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.

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old dragon inn (part four: about a war)

Aaron sat quiet for a moment, looking out over the ocean. I followed his gaze, growing impatient for him to continue. The sea was peacefull as can be, sun glittering on nice little waves playing around the decaying harbour moorings. But I had always lived close enough to the coast to have seen my share of storms, I knew what he was talking about. As if he had read my mind, he said with a faint smile: “You don’t know what it’s like. Out there. It can be scary enough here, but out there… there’s nothing else. When the ocean goes crazy, the whole world is fluid. There’s no orientation, no point to fix your eyes on, everything is moving. You can’t know what that’s like.” I felt a slight shudder run down my spine. Like a forgotten memory of pain and confusion I hadn’t felt yet. I shook it off.

“So, what happened to them? Did they make it?” I asked impatiently. He laughed. “Well, of course they made it, silly. How else could I possibly know her story? It was hard, the ones in the back screaming all the time, and being sick on top of everything else. But they made it to shore alright.” “And then? What happened to your mother afterwards?” He shrugged. “She died.” I stifled an exasperated sigh. Considering his age, I had guessed as much. “Yeah, right. But in between?” Then I noticed how his smile had turned bitter and sad. “Not much in between, really. People were wondering where the platform went, and those kids she rescued were way too terrified to withstand questioning for long. They told everything they had seen. And then, after a short while, when people realized that it wasn’t just about the platform, that there was a bloody war going on out there, they were all too easily persuaded to tell a lot more then than that. More than they knew. More than was true. Mom got blamed for “starting the war”. People always need a scapegoat… She was convicted of high treason against humankind, and executed in a hurry. It probably was for the best – I wouldn’t want to think about what the mob might have done to her otherwise.” I stared at him in utter disbelieve. “You mean… What you’re saying is… eh. You’re saying Janet Bowder was your mother???” I hadn’t gotten much in the way of education, but even I knew about Janet Bowder. She was the wicked witch of the west. She was everything vile, and more evil on top. She had, at least, even in the most harmless of the stories, been in cahoots with the octos, giving them information about humans and their weaknesses, enabeling them to start and win the war. Some said she had given birth to ha half-octo. I had always taken that as a metaphor that got out of hand when people started to forget about those kind of scientists. The infamous gene-splicers. I’d believed that Janed Bowder must’ve been one of them, experimenting with octo-dna, and that she had produced a chimera, maybe even the missing link between the harmless, stupid animals of old and the new kind, that was now ruling the planet. But, if Aarons story was true, well. Then she had not been one of those scientists at all. And the whole thing was just an old man’s tale, a little horror story to frighten the children. Or just the fact that she had had a son already when all this happened, whom she probably tried to protect by hiding him from the public during he trial. People get so suspicious of everything they think someone wants to hide from them – they might just have supposed that there must be something terribly wrong with him.

Of course there was the possibility that she had still made the modern octos, not by genetic experiments, but by teaching. That they had been just animals before she started working on them, but her training had made them the intelligent manace they were today. “Do you think her experiments could have made the octos more intelligent?” I asked, wording my question as delicately as possible. Aaron just shook his head. “No, no way. She might have – unknowingly – provided them with some information about human technology, when that octo got into her mind. But the ability to do that, and to use it, he had to begin with. You can’t learn that stuff, just like you can’t learn to fly, even if you’re raised by ravens. I think the octo’s either had been like that for quite a while, gotten there in the same long, slow process of evolution as us humans before them. And they acted as soon as they saw a chance to take over, it just happened to start there and then. Or maybe they didn’t really want world supremacy, originally, they just took it when they were sufficiently convinced that mankind should most definitely not have it. Or, that’s another possibility, they mutated suddenly in the wake of the radioacive spills from nuclear power plants. We’ll never know that. But it was certainly not my mom teaching them how to be intelligent – that’s a rediculously unscientific idea.” I nodded. As I said, I’m not a scholar, but fair’s fair. I haven’t grown claws yet, and I spend most of my time with a cat.

“And yet you fought in the war” I tried to promt Aaron “even after what they did to your mother?” He was still staring into the distance. “Didn’t have much of a choice, did I? Even if they erased me from the records, everyone at home knew who’s son I was. The only way to rehabilitate myself to some degree was to go out and fight. They got suspicious enough when I came back, each time. Not too many sailors managed that… I guess the octos did remember my mom, too. Still, sometimes I wish I hadn’t come back. Those are some awfull memories.”

I could imagine. Still, I wanted to hear more about it. I’d heard bits and pieces here and there, stories about how things used to be, technologies we weren’t allowed to use anymore, things we couldn’t make because we lacked the energy, or the raw materials. But I never really knew why, and what the octos were able to do, that had us cowering on dry land. They were sea creatures after all. How could they possibly strike on land? Aaron must have seen the questions in my face, because he began to talk again, slowly, cautiously, as if he was afraid to scare me. “Octos are incredibly weird creatures. They’ve got three hearts, and several brains, and they have lots of amazing abilities. They can taste with their arms, and breathe through their skin, in adition to the gills. They are poisonous, some more, some less, but they all are. They can not only crawl and swim, but also transport themself from one place to another unseen, and we never fond out how. It’s like they liquify, and re-solidify someplace else. That’s why it’s no use trying to contain them underwater, barriers and cages just don’t work. You can contain them in tanks on dry land, but even that only works to some degree – they squeeze through impossibly small holes. Basically, anywhere water goes, they can go too. They change colour and texture, they are strong, and some species are really, really huge. But yes, most of that is only of use in the ocean. So it would not have been that much of a threat.

But, and that’s the problem, they also get into people’s minds. They can read them, and they can place thoughts into them. That’s how the octo “talked” to my mom that night, and how they gave Sofie the vague idea that she should get the hell out of that cabin and up on deck. Anyway, they can do a lot more than vague ideas. They can make you believe the most impossible things. In the beginning of the war, that was their main tactic. It works only on people who are somewhat physically close to them, but since we weren’t aware of it yet, the whole war was fought on water, and every ship out there, every plane and every helicopter became theirs when they wanted to. We were constantly shooting each other, thinking we were aiming at them. – And then we started shooting at each other out of retaliation, and almost forgot about the octos. At some point, pretty much all of Europe was convinced that the octos weren’t even real, athat it was all a nefarious sheme devised by the evil asians. Because that’s what every sailor who made it back would tell them. Of course, the octos also still sunk ships themselves, but of the people on those, no one ever made it back alive.

Eventually some of the human world leaders realized that fighting the war on water would never work. So they tried to have their armies stay on land while striking into the sea. Yet, hitting water will generally get you nowhere, and the oceans are huge. Even with our best effords, we would not be able to just kill the whole damn thing. Plus, even in those days we were still somewhat aware that poisoning most of the world’s water would probably kill us all, octos and humans alike. So we needed something, a device, a possibility to aim at our enemy. We got intelligence about a special heat-detecting system, that might be able to work long distance, even under water, and that could be calibrated to very specific temperatures. Now, octos are cold-blooded, and usually about the same temperature as the water around them. But when they use their brains to fight, those large brains need quite a lot of energy, and that makes them just a tiny bit warmer than their surroundings. So there was a possiblilty to integrate that technoligy into our heat seaking missiles, and at least force them into inaction. No one could be sure, but it might just work. The only problem was, we had to get our hands on the prototype first. And on a supply of a special sort of mineral, that you can’t find on the mainland. But you could find it on an island not too far out. And, even better, there was a tunnel to that island. They had used it to drive through with cars, before the war. Now, of course, there were no cars anymore, mineral oil was way to scarce to use it for burning like that. But the tunnel was still there.

So they sent us out, a whole platoon of sailors, or soldiers, as we were still called sometimes. We were walking, drawing lorries behind us. They had some fuel, but we were not supposed to waste it on the way there. It was for getting the load back, when the weight would be too heavy to pull uphill. We were a well trained bunch, so it wasn’t hard, and we made good way. It was dark, we had just a few lamps. Energy was scarce already. And it was extremely claustrophobic, walking through that tunnel, down, and down, and further down, way under the ocean. The air became stale, and I knew we hadn’t even gotten halfway yet, when I suddenly heared someone shout “down!” I threw myself on the ground at once, but to my surprise I was the only one. Everyone else just… turned on each other. It was utter chaos, I hardly saw anything, but my comrades where falling left and right, and everyone was shooting and hacking and clawing at each other.” He swallowed hard. “What I saw, in the light of the muzzle flashes and the aiming devices was the most awfull, terrible thing I’ve ever seen. It was, from one second to the next, a total killing frenzy, and the worst was, they didn’t even look mad. They didn’t look crazy, or angry, or anything. All of them just looked so very, very scared.” A single tear ran down his weathered face.

“I started crawling, whimpering like a baby, back to where I had come from. I tried not to look about me, I tried not to attract any attention, but I couldn’t even stop the helpless whining leaving my mouth. I crawled under the lorries, and every time I thought I had found a safe place, a place where I might be able to wait out this madness, one of the lights found me, and I had to start crawling again, on my bleeding elbows and knees. I didn’t even feel it at the time, but those wounds never healed properly, the damage was too great.” He points the pipe to his knobby knees. I had taken that for gout. But, yeah, scar tissue would do it, too. “And just when I had reached the point where I thought that I didn’t even care anymore, that I would be happy to just get shot and get it over with, I remembered the explosives. The ones we had with us to harvest the mineral, and that might be set off anytime by all that aimless fire. And that made me realize that I damn well still cared, and I trudged on. Somehow I reached the end of the line, and I managed to get up and run. I ran like never before, I ran until I felt my lungs were about to burst, and then I just kept running anyway. I heard twin explosions behind me, and felt the earth shake like a bull trying to toss me off, and I just kept running, all the way until the water caught up with me from behind. It swept me off my feet, hurled me on, and after what seemed like an eternity, but peobably wasn’t more than a minute or so, it threw me out of the tunnel’s opening, back to where we had started. A good amount of water came shooting out after me, but when it turned and started surging back into the hole, I managed to hold on to a tree like a little monkey, and somehow I made it. I had made it out alive, again. Nobody else had, at least not on this side of the hole. I don’t know if anyone got out onto the island, but since there was nothing much there except dirt, it hardly mattered.

So that was the end to that plan. But it was even more devastating than that. Not only did we have to realize that being on dry ground would not protect us, as long as we were close to the ocean in any way, it also raised a far more scary question: how had the octos even known what we were up to? And that was how we learned that they had gotten into our data systems.”