#2: The Shambling Robo-Apes of the Lost City of Clarakasta
Reading time: Approx. 19 minutes
Nothing good can come from being in that rarefied state known as shitfaced.
Survey ships operate on a day/night cycle similar to Earth and we'd been up much of the night making merry. Van and Duffy having whipped up a potent batch of liquid refreshment. We supplied our usual customers, turned a tidy profit and had some left. Waste not, want not.
Van suggested we "borrow" a flitter and visit the planet. We cheered this splendid idea. Although our judgment might have been cloudy. I attempted to nip the thing in the bud. But it would not be nipped. We lurched from the kitchen, tittering like schoolgirls and trying not to stagger.
It was a trick to get a flitter off the ship without being noticed but it was the middle of the night and our party included one Randolph Roark, the ship's technology officer. He pulled up a holo-pad, keyed a few commands and before you could say Bob's your uncle (one of Duffy's quaint phrases - no clue what it means) we were off. There would be consequences but the euphoria of liquid refreshment made that easy to overlook.
We slipped out without being noticed - we hoped. Van was a capable enough plumber, of course, though she might never attain the lofty heights of yours truly. Turns out she was also a capable flitter pilot. A flitter could fly itself perfectly well, of course, but Van was one of those hotshots who like to switch to manual and show off.
We were a merry bunch. Van and I are the ship's plumbers - essential personnel, for sure. Then Roark and Duffy Gheems, the ship's second assistant chef. Who was heaving in a most horrible manner into a sock. Lord knows whose sock it was. Mine were still on my feet. Van was steering the ship. Roark slumped in the corner seat, dozing.
I suppose you could cram people into a starship and fling them into a space for a few years and expect them to be teetotalers. I wouldn't want to try it. Even the Interstellar Survey Authority didn't go to such extremes. Survey ships carry a fair quantity of liquid refreshment. I'm not sure of the formula for managing such things - if they exist - but these potent potables are dispensed under stringent guidelines. Which, for some of us, is not an option.
Roark could put it away like no one else - except Vanderbilt. Who was legendary for her ability to drink all comers into the void. To look at her you wouldn't have thought it possible. She was not a girly-girl but she had a spare, petite frame. Most of which was muscle - and she knew how to use it. This was not someone to be trifled with.
Then there was Duffy. Which sounds like puffy or fluffy, terms could be used to describe him. Duffy had little muscle - maybe even none. He could be trifled with and he couldn't drink his way out of a paper bag - which didn't stop him from trying.
As second assistant chef, with access to key items from the ship's stores, he was an integral member of the team. He and Roark actually founded the team. Who came together to savor fine libations and make sure our supply never ran low. Which is a roundabout way of saying we were bootleggers.
Of course, being the kind and generous souls we were we usually bestowed our bounty on like-minded crew members. A cynic might note that that our generosity came with a price tag - albeit a modest one. To which I say pshaw.
I flipped on the nearest screen. The planet loomed, its predominant colors green and blue. We hadn't done any research but had heard that large sections of the planet were tropical. I panned the view to behind us. The ship had dwindled to a speck soon to be indistinguishable from the stars.
I jerked awake. I had no idea how long I'd been out. I must have dreamed that Van was saying "we're screwed."
Roark dozed. Duffy was done heaving and was doing the same.
"Did you say something, Van?"
She fiddled with the controls. No answer.
"Yeah, yeah. I said we're screwed."
"Care to elaborate?"
Apparently not. Roark stirred.
"What the hell's going on?" He said. He sat up and groaned.
"We're screwed." I answered.
"Why are we screwed?"
"Van, what's up?"
She tore herself from the controls. I rarely saw her rattled. But she was now.
"As soon as we entered the outer atmosphere the controls stopped responding. Comms are out too."
"Did you switch to auto?"
Van gave him a look that could have withered granite.
"Never occurred to me. Idiot."
Roark stood, stumbled, caught himself and moved to the controls. It took him less than a minute to come to a conclusion.
"Nothing wrong with the controls."
"It feels like...never mind." Van said.
"Like what?" Roark replied.
"Like something's got hold of us. I know it sounds ridiculous but that's how it feels."
"I don't have anything better." Roark said. He looked at me. "Thoughts?"
I shrugged. "I could check the plumbing. If we had any."
Willow chimed in. "The ship's controls have been taken over by a control beam. I'd give you the details but you probably wouldn't grasp it. They've also knocked out communications."
Oh yeah. There was a fifth member of our party. Willow was an AI and tended to keep a low profile, piping up with critical bits of info like this one or goading Roark, one of her favorite pastimes. How did I come to have an AI with the personality of a 17-year-old girl implanted into my prosthetic leg?
I'll sum it up in four words. Drunken bet. I lost.
We were sobering up fast.
It's not the fall that kills you but that abrupt stop at the end. Fortunately none of us were killed. We weren't even much worse for the wear. Just rattled. The controls came alive a few kilometers above the surface. Van grabbed them and guided us to a landing. Not a soft one, but far less than catastrophic.
We took stock. My nose was bleeding, one of Duffy's fingers was bent oddly and Roark had a lump on his head. Not so bad, considering.
Readouts showed that the air was breathable. We conferred. Communications were out and the controls were dead again. Duffy and I voted to stay put. Van and Roark wanted to explore. We compromised - activate a beacon and stay within range - about 10 kilometers.
We stepped out, Roark first. Only to be assaulted by a wave of heat and humidity. The ship was on a low rise so we had a good view of the terrain. Which could be summarized thusly - jungle. Thick, nearly impenetrable jungle with trees that towered a hundred meters over us and a thick snarl of vegetation beneath. Vegetation of such a lurid shade of green that it seemed fluorescent.
The sky was sallow and reddish. There was no wind and the rain fell in an almost unbroken sheet. Everything was sodden and dripping. The ground in the tiny clearing was like a marsh.
We broke out the emergency packs. They included ponchos, rain hats and slipover boots. Flimsy stuff but better than nothing. Further discord ensued when we tried to decide which way to go. Every direction looked the same - thick, lurid green, sodden jungle.
It was decided by Duffy. Who listened to the bickering with uncharacteristic silence.
"We'll go that way," He pointed and set out.
Interesting. There are followers and leaders in this world. Most people wouldn't take Duffy for the latter. We were all taken aback. I set out after him - and fell flat on my face. The slippery vegetation made for tough going.
Van struck out next and we soon caught up. Roark fancied himself a leader and he bristled at Duffy taking the lead. He swore not to follow. When I looked back a few minutes later he was there.
As we approached the edge of the clearing we saw a trail leading into the thicket. Duffy set a stiff pace - also unlike him. But he seemed know where he was going and so we followed. The trail was a narrow tunnel of damp greenery. We couldn't see more than a few feet. The rain kept up and our gear did little to protect us.
We trudged in silence, broken occasionally by Roark's grumbling. There was something different about Duffy, a seriousness of purpose that was unlike him. On we went, becoming wetter with each step. Things buzzed and chattered and cawed around us. Any traces of jollity were gone now. Leaving us with dusty tongues, flip-flopping stomachs and pounding heads.
"I gotta stop," Roark said. I couldn't argue though it was surprising to hear it from Roark. I was glad for a rest. Van stopped too.
Duffy kept on. If I had bet on who would take the first rest break I'd have gone with Duffy. We glanced at each other. No one spoke but we were thinking the same thing. It wouldn't do to get separated.
We hustled to catch up. This time it was Roark's turn to go face first into the muck. We didn't break our pace. He caught up again. We slogged on. Finally Duffy came to an abrupt stop, with us piling up behind him.
It was another clearing, a large one. It was full of great stone structures, mostly notably a pyramid that towered in the middle, several hundred meters high. The clearing was a few kilometers square.
Duffy forged on and we followed. It was silent except for the shushing of the rain. The structures must have been impressive at one time. They still were, to some extent. But they were in a state of ruin, so obscured by moss, fungus and vegetation that some were barely distinguishable as buildings.
"Amazing," Van said. That summed it up.
No moss was growing on Duffy. He headed straight for the pyramid. We dutifully followed. The rain kept up. I had a fleeting daydream of a road sign pointing us to a desert.
Van heard it first, about half way to the pyramid.
"What was that?"
"All I hear is rain," Roark said. He stopped and wiped his face on his sleeve - which did no good.
Maybe Van was hallucinating. Then we all heard it. It was between a screech and a roar and it was in front of us. A chill ran through me in spite of the steamy heat. It sounded again, louder. Then again but behind us. Then a flurry from all sides. We had yet to actually see any indigenous life. I had a feeling that was about to change.
"This does not bode well," I said. No one responded.
The roaring continued. They were closing in. We instinctively drew together. I'm not sure why. Perhaps to make it more convenient for the creatures to devour us. Duffy made a sound that was between and shudder and a hiss. He looked around, bewildered.
"What's going on?"
"You tell us," Roark said. "You're the leader of the pack."
"Where are we? Where's the flitter?"
Roark was about to make a pointed reply but stopped. He wasn't a patient guy. But he knew that deceit and trickery weren't in Duffy's arsenal.
"You led us here," I explained. "You seemed to have a clear idea of where you wanted to go. We tagged along."
He looked more bewildered. But we didn't have time to sort it out. The first one appeared from a cluster of low structures to our right. It moved slowly, lumbering along. I couldn't quite make out what it was but it was heading toward us.
Soon I could that it was a simian creature, about three meters tall and yet squat and sturdy looking. It probably weighed as much as all of us. It's long thick fur was sodden (no surprise) and matted and its face twisted into an awful grimace that revealed long wicked looking fangs.
"Jesus M. Christ," Roark said under his breath.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," Van quipped. I had no idea what it meant. Van was like that.
"We can outrun it," I said. "I could probably outpace that lug with a sprained ankle."
Just then several more appeared and converged on us.
"What's that they say about strength in numbers?" Roark observed.
"They don't move fast," Van said. "But we need a plan."
"We're surrounded on three sides," Roark said. "I don't see many options."
We proceeded in the only direction not occupied by big hairy apes - toward the pyramid. What we would do when we got there was up for grabs.
"Slow down," Van cautioned. "Conserve your energies."
We had been setting a good pace. Having a dozen or so (but hey, who's counting?) giant smelly apes on your tail could do that to you. But Van was right. We were about a stone's throw from the pyramid when we started seeing bones. We had no time to stop and examine them. But it was clear that some were human - or humanoid.
There was no telling what fate had befallen these creatures. Maybe they'd been eaten by the apes. Another good reason to pick up our pace. As we drew closer the bones grew more numerous.
Our pursuers were slow but they were gradually flanking us. The bones were thicker and we had to slow down to keep from stumbling on them. We picked through, trying to move as fast as possible. The apes had quieted down. Perhaps knowing they had us cornered. Perhaps anticipating a nice feast of fresh human.
We were at the base of the pyramid. It looked even more impressive here, towering over us and blotting out the sallow sky. Ahead was a small space that was clear of bones, about ten feet on a side. We stopped, done in by heat and exertion. Plus we had nowhere to go. The apes closed in standing right where the bones stopped. That should have been a clue, I thought, as the ground opened up and swallowed us.
It's hard to say how far we fell but it was far enough. As for the landing, good news and bad news. The good news - soft and squishy. The bad news - soft, squishy and godawful smelling. The smell of decay.
The trapdoors swung shut. I dug in my pack for a light. Our lights all flashed on, except Duffy. I thought he'd heaved up all he had earlier but he was trying again. My own stomach rolled and tumbled.
We might have been better off without the lights. It wasn't a nice place to visit nor would I want to live there. I flipped mine off. Van did the same. The power packs were durable but there was no telling how long we'd need them. Roark's light didn't show much but that was probably just as well. It was a dingy pit crudely carved out of the ground - and that was the good part.
Roark shined his light around the perimeter. Our humble abode (which smelled more like a commode) was roughly circular and maybe fifteen meters in diameter. The ceiling was about five meters above and below us, well. It was a conglomeration of various substances - all in varying states of decay. Marinated in just enough water to make a nasty soup. We were shin deep in it.
"It could be worse," Duffy said.
Those who didn't know Duffy might wonder if he was an optimist or a moron. I know that he has a foot in both worlds. No one wasted any energy responding.
"Now what?" I ventured.
"We need to get out of here is what," Roark said.
"That's obvious," Van scoffed. "What's your plan?"
Roark didn't answer. He walked the perimeter. There wasn't much to see. Except a small outcropping of rock along one wall. It wasn't much but it was out of the muck.
We perched there uncomfortably with no room to spare. It was cooler down here than the surface but just as wet. Rain trickled through the trapdoors and kept us damp. We huddled together for body heat. I was fading fast. Roark flicked off his light. Duffy was already snoring, his fat head pressed against my shoulder. There wasn't enough room to get comfortable but I soon dozed.
I jerked awake, disoriented. I glanced at my wristpad - early morning. I flicked the comm button - nothing.
I heard a sound - a faint thump from behind the wall.. The others were still out, breathing heavily. I had a feeling that someone was awake.
It was a good guess. "Yeah?"
"Did you hear that?"
A door opened onto a dimly lit tunnel. Four apes were standing there. Oh joy.
They entered calmly, no roaring or shrieking and made straight for us. There was no point in struggling. Maybe a change of scenery would be nice. Until the feast began.
They marched us into the tunnel, none too gently. The tunnel wasn't much but at least it was different. The walls were damp and moldy and the floor was wildly uneven. Wall mounted torches did little to illuminate the grim surroundings.
We seemed to be wandering aimlessly but the apes apparently knew where to go. The tunnel opened to a large chamber with a nice dry stone floor and stone walls.
It was dimly lit, lighting being in short supply hereabouts. The ceilings were high and shrouded in gloom and the decorator had gone for the minimal look. At the far end was a collection of sturdy and archaic looking machinery. I didn't want to know what it was used for. On the other side was a dais and an impressive throne that looked to be made of bronze.
We entered with a flourish, flung headlong by the apes. They lined up against the wall, waiting patiently. A thick cloud of smoke that seemed oddly static hung in the air near the throne. A strange sound came it. Then we realized it was someone coughing.
Duffy moved toward it. "Are you alright in there?"
The answer was unintelligible. The voice was deep, resonant and intimidating.
There was a pause. Whoever it was sounded exasperated. "How many switches do you see?"
The correct answer was one. On the wall to the left of the cloud, a large clunky thing that must have been around since the dawn of switching.
"We found it," Duffy sounded triumphant. "Now what?"
The voice sounded resigned. "You're not too bright, are you?" Another bout of coughing.
"Should we flip it?" Roark interjected.
"I'd have thought that was obvious."
Roark did. The cloud of smoke dissipated immediately revealing a terribly thin little man. He wore an ornately patterned floor-length robe and an amulet on a heavy chain and he was no spring chicken. He surveyed us, looking bewildered - and somewhat unsteady on his feet. He had another coughing spell and fixed us with a withering glance. If his eyes hadn't been so severely crossed this would have been much more effective.
"Who the hell are you?" The booming voice had been replaced by a thin, quavery one.
"You speak English," Duffy observed.
"You must be the stupid one," No argument there. "I speak it fluently. Probably better than you."
He made an impatient gesture. "I repeat...who the hell are you?"
"Who the hell are you?" Roark countered.
"I asked you first."
Van jumped in. "Didn't you summon us here?"
He fumbled in his robe, pulling out several curious objects and a tattered piece of papyrus. He fixed it with a glance and cursed. He fished in the pocket some more, retrieving a pair of spectacles that looked older than he was - which was saying something. He put them on, not realizing they were on upside down. He peered intently at the papyrus - about an inch from his eyes. He muttered under his breath. We waited patiently.
"I don't see anything. No."
He looked up, triumphant over not finding what he was looking for - or not finding what he wasn't looking for. Or whatever. He shoved the papyrus into his pocket, then drew it out and studied it again.
"Ah. There it is. Sacrifice the interlopers...at sunset," He looked pleased. "You're the interlopers then. You'll be sacrificed at sunset."
Didn't bode well at all.
"At the risk of seeming repetitious, who the hell are you?" Van said.
His eyes gleamed. He drew himself to his full height (which wasn't saying much), spread his arms over his head and bellowed. "I am the Evil Lord Agon of Clarakasta."
His words reverberated through the chamber. The room rumbled and shook until we could barely stand up. As it faded away, a large frog fell from the ceiling, landing on The Evil Lord Agon's balding head. He cursed again and grabbed the frog, knocking off his glasses.
"So close." He shoved the frog in his pocket, rummaged around more and withdrew more papyrus. He peered at it and felt for his glasses, seeming surprised not to find them.
Duffy pointed to them. Which did little good, since the old coot couldn't see.
"They're on the floor in front of you," Roark snapped.
"Okay. Okay. No need to be snippy," He replied.
He stepped forward. His eyes went out of focus - more out of focus. The inevitable happened. The glasses expired with a loud crunch.
"What was that?" Quoth The Evil Lord Agon.
"Take a guess," Roark quipped.
He cut loose with another imprecation, grabbed a chain around his neck and reeled up another pair of glasses. These even more outsized and archaic than the others. He read so carefully it was like he was trying to absorb each molecule of the writing into his eyes. Roark cleared his throat. The Evil Lord Agon looked up with a start.
"Who the hell are you?"
He stashed the glasses in his pocket, heedless of the fact that they were still on the chain around his neck. He folded the papyrus with great precision and threw it in on the floor.
"So where were we?" He raised an arm and hooked it on the chain of the glasses, flinging them up and making them career off the side of his head. They came to rest dangling behind his back. "Ah, yes. Sacrifice the interlopers at sunset."
"Has it occurred to you that we might not want to be sacrificed?" Roark asked.
The Evil Lord Agon quietly repeated each of Roark's words, lingering over them, savoring them.
"Well in that case you're free to go."
"Really?" Duffy said.
The Evil Lord Agon glared.
"He's not really that stupid, is he?"
In the interests of solidarity we declined to answer.
"Away with you now. It'll be a slow, agonizing and thoroughly horrible death but then it'll be over - except for the curse on your souls which will enslave you for all of eternity. Have a nice day."
He made a lengthy series of intricate gestures and the apes roused themselves. On the way back to the pit we speculated about the apes. Could they understand us? Were they just mindless, soulless (and none too pleasant smelling) automatons? Willow insisted that they were robots or androids under the control of The Evil Lord Agon. An idea that we ridiculed, which caused her to go off and sulk for a while.
The apes deposited us back in our humble commode. We were quite dejected. A night of merry making, followed by our ill-advised jaunt, a foray through steamy jungle and a night in this sewer had left us feeling none too fresh. Then there was that nagging issue of the sacrifice. We decided to put our heads together and come up with a way out of this mess. That was great in theory but not in practice. To summarize - we were screwed.
Our beloved simian attendants were back in no time. They manhandled us through more dank passages and we ended up in another chamber, this one less spacious. It looked like a dressing room.
It was sparsely furnished, with a few benches and a rack of gaudy clothing, mostly robes. A few large cauldrons fed into a pool in the stone floor. They were heated by coal or peat fires and the room was quite toasty. It all looked older than dirt and the leaky pipes were more like bits of metal held together by holes. Some might not notice this stuff when they're about to be sacrificed. But for me it was professional curiosity.
The apes tossed us in the pool, clothes and all. It was way too hot for comfort but since we'd been drenched for so long it was kind of nice. We bobbed around and the apes each selected a robe and stood by the pool.
I stripped out of my clothes and plopped them on the side. The others followed suit. If we were going to die a horrible death we might as well be comfortable. We tidied up and dressed in the robes. They were white with gold trim. It wasn't my look, but it would have to do.
Freshly scrubbed like little pink baby pigs and freshly attired, we were corralled again and marshaled through even more corridors. Finally we came to a winding stone staircase. The ascent was cramped and the staircase was even gloomier than the corridors.
It opened into yet another chamber, a small one. In the middle was a small staircase leading to a doorway. We were herded through this and into the great outdoors. It was raining.
And there were more apes. We were on top of the pyramid in a space about thirty meters square, with an altar in the middle. It was bloodstained. About fifty apes crowded into the space. They chanted, a low ominous sound in strange guttural syllables. The Evil Lord Agon stood by the altar, leading the festivities. As we were dragged to the foot of the altar he stared, giving no indication that he knew us.
He held a wicked knife with a curved blade about a foot long. No, this did not bode well at all. He stopped chanting. The apes kept on. He pointed to Duffy. Who was hauled up to the altar. Our personal ape brigade presided, laying him on his back and each grabbing a limb. I'd like to say he handled himself bravely but he actually fainted.
The chanting grew more intense and then stopped. The silence was creepy. The apes stood stock still, staring at the altar. Duffy had come around and he wasn't looking so well. I didn't blame him. But I also envied him. He had an idea of what was coming but he didn't know the gruesome details. The rest of us would, thanks to him.
The Evil Lord Agon began to chant again. It was different this time but no less unintelligible. He raised the knife. Duffy whimpered just a bit.
"Duffy, get ready to make a break for it."
It was Willow.
"Yeah, I'll get right on that." Duffy replied.
A bit sarcastic, but he made a good point. The apes had him pinned down.
"Just do it," Willow replied. "Count of three."
The Evil Lord Agon stopped chanting. He looked at Duffy. His hands clenched the knife. Willow counted down. The apes slumped. Duffy tore loose. It didn't take much effort. He rolled away as The Evil Lord Agon struck.
The knife clinked against the altar. True to form The Evil Lord Agon muttered an imprecation and flung it at us. He made a few of those weird gestures but his army of shambling robotic apes didn't respond. He considered this, then stomped his foot and raged some more. I laughed. Which made him really mad. But it didn't matter. He had no power over us now. He knew it and we knew it.
So that was that. Willow was right about the robotic apes. She had simply disabled the comm network The Evil Lord Agon used to control them. And to disable our flitter and communications. All of which worked and so we headed for the flitter and back to the ship with our tails between our legs. It occurred to me that Willow didn't have to wait until the very last moment to save us. But that was Willow and it was all in the past now.
As for the consequences, they weren't quite as severe as expected. Thanks to a bit of creative storytelling on our part and our privileged position among certain elements of the crew.
We were back in business.
By William I. Lengeman III © 2015