Understand the unknown, p.8

Understand the Unknown, page 8

 

Understand the Unknown
 


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  "Senna, grab the reins," I said, yanking her to her feet. "Don't move, don't change directions, just stand there, and for god's sake, don't let go!"

  And in the time it took Senna to grasp the reins with wet, shaky hands, Jalil threw his javelin. He must have because I saw one merman slam backward in the chariot — and then watched as his body, a metal-tipped spear protruding from his chest, slipped out the open back end and under the wavelets.

  One down. But I was close enough now.

  "Christopher, hold off! I shouted "Senna, bring us closer in!"

  While the surviving merman struggled to keep hold of the reins, process the fact that he'd lost his weapon man, and needed to grab for the guy's trident, I unsheathed my sword. Climbed easily onto the rim of my chariot and jumped into the merman's chariot.

  He felt my landing, of course. He whipped around, snarling, furious that some lowly human had the nerve to attack one of Neptune's elite. With one hand still on the reins he grabbed for the trident. And I stuck my sword through his stomach.

  I don't think he expected it. I don't think he'd even seen my sword. Stunned, he looked down at the sword embedded in his gut. Looked back up at me, uncomprehending. I yanked the sword free and the merman crumpled.

  "Nice throwing, Jalil," I said.

  He nodded. It wasn't the first time he'd speared someone trying to spear him first. "I know it sucks, man. What we have to do in this place really stinks."

  April had given the reins to Christopher. She glared at me but said nothing.

  We were at a relative standstill. As still as you can be on the ocean, where drifting is simply what happens.

  "I always seem to be asking you this Davideus Maximus,"

  Christopher said with a grin. "But — now what?"

  Neptune's animals answered for us. Before I could open my mouth to say, "I don't know," the sea horses and dolphins dove, taking us with them.

  Chapter

  XVII

  We'd gotten rid of the mermen, at least temporarily. Good news. We were back under the surface of the ocean, which was less good news. But as far as we could tell, we were still heading away from Neptune's city.

  The sea horses powered on until about a hundred yards ahead I saw something that looked like a cave. Maybe more like a grotto, kind of pretty, with small geysers bubbling up from the ground just outside the cave's mouth. A lush variety of vegetation adorned the outside walls of the cave itself. A patch of hot-pink and mint-green coral formations, like stalagmites, created an exotic garden slightly to the left of the cave's mouth.

  We were going to pass this place on the right, in a few short minutes, when...

  "Whoa!"

  The sea horses reared, screamed shrilly, yanked to the left in an almost sixty-degree angle. The chariot tipped, I slammed into the low left wall. Senna crashed into me from the right, slipped off her feet. I fought the reins, tried to bring the team back on a straight-ahead course, afraid they were going to try to double back, afraid we'd run right into Neptune, but they refused to respond.

  And then I saw why. Emerging from the cave, causing the roof to crash in around it, was a — well, I don't really know what it was. But it was big. And ugly.

  "Scylla!" Senna shouted over the continued screaming of the sea horses.

  "What the hell is it?"

  "Don't you remember what Neptune said? A weak, lustful man and a vengeful woman," Senna said into my ear and the tone of her voice was like a needle piercing my eardrum.

  "Scylla was a beautiful sea nymph. Poseidon, the Greek version of Neptune, maybe Neptune, too, wanted her. Amphitrite found out and put magic herbs in Scylla's bath. They turned her into this monster. She doesn't want me, David," Senna added, her voice slightly mocking. "She only eats men."

  For about a second I felt bad for the once-lovely sea nymph.

  This thing, Scylla, was hideous. But I didn't feel so bad that I was going to sacrifice myself to her hunger for male flesh.

  It was disgusting, suffering from mange, fur missing in patches, skin scaly and red. It stood on twelve feet, monstrous distortions of a dog's paws. Six massive, brutal-eyed canine heads sprouted on long, strong, hairy necks. Stringy drool and foam the color of pus spilled and bubbled from each mouth, each snarling mouth with its three rows of daggerlike teeth. The stench from the thing reached my nose and I tasted vomit.

  And in the time it took for me to register these visual features, she leaped for us.

  "Go go go!" I yelled to the sea horses, flapping the reins, thinking better to run into Neptune and go down fighting than to be snatched up in one of those dripping canine jaws of the hell hound. Had to get out of here. Had to warn Jalil, Christopher, April. But where were they? Somewhere behind us.

  "Senna, take over!" I thrust the reins into her hands, and she didn't seem so cool and mocking now. "Hang on, don't let them break away."

  A wave of foul breath smacked us. Senna gagged. The beast was close, Neptune's sea horses no match against a vengeful monster lusting for male flesh and blood. I yanked my sword from my scabbard and whirled around to face Scylla. With one leap she would be on us, on me, jagged, bloodstained teeth closing around my face. I lifted my sword and slashed with everything I had, severing one of the beast's heads. It fel away but Scylla came on as if she hadn't even spewing, pumping from the open wounds. Still Scylla came after us, extending the next neck and head. Again, I slashed. This time the sword got stuck on something tough and stringy, cartilage maybe, and I yanked violently to release it. The sword came out but the head stayed on the neck, attached by only a few bloody strings, flapping obscenely against the side of the neck.

  This wound seemed to surprise the beast, slow it down just a little, just enough for me to grab the reins back from Senna and with one hand fight fight fight against the sea horses' instinct to run blindly, force them to turn back closer to our original course, urge them on to greater speed.

  "David, it's still coming!"

  I looked over my shoulder. Scylla was enraged, still in pursuit but slightly off balance with two of her six heads missing.

  "What have you done to my lovely?!"

  The voice was unmistakable. Neptune. He'd obviously seen her wounded. But instead of coming after us, Neptune drew his massive golden chariot to a stop and called to Scylla, who went immediately to his side to be comforted. Neptune bellowed and cried and fussed over the bleeding dog-monster. Briefly, I wondered if Scylla's heads would grow back and decided I didn't want to stay around to find out.

  Chapter

  XVIII

  Relief. We'd outrun and outsmarted Neptune's posse and his pet hellhound. And now, from the right, from around an outcropping of rock, came April, Christopher, and Jalil in their chariot. One of the dolphins had been wounded but the five others were valiantly struggling to make up for their teammate's disability.

  "Where the hell were you!" I shouted. "Everyone okay?"

  Christopher stuck a thumb in the air. Water. They steered their chariot closer to ours.

  Now, coming into view... something new, another terror or something that was much more benign?

  Another city. Stunning, brightly lit, recognizably Greek in style and design, though with its own individual character.

  I had no desire to stop by and play tourist. But I could wonder. Note that the city was enclosed by a large bubble that

  — yeah, every thirty seconds or so burped out a far smaller bubble, the size maybe of one of the new Volkswagen Bugs, which billowed toward the surface.

  I looked over at Jalil, close enough now to speak, sea horses and dolphins slowed to a civilized pace.

  "Air geysers," he said. "Has to be. Air geysers spewing oxygen, keeping the big bubble permanently inflated. The people in this place breathe air."

  "Something else is going on," April said, squinting. "I think.

  Look closely at the surface of the bubble."

  I did. "Yeah, a net of some sort. Superfine, silvery. Holds the bubble in place? The net's
maybe tied down somewhere.

  What's it made of?"

  "I think the bigger question," Christopher said, "is: Who lives here? And are they going to start firing some weird weapon at us in a minute?"

  "I —" I threw my hands up over my ears, reins against my face, closed my eyes against the aural assault, fought to keep the sea horses from bolting, overturning the chariot....

  Neptune had found us. Of course.

  His roar of demented, triumphant laughter reverberated through my body, making my heart race. Blood seeped from the dolphins' eyes, the sea horses' nostrils. It was louder than anything we'd heard from him before, like the screeching of subway car brakes, the crashing of fifty sets of cymbals, the crack of a sky full of thunder a garage full of screaming car alarms, the wail of twenty-five fire engine sirens — all at once, sounding five feet away from our eardrums.

  Too close, he'd gotten too close, I hadn't even noticed, too wrapped up playing sightseer. I managed to open my mouth, yell, "Go!" couldn't even hear my own voice, how could the animals, the others. I pulled my hands from my ears, winced at the pain, flapped the reins and the sea horses, in agony, bolted forward, toward the silver-netted city. Anywhere but here, had to get farther away from the source of the sound, maybe then...

  what what what!

  Closer to the air dome, Senna crouched in the bottom of the chariot, head buried under her arms. Jalil, Christopher, April racing along with us, Christopher at the reins now, head scrunched down into his shoulders, mouth a grimace. April and Jalil poster kids for excruciating pain, clutching their heads, doubled over. Both teams of animals trailing blood.

  Faster faster... when, suddenly, it stopped. Just stopped, in the middle of a riff, of a note, like someone had just hit the stop button on a CD player, just over, gone. Silence.

  And in the beat it took my addled brain to breathe, David, you can't breathe. Neptune has cut of your magical ability to breathe underwater. Okay.

  Senna's head shot up, she looked at me, eyes wide, mouth beginning to work, to try and find air, to suck in air through the water.... Frantically, I shook my head, and she choked, closed her mouth, opened it to spit out water but it's not so easy to spit out water in water, under the water.

  Hadn't known the end of the air supply was near, hadn't known to suck in a deep lungful, had been too busy running away from the horrible noise, how long could I last? Get to the surface, try to get to the surface!

  Even as my brain was giving itself instructions, it was failing, if I lived, if I... glanced at the other chariot, April hanging limp over a side, Jalil, eyes wide, running his hand up and down his throat, Christopher...

  My lungs were burning, my vision blurring to black to nothing, but not before I saw or maybe I imagined a silvery net, very pret y, unlacing, opening for me, how nice...

  Chapter

  XIX

  "Whoa..." The mini cup of espresso launched itself from my hand, went smashing to the floor. Quickly, I knelt down to clean up the mess.

  I was at work. Starbucks. Valued employee. Green apron. I looked up at the chalkboard behind the cash register. Today's special: some exotic tea-and-fruit drink I couldn't even pronounce. It was Saturday. Of what week, what month, didn't matter, didn't care. The Everworld me didn't, anyway. The Everworld me.,. drowning, had just crashed a chariot pulled by giant sea horses through an even more giant bubble enclosing an underwater city. Did real-world David care what day it was? Had he ever?

  "David, I need a favor." It was one of my coworkers, Heather, unemployed actress. Nice enough. "A customer wants two packs of French roast. There's none up here but I know we got a box the other day. Can you go to the basement and get some?"

  Can I? Sure. I can do almost anything. You wouldn't believe what I can do, what I can force myself to do. Could I, would I?

  "Yeah, sure," I said. At least the errand would get me out of this overly lit monument to the marketing phenomenon of branding for a few minutes. At least I could be alone.

  I headed for the basement. And not for the first time asked myself what I was doing here hawking designer lollipops and mood-inducing CDs and more types of hot and cold coffee drinks than any reasonable human, let alone caffeine addict, needed in a lifetime. What was I doing here, heating milk, stirring foam, grinding beans, hauling boxes, when I was needed somewhere else to do a far more important job not just anyone could do? I believed that last part. I...

  One eye, just one eye at a time, David. You're awake now, you can open your eyes. Go ahead.

  I did, opened them both at the same time, sat up, felt the tip of the soldier's spear against my breastbone. Okay. Slowly looked up to see the soldier's face, not cruel, just blandly doing his job.

  He was dressed in upper-body armor, a short, skirtlike toga thing, and sandals. At his side was belted a sword. On his head, a helmet adorned with a long spray of three feathers. A uniform very similar to those of the Greek soldiers we'd fought alongside on Mount Olympus.

  Slowly, carefully, I turned my head, mostly slid my eyes to either side, to see if we were al together. We were. In a wet, bedraggled heap, surrounded by a total of four, maybe five guards, I couldn't look behind me "someone's foot in my back, someone's arm under my thigh. Automatically, I jerked forward to slide off but the spear didn't move with me. It nicked my skin.

  "Sorry," I said, hands in the air, nowhere near my sword. "I'm just sitting on my friend here. Can I move a bit to the left?"

  The guard nodded and pulled the spear back an inch or two. I moved. Careful y. Looked to see that it was Christopher's arm I'd been squashing.

  One by one the others tumbled to consciousness.

  "Lovely. Another situation," Christopher whispered. "Ow, my arm hurts."

  "Uh, sir, can we get up now?" I asked.

  Again my guard nodded. The five guards — I saw there were five when I stood, shakily — stepped back but not far enough to allow us a path of escape. However, they didn't take my sword from me. Arrogance? Some sign of civilization? Or just reasonable confidence? At least two of the guards carried a bow and quiver of arrows, along with a sword or spear. Whatever the reason, I was happy to have my own weapon.

  My guard spoke. "You are under arrest for illegal entry into the city of Atlantis," he said. Unaccented English, imagine that.

  "Atlantis? You know," Christopher commented brightly. "all that's missing here is Buffy and Angel. And that little yellow Pokemon, what's-his-name. I mean, right?"

  "You will come with us to the city council," the guard went on, "where you will present your case before the mayor."

  Whatever flicker of hope that word brought was immediately eliminated by a thunderous boom that shook us all, guards, too, almost off our feet. It lasted less than a minute.

  Which is actually a very long time to be vibrating off your feet.

  "What happened?!" April cried.

  My guard spoke. "An earthquake, only one of the hundreds Atlantis experiences every year. Neptune and Poseidon are not known as the Earth-Shakers for nothing. They will go off now and annoy each other a while longer. Leave us alone, until next time."

  "This dude is made to live in L.A.," Christopher said, hand on his stomach. "Me, I feel nauseous."

  "And I'm seeing double," April said, blinking hard.

  "Neptune and Poseidon," the guard explained as we watched the two similar-featured gods in their similar chariots make a macho show of thrusting and lunging at each other with their tridents "Roman and Greek gods of the sea. The bearded one is Poseidon. For as long as anyone can recall, the two gods have been warring for control over our fair city."

  "How do you withstand the attacks?" I asked, just as an aftershock rumbled through the ground below. "How do you keep them away?"

  The guard allowed a small grin of pride to cross his lips.

  "Monsieur Mayor Jean-Claude LeMieux."

  Chapter

  XX

  I'm sure just about every person over the age of six has heard of Atlantis, the famed
underwater city. Or maybe it was a city built on Earth that for some reason sank, I can't remember. Doesn't matter. And it seems to me I've seen and heard lots of dif erent descriptions of the city, in movies, in books, even, when I was a kid, in some comic book a friend lent me. I don't remember what kind of comic it was, I've never been into them.

  So my head was full of vague preconceived notions, none of which came really close to the reality of Atlantis, or, at least, the reality of Everworld Atlantis. This was no small group of plastic structures stuck into the blue pebbles on the bottom of a fish tank.

  The city was large but not immense, with a dense downtown and a few sprawling suburbs. The main city was similar to the style and feel of Olympus. In other words, Greek. Except in far more normal proportions. The buildings were made from a whitish marble and the streets were paved with a similar stone.

  Both were wel lit but the source of the light eluded me. Near what seemed to be the center of the city was a temple, a close replica, as far as I could tell, of the temple to Zeus or Athena at the Acropolis in Athens. There was also a discernible marketplace, teeming with rows and rows of stalls, close-packed, opposing storefronts maybe only ten feet apart. An agora. I'd picked up that term in Olympus.

  We were taken to the city council building.

  The building was a lot like the others, but tal er, faced with an arcade of Ionic columns and above that, a pediment. In this triangular space were Greek letters. Later I found out they spelled out: Liberty, Justice, Equality. Clearly a building of public importance.

  The room in which we gathered to meet with Mayor Jean-Claude LeMieux was grand but simple. The walls were made of what I guessed to be white marble, here and there lightly streaked with gray. The ceiling was — and it was hard to tell because the room had to be at least twelve feet high — painted white, whitewashed. The floor was also marble, pinkish. On the walls, at evenly spaced intervals, hung sconces and in those sconces burned oil lamps. The result was a largish room made intimate by a warm and rosy glow.

 
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