1 – Halloween 1955
The beatnik was typical of his kind. That ridiculous striped shirt they favor, sunglasses worn even within the gloom of the club, an expression midway between a smirk and a sneer, the beret perched jauntily askew his head, bongos. He cleaved so closely to the stereotypes, that, if not for the fact that he was also an 800 pound gorilla, I would have called him the archetypal beatnik.
I was here, in the seat of their power. Arrayed against me were the forces of nightmare and superstition. I was the lone representative for Reason, and it was my sword and my shield, a poor tool for those purposes despite its virtue.
But my daughter was here, standing with those who would strand mankind in a perpetual Dark Age. If I wanted to save her, I would have to stop them.
The things we do for love.
2 – Motherhood
Like the mother of any willful child, I wondered where I had gone wrong. At night, I would turn events over in my mind, reliving them, worrying at them, until the recollections were worn smooth beyond all recognition; wondering if there was something I could have done, or not done, said, or not said, to have caused events to unfold differently. In time, I concluded that many of these ruminations are meaningless, simply excuses to reshape our memories, because unearned guilt is easier to accept than helplessness.
I wanted to give her a good life. I was born in Russia, but I learned my English in France and I speak it with a French accent. So many records were lost in the war. Ludmilla Nikolovski is not a good name to have in America in 1955. And so I teach science at the secondary school as Mme Lorraine Noisette: Mrs. N. to my students here in Santa Fe.
Noisette is the French word for both hazelnuts and the color hazel. I have always liked the word, and in reinventing oneself, one is permitted certain luxuries.
Odessa had run off with a boy full of grand tales of a game, a clash between supernatural forces of good and evil. I wasn’t bothered so much about the boy, a leather-clad hoodlum who never combed his hair and who made a habit of jumping his motorbike over increasingly ridiculous obstacles, but in her acceptance of the supernatural. I thought I had raised her better than that.
She had been withdrawn in the months leading up to her departure. I didn’t want to suffocate her. We are very much alike, and I thought that coming to a strange new country, with its own set of values and mores was difficult for anyone, but especially for a teenaged girl. So I gave her “space”, as they say in America. I did not judge her new friends (not out loud, at any rate), and I passed no comment when she returned late. I was concerned the first time she stayed out all night, but I knew she was bright and capable and in no real danger from anything she might encounter in the city or the sands. She returned at dawn, in time to complete her calculus homework. Then she kissed me on the cheek and departed for school.
I remember our last fight. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was leafing through a collection of journal clippings, but unable to concentrate on it because Odessa kept nattering on about that absurd game.
Frustrated, she finally demanded, “Is progress the only thing that matters to you, mom? You think knowing more facts is going to fix the world?”
I put down my papers. I clearly wasn’t going to be able to read them today. “Yes, Odessa, I do. The application of knowledge can be bent towards evil ends, but the accumulation of knowledge itself is always a net positive. We must never turn away from a resource because we’re afraid of what we think we’ll find.”
She shook her head sadly. There is nothing more infuriating than a condescending teenager. “One of these days, you’re going to unearth something man was not meant to know, and you, and all the others in your grey flannel suits, are going to be sorry.”
I raised an eyebrow. “In light of your history, I’m surprised you feel that way.”
She clenched her jaw. There is nothing more infuriating to a condescending teenager than the suggestion of hypocrisy, no matter how mildly it is offered. She stomped into her room and stomped back out again with her windbreaker and a backpack. “I’m going out with my friends, mother. You don’t need to wait up for me.”
I did, because that’s what mothers do. But she never came back. I found a note in her room in the morning, explaining that she was leaving to “find herself”. I covered up her disappearance with a story about a sudden illness. As far as the community here knew, I was a widow who never remarried, raising my daughter on my own. I really didn’t need to give them more reasons to pass judgment on me.
It was a Friday afternoon, the sixteenth of September. I had returned home and not been long enough to change my clothing before I heard a knock on my front door.
I answered it, pulling it open enough to see Miss Reed from the school, the mousey little English teacher. She was so young that I had taken her for one of the students on first meeting her. I think she still lived at home with her parents.
“Mary,” I said, opening the door further to let her in, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”
She set a tote bag full of books down on the table beside the door. “Mister Jenkins asked me to give you Odessa’s schoolwork, but you left before I could catch you. How is she feeling?”
“She’s fine. She’s sleeping.” I have a certain reputation for abrasiveness, which I exploited here to discourage further inquiries.
Mary didn’t take the hint. She dithered. I decided to help her along.
“Is that everything?” I asked, looking at the bag.
She fidgeted, playing with her fuzzy brown hair. She wore it in a fashionable cut, in that pageboy style that so many girls favor these days. “The books? Yes, they’re all there. It’s just-“
“Is she really sick?”
“Yes,” I assured her, trying for a smile, but lacking a mirror, not knowing if I succeeded. “Now, if that is all?
“Yes,” she said, and then ruined it by adding: “Well, no.”
My smile stretched thinner.
“It’s just that I saw her last night.”
3 – The Echthros Club
We came to America for a new life in the New World, though it is foolish to believe that such things did not happen in the Old Country. I am 57 years old, two years older than the 20th century. I believe the fact of the matter is that Odessa would have rebelled no matter what I had done, or where we were. Only the details would have changed. I was fully grown in 1917. I remember the Revolution and the madness that gripped the country. I fled with my father and my sisters and lived in Europe in the years that followed. I have seen how the young are seduced by appeals to high ideals and base pleasures. I hold no illusions about that aspect of human nature.
“Tell it to me again,” I said. We were in my sedan, in the parking lot of the Echthros Club. “Once more, please.”
“I was here with Pete last night. My boyfriend. He wanted to see the band. And I saw Odessa. I wasn’t sure if it was really she, so I followed her into the bathroom. She pretended not to know me, but I’d recognize her eyes anywhere.”
I closed my own eyes for a long second and then opened them. The eyes. That’s what everyone remembers. But they are a consequence of what she is, beacons of her inner fire.
“I’m going in to look for her. Wait here, please.”
I exited the car and crossed to the entrance. The lot was crowded with clusters of garish sports cars and flashy motorcycles. The Echthros Club. I rolled the word over in my mind. Mary hadn’t known what it meant. Underneath the tension of the situation and the fear of losing Odessa, I was faintly annoyed at the quality of American education. Was she not a teacher of the language arts?
Echthros is a Greek word. It means “Enemy”.
Young people were queued up to enter, stretched nearly around the building. I walked past them to speak to the doorman, a huge young man with a clipboard and smoked glasses. “My name is Lorraine Noisette. My daughter Odessa is in your club. I’ve come to get her.”
“Not on the list,” he said, and then made a slight show of bobbing his head to make it appear that he had actually checked.
I continued, “She is still a young woman. A minor. I’m trying to keep this easy for you, but I don’t think your establishment would enjoy the scrutiny I would bring. Now, do I get inside or I come back with the police?”
There were scattered catcalls from the youngsters close enough to hear, but the doorman pressed a button on the door jamb. I permitted myself a slight smile. Despite the efforts of these hairy-eyed revolutionaries, we are still a nation governed by laws.
“The manager will see you over there,” he said, and nodded to indicate a spot around the corner of the building.
As I stepped around the corner, the sounds of the club became deadened, muted, distorted, seeming to fall out of sync with the actions that produced them. Visibility fell to a mere several feet in front of me, with my eyes unable to focus on anything beyond that distance. There was jumbling of sensory input, like some kind of low-grade synesthesia, sights becoming smells and sounds flowing into sensations. It was as if I had stepped into another world entirely.
“You have,” a woman’s voice intoned. For a moment, I had the ridiculous thought that she had somehow read my mind. But that was absurd. She had merely made an informed guess as to the most likely train of thought.
I hadn’t seen her until she spoke. She was taller than I, and I stand nearly six feet. She seemed slender, but it was hard to tell, with her body enveloped by a cacophony of silks. Her hair was long and dark and free. Her face was so flawless and so featureless that it seemed to belong to a ceramic doll.
“You are the creator? Ludmilla?” She spoke without an accent, without much inflection of any kind, but from the way she stressed her words and made her pauses, her manner of speaking led me to believe that she was not a native English speaker.
“No,” I said, “I’m her mother,” and, as long as I was correcting her, I added, “Lorraine.”
She smiled thinly, the lips not seeming to move so much as flow.
“I’m here for my daughter.” I met her eyes. Mine are hazel, like my name. Hers were liquid grey-green, glimmering with a metallic sheen.
“Your daughter has chosen her side. She has chosen us.”
“I’d like to hear that from her, if you don’t mind.”
She raised her arms, moving with a quick, liquid grace, and a tenebrous presence flowed forth from beneath her. I didn’t even have time to be surprised before it was upon me, seizing me by the wrists and the ankles and splaying me out like the Vitruvian Man.
She dropped her arms, but her shadow remained where it was, holding me helpless.
“How are you doing this?” That was going to be my last question. Not why, but how.
She produced a long silver needle from within the folds of her silk, and approached me. I struggled, but it was useless. I twisted my head away as much as I could. Her doll mouth smiled. “Magic,” it said.
There was a flare of light from behind me. Her lips made a perfect “o”, to match the smaller “o” that had suddenly appeared on her forehead. The ensnaring shadow vanished. I turned in the direction in which the flash had come and saw Mary standing there, completing the tableau, her lips in that same shape, fingers smoldering but slightly.
4 – The Game
Back at my home. “Let me repeat it back to you to make sure I understand everything you’ve told me.”
“Okay.” Mary nodded eagerly.
“There is a ‘game’ held every Halloween when there is a full moon over a gateway to another world. Everybody involved on either side has ‘super powers’ and animal sidekicks which they use to complete a magical scavenger hunt.”
“That’s right! You’ve got it.”
“And your pet ‘Squeakers’ can talk to you.”
She held a small grey mouse up to her ear and it crinkled its nose. “Right. But only between midnight and one AM.”
“Am I forgetting anything?”
“Openers want to open the gateway and Closers want to close it.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. I should have made that explicit. We wouldn’t want the casual observer to think it’s the other way round.”
Her smile began to fade, and I spoke again. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
She stuck her chin out defiantly, which made her seem even younger. “How do you explain the encounter in the parking lot?”
“I can’t. Yet. But there is no shame in saying ‘I don’t understand the mechanism of what I’ve observed, at this time.’ Science is about the search for truth, and not turning away from facts that might be uncomfortable or upend your worldview.”
She was silent.
“Get out of my house,” I added.
“You heard me. Go!”
She left in a huff, grabbing her purse and her mouse. On the threshold, she turned and shot:
“Your students are right. You’re kind of mean.”
I was short with her because I was already feeling the effects of whatever that woman had done to me.
I was the sickest I’ve been since the war. After Reed stormed out, I collapsed onto my bed. As best I can recall my fever-fogged intent, I was just going to take a little rest until I felt better. I didn’t get better. I got worse. I think I would have died there if Odessa hadn’t showed up to shepherd me through the worst of it.
I don’t remember much about those days but alternating fever and chills, drinking water gallons at a time only to sweat it out within the hour. I dreamed about Reed and her game and that woman and her shadows, but mostly Odessa. There is the world, and everything in it is natural. It is not a tautology to claim that nothing unreal exists. Odessa came into being in an unusual fashion, but her creation was entirely governed by natural laws. Should the circumstances be duplicated exactly, another Odessa would be the result. She is no more supernatural than radio waves or sunlight. I think that her rejection of these scientific principles is a more acute betrayal than her elopement with that shark-jumping buffoon. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth…
I know she was there. I remember eyes, just like Mary did, like everyone does, the twin blue beacons marking the photonic shockwaves of charged particles as they propagated through the dielectric substance of her body, shining with the peculiar light of the furnace that burned within her. I remember her talking to me, but I can’t remember what she said.
I awoke, rested. I had slept for nearly five days. Mail had piled up in the box. Mr. Jenkins had sent people to look for me, because I hadn’t missed a day in seven years of teaching, much to the disappointment of my students. I explored my home like a stranger. Someone had done the dusting and the dishes were stacked up neatly. Odessa? If so, she did a better job with her chores than she had before had run away.
I sat down at our kitchen table with its hideous tablecloth. If you’ve ever had a child, you’ll know how I was able to simultaneously love and hate something like this. Odessa spied the tablecloth at a bazaar when she was ten and fell in love with it. It is an affront to anyone who has any opinions about anything, with its cartoonishly drawn nursery rhyme characters garishly acting out their fables. They are miscolored, with skin tones in bright primary colors, and some of them have extra limbs. Snow White looked more like Vishnu. I loved it though, because she loved it. It’s one of the few possessions we kept with us every time we moved. There was a folded piece of paper atop it that read “Mom”.
I opened it. In Odessa’s bold, clear hand was written:
I hope you’re feeling better. I’m sorry for what Matty did. Please don’t try to find me again. You’ve raised me to make my own decisions. Please respect this one.
I was going to crumple it, but I couldn’t. I thought of another note she’d written for me, when she was just a little girl. I had always tried to include a note with her lunch, and one day she returned the favor.
And it included a stick figure, me, patting a smiling flower, her, on its head, beneath a sun that was also smiling. She must have been only five or six when she wrote that. When had it been? 1938? ’39? Before the world went mad, at any rate. I still have it, pinned up in my office, though the paper is now brittle and yellowed. I thought back to those days, and wondered if we could ever recover that kind of relationship. I wondered if I’d ever see her again.
5 – Back to school
I returned to work the next day. I found Miss Reed in the ladies washroom and we agreed to meet after school to discuss matters further.
Our rendezvous took place beneath the bleachers. Two older students were sneaking sips from a flask on the opposite end of the field. They froze in surprise, then relaxed and continued what they were about when they saw we weren’t there for them, moving their party only a token distance away.
“I need your help to find Odessa,” I began. “I can’t do it without you. I don’t know that world.” I had returned to the Echthros Club during the day, but found it no more remarkable than any other business is outside the normal hours of its operation.
She smiled the way people do when you’re kissing their ass. But she was fundamentally decent and fundamentally nice, so she didn’t make too big a deal about it.
“What were you really doing at the club?” I asked her. “In light of later events, I can’t believe it was for the music.”
“Scouting,” she answered. She opened her purse and Squeakers jumped out and perched on her palm. She started feeding him crumbs of something. “We don’t think anyone on the other side knows my face, so I got picked to go in. We didn’t expect to find Odessa there. I knew you were looking for her, and I couldn’t think of any way you’d believe me, so I fudged the truth just a bit.”
“Okay,” I said. Then, “Do you always bring your mouse to school?”
“Of course. Where else would I keep him?”
I shrugged. This certainly wasn’t the strangest thing I had encountered that week.
“What did you learn in the club?”
“They outnumber us many times over. We think they have a definite leader, but we don’t know his identity. He could be a minor player concealing his level of involvement, or he might be a mastermind, calling the shots completely from the shadows. His public face is the woman I killed. She goes by the name Matryoshka.”
I frowned. I might be Russian, but at least I wasn’t a stereotype. What was her animal companion, a bear in a ushanka? I said as much to Mary, who replied, “She’s her own companion. Like her name, she keeps her soul in a smaller version of herself. I don’t think she’s really dead. Not for long, anyway. She’ll come back in a smaller version.”
I had noticed something else, too. “You said ‘we’? You’re not alone in this?”
She shook her head. “I’m part of a group of like-minded individuals. We’re willing to fight for our cause. If you like, I can introduce you to some of them.”
“I think I would like that.”
She smiled, apparently honestly pleased. “We’re convening tonight. I’ll bring it up and see what they say.”
We said our goodbyes. I walked over to the far side of the bleachers and grabbed the flask from one of the startled seniors. “Mister Talbot, Mister Bates, I’ll see you gentlemen in detention.”
The pair stomped off. I took a slug from the confiscated flask and watched Mary walking back to her car, and I wondered at what she represented.
6 – The glob
I won’t bore you with the details, primarily because I didn’t have any myself at that point. Mary called me from the phone within the house to tell me that her friends (allies? Coven? I never did learn the precise nature of their relationship) were dead when she got there. I told her in no uncertain terms to get out of the goddamn house and wait for me to get there.
She was crying, but not hysterical when I arrived at the development. The place didn’t look remarkable. From the outside, it could have been anyone’s home. The rear bedroom could have belonged to Odessa.
“Are you okay with this?” I asked.
She sniffled and nodded. “They don’t even look like people any more. It doesn’t feel real.”
So we entered the house through the front door. I pushed it open with a heavy flashlight that we didn’t need, as the electricity worked just fine.
“They’re in the kitchen,” she said, “at the table.”
The decor in the room was mid-20th century old lady. I wondered at the character of the women who had lived here. Old women. Sisters, I guessed, but unless Mary told me, I would probably never know for sure.
We could see them from the threshold. Skeletonized perfectly, killed in the middle of afternoon tea. The bone was far brighter and whiter than normal human bone. One of the skeletons still held her teacup halfway to her mouth.
I wondered what could do this. I know how Mary would answer. Magic. Bah. Magic is a cheat. Magic is what you say when you don’t have the answers and you’re tired of looking. Calling it magic is giving up. I know no god but science, and with sufficient understanding of the laws that govern nature, we will bring it to heel.
I examined them more closely. “Mary, fetch me that magnifying glass off the hutch, please.”
She handed it to me, then, after a moment, asked, “Lorraine, what is Odessa?”
“She’s my daughter,” I answered. The connective tissue was gone, but the bones had been in some way fused, allowing them to maintain the pose they held in death. Interesting. Doubtless painful, also.
“You know what I mean. They talk about her like she’s some kind of golem.”
“A golem?” I looked in the teacup one of the skeletons was holding. Nothing but ashes within.
“What, am I a rabbi now?”
“Stop. Can you give me a straight answer about this?”
“All right. I built her. You know that, or you guessed that by now. I’m still her mother. She is my daughter and it doesn’t matter that she is the fruit of my mind rather than of my loins. You’re familiar with Mary Shelley?”
She shook her head. “Just with what everybody knows. Frankenstein.”
“There is a cypher hidden within her personal journals. I’m not certain she ever intended it to be decoded. It may have been her way of whistling in the dark. I cracked the code. It was difficult, but she had no way of anticipating the development of the Enigma machines and how sophisticated their descendants would be in 1955. It details a number of techniques, some already in the mainstream, some fantastically esoteric, that, when combined, and coupled with an energy source of sufficient power, would allow the animation of lifeless matter.” Ah, what was this? I picked up a bead of gelatin from the
table with my tweezers.
As I examined my find, I continued with my story. “I don’t believe she developed the techniques, but rather discovered them from an earlier source, just as I did. I’m not even certain that she put them into practice, though, but instead used them as the framework for a speculative work of fiction. I suspect she must have performed some experimentation, or otherwise had a very good understanding of the principles involved, because she painted a remarkably accurate picture of the outcome.
“The atomic bomb had not yet been created, but the research that would allow it had been performed. The power of the atom was now viable, and so I assembled the components and brought my daughter into this world.”
“So, what you’re saying is, Odessa is…an Atomic Frankenstein?”
“No! That’s not it at all!” I harrumphed, “And Frankenstein was the scientist. I thought you taught English.”
“Yeah, but composition, not literature. Conjunctions.”
I shrugged. “Odessa is superior in almost every way compared to baseline humanity, but the world is still recovering from the last attempt to engineer a master race, and I had no desire to subject it to another. We came to America so she could learn to be human before she learned to be superhuman. She is fertile, and she will breed true. Given a partner, she could be mother to a new race of beings like herself.”
This had led to some unusual conversations over the past several years: “Clean your room or I won’t build you a boyfriend.”
I prodded the gelatin. Inert. Was this some kind of assassination tool that would clean up after itself after it had eliminated its target? Or did it simply have a greatly accelerated life cycle and had starved down to nothingness in the time elapsed between consuming the women and our arrival? I suspected that it could grow without limit given sufficient food sources. With enough people to consume, this glob would girdle the globe.
“Are you done here?” Mary asked.
“Yes. Just let me get this sample stowed safely. I want to look at it more closely at home.”
Mary nodded as I transferred the globule to a test tube and stoppered it up tightly.
Sometimes, after a catastrophe, there is a tendency to relive the moments leading up to it, as if it is a mathematical equation that is somehow solvable, and if you can find the proper variables, you can calculate a different outcome. So many sleepless nights pondering my situation with Odessa has taught me better. And I think Mary was a dead woman the moment she stepped in that house.
The blob creature fell upon her as she exited through the front entrance. At first I thought someone was playing a joke: the child’s prank, where a bucket full of water is balanced atop the door, and spills its contents on the first unfortunate to open it. My students played that trick on me once. But as she began dissolving, clothing, skin and muscle all melting away, like wax in a sudden inferno, the true horror became apparent. In my memories, it stretches on for hours, but in reality, it was merely moments. She turned towards me ponderously, with something almost like serenity, her head tilted slightly as if she couldn’t understand what was happening. How could she? Her brain was melting. I could see it.
Squeakers, her little mouse familiar, was spared the initial deluge by virtue of his location in her purse. He jumped to the floor and tried to rid himself of the goo, shaking himself like a dog shaking itself dry, but the creature was all around him, and nothing moves the blob. He met the same fate as his mistress. I survived the Russian Revolution and two world wars; I still think that mouse skeleton, frozen up on two legs, is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
Instinctively, I ran towards them, and I likely would have died, had Matryoshka not been there. I don’t know if she employed some method of concealing or transporting herself, but all of a sudden she was just there. The world became dim again as she restrained me with her shackles of shadow.
I fell prone on the floor, with a perfect view of Mary’s remains. Matryoshka hovered in the periphery of my vision, but even from this vantage point I could see that her stature was much diminished. She knelt down to whisper something in my ear. “Magic,” she said, voice lyrical with music and mockery.
She rose, turned away from me. “A condition of your creature’s continued cooperation is your continued life. And so you will live to see our victory.”
There was a period of discontinuity with my consciousness. When I awoke, Matryoshka was gone and the sun was setting behind Mary’s skeleton. Its shadow was reaching towards me. I was still paralyzed and I felt that I would go mad if that shadow touched me.
I felt another presence behind me, in that house of the dead. “I never meant for this to happen,” she said
I tried to turn to see her, but couldn’t. I didn’t have to. I saw her clearly in my mind’s eye. Tawny hair longer than before, blue eyes closed, her back against the wall, her hands up around her knees. She spoke and my heart ached to hear her voice. “The umbra magicks will subside soon, mom. Don’t worry. I’ll be here with you as long as you need me.”
She slipped her hand into mine. How many times had I done the same to her? I remembered other notes she had written for me (“You are my Sun!” “You put my heart together!”) and my eyes filled with tears.
“Mother, if you could only see the things I’ve seen. Then you’d know that our way is the right way.”
My tongue was as paralyzed as the rest of me, so I could not reply. I’m not sure that I wanted to. I know that Odessa is more intelligent than I am. She may be among the smartest beings on the planet. What if she’s right? I put that thought aside. Raw intelligence is only part of the equation. She lacks experience, maturity, the understanding and caution that come from dealing with the consequences of bad decisions. No, I would not substitute her judgment for mine in this.
“Okay, mom,” she said after a time. “I can see you’ll be able to move soon, so I’m going before you’re tempted to chase me. Please let this be. Don’t come back to the Echthros Club. I’ll be home when I’m ready.”
She leaned over to kiss me on the cheek. “I love you.”
Then I heard the sound of her footsteps retreating in the distance. Though I could move soon, it was a long time before I was ready. I couldn’t take Mary with me, so I gathered up Squeakers instead, to remember her. Then I left that place and never returned.
7 – Halloween, again
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, both Mary and I died that day. It was time to stop being the concerned mother, the stern schoolmarm. If I wanted to rescue Odessa, I would have to become again the woman who commanded the thunders of heaven, mimicked the earthquake, and mocked the invisible world with its own shadows.
I vanished from the world, locking myself into a fallout shelter. It had been my laboratory once upon a time, and it became one again. I entered it in the end of September and did not come out until Halloween night. Anyone who had seen me go in would not have recognized the woman who emerged.
I cleaned myself in the emergency shower. I dressed slowly. I loaded some of the equipment into the bench seat beside me and packed the rest in the trunk. I left my home at seven PM, and began the slow drive to the Echthros Club. Plenty of time.
I had only a quarter tank of gas, which is when I usually fill up, but if I survived, I could refill on the return trip. If not, well, then, I guess I had saved two dollars.
“Play a Simple Melody” was on the radio when I pulled into the lot. I’ve always enjoyed that song. I waited for it to end before turning off the engine.
The lot was nearly empty. The signboard outside read “Closed for a Private Party”. I tried the door, but it was locked. I lowered my goggles and cut through the bar with an oxyacetylene torch. I thought I would be losing my element of surprise, but they must be so intent on their ritual that they didn’t notice me. So I strolled right on in to the club.
And here we are. I walked in, followed by three simple automata, cylinders on tank treads, topped with radar dishes. Nothing on the order of Odessa; she would always be my great work, but I didn’t have time to make another Odessa. Nor, in light of recent developments, was I convinced that doing so would be particularly prudent.
They had the dance floor cleared out and their gibberish sigils squiggled on the floor. I’ve never seen such an assortment of…monsters, for lack of a better word. A brain in a jar, probably salvaged from some long dead Nazi, cradled in the arms of a beatnik gorilla, a fish-man and his gator, two werewolves (I have no idea which one was the master and which the companion. Maybe they took turns), a maniacal dummy sitting on the knee of a man who was very clearly dead, and several small humanoids, goblins maybe, with their fairy companions. And Odessa. And Matryoshka.
I didn’t see Odessa’s biker boyfriend anywhere. That made me a happy mommy.
Odessa was the first to notice me. I felt a small surge of pride. I was carrying a small projector, which I set down on a table near the entrance. She tried to shoo me away with her eyes, but it was a little late for that. Matryoshka saw the gesture and followed it to me.
Her little doll mouth made its little smile again. “Ah, the High Priestess of High Modernism.” That was a clever bit of wordplay. I wouldn’t have thought she was familiar with that phrase. I wonder if she learned it from Odessa. “Are you here to show us some slides from your vacation?”
I clicked a button on the controller, and a bright light shone, exactly as if it were a projector. (It was, just not of the sort they believed.) The monsters laughed.
“I’m here for my daughter,” I said.
“Come take her,” Matryoshka replied, a cliché to the end.
I shook my head
Her lips flowed into an inhuman smile. “Twice have I bested you. My shadows will deliver unto you all the torments of the hidden world.
“Magic!” she intoned, raising her arms.
“Science,” I replied. The projector was shining an invisible electromagnetic beam on Matryoshka, essentially harmless by itself. Maybe she felt a little tingle. However, it ionized a pathway ahead of the arc that was to come. I thumbed a second switch, which activated the miniature turbine within and struck her dead with a thunderbolt.
I wasn’t sure if Matryoshka had a limit to dividing or if she was dolls all the way down. I resolved to kill her as many times as I had to, and if she was still functional at microscopic scale, she wouldn’t be my problem anymore. She could pick fights with paramecia. It served her right for calling herself by a name that gave away how her powers work.
Silence reigned in the Echthros Club.
The beatnik gorilla beat on his chest, one two, rat-a-tat, like a burst from a machine gun and then charged, exploding into a knuckle-walking blitz that devoured the distance between us. But before he could reach me, Odessa lunged down from the stage and grabbed his neck from behind and threw him to the ground.
That’s my girl.
Almost simultaneously, the werewolves rushed at me. They got further than the ape, but my machines, tracking anything that moved faster than a man, peppered them with a barrage of heavy metallic barbs and dropped them mid-lunge. They collapsed to the floor, where they yelped and writhed and regenerated, flesh trying to reknit around the impaling objects. While they were so occupied, I unstoppered my vials and administered my synthetic blob samples. It was very nasty stuff, but totally inert when exsiccated.
I added water to my dehydrated blob and turned away as it consumed their soft tissues, doubtless leaving behind chimeric skeletons fit for display alongside the Piltdown Man. Their side might have discovered the blob, but I had perfected it. And to think these Closers want to close the gateway and cut us off from the knowledge it contains. This knowledge will set us free.
The room stank of chemicals, of the swamp, of ozone, of burnt meat.
I saw Odessa cracking the neck of the ape, which almost distracted me from the charging lake monster. By luck or by calculation, it came in at just under the threshold that would have triggered the onslaught from my guardian machines. It advanced. I retreated. Its hideous leech mouth opened wide in all directions.
Once it was close enough, it hammered my robots with all its inhuman strength. Did it understand what they were? Or did it believe they were mere suits of armor juggled by a summoned presence? Its claws weren’t powerful enough to tear through the armored plate, but it did hit them hard enough to disrupt the sensitive card readers that governed their actions, their internal gyroscopes only being able to compensate for so much. This also triggered the failsafe, however, a fountain of DSMO and sodium cyanide that geysered from their remains, which left the monster dead and smelling of bitter almonds. It wasn’t as elegant as I would have liked, but I had to work with what I had on hand in the lab.
Matryoshka, a menace in miniature, shrunken again by the process of her rebirth, rose from the charcoal ruins of her corpse. She raised her hands to summon those forces she controlled, but Odessa plucked the jar containing the disembodied cerebral cortex off the table and threw the canister across the room with astounding force and amazing accuracy, braining Matryoshka with the brain.
I felt around for my supplies. In both a figurative and literal sense, my bag of tricks was almost empty. The goblins were surrounding me, with the sprites just behind them, their wings hummingbird-swift and almost invisible. They weren’t goblins, of course, any more than Matryoshka was magical, but lacking a better term, I fell back upon the nomenclature of folklore.
Odessa saw my plight, but I didn’t think she could intervene in time. I don’t think of myself as old, but I’m certainly not young either, except in the sense of “I’m too young to die in such a ridiculous fashion.” But I was no longer in my physical prime, and I had always relied on technology to make up for any deficits. I had the torch, which was useless as a weapon against something so much stronger and more numerous than I, and some flares, which would only delay the inevitable. I dropped my goggles and triggered the flare and blinded the creatures.
I also blinded its stupid gator, which I didn’t even see in the chaos. The thing bowled me over with its flailing tail. As I struggled to extricate myself from the tangled limbs of the goblin horde, the reptile fell on top of me with a force like a runaway mountain and I didn’t know anything more.
I awoke to the sensation of someone flicking me behind the ear. “Come on, mom. Awake, arise, or be forever fallen.”
I was on the ground. I pulled myself groggily to my elbows. “Knock that off, Odessa. It hurts.”
“I remember. You used to do it to me to get me out of bed.”
I rolled over to get a better look at her. She was crouched over me, apparently unhurt, in stark contrast to the devastation around her. Fires guttered here and there. The dying, and in some cases, the dead, moaned all around us, but neither of us paid them the slightest attention. A reborn Matryoshka, now shrunken to a height of merely several inches, lunged from out of the shadows at Odessa, who bowled her over with a casual kick. “It’s over, mom. It’s the morning of November first. I performed the Closing.”
I closed my eyes. Humanity could have become gods of the natural world. So much knowledge, lost forever. Now we were left to slouch our way towards our eventual extinction, still shackled by our limited vision.
Matryoshka hurled curses from beneath a bar stool. “Just a minute, mom,” Odessa said. She then rose and ground the doll woman under her heel in a gesture very much like killing a cockroach.
She checked the smear on the bottom of her shoe, and looked at me. “I know what you’re thinking. But it wasn’t like that. The Elders would have brought knowledge with them, but that would have been the least of their gifts. This isn’t knowledge that would have saved the world. As twisted as the patrons of the Echthros Club were, they were on the side of mankind.”
Was she right? I don’t know. I hope so. Every mother hopes her daughter will surpass her someday. I didn’t think it would be so soon. I sighed. I was exhausted. I didn’t know if she had saved the world or doomed it. I only had one question for her. “Are you coming home?”
The question was absurd. There was no home any more. Those lives had ended. Lorraine and Odessa were dead. The work of seven years was nothing but ash. We would have to start over completely, with new lives, new identities. But I had to ask the question. With Odessa beside me, I could do it again.
She looked at me with a joy so pure that all the shadows of the Echthros Club fled before it. “I’m coming home, mom.”
Josh Wanisko was born on a Night in the Lonesome October too long ago, on a night when the openers won. He lives with his wife Jen and his daughter Cthulhu and writes about the works of Roger Zelazny at his blog, Where there had been Darkness, where he is currently writing a post a day about Lonesome October. (Unless you’re reading this after Halloween 2013, in which case he’s finished.) If you’re more interested in commentary on this story, he can help you out with that, too.
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Story illustration by Dominic Black.