ManY hardships LEGitimately Subsidizing our efforts to leave. HowEver, Lately oPinion has shifted My viEwpoints and i feel it safest to remain here.

english lessons have continued as normal. they still grasp idiomatic speech but have trouble with the written word. the tribe did not have a glyphic system, so this is not surprising. they grasp relatively well the expressions in written speech, but subtleties such as punctuation and capitalization ESCAPE them.

[There are impressions on the following pages, but the pages bearing further writing have been removed. Pencils rubbings reveal only gibberish.]

 

And there you have it. Written proof that European explorers have been to this remote area. We found no evidence of either tribe, the jungle has reclaimed the clearing that we estimate as the most likely site of the Yaris tribe. The coordinates of the Yaro tribe site match that of the government encampment, but Senior Officer Tasik assures us that this is coincidental and that no native displacement took place.

As soon as we are restored to wifi(something they assure us is forthcoming) I will upload these accounts to the internet, where it will be available at [school anonymity protected]’s database. In the meantime I will secure this and the documents before it in our camera case. The government workers offered the use of a briefcase, but what appeared to be metal turned out to be some kind of resin covered with metallic leaf.

As we wait for civilization, I practice my mother tongue with Tasik. Proost!

Per Thorson,

March 2011

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Why Did They Leave You Alone?

C’mon kid. Spill.

You’ll have to say something sooner or later, those are my buddies over there, dredging that hole.

Where did your parents go? Did they run off and ditch you? Are they catching a plane or train or just hoofing it to Canada? Did they just step out for a smoke? Maybe they’re in the bathroom.

You gatta tell us sooner or later, we’ll know anyway. We got ways. We got computers. We’ll scan everything you ever touched. Find the blood that’s been washed away, the spit, the semen. You think a few bars of motel soap and some bleach will hide your identity? We’ll ask your DNA. And DNA don’t lie to us.

Was it Shelly? Surely it was her or Daisy or Mary or Carrie or Jill. One of these girls. Look kid, look. You can’t keep those eyes closed forever.

A lot of girls won’t stop for some stranger on the street. Too smart. They’ll stop for a kid though. They’ll stop to play tag or kiss booboos or say hi to a couple with a kid.

Were they really your parents? Pssh. Why am I even asking? Like I could trust your answer.

You ever been in there? It’s a long, cold drop. Used to service a mine, now it’s just for dopers. No respectable girl would be within a mile of this place.

Oh hey! You hear that? That’s Phil. Phil just found something.

Great guy, Phil. Sharp eyes.

Your knee hurt? I can get a bandaid. But we gotta get to the station for that, and to get to the station you have to talk.

Were they nice to you? That don’t mean a whole lot. Nice people don’t do this. Nice people don’t break up families and leave mothers up crying all night. Did they buy you pop and let you stay up? Lemme tell you kid, that may seem like love but it ain’t.

They’ve got the chain going. That means something’s big. Something down there.

Did you move around a lot? Hell, I did that when I was a kid too. I used to look up to my pops. When I grew up I realized he was a no-good shit. Drank. Fought. Got kicked out of places too many times. But I still loved the shit out of him until he hit my ma. Isn’t that funny? They’ve got you until that one thing, the one thing they do turns the tide, makes all the love into hate.

Well kid? What’s in there? The one thing?

It’s stuck. Looks like they can’t winch it up. Makes you sick to think about it.

Did they tell you it was all your fault? That’s a lie. That’s the god-damndest lie I ever—

Huh. Too heavy for the truck? That’s gotta be a first.

Look, kid, you aren’t helping nobody. You aren’t helping your folks, you aren’t helping those girls, and you aren’t helping your case any, I can tell you.

Randy, keep it down! I’m talking to the kid here!

Yeah, just a second.

NO, DON’T CALL FOR BACKUP. IT’S A TEENAGE GIRL FOR CHRISSAKES, HOW COULD IT—

Times running out. You hear that? That’s the hammer coming down.

Just open up.

Open up. Open—

…kid.

What the hell did they do to your tongue?

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Mister Seahorse

He hadn’t wanted to return to the beach

the memory swilled inside him like a poison, never far, ready to clench his body in remembrance of pain, lash its tongue across his life to let him know:

it happened

he hadn’t wanted to go back to work

but they would notice. weeks of gastric upset, of furtive glances and hiding his oozing nipples, but absence was the one thing he could not, would not be able to explain to his coworkers. to avoid clenching when asked the old saw: what did you do for vacation? to lie as he ran his tongue over his teeth, still tasting iron and salt, tasting her, and smiling blandly: went to the beach.

he hadn’t wanted to get out of the car.

he could see from the road the distance he had swum, and now the image made acid back up in his throat. so far, so foolish. there were signs warning of riptide, but that hadn’t been the danger. the danger had been his own misplaced heroism, his idiot impulse to save and be seen. to look up and see what looked like a woman out on the rocks.

he hadn’t wanted to go on living

but something made him do it. he considered taking his own life, before he even considered a doctor, but both trains of thought were abandoned. if he forgot about it, it was like it never happened

except it did

he hadn’t wanted to set foot on the sand

he supposed the first mermaid must’ve been Venus, arising from the foam of Uranus’s severed head to set one virgin white foot on the shore. born of sea-foam, like the later daughters of Neptune, immutable, intractable,

fecund

he hadn’t wanted to swim out

too far at first because he feared the riptide. now he missed the world where the worst thing he had to worry about was getting dragged out to sea. a world where the mass he saw on the rocks, far from shore, looked a bit like a woman lounging on her side. where he, caught up in a playfully mythic spirit, called out to her. a world that ended shortly before “she” shifted, and he saw that the figure was only the top of something very, very, very big

he hadn’t wanted to come back

but there was nothing left. it was harder and harder to hide his growing bulk from his coworkers, excuse away the frequent abdominal pain, the vivid red slashes that decorated his back and buttocks as if something had grasped him to stop him thrashing—

he hadn’t wanted to get back in the water

but he did. he shed his shirt and shorts, kicking off his shoes in the tide. he half-hoped there was someone around to see him, someone who would call the police and arrest this indecent exposer, but he was alone. as he began to tread water, alone. as he fell into a simple breast stroke, alone. as the rip tide pulled him not out to sea, but to a familiar gathering of rocks, alone. as the pain became unbearable, alone.

and, as he gave birth in a tide of red foam, he wondered if they would call it Venus.

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