An Ocean Between Them, by Erik Johnson

An Ocean Between Them - John Sowder

Art by John Sowder – http://latitudezero.deviantart.com/ – click to enlarge

PART ONE

 2018—

Nothing is known of Ilmawvonites, a people who lived and vanished mysteriously between 360 and 200 BC. History’s records give them but a single mention: Pliny’s Natural History (Book VII-4) provides the questionable genealogical and biological information that “the Ilmawvonites are a race descendant from snakes, and the saliva of an Ilmawvonite who has been fasting for three or more days is in almost all cases fatal to the touch.”

——Dr. Olivia Swanson, in Obscure Societies, 1st Edition (2018)

148 BC—

An Ilmawvonite father takes his son in his boat to see what they can spear or produce-odes-to-in the brackish ocean waters, far from those traditionally frequented by their kind. Because the man and boy both are dreamers. The day is gentle with light blue breeze, and the sea in hypnotized repose.

“Father, I see something, an island. Look.”

There shouldn’t be an island here; they didn’t see it on approaching these waters. But suddenly it is.

“Atlantis, the Mass of the Deep…” The boy has never seen his towering father look so nervous. “The Silence Nurses, son, tell stories about our distant ancestors—those people far back in time called Heraklese. It was this race that called the Mass of the Deep by the name Atlantis. Some of the wisest Heraklese held it was an island that was consumed by monstrous earthquakes…if only that were so. It is repulsive, worse than a lair of snakes.”

 “Snakes! So terrible as that? Tell me why.”

“As we row, quickly now back home. We cannot spear it, but you and I will make fine odes to commemorate this day.”

“Will it follow?”

“I don’t know… Good, keep those arms going. The Silence Nurses tell that the Great Mass of the Deep was like an island set within several other ring-shaped islands, covered in spiky stone so the whole resembled the teeth of the Monstrous Leech of dark legend. Taken all together, calculations were supposed to have measured the size of Atlantis as one-fifteenth of one-half the world plus one-tenth of a quarter of the world… It follows?”

“No…”

“Good. Keep it up. Those arms, mine own but younger. Now that specialist, the Bloodletter of Silence, once told me there had been life on Atlantis, but that Atlantean life was Death… Hard to explain, but a man must always try:

“The creatures there in the trees, in the ground, the birds, the insects, the people—were much like the Heraklese. They spoke and procreated, built temples and worshipped long-lost gods, and the Bloodletter of Cut-Short Speech hinted they even worshipped themselves, how, I cannot imagine.

“Nonetheless, they were similar enough to the Heraklese to almost resemble kin. Except the Heraklese were human, like us Ilmawvonites; and the Atlanteans another species. Like a monkey isn’t a man, so great the difference. And probably even greater still!

“For the Atlanteans were born dead, grew up dead, had special dead ways, and though not always hostile, the Heraklese—who had quite a mighty kingdom of their own—quite naturally feared them…”

“Father, it’s gone.”

“Completely vanished?”

“Yes. But the water, it grows choppy. There are enormous growls rising up beneath us and these waves are the shapes and announcement of their imminent arrival.”

“Be strong, we must save breath until we reach shore. Now,— no speaking! Tonight, we’ll compose a warning ode to last the ages.”

And they did.

2027—

Our knowledge is still scant, but until 2001, the Ilmawvonites, a people who lived and vanished mysteriously somewhere between 360 and 200 BC, were nothing but the name of a tribe existing anywhere within that broad, early historical period. There was but a single mention of them in Pliny’s Natural History (Book VII-4), but it is too obviously the stuff of xenophobic folktales to bear serious consideration.

However, the recent, combined efforts of increasingly interdisciplinary scholarship and in-field projects—anthropological, geographical, archaeological, and genetic—have proven a link between the race Pliny called the Ilmawvonites and the modern-day Tanroote people.

In addition, these studies, which have only just begun and will be detailed below, have revealed a curious genetic connection between the Tanroote and certain ancient Egyptian and Greek bloodlines.

And as always, while our knowledge advances, our ignorance makes haste to march in step with and sometimes race ahead of it. There is literally an ocean between Plato’s Aegean Sea and the far reaches of the South Pacific; no clues have as yet emerged regarding the miraculous logistics required to accomplish the extraordinarily world-leaping migration such as appears to have occurred. It seems impossible; yet there it is.

This 4th Edition of Obscure Societies also goes into some depth on the work of Dr. Stephen Thumt, late of Oxford University. It was only in the past decade that Dr. Thumt made the first discovery, and translation of, written ancient Ilmawvonitese. The contents of the ancient fragment are almost identical to a traditional Tanroote ode, which is likely either part of a lost folktale or liturgical ceremony:
Death can visit us but we cannot visit Death

If we visit Death, we break the customs

If we break the customs we become like Death

 Fascinating enough in themselves, these verses gain in significance and perhaps deepen some mysteries, when compared to our few, poorly-preserved records of Lord Nathaniel Noolan’s ill-fated 1864 expedition to an island he believed was Atlantis. His destination was supposedly located in Tanroote (once Ilmawvonite) waters, although we have no evidence as to the reality of this place, which no map can locate.

——Dr. Olivia Swanson, in Obscure Societies, 4th Edition (2027)

1864 (Dinner for Two-minus-Two)—

Dr. Harper Hex bites into his dinner and finds it tasteless. He isn’t even sure what it is, and immensely let down by the service as well, yet unable to determine what lacked. He looks over at Martha and sees his frown of shattering discomfort and disappointment somehow mirrored in her weary face, scrobiculated with miniature asteroid impacts and ventilated with abysses of various sizes. She looks like death. Hex is vaguely aware these are not trite details but sweeping alterations in the fabric of life…

Once, simply being near Martha was enough to satisfy him. Once, their erotic liaisons, the glances exchanged over their secret dinners together made the worst of his days worth living… Once, but there is no Now, is there? He struggles for words. There is only an awful silence, like he hadn’t known since the Atlantis expedition. What had happened? What is this slayer of Now?

Everything has changed. He’d crossed the whole Pacific—braved a few unnamed and unlikely seas, as well—to return to her arms. And here they are, together again—no, more than togetherinseparable, somehow, from this day forward.

Yet there is an ocean between them.

 That Much Closer to Death

Those who followed the exploits of the renowned naturalist Lord Nathaniel Noolan (and who didn’t?) thought it a touching gesture when he announced his latest expeditionary ship would be named after his wife, until the ship—and to some extent his ego—were publicly unveiled: what should’ve been named The Lord Nathaniel Noolan and Lady Nathaniel Noolan had been incompetently painted with the appellation The Lord Nathaniel Noolan and Lad, to the joy of those who disliked the man (and who didn’t?).

It was too late to correct this error before the ship set sail for Atlantis on that freezing December 1862 morning, a day cold as charity. Given the ship’s public moniker, nobody was surprised that the real Lady Nathaniel Noolan—née Martha Tillingscroft—was nowhere to be seen as it departed the chilly lumber of the London docks. And besides, as everyone knew, she’d never loved him.

All Europe was abuzz with the controversial ideas of evolution laid out in young Charles Darwin’s The Origin of The Species. Noolan had been among the first to praise the book upon its 1859 appearance. But never was so learned and cultured a man more common-mobbishly jealous than Noolan.

His scheme was to beat Darwin to a newly observed, but as yet unexplored island located in a region of the South Pacific the Tanroote peoples had called home for as long as they remembered. Most enigmatically, the Tanroote—who had reported the first sightings of this recent, unexpected land mass—referred to this island as Atlantis, the exact same name of the fabled island that Critias relates in his story of Solon and the Egyptian magicians in Plato’s dialogue, Timaeus. Further, as in Plato, the Tanroote fisherman described this “newborn” island as being but the largest of a ring of smaller land masses encircling it. What were the chances of two such correlations? Astronomically slim, especially since Plato’s Atlantis lay thousands of miles from the Tanroote, and neither people were aware of each other’s existence in those ancient days.

Noolan hoped he’d bring back some new specimens, and who knows—novel theories of how life began and where it was going.

On board with him were a small crew, two Tanroote brothers, familiar with but skeptical of their old-timers’ legends of Atlantis, whom Noolan brought along in case a need for translation services between the Europeans and the natives were required (Noolan dubbed them If-P and Then-Q, at a loss to pronounce their proper names).

He also needed the best minds he could get to ensure the success of this endeavor, and paid handsomely to enlist the services of two distinguished colleagues: Dr. Winslow Harfarger and Dr. Harper Hex.

Harfarger was a remarkable botanist who had identified over two hundred previously unknown species of plants and flowers from Wales to Hawaii; not a few had become the basis for new medicinal treatments, for which he was much lauded in scientific circles.

He was better known to the public, however—many might say infamously so—for his philanthropic activities. These he considered nothing more than an expression of the best qualities of Christianity, its emphasis on mercy and forgiveness.

For Dr. Winslow Harfarger dedicated his spare hours to the reform and education of the previously and even presently incarcerated, and much of his efforts aimed to ensure innocent men weren’t gaoled or hung. He considered it a Christian duty to do all he could for these, the most truly wretched upon terra firma.

Nobody could deny Harfarger was a man of unshakeable principle. He was never slow to point out that punishment did not redeem a man, but rather compassion, education, a roof over his head, and the learning of a trade to keep it there.

To most effectively do so, he’d founded Roses on the Inside, and there’d been plenty of successes (though the petty denied it)—he called these free men his Roses.

Even his greatest detractors knew the botanist’s good works were powered by his golden heart, but there was a sort of Music Hall bit going round London at his expense, and with a tincture of truth:

Excuse me, sir. I just heard the most extraordinary stories about a fellow named Dr. Winslow Harfarger. Do you know of him?”

“If you mean the tulip-tippler of London, our very own paragon of the Good Christian? Of course! He must never sleep! Why, when he isn’t sniffing bee bollocks he puts all his time into doing the Lord’s work.”

“Oh! No, you must be mistaken, then, or there’s two Dr. Harfargers. This Dr. Harfarger I’m referring to is apparently a Prince of London’s underworld. They say there’s not a killer, thief, firebug or any other type of fiend who wouldn’t drop whatever crime they were committing to help him get his trousers on and back off again, if he called for their assistance!”

“Wrong on both counts, I’m afraid, stranger. Not only am I not mistaken, but there aren’t two Harfargers. There’s the one—the best one there is for doing the Lord’s work—I’ll give you that part—you’re right on that.”

“What, bringing maniacs pie, freeing public-square onanists and teaching killers how to lay brick?”

“Of course! Didn’t you hear, the Lord had to switch business interests. The Devil was doing too well, the competition was too fierce—if you can’t beat ‘em, correct? So He went into partnership with Old Saint Nick, and Harfarger’s their Employee of the Century, without fail!”

The kernel of truth in this satire, this mere fleshwound along the broad Character Assassination spectrum, being that he was perhaps the only well-to-do Londoner who could walk alone at night without much fear of coming to any bad end. This immunity couldn’t help but look suspicious. Even those criminals who hadn’t benefited from his philanthropic efforts knew and respected him. He was “all right” with some of the worst, an unintentional lord of the underworld. Harfarger just saw it as proof that Christian forgiveness prevails, and felt grateful to have so many Roses in his bouquet of beneficence.

Dr. Harper Hex was a young and brilliant biologist, and the most skilled anatomist in England. He was a generally well-liked fellow in the Royal Academy of Sciences, this reception being strengthened by his close relationship with Dr. Harfarger; still, an air of secrecy hung about him, which some took as a personal affront. His history was vague; he never spoke of the past, and had an uncanny ability to redirect questions touching on his background to unrelated yet absorbing matters. Adding to his aura of subterfuge, this naturally charming fellow had once been considered for Lord Noolan’s post as Chairman of The Academy. Hex had declined the Board’s offer, and provided no explanation.

It was not the first time Dr. Harper Hex had mysteriously deferred to Noolan.

Hex and Martha Tillingscroft had been in love for many a foggy spring when the older, wealthier, self-obsessed Lord Noolan decided to ask for her hand in marriage. Initially, Martha declined, but when she told Harper of the incident, he begged her to reconsider. He had just confirmed that he was sick and dying of Tilsarius A., a rare blood disease he’d contracted on a recent Madagascar expedition. The best prognosis was five or six years left to live. Hex asked Martha to accept Noolan’s offer, so he could rest easy knowing she would be well taken care of, when Hex was a speck in forever’s dust.

Martha protested but eventually agreed, for Dr. Hex never stopped worrying her about it, “for the good of us both.” And it really did make sense. But she had one condition: Even after she became Lady Nathaniel Noolan, Harper must continue to meet with her for their special dinners each month.

She’d said to him, “I still have hope for us even in the face of such social and biological enemies. So let’s be content with consuming together, as a tribute to our love, just as, one day I know it will be more properly consummated… I’m sure you’ll discover your own cure before the clock’s run down… Silly…”

How could Hex not continue to want such a woman, even if he believed their relationship was doomed? The answer is, he could not.

Because these assignations must be kept secret—”What assignations? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”—the lovers referred to them as their dinners for Two-minus-Two.

So now Dr. Hex set sail for what he believed to be his last expedition, with the man who had gladly gotten all Hex ever wanted out of life. Hex wasn’t complaining; he had orchestrated it because there was no point in accepting responsibilities you can’t see through to the end. You have to be stiff upper lip about these kinds of things. But it wasn’t easy. Every time he looked over the deck to see the ship’s name in big red letters, he felt sadly nauseous, even with the humorously bungled truncation of Lady. And every time Noolan appeared for another lively conversation about the ramifications of natural selection and &c., Harper felt he was the Lad. Felt that much closer to death.

Journal of Lord Nathaniel Noolan (11 November, 1863)

This morning, If-P, one of our Tanrootes on The Lord Nathaniel Noolan and Lady Nathaniel Noolan, sighted the uncanny, spiny profile of “Atlantis” island on the Eastern Horizon. The rising sun seemed a caged thing behind the island’s almost evenly spaced spires, and the ringed land masses closing in upon the island reminded me of that fringe of pointed teeth found in leeches—like a great peristomal mouth, frozen into geography whilst sucking life from the sky.

We reached a gravelly, possibly calcirudite shore by noon and immediately set out exploring. The rocky terrain is covered in leafless but thick-trunked trees. If-P, a skeptic himself, yet gave me to understand that the oral legends of the Tanroote people say that only death lives on this island. What nonsense! But it is easy to see how a primitive mind might conceive such a notion. We’ve not seen or heard a single bird; no fish swim round the healthy blue waters that lap the gray shore. Still, something here must breathe. The crew is now setting up camp further inland.

One strange thing—I should have Hex check my ears—there were a few moments in the past hour when I could hear absolutely nothing, but these were quick and not painful.

The Wildest Nightmarosaurus

“I say Hex, are you all right?” Noolan asked, as Harper dragged himself along the deck.

“Fine, Lord Noolan. Just a little tired. I’m going below.”

Once in his cabin Hex rolled up his sleeves and washed his arm with a basin of soap and water. Drying it with a rag, he sat on the bed, and took a long, golden women’s glove box out from under it. The initials M.T. were engraved in delicate scrollwork on the lid. Opening the box, he considered two medicinal leeches in sympathetic writhing.

“You’re looking better than me, my disgusting acquaintances,” he said to the glove-box occupants.

Good old, gentle Harfarger appeared at the doorway in an unusually excited state.

“I’m glad it’s you, Harfy. You can help me with my bloodletting. But my, what’ve you found?”

Harfarger held a cross-section of a tree in his hands, round and large as the ship’s wheel.

“The trees,” he said, “are dead. But they are growing.”

“How?”

“That’s the confounded question, Hex. Despite obvious necrosis, the evidence of the rings points to an uninterrupted period of steady growth, year after year and through the present. There’s no variation in the rings whatsoever, no proof of any changes in rainfall, or in pest populations. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in my lifetime of dendrochronological escapades.”

“Amazing, truly,” Hex said. “Now, please…I feel faint…”

Putting down the tree sample, Harfarger sat next to his colleague on the bed and gingerly plucked a leech from Martha’s glove box—fully six inches long.

“A monster.”

“I had them sent specially from India. Those two-inch European leeches were doing nothing for my vitality.”

“The container?”

“Right there…”

Harfarger dropped the leech in a large wine glass. It looked sullen down at the bottom. He next cupped the glass over Hex’s extended forearm—an arm that had remained large and muscular despite his bouts of Tilsarius A. With a tap on the base of the glass, the “monster” fell to Hex’s skin and fastened its teeth upon him, leech-happy.

“Dear me, I hope it leaves you some,” Harfarger said, scarcely hiding his paternal concern for his colleague’s health.

“I’m not afraid of bloodsuckers. I’m more concerned about blood.”

“And Noolan with fame, I daresay.”

“Well, you know what I think of him. He’s a second-rate scientist, but his resources—God! I mean, we have all the latest equipment here. That’s why you and I signed on with this hack, isn’t it? A scientist’s only as good as his instruments. Noolan’s got the cash to make a trip to the moon, if he wanted to.”

“But I do not,” Lord Noolan said, suddenly appearing, throwing a shadow upon them on literal and more tenuous levels. “No, I think Atlantis far more interesting. Pity, Hex. You’re pale as a lopsided jellyfish-tit. And your eyes, so rimmed with yellow…I hope you recover soon. We need your expertise. And why are you using that repulsive snake to clean your blood? Did you not know, we have modern mechanical leeches onboard?”

“Thank you, Lord Noolan. But I put my trust only in that which lives and breathes.”

“Whereas I choose to invest mine in exactly the opposite, Mr. Hex. But, come up when you can, both of you. I’ve found something…”

Noolan led Hex and Harfarger along the gray shore, up the steep slope of a rocky hill. They followed him to the precarious apex, which afforded views of most of the main island, and the busy crew setting up camp and taking samples and measurements of rocks and soil. Noolan passed Hex a brass telescope.

“Notice anything strange?”

Hex scoured the dismal landscape. “The trees seem rooted in slight depressions of the land, spaced fairly evenly apart, in four clumps of growth, like—”

“—Animal tracks,” Noolan said.

“I was going to say megafauna prints,” Hex said.

Noolan raised a hand to silence him, an unnecessary precaution as no sound issued from Hex’s mouth, though his lips moved. Harfarger then seemed to ask an equally mute question; Noolan dropped his telescope on the rocky floor in clatterless silence. Then, as quickly as the dead quiet had come, it left. Suddenly the three men were loudly shouting in each other’s flushed and ashen faces.

“So we are all hearing, or rather, not.”

“A meteorological disturbance perhaps?” Harfarger ventured.

“I don’t think so,” Hex said. “I think, somehow, that the silence came from that valley there.”

Noolan nibbled a carefully manicured finger.

“Why did you try to hush us?” Hex said.

“I saw something. Don’t know what.”

“Where?” asked Harfarger.

“I’m willing to bet in that valley,” said Hex. “Where the trees seem to march…”

Noolan nodded. They returned to the ship for firearms and If-P, who wielded a mythically grand machete. The nacarat sun was high and hot. The four men followed the “tree-tracks” about two miles to valley’s lip.

The valley was an inverted strobiloid. A dense tangle of dead trunks frozen in tormented positions, twisted like prosthetics for krakens, filled every square foot of the loathsome valley. These ranged from four to twenty feet in height. Some trees were thrashed or splintered as though by unburning lightning; these spots vaguely suggested a path. Not the slightest breeze disturbed a single inky thing.

“If-P!” roared Lord Noolan. “Start cutting us a broader way forward!”

As the Tanroote’s muscular arms dazzled the air with bladed arcs and crepitating echoes, felling branches left and right, the group made their way beneath the convolved wooden limbs into the funnel-shaped valley. The sun slowly dissolved into the rising, spired horizon. After a few hours, they spotted a large blister cave at the lowest point of the cirque.

“Stop a moment,” said Harfarger. “It’s getting dark—”

“We have lanterns,” said Noolan.

“And I’m knackered. And have you noticed how cold it’s suddenly getting? And don’t expect me to go down that hole…”

“Fine, take a few minutes. But no longer,” Noolan said, continuing with If-P to the valley’s center.

Hex stayed behind with Harfarger. They sat together on an intumescent stump. Harfarger commented that the roots of the trees that broke above ground formed a pattern curiously like a giant, clawed foot.

Harfarger lit his pipe into a slim but appreciated reminder of domestic warmth.

“Harfy…I sound most unsound, but I believe the path we’ve trod is filling up with new dead trees.”

Fresh, dead saplings littered the just-cut trail behind them, and they could almost see the trees rising ever higher through the twilit air, reaching toward a moon pale as a maggot. They ran ahead to join Noolan and If-P, who stood near the edge of the cave’s chimney.

“Noolan, we must get back before night falls,” Hex said, gasping for breath.

“We’re on the eve of a great discovery, Dr. Hex. We’ll do no such thing! If-P, shine that lantern down into the cave…”

“But the path, it’s closing behind us,” Harfarger said.

“Then we’ll carve a new one out,” Noolan hissed. “This is fiddlesticks next to any day I fought for Blighty in Crimea!”

“Glory is a dull blade,” Hex said, “and cuts but once.”

Noolan turned a splenetic glance in Hex’s direction and—

—Noises cut-off, they were soaked to the bone in a downpour of silence.

If-P leapt back from the tenebrous hole with a mute shriek, stumbled, his back soundlessly hit the hard ground, face an antic mask of terror.

Harfarger ran to the Tanroote’s side; Noolan snatched lantern and machete and waved them over to the abyss, his face white as Imperialism, pale sneer reflected in the blade.

If-P’s mighty hand grasped Hex’s ankle; his eyes had grown wider than eyes, lips opening and closing syllabically. Rays of frantic lantern light slid on and off If-P’s sweatslicked forehead. Noolan had stepped away from the pit, hands trembling. Hex took the lantern and machete from Noolan, too spellbound to resist.

Harfarger fled, tearing himself, blood sticking clothes to skin, scrambled over dead saplings which had inexplicably grown wider than just moments before.

If-P’s hand manacled tighter round Hex’s ankle, muttering plenty of ‘no’ words…

Hex swung the lantern over the cave and thought of Martha. And even if Tilsarius A. was ready to strike him down, and a taciturn—what was it?—Nightmarosaurus threatened to chew upon them all, he’d make it off this island—if only to live just long enough to melt into the real love and pretend-forever of one more Two-minus-Two.

The absolute silence doped time, and even when Hex recoiled at a pair of dark, lidless eyes sputtering at him from the lip of the cave, it was with almost lethargic horror. Those eyes were roughly human-sized, and dead and bright and sharp as two slivers of broken mirror.

Death visits us when he wants, but the customs say we should not visit him,” If-P said, in an unexpected, expanding pocket of sound.

The eyes rose above the hole. No face owned them; they grew like giant mushrooms flanking the sides of a skittish Clydesdale-sized tongue. There was a disturbing ecstasy to the tongue’s writhing. Yellowy mucous sluiced its midline groove to spread outside the body, like toxic precipitation out the end of gutter-pipe.

Hex back-stepped, dragged muttering If-P:

That is why we keep away from Atlantis…”

Now, Hex’s heart pumping full-steam, a gasp escapes Noolan’s writhen face, If-P intones:

If we visit Death, we break with the customs…”

All went quiet again. The benthic thing wriggled further out the blister cave. Its body resembled a bloated tick’s abdomen, smooth and darkly featureless. The tongue was thickened at tip. It tapered several feet into a thin band of pink at the back of throat.

The mouth was set to one side of the bluish-black mass. The tongue was forced to loll outside, heavy tip genuflecting in the dirt, and where it left the mouth Hex saw deep scars from the countless times the thing had bitten its misshapen tong—Oh God! Hex realized that was no gustatory organ, but the larger creature’s willing—or oft-violated?—mate. It was stuck to the mass like a parasite. It was being bitten as well as impregnated… The teeth were patterned in an imperfect circular fringe, something like a colossal leech; each fang seemed to act autonomously, yet in concert with the others—like a wolf in a pack strategizing its slaughtering.

Lord Noolan slipped on the vaguely muscular saliva. The tonguemate lashed out and pinned him down. Possibly he screamed. The parasitic eyes stared into his own, unblinking, crusty with ochre bellicosity.

Hex bolted.

But If-P held him back. With no delay, Hex swung the machete to the arm whose hand clutched his leg, severing it below the shoulder, right through the subclavian and auxiliary veins. The new amputee howled in a spray of blood; in seconds Noolan was screaming along with him.

The thing had bitten down hard on Noolan’s thigh in an organized, peristomal formation. Blood, both human and otherwise, overflowed into the swamp of honeyrotten spit. The mouth opened broadly, eyes ice-storm furious. Its roar moon-quiet.

If-P rolled in a red pool at Hex’s foot, expending his last energy in a highly focused hissing:

And Death will become like us…”

Hex raced shipwards, cracking branches loudly and painfully underfoot and overhead. By the moonlight, he could just make out the path If-P had cut so efficiently with the arm whose hand was reducing the circulation in Hex’s ankle. This cumbersome memento mori, and the saplings that had sprung up so impossibly quickly over the path, made the going extremely difficult. Hex was everywhere torn and cut and freezing, feverish and almost dead.

Forced to pause, catching his breath by the tumefactious log he’d recently shared with Harfarger, Hex saw Nightmarosaurus had slid forth entirely. Its perplexing bulk eclipsed half the moon as it lumbered forward, wrapping short, pudgy tentacle-like appendages around four wide, denuded tree trunks. It used these as stilts lifting it just high enough to keep its gibbous belly from dragging on the ground.

Hex pushed himself past endurance, climbing, scrambling, crawling, flinging, wishing himself onward. The earth shook with hilarious laughter at each stomp of those monstrous, improvised legs. Hex’s fever soared beyond control so that the trees ran with him, and then Martha too—one Martha on either side of him, cheering for him, dream-naked and drunk. As his vision went black, they whispered:

That is why we keep away from Atlantis…SILLY!

Hex woke to plump-faced, dear old Harfarger standing over him, his stumpy fingers delicately examining an Indian leech as though it were a rare orchid. Hex sat up and Harfarger regarded him kindly through his monocle. He returned the leech to the monogrammed glove box. They were in Hex’s cabin on the Lord Nathaniel Noolan and Lad and they were at sea again.

“What happened? Were you drawing my blood? I feel much better than I would think I should.”

“I’m so glad you came round after that horrific ordeal. But not a single leeching since…that night. I’ve prayed for you, every night since the attack and even more often, for the past seven days.”

“So long? But I feel uncommonly fine.”

“I’m so glad. It’s one miracle on top of another…but, scientifically speaking only, it’s odd, since you were bitten by that Kraken—whatever that monster was.”

Nightmarosaurus, I like to think of it—not that I like to think of it,” Hex said.

“Works for me. Actually, you were always wonderful with naming things, why, it was you who came up with Roses on the Inside for me.”

“That was the very least I could do in return for—”

“Old history! But, come… New business…”

Harfarger rolled up the sleeve of Hex’s nightshirt. On his forearm, among the ill-defined chaos of bruise and excoriation was a small circle of fine teeth marks.

“Not a deep wound, thank God,” Harfarger said. “I cleaned you up well as I could.”

Hex groaned at the memory of his ordeal; Harfarger sat on the edge of the bunk:

“After my escape, I roused Then-Q and the others. We returned to the valley heavily armed. I thought you’d perished. But you ran straight into us with that thing—your Nightmarosaurus—at your back. It must’ve only just bitten you. You collapsed at my feet.

“We fired at the thing (forgive me, it’s easier to say), but to little effect. Then I had the inspiration to set the tree-stilts on fire. We broke our lanterns upon its prosthetics, got the flames going. It was stunned, staring, masticating, hating at nothing. Only when the trunks were fully enflamed did it see the danger of its situation.

The trees crackled down; it rolled in the fire, puling in silence. The flames died, but it lived still. But it moved slow without its prosthetics. We got you to safety and set sail without incident.”

“If-P…” Hex began.

“An awful fate for a good man. His hand was knuckle-white round your leg, and the arm it once belonged to. If-P was incredibly strong. It was quite an operation to remove it. You’ll have worse scars from his death grip than that bite. It was Nightmarosaurus extirpated the rest of him?”

“What? Oh, yes. Awful. Discomposing to the core…Noolan?”

“That’s a strange story in itself. You saw as well as I that he’d been mangled. But when we were about to be off, Then-Q spotted his body face down, near the shore. No idea how he’d gotten there. Certainly didn’t run… We’ve got what’s left of the poor man sequestered in ice—biospeleology cabin.”

“Strange…I’d like to see it, now.”

“But you must be hungry?”

“I’m fine—only, of course, I can’t wait to see Martha…”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit in poor taste to bring her—worse: Martha and you—up at a time like this?”

“Of course! I’m sorry. Noolan’s death is a tragedy. Hasn’t sunk in yet, I suppose. Shocked. But what’s wrong, Harfy? There’s something else troubling you. Nerves? I shouldn’t blame you.”

“You know me too well. It’s my charity work. Yet another blameless man, falsely accused of a heinous crime. I’ve spoken with him and his family in-depth; I’ve searched my heart… I’ve asked God if that unfortunate belongs in my prayers… I’m certain he’s innocent. I requested the court delay its decision until my return, but…hate is impatient.”

“What is the alleged offense?”

“They claim he single-handedly destroyed the Duke of Ha-Ha’s residence.”

“Not Reggie Spittoon? That case with the incendiaries? I hardly think one Explosionist could bring down all those ponderous stones. And where would he get the vast quantities of material needed? But, you know I of all people will always trust your word on a man’s character, however guilty he may seem on the skinside of him.”

Journal of Dr. Harper Hex (12 September, 1864)

We near dear old England. Soon I will sit with Martha over a table of roast duck, wilted lettuce and ammonia cookies—Heaven!

Noolan’s body continues its anomalous decomposition. I am quite mystified, if somewhat nonplussed—we’ve grown so used to the monstrously impossible, almost nothing would astound.

Spontaneous, full-body defolliculation. His nails have grown rigid and long as stalactites, ending in rapier points at his knees. His mouth is open wide; his blackish-blue tongue is rich in thriving buboes and dangles past a cyanskin chin. Noolan’s canines have kept pace, protruding past his lower lip; the left eyetooth pierces the dorsum of the tongue just otherwise described. His eyes have caved back into his head, through the deteriorated brain, which now resembles cheesecloth, and sit against the inner wall of his skull, near the inferior nuchal line. Strange, that even so out of context, they seem continuing to impart Noolan’s imperious, living gaze. The remainder of the corpse is so far decomposing naturally.

We mustn’t let anyone know what happened. Harfarger insists on an honest account of the expedition. I must work on him assiduously yet with a gentle touch. It’s true I owe him my life and my livelihood, but my genius and vision soar far beyond Harfarger’s horizons, which end at the mere Heavenly gates.

Noolan’s striking postmortem transformations and my sudden, seemingly unaccountable vitality must be grounded in aspects of the same phenomenon.

The horrific mauling Nightmarosaurus was kind enough to show Noolan has caused him bizarre death; while the very weakness of the bite it delivered to my forearm has granted me a strangely healthier life. Precedents exist (e.g., a bit of nitrous oxide serves an operated patient well, whereas greater dosage = death). More study is needed, of my own blood, and of Noolan’s corpse—and very likely, I will need others too, for experimentation. This could well cure Tilsarius A.—and who knows what scourges. Imagine the fame.

Imagine Martha! Her brown eyes, so exactly the shade of golden-eagle plumage.

Mourning over time that has been fully spent is time ill-spent. I must move fast. I’ll match the minute hand’s advance with that of my own discoveries. And Harfarger? He will keep his mouth shut.

PART TWO

A Grave Conversation

“Hex, you can’t be suggesting… Lying about a murder? Is that not how you were almost hung from gallows, yourself, before I cleared your name and restored you to your rightful innocence?”

“For which I shall be eternally grateful, there are no words for it. But see, Harfy, perhaps this is why you played my angel…maybe it’s part of God’s plan. You worked tirelessly to prove I couldn’t have decapitated those orphans, and against nearly impossible odds, you succeeded. Further, you took me under your wing, saw worth where others had seen only common filth, paid for my education, made me who I am—and I’m not too humble to say that I am the finest biologist this side of the Atlantic. And then, consider, we ship off with Noolan and come upon the unprecedented. Perhaps it was fated that this puzzle should fall to me to solve. Part of His plan?”

“Even granting that—which I’m not saying I do—I simply will not lie about murder, and neither should you, of course.”

“I agree. But this isn’t a murder. It’s a death—there’s no obstruction of justice here, is there? No guilty party gone free?”

“You’ve got me there. But since when is truth a choice for any man who calls himself by that name?”

“Harfy, I am on the verge of unimaginable scientific advance, discoveries that could change our understandings of Life and Death themselves. What should I do? Rob graves? The grave holds no answers. But this cadaver, Noolan, you’ve seen—it’s exceptional what’s happening. And consider my miraculous return to health… Isn’t a small fib worth the chance to investigate these extraordinary biological events? All we need do is say the Lord perished from a terrible disease that we couldn’t identify, and so, not being sure if it was contagious or not, we did the ethical thing and dumped him overboard—we couldn’t risk spreading his unknown illness to England.”

“And what if you, yourself, in the course of experiments, unleash something like that Atlantean devil—Nightmarosaurus—upon London?”

“You know I am too diligent to allow such a thing to happen. I understand the dangers here—likely better than you. Just look at my arm and you’ll see what I mean…”

“I don’t know. I don’t like it, Hex.”

“Please. You saved me before. Save me again—save the human race. If I can crack these mysteries… We have a few days left at sea before our return. Please take that time to consider.”

“All right, Hex. All right. If you were any other man… But you’re not. You can count on me. Much as I despise secrets in principle, I swear to you that this will be ours alone.”

But almost immediately, Harfarger regretted this assent. He wasn’t sure why, exactly—just a foggy sense of wrongdoing and pain—but as a man of his word, he couldn’t renege. Not now.


Long Story Short (Montage)

It transpired just as Hex had planned. Nobody questioned the word of these respected explorers as to the terrors of Atlantis and Lord Noolan’s death by a vicious disease with which nightmare was better acquainted than science. With Noolan’s passing, the Academy once more offered Dr. Hex the Chairman’s position. Hex honorably refused a second time, but requested Dr. Harfarger be elected to this leading post. The board agreed unanimously…

Harfarger helped Hex to transport and store the mutated corpse of Lord Noolan to an upper storey of the Royal Academy’s grand building, for which only Hex and Harfarger held the keys. This would serve as the place for Hex’s experiments…

On Hex’s behalf, Harfarger visited Martha Tillingscroft to explain how things stood (with not a few serious omissions); Harper’s love continued unabated, they’d dine again as soon as possible. Prudence, however, demanded they mustn’t see each other for several months while she “mourned” the death of her fiancé…


October, 1864 (The Absurd Ejaculations of Terrified Patrons)

Once Dr. Harfarger had been established as Chairman, he staged a fittingly lush dinner in memory of Lord Noolan. Held in the Academy’s ponderous salle à manger, about one hundred members and selected guests arrived in black, faces bleached and overcast eyes. Martha Tillingscroft attended, inappropriate happiness masked by mourning veil. Harfarger placed her far down at the end of the table and on his left; Dr. Hex sat directly upon Harfarger’s right.

A funereal procession of silverblack candlesticks divided the immense table, lengthways into two equal, flickering halves. Black silks were draped wherever possible. A titanic chandelier sparkled astronomic above the guests, a symmetrical constellation of candles and crystal refraction arranged—like the peristomal fangs of the bloodsucking leech—in concentric circles; while smaller and simpler chandeliers depended from the corners. So lofty was the ceiling that the glassy marble floor was nonetheless more deeply suffused with dark, shiny blushes than practical illuminations.

Following obligatory encomiums, dinner was served and eaten slowly and in relative silence. Just as a very fine-dressed crab had been placed before him, Harfarger’s right ear was unexpectedly dampened by the hot wheeze of Dr. Hex, who’d tilted in his chair, mouth almost leaning against the botanist. Hex’s flat black eyes gaped wide with a hermetically shut lack-of-quality.

“Harper? You look dreadful,” Harfarger whispered with more admonishment than his usual fatherly concern. “Positively viridian…”

“I’m fine,” Hex said, shoddily affecting a composed veneer.

“Listen, you’re clearly relapsing… Tilsarius—or are your experiments affecting you for the worse, now? Growing ever more horrid up there? There’s something wicked about you I’ve never seen before. It must be a result of your work…heaven forbid, what if you’re contagious? I’m sorry old friend, but perhaps you should excuse yourself?”

“For the mere suggestion,” Hex hissed, “you should burn alive…”

Tensions between the two men had elevated higher than either had expected since the night they’d dragged Lord Noolan into Hex’s workshop, one floor up.

Harfarger resumed eating with skilled decorum.

Hex sneered, swiveled his head away from Harfarger. He didn’t want to admit that his Tilsarius A. had indeed returned. He slumped down in his chair, leant his feverish head back, saw the ostentatious chandelier spiral in cruel dazzle and flash…

…The crystals shivered, just slightly, as with a trepidation that precedes unpracticed, bold action. Nobody else seemed to have noticed the movement. Delusions induced by renascent Tilsarius A? A thin trickle of brackish liquid exuded from the ceiling round the chandelier, slid down one of its hundred golden limbs, snuffed one candle.

Hex focused his mind, strained his eyes at the ceiling until he was sure:

It was real.

The change in light was negligible. Only Hex aware of imminent disaster. There! Trickle number two…thicker, like black honey, it descended another chandelier arm. He gripped Harfarger’s soft bicep.

“Harfy, you must get everyone out.”

“Let go! And leave. I must ask you to leave. You’ve gone from tropical lethargy to this state of frenzy in a matter of minutes…I insist you go now.”

“But—”

“Do I need to be violent with you? Is that what you understand? Sometimes it’s justified for the Greater Good, wouldn’t you say? Like lying, yes? Isn’t that your personal, scientific doctrine? Perhaps you should be decapitated. Why, in your sick condition I could lop your head off, like it belonged to, say, oh, I don’t know—some scrawny orphan, for example?”

This was the first reference Harfarger had made about the crimes for which Hex had long ago been accused, since that time—and the first ever suggesting Hex had actually been guilty of that slaughter, deceiving Harfarger all along.

Hex released his grip.

“My God, Harfarger! To lose you! To lose your belief in me?”

Prayers, screams and bulky crabflesh eructations filled the blackening air, as a great sludgy, dark judgment roiled forth from above, killing the chandelier’s glow, dousing the guests, flooding over the table, knocking candlesticks into mahogany, and wood into fuel for rapidly spreading fires…

“Martha!” Hex shouted to no purpose, as all comprehensible words—but not voices—were drowned by the roar of stampeding socialites—panicked pushing, shoving, simian eye-gouging and scrambling, the absurd ejaculations of terrified patrons; and the inconsolable cracking of burning wood. Hex crouched down against a marble wall. He could see the table; flanking a growing mound of hideous ichor, the top was aflame like a warning, an Inquisition’s emphatic display. Smoke filled the room, a bitter smoke, hopeless in a quicksand way.

Harfarger? Dashed wisely off.

Adrenaline overpowered the Tilsarius A., briefly gifting Hex a strategic, coordinated use of brain and body. He crawled under the burning table and easily located the spot below the throbbing mound. It was, essentially, a pile of Lord Noolan; at this point it was hard to distinguish his physical form from its excretions. That dead-like thing had become more liquid, allowing it to escape his most recent cage in the laboratory above.

A hail of osseous pieces plummeted into the inky slop and wood over his head. The size and weight of these precipitations rapidly increased. The wood creaked and groaned like Pantagruel on the rack, about to bury Hex alive. Eyes smokeblind, choking on Stygian air, he held out begging hands. The table shrieked, spine snapped; into his open palms and across his forearms, tumbled Noolan’s amorphous skull—stiffened bolus of moving, interchangeable pseudo-facial features, sloshing, pirouetting quasi-organs… Noolan’s latest state a combination of solid, liquid, nothingness, and agile jaw; his active teeth learn new tricks every day—they practice crude spirals, helixes, graceful peristome movements of the singing leech-mouth… The creature as a whole is roughly the size of a decapitated, undernourished orphan of about six or seven in years… Hex slid from beneath table seconds before the grand chandelier struck where he’d just been, a frozen lightning-bolt…

Then? An ordeal of slime, blistered flesh, brokenness of nerve, wood, glass, bone… Somehow Hex made it up the marble stairs to his floor with the essentials of the drunkenly restive remainings in revoltwith the help of a 20-inch silver serving tray and domed cover; this topped with a finial of Chiron the centaur, about to let fly an extremely anachronistic, filigreed English Longbow. Hex managed to forcefully squish Homo hexi under the plate’s substantial lid. His weakness was heavy. Visions of a chloroformed Nightmarosaurus strapped to his back and hooked through his heart.

He secured the heavy door behind him, passed three sarcophagi-sized metal enclosures—each one inhabited by a moon-mumbler—the main ingredient in his latest morally indifferent, mathematically savage experiments. Gagged in their cages, Hex procured these unfortunates for cheap, from a fellow styling himself The Lord of the Asylums. Among these were several for the Criminally Insane, and one for paying customers called Green Pastures for the Confinement of Wandering Minds.

Walking carefully round the (surprisingly small) hole in the middle of the room, Hex set the putrescent revolt beneath the window and piled a few libraries of opened encyclopedias atop it, opened wide the casement…

Hex recognizes the pebble-struck popping coming from beneath the domed serving plate. He’s seen the Noolan-teeth in coitus; they overswell pregnant, and burst with more of themselves, identical children who do the same. He’s observed this riot of skeletal incest begetting generation after generation go on for over an hour. Then the teeth fall still, exhausted or hibernating.

Tonight, once again, one of Noolan’s mouth-structures has bitten Hex, and in the same forearm he’d wounded in Atlantis. Thank God it’s also as superficial in depth as that first bite. Deal later…first, collapse into the floor; second, sleep…

Below, the bucket brigade has arrived, water asplash, wood moans apart, men shout, urge, order, argue…a teeming crowd of onlookers hoot, boo, joke, cheer, laugh, spit, interfere…

Journal of Dr. Harper Hex (19 October, 1864)

Finally well enough to write.

Much has happened since my last entry.

Fortunately, the Memorial Dinner disaster had been too chaotic for anyone to make heads or tails of—“Oh, a fluke chemical leak, of course! Good enough.” Too distasteful to investigate further. Amazingly, not one influential guest seriously hurt (only money never dies). The hole through which Noolan crashed his own party was easy enough to repair, I did it myself. More on the subject of repairs: though I wasn’t well that night, my good health has returned.

This time I’m not surprised at the recovery. Noolan’s bite, when shallow, is a formidable balm.

Rather than a decomposition of humanity, Noolan has advanced beyond mere Evolution—he is Revolution Realized. Unlike those creatures who evolve, his transformations occur independently of environment—like the dead, this entity is his own environment, and a change in one is identical with change in the other. I’ve dubbed him Homo hexi.

What we call “death” is the ultimate stage in Darwin’s evolution. Against the living, the dead always win the competition. Only Homo hexi beats the dead. And perhaps Nightmarosaurus. The fragmented tale of Atlantis—as told by the Tanroote, not old Critias in Plato’s Timaeus—speaks truth; when we visited the island, Noolan became like Death. Noolan, a champion of evolution, unwittingly became that into which Evolution Itself will eventually evolve (Right now he’s curled up peacefully under the Chiron-topped dome of his silver home. Last I checked, he’s approximately the bulk of an adolescent wildebeest’s intestines).

The Problem of Harfarger: Big.

Incredibly, he no longer trusts me. His righteousness, tempered with an urge to give and receive forgiveness, and combined with a bold willingness to take blame, is a significant threat. Nothing could be worse than his conscience trumping his science. If I can prove to him the world-changing benefits of my work, he might come round. But time is precious, and I’m afraid no achievement will sway my old mentor, my savior, to this line of inquiry. I’ll deal with him if and when I must—all options on the table.

Martha, thank God, escaped that dinner with nothing more than some frayed nerves. That’s only to be expected, given her overall delicate constitution and the worry she must’ve suffered for the sake of my life during the fire. She’s recently travelled to Baden-Baden for the cure. The Swiss air will do her wonders. When she returns, I’ll get down on my knee at the hem of her dress.


My God, I am the Devil

An unsavory neighborhood. Very, very late. It’s raining so heavily that it must be a mistake. Unfinished lanes are guttery swamps. No street’s named and each tangled like a Gorgon’s locks. No landmarks amidst this crumbling, moldy swathe of urban blackheartedness. A newcomer can’t distinguish between the monotones of human filth, shadows, and night that alone meet his eyes. Only cutthroats, men on the lamb, and other such dregs have the map safely burned into their brains.

But who’s this? A man in burnt-witch black, ridiculously tight tophat, and a cape three sizes overlarge—from a music-hall-closet?—clinging to his rotund form. The stench of the cold wind is almost unbearable with the manifold effluvia of vice.

This character knows his way. He stops before the half-open door of a hovel anonymous as any Whitechapel suicide, and knocks a series of curt triplets. An acrid/sweet smell wafting from inside makes the caped man cough, approach hurl-point.

Someone opens the door fully from the inside. Reggie Spittoon, an imposing man. Something of the minotaur about him, with his hirsute body, his flared nostrils and hatred against men in both eyes.

“You done worlds for me, doctor. Saved my life, that’s fact. But now all debts paid, understand.”

“Better than you know,” Harfarger answers. And he whispers something Reggie only just heard.

“Well then,” Reggie says, his eyes widening in a rare instance of surprise. “Better than. I don’t know. Well.”

“One more thing, I think,” Harfarger’s voice atremble.

“Yes, doctor, I am guilty as was charged. Destroyed the Duke of Ha-Ha’s residence. I killed that family, warming themselves by the fireplace. Made it a bit hotter. Surely would’ve hung if not for you vouching otherwise for me.”

“I wonder how many other murderers I have freed with my philanthropy? How many of my Roses are actually Nightshade in disguise? People are right to curse it… My God, I am the Devil…”

His voice alien to himself, coarse with sorrow.

Reggie Spittoon, impassive.

“Reggie, do you…have mates, I mean…do you trust anyone?”

“A man like me can have many friendships but nary a friend. I don’t pretend to speak for doctors. I’ll say no more—well…money.”

Reggie takes the envelope from the shaky hand, quickly eyes its contents. He nods and disappears into his domestic miasma. Harfarger begins to cross himself but stops midway, seeing the futility, the insult to his Maker. Too late for symbolic gestures, now. He hurries away, soaked like the drowned.

When he finally gets home, Harfarger forgets how to open the door for a moment. Finally turning the key in the lock, he mutters “Money,” like doesn’t know what the word means. Like he’s forgotten all language and purpose.

A Soul is Worse Than a Ghost

The Yuletide Spirit approaches, but for Hex, closer still are the Lord of the Asylum’s men, with a package of yet more drooling imbeciles at bargain prices. They ascend the long stairs to the laboratory with rude, heavy steps. At least they’re punctual: Three in the morning, as agreed. But something is wrong tonight…a warning sound?

Too many footsteps, too many men. It’s never been more than two…

Hex opens the door, immediately scurries backward as five burly characters, incult mugs, lying eyes and calloused hands—mostly fists—bully into the lab. Each one is incredibly tall. The front pair carry a large canvas bag reeking of salty, dehydrated ends, sewn from a shipwreck’s sail. Cachetic writhing inside the sack, the weak clash of autonomous and involuntary nerve signals…something with this delivery, as well, is fishy but Hex can’t place it yet. The two unrulys toss it at the doctor’s feet.

“Irregular…what’s this?”

“Well. I don’t know, Dr. Hex,” says the apparent lead man, no humor. A hairy, towering man, and that tower seeming always about to topple within an extensive radius; steady he was, but with furious foundations.

He stands straight and mute, an air of expectancy verging on acts of disproportionate irritation. Of course… Hex hands him the usual payment, even though something’s wrong with these extra men, with the goods. He’s got no choice.

All five men suddenly form a circle around Hex beyond which he can’t see. They peer at him hard, like patrons of a freak-show who won’t leave until they’ve ascertained the Freak is real and they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Hex thinks something has rustled sleekly past them, into the laboratory’s faraway shadow. But Hex doesn’t trust his thoughts at this moment. He wonders: are any of them Harfarger’s Roses? Like Hex himself.

The tower of a leader makes a grunt of expectations met. Immediately they break their ring around the doctor and shuffle out. They pull the door shut behind them. It automatically locks. This time their footsteps are reckless but fast. The delivery men want to get down the staircase and exit the Academy as quickly as possible.

Hex hesitates above the heaving fabric. What nonsense, this? Now that he depended upon The Lord of the Asylums for test materials, the man would start short-changing Hex more often—he ran a monopoly… What’s in there? Small dogs? An expiring mime of a leper? A hempen cord ties one end of the faintly murmuring satchel tight.

There’s at least one pseudo-someone at the back of the canvas womb. Wielding a ferocious pair of shears, Hex cuts a Caesarian slit lengthwise down one side of the bag.

A pale, naked female, back arched, knees tucked in, forehead pressed into floor and white hands over both ears. Malnourished as a hat-rack. She’s like a deranged fish deboning itself, the spinal vertebrae threatens to snap out her taut skin with minimal effort. She somehow looks more naked than just naked by the bruises spotting her body, dark and frequent as blots of bull blood in a Taurobolium of Mithras.

Her hair—tangled with filth and constant pulling, violent burrowing attempts—is the exact color of golden eagle plumage…

“Martha?”

“I won’t eat,” she says in her voice, vestigial perhaps, but still hers, “No no no no not eat, no…”

“But…you must eat. You cannot be Martha.”

It’s simply impossible. Something is wrong this evening with everything and this misidentification is just a tiny bubble of a grand boiling chaos. It couldn’t be Martha; she’s gone to Baden-Baden to alleviate her shook nerves with clean, Swiss air…unless…unless she did not get better, but worse, her shock drilled deeper within until she had become too deteriorated to entrust even to Green Pastures for the Confinement of Wandering Minds…because the Lord of the Asylums insisted that his lunatics were always taken from one of the much worse, inhuman Asylums for the Mentally Degraded & Deficient… No, impossible… Everyone gets better at Baden-Baden, without fail…

Can mice create a sound like the feverish uttering of a prayer? Because Hex hears something like that from across the room, behind a number of large, stiff-backed anatomical posters.

Two-minus-Two,” the woman says, still facing the shipwrecked-sail bag against the hard floor. “That’s all I need. Two-minus-Two—stop laughing, it isn’t zero, it’s not nothing, it’s a secret, delicious and filling and fine. No more funnels, please, funnels…Two-minus-Two will stop me starving…”

Hex thinks something like: Fine. Everything is wrong this evening, and that includes me. There’s no fighting this…trajectory, whatever you call it.

He kneels down on one knee, the traditional marriage proposal posture.

“Martha, it’s Harper. We can have our dinner for Two-minus-Two, very soon. You’ll get better, first. I can make sure of it. This is horrible but, it is a miracle. It is a miracle! And a vicious crime! What if I didn’t ever get to see you in time? Who did this to you? But it’s a miracle too, my head spins…”

She unfurls, sits up. Hex has never seen her fully nude before. It was different only really seeing her mistreated, bony back. She’s disgusting, starved to ribs, deathly pallor. Inedible, she would turn the hungriest cannibal’s stomach. The sight has a terrible effect upon him, such that he even considers suicide for the nanosecond available for thinking about it.

In one of the uninventoried shadows, a rustling, a heel scuffing? Prayer? A whisper for forgiveness? Rats more likely…or less…

Who?” she laughs, trying to leap up but falling over on her side, then back, long limbs straight, an autopsy subject. She continues:

Me, Silly! I saw Nathaniel at his memorial dinner.”

“What, a ghost?”

“No no, what is worse than a ghost? Far worse?”

“A corpse, perhaps. Martha—”

“No, a soul! A soul is worse than a ghost. I saw into Nathaniel’s. Well it was just his eye, you see, but you know your Shakespeare well as any schoolboy. It appeared out of the flame, the smoke…rose up from that thing after the chandelier gave birth so suddenly—a body made up of inside-out midgets and exploded eels, and great strips of viper’s teeth…the teeth were juggling his eye, almost, tossing it up high and catching it with a bite, it was an almost graceful bite and the eye twinkled with enjoyment each time it got munched. It saw me trying to get out… Oh! And that eye is his eye and that eye is in my eye, that soul infests my soul. A ghost! I only wish…but Harper, you and I now, together? Where are we? And what’s this?”

She sat up, looking around, smiling. Her real smile.

“You shouldn’t have! But you should, too…and you did and maybe I am not damned…”

“What? Martha? No Martha!”

She dashes to the domed serving plate, then stops and turns to face him. His relief overwhelms him with a force strong as great terror; it makes Hex pause before approaching her, and in that second of hesitation she spins around and lifts the lid, exclaiming, “Two-minus-Two!”

It doesn’t happen all at once, or in slow motion, but in multiple intersecting moments and many dizzying movements. The centaur-finialed cover clattering silvery, loud like cannon shots, convulsing as in painful death throes, an out-of-place, funhouse-mirror flash of Harfarger gnashing his teeth in the convex underside, Martha awfully not-screaming exactly the way the dead keep quiet, Noolan’s eyes flickering in her pupils like snake tongues rolling fast rrrrrs—hundreds, thousands of eyes, procreating with and birthing themselves, bursting out of bone in a restless fountain that gathers, rumbles along the ceiling, each containing an animal pupil, a mudslide and volcanic destruction in the sheen of their ebony convexities—Hex running to stop the inevitable, his feet tripping up in the sack of shipwrecked sail—the same eye, in raindrop quantities, makes a cloud that thrashes down in a heavily blinding, staring hail—a man stumbles from anywhere, his face and prayers obscured in the downpour—Hex’s face slapping the floor next to Martha’s crack-skinned, unwashed foot, the spindly-toothed jaws, the size of an organ-grinder’s monkey and jumping like a giant spider, teethlegs embedding themselves in Martha’s cranium, punctures from which a murder of fanged, inchoate jawlings festively spring—confetti waxing firework-ambitious—the atmosphere rumbles, Alpha Male earthquakes clashing horns—electric flashes—fossil shatters—smell of bananas and petrified migraine perfume, Harfarger’s face in the flesh, in his face, bits of Harfarger’s face in bits of his face, whirling away into an uncertain suggestion that his mentor had meant to tear his own life down with them, had been hiding perhaps in the very laboratory with them—sulfur and burning hair, sugary metals, acrid—Nitroglycerin—past into future, now into then, dying becomes confusion, things into events, and what’s going on into piercing objects—am I guilty? Well—cannibal explosions digesting explosions… THE SKY DROPS DEAD.

1864—(Dinner for Two-minus-Two)

Hex says “You need to eat” to…Martha? His mouth is out-of-reach like the armless torso of a man on islands gone swimming. No, not precisely his mouth, jaw evaporated fluid and wet rock, and it kicks mute-mute hush. No, he doesn’t speak or watch, exactly…more like nothings it…and then she nothings, “Yes,” masticates, “Yes.” Never knows what “Yes” is ever again because she ate it.

Their surely dead bodies lie side-by-side, like a dinner fork and salad fork to the left of a plate at a banquet table. A man’s clearing rubble away, trying to free the bodies. He slips and falls atop them.

Then it’s just like when lovers toast their life-changing love, interlace arms, each sipping wine from the other’s glass, as Hex bites through the fingers of the man’s right hand, while Martha consumes his entire left. The stranger’s arms, crossing over them, form an X. An X to mark the location of anatomically incorrect bodies, or maybe the site of Lucifer’s landing on Divine Expulsion Day. This X means keep your life away from this X—let X equal Dig No Deeper, or there will be no Digger.

They never know what “World” is ever again.

1865—Five Excerpts from Official Report of The Commission to Investigate the Destruction of the Royal Academy of Sciences Wishingcoin Place Property

I. [After the] enormous job of clearing the remains of the building was accomplished, a deep well was discovered, recently drilled into the earth and apparently running underground at an angle that all agreed would put its other end beneath the Thames, should it extend that far. The method of drilling is another mystery in this case. The well is roughly the width of two men strapped together, and the walls of earth are covered in what look very much like teeth marks. A unanimous decision was reached to fill the well immediately…

II. The [Commission] has reached consensus regarding the [claims] of Dr. Winslow Harfarger and Dr. Harper Hex, made upon their return to England on The Lord Nathaniel Noolan and Lad, on 24, September 1864Our unfortunate conclusion is that their entire testimony was a hoax. In any event, if there were even a kernel of truth in it, there is no way to make that confirmation.

…However, based upon the charts Dr. Harfarger and Dr. Hex shared with the Academy, we were able to confirm that their so-called island “Atlantis” is nowhere to be found at the coordinates that they insisted was the site of their outré adventure and the late Lord Nathaniel Noolan’s decease. This last, too, is a sad puzzle. Did he die as a result of contagious illness, as claimed? Or was Lord Noolan actually murdered? We will never know except in our hearts, which have reached an unanimous verdict that is, alas, not admissable in a court of law.

III. In addition to Lord Noolan, whose disappearance we addressed above, the Commission has also reached no definitive conclusion regarding the whereabouts of—and exact connections between—the following individuals who have gone missing:

Dr. Harper Hex

Dr. Winslow Harfarger

Lady Nathaniel Noolan (née Martha Tillingscroft)

Reggie Spittoon (Firebug and Explosionist)

IVThe Commission has also reached agreement with the Police that Harfarger’s charitable organization, Roses on the Inside, should be closed immediately. The Police suspect Dr. Harfarger’s connections with the London Underworld’s worst may have played an important role in the destruction of the Academy’s Wishingcoin Place property.

This is especially likely given that one of Harfarger’s last ostensibly charitable acts had been to acquit Reggie Spittoon of the demolition of the Duke of Ha-Ha’s modest castle, and the murders of his devoted family; and that said Spittoon has gone missing with the rest of the principals in this story.

V. …Were they still with us, what excuse would [Dr. Hex and Dr. Harper] present to us upon the sudden non-existence of their fabulous island? It is certainly puzzling why such intelligent men would invent such an idiotic story. Why, they would have to defend the absurd hypothesis that Atlantis cannot be located on a map for the same reason a cartographer’s whimsical depiction of a whale on a map does not indicate an actual animal resident in that spot—that Atlantis is a moving island.

Whether this would be an extraordinary kind of creature or even deeper geographical mystery is open to further question. If it were the former, Drs. Hex and Harfarger might then say that this enormous creature perhaps breaks the surface of the waters to “hibernate” for periods long enough for sensible men to take its body for a landmass and build a powerful civilization upon it.

Accepting this hypothesis for an extraordinarily uncritical moment, you would then no doubt hold that Atlantis has appeared in many parts of the ocean and bred various mythologies over thousands of years, but always sinks, causing cataclysms as it submerges. And conveniently, it goes away before anyone can confirm anything, leaving plenty of time for fantasies and hoaxes. This has always been the case, from Plato in 300 BC, down to Drs. Hex and Harfarger in this only just completed year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty four.

Erik T JohnsonErik T. Johnson doesn’t believe in order or boxes. He became a writer because he can’t make a straight line to save his life—since stories consist of terrifically asymmetrical, random sequences of random shapes. Also because of what Georges Bataille meant by: “I write the way a child cries: a child slowly relinquishes the reasons he has for being in tears.” Erik is a Written Backwards DARWA Voice Award-winner whose fiction appears in renowned places, such as The Shadow of the Unknown, The Chapman Books, Space & Time Magazine, Tales of the Unanticipated, Qualia Nous, and all three volumes of the award-winning Chiral Mad series.

Erik is certain unreliable narrators don’t exist—only unreliable authors. Sometime in 2016, Erik will prove his uncompromising reliability with an appearance in the Grey Matter Press five-novella collection: I Can Taste the Blood—alongside luminaries John F.D. Taff, Josh Malerman, Joe Schwartz, and J. Daniel Stone. Also in 2016, he will further build upon this sort of metaphorical reliability riff (which probably shouldn’t be used more than once here, doesn’t it seem awkward?) when his first book of short stories is published (probably) in 2016.

Visit Erik at www.eriktjohnson.net—ignore him on Twitter @YES_TRESPASSING, exercise your right to free speech by cursing him loud, often, and without couth, do other stuff when it suits you, what do you want from me?

If you enjoyed this story, let Erik know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by John Solder.

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