old dragon inn (part six: next boat)

I felt the board break before I heard it. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion – I saw Aaron stare in shock, then the darkened, dusty ceiling while I was falling, and broke through more floorboards as my body hit them coming down. I remember how scared I was while I fell, and the short moment of relieve when I landed, painlessly, on something soft and squishy, instead of the stone floor, or something hard and sharp. Then I realized that I indeed had landed on something soft, very big, wet and squishy, and for a second I actually just thought “I guess now I know what hides in the basement.”, before panic kicked in and I started my frantical attemts to get on my feet.

There was quite a lot of water, and I could hear it splashing as the Octo started shifting beneath me, either in discomfort or in an attemt to drag me under. It was like trying to stand on a bull’s back during an earthquake, but I’ve always been good at skateboarding, so I eventually managed. It just didn’t help me much, since the top of the floor still was at about the level of my upper chest, and the edges of the hole were jagged and spintered. I’d probably stab myself to death if I tried to jump out, or hold on and climb. I started looking around desperately, the shortlived victory of being on my feet draining from my body, leaving me feel stiff and paralized with fear again. That’s when I saw Aaron. He hadn’t fled. Instead he seemed to be talking to the cat.

I figured later that I must have imagined that, or misinterpreted what I saw. He probably was just mumbling to himself. Anyway, I could not catch a word he was saying. All I know is that the cat disappeared out of my sight, and then the Octo’s thrashing broke a board out of the floor behind me, at the other side of the room. That beast must’ve been really enormous. The plank happened to fly towards the hole I was in, and I heard someone push it closer. Before I could even turn around, Aaron shoutet: “Come closer to the edge! You have to grab the board! Put it across the hole, you can use it to climb up!”

It was way easier to follow instructions, than to think for myself. I stole closer to the side where the board was, very, very slowly and carefully. I really didn’t want to slip. On the other hand, I knew I needed to get out of there before the Octo managed to get an arm around and up to grab me. “Don’t look down!” Aaron bellowed “your body always wants to follow your eyes! Look at the bloody board. Or at me, if you must.” Once again, I complied. And finally I reached the plank. I remember noticing that the cat was chasing it as I pulled it, like it was a game, and for a second, that irritated the hell out of me. But then I had got it lying across the hole, and I tried to hoist myself up on it. But it was wet, and I slipped, and my arms were still weak from fear. I tried to jump, but fell back down. Landing on the Octos head again, I was convinced that this would be the ugly end of me, but to my surprise the rubbery surface just bounced back, throwing me up into the air, higher than I had jumped. And so I managed to draw myself onto the board, and crawl back onto what was left of the floor.

I made the rest of the way to the door on all fours, I could hear and feel the Octo thrashing around, really angry now. His tentacles had started to reach through the hole where the board came from, and I tried to keep as low as possible, terrified he might manage to grab me after all. When I was about halfway, the cat raced past me, tail high into the air. The little minx still thought that all this was a funny game. She did wait for me me outside the door, though. Cassie, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Oh well, I couldn’t really blame her for running away from this mess. And she had been kinda strange to begin with. Aaron shuffled through the open door, snorting and coughing. If I hadn’t been so immensely glad to be out of there, I would have been afraid the excitement had been too much for his old heart. But before I had time to really start to worry, I noticed that he was actually laughing.

He collapsed on the pier besides me, and while I was still shaking with terror, he was shaking with giggles. I pulled myself together enough to sit up and glare at him. “Just glad at least one of us having fun” I spat with what I hoped was scathing sarcasm. It didn’t work at all, it just threw him into another laughing fit. Finally he tried to speak, and managed to press out a stifled “But don’t you see? You just used his head as a trampolin! Like he was a bouncy castle of old! Don’t you see how funny that is?” I was still hurt. “No, I don’t see. – Maybe that is because I have no idea what a trampolin is. Or a bouncy castle. That sounds daft.” “Oh, right.” He sobered up a bit. “They were childs playthings, back in the day. Big, expensive ones, especially the bouncy castles – they had them at fairs and birthday parties for the rich. They were made of synthetic rubber, and filled with air, like a bicycle tyre. Just huge, so you could jump on them, and they’d throw you up on the rebound. Just like that Octo’s head…” he started laughing again. I did feel the giggles tickle my chest, but I was not willing to give in yet. “That sounds like a total waste of perfectly good rubber.” I said. “Yeah”, he admitted, with a glimt in his eye. “Especially when they obviously just as well could have used an octopus…”

When we were finished laughing, I stood up. “Where to now?” I asked. I could not leave the old man there like this, after all. He was clearly frail, and not very good on his feet anymore. He looked at me blankly. “What do you mean?” “Well, we can’t go back inside. I could just go home, or what counts as home for me these days. But where will you go?”. He got back up surprisingly fast, not even giving me a chance to help him. “I’ll do the same, of course.” he said. “But not so fast, young Padawan. You will help me to cross the ocean, won’t you? I can’t do it on my own anymore, I do need someone young and strong to sail that boat. I need you.” I swallowed hard. That wasn’t something I had heard a lot. Maybe it was even the first time ever. But the idea was crazy beyond all imagination. It was complete madness. “Oh, come on!” He nudged further. “What are you afraid of? Octos? Hell, you just bounced off one! I don’t think anyone else has ever done that. So, if anyone can make it, it would be you.”

I could not help but feel flattered. And neither could I forget that Aaron had stood by me when I was about to die, even though he could have been killed himself in the process. So I decided to humour him for a while longer. He had said we needed to get his boat in shape first. Then he needed to teach me how to sail. All that would take weeks and weeks – plenty of time to find an excuse and get out of that gig again. So, there really was no harm in saying yes now, was there? “Okay, then.” I said finally, “Why not. I’ll come with you. Or, I mean, I’ll meet you tomorrow – it’s getting way too late for today. But I’ll be there tomorrow, promise. And I guess, “Padawan” is as good a name as any.”  Aaron smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning then, not here, but at the old harbour on the other side of the bay. The once fancy one. That’s where the boat is. It was a rich man’s thing, those types of sailboats that one person can handle on their own, you see?” When he saw the look on my face, he added reassuringly: “You can bring the cat, of course.” I shook my head. “I can’t really bring that cat anywhere. But if I’m lucky, maybe she’ll come along, for now. Take care, I’ll see you there, then.”

I turned towards the cobbled street that led up the hill, towards the grey mass of the old city center, and the cat darted off before me. I’d need to remember to get some fish on the way, she clearly expected dinner.

As I hurried down the dusty road, up the hill between the grey walls, past the cemetary with the high ferns, and further away from the sea, I passed two men standing under one of the smelly gas lamps. They were talking in one of the old languages. Or actually, just one of them was talking. The other one looked a bit taken aback, but he just stood there nodding in halfhearted consent. I wondered why he didn’t object, when he looked like he kinda wanted to. But hadn’t I been just like that with Aaron? For that short moment, I admitted to myself that it would never get easier to back out, just the opposite. I hadn’t managed to refuse Aaron today, I would not be able to do so later. So why the hell was I so content, even eager to do what he wanted, and help him go through with this utterly crazy and harebrained plan? It was a terrible idea to try and go out on the ocean in a small sailboat. I had never even sailed before. He was old, and an invalid, no use physically at all. And it was the bloody ocean! With all of hell’s creatures hiding right under that pretty, glittering disguise. It was a total suicide mission.

And all that, for what? To try and find that mythical “other side” that everyone with half a brain knew was just an old man’s tale. – But he was an old man. And he said he knew it was there. He was from there. He might be crazy, but he didn’t seem delusional. And if it was true… I realized I had stopped to look back, out over the sea, sun setting in all shades of red and orange. I had always wanted to go out there. I had never been as afraid of the sea as the others. Even as a small child, the villagers had to pull me back from wading out quite often. They finally even taught me how to swim, in the duckpond. Just in case. And to give me a safe piece of water, hoping I would be satisfied with that. It didn’t help much, tho, I still went into the ocean. I always made it out wet, but alive. – That was probably why no one ever invited me in.

I was still looking at the small waves playing in the light. What an adventure it would be! All those colours, all that bright light! I felt excitement spreading in my whole body. The things I would see, and hear, and smell – it would be worth it. Even if it meant I had to die before my time, I would die having expierienced something special. Something no one else my age ever had. There were worse ways to die. There were worse graves.

I felt the cat rubbing aginst my feet. So I finally turned away from the view, and started walking again, turning the corner to the back of the fishmongers shop. The shop was closed now, but it wasn’t too long ago they had thrown out the leftovers. Fish’s tails and heads, mostly. But sometimes, if you were lucky, you could get an actual piece of fish that they had decided was not fit to be sold the next day anymore. All the stray cats in town were already assembled in the back yard, fighting over the bits and pieces. They didn’t mind me, they were used to me showing up. And not only did they know that I was stronger, and no use to attack. They also knew I could lift the lids of the cans that were too heavy for them to move. When I had found what I needed for our dinner, I conveniently left the cans open for them. I was sure the people  in the area hated me profusely for that. But then, people generally seemed to hate me, so it hardly made any difference.


old dragon inn (part five: all kinds of bombs)

“After that, we went down fast. It’s funny, in a way – in retrospect there were clear signs that they had gotten into datacommunication some time before that, and just altered it slightly, as to not give their hand away. Most communication between humans, nations, governments, but also private conversations, was digital at that point in time. The alternative systems had vanished quickly, because it was so practical. And all of the knowledge in the world was stored “online”, meaning everywhere and nowhere. It seemed so safe… but it wasn’t. See, they didn’t even need to change it all. Just the parts they wanted. And they didn’t need to change it everywhere – just enough places that the new truth seemed to be more likely than the original. People basically went into a state of confusion. And since we never found out just how they had gotten in, we never knew if we actually had managed to encrypt something well enough, or not. So even the parts of communication that passed unaltered became useless – nobody dared to believe them.

– Of course, that only happened after we found out. And it made our situation so much worse. So, you see, I never really understood why they didn’t let us know earlier on. Maybe they actually didn’t foresee that effect. Maybe they didn’t realize just how dependend we had become on electronics, that we didn’t really have an alternative. Maybe they needed the time to study us more closely, by our exchanges. Maybe they were forced into this step because the aiming device was an actual danger to them. Or maybe they did count on the confusion-effect, and maximised it by never giving away just how long they had been there undetected, making it harder to reconstruct data from backups. Or maybe they were just playing with us. Anyway – once we knew, we were lost. We could not keep on fighting, every order could just as well have been from them. Most of our methods of transport, even those we still had fuel for, were somehow data-assisted, and therefore not safe anymore. No one even dared to try an airstike against the sea, too many of them had already ended up bombing cities and military bases – now we knew why. And why nothing about that was to be found on the worldwide communications-net – although that just as well could have been our governments withholding information.

But, you know, there are two kinds of people: for the first kind, if you want them to do something they usually wouldn’t, you need to make them believe a good story. One that will explain why they should do this crazy thing they never even thought about before. The other kind, well, they just need an order. And there are always a lot of the second kind around, anywhere. So the airstrikes didn’t stop. Understandably, they struck mainly inland-cities – for one, all the relevant war-related industries and bases had been drawn as far away from the coast as possible early on in the war, and for the other, well. No one likes to drop a bomb in their own frontyard, I guess. Lucky for us, bombing mainly military bases and weapon depots, they ran out of bombs eventually.”

“And that was the end of the war?” I asked, surprised. “Everyone just ran out of bombs?” I could not help sounding somewhat disappointed, even if I was very aware of the fact that none of us would be here today, if they hadn’t. Aaron laughed “Well, very simply put, yes. Most of the really dangerous mass destruction-ones were dismantled by special forces when it became clear they’d probably drop on our own heads if we didn’t. But I actually think that they wouldn’t have used those anyways. Those things have a tendency to destroy all life equally, and the Octos always were a bit smarter than us that way – they never used stuff that would have considerably affected them as well.

Instead, they prepared one last strike. The one that really broke our spine, if you will. They got some of the leading scientists of the time under their mind-control – a group of people that was our last hope, set to develop a biological weapon that might win us the war. As far as we knew, every precaution had been taken to protect them, but to be able to research the Octos, they did need to get a lot of stuff that came from the ocean. And either an Octo in disguise got in that way, or it is just that some people are more susceptible than others, and the “safe distance from the sea” where the laboratory was placed wasn’t quite as safe as they thought. They needed to stay somewhat close, or everything they got delivered would have been dead on arrival.

So, those scientists worked on a designer plant. One that combined aspects of different kinds of plant pests, and that was supposed to poison the ocean for Octos, but just for Octos. They never told anyone what they thought they were doing – communication was down to a minimum, and every message could have been leaked, so it all stayed inside those walls. What they actually made had the cancer-like growth rate of waterweeds, the resiliance of fungi, the all-cracking rootstrength of dandelion, and a poison level surpassing nightshade. Even being near that plant would make you more susceptible to mind-altering. But no one knew anything of that, and we never even found out if it might actually have worked in the ocean – because even with all precautions taken, and all old mechanical planes to deploy them, all the bombs we know of went down inland. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, this was clearly no waterplant. They mainly dropped the seedbombs on big cities, and within just weeks, the people who had remained there were fleeing. Because the frst thing every single one of those plants did, was grow a root that cracked it’s way into the sewage system, and, drawing water and fertilizer from that, started to overgrow everything. It was resistant to all known herbicides. You could cut it down, or burn it, but like a dragon it would just grow three new stems for every one that you removed. They probably had bred in some Eucalyptus-trees.

That’s why all our cities nowadays are at the coastline, even if everyone is afraid of the ocean. You can’t build any cities inland anymore – as soon as there’s a sewage system, you got a problem. As long as there is none, they are just weeds, annoying but manageable. They need that boost from human waste to grow to their full potential. And, lucky for us here at the shore, they don’t like salty soil. Probably a precaution from the Octos, who didn’t want them to overgrow the oceans, just in case.” He shook his head like he was pondering something. “They do tend to grow in graveyards, even here. Probably because the earth in graveyards gets shifted much more than other places, and fertilized by the bodies. Not to full size, though. You’ve probably seem them, they look like fern when they’re small. ”

I felt a shiver run down my spine. Those ferns – they were actually a biological weapon? That would explain why they always made me feel so uneasy when I had to cross a graveyard. I wondered why they’d look like when they were fullgrown, but at the same time I was rather glad that I didn’t know.

“Well,” I said finally, “that was quite a story. Sorry to make you re-live all that, tho. Must be hard to talk about, I’m sure.” “Not really.” Aaron said, smiling. “Actually, I’m rather glad to have someone to talk to.” “Don’t you have any friends left?” I asked. “I mean, I see that you’re rather old, and I know that a lot of people got killed in the war, but there must be someone left that you can talk to?” He sighed deeply. “Maybe there is…” he said, “but even if, I wouldn’t know. You know, when it all ended, when we lost all possibilities to travel overseas – I was on the wrong side of it. Wrong side of the earth, that is – there’s more than one ocean, after all. And more than one continent.” I stared at him blankly. “You’re pulling my leg.” I stated a fact. “I have believed most of what you told me so far, even if I can’t really know if it’s true, but “the other side”?? That’s just a myth, everyone knows that!”

Aaron frowned. “What do you mean, a myth? I think I do know where I’m from!” Suddenly he almost sounded angry. I shook my head. Then I nodded. Then I shook my head again. “I just… I don’t know. I never even met anyone who believed it to be true, let alone someone who claims to know.” “So, you’re calling me a liar?” Aaron snarled, still angry. I took a step back. The floor creaked, reminding me for a moment where I was, and how strange this place, this bar, and this man was. I suppressed the urge to turn and flee, not only out of respect for the old veteran, but mostly because I remembered how dangerous it would be to cross that floor in any kind of haste. “I can prove it to you” Aaron said, his eyes set on my face, and the light from the window seemed to make them glow in changing colors. “Oh yeah?” I asked, trying to sound braver than I was, “how?” He stood up, and took a step towards me. “You just have to help me get some stuff, and get my boat back in shape. Then we can make a go for it, and sail over. It’ll take a couple weeks, but we can make it, I still know how to do it.”

That was when I realized he was completely mad. It was also when I, once again, forgot where I was, and made two quick steps back.