by G. W. Thomas
Philip Roger's Rough Sketch for the Illo for this story
“The cradle rocks above
an abyss, and commonsense tells us that our existence is but a brief candle
of light between two eternities of darkness.” -- Nabokov
THE man with the book ran. So I followed.
That’s what I do. Telford pays a million dollars, half the rental fee, if I can get the book back in twenty-four hours. I had been on the job for over four hours now. I’d picked up his trail around suppertime.
Now he was running.
His name was Burke. I knew this because Telford had given me a card with his name and address. On the other side of the card was the name of the book, scrawled in spidery handwriting: The Book of the Black Sun.
Burke was wealthy by most standards, but small potatoes on Telford’s list of customers. He had sold his house, everything except his car, to pay the two million for the book. That had made it hard to find him. At first. His house was empty with a SOLD sign on the lawn. I finally cornered him by watching the pawnshops on Gilman Street.
Now he was driving. Quickly.
I punched up the Miata and followed.
BURKE'S SUV took the I-90 then an exit that led to a block of older residential buildings. I kept my distance, watching. He’d pick the place where we’d square off. And he’d lose. Whether it was a gun, a trap or a monster, it didn’t matter. I’d come for him prepared. And I’d have Telford’s book. And the million dollars.
The Explorer turned onto a dirt driveway and disappeared in some trees. I pulled to a stop and looked over the layout. Just a weedy lot with a dilapidated old farmhouse. The SUV stopped beside the shack and Burke ran from the car to the house.
I stepped on the gas and pulled the Miata up, blocking the back end of the Explorer. It wasn’t going anywhere unless it flattened my car first.
I didn’t hurry. I opened the trunk and took a few items from Travel Case #3. Pistol with liquid silver slugs. A vial of Shaggai insect spit. A roll of paper with a crushed rock inside. Lastly, a shotgun filled with M’Nar stone ammo. I locked the car and moved to the front door.
I went slowly, checking the doorway, prepared for an attack. Nothing. Burke was not in the living room area. There was a set of stairs going up but it looked too flimsy to hold either Burke or myself. Kitchen. I could make out dusty footprints on the old lino. Burke had come this way, though there was no sign of him now. The prints led to the cellar stairs.
I halted, added a flashlight to the end of the shotgun, into a specially made bracket. The device had a shock absorber. Five times out of ten the light would work after a shot. The other five you just have to punt.
I tested the first step with
a toe. Solid, unlike the upstairs steps. I flashed the light down, ready
for any attack. Two steps. Look. Two more. Nothing but an empty, dirty
cellar. I searched again for enemies and traps. Nothing. And no sign of
Back to the floor. I looked for tracks. There were quite a few. Burke had been here before. So where did he go? I checked the short trails. All led to a dirty, wet wall covered in shelves. On the two-by-four ledges were forgotten jars of preserves. Carrots, beets, tomatoes. There was one that looked like a fetus. A severed hand. Who had lived here?
I experimentally tried a
hand on the first set of jars. My fingers felt cold glass then a sharp
electric sting. I jumped back as the wall shifted to a madness I knew too
well. The entire wall had become a spinning disk, a golden mandala of gyrating
A gate. Burke had known it was here. His plan began to make sense now. Originally I had thought he had sold everything to rent the Book of the Black Sun so he could run with it. Run to another country where he thought he’d be safe from Telford. Fool! But now I began to have an inkling of what he had had in mind. He wasn’t running to Canada or Mexico. He was going to some other reality, another plane of existence where I could never find him.
He just didn’t know that he wasn’t the first to try it. I’d crossed through gates before, once to rescue a book from a shantak and another time to fight an inter-dimensional vampire. A renter with poor judgment, not much a challenge.
I went back to the car.
I WASN'T about to cross into some bizarre world where the sky is orange and all the grass wants to eat your feet, without a few more things. I grabbed a backpack and filled it with food, first aid kit and a dozen other essentials. I also grabbed Burke’s photo off my sun visor. Telford usually attaches a picture to the book cards so I have some idea of who I’m after. No telling if Burke would look like that once I got over there – wherever there was – but if he did I wouldn’t forget.
I went back to the cellar. I placed a hand on the shelf. It disappeared, being replaced by the eldritch gateway. I pushed my hand experimentally through, in case Burke was standing there with a hatchet or something. Good, so far. I popped my head through and took a look.
Usually it’s a hillside or a lakeshore or some such. This time it looked like the inside of a building. Gray, colorless but definitely indoors, I was in a hallway running off in two directions. There was no one there so I came all the way in. I turned immediately and looked carefully at what the exit looked like on this side. Funny. It was a door that said EXIT. There was no point in marking the door since it didn’t really exist. Instead I took a can of red spray paint from my coat and drew an X on the wall on either side. The wall was made of the same gray metal as the rest of the building. The paint stuck without any problem.
I looked left and right.
The weird tunnel I stood in gave me an odd feeling. It didn’t feel so much
like a corridor as it did a moving train. I registered a slight vibration
throughout the structure. We were moving. But where? How? And for how long?
I figured I had a fifty-fifty chance. Burke could have gone left or right. Unlike the old farmhouse, there was no dust here. I had no tracks to follow, so I left it to instinct. If I was running and I appeared here I’d go… either way. There was no difference. Of course, it was likely Burke had been here before.
I left it to chance. I turned right for no real reason. Just because. I walked for about a minute without seeing anything. The impression I was on a train or underground grew stronger. I stopped and drew a big red arrow pointing towards the exit. Might just need it later.
I walked. And walked. And walked. Every so often I’d spray another arrow.
Eventually I came to a doorway. No door, just a narrowing in the corridor. Beyond the opening I saw someone. The shotgun came up. The figure was wrapped in rags from head to foot. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear soft speech. “Ia! Ia! Cthugn ftagn …” The rest was an unrecognizable garble.
“Hello there,” I tried. He ignored me. I walked around him, gauging his size. He must have been six-six to my six feet. Could it be Burke? It was possible. I didn’t know if he could disguise himself with magic or not. His attempts back in our own reality were lame, amateurish, but here – anything goes.
I got tried of dancing and grabbed at the cloth on his face. I got a handful. His own hand came up and crushed my arm with a vice-like grip. Only the butt of the shotgun to his face changed his mind. It was as he was clutching his face that I saw dead white skin, pitted eyes and teeth like a saw. Whatever it was, it wasn’t exactly human.
And now he was pissed off. He came at me with both hands. I aimed at his feet and fired. The shotgun pellets rattled across the hard floor. My weapon hadn’t left so much as a scratch. But tallboy got the message and backed away, with his hands up. He had a small mouth on each palm. I motioned him to move on. He pointed at a bundle sitting next to the wall. Could it be the book?
I reached over and flipped the cloth back that covered the package. A mouth the size of a dinner plate snapped at me. I pulled my hand away just in time. The square bundle was alive.
I walked away. I thought I heard that odd muttering again and I realized it was singing. Whatever that thing was, it was a parent, soothing its child. And whatever this place was it had people—creatures—waiting in it. Just like a train might. But what were they waiting for? On a train it would be to arrive at the destination of choice. So here—what was that destination? And why did Burke want to get there?
GO HERE -- have to write some filler bits...]
I CHECKED my watch. I had been after Burke for six hours. In this place there was no telling what the time meant so I stopped looking at my watch. Either the hours passed here would be the same as Earth or they weren’t. I could return to Telford’s fifty years in the future or before I was born. There was no telling with gateways. Once you crossed over, the rules changed.
I could see them long before I could hear them. There were three men sitting with their backs to the wall. I heard English. It was soft and low. The three men were all talking but not to each other. Across the train corridor, they stared at what looked like a set of sliding doors.
I looked more closely at these three. The first was a bum. The smell of piss and alcohol was distinct. He held a book to his chest like a school marm her Bible. It was a copy Roberts’ History of the World. The old derelict kept rocking back and forth, saying: “All wrong. They got it all wrong.”
Beside him was a fellow who could have fit into any accounting firm. Forty, balding, spare tire and a brown suit. He had a copy of a book open before him. He rocked too. “They got it right. All right.” I leaned closer to see the title of the book. It was The History of Witchcraft and Demonology by Reverend Montague Summers.
The third man was really old. The flesh hung off his face like a droopy dog. He just stared at the floor.
That door caught my interest again. I walked over, tried to pry it open with my fingers. No good. I was taking my commando knife out to try again when the old man said, “I wouldn’t do that.”
I almost threw the knife at him I was so surprised.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“The painter? You disappeared eighty years ago.”
“What year is it?”
I told him.
“Shit. That makes me a hundred and seventeen. Those damn ghouls. They kept me prisoner so long.”
I didn’t say anything. What can you say in a situation like this?
I turned back to business. “What’s behind these doors?”
“Why shouldn’t I open them then?”
“It’ll bring the guardians.”
“And who are they?”
“’What are they?’” he corrected.
“Okay. What are they?”
I wanted to talk to the old man some more but a group of thirty plus figures was coming down the passageway. Most of the newcomers were wrapped in scarves or wore hoods. Any one of them could be Burke.
As I slipped away from the old man I thought I heard him say, “Welcome to the Cthulhu Express.”
I raised my shotgun, let off a round into the ceiling. The passengers all turned and looked at me. Most were talking in languages I didn’t know.
“Shut up or the next one will be for you.”
“You’ll bring the guardians,” I heard a woman say in English.
“So we’d better hurry things, shouldn’t we? All I want is to see your faces then you and go. I’m looking for someone.” I held out Burke’s picture.
There was translation
then argumentative talk so I cocked the shotgun, expelling the spent shell.
The voices continued to babble but a few hoods came off. One was the woman
who had spoken English, then a creature with horns and gills.
Another that looked human except for the three pupils in each eye. I dismissed each as I saw it wasn’t Burke.
It was luck that saved me. I heard the shot before I saw the gun. The head of the creature beside me exploded in a pulp of fishy green. Burke had missed.
I dove for the floor, bringing the shotgun up as I did. I let off a round before colliding with hard steel. I got Burke in the leg but not enough to stop him.
More bullets exploded down the corridor. Burke was firing without aiming. The slugs ricocheted off the metal walls, tearing into the bystanders. Several crouching figures screamed.
“Get down!” I yelled.
“The Guardians!” someone on the floor said.
I got up. Burke was way down the hallway. Both of us were out of range without a high-power scope. I started after him. He had nowhere to go. Now I knew for sure where he was and that was an improvement.
As for the people he shot, I saw most of them get up and run in the opposite direction I was going. I heard a few more say “The Guardians!”
I wish I’d listened better.
When I could no longer see Burke, the guardian appeared. It was hard to make out at first. It looked like a ball at first, then a sausage. As it drew closer I could make out tentacles. I should have run but Burke had gone this way. Maybe the guardian had eaten him? I had to be sure.
I got out my pistol. The slugs are steel points wrapped around a M'nar stone. One well-placed shot can kill a ghoul or blow off a deep one’s arm. I aimed carefully at a hundred feet and emptied the clip. The guardian didn’t even flinch.
I had the shotgun up quickly. The crushed M'nar stone laced with arsenic and bear shot is usually enough for anybody. I shot three times before the thing stopped in front of me, rearing up on its short wormy body. The head opened, revealing a round mouth filled with spiny teeth. The face was ringed with tentacles that tried to pull me into the open maw.
I shot straight down the gullet. The beast pulled back then rammed its massive head into my stomach. I fell back, losing the shotgun.
The worm rose up, opening its mouth again. I tried to dig my pistol out of my coat but I was lying on top of it. I was waiting for that deadly mouth to slam down on me but the worm raised its tentacles for a second, exposing a ring of tiny eyes that ran all around the creature’s body just below the mouth. Twenty eyes blinked in unison as they examined me. I could see primitive thoughts working in that monstrous brain.
The creature retreated. It must have either decided I wasn’t a threat or too much trouble to kill. I watched it slink down to the passage where the dead bodies lie. The worm devoured each corpse, cleaning up the blood, spilled possessions, everything.
“Cthulhu Express”, the crazy old bastard had called this place. Express, like a train. But a train to where?
I forgot about the worm. Burke had gone this way. If he’d been eaten there wasn’t much I could do. The book was gone then. But the guardian had allowed me to live. There wasn’t any reason why it should have eaten Burke and not me.
I kept walking. The floor of the train began to fill up again. People lay on the floor in twos and threes, sleeping, eating, talking, praying. Most had their faces exposed so I just walked on, looking. I didn’t want a repeat of the last encounter so I didn’t force my hand. I just walked and watched, and waited for Burke to make the next move.
Then the corridor ended. A large single panel door marked the end of the train. I tried the door latch but it was locked. When I took out my lock-pick set no one said anything. I worked at the knob for a second. Finally it popped open with a hiss. I pushed it open and looked inside.
The smell was the first thing I noticed. Like a beehive. It was dark but I could make out many small lights like a pilot’s cockpit. The windscreen above those lights was filled with a shimmering darkness. A weird insectoid head turned and buzzed at me. The driver of the train was a Yuggothian. Beside him a head floated in a jar. That head also looked at me scornfully. I closed the door without any further resistance. I didn’t have time to figure out why the Migo would construct and operate this weird vehicle. Unfortunately I still didn’t know where it was taking me either.
Movement caught my eye. Someone was rushing away from the end of the train. The droplets of blood told me it was Burke. He had been hiding amongst the passengers, probably pretending to sleep. Why hadn’t he shot at me while I had my back turned to the door? He must be out of bullets, I decided. He had waited as long as he dared then ran.
I ran faster. He wasn’t getting away now. I could see him ahead. Another minute and I’d have him.
A sudden lurching sent
me to the floor. A second smaller one. The sense of movement had ceased.
The train had stopped.
I could see a few passengers ahead, all staring at something. Amongst them was Burke.
“We’ve arrived,” a woman said in Spanish. I saw the tall thing with the box-baby. They looked just like a weary mother clutching her baby, ready to depart. They all stared at a tall set of doors on the wall.
“Give me the book, Burke,” I said pointing my pistol at his head.
“No, no, we’ve arrived. We’ve made it.”
“Made it where?”
I thought I heard the tall one giggle meanly.
“To the future. To the days of the Great Old Ones.”
“How’s that?” I shoved the gun muzzle closer to his face but Burke ignored it. His eyes were rapt on the doors, which cracked a little.
“The time when the stars are right. This train has been taking us there. To the time of Great Cthulhu…”
“Whatever,” I said, grabbing at the backpack.
“Stop!” Burke whined, pushing me away like an annoying child, and not a gun-wielding killer.
I should have just shot him there and then. It would have been easy. Nobody would have cared. They just stared at the doorway.
Instead I slammed the butt of the gun into Burke’s neck. He fell like a wet doll. I tore open the pack, extracting the large wooden box from inside. The box had the words Telford’s Bookshop written on it in stenciled letters.
I was opening the box to see the steely gray metal pages of The Book of the Black Sun when the doors opened with a wet swick. How to describe the sounds and smells? I heard screams like a million babies dying. The air had the odor of a dirty aquarium. I didn’t turn to look. Every fiber of me wanted to but I knew better. I could see the looks on the faces of the travelers. Even Burke. He had got up, blood flowing from his ear. He didn’t look at me. Didn’t think of the book. He just stood there, slack-jawed.
Then they walked out. Out into the world of the future. A world where men were the smallest of playthings. Mere ants. The Great Old Ones and their final days as rulers of the universe.
No thanks. I took the book out of the box, threw it aside. The cold steely pages went into my coat. Then I ran. Soon I came to another door looking out into that world. The train waited patiently at the station. This traveler wasn’t getting off. I refused to see what lurked in that bizarre place. I ran on more, until I found a quiet corner away from the exits. I wanted to find my doorway home.
I couldn’t run anymore so I walked. I searched for the EXIT with the two painted Xs, careful to avoid any and all doors off the train.
I came to a sleeping figure on the floor. The lurching train had failed to wake him. I was tempted to kick him. Let him know. But now that I had the book I needed to focus on getting home. I walked on.
Behind me I heard a soft noise. I recognized it. The guardians. This time I could make out three or four of them. I watched as they stopped to eat a bag someone had left on the train. Next they moved onto the man sleeping on the floor. He screamed as they tore him apart.
Cleanness. I knew they were
cleaning out the train before it returned to – wherever. The guardians
would eat any one who did not disembark. Like the janitorial staff at the
end of the day, they’d get the train ready for its next journey.
I ran despite the stitch in my side and tired, tired feet. I turned and looked behind me every so often. These guardian worms were bigger than the one I had encountered before. The size of a killer whale but a red-gray color. I fired the shotgun even though I knew it was a waste of time. They were gaining on me.
The book thumped heavily against my leg inside my coat. For a second I thought of dumping it but why bother? I had come for it. I was leaving with the Black Sun.
I kept running. I had little choice. Once a tentacle brushed the back of my neck. I swatted it away with the barrel of the shotgun and found a little more speed.
A spray-painted arrow! I was getting close. Ahead I could make out the two Xs on either side of the door. There was the exit. I didn’t even bother to test it like before. I was either going to receive a hell of concussion followed by a grisly death or a ticket home.
The gateway sizzled as I passed from the train into the cold cellar. Never had dirt floors and dusty jars looked so good. I ran up the stairs and waited with my gun ready. Would it come after me into my world? A weird howling was all that ever came through that gateway. Nothing else.
I stepped outside to find the sky dark and the stars out. I opened the door to my Miata. It was just where I’d left it, behind Burke’s Explorer. I opened the door and looked at the green LCD clock. 23:30 AM. Only eleven-thirty. It had felt like days in that weird train. I dug my Palm Pilot out of the glove compartment. What day was it? Still June 21. I had been gone only four and a half hours. It made no sense but who was I to argue?
With the book on the rider’s seat beside me I fired up the car and headed for Telford’s and my million bucks. With that money I’d rent this very book for several months. In it I’d find great secrets. Secrets like what the future held for humankind. I’d stood at the very doorway to that future, but hadn’t looked at it. The view was just too terrifying. Burke had been braver but then again, he was either insane or dead now. Or worse.
Was that my destiny? To finally know too much? To die screaming with the sheer cosmic terror of it?
I don’t know. I only know what I am. A book collector.