Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Twilight Zone

So I’ve been watching the reruns of the old The Twilight Zone (or Twilight Zone as it was called in the later episodes) and I have to say, it doesn’t seem to stand up well. It’s labeled as science fiction, but rarely is it science fiction. It is fantasy, it is psychological drama, it is old, bad science, but often it is not science fiction. It wrapped itself, periodically, in that mantle but it rarely was... and then the science was ridiculous even for the early 1960s.

Take Probe 7 – Over and Out. This story is so bad that editors of science fiction magazines would have all rejected it. Here Richard Basehart crashes on a planet far from home. He is destined to stay there for the rest of his life. He meets Antoinette Bower, apparently another alien visitor to that planet. They get along as they struggle to learn each other’s language. At the end we learn his name is Adam, hers is Eve and the place they where they are marooned is Earth... Really?... Earth?... the Adam and Eve story?

The writer’s guidelines from most science fiction magazines at the time said that they didn’t want any stories about two people stranded far from home... with the twist at the end... it’s Adam and Eve! It was an idea that had been done so many times and was so cliched that no one wanted to read it.

In a similar vein, is Third from the Sun. A group of scientists on a planet that is about to destroy itself have access to a spaceship. They plot a way to steal that ship, save their families, and blast off for another planet that has a startlingly similar atmosphere and even people just like them living there. We learn they are headed to Earth... Please.

Or the episode, The Invaders, that has almost no dialogue and features a single actor, Agnes Moorhead. She’s alone in her farmhouse, far from the neighbors when she is attacked by little men in spacesuits. She fights back, killing them until she finds their ship, crashed into her attic. She attacks with a hatchet, smashing it as the pilots scream over their radio about the trouble. We see the smoking wreckage and the words, "United States Air Force,"... Really? Again?

The Silence
isn’t science fiction. It isn’t fantasy. It would be more appropriate on Alfred Hitchcock’s old show. Here a man, Archie Taylor, tired of listening to another man, Jamie Tennyson, at their exclusive club, bets him that he can’t remain quiet for one year. If he can the man will earn half a million dollars. They erect a huge glass cage so that everyone can watch and listen. At the end of the year, Tennyson has won the bet. Taylor is forced to admit that he doesn’t have the money and leaves in disgrace. But then we learn that Tennyson had "the nerves to my vocal chords severed." So he cheated. A mystery of sorts with a twist. A drama that takes place in an expensive club. Science fiction it is not.

Nightmare as a Child
is not science fiction or fantasy but a psychological drama. A woman encounters a child who seems to know too much about her. In the end that child seems to save the woman, but then, the child could be just a psychological manifestation from the woman’s traumatic past with no elements of the paranormal or supernatural. In other words, a story more appropriate to Alfred Hitchcock than to the Twilight Zone.

And, as if to prove that science isn’t a necessary component to the stories, there is I Shot an Arrow into the Air. Astronauts crash onto an asteroid after their ship goes off course. Lost in this desert-like world, one of the astronauts, suffering from a case of terminal exposure, returns to his friends unable to speak. He draws a symbol in the sand, a thick line with two bars across it but his fellows can’t decipher it. Later there is a fight over water and another astronaut is killed as the final, ruthless man climbs a ridge and looks down into a valley. There is a highway and telephone poles along it. They have crashed on Earth and the mysterious symbol was the telephone pole.

There is so much wrong here that it is unbelievable. First, there are no asteroids with atmosphere. Their gravity, on the very largest, is no where near that of Earth’s. The sun would have looked smaller, given the distance... and no astronaut would be unable to realize they have crashed on Earth, or if he couldn’t, he shouldn’t have been an astronaut. At night, wouldn’t they have seen the moon? Finally, why in the hell would the guy draw a telephone pole. Why not write, "Earth?" This episode isn’t science fiction because there is no science in it.

There are episodes that I do enjoy, though often the science is lacking. For some reason I like A Hundred Yards Over the Rim in which a father, leading a small group in 1847 is lost in a desert with a dying son. He walks up a sand dune and below finds a modern highway. He is nearly run over by a truck, which frightens him, accidentally shoots himself in the arm, and ends up in a remote diner, surrounded by modern appliances. A doctor is called to help him, gives him some penicillin and wonders about his strangeness. The man comes out of a back room where he was resting, having read about his son in an encyclopedia.

Okay, I won’t ask why the diner has an encyclopedia and I won’t ask why they man would be in there reading it, even if he knew what it was, and I won’t ask why he looked up his son’s name... though in today’s world, we’ve all googled our own names, but that’s a different matter. In other words, there are some problems with the story.

The diner owners call the sheriff but the man flees, running back up the dune but drops his rifle. When he gets to the top, he sees his little party and hurries down to them. He has a small bottle with the penicillin in it and tells his wife to give it to his son... which saves him.

The sheriff deputies pick up the rifle he dropped, but now it is some old, rotten thing that looks as if it had been in the desert for a hundred years. A little twist at the end to prove the man had traveled, somehow, through time, to save his son.

There is Hocus Pocus and Frisby, starring Andy Devine. He is the local liar, telling outrageous tall tales while his friends egg him on and periodically point out the contradictions in his stories. He always has an excuse for those problems. On his birthday, he is abducted by aliens (in 1963 before the thoughts of alien abduction made bestsellers, one of the aliens seen here), wanting to extract information from such an accomplished man, apparently unaware that people lie, but Frisby, manages to escape.

Back in his general store, his friends surprise him with a party and ask where he’s been. He tells them the truth about his abduction but they all hoot, not believing a word of the truth. They had expected a great tale for his birthday and this is one of his best. They just don’t know that this time it is the truth.

The Parallel
is sort of interesting with an astronaut returning home, but finding little things are wrong. There is a picket fence around his house that hadn’t been there, some historic events played out differently, some of the people are slightly different. Just little things. He eventually returns to his home world. I think Journey to the Far Side of the Sun did it better.

The point here is that The Twilight Zone, at least for me, simply does not hold up. As a youngster a lot of it made sense, but as an adult, I see too many problems in the stories and am surprised that some of the concepts made it into production. They simply are not thought out and the problems are ignored in the interest of telling a story that itself makes little sense.

Some of the old science fiction shows do seem to hold up better. Star Trek, for the 1960s, of course but the emphasis was on character rather than on plot devices. The old Science Fiction Theater is still interesting, though the science on it is often outdated. Even the old Superman shows, which in the beginning were semi-serious, but later just devolved into a comic book appearance which has a certain charm (though in one Superman is frozen to 2000 degrees below zero... really... Can you figure out what is wrong with that?).

Given the time in which it was made, The Twilight Zone did attack some of the stereotypes and presented some stories that might have provoked a little thought, but in today’s world, they mostly just don’t work. Remember the old Laugh In, which was so funny and topical in 1970... but in today’s world seems lame. I think The Twilight Zone suffers from the same problem. It just didn’t age very well

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Land to the North - Epilogue

(Blogger's Note: Yes, it has taken a long time, but the story is finished. If you have enjoyed it, please take a look at On the Second Tuesday of Next Week, a time travel novel of a war in space. You can find it in the Kindle store at under my name. Thank you... and now back to our story.)

The rest of the diary was blank. That was the last entry. Morgan closed the book and for a moment, believed every word that he had read... and then, he didn’t believe any of it. There were no hidden civilizations inside the Earth. There were no holes at the poles to allow anyone to enter. Google Earth and satellite imagery had proven this. The book was a work of science fiction that Morgan found interesting, that belonged in another age or another time, but that was all it was.

He stood up, looked at the pistol again and thought that it was a nice prop to prove the story. But it wasn’t as if there weren’t thousands of such pistols around and there was nothing special about this one. Because he could touch it didn’t mean that the story he had just read was true. It just meant the pistol was real.

Somewhat disappointed, he put the diary, along with the pistol, back in the trunk and closed it. He couldn’t figure out why either had been hidden, why the pistol hadn’t been removed long ago, why his parents had hung onto all this nonsense. They certainly weren’t looking for a publisher for this story and no one was searching for the mythical entrance to this lost world inside the Earth or the missing uncle.

He walked downstairs, into the family room and then sat down at the computer. He did what everyone did when he or she had question. He typed the information into a search engine to see what he could learn.

He found that David Morgan Stone was an American officer of the First World War who led a scientific expedition to the Arctic Circle in which his partner Eric Jensen died. He, and a woman he claimed to have come from the Inner Earth, were found drifting in a small, palm-leaf boat in the northern Atlantic. He, with the woman, Christine, who he later married, embarked on a lecture tour about the wonders of the Inner Earth. Stone was one of many such adventurers who either supported the claims of a civilization inside the Earth or who claimed to have been there to see this mythical land to the north. All his claims were based solely on his observations, backed up by those of his wife. The Stones said that they would return to the Inner Earth to prove their tales true and disappeared on an expedition in either late 1928 or early 1929.

Morgan was stunned. It meant that everything in the diary was true.

And then he realized that it meant nothing of the sort. It meant that his uncle had told the story as if it was true, but he offered no proof that it was. Or rather that he had no proof that it was. Morgan was left with the same questions that he’d had before he searched the Internet.

He was still sitting at the computer, staring at a very old black and white picture of his uncle with Christine when his parents came home. His father burst into the room, yelling that they had returned and then spotted Morgan sitting at the computer.

He walked over and then froze, his eyes fixed on the photograph. Then, quietly he said, “So now you know.”

Morgan turned and looked up at his father who might have been a younger version of this uncle. There was an unmistakable family resemblance there.

“I know that he disappeared. I know that he believed there was another world inside the Earth.”

His father pulled another chair around and sat down. He looked at his son and said, “This has been the family’s dark secret. Your uncle made quite the splash in the 1920s. He made a lot of money on his lectures, but as the audiences became more sophisticated and our knowledge of the planet became more enlightened, we all knew that there could be no civilization hidden in the Earth has he said. They all believed him to be deluded and we all believed the same thing.”

“Then what happened to him?”

“He left the family. He took his wife, who said she had been born in the Inner Earth, and disappeared. He left a small fortune to the family and a trust fund to be used by any family member who wished to follow him. That trust was broken as satellites began mapping the planet. It was broken because he had been delusional when he set it up and under the law, the contact was invalid. Now the money is used to send family members to college.”

Morgan sat looking first at the photograph on the screen and then at his father. “Then nobody ever followed him?”

“Where? Clearly he was deluded. Some believe it was because of his injuries in the First World War. The delusion was harmless enough, and in fact, his lecture fees were enough for the family fortune to expand. No one cared what he said as long as the money kept coming in and he didn’t embarrass the family in some way.”

“So it was all about the money?”

Morgan’s father shrugged and said, “This was really before my time. As I say, he was harmless as were so many others roaming the country at the time talking about their expeditions to Africa or South America. Some had stories of riches buried on far off islands, some had tales of mysterious lands hidden behind banks of fog, or of mysterious lands that no one else ever found. And there was just enough being discovered to lend some credibility to his tales. His were as real as most those others and people paid to hear him talk about his grand adventure. I understand that he had a real passion for his tale.”

“And then he just disappeared?”

“One day he was there, in Kansas City, and the next his house was closed, the trusts set up, and he was gone along with his wife.”

“You didn’t try to find him?”

“I am much too young for that but some in the family did. The last report that anyone believed was that he was spotted, or rather had bought some supplies in northern Canada and from there the trail went cold, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

Morgan sat back and scratched his head. He looked at the computer screen picture of his strange uncle and then at his father. He said, “I’d like to find out what happened.”

“So would the rest of the family, but there isn’t much to go on. He headed north with his wife and disappeared. They were alone, on their way back into his lost world.”

Morgan was quiet for a moment, thinking. It seemed impossible that a relative had been chasing a tale of a world inside the Earth. But then, it was nearly one hundred years ago, and people just didn’t know that much about the Earth. They didn’t have satellites that had photographed the planet from every angle using every available medium to do it. A hundred years ago, Antarctica was a huge unknown, much of South America, especially the Amazon basin had not been explored, and people were still disappearing in Africa.

But in a modern world, with all the information available, it just made no sense that there was something hidden away. Morgan shrugged and said, “Do you know what happened to him?”

“I don’t know, but I believe that he traveled north with Christine and then died trying to find that entrance into the Earth. All we know is that he said he was going to try to return for the proof he lacked.”

For Morgan it wasn’t a satisfactory ending. It left a door open a crack. Maybe his uncle had found his way back into the Inner Earth. Maybe his expedition had been a success, but he hadn’t been able to return. Or maybe he had just frozen to death in the great white north and some day someone would find his frozen remains.

Morgan’s father stood, signaling the end of the conversation. He pointed to the computer. “Well, there’s the best tool for learning about him. Let me know what you find out, if anything more, but dinner will be ready soon.”

Morgan watched his father walk into the kitchen and wondered how he could be so uninterested in this aspect of the family history. And then he realized that his father had probably done the same thing as he was growing up. He hadn’t found any answers so he had lost interest, but Morgan knew that didn’t mean he wouldn’t find something. After all, he had the Internet and his father hadn’t.

Land to the North - Chapter 20

We drifted with the current in the river and while it had brought us into this world, I had the feeling it would also take us out. All we had to do was let it run its course. I had no idea how long that might take, nor did I have any real idea of how far we had come on our journeys. We had been forced to march in so many different directions that we might have made a huge looping turn and been near our original entrance, or we might be at the far end of this world, near another entrance to it. I just didn’t know.

In the last several days, or rather, in a long period of this eternal light, I had little opportunity to sleep. What little that I had was not as restful as it could have been. It seemed that there had been so many crises that there was no rest. We had been fleeing so many captors in so many places, that rest was not possible. Too much happening too fast.

Christine looked so peaceful in the bottom of the boat, lying so that she avoided the little bit of river water that was sloshing around. Her right arm was up, over her eyes and her legs were stretched out, away from the water. She didn’t move and it was difficult to see that she was breathing, though she was.

I sat with my back against what would be thought of as the stern, through there was no real difference between the front and the back of the boat. Fore and aft was determined by the direction the boat was heading, and I was sitting so that I could see the river in front of us.

I didn’t feel drowsy at all. My eyes didn’t burn, my eyelids were not heavy and I wasn’t yawning. I was tired, really tired but not drowsy.

It was the fog horn that woke me. I started and grabbed for my pistol when I realized I couldn’t see much other than the gray of the cloud bank we had drifted into. I could hear the distinct rumbling of an engine, a mechanical devise, and I could hear the mournful sound of the fog horn somewhere out there near us.

Christine sat up suddenly, frightened. She stared into the clouds around us, and then looked back at me. “What is it?”

I waved a hand to silence her, but there was no reason to do that. I knew exactly what it was, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from in the fog. The sound seemed to reverberate as it bounced around, seeming to be all around us.

Then I heard a faint splashing as the bow cut through the water and new that it was very close. I drew my pistol and pointing it straight up, fired it three times, hoping that whoever was on the boat would recognize the distress signal that I have learned in the Army. Three spaced shots meant you were in trouble.

I thought I heard the engine slow and the splashing seemed to be quieter. I said, “I think they heard us.”

Christine stared at me and I didn’t know if she was frightened or just confused. There were no engines in her world and no real fog like this. Just the ever present sun, some haze created by the humidity, and a fight to stay alive every minute.

The splashing stopped and the fog horn blasted three quick times. I raised my pistol and fired three more shots. Then I heard a voice that sounded as if it was close.

“Ahoy there. Where are you?”

For an instant, I didn’t realize that the voice had spoken English. It was the first time in a long time that I’d heard someone speaking English, other than Eric. I suddenly knew that we had escaped from that inner world, though I didn’t know where I was nor how we had done it.

I put a hand next to my mouth and yelled, “Out here in a small boat.”

“Can you see my light?”

I tried to figure out the direction to the voice and stared into the fog. I saw nothing for a moment and then a dull glow that looked like the sun on a cloudy, rainy day. Just a small smear of brightness in a dull background.

“I have you in sight,” I yelled.

“Can you come to us?”

If I had been planning, if I had not been running from those on the Spanish galleon, if I had not been fleeing that inner world, I might have looked for oars when we found the boat, but we were in such a hurry, we just jumped in and took off.

“I have no motor,” I said, hoping that would be sufficient.

“Hang on,” said the voice.

I didn’t know what they planned. I didn’t know how big their boat might be. A freighter could easily swamp us or run over us before they managed to get organizated. I heard nothing for several minutes.

Christine said, “What is happening?”

“I think we’re about to be rescued.

She stared at me and then shivered. I realized that it was chilly in that fog. Not really cold, as you’d expect above the Arctic Circle at any time of year. Not the cold that could seep in and kill you in minutes. Just chilly and uncomfortable, given where we had come from and how we were dressed.

I heard a distance splashing and then a voice. “Can you give us a direction?

I didn’t know how to do that because I didn’t know where I was or the orientation of my boat to theirs. I yelled, “I can give you a long count if that would help,”and then, not waiting for an answer started counting upwards.

In seemed as if an hour had passed, though I hadn’t counted nearly high enough for that when I heard their oars in the water. A moment later, the boat appeared out of the fog no more than twenty or thirty feet away.

The crew were bearded men wearing heavy coats. Four were pulling at oars while one in the bow was searching for us and another was in the rear steering.

“I see them,” said that man in the bow and pointed.

Their boat turned toward us and as it came along side, the men pulled their oars in. One of the men reached out and grabbed the side of our boat. He started at Christine.

“How in the hell did you get out way out here?” he asked.

Christine didn’t move. She looked frozen with fear. I reached out and took her hand, pulling her closer to the rescue boat.

One of the men was stripping his coat and held it out for her. She didn’t know what to do. I pushed her closer and the man leaned over, draping his coat over her shoulders. She understood then and wrapped it tightly around her.

In minutes we were on their boat, standing on the bridge, both of us wearing coats provided by our rescuers. The captain stood staring at us and said, “What in the hell were you doing way out here?”

Once we had been given warmer clothes, gotten something to eat, and had a chance to relax, the captain joined us. He looked us over carefully again and then asked again, “And how did you find yourselves out in the middle of the ocean?”

“That’s a very long story,” I said.

“We have some time now. We can’t be making our observations in the fog.”

He explained they were a scientific expedition that had a task of observing the glaciers in the Arctic Circle with an eye to figuring out a way to predict the way the icebergs were formed and the drift pattens that sometimes affected the maritime world. Their research was an outgrowth of the Titanic disaster some years earlier.

Given that they were on a scientific mission, I told him that I had been part of one as well. I explained about our attempt to penetrate the Earth’s crust to reach the interior world and that we had been searching for the father of Eric Jensen who had originated the journey. I told him that Christine was a resident of that world.

I could tell that the captain didn’t believe much of our story, though we had been dressed for a warmer climate, we had been in a boat that was clearly manufactured from tropical type plants, and there was no other explanation for us being as far north as we were. I suspect he believed that we were deluded in some way and had somehow assembled the elements of that delusion into a little bit of physical evidence. He was just too polite to mention it.

When I finished my tale, he slapped his hands on his knees as if to push himself out of his chair and said, “It’ll be several days before we return to port. Until then you have the run of our boat. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”

As he left, I laughed and said to Christine, “I don’t think he believed me.”

“Then where did we come from?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose it all depends on exactly where we are now.”

“What are we going to do?”

I smiled at her and said, “Stay warm and not worry. We’re safe here, unless the weather turns bad and we run into a storm.”

When I saw the look on her face, I quickly added, “But I don’t expect that to happen. Besides, this boat isn’t all that large so I don’t think we’re all that far from land, either Greenland or Canada.” I didn’t explain to her what Greenland or Canada were and she didn’t ask.

In talking to one of the scientists on the boat, I learned that they were documenting everything they were doing. Eric and I had sort of planned that, but given the way our expedition worked out, I had lost everything except for my pistol and the clothes I was wearing. Our maps, charts, photographs, and anything else that would prove what we were doing was gone. I’d lost Eric in the process and we hadn’t found his father or sister. We had failed, or rather I had failed, in everything that we were trying to accomplish.

All I had to show for it was Christine who could, of course, tell about her life inside the Earth, but then, no one would believe her either. They’d just believe she was an actress hired to prove the point or that we were both suffering from the same delusion.

I convinced one of the scientists to give me one of the spare journals and set about chronicling the expedition as best I could. I spent the ten days putting down as much as I could remember about the expedition in the order that it happened. I knew as I was writing it that everyone would see it as a work of fiction, but I thought it important to put down as much as I could. Someday it might be seen for what it was.

We have now arrived in Nova Scotia and we have been put off the boat. I cabled home for money from my father and he sent it along. I was able to buy train tickets for New York and since we were in Canada and came off an American boat, everyone believed we were Americans. I told customs that Christine was my wife and that we had lost everything at sea. Given everything else, given the way ships were damaged and people were sometimes stranded, they believed us.

My goal now, is to return to the Inner Earth with a proper expedition to find Eric’s relatives and to prove that it can be done. Christine isn’t sure she wants to go with me, and that is up to her. She said that there is nothing left for her there, but I think she’ll change her mind if I can get another expedition, a proper expedition, together.

If I succeed in returning to the Inner Earth, I want my family to know what happened and where I am. I leave this record, for the family and not for science. Someday, if I have gone but not returned, maybe one of you will follow me...

Land to the North - Chapter 19

I hadn’t planned the escape. I knew that we were going to have to make a break for it, but I hadn’t thought much beyond that simple idea. And suddenly we were standing close to a single guard, bending over to put food on the deck in front of us. There hadn’t been a noise in the corridor outside. This was an opportunity that we simply couldn’t pass up.

As the guard started to straighten, my foot snapped out, like I was kicking a record field goal. I felt pain shoot through my foot as it connected with the chin of the man. His head snapped rearward with a cracking of bone. He flipped around, landing on his back. I leaped to him, put a hand against his throat but there was no pulse. I grabbed the dagger at his belt, wishing that we had better weapons.

I jumped to the door and peeked out. I held up a hand, telling the others to stay put. I stepped into the corridor and hurried along it. When I reached the ladder that lead to the upper deck, I turned and saw that Eric was watching. I waved him forward.

When he and the others joined me, I started up the ladder, pressing my back against the rough wood to the side of it. There was a square of bright light over me and I climbed toward it. When I reached the top, I hesitated, poking my head up so that I could see. Toward the bow there was no one. On the stern, I could see a couple of men and one of the creatures.

There was nothing that we could do. Either we stayed, trapped in the passageway, or we tried to get to the bow where we could dive into the river. I ducked back, leaned close to Eric and whispered the plan to him. We would run across the deck and leap into the water, letting the current take us away from the ship.

“That’s your plan?” he asked.

“All of it.”

He turned and asked Huana and Christine, “Can you swim?”

Both nodded and Christine grinned.

“I’ll go first. If I make it, then you follow. If not, duck back and try something else.”

Eric chuckled and said, “Your plan really stinks.”

I said, “Yeah,” and then peeked up again. I saw that the men and the creature were looking at something on the shore, facing away from me. I used that diversion to exit the hatch. I stepped onto the deck, turned and ran for the bow. As I dodged around one of the masts, I ran into a sailor, bowling him over.

As he went down, he shouted, “Hey!”

I pounced on him, driving my fist into his face. He grunted in pain and as I punched him a second time he caught my hand. He twisted my arm and I began falling to the right. As I did, there was a scratch and then a boom as someone fired a flintlock pistol. I felt, rather than heard, the ball whiz by my head and heard it smash into the wood of the mast. A man was standing on the stern, wrapped in a cloud of blue gun smoke.

And then Eric was beside me. He kicked the sailor in the side. The man grunted and fell to the deck. Eric reached down and grabbed my wrist, jerking me to my feet. I turned and saw a sailor coming at us, his sword held high.

There was another shot that did nothing. I dropped and kicked, hitting the man with the sword in the knee. He toppled right, losing his grip on his sword. Eric danced in and grabbed it. He spun around to face another sailor.

I turned and saw the captain standing there. He held the Mauser, aiming at Christine. I dived at him, cutting his legs from out from under him. He crashed to his side. He rolled to the right, trying to get up. I scrambled to my feet and jumped, knocking him down again. When he dropped the Mauser, I dived for it, snatching it.

There was another shot from a flintlock and the wet slap of a bullet hitting flesh. As I rolled clear, I saw Huana fall to the deck, a spreading stain of crimson on her back. Another of the Spanish was raising his weapon, ready to shoot. I fired first, the slug catching him in the throat. He fell to the deck and didn’t move.

Eric, swinging the captured sword, leaped toward Huana. He chopped at one man with all his might. The man fought back, parrying each of the blows, but losing ground. He stumbled then, throwing up a hand. Eric swung, chopping it off. The sailor shrieked and fell to his side, cradling his wounded arm in his other hand. Blood pumped onto the deck.

I reached Christine and pushed her toward the bow. As she jumped over the railing, there was a shot. It missed her and I heard her splash into the water. I glanced over and saw her swimming away in long, graceful strokes.

Eric was cutting his way toward me. A man leaped between us. There was a flurry of activity, the blades ringing against one another and then the point of Eric’s sword was protruding from his adversary’s back. The man fell to the deck with a low, quiet groan.

Overhead came the flapping of leather wings. One of the creatures was screaming out of the sky like a fighter plane attacking a trench. I aimed and fired. There was a burst of red and the beast flipped out of the way. It disappeared over the side of the ship.

And then four men swarmed from a hatch, all of them attacking Eric. He shouted, a call meant for the Vikings in Valhalla. He waded in, chopping and hacking, screaming at the top of his lungs. I wanted to help, but couldn’t find a clear target. I held my fire and saw Eric driven to his knees, blood covering his face, chest and arms. He kept shouting at them, his voice lost in the noise of battle.

Eric fell to the deck as the sailors hacked at him. I fired at them. Two dropped, blood on their clothes but I didn’t know whose blood it might be. One turned toward me, his sword raised, his teeth bared. I put a round in his face. The last man standing turned to flee.

There was nothing more I could do. Eric had been literally hacked to pieces. His blood spread over the deck in a thick, red mass. I could see his bones and his lungs and knew that he was dead.

With that, I tucked the pistol into my belt and whirled. Someone fired a flintlock. Someone fired an arrow. I dived over the railing and hit the water. I pulled myself away from the ship underwater. I opened my eyes, could see the sunlight filtering down. There was a snap beside me and I saw the twisted path of a bullet through the water. A second and third shots were fired but they missed as well.

I surfaced, gulped at the air and ducked back as two or three others fired at me. An arrow cut close. Then there was silence and I burst up again, sucking at the air. In front of me I saw Christine, still swimming as fast as she could.

“Head for shore,” I shouted.

She looked back over her shoulder and then turned. I followed her. We reached the bank and I stood up, the water was about waist deep.

“Where are the others?” she asked.

“Didn’t make it,” I said, shaking my head.

For a moment she didn’t speak and then asked, “Do you think they were captured?”

I moved closer and said, “No. They weren’t captured. I couldn’t get to them.”

She stared at me, her eyes filling with tears. She turned and reached for the root of a tree, dragging herself up, out of the water. She stood for a moment and then collapsed to the ground.

I crawled up after her. I wiped the water from my face and looked back at the Spanish ship. There was activity all over it, but no one seemed inclined to give chase. One man stood on the bow, firing arrows at the water. They fell far short of where we were hiding.

“Christine,” I said, “We’ve got to get out of here. We’ve got to move.”

She didn’t respond immediately. Then, rather than speak, she got to her feet and stood waiting.

I moved to her and held her. She was shaking and I wondered if it was her attempt to control her emotions or if she was cold from the water. We stood close for a moment and then I let her go and turned.

“We have to get moving.”

She nodded her agreement.

Together, we headed to the south, along the bank of the river. To the right of us was thick jungle, so dense that we couldn’t see more than a couple of feet into it. A giant green wall climbed high above us. To the left were a few scattered bushes, some tall trees, their roots dipping into the water and, of course, the wide expanse of the river. The water was clear and in some places so shallow that we could easily see the bottom. We could see the fish swimming just under the surface.

It didn’t take us long to put distance between us and the Spanish ship. I stopped frequently, but there was no sign of pursuit. It was as if the men on the ship didn’t care that we had gotten away. Of course, I had shot the captain and if there wasn’t a well established chain of command, the sailors might be fighting among themselves for the top spot. Not the best way to run a military command, but one that would allow us to get out of here before they got organized.

We kept traveling, staying close to the river. I figured that it would provide us with food and with a means of travel. All we had to do was remain patient.

After an hour or so, we stopped to rest. I took out the pistol and examined it. Using my shirt, I cleaned it as best I could. When I was finished, we started moving again, always heading away from the Spanish ship and the little bit of civilization that we had seen near it.

We finally came to a small dock. There was a wide spot in the jungle and the trail leading into it. I looked up the trail but it was like looking into a long, green tunnel with nothing visible at the far end.

I turned and saw the boat tied to the dock. It was a reed boat, woven with loving care. The weave was so tight that there was only a little water in the bottom of it. Without thinking, I pushed Christine toward it. When she stepped down into it, I slipped the rope from the pole on the dock and climbed in beside her. I leaned back and shoved. We floated out to the middle of the river, were caught in the current and began the next stage of our journey.

“Should we take this?” asked Christine, somewhat belatedly.

That was a question that I hadn’t thought about. Someone had made this boat and they hadn’t done it for my benefit. I had just slipped the rope stealing it. Taking the boat was wrong, and I knew it, but I wanted to get out and this, I believed, was the quickest way.

I said, “This will get us out of here.” It wasn’t much in the way of justification.

She looked at me and then, without a word, stretched out in the bottom of the boat. She looked as if she was going to speak but then said nothing. She closed her eyes and in moments, surprising me, she was asleep.

I sat there for several minutes, watching the shore, waiting for a pursuit. When it didn’t develop, I shrugged and laid down next to Christine. I reached out and touched her sun hot skin, smiled at her and thought that things might work out. I shoved the thoughts of Huana and Eric from my mind. I would have to deal with all that later, when I had the chance. Now I needed to stay alert. And in that, I failed.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 18

We were taken below by several of the Spanish sailors armed with swords and daggers. The leader had an old flintlock pistol tucked into his belt, but I think it was more ornamental than functional. As one of the sailors opened the hatch, two of the creatures landed on the deck. They stood away from us, studying us with those blood red eyes. The sailors didn’t seem to be concerned about them landing there.

And then we were below the decks being lead down a narrow, short passageway. The leader stopped near a hatch, used a large key to open the lock. When the door was opened, he gestured. I ducked and entered. The women followed and Eric brought up the rear.

The interior was dark. There were chains fastened to beams over our heads, but the Spanish didn’t enter. They merely closed the hatch and locked us in.

I turned around slowly and inspected what I could see. There was a dim square of light at the door where there was a small, square window with two thick bars set in it. The deck under us was wood and except for the chains hanging from the beam, there was nothing else in our prison.

Christine sat down, her back against the wall. She drew her legs up and propped her chin on her knees. She didn’t say anything to any of us.

Eric watched her for a moment and then said, “This is getting monotonous. Everyone we run into in this world keeps tossing us into cells.”

“At least we’re alive,” I said.

Eric looked at Christine and then Huana who hadn’t moved since the door had been closed and locked. “But for how long?” he asked.

Rather than respond, I crouched near Christine. When she looked at me, I asked, “Are those creatures intelligent?”


“Can they think? Are they rational?”

She shook her head but said, “I don’t know. No one I know has ever talked to one. They just attack and kill.”

I rubbed a hand on my face and stood up. I moved to the window and looked out. There was no one in the corridor outside our cell, but that didn’t matter. There wasn’t a way for us to escape from it easily.

I turned and said, “Seems that the Spanish are trading with the creatures.”

No one responded to that and I wasn’t sure where I was going with it, so I let it drop. I paced off the cell, discovering that it was quite long and very narrow. In the darkness I could hear the scrambling of tiny claws on the wood and was sure that there were rates in there with us. Rats seemed to have invaded all the world’s environments but I said nothing to the others about them. We didn’t need to worry about rats.

I sat down and closed my eyes. I hadn’t realized how tired I was. We hadn’t gotten much sleep in the last few days. We had been on the run almost from the moment we jumped from the window in the palace. Without realizing it, I fell asleep.

And then was awakened by the door of the cell banging open. I sat up with a start and saw two huge men, each holding a sword. One of them growled at us. “Captain wants to see you now.”

I stood up and moved toward the door, a hand up, protecting my eyes. As I stepped into the corridor, I blinked. When the others had joined me, all of us were taken to the captain’s cabin. Outside it, we waited while the guard knocked. There was a muffled response from the inside and we were told to enter.

The cabin was in the stern of the ship. Across the open door was a wide window that looked out on the river. Surrounding it were statues and vases and goblets of jewel encrusted gold. There was a carpet on the floor, made of the finest wool. There were bars of gold in one corner and bars of silver in another. The cabin was loaded with treasure worth millions of dollars.

The captain sat in a chair covered with ornate carvings and decorated with gold and silver. It looked more like a throne than a chair.

He was a big man, burly. He had long black hair, a huge beard and small, brown eyes. His hands were huge, looking as if they were too big for his body. As we entered, he sat up and boomed, “Who are you?”

I bowed slightly and said, “Captain David Stone, formerly of the United States Army.”

“Captain?” he said. “United States, huh? You look English to me and I know not of this United States.”

He had me on that one. I didn’t know what to say to him, but that problem was quickly forgotten when he said, “I am the duly appointed representative of the King of Spain. You are on land that belongs to the King. Have you his permission to be here?”

At the moment we were on a ship but I didn’t want to debate the point with him. Instead, I said, “We became lost while exploring the islands off northern Canada and found ourselves drifting in these waters.”

“A likely story,” he boomed. He waved a hand around the room indicating his treasure. “I believe you are spies, or pirates, come to steal all this from my King.”

I glanced at Eric who shrugged. The captain caught the motion and asked, “Who are your friends?”

“I am Sergeant Eric Jansen of the United States Army.”

“Jansen? Do I know that name?”

“My father made a journey here a number of years ago. He has not returned. I,” he stopped and waved a hand and then continued, “we have come to find him.”

“European like yourselves?”

Jansen shook his head. “Americans.”

“I don’t know of this place.”

“The New World,” I said again. “Columbus discovered it, sailed there many times. Europeans settled there. We are descended from them.”

I wasn’t sure if the explanation made any sense to him, but them, I wasn’t sure that it mattered. We were his captives and we could invoke whatever we wanted and if he didn’t fear it, or retribution from it, he would do what he wanted.

The captain decided to ignore me and picked up one of the jeweled goblets. He held it up to the light. “A beautiful thing,” he said. “Made by some of the finest craftsmen in this world. It’s worth a great deal of money anywhere in the world.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s beautiful. Was it created near here?”

He looked at me as if I was trying to get information from him. He smiled showing broken, yellowed teeth. “It will do you no good because Governor Pizzaro has already conquered the Incas bringing them into the realm of Spain.”

When he said it, it all fell into place for me. It was why I had recognized some of it. Why it had seemed familiar. I remembered some of the accounts I had read about the Inner Earth that contained the theory that the Inca had escaped into the caves of the Andes taking their treasure and culture with them. And now I was seeing that some of the Spanish had followed.

I snapped my head around and looked at Christine. The moon! She had mentioned a festival of the moon. But a group who lived in the perpetual daylight of the Inner Earth wouldn’t have seen the moon. They would no nothing of a moon. That was an obvious carry over from the time that they had lived on the surface of the planet.

This was an anthropologist’s dream. A culture that had been destroyed centuries ago was now found to have survived, partially, living in a remote spot inside the Earth. Sure, there were changes, but not all that many. I felt the excitement build. This was a significant find. The gold, the silver, and the treasure paled in comparison to the value to science.

I rubbed my hand over my face as these thoughts flashed through my mind. This was a discovery on par with Colombus and the New World. Sure, other had been there before Colombus, but he was the one who returned with the information that allowed others to follow. Now I was in a position to do the same.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 17

Since speed was of the essence, we didn’t waste time. The head man, or village chief, or whatever he was called, ran off, shouting at his warriors and within moments, nearly a score of them stood near the gate. Eric and the two women approached a second later and as they neared, the chief ran into the jungle. The men followed him, stringing out along the path. I jogged after them with Eric and the women right behind me.
Once we were into the dense foliage, we slowed. The men began to watch the trees around us, their eyes darting from one dark branch to the next. A light breeze rustled the leaves and caused the shadows to shift and shimmer. A panicky man let an arrow fly, cutting through the blackness of a dense patch of leaves, but hitting nothing substantial.

With that we slowed even more. The headman was in a hurry, urging us on, but each of us thought about the peril that lay in front of us. These vampire-like creatures sweeping out of the shadows to rip open our throats. I felt my skin crawl as we moved deeper into the twilight world of the dense jungle.

The chief stooped and snatched at something caught on a bush. He held it up and shouted excitedly. Although I didn’t understand the words, I knew what he was saying. We were on the right path.

But now that we were into the jungle, out of sight of the village, the men were slow to respond. They were afraid of the creatures and I can’t say that I blamed them. None of them wanted to die as one of those hideous monsters ripped at his throat. The surge into the jungle had been bravado because everyone in the village was watching and I understood perfectly the psychology of it. Men were always braver when their fellows were watching and even braver when it was their women, but now, out of sight of the village, they were dragging their feet.

I didn’t blame them. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea either, but knew that we had to move rapidly if we were going to have any chance of success. I jogged forward and stood next to the headman, showing my support for him. Eric, Christine and Huana followed closely. We all stood staring at the men as they argued among themselves.

It was enough to turn the tide. The men, now shamed by the strangers, were again ready to go. The chief turned and ran down the path, holding the tattered cloth over his head like some kind of a banner.

For quite a while we maintained a quick pace. The men were strung out along the trail, hurrying along with us. I kept my eyes opened, ready for trouble. But we didn’t find it. The path wove north and east and then north again. It wasn’t the same one that we had used when we first headed into the village. I decided that there must be two or more gates in the bamboo stockade and we had left by a different one. I recognized nothing around me.

Then, in the distance, I heard the sound of running water. A quiet splashing like that of a large, slow-moving river. The chief came to a fork in the path, looked down one trail and then the other. Finally, unsure of what to do, took the trail to the left that lead, more or less, toward the water.

The jungle seemed to be just as dense as it had been from the moment we entered it, but there was a new odor in it. Not of the sea but of fish and water. Somehow the heat had become more oppressive.

Again, as I looked down the trail, I could see a point of light in front of us, a place where the jungle gave way to an open field. Looking to the right, I saw points of light shifting in the distance as the light breeze caused the vegetation to vibrate. It meant that we were skirting the edge of the jungle, just inside the trees. I doubted that we were going to find either the missing people or those horrid creatures.

Then, suddenly, the path jogged to the left and we were looking at a vast, open field that sloped gently to the river that was about a half mile away. At the edge of the water were a number of huts, some of them like the log cabins built by pioneers on the prairie and in the forests of the last century. Around them were grass huts, like those in the village where we were attacked. And, at the very edge of all that, sitting next to the bank of the river, was the most amazing sight. A wooden, three-masted ship that looked ready to put to sea.

Eric came up beside me and said, “What in the hell?”

“Looks Spanish,” I mumbled and suddenly understood so much. Understood who the people in the city were. Understood why they had insisted on speaking to us in Spanish. Understood what I had seen and knew that we were looking at the way to get out of this inner world hell.

The chief crouched at the side of the trail, his eyes on the ship and the village near it. The men had dived for cover, some of them refusing to look. It was as if they were afraid of the sight in front of them.

I moved forward, crouching low and asked in a quiet voice, “Are you going down there?”

Then, to my surprise, he said, almost echoing the words of Huana, “No. These are the eaters of babies. They would kill us all.”

“What about your missing people?” I asked.

“They are not down there. We have taken the wrong path. I was in error.”

I turned to stare at him. I noticed that he was more frightened of the people in the village than he was of the creatures who had attacked him.

I crawled forward and stretched out on the moist, soft earth of the jungle floor so that I could study the village. A man came out of one of the wooden buildings, turned and looked in our direction. He stared up as us for a few moments and then returned to the building. Another man appeared from a grass hut and walked to the ship. He climbed the gangplank and then disappeared below decks.

Even at the distance from which I was watching I could tell a couple of things. First, they were bearded white men. One of them wore armor that looked like that of the Spanish conquistadors of the late sixteenth century. That man had carried a sword, but I had seen no sign of a firearm. They may have lost them all over the decades or simply run out of powder with no one around who knew how to make more.

The chief was suddenly at my side, whispering in my ear, telling me that we had to get out. The search must continue now if we were going to have any chance of finding the missing people alive.

I had to agree with that, but I was looking at the way to escape this inner world with a little bit of ease and quite a bit of safety. Eric was off to the right and I knew that he was thinking the same thing, though he was probably thinking about his family as well. The whole point here had been to learn their fate and we had failed, to this point, of doing that. We had few clues about them. But neither of us wanted to meet those creatures again, especially on their home ground. It was time to separate ourselves from the natives.

I whispered to the chief that we had to talk with the men below us. Those in the village. He shook his head vigorously and grasped my arm. “No!” he said. “They will kill you.”

“No,” I said. “They will not.”

“They will kill you and eat your bodies.”

“They will not,” I repeated. “I have knowledge that they desire. We will be able to trade with them. All will be safe.”

“I will not go down there with you,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t expect you to,” I said, watching him closely. He was so afraid of those white men that I thought he might try to kill us himself to stop us. I watched him carefully, looking for a sign that he was making a move to his weapon, but he just quietly backed away from me, as if I had suddenly become dangerous, which, after a fashion, I had.

Without a word, he signaled his men and they began to slide back into the jungle. I think they were all glad to be away from the baby eaters who lived by the river and I suspect they now believed that we too were baby eaters. We looked like those men down there and we were about to join them. Any good will we had earned in their village was probably now gone.

I watched them disappear into the jungle and when they were out of sight Eric said, in a normal tone of voice, “I suppose we can just walk down there.”

I was momentarily surprised but then realized we really had no reason to hide. In all the other places we had been, we had looked out of place. We didn’t look like any of the natives, but now, we were back with those of a solid European stock. They would see us as brothers, or, at least, I hoped they would.

“I don’t see why not,” I said. I turned my attention to Christine and asked, “Are you game?”

When she didn’t reply, I realized that she hadn’t understood the question so I repeated it, explaining to her what I had meant by it.

She looked apprehensive but said, “Yes, I am game.”

I expected Huana to put up a fight about this, but she didn’t seem to be frightened of the Spanish. Maybe it was because her people and the men below had some kind of trade agreement. Maybe they had all worked together at some time so she knew that the Spanish didn’t eat babies.

I waited, watching the scene below me. It seemed peaceful enough. There were quite a few men circulating among the buildings and the ship. I saw only a couple of women wearing the long dresses of a couple of hundred years ago. They moved quickly from one location to the next. I didn’t think there were many of them around, surprised that there were any at all.

When I was sure that the head man and his party had gotten a good start, I stood up. “Let’s go on down,” I said.

Without waiting for a response, I stepped from the jungle and out onto the plain. Once into the bright sunlight, I hesitated but there was nothing more to do. I waited for Eric and when he and the women caught up, I continued down the hill until I found a narrow, winding path almost hidden by the short, green grass and the brightly colored wild flowers.

As we neared the village, I heard music, guitar, flute and drum. There was some singing that blended in, but the words were buried in the music.

No one seemed concerned with us as we approached. If anyone was watching, if there were any guards out, I couldn’t see them. We walked right up to the edge of the village before anyone noticed us. Then, two men came running down the gangplank from the ship, disappeared behind a couple of adobe buildings and reappeared, running straight at us.

I didn’t like the way they ran, or even the fact that they were running toward us. There seemed to be something sinister in it. It was as if they were about to attack. I fingered my pistol but didn’t draw it. I held up a hand to halt my small party and to let the men know that we were peaceful.

The men ran around a corner of a building and slide to a stop right in front of us. Both were of medium height, had thick black hair and long, thick beards. Both wore medal breastplates and the curved helmets of the conquistadors. Each had a sword in a scabbard and a dagger in a sheath. Their clothing looked to be very old, frayed and worn, but clean.

I kept my hand up in greeting and said, to them, in Spanish, “Good afternoon.”

They looked at one another, surprised but then answered my greeting with one of their own. Then one of them said, “What are you doing here?”

“Trying to find a way home,” I said.

“Where is home?”

From the look of these men, I was sure they knew about the outside world, even if they had never been there. They were obviously descended from Spanish explorers who had somehow gotten themselves lost in this inner world.

I shrugged and said, “Kansas City.”

He looked puzzled and I said, “It’s in the new world. In the land found by Columbus...” Which wasn’t exactly true, but it was close enough.

“Ah,” said the man, grinning. He waved us forward and said, “Come. I think the captain will want to hear your story.”

That made sense to me. I gestured and said, “Please, lead the way.”

The man who had spoken turned and started off. I was bothered by the fact he hadn’t offered a name and didn’t seem interested in ours. As we started off, I noticed that the second man didn’t move until we were all heading toward the ship. It was a very neat way they had bottled us up without raising much in the way of suspicion.

We walked through the village but I couldn’t see much more than I had from the jungle. I could hear voices coming from the buildings and could see details such as glass in the windows, barrels of water next to some of the buildings, or benches outside of doors. Behind some of the windows, I saw faces watching us carefully.

We reached the ship and walked up the gangplank. I tuned to say something to Christine and saw a dozen men had been following us. All of them had drawn their weapons. I whirled to warn Eric and saw that there were more men coming up from below decks, also armed. The greeting was turning nasty.

“David,” said Eric.

I pushed Christine to the side, drew my pistol and opened fire. My first round caught the lead man on the gangplank and he fell to the dock. Those following him dived for cover.

I spun and aimed at one of the men. He jumped to the left, out of sight. An arrow flashed by and buried itself in the wood of the ship. There was a shout and two men ran at us. I slipped to a knee and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the man in the center of the metal chest plate. I heard it punch through. He threw his hands up and collapsed to the deck, a spreading stain of crimson under him.

Then, suddenly, a dozen arrows thunked into the deck around us. Men, carrying crossbows, lined the railing. Each had an arrow notched and each was aiming at me or Eric. It was clear that the fight was suddenly over and any further resistance would mean that we would die.

I grinned, lowered the hammer of the pistol and pointed it at the sky. I bowed slightly and said, in Spanish, “You have won the point.”

A big man, in brightly colored clothes and holding a massive sword jumped from his hiding place and bellowed, “You are my prisoners.”

“Yes,” I conceded, “but I don’t understand why. We have done nothing to you.

“You have killed my men.”

“Only after they attacked us,” I said, wondering if I might not have been a little trigger happy, though after our treatment throughout this land, it wasn’t a completely irrational response to those armed men.

“No one attacked you,” said the man. “You opened fire without provocation.”

“We were in fear of our lives,” I said.

“No matter. You are now my prisoners.”

Before I could protest again, there was a leathery flapping in the air and I looked up instinctively. Swooping from the crow’s nest was one of those hideous creatures and beyond it, in the sky were another three. Suddenly I realized that the chief was going in the wrong direction. The people he sought were being held here, if they were still alive.

And I knew the chief have been right. These people did eat babies just as he had said.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 16

The scream woke me from a deep sleep. A piercing scream full of horror and pain and my first thought was that Huana had been right. The Husyna were attacking us.

As I leaped from my cot, my hand clawing at the pistol still tucked into my belt, I realized I was wrong. Huana was lying on the floor, her hands over her ears, the terror bubbling in her throat. Christine was kneeling near the door, her shoulders shaking as if she was cold. And Eric was at a window, the short sword stolen from the city in one hand.

When he saw me awake, he said, “I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”

The scream came again and then there was the beat of leathery wings. Something solid slammed into the thatch of the hut, raining dust dirt and debris on us. There was a thrashing outside like something trying to tunnel through the roof. Curled fingers with long, sharp nails punched through. A second later, there was sunlight streaming in, nearly blinding me. A shape blotted out the sun and then something slammed into the floor.

I felt chills on my spine as I stood, staring into those hideous eyes. Without thinking, I raised the pistol and fired at point blank range. The round punched through the brown fur on the creature’s chest. It staggered as the blood began to spurt, staining the floor at its feet.

It looked dumbfounded as it reached towards its chest with its long, clawed fingers. It looked as if it was wrapping a cape around itself for protection.

I fired a second shot that smashed through the tough leather of the wings. It stood upright for just a moment longer and then fell as if its bones had suddenly disintegrated. There was a rattle in its throat as it drummed a hand on the hard wood of the floor as it died.

“My God,” I said when I could again speak.

“They’re all over the place,” said Eric.

I didn’t understand what he meant and leaped toward the door, shoving Christine to the side. I didn’t want her to become a target.

Outside was a scene of bedlam. Some of the men were running through the streets. A couple of them carried weapons, bows and arrows or a short blowgun-like thing. The creatures were circling overhead like vultures waiting for something or someone to die.

One of them folded its wings back like a falcon and plunged toward the ground, aiming at the back of a running man. At the last second, it spread its wings, slowing the dive. It struck the man on his spine, bowling him over. As he tried to get up, the creature clubbed him to the dirt, flipping him. It bent its head, the long sharp teeth bared, and then like the vampire of legend, tried to rip at his throat.

He had gotten his hands up and was holding the creature’s head away from his neck, but the strength of the beast was slowly winning the battle.

I aimed at the creature’s head and squeezed the trigger. I felt the weapon fire, the pistol jumping in my hand. I saw the round strike, exploding the beast’s head like a ripe melon. The man gave a shove, throwing the lifeless body to the right and scrambled to his feet. Then, looking neither right nor left, fled, his weapon left behind.

Another of the creatures appeared in the doorway. It held a small bundle wrapped in its arms. I could see a tiny foot. I wanted to kill the beast, but was afraid of hitting the child. Its mother leaped into view and swung at the beast with a large, thick stick. The creature took the blow, turned and swatted the woman, tumbling her out of sight.

I jumped from the hut and ran across the open ground. The creature dropped to the dirt and was running toward the gate. It didn’t see me. When a was close, I leaped, tackling it and it fell, rolled and lost the now screaming child.

As the creature turned, its evil eyes on me, I just grinned at it. It opened its mouth wide, showing me its already bloodstained fangs. I raised my pistol and fired, my eyes on those of the creature. I saw them go wide in surprise and then pain and finally go blank. The beast dropped into the dirt and didn’t move.

Eric was out of the hut now, running toward me. I saw one of the creatures staring at him like an eagle eyeing a mouse. It folded its wings and begin its dive. I aimed and fired, missed and fired again. The bullet hit the creature and it jerked, tried to open its wings to flee but failed. It hit the ground thirty feet from me with a loud, disgusting sound, like that of a melon dropped from great height.

At the noise, Eric spun and as he did, another of the creatures came at him. Instead of raising his sword, he dropped to his back. As the creature slowed and landed near him, Eric thrust with the sword. The razor-sharp blade sliced through the tough leather of the creature’s skin. Blood spurted and flowed and the beast toppled and died.

I whirled then and jumped back with my back against the thatch of the hut. I was wrapped in a cloud of dry, choking dust.

In front of me was one of the creatures, holding a limp woman in its hands. There was a splash of blood on her shoulder and down her chest.

The evil beast looked up then, locking its eyes on me as if trying to cast a hypnotic spell on me. It seemed to grin, showing its bloody teeth. I aimed carefully and fired. The round snapped the beast’s head back. It threw its arms up and dropped the woman. She crumpled to the ground and was still.

The beast landed on its back, its legs kicking spasmodically. With one hand it clawed at the dirt, digging deep lines near its hand and then it was quiet.

And then there was a shrill cry. A high-pitched sound that cut through the fighting. A single searing note. For a moment there was the ringing of metal on metal, metal against flesh, and then echoes of my last shot, and then nothing. The creatures were fleeing, Some were flapping their wings, pulling themselves into the sky. A few, carrying small bundles, ran for the gate and the safety of the jungle beyond.

I dropped to one knew, steadied my gun hand, with my other and aimed. I felt the weapon kick back and one of the running beasts sprawled forward. Its burden, wrapped in white, rolled free. The tiny shape was then sitting up, wailing in fear and pain. A woman broke from one of the huts, running toward the crying child.

Eric was beside me then. “You okay?” he asked.

Slowly I got to my feet. I looked at the scene around me. There were bodies scattered over the whole village. Men, women, children, cut down by the vile creatures. They lay sprawled near the doors of their huts, in the streets or near one another. Mingled among them were the corpses of the creatures, many of them looking as if they had already been wrapped in shrouds. Several small fires burned, throwing smoke into the bright blue of the sky. Slowly the people came from their huts, out of hiding and looking at the damage around them. A few fell to their knees, crying in anguish, looking like the figures of a terrible flood or a sudden tornado.

I turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. During the war, I had seen battlefields when the fighting had ended, but this was worse than anything I remembered. There weren’t many dead, fifteen or twenty at the most, but it was how they had died. And it was who had died. There was no justification for killing children and yet five or six of the dead were kids.

I looked at Eric and saw his eyes were hated filled. “We should hunt them down and wipe them out,” he said.

I understood the feeling but said, “How? With one pistol and a couple of bows and arrows?”

“Then we wait right here and ambush them on their return.”

“What about your family?” I asked. “I thought we were looking for them.”

He seemed not to hear me and said, “We get out of here and go buy rifles and machine guns. We then come back here and help these people defend themselves.”

He stood staring for a long time. I don’t know what he was seeing just then. Finally he nodded, as if regaining consciousness and said, “Yes. We could get guns. That would certainly put an end to this.”

I didn’t tell him that if we armed this village, the creatures would just find another to attack. One that couldn’t protect itself, but then I realized you couldn’t bleed for the entire world, or rather inner world. You did what you could for those you could help and hoped there was someone else somewhere else who could pick up the slack.

Before I could said anything, one of the men who had brought us to the village walked up. His eyes were fixed on my pistol. He stopped near me and said, in Spanish, “We thank you for your help. We drove them off with only a few people hurt. Now we must go into the jungle to find those taken.”

“Will that do any good?” I asked.

“Sometimes we can save one or two. Sometimes not. But it is something that must be done.”

“All right,” I said. “We’ll go with you.”

The man grinned broadly, showing white teeth that had been filed to a point. It was the first primitive custom that I had seen. He reached out a hand and grasped my shoulder at the same time. “Good. Very good.”

Eric stared at as if I had lost my mind and said, “You’re not serious, are you?”

I shrugged. “What can I say? If there’s a chance of saving any of those people...”

“But to go after those things. On their home ground with the limited weapons we have left.”

I waved a hand to indicate the others and said, “They’re going into the jungle after them. And they’re going in the direction we want to travel. We can help them find their missing friends. On the way, we might find our way out of here, or we might find an indication about your family. No matter what, we’ve got ourselves an escort.”

Eric hesitated and then nodded. “I guess I’ll go and tell the women.”

“Huana should be happy about it. She’ll be getting away from the village.”

“Somehow,” said Eric, “I suspect that this will be like getting out of th frying pan and into the fire.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 15

After a breakfast of fruit and water stripped from the leaves as Huana had shown us, we began to work our way through the jungle. There wasn’t the sense of urgency that had pressed us the day before. The soldiers had failed to locate our trail and had probably returned to tell the high priest that they had failed to find us.

Travel through the jungle didn’t give us much chance for conversation. On one hand, the travel was difficult, taking most of our strength, and on the other, we didn’t want to make any extra noise that could lead searchers to us, if any were close, or if any were still searching.

After a couple of hours, we came to a wide path that looked as if it was used frequently by humans. There were footprints in the soft mud at the edge of it. I stopped beside it and waited for Eric to catch up to me.

“Well,” I said. “You think it’s safe for us to follow it?”

He shrugged and said, “Ask them.”

I switched to Spanish and asked where the path lead. Christine shook her head and Huana refused to answer me. I stood and stepped closer to her. I asked again.

“To the Husyna,” she said as if that was supposed to mean something to me.

“What are the Husyna?” I asked.

She shook her head, her eyes on the ground between her feet. She refused to look up.

“Are these the baby eating monsters that you told us about?” I asked her.

She nodded slowly. “Very bad. Kill all strangers and then eat the babies.”

I sighed. It sounded like they were ordinary, garden variety cannibals. The last thing I wanted was to be eaten, but I didn’t see that as any more horrible than dying at the hands of three sword-wielding soldiers or having my throat cut in the name of the god of the sun.

“So what do we do?” asked Eric.

“The trail looks like it moves more or less in the direction that we want to go, that is, toward the river. Let’s follow it and play the situation by ear.”

Huana protested again, saying that she would rather return to the town than face the Husyna, but as we began to move along the path, she joined us. She wasn’t happy about it, but she stayed with us, moving as rapidly as we were.

The trail seemed to open up into a long green tunnel with a brown floor. The traffic along the path was heavy at times, as indicated by the lack of overgrowth, but we saw no one along it. We just kept moving, ducking under an occasional low hanging branch or two.

Finally, like the light at the end of a tunnel, we saw the end of the jungle. Huana stopped us again. As we crouched in the wet and dripping vegetation, we could hear the sounds of a civilization. Maybe I should say that we could hear the sounds of people in the distance. Voices, cries, and the screams of animals drifted to us. It sounded like the normal noise from a normal village. Nothing frightening about it.

Huana was badly frightened anyway. Her skin had gone pale, her eyes were wide and when I touched her hand, her palm was clammy. I turned and looked down the trail, but there was nothing visible there, other than the bright sunshine marking the end of the dimness of the thick jungle.

“Come on,” I said. “It can’t be as bad as you claim.”

She didn’t answer me. Instead, she shook her head and pointed to the rear. I turned and saw three human shapes enter the trees. They seemed to be naked. Each carried a long bow that had to be five or six feet in length. They seemed to know we were there because they didn’t stop to point or converse. They came at us, a long arrow notched and pointed in our general direction.

“What do we do?” asked Eric.

I stood up and turned to face them. Slowly, I drew the pistol from what I had tucked it in my belt and thumbed off the safety. The terror that Huana displayed was infecting me. I felt the urge to open fire, figuring I could shoot each of the approaching men before they realized what was happening.

Eric joined me, holding the sword in his right hand, the tip pointing at the ground. His breathing was ragged, as if he had just run a great distance.

I glanced over my shoulder and said, “Can either of you talk to these guys?”

Neither of the women answered. They stayed behind us, crouched at the edge of the trail, looking as if they were about to bolt. Or more probably, about to die.

“Come on,” I hissed. “Can you talk to them?”

Reluctantly Christine stood. She stepped close and looked over my shoulder. In a voice that was tinged with fright, she said, “I think so.”

The men didn’t slow down. They kept coming, walking rapidly. They ignored the jungle around them, their eyes on me and the others with me.

“Shoot them!” demanded Huana, her voice high and strained. “Shoot them!”

“Shut up!” I snapped.

Eric lifted his sword and said, “David?”

I felt the same panic. I didn’t like the way they were coming at us. I didn’t like the arrows or the looks on their faces. I thought about putting a round into the dirt at their feet, but wasn’t sure how they would react. I wasn’t sure they would understand the warning shot.

And just when it seemed that they were going to walk over us, they stopped and fanned out. The man in the center stepped forward a pace or two closer while the men at his sides slipped off the trail, taking up positions in the dense jungle vegetation.

For a moment each group stood staring at one another. These men were dark skinned, well muscled and taller than the people from the city. They were about six feet tall. Two of them wore beards but the leader was clean shaven. Each of them had rope like scars on their faces and more of the same on their chests. They had black curly hair and wore loin clothes.

“Greetings,” I said in Spanish.

The leader looked right and left and then answered me, also in Spanish. “What do you want?”

I stared at him, watching him closely. “We have just come from the city...”

The man suddenly grinned and reached out as if to clap me on the shoulder, though he was still several yards away. “Of course,” he said. “Come with us. Welcome to our humble village.”

The men spun, almost as if a command had been given, and two of them ran up the trail, toward the brightness I had seen there. I lowered the hammer on the pistol and shot a glance at Eric, who shrugged.

“I don’t like this,” Christine breathed into my ear.

Well, I didn’t like it either considering that everyone always seemed friendly until they decided you’d make the perfect sacrifice to their gods.

Huana hadn’t moved since the men had appeared. Eric stepped to her, bent and then lifted her so that she was standing. The fear was still evident on her face, but now there was curiosity too. The men were not the inhuman monsters she had expected. They looked and normal and acted normal.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Huana glanced at Eric and then back to me, as if trying to make up her mind. She allowed herself to be dragged along with us, trying to slow things down while she thought them over. Together, we followed the men.

And in minutes we were at the edge of the jungle. There was an open plain that gently sloped upward in front of us. About fifty or sixty feet away was a bamboo stockade, the bamboo lashed together. An open gate was directly in front of us, and through it, I could see thatched huts, some up on poles, several smokey fires, dogs on leashes, and several people, women and children, all walking or sitting in the village, waiting.

The two men who had gone on in front of us, waited at the gate. They stood on either side of it, like guards. We walked up the slope, along the dirt road that was rutted as if by the wheels of wagons. It was the first evidence I had seen that anyone around there had wheeled vehicles.

We entered the village a moment later and in seconds were surrounded by dozens of people. It wasn’t the dirty, native village I expected, but a neat little hamlet. Everyone was clean, there were paths laid out between the huts that looked like a planned grid and there were pens for the animals. There were no pools of standing water and no evidence of the stench that you’d expect from a native village. If the houses had been made of wood or stone and the paths paved, it would seem that this was a town on the American frontier, rather than a native village.

As we entered, the people swarmed out of their huts, dropped what they were doing, and ran toward us. They were all curious, shouting questions at us in their native tongue or in Spanish. There were gifts and shouts of encouragement. When they could free us from the press of people, we were lead to a long house in the center of the village and told that we could rest inside.

I climbed up the notched log and looked at the interior. It was certainly not as luxurious as the room in the palace, but it was splendid in its own way. The floor was wooden except for a blackened square of stone at the far end where fire wood stood. There were ragged rectangles cut in the thatch that were supposed to be windows. The overhang cut the amount of light that came in and since the sun didn’t move, the interior would never get any brighter.

There were six cots arranged around the room. These were bamboo affairs, lashed together and covered with straw. A pillow rested at the head of each cot. In the center of the rooms was a table with a gourd in the middle of it and fruit surrounding it.

It was obviously the best these people could do and given their village, it was more impressive than that provided for us in the city. And, more importantly, there were no locks on the doors, no bars on the windows, and no guards surrounding us.

I walked to the nearest cot and collapsed on it. I looked at Huana who stood stiffly in the middle of the room. “Well,” I said, “they don’t look like baby eaters to me.”

Eric laid back on a cot. He propped the heel of his left foot on the toes of his right and laced his fingers behind his head. “All in all,” he said, “I think we’re in good shape.”

Huana crossed over to him, leaned close and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Why?” he asked. “We can get a good night’s sleep, something that Dave and I haven’t had for quite a while. These people seem friendly enough.”

“But they eat babies,” she said, her voice quiet.

“That’s a load of crap,” he responded. “Propaganda to keep you people from fleeing into the jungle. The priests tell you that so you’ll be too frightened to try to escape.”

She turned and looked at me, as if asking for my help. I shook my head and said, “I’m resting here for a couple of days. Then we can get out. Christine?”

Christine looked apprehensive. She sat on the cot nearest to me, crossed her legs and leaned forward. For an instant it looked as if he was going to speak, but then decided against it.

Eric rolled to his side and patted Huana on the shoulder. “You need to relax. We are safe for the first time in days. These people are not going to kill us. They won’t sneak in here and cut our throats as we sleep.”

I glanced at him and wondered. They seemed to be quite uninterested in us now that we were inside the village. Of course, they could be the most accommodating people we had ever found. Realizing that we were tired after our ordeal in the jungle, they were giving us a chance to relax and rest.

Or, on a more horrible level, maybe because they knew we wouldn’t live long, they didn’t want to get to know us.

I suspected that they were just kind people, but I didn’t know. There were none of the trappings of cannibals around. There were no piles of human skulls and no shrunken heads, though a shrunken head didn’t really mean they were cannibals.

And, although their village was built of thatch, they seemed to have a fairly high level of civilization. They understood the need for cleanliness. Given all that, I was sure that we had little to fear while in the village. I rolled over to go to sleep, never realizing how wrong I was.