Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 66
In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, our rescue team is caught in a mineshaft descending deep under the parallel universe that is Harmonia-IV, where they hear something rumbling in the distance: it turns out to be a gigantic boulder tumbling and bouncing toward them, just like that famous scene in 'Dr. Dick and the Tempo of Doom'.
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Ever since arriving at Harmonia-IV on that first assignment well over a century ago, Milo Smighley was never keen on these gates. It had never made sense, in his experience, leaving them open all the time. You never knew who’ll just stumble through it accidentally. And what happened once people discovered there really was an Other Side: what then? Many argued keeping it open was a necessity when it came to universal commerce even knowing it also had its dark side. But if countries on Earth could regulate trade, why can’t Harmonia-IV regulate its gates?
It was easy, importing goods they didn’t feel like manufacturing within the Parallelian System, to go across under cover of invisibility and darkness of night to abscond with items that, to the Otherians, simply, inexplicably disappeared. He realized there were high-minded, moralizing individuals complaining this was no more than theft but, naturally enough, they were neither politicians nor businessmen.
The worst example had been Basil Ratfink’s decision to shanghai miners from New Coalton, forcing dozens of them to work under slave-like conditions deep in the photonmium mines then operated by his company, Wotan Industries, Ltd. Times were hard and labor was hard to find, especially any that would work voluntarily for the meager wages his company paid out.
It was a turbulent period in American industrial history when somebody named Molly McGuire, presumably a powerful tavern-keeper or something, created considerable havoc. Ratfink figured she could supply Wotan Industries with a new influx of temporary labor.
Unable to locate her or her agents to make any kind of a deal, Ratfink’s unscrupulous agents kidnapped a dozen miners as they left the town’s seediest tavern, The Blue Weasel, conveniently located near the Time-Gate.
When this proved financially successful – slave labor was, after all, basically inexpensive to maintain – Ratfink’s agents merely went back to harvest some more.
Like any other resource – coal, wood or human – they could be used until eventually there was nothing left in them worth using, like ashes shoveled onto a heap out back: or rather, back through the Time-Gate.
They were broken and sick although whether from the effects of handling photonmium or the working conditions remained a subject for debate.
People finding them on the edge of town figured they’d been sleeping one off.
Soon enough, they all died – slowly – babbling insanely about mines with rocks that glowed, complete with monsters and a fiery lake of acid.
Of course, before people realized how most of the miners in town had become sick and eventually died of this mysterious illness – originally called the Glowing Disease, because they coughed up bits of ominously glowing pleghm – doctors were brought in from neighboring towns to figure out what may be causing this bizarre condition and how to stop its spread.
They determined the cause was either the poor quality beer the taverns were serving or something deep in the New Coalton mines. Residents then abandoned the town: that last mine collapse just sped up the process.
This became a classic example of that social and psychological reaction to a decisive event initially considered a surprise by the observers which is then rationalized after-the-fact as the unforeseen result of something not entirely unexpected.
Parallelian scientists and philosophers, like their earthly counterparts eager to find pseudo-logical terminology gathering events into convenient theories, called this a “White Crow.”
Milo Smighley wondered how these same scientists and philosophers, no matter where they were located, would evaluate the presence of today’s trespassers: they would certainly find no satisfactorily practical explanation for the likes of Mary Rowberson.
As for the other trespassers, once they’d finally managed to retrieve the Mahler score, they could easily be dispatched back through the Gate.
Unfortunately, that also meant the beautiful Detective Ste.-Croix would be leaving soon and he felt this with a keen sense of regret. She, however, had a case to close before departing, fortunately requiring his utmost cooperation.
While Smighley gazed at Ste.-Croix standing over the poor, confused figure of Mary Rowberson, his reverie was rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of that annoying violist, Roger Babbitt, flashing his badge as a BHUIA agent. Enough to handle willingly under the most normal circumstances, working with a violist from Intelligence was something he found incongruous by any definition.
Rondo Sharrif, also flashing his badge, came forward upon Babbitt’s arrival, greeting him with the traditional, supposedly secret handshake and accompanying gestures implying BHUIA had been created by teenagers during a slow week at summer camp.
Babbitt introduced two other agents wearing ominously dark trench-coats and sun glasses – Agents Taupner and Waccamole from the Department of Harmonian Security. Babbitt himself was rumored to be mid-level in the Department of Imagination and Naturization.
The fact they even looked better than Smighley’s policemen was enough to irritate him, but he knew not cooperating jeopardized his own position.
Agent Babbitt, using official D.I.N. jargon largely incomprehensible to otherwise normal law enforcement personnel, described recent intelligence pertinent to the Mahler case. This meant, Sharrif translated, the alleged thieves had kidnapped the boy known as Xaq.
They were then presumably heading toward the Gate by way of the underground tunnels, Professor Kerr and his friends hot on their trail.
Smighley wrinkled his nose, reminded of an embarrassing recollection: the remnants of that stink bomb still permeated the hallways of his police station. And now he’s supposed to run through miles of mineshafts to rescue that boy?
“The Gate,” he began explaining to Babbitt, “is about to be locked down due to a localized presence on the Other Side though it might also assist in obfuscating the eventualized escapement of the allegedary suspects.”
Try as he might, Smighley couldn’t think of any fussier-sounding synonyms to use instead. An old-fashioned, hard-boiled cop, he mistrusted these intellectual bureaucrats.
Babbitt nodded, smiling politely at his ineffectual attempt, hating when people tried adopting a linguistic stylization preternaturally incompatible with their archetypical verbiage.
He conferred briefly in whispered tones with Agent Sharrif, nodding and shrugging his shoulders.
Babbitt carefully explained to Smighley, “you and Agent Sharrif along with agents Taupner and Waccamole should pursue the suspects from this end. BHUIA has jurisdiction in this case, considering it’s a matter of Universal Musical Security.”
Detective Ste.-Croix asked gruffly if she could join them which Smighley quickly agreed to.
Babbitt nodded approval, and they carefully entered the Gate.
It took a few minutes before clouds of dust – like glittering confetti – began settling and the faint glow permeating the walls returned. The mineshaft was in shambles, shards of photonmium everywhere.
Where had the boulder gone? Had it shattered on impact or was it lying at the bottom of the pit?
Maybe it’s still rumbling along, headed toward Xaq?
Zoe and I traded worried glances as the distant sound grew louder and closer. Wasn’t this supposed to be some empty mineshaft?
What dangers were there still to face? How would Xaq survive this geological juggernaut?
But whatever we still had in our future, we could go no further with this pit that had cracked open before us. We’d waste too much time, going back to the surface to pick another mineshaft. That wouldn’t guarantee we’d reach them eventually or run into other any other dangers. And that sound was beginning to get too weird.
A tangle of roots, knocked loose by the impact, dangled Rapunzel-like from the ceiling, long fibrous tree roots hanging just within reach. Gnarled but sturdy-looking, they swung tantalizingly in the swirling debris, the aftershocks of collision. Would they be strong enough to hold our weight, long enough to swing each of us to safety across to the other side?
Ignoring old fears of rope-climbing from gym class, I reached out and grabbed the root with a good yank before losing my footing. The edge of the pit had started to crumble, leaving me hanging in mid-air.
Trying not to look down – and not screaming – I began kicking frantically until I started up a pendulum-like motion, back and forth. After swinging far enough, Cameron gave me a push. Another time should do it.
More of the edge collapsed. Cameron reached out, desperately hanging on by my belt.
My hands began slipping, then sliding down the root.
His weight provided enough momentum until I figured it was safe to let go, collapsing in a heap onto the opposite side.
At least, I thought it was the opposite side. Swinging around, had I miscalculated?
Zoe and Sebastian scrambled over, helping us up. Laughing, they pointed at a fissure in the wall connecting to the other tunnel. They simply took the detour, safely walking around, avoiding the edge of the pit.
Having lost valuable time, we hurried down the tunnel, wondering what we’d find next.
That strange noise began sounding like lots of cows.
The mineshaft began descending more steeply, pot-holes wherever the boulder bounced against the floor. So, it had come this way: but where…
Sebastian, pointing toward another tunnel that leveled out, suggested it took the lower tunnel.
That noise was now accompanied by a rumble: earthquake? Or perhaps a stampede, hundreds of frantic cows, mutated by long exposure to photonmium?
Rounding past a sharp corner, we suddenly veered into a large, eerily lit cavern with glowing stalactites and stalagmites, whichever was which.
Against the far wall, Kent-Clarke and the giant Schweinwerfer were busy cutting Xaq’s bonds.
Kent-Clarke saw us and raised the bulky tote-bag. “It’s Mahler’s latest symphony,” his eyes wild with greed. “I stole it from him! It’s a truly amazing discovery. You must help me get the score back home!”
“They’re not here to help, you maladroit,” Schweinwerfer thundered. “Any closer, the boy dies.”
He took the knife, holding it across Xaq’s throat.
Schweinwerfer, tired of carrying him, figured it was time Xaq started walking by himself. If he ran off, where would he go? But Schweinwerfer knew they had to save the boy till they reached the Gate.
Kent-Clarke saw them first, charging down the other mineshaft. Not mutant cows but worse: a pack of dinosaurs! Raptors – perhaps twenty of them.
Bellowing fiercely then falling silent, they stopped and stood, their heads lowered, studying their would-be prey before preparing their attack, sniffing and drooling.
Instantly, they lunged at Schweinwerfer, tearing him to shreds.
His knife inflicted little damage.
Klavdia Klangfarben – that is, the grown-up Dr. Klavdia Klangfarben – walked down the street she had lived on when she was a child. Such an infusion of nostalgia would prove powerful at any point in her life. Doing so at the exact time her mother would die in that automobile accident was even more incredibly powerful, making her unbelievably nervous.
These houses were her friends’. There was the swing-set standing in her side yard. The porch was littered with her favorite dolls. Everything about it – the sunny day, the scattered toys – spoke of comfort and innocence.
She remembered if she’d just picked up her toys instead of throwing that tantrum, her mother would have left earlier, on time, and driven through the nearby intersection, missing the accident that moments later killed her. Perhaps this was why Klavdia had grown up to become so obsessive about neatness, a way of atoning for causing her mother’s death.
At the door, the adult Klavdia took a deep breath and rang the bell. She could hear her childhood self inside screaming. How embarrassing, to have treated her mother like that, even without knowing its consequences.
Not sure how she’d be able to delay her, it would only take seconds. She wondered if the interruption might be just enough.
A woman, pulling on a jacket, answered the door, harried by yet another interruption. She was clearly annoyed and didn’t hide her rudeness.
Klavdia’d thought she would never see her mother again and yet here she stood.
“Yes, what…!” her mother barked at this stranger, her arm catching in her sleeve. For a moment, they stared at each other.
Didn’t she recognize her, see her daughter in this grown woman standing before her?
This was her mother, she realized, the last time she had ever seen her. Could she control herself and speak without breaking down?
“Hurry up, huh? I’m running late and my daughter is being a bitch, today.”
This was not the way she remembered her.
Wasn’t it her fault she was like this, now? She’d behave better, she promised.
“I, uh, think I’m lost and I was wondering if you could help me?” She had to admit, It sounded pretty lame. With a doctorate, you’d think she could come up with something better than this.
“Look, honey, I don’t have time – try next door?”
Then she heard it.
There was a screeching of wheels.
And a scream.
Rushing to the edge of the porch, her mother shrieked, looking toward the intersection.
“Dear God,” she wailed, “oh my freakin’ God!”
Klavdia, unnoticed, leaned against the door and sighed in relief.
It had been enough.
The child Klavdia, ignoring her adult self, rushed past and grabbed her mother’s skirt, trying to see past her what was going on.
“It’s Suzie’s mom,” she screamed.
Her mother hid her daughter’s face in her skirt.
“That man ran the light – hit Mrs. Porter!”
“I had saved my mother,” Klavdia realized, “but doing so killed Suzie’s mother, instead.”
A neighbor who’d seen it happen said Suzie’d ridden her tricycle out into the street and Mrs. Porter went to grab her. The driver swerved, missing Suzie, but hit her mother, throwing her in the air.
Accomplishing what she’d long dreamt of changing, Klavdia was saddened by her friend’s loss. She forgot that changing one thing altered something else.
Taking out her Time-Device, she hit “return,” expecting she’d just disappear. But nothing happened.
She shook it, squeezed harder, but still nothing.
Before her mother noticed, Klavdia tried again.
“But the battery’s not dead!”
“Oh, I’m so sorry – terrible,” her mother said, clucking her tongue. “You were saying?”
“Yes, indeed,” Klavdia admitted, “I’m afraid I’m very lost.”
“I know just the thing,” her new friend suggested. “Always helps. Let’s go shopping.”
“I could use some new shoes, I guess.”
“And another piece of advice, if you don’t mind: do something about your hair.”
Xaq couldn’t risk running over to his mom’s side, not in front of the dinosaurs – they’d grab him, like they did Schweinwerfer. Falling back against the wall, he ran right into the equally terrified Kent-Clarke’s arms.
“What the fuh-…?” Schweinwerfer screamed as the dinosaurs, each one standing nearly ten feet tall, tossed him around.
“Surely, the apocalypse is… noooooow..!”
It was horrible, greenish blood and body-parts everywhere. Perhaps it didn’t matter if you were already dead when dinosaurs ripped your flesh.
Dropping back against the walls, reluctant to draw their attention, we heard another sound.
It was a kind of chanting with beating drums in regularly accented, march-like rhythms.
There they were, rushing down the opposite tunnel.
Several dozen short human-like creatures, all drumming and chanting.
Facing the dinosaurs, they stopped.
Standing barely three feet tall, their skin was deep blue, decorated with photonmium face-paint.
Standing in a chorus-like formation, they began to sing.
Their sound was mesmerizing, simple chords flowing back and forth, the simplest of sonorities. The overall tempo was moderate, calming the spirit. Coming after the pounding rampage we had just witnessed, this music sounded peaceful, heavenly.
The dinosaurs, entranced, stopped and listened intently with enjoyment. Some casually munched on an arm or a foot, but they were clearly delighted.
What manner of people – if that was the term – could create such gentle music that even ferocious cold-blooded reptiles warmed to their song?
Kent-Clarke began slowly inching away until one of the raptors spotted him and growled.
The dinosaurs weaved back and forth to the soothing undulations of the singers’ chords, immediately transformed from their previously murderous, beastly selves.
Amazing, seeing twenty dinosaurs at all, much less bobbing their heads in obvious contentment.
Then, suddenly, the singers transformed their now familiar sound, starting with a lone voice, gradually augmented by newer voices forming additional independent layers.
Lizard eyes opened in surprise, their expectations questioned, their concern mounting as to why the soothing music, so enjoyable, had now changed.
Line upon line was added, similar to the earlier song but denser, more complex.
Questioning glances and increasingly perturbed frowns between the dinosaurs led to groans of annoyance, and, dissatisfied, they began backing away in disgust.
The choir started marching forward, singing their complicated counterpoint. The performance became a route.
Kent-Clarke grabbed Xaq and used the choral diversion to make a dash for it. Hiding behind them, he was going to get away!
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To be continued…
- Dick Strawser
The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.