So Rumor Has It
F'nass was not having a good night.
From the moment he'd come out of dormancy, he'd known that something was wrong. No particular reason; just a feeling of impending doom. It was not something he would have voiced to his creche-mates who, for the most part, went blithely from night to night like ants scurrying about their hive. If you could consider the clawed shuffle of Sleestak a "scurry."
F'nass thought it best to keep his opinions to himself. He'd seen the fate his brethren held in store for those who displayed too much independent thought. S'latch, one from the same hatching as he, had been unceremoniously tossed into the Pit of the God several moons ago for voicing his high-minded theories once too often. True, there had been something of a commotion later...F'nass had heard rumors, passed from tunnel to tunnel, that the pale-skinned beings who occasionally intruded upon their domain had somehow tainted the offering, that S'latch had not been properly sacrificed, which was fine by F'nass, who thought the tradition barbaric. But S'latch had never again been seen in the warrens, and F'nass felt that, despite his escape from the Pit, whatever end S'latch had come to was likely not a good one. So F'nass remained mute, with the exception of the curt, sibilant hisses that served as the simplistic language of his people.
He was not exceptionally clever; had he engaged in a game of c'ssur with S'latch, he surely would have lost within moments. Not many of his people even played c'ssur any more, except for the very old ones. It was permitted as ancient custom, nothing more. Come to think of it, F'nass could not remember the last time he had even seen a crystal-studded c'ssur board. Perhaps the old ones had died off during the recent period of rest. Though he was no more aware during dormancy than a lungfish curled in its muddy cocoon, F'nass had a feeling that the intervals between the rising of the magma were growing longer.
When he was younger, he had always been afraid to enter dormancy. Some of his creche-mates told frightening tales of the pale-skinned ones, the Maa-Ss'lls - it was said that they crept through the warrens when the tribe was asleep and vulnerable, violating the sacred places. F'nass would tremble in horror, petrified by the thought of hideous, ghostly beings prodding his slumbering form, until the tunnels grew cooler and he was unable to resist the torpor brought on by the drop in temperature. Eventually, these thoughts would cease; his large, spherical eyes would glaze, and he would drift into the black void of hibernation.
Had the Maa-Ss'lls actually wandered into his remote branch of the nest, they would have been puzzled by the small being curled into an embryonic ball rather than the erect posture adopted by the more mature Sleestak.
As the magma rose and the warren grew more temperate, F'nass would awaken, brush away the cobwebs, and realize that nothing had occurred. After four moltings, he himself was of the age considered "mature," and he no longer feared the Maa-Ss'lls. Indeed, he was fascinated by them. What were they? Whence did they come? There were other, similar beings in the valley, like those hairy creatures his people called P'ku, but they were scarcely seen near the caves of his people. And even then, it was only under bizarre circumstances. It was said that a P'ku had once plundered the Library of Skulls, going so far as to remove one of the Wise Ones from its pedestal; F'nass did not put much stock in this outrageous tale. But the Maa-Ss'lls...were they capable of such acts?
They were generally regarded by his people as monsters. In his time, F'nass had heard many, many rumors of encounters with them, usually during meals in the central cavern, where the hulking warriors hissed brazenly of their exploits. Eventually, F'nass had heard enough tales of capture and escape that he came to believe that the Maa-Ss'lls were not bogeymen, but simply...different beings, with their own purposes and goals. Not once had he heard of the pale-skinned ones actually killing one of his people, though their propensity for discharging light crystals was well known.
F'nass was not well-heeled; the farthest he'd travelled in his life was an expedition to the rim of the Crack-In-The-Earth, to collect herbs for medicinal purposes. K'toff, the healer of his branch of the nest had required several bushels of a fragrant herb for the preparation of a tonic drunk by the egg-layers to ease their pain. Unfortunately, the herb was also irresistible to the larger animals that dwelled within the jungle. Moving about by night, the scouting party had managed to avoid the most ferocious of the beasts, but there was a tense moment when S'li-Ma, the guardian of the old city, was aroused from her slumber by the scent of the herbs. Her hooting call drove even the bravest of his companions into the blessed darkness of the nest at top speed.
He had seen S'li-Ma several times, and he was familiar on a visual basis with Enik, the peculiar Altrusian who chose to remain isolated in a remote chamber - what a mystery he was! Several times F'nass had been tempted to communicate with the odd, golden-skinned one, but prudence won out every time. The roaring God of the Pit did not sound intelligent, and F'nass had no desire to discover what sort of afterlife awaited a demise at the jaws of that frighful deity. He had once even glimpsed a P'ku, scampering off through the pillars at the entrance to S'li-Ma's territory.
But now, nearing what his people considered middle-age, F'nass had grown weary of his mindless existence, the terrible fact that his intelligence both compelled him to seek knowledge and yet made him a liability to his own tribe. And so, despite the shroud of gloom that he had felt upon awakening from his latest slumber, he mustered the resolve to leave the nest and explore the valley, perhaps to discover the truth behind the legend of the pale ones.
Now, though, he wished he'd remained in his chamber. Shaking his scaly head, F'nass realized that he'd bitten off more than he could chew.
It had started simply enough - F'nass had bided his time, waiting, searching the tunnels for the spot he'd heard about from one of the elders. As he searched, he stockpiled bits of food, rope, supplies that he thought may come in handy...not that he had much in the way of hands. He wished he had pincers such as Enik's; imagine the dexterity of three claws, rather than two! He carefully hid his supplies in the bottom of the quiver of crossbow bolts slung on his belt. He had no intention of using the crossbow, but the weapon had been passed down to him by his sire, and it made him appear more formidable than he truly was. In truth, he doubted he could hit a cavern wall with the stubby bolts.
After several weeks of surreptitious meanderings, F'nass stopped, frozen in his tracks, staring up at an opening at the end of a small, doubtless forgotten ledge. Could this be what he sought? Glancing around for fear of being observed, he clambered onto the ledge, poked his horned head through the opening.
His huge eyes adjusted instantly to the gloom, flecked here and there by the colored illumination of raw crystal outcroppings in the high walls of a vast cavern. To his horror, he noticed nearby a heap of bones and skulls in disarray, some still strung together by leathery strands of tendon. Clutching at the lip of the opening, unwilling to proceed further, he heard the gurgle of moving water in his ear-pits and realized with shock what he had stumbled upon.
The stories of this place had been old even before those of the Maa-Ss'lls had taken precedence: another of the pale-skinned beings had dwelled within this grotto, a ferocious, filthy thing with a face hairier than that of a P'ku. The murderous creature had possessed an incendiary weapon; it was said that the blast made that of fire-crystals seem as harmless as the pip of a hatchling's eggshell. Indeed, F'nass had once heard such a blast in his youth, though he had succeeded then in convincing himself that it was merely thunder.
Worst of all, this creature was rumored to have feasted upon the remains of those it had slain. The elder who related this gruesome tale claimed to have actually seen the foul thing at its repulsive meal. Laa'b-str! the old one cackled, in a terrifying impression of the monster's reedy voice. Tey s'lyke laa'b-str! F'nass had heard this frightening, meaningless croak in his dreams for years.
The grisly mound before his bulging eyes was proof enough for F'nass. He hurled himself out of the opening with such force that he tumbled off the ledge and landed painfully on the tunnel floor. Disregarding his bruised thigh, he shuffled back to his quarters as rapidly as his chitinous feet would take him.
In the nights that followed, F'nass considered calling off his expedition. One awful legend had been proven true, perhaps it was unwise to venture further into the forgotten areas. But, strangely, F'nass found himself encouraged by his discovery. After all, what he had seen were merely skeletons. It was foolish to presume so much on such scant evidence. No pale-skinned monstrosity had attacked him; no weapon had blasted its volatile charge at him. Perhaps even that legend was merely another exaggeration.
Making the most of his newfound determination, F'nass set out again and discovered the thing he had been looking for all along.
The opening to the chamber was blocked by wooden planking, with the symbols indicating "Forbidden" scratched into their surface. In other such areas, the planks were simply intended to discourage trespass; here, however, they actually sealed the opening. For F'nass to proceed, he would have to physically violate the structure.
In a nearby shaft, he heard shuffling footsteps and the hissing tones of a pair of warriors as they conversed about their usual nonsense. They seemed to be drawing nearer. F'nass crouched, warring with himself as to what to do next. Retreat? Mumble an excuse to the approaching sentries? Shuffle back to his chamber in shame, under suspicion?
The sentries passed, continuing on their way. Their gaseous voices grew fainter. Standing tall, F'nass made up his mind and wedged a claw between the rough boards over the chamber entrance, pulled with all his might. With a creak, the spikes driven into the stone wall loosened and the plank came away, revealing absolute blackness within. Two more planks, and F'nass was able to waddle beneath the rest, into the sealed cave.
Within, he stood erect, looked around. Merely an empty cul-de-sac, nailed shut years hence. He gazed upwards, however, and saw what he had hoped for: a rude platform of heavy logs sealed an opening in the chamber roof, an opening leading out to the jungle. Between the logs, where dusty soil had fallen between the cracks, F'nass could see stars. They flickered brightly against his enormous retinas. He gazed at the earthen floor and realized with a stab of victory that this particular rumor had been reported accurately. Only a faint impression remained, but it was enough.
Deeply gouged into the floor beneath the platform were the marks of a massive, three-toed foot...the foot of the creature his people called K'ta-Ma, Guardian of the Jungle. The Maa-Ss'lls, it was said, had stumbled into this chamber, originally created as a trap for the meaty four-legged creatures that roamed the jungle and served as fodder for new hatchlings. In the course of their escape, K'ta-Ma, in pursuit of the pale ones, had stepped into the opening and become trapped, a gigantic claw grazing the leg of the warrior L'mirr. The ferocious beast had eventually freed its limb, and the opening was sealed to prevent further cave-ins, or so the story was told.
At the time, F'nass did not believe L'mirr's boasting. His scratch was more likely the result of a misfired crossbow bolt - L'mirr's aim was notoriously bad. But as other warriors repeated almost identical versions of the story (which was unusual, considering their dim-crystal imaginations), F'nass had been intrigued enough to add the tale to his mental stockpile of sightings. And now here was the myth made real, the original trap-chamber itself.
Here was his secret exit. Here he could access the jungle at his leisure, without attracting the unwanted attention of the sentries who patrolled the temple entrances.
Memorizing the structure of the platform, F'nass left the chamber, gently replacing the loose planks by wedging the simple smelted-ore spikes back into their holes. At a glance, the blockade appeared to be undamaged. Satisfied that his intrusion would not be discovered, he returned to his den to prepare for an adventure.
Four nights later, F'nass made his break.
He knew he would not be missed; his next patrol assignment was not due to begin for another cycle of the moons. His preparations were complete. Best of all, a rare thunderstorm was crackling over the valley, the muffled booming reverberating through the tunnels of the warren.
Returning to the forbidden area, F'nass lifted the loose planks away from the opening in one piece; he'd fastened them together with pitch and simple spikes. Once inside the small cave, he turned and gripped the rope handles he'd attached to the back of the planking and wedged the barrier back into position from within. He was now free to work in solitude. He had even padded the rear of the barricade with a thick layer of leaves and moss, gleaned from the refuse heap near the hatching chambers, to deaden the sound of his efforts.
His plan was quite simple. From his kit he produced a length of sawline, a tough cord coated with crushed bits of crystal. Gripping the carved handles of the sawline in his pincers, he looped the cord around one leg of the platform and began to tug the cord back and forth. The mineral-studded rope tore quickly through the wooden beam, pebbles rattling down between the suspended logs, rain and mud trickling through the chinks. Once the leg was sawn completely through, F'nass continued on to the other three beams. When the task was done, the platform tottered upon four loose stumps. He stood, sighing in fatigue, back and arms aching. Now came the dangerous part.
Looping a complicated pattern of twine around the beams, F'nass attached a pair of crystals to each leg at the point where it had been sliced through. Poking a claw into a small urn of boar-grease, he lubricated the logs where the cord would have to slide across the rough wood.
Tugging gently at the end of the cord, he tested its tension, watched the suspended crystals twitch. Satisfied, he removed the false barrier and exited the cave, feeding the twine through a razor-thin slot between the planks. He then resealed the entryway.
If he was to be captured, now would be the time. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he waited. Within moments, an enormous thunderclap shuddered the rough planks at his back. F'nass gave the cord a hard yank.
Within the cave, the crystals clacked together. The interaction produced four small but powerful explosions, each blasting free a severed stump. The platform instantly crashed down three feet.
Taking a moment to ensure that none had heard the commotion, F'nass quickly re-entered the cave and replaced the barricade, reeling in the cord as he went. Turning, he inspected his handiwork.
Perfect! Exactly as he had planned. The original hole had been re-opened, and the platform was now low enough to permit him to climb up and out. F'nass could scarcely contain his excitement. He immediately began to clamber up the platform, heedless of the rain pelting his leathery hide.
As he peered hopefully upwards, however, a bolt of lightning streaked across the darkened sky, blinding him. F'nass shrieked, instinctively raising his arms to cover his bulbous eyes. In so doing, he lost his footing on the platform and flopped to the chamber floor, his pointed stalk of a tail bending painfully beneath him.
Hissing in resignation, he decided that his excursion could wait until the storm had abated. It was nearly mealtime anyway.
Back in the central chamber, F'nass shuffled along in the meal queue. Ahead of him, L'mirr was complaining to the wizened K'toff of an irritating fungus he'd managed to acquire, which caused a maddening itch between his belly ridges. K'toff nodded gravely, advised L'mirr to visit his quarters later for an unguent. L'mirr grunted and shoved his wooden bowl at the meal attendant, who filled it with the pasty mixture of crushed grain, boiled vegetation and dried meats known as d'spa. F'nass refrained from shaking his head, but privately felt a pang of contempt for the crude lifestyle of his people. He made sure to show his gratitude as his own bowl was filled.
Across the cavernous space, he saw Enik sitting forlornly in a dim corner, spooning his meal to his rubbery lips. It was unusual to see the Altrusian dining in the common area, rather than silently wandering back to his quarters. Against his better judgement, F'nass made his way back to the odd being. The long log upon which Enik sat gleamed mellowly in the dim, crystalline light of the chamber, polished by generations of scaly backsides, grooves worn into the wood by the scraping of countless bony tails. F'nass seated himself near the golden-skinned one, keeping his eyes fixed upon his bowl.
"Enik," he hissed, "I seek your counsel."
Enik looked up in surprise. F'nass cringed; obviously, subtlety was not one of the Altrusian's stronger qualities. Fortunately, intelligence was, and Enik focused again on his bowl before anyone noticed.
"You are the one called F'nass, are you not?" he queried softly.
"Yes. F'nass, offspring of F'last. Were you acquainted with my sire?"
"No. Regretfully, I...arrived here after his passing. But I am familiar with the name of that honorable being." Enik nodded respectfully. "What is it you wish of me, F'nass, son of F'last?"
"I..." He did not know where to begin. "I am...curious."
"It is a dangerous thing to be curious among our people."
"I am aware of this. For many moons, I have kept my mouth closed and my eyes open..."
"That is illogical; our eyes do not close."
F'nass sighed. "What I mean to say is...I hunger for knowledge. Is it such a terrible thing, to wonder about things with which we are unfamiliar?"
Enik brightened. "Never. The quest for knowledge is what will save our people from the ignorance in which they currently wallow."
"But the law...it is forbidden to display such desires. I have remained silent for fear of the punishment dealt to others who have made their abilities known."
Enik, obviously heartened by the rare treat of intelligent conversation, unintentionally began speaking louder than was prudent. "You speak of the fate of S'latch. I have spoken with that one many times, before he was detained and sacrificed."
Across the cavern, a sentry took notice. He approached the pair, scowling.
"Of what do you speak, Altrusian?" the sentry demanded. F'nass kept his gaze on the floor, feeling the hard gaze of the warrior upon him.
Enik, sensing his mistake, covered it admirably. "This one has acquired a speech impediment. He seeks my assistance in its disposal."
Taking his cue, F'nass stuttered, "M-m-m-my ap-ap-ap-apologies, G-G-Guardian."
Turning to F'nass, Enik intoned, "Come with me to my quarters, I will attempt to resolve your dilemma."
Grunting in dismissal, the sentry stalked away, probing the chamber for other, more pressing indiscretions.
"Forgive me, F'nass," Enik whispered as they strode out of the cavern. "In my exuberance, I neglected to display the proper caution." F'nass nodded, unwilling to speak further until they were safely sequestered in Enik's abode.
As they entered, Enik waved his prehensile claw absently at the entryway, which filled with mist. "That will prevent further interruption."
F'nass, amazed, nevertheless spoke rapidly and, for the first time in his life, freely.
"Enik, I am curious about...the Maa-Ss'lls."
Enik was very obviously surprised. Then he chuckled. He hadn't given the matter much thought. He had dealt with them so often that he was quite accustomed to their occasional appearance in the lair; it rather tickled him that, in the deep reaches of the warren, the humans were still regarded as creatures of mythology.
"What do you know of those creatures, F'nass?"
"I have never seen one, but I hear of them often. What manner of being are they?"
"They are members of a tribe called Human," Enik stated, pronouncing the word yu-m'n for F'nass' benefit. "It is true that they are unusual in appearance, but in truth, they are not so different from our own people. Though they often act with a deplorable disregard for logic." He paused, looking wistful. "Not that our people behave any more logically, of late."
F'nass had come this far; it was time to go all the way. Swallowing hard, expecting the worst, he decided to tell Enik the truth of his intentions.
"Enik...I wish to meet them."
Enik cocked his head as though F'nass had suddenly turned a different color. "That is not logical. The Mar-Sh'lls" - F'nass' own head involuntarily cocked at this new pronunciation - "will regard you as an enemy. The majority of their encounters with our people have been violent confrontations."
"I am willing to take the risk of contacting them, if only to enlighten myself regarding a different race of people. Even the P'ku are preferable to the fools among whom we must dwell."
"F'nass, though I sympathize with the desire to increase one's knowledge, it is unwise to turn your back entirely upon your own people."
"But I must at least make an effort to learn! You, yourself have said that the quest for knowledge is what will save our race. I wish for my offspring to grow in a society that encourages intelligence, not barbarity." Enik bowed his head at F'nass' impassioned outburst. "If I am apprehended, I did not speak with you. I will not involve you in my scheme."
The Altrusian, moved, nodded his assent. "Then I shall teach you some phrases in the yu-m'n tongue."
After Enik's intensive lesson, F'nass was ready to tackle anything. He fancied he could feel the weight of the alien language in his brain, and yet his step was light. Encountering almost no one in his wanderings, he stealthily returned to the cave he now thought of as his "trap door," chuckling softly at the play on words.
Entering the cave and sealing the planks behind him, he noted that the storm had ended. The night-sounds of the jungle wafted down through the opening. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed; aside from a few leaves, no debris or fauna had fallen into the newly opened hole. A new world lay above, ripe for exploration. Gathering his supplies, F'nass climbed out of the pit and entered that world on his own for the first time.
His eyes registered the night as almost painfully bright. Two moons were glowing low on the horizon; R'lo, the smallest moon, was creeping slowly up to meet them. Only once before had he seen so many beautiful stars, on his rushed herb-gathering mission. He hadn't had much time to enjoy them then. Now he allowed them to burn streaks of light onto his retinas, fascinated by the glittering patterns. So much to see!
Looking around, he noted his position by marking the tallest trees, the moons and the distant, snow-capped peaks. Taking a deep breath, he ventured forth, into the jungle.
As he shuffled along, F'nass came abruptly upon a terrifying sight that nearly drove him back to the hole: as he cleared a stand of thick shrubbery, he found himself suddenly staring at the enormous head of K'ta-Ma. Two more steps, and he would have literally tripped over the monstrous snout of the beast.
Had he made a single sound or frantic movement, he would have been finished. Instead, he froze. Keeping his wits about him, he noted that the gigantic animal was asleep in a wide clearing, breath hissing like a geyser from its nostrils. Backing away slowly, F'nass was grateful for the fact that, by nature, his kind were accustomed to moving about at night.
Shortly thereafter, F'nass heard a muted chanting. Intrigued, he moved closer to the sound, at the far end of the clearing. What he saw there fascinated him utterly.
Three P'ku were leaping around one of the strange, golden structures posted at various locations throughout the jungle. He'd glimpsed one of these before, near the entrance to their city, but S'li-Ma had awakened then, rendering further observation unprofitable. It was said that they were of the Altrusian era, that they were now worse than useless; dangerous playthings with the potential for disaster. If this was the case, then what havoc might these P'ku wreak by tampering with the device? Perhaps he should return and notify Enik.
Again, F'nass decided to simply remain motionless. The P'ku did not seem to be harming the object, merely parading around it in an endless circuit, perhaps in accordance with some ancient ritual. With his excellent night-vision, F'nass studied the little creatures from his hidden vantage point. Amazing! What enormous ears they have! he marveled. In the grip of his intense curiosity, he edged nearer to the mysterious ceremony, hoping to learn more about their intentions.
Suddenly, off to his left, F'nass heard a piercing screech. He and the P'ku reacted simultaneously, heads swivelling to pinpoint the source of the sound.
Three two-legged beings moved rapidly across the clearing. Two of them had dark hair or fur atop their skulls; the third had that of a lighter, yellowish color. The tallest one growled a command to the others as they ran.
Stunned senseless, F'nass realized that these could be nothing other than the Mar-Sh'lls themselves.
On the heels of this realization - and of the running figures - was another mind-numbing sight. With a deafening roar, K'ta-Ma burst forth from the jungle, in pursuit of the fleeing trio. F'nass barely noticed the P'ku as they scattered; fortunately, they didn't notice him either, even as the smallest one bounded past him in a blind rush to safety.
Alarmed, F'nass realized that the Mar-Sh'lls were running directly towards him, leading the roaring monstrosity along with them. He cast about frantically, looking for some means of escape. His senses seemed to slow as fear and uncertainty took hold.
The third moon slid neatly into place between the other two.
In his peripheral vision, F'nass saw an opening appear in the golden structure. Heedless of any danger the thing may have presented, he mustered every remaining bit of energy and dashed to the right, diving into the metallic tower before he could be swept up in the horrific chase.
As he regained his footing within the tower, F'nass had time for one last, frozen glimpse: as they hurtled past, the tallest of the Mar-Sh'lls turned to stare into the golden device. For a single, fleeting instant, his small, fiery blue eyes locked with those of the dumfounded Sleestak. Then the opening re-sealed itself, an odd vibration tingling F'nass' feet as the portal became active.
A moment later, it reopened, and F'nass realized with a sinking feeling that he'd made a poor decision.
The jungle was gone. In its place was a dim cavern, the ceiling of which was oddly flat and lined with long crystals, only a few of which produced light. The cavern was lined with racks containing hundreds of cylindrical objects, colorful sacks and rectangular cases, all of which were covered with symbols and depictions of foodstuffs. The floor of the cavern was smooth and shiny. In the distance, F'nass could make out a long row of wheeled carriages.
Groaning softly, he stepped gingerly out of the tower.
Phil Goodwin was not having a good night.
That afternoon, his battered Chevy Impala had blown a tire on the way to Sears; the spare was in his garage, also flat, and it had taken him roughly two-and-a-half hours to wait for the tow truck and have the tire replaced. By the time he'd gotten to the department store's ticket window, the Kiss concert was sold out, which resulted in an earful of abuse from Lori, his girlfriend and frequent arbiter of his intellect. Now he'd have to pay double or triple to some scalper to see the show, which was why he'd volunteered for the late shift at Safeway in the first place.
Now, buffing Aisle 5 (coffee, tea, filters, powdered drinks), he grumbled at his transistor radio, which had gone crackly and then silent. He shut down the floor waxer, bent down and shook the little plastic gadget. He'd just put new batteries in it, the cheap piece of junk. He gave the radio a whack with his knuckles, and bingo! The Bay City Rollers reappeared, singing about Saturday nights.
As Phil stood, the radio fell silent again as it fell from his fingers, hit the tiled floor and cracked open.
F'nass raised a claw and said, "Uh...h'llo!"