The old Seashank Hotel always reeked of mold and seawater, creaking continuously as the wind changed, keeping everyone on edge. A burnished bell and musty leather sign-in book kept her company at the front desk. The paintings on the opposite wall shed a dour cast, her grandparents frowning and judging her with their dumb, unmoving eyes. The smell could be gotten used to—it was still better than the waste and effluvia of New York City—but it was the bad atmosphere the building bled that couldn’t be tolerated.
A teenager with dyed black hair, black lipstick, and multiple piercings slouched down the stairs from the second floor. He had the quintessential “Seashank look”: overlarge and fishy eyes, pale skin, thin lips. She shared many of his features, and wore mainly black over her willowy body, but didn’t take such pains to look so exaggeratedly gothic. The boy pouted slightly as he slunk into the lobby and slopped onto a stool.
“I need you to prepare a Pescalist sashimi for the evening, Mike,” said Annie.
The teenager looked annoyed at being told to do something. “Yes, whatever you say, all hail the betentacled one,” Mike said as he walked downstairs to the kitchen.
He left her tapping a pencil harshly on the counter. She had never really liked her brother; she swore she was going to throw him down the family well one day.
A bedlam came from upstairs, and Annie dropped the pencil. The raised voices from the above hallway grated on Annie’s ears, the inevitability of it making it even worse. She wished the two professors would leave each other alone, but they quarreled at every chance they got.
Dr. Farley waddled down the stairs, shoes squeaking on hardwood, harrumphing all the way down. Annie put on an artificial smile. The rotund gentleman in a pressed gray suit leant up to the front desk, draping his arm across the counter and leaning forward, conspiratorially. His eyes slid away from the distress in his thoughts and he focused on Annie.
“Annie, you must intervene with Dr. Krugk for me,” he said. “He simply will not see reason.”
“I’m sure Dr. Krugk has his reasons. You know Pescalists are irritable out of their native seas.”
“Oh, you just don’t understand the importance of a numerologist’s work,” Farley said absentmindedly. “I’ve spent a lifetime studying the numbers in fortune cookie notes; if you had more of a head for numbers, you wouldn’t have lost your job.”
Annie’s smile strained to keep its shape. “Just tell me what you need, doctor.”
“Yes, if you could find me a Pescalist knucklebone, I would be delighted. When I roll the odds during the celestial alignment tomorrow, there’s no telling what arcane power my research will unleash.” His eyes sparkled with lascivious fire and he studied her more intently. “And Annie, when I have attained this power, I shall be looking for a bride…..”
Positively shuddering, Annie said, “By the way, your rent’s due.”
Farley suddenly seemed to be lost in other thoughts; he waddled his way out the front doors and into another dreary day at Seashank.
She sat in the silence of the lobby. It irritated her that it was always dark in here, even in the middle of the damned afternoon. The gray clouds that forever lurked in the sky over Seashank blotted light so that it filtered through the lobby windows in small, rectangular beams, creeping only a short way across the floor and then stopping abruptly.
The toll of an antique clock sank its seconds deeper into the thick rugs along the floor, accentuating the conspicuous dearth of any clientele. Next to her elbow there was a little concierge bell that nobody ever bothered to ring. She pulled out a folded newspaper and laid it on the counter, open to the crossword section—this was “The Seashank Weekly,” a local free press periodical printed in the archaic style of a 19th century London newspaper, with Gothic fonts and liberal use of black ink.
Annie took a pencil from a tin tankard on the counter; the pencil had a green eraser on the end, molded into the form of a mysterious creature with cephalopod head and many tentacles at the base.
“Let’s see…23 across…”
23 across read: A dangerous beast that lives underwater.
Well, that’s easy enough, she thought. It’s only five letters. It’s “Rahab.” She knew her mariner’s lore.
She looked at 23 down. A five-armed pentagram that lives in the sand.
It was obviously “Starfish,” but she couldn’t put it down since it conflicted with the “R” in “Rahab.” Feeling careless, she erased the first word with her colorful eraser and wrote in “Starfish” downwards. Annie focused her mind on what the five-letter beast could possibly be, but kept coming up blank. None of the nefarious, underwater monsters she knew of had only five letters in their name.
Then, focusing on the “S” at the beginning of the word, she realized that the answer was simply “Shark.” It was normally the most obvious solution with these things.
Her thought process was interrupted by the opening of the front door. The windy and mist-drenched air of Seashank square washed into the lobby; Annie looked up to see a woman walk inside and approach the front desk.
She was short, with long, rich raven-black hair down to her shoulders, wearing a thin sundress of bland colors and sandals on her feet. Her shoulders were thrown back over a slender frame; she was paler than anyone even the melanin-challenged Annie had ever seen. Oddly, she wore black shades even though the day was heavily overcast.
She removed the shades and Annie saw her eyes: deep hazel going on black. The two women examined each other across the counter for a moment; Annie saw the other’s face as looking stern, wide at the mouth and jaw, and drained of the rouge of blood.
“I’d like to rent a room, please,” said the woman.
Annie opened the ledger on the counter and slid it around so that it faced the other, then took a gold pen from the tankard and handed it to her. “How many will be staying?” she asked as the woman signed the ledger.
“Oh, well then I guess you’ll want the one-bedroom economy suite…”
“—and my six children.”
Annie looked startled. “Your…children? Are they with you now?”
“No, but they’ll be here shortly.”
“At the end of the week, in the evening.”
“Well, in that case, you’ll probably be wanting the economy suite tonight, which is only $30, and the family room later.”
The woman pulled a twenty and a ten from her purse and handed it to Annie; in return, Annie gave her the key to Room 207, directly across the hall from Dr. Farley. The mysterious woman took it and without another word ascended the creaky stairs.
What a strange person, Annie thought. Definitely one of the most random tenants they’d ever had at the Seashank Hotel, seemingly from out of nowhere.
She turned the ledger around to read the name that had been written in the most recent space. It was “Susan ‘Akeley’ Caultrider.” The name sounded strange. Exotic, in a way.
Annie looked up and heard a deep, resonant bellowing come from the direction of the beach. She turned to the window and looked out at the water, searching for the culprit of the noise in the dense mists. It couldn’t have been the foghorn of a cargo ship or commercial fishing vessel, as the only industries Seashank currently supported were tourism and private fishing—the lighthouse a mile away had ceased to blink many years ago.
The hotel stood atop cliffs cresting the beach, the majority of rooms facing the sea in order to maintain a relaxing view. Annie could hear the sound of the waves sloshing against the sand; there was nothing relaxing about the weird, murky waters that shined like quicksilver on the mist-enshrouded New England coast. There was nothing pleasant about what the imagination culled from its briny deeps.
For some reason, the sound she had heard resembled more the distant roar of an underwater kraken, slowly but resolutely answering its call to shore.
Farley came down the stairs into the lobby, looking cheerful. Annie was at the front desk, watching him with curiosity. She’d never seen him in such a good mood before.
He must’ve inadvertently stumbled on a great scientific discovery last night, she thought.
“Hello, darling,” Farley said. “I just thought I’d stop by to pay my bill. How much do I owe?”
This was out of character. Normally the fee had to be extracted from Farley at the end of the month, with much kicking and screaming. She checked her records and said, “Your bill comes to $390, doctor.”
“Oh yes, very good, sweetheart.” He took the money from his wallet and laid it neatly on the counter; Annie took it and placed it in the antique cash register with a ring.
“Yes, it’s such a fine day this morning. Isn’t it?”
Annie looked out the window to see if he was right. Nope. It was just as dark and dreary as it always was in Seashank.
Before he left, Farley added, “Say, I was wondering if you can answer a question…..the name of the woman staying across the hallway from me, the one in 207?”
“What? You mean Ms. Akeley? You know her?”
“Well, no, not precisely. But we had an….interesting encounter last night. I must say, though, that I’ve definitely come to believe that I was brought here for a reason; all the numbers and codes I‘ve been reading my entire life, on fortune cookies and bar codes and license plates, have been leading me right here, to the coordinates of this small hotel along the sea where I will assuredly make the finest and greatest discovery of my life.”
Farley turned his head with a distant look in his eyes. Still smiling, he walked out the front door to leave Annie alone with her thoughts, alone to contemplate Farley‘s odd behavior and strange words.
The ticking of the clock set the tone, as she whittled the hours away.
“The name of an ancient Atlantean princess?” She tapped the pencil against the crossword as she tried to think of it. The taps of the creature-eraser inadvertently melded with the rhythm of the clock.
With the afternoon’s passage into dusk, the windows that graced the front of the lobby were shadowed with watery gloom; kerosene and whale blubber lamps on long poles were lit around the lobby to provide what little illumination they could. The building had electricity, but it needed to be conserved and the lamps added to the rustic décor that was the hotel’s selling point—the patrons wanted to feel like they were in the hold of a great brig. Even with the lamps, most of the room was still dark.
“The name of an Atlantean princess…the name of an Atlantean princess…”
Outside, the courtyard turned to a woodcut-gray evening, looking flat and one-dimensional without the rendering reflections of sufficient light. Annie could see the edge and slight outline of a building across the way from the hotel, a low-to-the-ground square hovel of sun-dried clay and brick, the rounded pegs of its wooden rafters sticking out the top corner. The structure was typical of Seashank architecture: functional but not pretty. The entrance was just a hole without a door, plain darkness with no intrusions. Annie didn’t know the building’s purpose, or what was inside.
“Augh!” she grunted, dismissing the crossword off the counter in frustration. She put her pencil back in the tankard and then noticed that footsteps were creaking down the stairs.
Mrs. Akeley slipped seamlessly into the room through the dark, looking like a fish swimming across the bottom of the ocean. She had her head turned away from Annie, with only the silken mat of her black hair swishing over her neck.
“Hello, Mrs. Akeley.”
Akeley turned around in surprise, then quickly pulled something out of her hair—it was too dark and the movement was too brisk for Annie to see what it was. Something green.
“Hello…” she said, approaching the counter, “what was your name again?”
Annie pointed to the nametag on her shoulder that all employees of the inn were required to wear.
“Right, Annie. I’m sorry. We were never properly acquainted.”
Akeley reached out her hand and Annie took it out of politeness; as soon as she touched the pale flesh, she felt something surge and tingle all the way to her brain. She pulled back her hand as if shocked, and the resultant lull in conversation was filled by the ubiquitous tick of the clock.
“So, I guess you met our resident Dr. Farley,” said Annie, trying to fill in the awkward silence. “Heh, I suppose I should apologize about some of his behaviors.”
“Apologize? Whatever for?”
“Oh, well, you know. He’s a tad eccentric.”
“Eccentric?” Akeley laughed. “No, I think he’s quite a charming man.”
“Oh yes. Resourceful, driven, loyal. All fine points in a man.”
Annie had never thought of loyalty as one of Farley’s strong points. The only thing he’s ever had any loyalty to are his studies.
“…he’s such a gentleman, I already feel he would do anything for me.”
That’s probably true.
“Some people just need to be put in their best mode, to take what’s best from inside and give it a little….push.” She held up a finger to mark her point; Akeley’s eyes were naked and set on something she was looking at in the dark, something unseen and beyond the counter. She slowly turned her glazed gaze away from empty space and feasted them on Annie, coming into focus and seeing her once again.
“Well, anyway, I should go. I’ve wasted enough of your time. I’m sure you have your work to get back to.”
“Oh yes,” said Annie, as she quickly picked her crossword up off the floor and started writing on it like it was something important.
Akeley turned and walked away, exited through the tall paneled doors of the front entrance. Annie watched her go, walking swiftly down the pathway leading from the hotel to the courtyard, turning right down the road, along the cliffs by the sea.
Where the Zounds is she going at this hour? Seashank wasn’t exactly renown for its nightlife. Not the good kind, anyway.
Annie looked back at the crossword on the counter. She read the clue and realized she was back at Square One: “What is the six-letter name of an ancient Atlantean princess?” She had no idea. The answer was right there, hazy on the fringe of her mind.
She had to clear her head; something about the feel of this place made it hard to think. When it got this way, her best recourse was to focus on something simple, like a menial task or chore that needed doing anyway.
The old clock on the wall read 6:35 PM. She needed to deliver the room service to Room 202 for the evening meal. Annie sighed, stretched, made her way down the narrow staircase to the kitchen. It was dark when she entered; she groped along the wall to the side, found a heavy switch and pulled it upward. The place was suddenly doused with fluorescent light, revealing a green-tiled lair filled with cooking paraphernalia of rusted, tarnished steel. An old and grimy refrigerator stood next to gas-burning stove, the door to the freezer compartment stood the height of the kitchen in one corner, and dirty pots soaked in the sink underneath wooden cabinets. Of course, there was also the ever-present smell of seafood.
The squalor of the kitchen always got to her. She hadn’t seen herself doing this kind of work at this point in her life—it didn’t seem appropriate for someone with an MBA and high-society ambitions. But in a sense, she supposed this was where she belonged; her fishy features didn’t have any place in prestigious brokerage firms or fancy Manhattan parties.
Inside the refrigerator there was a meal already prepared. She took it out, heated it a little on the stove, and then brought it to the dumb waiter built into the wall, where it transported the food upwards to the second floor with a swish.
Annie picked up a four-wheeled cart and picked it up off the ground, carrying it as she climbed both sets of stairs to the second floor. Once there, she put the food from the dumb waiter to the cart, then wheeled it over to Room 202.
She knocked on the door. “Room service!”
No one responded, so she left the cart by the door and started to walk away. Then she heard a noise.
She stopped mid-stride and then heard it again, coming from behind her.
“Annie…” said the voice.
She recognized the low register of Dr. Krugk, coming through the closed door of Room 204. She turned and approached it.
“Dr. Krugk, are you alright?”
“Yes…I must speak to you about something very important.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“How much do you know about false-color imaging?”
She mentally kicked herself for falling in the trap—now she was going to hear a “very important” lecture from Dr. Krugk. “Not much, Professor,” she said.
Changing tracks completely, Krugk said, “I have recently taken a few photographs of eggs.”
“A clutch of six eggs sitting on the beach, a few yards across from my window, have been the site of frequent nocturnal meetings between Ms. Akeley and Dr. Farley.”
“Yes. Although that concerns me less than the imaging of the resonance from the eggs themselves.”
“Dr. Krugk, again, I don’t know what that means.”
“Let me show you something,” he said, and something slid out from underneath the door, spinning in a full circle before coming to rest two inches from Annie’s feet.
She picked it up. “What’s this?”
“It is your camera phone.”
“I know it’s my camera phone. I mean, why did you have it?”
“That’s not important now. What is important are the photographs I’ve downloaded from my telescope.”
Curiosity got the better of her, and Annie cycled through the photo databank of her phone, found the most recent album and opened it. The first image that appeared was in color, but primarily cast of shades of very white and very black. There was Farley standing in the dark, on the left side only visible above the neck, looking serious at something to the right; the other person’s face was turned away from the camera, but the black mat of hair couldn’t have belonged to anyone else but Ms. Akeley.
There was another picture with Farley laughing about something. A chill ran up her spine when she saw Akeley’s dead eyes staring directly at her, as if she had known she was being photographed.
She cycled forward to another photo; in this one Farley was out of sight, only his arm and leg showing. Akeley was on her knees in front of the eggs, doing something with her hands held up in the air. The eggs were large enough to be prehistoric. There were lines drawn around them in the sand, in circular patterns. The surf rattled beyond, soaking the beach with foam.
“Take a look at the other photos,” said Dr. Krugk.
Annie went to the other album Krugk had downloaded onto the phone. A strange image came up_strange as in hard to discern. The colors were distorted and out of focus, seemingly alien.
“These are the photos of the eggs,” said Krugk, “taken in the daytime with a lens that allows imaging of light from….beyond the standard wavelengths. An ineffable color beyond human perception, visible only to certain animals and mystics, a bilious mix of ultra-violets and inner-reds invisible to the untrained eye.”
“Then how come I can see it?”
“You’re not seeing it; the colors you see are artificially placed by the imaging equipment, in order to show the relative gradients of the color.”
“What does the color look like?”
“Kind of a…..light fuchsia, I suppose. What bothers me, though, is that both photographs taken of the eggs and Ms. Akeley show similar patterns of the color-coded resonance, which seems to suggest a common biological content between them.”
“Well, doctor, this is all very fascinating, but I don’t see what it has to do with—”
“The only thing that can be causing what you see there is extensive levels of radiation or heat.”
“Yes.” Krugk seemed to completely change course once again: “Reptiles are the only animals who lay their eggs on the beach, and when they do it its always under the sand to provide insulation. Warmth is given by the mother, who sits upon the eggs.”
Annie waited patiently for Krugk to relate the disconnected thought processes. He continued: “The eggs must be receiving their nourishment from some other energy source, something that requires them to be laid aboveground rather than under.”
“What would that be?”
“I’m not sure, but I think it might be….cosmic rays.”
“Yes. It would explain how the eggs have grown to such a tremendous size—as the result of mutation—for they have grown much larger than any eggs I have ever witnessed in my travels. Although it would seem from the photo that Ms. Akeley attaches a different significance to who or what the source of the energy is. An almost, ah…religious fervor, I would venture to say, given the ritualistic nature of her meetings with Farley.”
Annie looked again at the photo of Akeley kneeling in front of the eggs, hands held above her head in some form of deranged benediction. “So…” Annie began.
“So what in Phoebus’s Fantabulous Fisheries is in those eggs?” said Krugk.
Mike was alone wandering the halls of the Hotel, not really interested in doing anything important or making himself useful. His sister could take care of things perfectly on her own, really; it wasn’t like he was really needed around here. And honestly, the hotel could fall apart for all he cared.
The long, empty corridor stretched to a single window that adorned the ending wall. It was a simple sliding hash window overlooking the sea, only a hundred feet away. He slunk down the aged floorboards with his hands in his baggy pockets, his head downcast at a slouching angle. The light from the small flame-lit nightlights along the floor was almost as pale and weak as the dusk-beams flowing through the window at the end of the hall. He stopped by a food cart standing next to one of the rooms, an unopened silver tureen covering something seafood-related.
The door to the room was closed, and the cart was obviously unnoticed. Well, if they don’t want it, Mike thought as he opened the tureen.
Underneath was an assortment of fried, baby kraken-shrimp. Ugh. Always the same disgusting food in this lame-ass town.
He took one of the shrimp and ate it, anyway. It was mainly the thrill of the crime that mattered.
A few feet way, on the opposite side of the hall, the door to Room 207 was ajar, spilling some of the motions of the interior into the hallway. Mike stopped his munching and turned to look. He saw something moving in there and realized that it was the room belonging to the new lady tenant, Ms. Akeley. As he came closer, he could see her inside the room through the thin margin of the door’s opening.
She was standing in the half-light of an open window, basking in whatever air and misty cold the clammy weather of Seashank decided to throw her way. She was dressed only in a white silk nightdress, showing most of her body, leaving little covered by the thin lace and strands of the loose undergarment. She looked resolutely out at the sea, her eyes unswerving as her hands moved; they cradled a long, ornate knife, of a curious shape and design unlike anything Mike had ever seen before. Her hands expertly tossed the knife from one hand to another, catching it and flipping it downwards with quick arcs of her fingers and wrists, flicking the blade in an out with the casual dexterity of a trained warrior.
She had already been aware of Mike’s presence, and turned her head in his direction without any look of surprise or any embarrassment for how she was dressed. As she fixed her black eyes on him, a stronger breeze flew from window and eased the door the rest of the way open, leaving Mike in full view, slouching and watching her in the doorway.
Almost blushing, he was about to apologize, but Akeley spoke first. “I can see you’re wondering what I find so interesting about the view, especially one as banal and insipid as can be found in no-name town such as this.”
Mike was wondering a great many things, but instead of answering he went into the room, standing next to the bed unmade and rumpled with sheets.
Akeley continued: “You’re wondering what difference it would make if this whole cliff settlement crashed into the ocean in one great mud slide, killing everything and everyone in it, saving them from a lifetime of wretched, pointless existence. What great calamity would befall humankind if all were sucked into the eternal void.”
“It’s not so bad. Not any worse than any other town I’ve been to.”
She flicked the knife in his direction. “Spoken like someone who’s never been to the Deep. Do you know what the Deep is like?”
“No. What is it?”
“It is a place of endless boundaries, of things that live and breed in the dark, freakish creatures you can only begin to imagine the terror of. There is always the darkness and a perfect absence of light to hide in, away from the petty babbling of humankind and communing only with the waters that surround for infinite reaches. In the Deep nothing can ever find you; it is the emptiness of space and the paleness of cold sanctuary. When you want to escape, you can do it; when you want to conquer the many things it throws in your way, you can do that as well. It is the center of everything, a place of endless possibilities, a place where you can learn what the darkness of Earth truly means.”
“Oh it is, Mike. It is.” Akeley looked at him a while longer, in her blank but intent way, and then sat down on the bed. She held her knife up in one hand, the blade pointing upwards; her other hand was held out expectantly to Mike. “Sit down next to me. I have something I want to show you.”
Rather than asking what it was, or how she knew his name, he felt himself drawn next to her on the edge of the bed. He took her hand.
She placed the pointed tip of the blade on the end of her finger, drawing a thin line of blood that congealed into a round, red drip.
She did the same thing with his finger, drawing a bit of blood. He was too fascinated with the process to complain. He’d had friends that were into scarification—was she into that, too?
Akeley brought there blooded fingers together so they touched, and an electric tingle seemed to flow between them, linking their minds and passing thoughts from one to the other. The effect was instantaneous, time slowing into much longer spaces than they were in reality; communication speeded to a thousand times the rate of spoken words.
“Do you understand now, Mike?”
“I trust you’re keeping things in order over there,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “Not having any trouble, I hope?”
“No, no trouble, Dad,” said Annie. She was watching Farley and Mike doing something through the windows.
“That’s good. You’d tell me if there was, though, right?”
“Uh-huh.” The two males were carrying some kind of crates from outside. Annie had no idea what it was, or what had compelled the two into amiability_usually they couldn’t stand each other.
“Well, I have to be going, but I should be able to come back in a couple of weeks. Hopefully you’ll be able to last until then, ha ha. Bye now.”
“Bye, Dad. Talk to you later.” Annie hung up the phone with her eyes glued to the pair walking into the lobby; they took no notice of her and started carrying the crates up the stairs.
“Hey, what’re you guys doing?” she asked.
“Nothing. Just bringing some stuff up to Ms. Akeley,” said Mike.
“Why? What stuff?” Annie moved to open the crate in Mike’s hands, but he stepped backward with an alert spasm on his face.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“Did she ask for it?” Annie asked.
“No, not really.”
“Then why are you bringing it to her?”
Farley broke in: “Look, it’s just some things that we think she might need. Don’t interfere and let us be on our way.” Without another word, the two walked up the stairs toward Room 207. Confused, Annie stood behind, watching them go.
What is that creepy chick up to? And why are they doing her bidding all of a sudden?
She ran upstairs after them; as soon as she got to the tenant hall she could hear the sounds of their conversation. The door to 207 was open, with Akeley was standing in the center of the room, brushing her hair with a clamshell mirror poised in her hand, instructing the two helpers, “Just put those anywhere, dears,” as they set down the crates. They took no notice of Annie in the doorway.
“Are you going to be changing rooms, Ms. Akeley?”
The pale woman acted like she hadn’t heard. “Hmm? Oh, yes, I suppose. Tomorrow.”
“Well, if you’re going to be changing rooms, then I need your rent money from today and yesterday.”
“You’ll receive the money at the end of the week, as is proper.”
Annie stepped forward. “Look, if you’ve got a problem with how I run my hotel, then maybe you should just get out.”
“Now really,” Farley objected, “that’s no way to—”
Akeley waved her hand to make him silent, working whatever voodoo magic it was that she possessed. “You’ll receive your money at the end of the week. And in a no-name, Podunk town such as this, you should just be grateful for any business you happen to get. So just run along now, dear.”
“And Dad didn’t leave just you in charge, he left both of us in charge,” said Mike.
Annie looked at her brother. “You’re just going to let her talk about Seashank like that?”
Mike grinned at her in a way that chilled her, all the more disconcerting in that she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him smile. “I don’t owe this place anything.”
Farley brushed up to the door, his fat face displeased. “Now if you’ll excuse us, the lady wishes for privacy,” he said, and shut the door harshly in her face.
She stood there in the hallway for a few minutes, furious but unable to do anything with her anger. Thoughts seethed: Just who the hell does that Queen Bitch think she is? She’s worse than those high priestesses of The Order of Neptune, expecting everybody to just fall down and worship her, to have everything handed to her on a silver platter! Entitlement and privilege—it makes me so sick! ‘Run along now,’ indeed! She’s worse than those stuck-up stockbrokers who wouldn’t give me a job because of the way I look, giving me that rot about “needing more experience.” She thinks she’s some stuck-up princess who can just walk into my hotel and start to take over, stepping all over everybody like they‘re—
It might have been the influence of Dr. Krugk, but she had already started to think his way, connecting the frayed ends unrelated elocutions until they met and formed into something surprisingly significant. The idea needed research before she formed any conclusions—if she was right she would have solved something that had nagged at her ever since that strange woman had arrived here. There was a book in the basement…
Annie ran down the stairs, across the lobby, and out into the gray day. The cold wind nipped at her black hair as she ran around the side of the wooden building and into a dusty alleyway lined by a row of drab, dried-brick hovels, darkened inside with the blinds shut tight, the residents preferring to shut themselves in rather than face the miserable weather outside. Annie found the cellar doors, built at a slant against the side of the hotel. She pulled back one plank of rotting wood, and descended into the darkness of the basement.
She turned on the lights; stark hanging bulbs strung with loose wire lit up. Electricity was necessary to see in the basement as all the papers and books would catch fire with lamps. The musty odor of old facts and records filled the air, and the dust swirled around but went nowhere, as there was no venting to circulate it out of the room.
There were mountains of hotel records, invoices, arrears and many refugees from their father’s extensive library. Annie started to rifle through them, then picked up a weighty tome off a stack heaped haphazardly on the floor. She blew off the outer layer of dust and brought it under the dim light of a bulb to read the title. Yeah, this was what she wanted.
She sat down on a random book stack and examined the text. The title read: History of the Atlantean War with the Pescalists.
She opened the book. Covering the expanse of one whole page was a picture of a giant sea creature, a serpentine leviathan with a dragon’s head and the coiling body of an eel, only a thousand-times the size. On its scaly back rode an Atlantean Mer-Warrior, finned and fisheaded, wielding a golden trident and spiked golden helmet. The pair plunged through the ocean deeps, bubbles foaming around them, possibly off to some epic underwater battle.
Annie turned to a random page. Spread across both sides was a political map of the Tectonic Nations, a view of the ocean floor divided by plate boundaries and political alliances. There was the vast Central Plate in the middle of the world, ruled for thousands of years by the powerful Atlantean empire. To the northwest, just a short swim from Seashank, was the much smaller plate ruled by the scientific theocracy of the Pescalists, an insular race even older than the Atlanteans.
She turned to another page, this time much further into the book. A black and white illustration heavy with shading appeared from the aged paper. It depicted the first meeting between the Atlanteans and the Pescalists, a historical event that was inevitable but delayed through the centuries by geographical separation. The Pescalists looked sullen and resentful as they greeted the Atlantean emissary, an alien creature of a vast militaristic culture much unlike their own.
There then followed scenes from the Atlantean/Pescalist war. She stopped when she saw the squadrons of Kuultrider forces, gracefully swimming across the page. She read the text accompanying the image:
“…the formation of the Kuultrider legions in the Atlantean army were a major factor in the eventual victory of Atlantis over the Pescalists. An important turning point in the war came when the Atlantean military decided to allow women into the Kuultrider forces, who proved to be just as good at riding, if not better, than the males. The most prominent female Kuultrider of this time was the princess of the Akk dynasty, daughter of Su Stormbringer, then king of all Atlantis…”
Annie stopped and used her linguistic abilities put the pieces of the puzzle all together. Using the Atlantean tradition of attaching -lei to indicate dynasty, and -san to indicate lineage, the full name turned out to be:
“Su-san Akk-lei Kuultrider.”
Night fell once more along the rocky coastline, shadowing its caverns and seaside coves, all shorebirds flocking away to flee the epicenter of forthcoming gloom. Seashank was subdued, locked away in its tiny one-story houses, ready to weather any incipient storms. It would survive another one, if it came to that. In a way it resembled the jagged rocks that still stood along the coast after the breakers had heaped their furious beatings upon them, day after day and year after year.
Krugk could feel the wind changing, the changing course of febrile currents that built and blew their way. He would have to get ready, have to prepare. If he did not face the undertow with equal might and courage, everything—he, his mission and his people—would be forever damned until the end of time.
In a bedroom, Annie experienced the sensation of total black, frightening for its lack of any familiar touchstone and logical center. It consumed everything she imagined, and spit out only more black.
She opened an eyelid, and light streamed into her consciousness. She saw that she was in Room 207, and that it had been rigged with a number of bright electric lamps. Mike sat watching her from across the room, in a chair by the door, with his arms folded around his chest and an unhappy expression on his face. He held Akeley’s jeweled and intricate knife. She looked to the right, out the window, and could see the signs of the coming dark as it whipped its windswept surge in from the sea.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened: Ms. Akeley had, in that way of hers, figured out what Annie knew and sent her minions after her. By now the two males were fully in her grasp; they must have found her and knocked her out when she wasn’t looking. Annie could tell by the way Mike was watching her that he was too far gone to reason with.
“What is she planning to do? You might as well tell me,” Annie said.
Mike just continued to glower in her direction.
Annie looked to the right wall and said, “If I scream, Krugk will—”
“Krugk’s a joke. He’d never leave his room.”
“Why are you helping her? You like her pushing you around?”
“You don’t know the first thing about her.”
“And you do?”
“More than you’d believe. She‘s taught me much, about the endless Deep where the True Ones live, where the night lasts forever and the genuine darkness can be found in its purest form.”
“You think she cares about you? She’s just using you—she saw how you like to dress up and pretend you’re so dark, so she filled your silly little head with dreams of an ’endless night.’ “
“You don’t understand. I’m not like you. You tried to leave home to make it in New York, you thought you could be something you’re not, someone like her, but you just ended up a failure. You just wish you could be like Ms. Akeley. At least I accept what I am. She said if I followed her she would take me into the Deep, where I belong.”
“I bet she promised you all kinds of things for when this is over,” Annie said. “Things a little boy would immediately jump on, even if it means selling out his hometown and everyone in it to some foreigner who crawled out of the water. How‘s it feel to be a foreigner‘s lackey?”
“It ain’t like that.”
“No? It sure looks like that, the way you follow her around with that lust-mad look in your eyes, begging for a little bit of attention from that fishy-freak slut—”
“Don’t you talk about her like that!” Mike jumped out of his seat and came across the room with fury in his eyes and his pierced eyebrows bent awry; it as already too late—Annie had her chair clenched in both hands and smashed it over his head, breaking it into wooden fragments and knocking him flat on the floor.
She hoped he was okay, but didn’t have time to think of that now. She ran out the door and took off down the hallway towards the stairwell. Something stopped her.
“Annie…” Krugk’s voice came through the thin door to Room 204. Annie stopped to look at it, and heard the sounds of movement and things being gathered from behind. The rustling and clanking settled, then she heard the slow click of the lock becoming unlatched. Another second of waiting, and the door opened.
She saw Krugk for the very first time. He was old, with wisps of gray hair sticking out the sides of his cephalic fins. His skin was moist, bluish-gray and scaly; his hands and feet were webbed and flat. Big lips wrapped around the low jowls of his lantern-shaped head. The dilated pupils of his eyes could be seen under the glass goggles he wore over them.
He was wearing some kind of brown wetsuit, with a series of fluid-filled tubes attached to it. Water was dripping from the get-up and pooling at his feet, splashing as he walked through it and left wide footprints from his watertight shoes.
“I’m coming with you,” said Dr. Krugk.
“Well, then come on,” said Annie. “Let’s go see what we find.”
When they exited through the hotel’s front doors and out into the night, the wind whipped hard around them, disheveling Annie’s hair and Kurgk’s fins. They ran right, down the eastern path leading out of town, entering a fragile woodened walkway that carved straight through the cliffs. It hovered on thin beams over an clearly-incised hole a foot around the walkway, sounding creaky and unsteady as the two thumped along the boards. At the end, sands covered the final steps leading to the ground, and they stepped onto a dark beach covered by a mass of glittering stars.
Farley and Akeley stood a few yards down the stage of sand, engrossed in the giant eggs that rose as high as the sky.
“They must be the result of genetic engineering,” Krugk said. “There’s nothing that grows that fast. That‘s how they brought Su-San back from the dead, and adapted her to live on land.”
Akeley took notice of their arrival and said, “Ah, Dr. Krugk. I see you’ve tired of playing Peeping Tom with that telescope of yours, decided to come and see the truth for yourself.”
“Akeley had taught me much, Krugk,“ Farley said, his eyes fascinated and sincere, enrapt by the sight of the eggs. “You have no idea the power the Atlanteans are capable of. You two are about to witness the beachhead of the world’s greatest invasion, of the greatest threat the human race has ever faced.”
“Why did you come to Seashank?” Annie asked. “Why here?”
“It’s because Seashank is the only place she feels safe,” said Krugk. “They are afraid of the land and so they want to destroy it.”
“There’ll be nothing left to fear once we’ve razed it to the ground, to become fodder to feed my hatchlings,” said Akeley, with a mad glow in her face. “Hark! Here they awaken!”
In the fierce incandescence of the moonlight, a system of tiny cracks appeared along the tips of the eggs, webbing downward to the base, expanding thicker and wider. Flakes of the shell broke off, and a rumbling of activity began to emerge from within.
There was a squawking roar as the heads started to breach. Annie thought at first she was seeing three heads from each egg, but then realized that they were triangular triple-pronged snouts of a single head bisected along the center, with three pairs of tongues that waggled as they wailed. Their backs were covered with a blue-black carapace like a beetle’s armor; if they had eyes they were too small to see. The wings, fins, and sharp insect-legs broke out of the sides of the eggs, which were coming apart and sticking to the creatures’ bodies in shards embedded in slathered goo. Krugk and Annie backed away from the monstrosities that began to awaken; Farley and Akeley only stepped closer.
“Come, come my beautiful darlings!” Akeley shouted, her eyes full of maternal joy. “Gather around, my mutant Uber-Kuult, my amphibious chariots of destruction! Let us lay waste to all these accursed lands in the name of the Empire!”
Hearing the voice of their mother, the monsters rallied to her, one of them bending its neck to give her purchase along its back. The small woman climbed atop and held on to the blue ridges of its shell; the mutant Kuult stood and lifted her high into the midnight air.
“Now go! Eat! Feed! Destroy! THALL EM LIKK!”
Farley had been watching this with the same interest an excitement as Ms. Akeley, but was very much surprised when two Kuult bent to him and split his body in half with slashing bites of their disgusting mouths, then dropped the pieces into their maws and swallowed. The newborn Kuult were hungry, and Dr. Farley had served as the first sacrifice.
Krugk was holding a device in both hands, something that looked like a squirrel cage on a base of crystals and colored panels. He activated one and the cage began to spin wildly, causing a whining sound and creating a palpable electric tinge.
“It creates a high-pitched frequency that they don’t like,” Krugk explained, leaning close to Annie so she could hear. “There’s enough insect in their DNA to repel them, but I don’t know how long it will last.”
Akeley reined her mount, yelling in her inhuman chant, “RUDD YORGH SULOOD TAEYN!” She made her beast move in against the force generated by Krugk’s device; the monster crept close enough to ram a chitinous pillar into at the sand next to them, toppling Krugk and Annie in the seismic shock, spilling a shower of sand from the dirt geyser that erupted around the Kuult’s leg.
Annie lay down in the dirt, face covered by her sand-spattered hair. She heard Akeley riding closer, laughing hysterically and speaking her nonsensical words.
“Your Pescalist toys are useless against Atlantean might, Doctor,” intoned Akeley. “The diversion was enjoyable, but now it’s time to die, just like the rest of your despicable race. And your bedraggled sea rat companion, as well.” She clicked out of the side of her mouth and barked, “NAOGN WOL NUR!”
Well, I guess this is The End, Annie thought as the monster neared to kill them both. Maybe Mike is right, maybe I’m just a failure. I’m not good at anything; I could never stand up to Ms. Akeley.
That’s not entirely true, another part of her mind counter-argued. I’m pretty good at crossword puzzles. All those dull hours sitting at the front desk doing nothing must have been good for something.
At the time of death, the human mind becomes absorbed with inanities, such as the contemplation of a blade of grass, or in Annie’s case the texture on a grain of sand. She was more interested in the bizarre incantations that Akeley screamed as she ordered her Kuult to devour their flesh. What was that she just said? “NAOGN WOL NUR.” Funny, “NUR” is just “RUN” backwards.
Akeley should have chosen a more obtuse incantation, for this clue sparked another chain of thought: Are these English words backwards? RUN LOW NGOAN? No, that doesn’t make sense. It sounds more like something else Akeley said to me in the hotel…something_wait! “Run along now”! She’s saying, “RUN ALONG NOW,” but the letters are scrambled.
As the Kuult neared for the kill, Annie muttered, “Stop….pots…TOS.”
The mighty Kuult lurched backwards and Akeley struggled to hang on as she dealt with the sudden, unexpected movement.
“Stop now….LOW TOS?”
The Kuult looked at her in confusion; Akeley quickly snapped some orders of her own and then it moved forward again.
It seems to like threes…one for each mouth, I guess—in lieu of a brain, you think with your appetite. Stop right now…WON PRIGHT TOS? Wait, I see_it’s an ascending ratio of letters from the original words at two to three: two letters from the first two words and three from the final.
“Stop right now,” Annie incanted, “RIGOW NHT TOS.”
The Kuult sat down obediently and once again Akeley grappled to hang on.
“Drop the lady: HYAP TELD ORD.”
The massive mutant beast shook its neck; the small lady fell screaming off its back and into the sand. By now, Krugk had recovered his machine and shut off the frequency.
Annie didn’t flinch from the next, obvious incantation: “Eat the lady: HYAT ELD TAE!”
The other Kuult came into the action, now that there was no sonic interference and the promise of food; their mother raised her hands and shrieked, every image the damsel in distress, as her repulsive children swarmed around her in a matricidal feeding frenzy. Their multitudinous mouths grouped over every inch of her body, tearing her apart limb from bloody limb.
Krugk and Annie were backing away, trying to get away from the horrific scene. Annie uttered one more incantation at the ring of monsters: “Kill yourselves: YEESOR UVELS LLIK.”
The things flew, dashed, and clawed at each other, rolling on the beach in snarling clusters. Krugk and Annie escaped down the walkway, hearing the whole time the screams and wails of the Kuult as they fought to the death. When they rounded the top of the cliffs, Annie could still hear them down there, filling the air with their blood-drenched sounds.
As they returned to the square, Annie looked back out at the view, where the black outriders were fading into the sea, the raging marine winds calming down to a quiet. The Pescalist scholar hurried to catch up, the excitement and danger too much for his age; soon he would retire to his quiet monastic cell in her hotel, a familiar place of safety and refuge outside his watery origin. She once again felt the solitude of her isolated and dreary home, her seaside town off the beaten path and out in the middle of nowhere. A no-name place of little importance, the tactical point of an invasion by the most powerful Empire the world has ever known, an ancient darkness and the gravest threat to all humankind, and it was here that that power was deterred and sent back to the Deep from whence it came.
Gazing out at the lonesome coast under a starlit sky, Annie said, “I am Seashank.”
Lee Lackey and Tom Ribas are the founding members of the Houston-based writing collective “The Mad Hatters.” They write spec-fic, but secretly yearn to be Harlequin romance writers.