A comedic science fiction short story (6867 words)
It started with the cat. The one-eyed cat with black and orange tortoiseshell coloring. The cat I strangled to death with my bare hands and dumped in the trash compactor. He didn’t much like that; being strangled, that is. Kicked up a fuss; made gaspy, hissy noises, his one good eye bulging like it was gonna pop right out of his head. Clawed me up some, too. I still have a scar on my left wrist. Yeah, if you want to know how I saved the world, you gotta start with the cat.
It might have turned out differently if I hadn’t had that run-in with my ex. She marched into the FedEx store just before closing time, positioned herself across the counter from me, glared up into my face, and launched into one of her trademark tirades about how I was a deadbeat dad because I was late with a child support payment. I wasn’t really a deadbeat dead; it’s just that I got behind on the payments sometimes. She used some words that would be inappropriate for children, shouting loudly enough to be heard by any child who happened to be within a three block radius. I started shouting back, and by the time we ran out of steam, the customers had fled, leaving us alone in an empty store. Except for Ralph.
Ralph was the store manager. He came out from the back room to see what the ruckus was about. At least he had the good grace to wait until my ex stormed out before giving me the bad news.
“Benny,” he said. “This kind of thing is bad for business. I’m going to have to let you go.” He sounded like he was sorry. But I knew he wasn’t. He’d been looking for an excuse to get rid of me for months. Not that I blame him. I was a crappy employee back then. Hell, I was a crappy person back then.
I squeezed my sizable bulk into my car — one of those Korean subcompacts that gets totaled if you kick it too hard — and pulled out of the parking lot and drove into the side of a delivery van. The Korean subcompact didn’t take well to being driven into a van; the van didn’t handle it especially well either. Nor did the driver of the van, for that matter, who swore up a blue streak and threatened to rip my head off. Nor the police officer who wrote me up. Or my insurance agent, who politely informed me that my premium was about to go through the ceiling, what with this being my third collision in six months. To add injury to insult, I had to pay a towing company to take the junk-that-used-to-be-my-car away.
All in all, it had been a seriously lousy day, and I was dead tired when the cab dropped me off in front of the apartment building I lived in. That’s when I saw the cat. He was sitting outside the door of my third-floor apartment. Waiting for me.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “The cat was waiting for you? Really, Benny? You’re sure he wasn’t just passing by? Or hanging around? Cat’s do that, you know.”
You’re right, of course. There’s no way I could know he was waiting for me. Unless he told me so himself. Which he did as soon as I opened the apartment door.
“It’s about time you got home,” he said. “I’ve been sitting here for hours.” He sauntered between my legs and into the apartment like he owned the place.
I stood in the doorway with my mouth hanging open. I know it was hanging open because I had to close it to swallow. The cat swung his head around this way and that to take in the smallish living space I called home, then wandered into my bedroom. I was still standing in the doorway to my apartment when he came out of the bedroom and disappeared into the bathroom. I let the door swing shut behind me and followed him. He was in the shower stall. Peeing.
He looked up at me. “Feel free to take a leak,” he said. “I don’t mind sharing.”
“Never mind, I’m done anyway.” I followed him out.
Looking back on it, I think I must have been in some kind of daze or trance or something. Maybe from the accident. My brain couldn’t find anything solid to latch on to that would make sense out of the talking cat. He jumped up on the narrow counter of my kitchen ― kitchenette really ― and sniffed at the unwashed breakfast dishes.
“Benny,” he said. “You know you’re a slob, right? You’ve got a dishwasher. Why don’t you use it? By the way, what’s for dinner? I’m starved.”
I finally found some words to say: “That’s impossible.”
“What’s impossible? That I’m starved? Or that you’re a slob?”
In hindsight, I think the thing that pushed me over the edge, aside from my crappy day and the fact that I was exhausted beyond reason, was the way his lips moved when he talked. It was … wrong. Unnatural. Creepy. Like something out of a horror movie. A crappy day’s worth of rage boiled up from some place I didn’t know existed, and I lost it. Everything went black for a moment, and then I was seeing the world through a narrow and dark tunnel. A tunnel fringed with red. A tunnel focused on the cat.
“Get off my kitchen counter you friggin’ feline fiend,” I shrieked. Really, I shrieked. I don’t think I had ever done that before. Or since.
I grabbed him by the neck with one hand and yanked him off the counter. He said “Urp” as I held him in front of me and squeezed. His one eye bulged. I squeezed harder. He kicked and clawed and twisted. I kept squeezing. He kept thrashing. It took a long time, but eventually he went limp with my fingers gripping his neck so hard that my knuckles had turned white. I let go and he dropped to the floor with hardly a sound. His neck was broken.
I dropped to the floor beside him, breathing hard and sweating. I couldn’t believe what I had done. What kind of person strangles a cat? This was somebody’s pet. Some little girl somewhere was probably looking for him. But here he was, lying on the floor of my kitchen, dead. I felt like throwing up.
I gingerly picked up the limp corpse and put it in the trash compacter, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do with it, and staggered into the bedroom where I fell on to my bed, grateful to let a truly awful day fade into oblivion.
* * *
I dreamed of dragons. Animated dragons, like in a Disney movie, flying in great circles overhead. One landed close to me, grabbed me by the neck with a great clawed hand, and lifted me high off the ground. I hung limply in its grasp, for some reason unable to put up a fight. It held me up to it’s open, sharp-toothed maw, which smelled like something had died in there fairly recently.
The dragon said, using Sean Connery’s voice, “Why did ya kill the cat, Benny?”
A long, scaly tale whipped around from behind and slapped me in the face. It hurt. He did it again. It hurt again. And again. Whack, whack, whack. The rhythm gradually transformed into the beep, beep, beep of my alarm clock dragging me up from a deep sleep, reminding me it was time to get up and go to work. Except it wasn’t; I didn’t have a job anymore. Which meant I didn’t have a paycheck anymore. Which was a problem because I was one of those people who lived paycheck to paycheck. An empty feeling formed in my gut and crawled up into my chest, where it settled into a tight little ball of dread.
I staggered into the bathroom, and then out to the kitchen to get some coffee going. I tried not to look at the trash compactor, but my eyes kept flitting back to it. The cat was in there. The cat I had strangled with my own hands. How could I have done that? I’m one of those people who uses a jar to catch bees that get into the house and sets them free outdoors. I shivered. I would have to bag the cat and put it in the dumpster behind the apartment building. But that would have to wait until I had a cup of coffee.
I dropped on to the couch, mug in hand, and took a sip of the elixir of life. My outlook on the day improved immediately, just in time for the morning paper to arrive outside my apartment door with a muffled whump. I know what you’re thinking: Who reads newspapers these days? I’m old school. Live with it.
I opened the door and the cat walked in.
“Paper’s here,” he said, his tail switching against my legs as he walked by.
I swept the newspaper up and retreated back into my apartment, slamming the door behind me. It couldn’t be the same cat. No way. No how. But there he was, sitting in the middle of my living room, same black and orange coloring, his one golden eye staring at me. Balefully. At least, it seemed baleful to me.
I stepped over to the compactor and peered inside. The dead cat’s corpse was gone. I looked back at the very-much-alive cat, who glared at me with that single, beady, yellow, malignant, evil eye. The dread I felt earlier about not having a job gave way to something deeper, something visceral, something existential. Yeah, I know some fancy words; I went to college.
The cat pulled at a tuft of hair on his paw with needle-like teeth. He said, “You know, Benny, that was rude, what you did to me last night. What kind of man strangles a cat with his bare hands? I had higher expectations of you.”
“You aren’t real,” I said. It came out in a strangled whisper.
“That’s what they all say.”
“No, really, you aren’t real. You can’t be.”
“Sorry, chum. I’m real. And I’m here to stay.”
I sat down on the couch. “I killed you.”
The cat started pacing back and forth in front of me. “About that. Do you have any idea how much that hurt? Have you ever been strangled to death? Do you have any idea — ”
He stopped and glared at me. “No, of course you don’t. You’re human. You only get one shot at life, and then it’s curtains.”
He jumped up on the couch beside me. I scrunched up against the arm on my side to keep as much distance as I could between myself and the devil cat.
The devil cat continued. “I can tell you from recent personal experience that it hurts like hell. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
There was some scarring around his missing eye. I fixated on it. It was something normal, something believable.
“What happened to your eye?”
He scowled. Really. The cat actually scowled. He said, “When I jumped into your universe, I only got one eye out of the deal. Doesn’t always turn out that way, but it did this time. Enoch, on the other hand, got two eyes. So unfair.”
Okay, maybe the missing eye wasn’t so normal after all. I put my head between my hands. “I’m having a mental breakdown, aren’t I.”
He leaned over and sniffed me. “You smell fine to me. You’re having a perfectly normal human reaction to cognitive dissonance.”
“Cognitive dissonance. That’s when something happens to you that contradicts your deeply held beliefs about the nature of reality.”
“Like talking cats that come back from the dead.”
“Exactly.” He sounded pleased, which for some reason made me want to punch him in the face. But that seemed like a bad idea in view of his recent return from the dead. Who knew what other powers he had?
He said, “The normal reaction to cognitive dissonance is denial, which you are doing marvelously well at, by the way. It’s a subconscious defense mechanism to protect you from having to admit that the world doesn’t work the way you thought it did.”
“Like talking cats.”
“Let’s try to move past that, okay?”
That was easy for him to say; he was a creature from some other world or universe or whatever, who “jumped” into this world, and ended up in the body of a one-eyed cat. Apparently he was used to that sort of thing. But I was just a normal guy living a normal life whose world had just gotten turned inside out, dragged through a knot hole and flushed down the toilet.
“So,” I said. “Assuming for the sake of argument that you’re not a symptom of a complete mental breakdown, why are you here?”
His lips peeled back in a Cheshire cat grin. I half expected him to fade away, leaving only the smile behind. Which would have been creepy but at least familiar. He didn’t. He said, “All will become clear when the raccoon gets here.”
* * *
The raccoon arrived a week later. He was waiting outside my apartment when I got home from a job interview. The interview came out of the blue. I hadn’t even started looking for work yet when I got a call from the University where I had gotten a degree in German. I know what your thinking: What do you do with a degree in German? Well, there’s a reason I was working at a FedEx store.
They had gotten a request from a small publisher who needed someone to translate romance novels from English to German. The University had checked their records and my name came to the top of the list. I had no explanation for that, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. They hired me on the spot. I would be working from home. For the first time in a very long time, my luck seemed to be changing.
I got off the elevator and looked down the hallway at the raccoon sitting in front of my apartment door. He looked back at me. Raccoons are cute as heck, but they’re also dangerous and can carry rabies. On the other hand, the cat had told me to expect a raccoon.
I slowly walked down the hallway until I reached my door. The raccoon scooted back to make room for me. I looked down at him. He looked up at me. He had two eyes. No telling how many eyes he had back home, wherever that was.
“Benny,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice. “I am Enoch. You and I have important things to discuss, having to do with your world’s impending annihilation. But first, where is Wallace?” Wallace was the cat.
I kinda figured he’d be a talking raccoon. After all, I already had a talking cat, so why not a talking raccoon? A shrink would have a field day with this. I opened the apartment door, and he waddled in. Wallace was sitting in the middle of the room, facing the door, tail curled around his feet, doing a good imitation of a porcelain statue.
“About time Enoch,” he said. “I was starting to worry.”
“Nice to see you too, Wallace. There were some difficulties.”
“Drags. At the Kazakhstan station.”
“Oh,” The cat started pacing around the room. He did that a lot, his tail held high, the tip twitching back and forth. “I hoped we had more time.”
“I bought us some with a temporal inhibitor,” said Enoch.
“That won’t hold them for long.”
“No.” Enoch rubbed his nose with one of his paws. “A few days at best.”
I flopped down on the couch. “What are you two talking about?”
“Dragons,” the cat said. “Nasty creatures. You don’t ever want to meet one.”
“You mean like in fairy tales?” I said, remembering my dream.
“No. Definitely not like in fairy tales.”
The raccoon held up a paw in a surprisingly human gesture. “Do not be too hasty, Wallace. There is a school of thought that holds that dragons have strong enough auras to generate an archetypal mimesis across universes, which manifests as ancient myths among sentient beings.”
“Phhhttttt,” said the cat.
The raccoon wandered into the kitchen and nosed a cupboard open. “Do you have anything to eat?”
I found two eggs in the fridge and placed them on the floor. Enoch sniffed at them and looked up at me expectantly.
“What?” I said. “You don’t like eggs? I thought raccoons liked eggs.”
“Where’s the water?”
My mouth was developing a habit of falling open. I snapped it shut and got him a bowl of water. He dropped both eggs into it, rolled them around a bit, and fished one out. He cracked it open with his teeth and proceeded to lick out the contents with a long tongue. He repeated this with the second egg. Then, still licking his lips, he launched into the explanation the cat had promised the previous week.
“Your world — or, more precisely, your universe — is only one of many universes, probably an infinite number, actually, although there is some scholarly disagreement about that, the distance between any two of which is infinitely small; and yet they are absolutely and irrevocably isolated from each other, walled off so to speak, and might as well be infinitely far apart.”
He waved a paw around while he talked, as if he was conducting an orchestra or delivering a lecture.
“This turns out to be a good thing because what you know of as the laws of nature apply only within your universe. Different laws apply in other universes, sometimes radically different laws. Were a rupture to occur between any two of them, it would likely destroy both.”
I had pestered Wallace with questions all week, but he had steadfastly refused to tell me anything more, repeating the mantra, “All will become clear when the raccoon arrives.” Well, the raccoon was here, and things were not becoming any clearer. I had no idea what the raccoon was talking about. Not that it mattered really. I was still operating on the theory that all of this was some kind of psychotic break; which is to say, I had lost it, flipped out, gone freakin’ nuts. The odd thing is that it didn’t bother me. At least not very much. It was actually kind of entertaining. I mean, how many people get to come home to a talking cat? And now a talking raccoon?
Wallace produced an impossibly wide yawn. “A word to the wise, Benny. He can go on like this for hours.”
I wouldn’t have thought a raccoon could look peeved, but Enoch managed it. “Really, Wallace, just because you dropped out of university is no reason to disparage those of us who did not.”
Wallace stretched out on the rug and closed his eyes, resting his chin on his front paws.
Enoch continued his disquisition. “Some time ago — well, a very long time ago, actually — a particularly brilliant and industrious race — they died out eons ago — figured out how to create portals between universes. As you might imagine, they are extraordinarily difficult to create and maintain.”
He looked at me as if he expected me to know this. When I failed to respond, he sighed. Have you ever heard a raccoon sigh? Neither had I. He went on.
“Portals can only be created in certain places in a universe. Otherwise they become unstable and collapse after a few nanoseconds. These places are like vertices, or intersections, that can be used to link portals together, making travel between universes possible. Most of them can support two or three links to other portals. Some can support a dozen or so. A few can support hundreds.
“Now this is where it gets interesting. These places or vertices are exceedingly rare and difficult to find. Your living room, for example, is, as far as we know, one of only two places in your universe where a stable portal can created. The other one, incidentally, is located in Kazakhstan. It could have been anywhere in your universe, and yet it decides to be on the same planet with the only other one in your universe. A truly amazing coincidence. Anyway, we have had a portal at the Kazakhstan location for some time now, but it is about to be shut down because the dragons have gained control of one of the portals it connects to. So you see our problem.”
It took me several long, silent seconds to see their problem; when I did, I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t find a hook in my mental closet to hang in on. Hell, I didn’t have any mental hooks on which to hang anything the raccoon had said.
“So,” I said in a tiny, tinny-sounding voice. “You want to create an inter-universe transit station in my living room?”
“Bingo,” Enoch said. “Nailed it first time out of the gate.”
Wallace did one of those long, slow stretches that only cats can do, and said, “So. When do the spiders arrive?”
* * *
I did not like the spiders. I have never liked spiders, but these spiders were seriously creepy. Four of them, each two-feet across and hairy, with great bulbous eyes that seemed to operate independent of each other. They made clicking sounds. Incessantly. Like something out of an old science fiction movie. It made my skin crawl. But I had to admit that they were good at what they did and they were tireless. It took them just three days to install six massive portal generators around a central dais where the portal itself formed, and a control room overlooking it. It turns out the spiders were one of the few species that did not change into something else when they crossed into another universe. Somehow they were able to adapt to whatever set of universal laws happened to be in effect in whatever universe they ended up in.
My living room had to be expanded to the size of a football stadium to accommodate everything. They did this by extending it into another dimension so that the size of the apartment remained the same. Don’t asks me how that works. I didn’t understand it then; I don’t understand it now. But the result is that my apartment is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Eat your heart out Doctor.
Eleven days had passed since the cat first appeared at my doorstep, and I was looking forward to meeting my first aliens. Not counting Enoch and Wallace, who didn’t seem like aliens anymore, and the spiders. I was in my study revising chapter sixteen of my translation of “The Heart Also Hungers” when a shriek sounded from the control room. I dashed into the room and skidded to a stop. Showers of sparks were exploding from one of the control panels, where Enoch was madly punching at buttons with both front paws, presumably trying to shut the thing down. The place smelled of ozone and burning plastic. Wallace lay in a corner in a distinctly un-cat-like pose, out cold.
Enoch said, “If it is not too much trouble, could you see to putting out that fire.” He waved a paw at a smoking console behind me and went back to playing whack-a-mole with the control panel buttons.
I grabbed a fire extinguisher and proceeded to smother the fire with foam. Enoch managed to get enough systems powered down to stop the fireworks display, and sat back on his haunches breathing heavily.
“I am getting too old for this sort of thing,” he said.
Wallace was sitting up now, furiously rubbing his one eye. He stopped and looked at Enoch. “What happened?”
“I imagine the temporal inhibitor field at the Kazakhstan site collapsed,” Enoch said, “and produced a temporal distortion feedback loop that blew out our spatial dislocator unit.”
“Then Kazakhstan is back online.”
“That seems likely.”
I wasn’t feeling well. My hands were shaking, my eyes were stinging, and I had inhaled some smoke. I was also suffering from a massive overdose of adrenaline. I sat down on the floor. Wallace staggered over and flopped down beside me, his head resting on my ankle. He had gotten over the fact that I had killed him, and we had developed a weird kind of friendship.
“I take it the Kazakhstan portal coming back online is a bad thing,” I said.
“Yes,” they answered in unison.
Enoch added, “With the portal active, there is nothing to keep a dragon from coming through.”
“Oh.” That didn’t sound good. “What will happen then?”
“It will consume every living thing on the planet.”
“Oh,” I said again. “That doesn’t sound good.”
Wallace peered up at me. “Ya think?”
I ignored his sarcasm. “So what are we going to do?”
Enoch scratched behind his ear. “We are going to Kazakhstan.”
“Hang on,” I said. I stood up, dislodging Wallace from my foot. “There’s no way I’m going to some third-world country in Africa to fight dragons.” That was not a sentence I had ever imagined myself saying.
Enoch stared up at me and blinked. “It is in Central Asia, not Africa.”
“I don’t care if it’s in Antarctica. I’m not a knight with a horse and armor and whatever other stuff you need to fight dragons. I like my nice quiet life right here, thank you very much.”
Wallace got himself upright. “Don’t be an ass, Benny. We’re talking about saving the world — as in your world — from annihilation.”
“I’m not going.” I crossed my arms and glared at Enoch. “Besides, how would I arrange air travel for a cat and a raccoon.”
* * *
We used the portal, of course, which had the obvious advantage of not requiring passports and visas and awkward explanations to airline officials, customs agents, and so on. Not to mention that it was instantaneous. One moment I was standing on the dais between the six massive generators; then next I was standing on an identical dais between six identically massive generators.
For a moment I thought we hadn’t gone anywhere. It looked exactly like the one in my third floor apartment, right down to the sparks, flares, shrieking generators, and the smell of ozone and burning electronics. Then a short, heavy-set man with a neatly trimmed mustache and short blond hair stepped forward. He was dressed in loose-fitting pants, a faded yellow pullover shirt, and a light-weight tan coat that hung open to just below his knees. He bowed deeply toward me and said in heavily accented English, “Welcome to my humble abode. My name is Madiyar.”
Being your typically uninformed American, I assumed Kazakhs would look Mongolian or maybe Chinese. Madiyar looked more like the Ukrainian man who lived across the hall from me. We Americans suck at geography. I extended my hand, which he grasped with both of his. He smiled broadly. “This way, please.” I don’t know anything about the rules of hospitality in Central Asia, but apparently it trumps fire, arcs of lightening jumping around the room, and explosions.
Were you to come to my apartment — say, for dinner — you would find nothing unusual about it; certainly not an inter-universe transit station the size of a football stadium. The spiders had added a closet door in the living room, which would have opened into my bedroom except that it opened into the transit station control room in another dimension. The Kazakhstan station had a similar arrangement. We followed Madiyar into a storeroom, and then into a round living area some thirty feet across. I once saw a National Geographic show about life on the steppes of central Asia, so I knew I was in a yurt. But seeing it on television, and being there in person, were two very different things.
First, it was hot; it must have been well over a hundred degrees. And that was inside. Outside would turn out to be even hotter. But at least it was a dry heat. The second thing that struck me were the smells: incense, musk, animals, some kind of savory food cooking in a pot on a stove. Third, there were rugs. Beautifully woven, brightly colored rugs covered the floor and hung from the walls. They gave the room a warm, comfortable, safe ambience. An ambiance belied by the frenetic activity of a woman and two children madly stuffing their possessions into duffle bags. They stopped and stared at us. Madiyar introduced me to his wife Gulasyl and his two daughters, Esther and Venera.
“I am sending them away,” he said. “I do not think the portal gate will hold much longer.”
Enoch waddled over to the two children and sniffed at them. Esther bent down and hugged him. Venera was content to scratch the top of his head. Apparently they had met before.
Enoch disentangled himself and turned to Madiyar. “You must all leave at once.”
“No,” Madiyar said. “I will stay. It is my station. My responsibility.”
Wallace’s ears twitched. “Don’t be an idiot. You’ve done everything you can here. It’s our show now.”
Madiyar continued to object, but it was half-hearted. In the end, he piled his family into a late model SUV and sped off down a dusty road that disappeared into a seemingly endless succession of rolling hills stretching off as far as the eye could see toward the blue haze of a distant mountain range.
Back in the transit station control room, Enoch and Wallace were supervising two spiders who were connecting wires to a two foot square device in the center of the control room.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“An antimatter bomb,” Wallace said.
“Um, is it safe?”
They both looked up at me as though I had grown a third eye.
“No,” said Enoch.
“That’s kind of the point,” said Wallace.
“You’re going to blow up the portal?”
“Yep. Along with the portal on the other end.”
“How big an explosion will it be?”
Enoch said, “It will annihilate everything within three quarters of a mile.”
I thought about that for a moment. “That’s going to leave quite a hole in the ground.”
“Indeed,” said Wallace.
“Where will we be?”
Wallace scratch his ear with his hind paw. “Hopefully more than three quarters of a mile away.”
“Remote detonation,” said Enoch.
“How many links are there to this portal?”
“Four,” said Wallace.
“Will the antimatter bomb destroy them all?
“No. Only the two that are active at the time.”
“So how will we know when to detonate it?”
Enoch waddled over to one of the control panels and punched a few buttons. He looked at the readings displayed, and then turned to me. “That is the tricky part. We cannot detonate until we know the correct portal is actively linked. Which means we have to wait until a dragon comes through. It is a matter of — ”
He was interrupted by a loud whining sound, slowly rising in pitch. It was one of the generators. A second one began whining. Then a third. Enoch started batting at the control panel; Wallace leaped to another.
“An external portal has been activated,” Wallace said.
“Damn,” Enoch said. “The remote detonator is not ready yet.” He studied the readings in front of him. “Re-route power to the gate lock.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Wallace said. “It’s not working.” His voice was an octave higher than usual.
Enoch stared at his panel and muttered, “Bad, bad, bad.”
Then he looked at me. “Benny, there’s a jeep behind the yurt. You and Wallace need to get out of here.”
“What about you?”
“Someone has to stay and detonate the antimatter device.”
Wallace growled. I had not heard him do that before. “I’ll stay,” he said. “You and Benny make a run for it.”
Enoch didn’t take his eyes off mine. “Benny, take Wallace and leave. Now.”
I didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t just leave Enoch here. But if we stayed, we’d all die. I needed another option.
“You guys got any weapons around here?”
Right on cue, one of the spiders appeared with what looked for everything like a phaser rifle out of Star Trek. The classic Star Trek, not the later ones. He held it out for me to take. I stared dumbly at it, and then took it from him.
“Thanks. I guess.”
The second spider appeared with two more rifles and handed one to the first spider. A third one followed, also armed. They all looked at me like they were waiting for orders.
“What’s going to happen when a dragon comes through?” I asked.
“It will decompress itself,” said Wallace. “Dragons are big. Really big. They have to fold in on themselves to come through a portal, and it takes them a few minutes to unfold to their full size.”
It felt a strong desire to rip all my clothes off and run screaming down the road after Madiyar and his family. Instead I said, “Then what?”
“Then it will belch fire in a great arc around itself, destroying everything for a hundred yards or so.”
“Oh.” That didn’t sound good. “Are these weapons any good against dragons?”
“Maybe,” Wallace said. “Dragon are naturally armored with overlapping scales. Our weapons won’t pierce them. But several people firing simultaneously from different directions might find a gap and do some damage. It’s underbelly is it’s most vulnerable area. Find a gap there and you might even kill it.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “Let’s get everyone at least a hundred yards away from here. The spiders and I will take up positions around the yurt. When the dragon appears, we’ll open fire.”
It sounded like an idiotic plan, even to me. But nobody seemed to have a better idea, so that’s what we did. I took Enoch and Wallace in the jeep in one direction, and the spiders skittered off in other directions. We didn’t have long to wait. Even from a hundred yards away, I could hear the high-pitched whining of the generators. Then the yurt disappeared in a ball of fire, and the dragon appeared.
It didn’t look like a dragon. At least, not any dragon I’d ever imagined. Certainly not like the one in my dream. It was a blob. An elephant-sized mass of writhing flesh and scales, every part of its body in motion all at once, as though it was a mass of huge snakes struggling to escape. Then it started to unfold, and grew taller, and taller, until it was at least fifty feet tall; a writhing serpent, it’s body radiating so much heat that I could feel it from a hundred yards away.
It let out a bellow that went on and on and on; an ear-splitting scream; an earth-shaking roar. I wet my pants. The spiders opened fire, so I started firing my weapon too. Beams of energy converged on the monster, clawing at it’s scales, throwing flaming flares in every direction. The dragon bellowed again, and turned toward one of the spiders. A ball of fire — plasma I learned later — erupted from it’s mouth, flew across the distance separating them, and exploded in a massive fireball where the spider was. When the dust cleared, the spider was an incinerated carcass. The dragon turned to another spider, which held its ground and continued firing. A second ball of fire struck and it, too, went down.
Then the dragon turned toward me, and sheer terror took over. I wanted to run away, but my feet were rooted to the ground by my own fear. In that moment, I knew I was going to die.
A beam of energy struck the dragon’s head from off to one side. It was Enoch. He was in the back of the jeep, somehow managing to fire a riffle while the last of our spiders steered the careening jeep toward the monster. The dragon hesitated, and turned toward the new threat. Then I saw it. As the hell-beast twisted toward Enoch, a gap appeared in the scales protecting it’s belly. I took aim and fired.
The dragon’s maw and my rifle belched fire together. My aim was true. Well, lucky anyway. The beast screamed and writhed and crashed thunderously to the ground, where it rolled around for a few seconds before becoming still. Unfortunately, the dragon’s aim had also been true. The jeep was a smoldering mass of wreckage.
“Enoch!” yelled Wallace, racing toward the jeep in great bounds.
When I got there, Wallace was patting the charred remains of Enoch’s head and licking what was left of his face. The stench of burnt hair and charred flesh made me want to vomit. I grabbed Wallace and hugged him close as I ran toward the remains of the Yurt.
“Eeenoooch,” he wailed.
The storeroom was gone, but the hidden door was still there, bizarrely standing alone in the ashes. I wrenched it open and stepped into the still-intact control room of the transit station.
“Wallace,” I said. “We have to finish the job.”
He looked up at me, eyes wild, and hissed. “Eeeenooooch.”
I held him up so that we were eye to eye. “We have to destroy the portal. Otherwise Enoch will have died for nothing. If we’re lucky, we’ll take a few more of those bastards out.”
I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it sounded good. And it had the desired effect. Wallace wriggled out of my hands and dropped to the floor. Between his expert instruction and my shaking hands, we finished connecting the remote detonation receiver to the device. The generators were already powering up again.
I stuffed the remote control in my pocket, and we ran. Wallace sped ahead at first, but then slowed so I could catch up. It didn’t take long for my legs to begin to complain. And only a little longer for my lungs to feel like they going to collapse.
“Keep running,” said Wallace, loping along beside me.
I kept running. Staggering really. Finally I collapsed at the top of a small hill, my breathing reduced to great, gasping heaves. A long, rolling bellow made me look back at the station. Another dragon was rising from the ashes, unfolding itself, gain girth and height.
“Are we far enough away?” asked Wallace.
“I don’t know,” I said. I took the remote out of my pocket and stared at it. I pushed the button.
* * *
Three years have passed since the cat first appeared at my doorstep. I own the apartment building now. It turns out Enoch had somehow arranged for my translation job, which allowed me work from home. Wallace advised me on certain investments that proved to be quite lucrative, freeing me up from the need to work at all — except as the transit station master, of course. I rent out the bottom two floors, and the top three floors to real renters, and my own floor to a fake shipping company. The spiders returned to add environmentally configurable quarters for guests. And a sound dampening field; some of our guests can get noisy. For the most part, though, it’s a quiet operation. Mostly the creatures who show up are just passing through on their way to some other universe. It turns out nobody’s much interested in this one.
My ex-wife and I reached at an uneasy truce, probably helped by my improved financial status and the extra money I could give her for child support. I see my son on weekends and have him for a month each summer. Life is good.
Wallace got himself a new partner and headed off to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. A few months ago he showed up at my door again. “Retired,” was all he would say about it. I think he never got over Enoch’s death. They had been together for a long time. Sometimes he sneaks into my room at night to sleep on the end of my bed, and then sneaks out in the morning before I get up. He thinks I don’t know, and I don’t see any reason to tell him that I do. I miss Enoch, too.
The dragons? There’s still a war going on out there somewhere, and I supposed they’ll be back someday. If I’m lucky, I’ll be dead and gone by then. If not, I guess I’ll just have to dust off my trusty Star Trek phasor rifle and go dragon hunting. With the cat and a few spiders at my side.
T H E E N D
I hope you enjoyed the story. This one doesn’t have any deeper meaning than that anyone can become a hero given the right circumstances. And maybe that heroes are people just like you and me, and come with their own set of fears and failures.