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Everyone has something that they hate. Not just dislike, not even just something they revile. But something that is truly, unfathomably, horrendous. Something that makes you truly angry. Like, throw-a-phone-across-a-room-at-a-pregnant-chinchilla kind of angry. Things like racism. Misogyny. Telemarketers.
Russell Steele hates sweating.
He tolerates it, because he has to. Because he pissed off a bureaucrat who, it turns out, was not a pointless spear-bearer, but had some actual power. And used that power to transfer Steele out to a jungle that doesn’t even have a name, but which Steele and his expedition members have come to affectionately call “Grug”. This name has two meanings. First: the sound you made when, on waking up, you realized you were still in Grug. Second: the mood that the forest of Grug put you in.
Grug, you see, is an Irish word for “a surly look” or an “angry attitude”.
And this place is, certainly, grug.
Steele also dislikes mornings, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say he hates them.
Sweating before 10 AM is right out.
He walks across the compound in khaki cargo pants, his white tee already sweat-stained, which is why he hasn’t buttoned up the also-khaki top he’s wearing. His thighs are chafing. It is nine-thirty in the pig-swilling aye-emm, and his thighs are chafing.
He spits on the ground outside the command tent and, first, notices that the air conditioning is out, again. He curses under his breath. Second, he notices that there’s a logo on the wall: a circle of seven leaves on an English heater shield.
“Carter,” he barks, grabbing the nearest youth by the shoulder.
“There’s a logo on the wall.” His voice slows somewhat, allowing his Queen’s English through.
“Yes, sir,” Carter responds, trying not to react to the vice that just clamped onto his shoulder.
“Why is there a logo on the wall.”
“We were told to put it up.”
“By Commander Yate—”
Steele cuts the boy off by walking away. He gets three steps before realizing Carter’s shoulder is still in his hand. He yelps slightly when the older man releases him.
“Yates,” Steele says, walking into the large, central room of the tent. “Three questions.”
“Yes, sir?” says a thin, bubbly, former prep-schooler.
“One. Why have I been summoned this early? Two. Why is the air conditioning broken again? Three. Why is there a logo by the front doors? Answer in any order you like.”
“As to the logo, I thought that it might help us feel a bit more like a group, you know? Part of a collective, instead of just a bunch of men and women in khakis.”
“We are a black-site, Yates. Not even we are supposed to know who we work for. Take it down.”
“Yes sir,” says the gentry. He looks a little sad.
“The air conditioning, sir, is because the power drain from the temple site is greater than we expected. We’ve had to shut down some non-essentials.”
“Consider the following to be official orders, alright?”
“Air conditioners are essential equipment.”
“Yes, sir. What should we do about the power, then?”
“Take it from the stoves in the kitchen. We need tea, and we need freezers, but as sure as the death of Hades himself, we do not need stoves.”
“Chef can cook eggs on the hoods of the jeeps. Now, last question.”
“Yes, sir. You’re awake because there’s a strange, uh, something.”
“Words. Use words.”
“A plane, sir. Circling us, waiting for permission to land. They asked for you by name.”
Steele waits for more.
“They gave us a landing code, but we wanted to wait on you. The plane doesn’t follow any official color pattern.”
“Is the landing code good?”
“It’s an old code, but it checks out.”
Steele nods. “They give names?”
“Alright. If the code’s good, and they’re not dropping bombs on us, let ‘em land.”
“Without getting names?”
“If they kill us, you have my permission to sass me.”
The plane comes to a stop, kicking up dirt on the little-used airstrip. Jaq climbs out of the cockpit, and addresses Septimus, Curson, and Statue Lady (as far as Jaq’s concerned, Statue Lady hasn’t earned her name yet. Maybe when she’s a flesh and blood instead of a sculpture).
“You two,” she says to Curson and Statue Lady, “are staying here. The last thing we need is to upset any locals.”
“Who, exactly, are the locals?” asks Statue Lady.
“A little bit special forces, a little bit X-files. The vodyrazum aren’t the first weird other-worldliness I’ve met. They’re not even the second. First time around, I got caught up with these folks. I figure they might be able to help.”
Through this, she unlatches the plane’s door, and climbs out. She turns and sticks her head back in.
“Soldier boy, come on. I said they were staying.”
“You flatter me.” Septimus stands.
Outside the plane, both stretch their arms and legs. The plane is far faster than it should be (thanks, demons!) but they still just spent a handful of hours cramped in a small place.
“Where’s the dagger?” The sword Septimus found is busy holding Curson, but the dagger should be free.
“Statue took it,” Septimus says. “I didn’t really think to tell her ‘no.’”
“I can’t blame you,” Jaq says, “but I’m not happy about it.”
The strip is dirt, surrounded on all four sides by high trees that remind Septimus of home, even though the trees are nothing like pine trees: rubber trees, and stranger fare. At the edges of the forest are large patches of fungus and brightly colored flowers.
As the propellers slow, the grumbling sound of an engine doesn’t. A jeep pulls onto the airstrip, wheels and body spattered with mud.
Septimus whistles. “Nobody’s used jeeps for jobs like this in decades.”
“Secret bases don’t exactly get regular upgrades.” She waves down the driver, who pulls the topless jeep over to them. The man climbs out, smoking a massive cigar. He stands nearly seven feet, with sizable muscles that are straining not to turn to fat. Probably high forties, Septimus guesses, and will be surprised when he learns that Russell Steele is in his early sixties.
Steele walks up to Jaq, who holds a hand up to Septimus: don’t interfere.
“Didn’t expect to see you again, curls. You got my money?” He puffs his cigar.
“I’m too stressed for witty banter, and I know you’re joking, but I want this to be very clear.” She puts her hand on the side of his face and locks eyes with him. “You are the one that owes me two grand. Give me a hug and we’ll talk in the jeep.”
Steele laughs and gives Jaq a hug that just about pops her head off like a dandelion; then, gives her a cigar. She lights it by striking a match off of Steele’s chin.
“This is Septimus Jones,” Jaq says, climbing into the jeep. “We’ve gotten roped into something you might know about.”
“Jones.” Steele nods at Septimus, who gives him a tip of the imaginary hat.
The car starts, takes a wide circle around the parked plane, and dives into the jungle. The jeep barrels past wide trees and grand bodies of water, with enormous lilypads floating on them. A family of frogs is sitting on one, doing whatever it is frog families do. But they’re disrupted when another frog, this one the size of a malamute, bursts out of the water and lands on the same pad. Improbably, the pad holds its weight.
“GUH,” Jaq and Septimus gasp in unison.
Steele laughs, and says, “Yeah we found a fun little pocket here. You should see the bats.”
Jaq, heart pounding, looks forward at the muddy road.
“We won’t be here that late.”
“These bats don’t wait until night-time.”
“Excellent. That’s amazing.” Septimus sits back and watches the forest, half expecting a jabberwock to jump out at them.
“What’s this about, curls?” Steele shouts over the roar of mud and engine.
“Don’t call me ‘curls.’ I need to have a look at the grand and inexhaustible archives of Broadleaf House. Or, at least, I know somebody passingly familiar with them.”
“I need to know if you’ve encountered vodyrazum before.”
If the road were solid material, the tires would screech. As it is, the mud spits out from the car and some horrible squelching noises fill the air as Steele slams on the breaks.
Steele looks at Jaq and speaks very slowly.
“Say that again.”
Then, the jabberwock attacks.
Or, something very like it.
A bird, fifteen feet tall, rushes out of the trees, toward the jeep. Its feathers are a rainbow of colors. At a glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a giant chicken, but there’s one major difference between a chicken and this thing:
There’s an enormous, beaked brain wrapped around the bird’s head.
Jaq and Septimus dive from the jeep as the bird moves forward, fast, leaving behind vast, muddy footprints. Jaq screams out, landing on her broken arm, but shoves the pain to a mental somewhere-else, and pulls her Luger from inside her coat while Septimus does the same.
The bird jumps, and lands on the hood of the jeep, hard feet crushing the front end. Jaq and Septimus both fire on the bird’s body, hoping to weaken the legs; they can’t hurt the brain with these bullets, but maybe they can weaken the body enough to slow it down.
Without speaking, they concentrate fire on the hips, as the bird and brain, together, let out a horrible roar, and start to slam down onto the jeep, pecking at it like...well, like a chicken.
Steele dives from the vehicle and runs a wide circle. The bird watches him go, and follows.
“Distract it!” he shouts. “Get it away from the jeep!”
“How?” Septimus asks.
“Got anything shiny?”
The bird bears down.
“Oh none of us is going to like this,” Jaq says. “Make sure I don’t die.”
“Will do. Get it away, but don’t go too far. When you hear gunshots, bring her back, alright? Now, you,” he says to Septimus, “come with me.”
They move to the side of the road while Jaq pulls the spyglass from her pocket.
The bird starts to follow Steele and Septimus—the bigger, slower targets. Jaq moves the spyglass to catch the sun, and shines it at the bird.
It shifts and faces her.
“How can you even tell?” she asks herself. The bird’s eyes are under the vodyrazum.
“Come here, bird buddy.” She backs up carefully as the bird walks toward her. It sways its whole body as it goes, a rainbow of impossibly large feathers shivering on the great bird.
“Come along, mon oiseau.”
When the bird charges, she shouts “Merde!”
She turns, runs.
Steele runs to the jeep, surprising Septimus with his speed.
“What’s in the jeep?” he asks, as Steele climbs onto the back end of the ruined metal.
“The boys at the base cooked this up. It isn’t particularly pretty, but it works.”
He pulls a large metal case out and passes it to Septimus, who takes it. Steele takes a second case and climbs off of the jeep.
Steele opens his. On top, in a foam insert is a pair of shaded goggles, which he puts on.
“Put yours on too,” he says. “It will be very bright.”
Septimus opens up his crate, and puts on the goggles, then lifts out the foam insert.
“How’s your aim?”
“Good. Mine has gone the way of the dead, so you’ll get to fire. Your box has a tripod, set it up.”
Septimus pulls out a wooden structure, held together by hinged and banded metal. He opens it up and sets it, while Steele pulls out a weapon.
In seconds, Steele’s structure of folded metal has been unloaded into a sort of cannon-shape on the end of a boxy housing. Steele sets it on the tripod, screws it in, runs a cable from Septimus’ box to the gun.
Finally, he presses a button on the housing (Septimus notes that it appears attached using masking tape).
The gun emplacement begins to hum with energy. Seams on the housing reveal an internal blue light.
“Aim for the brain. Wait until it's in range, I’ll tell you when.”
Steele pulls a service revolver from his side and fires three times into a nearby tree.
Septimus grabs the gun’s handles, feels the dual triggers on them, tries swiveling the thing around, getting a feel for it.
Jaq hears the bullets. The bird is blocking their view, but both Steele and Septimus laugh when Jaq, apparently turning on a dime, runs straight for the bird, does an implausibly acrobatic roll/dive between its legs, and runs straight for them.
The bird takes a moment to realize what just happened, turns, and follows.
It’s faster than Jaq, and the look on her face says she knows it.
“Get ready,” Steele says. “Hold down the triggers for rapid fire. Five rounds should do.”
Just then, Jaq slips. The mud slides under her feet, and she drops to her knees. She tries to get up, but can’t move fast enough.
“Is it close enough?” Septimus asks, almost shouting, heart pounding in his chest.
“Wait,” Steele says.
The bird gets closer.
“It’s gonna run her down!”
“Wait!” Steele says, stern.
The bird gets closer.
Jaq gets to her feet, but drops again, lands right on her bad arm, and screams.
The bird reaches her.
“Now,” Steele whispers. “Five rounds.”
Septimus pulls the triggers.
Blazing strips of crackling white light rip out of the gun. The thin strips drip some kind of material as they whistle through the air. One after another, five beams land right on the vodyrazum.
A hand presses Septimus’ shoulder, and he lets go of the triggers.
The bird rears back. The brain on it flails madly, then begins to collapse.
It’s like watching a sheet of paper burn away. The edges crumble into dust, which floats away on the wind.
The bird sits up, clucks a bit, and starts to wander away.
Steele whistles at it, and follows. He ignores Jaq, groaning and writhing in the mud, but Septimus goes to her.
She stops making noises, but she’s clearly still in pain.
“Don’t move,” Septimus says.
“Shut up,” Jaq says.
Septimus looks up, and sees Steele walking back. He’s holding up a hot dog, but before Septimus or Jaq can comment on the fact, they realize: the bird is following him, clucking eagerly. It moves to grab the hot dog, but Steele moves it to the his other hand before the bird can get it.
“Take off Jaq’s coat, and roll up her sleeve.”
“What?” Septimus and Jaq say, in unison.
“Trust me or don’t.”
Septimus helps with the jacket while Steele distracts the bird. Septimus rolls up her sleeve.
“Jones, get back away. Jaq, lay back and hold out your arm.”
Jaq manages to raise an eyebrow.
“If this thing breaks me more, I’m going to personally haunt your cigar collection.”
“I’d expect nothing less.”
Septimus finishes by unwrapping the leather straps that Curson put on Jaq’s arm, then gets out of the way.
Steele leads the bird around, and holds the hot dog close to Jaq’s arm.
The bird leans down, and gets close. Steele pulls the hot dog away, and the bird starts nibbling at Jaq’s arm.
“That’s...why doesn’t that hurt?” Jaq asks.
“We call these guys ‘healer-birds’. Now, he won’t actually heal your arm, but it’ll hurt less, and the healing process will be boosted.”
“That’s amazing,” Septimus says, grinning, kneeling down to watch. “What’s the process?”
“Something in their saliva numbs pain. The birds are why we came here, but when we set up camp we discovered the vodyrazum, and that led us down a very deep well.”
“We’ll need to know about that,” Jaq says. She laughs, almost giggles. Steele and Septimus both give her looks of concern.
“It tickles.” She ignores their looks, watching the bird instead.
“At any rate,” Steele says, “We can sit here a minute. Jeep’s ruined, but I’ll call in backup, they’ll come pick us up.”
The bird lifts its head from Jaq’s arm, looks at the now spit-soaked skin, and gives it a nod. Steele wiggles the hot dog, which gets the bird’s attention, then throws it off into the forest. The bird goes charging away.
“Why a hot dog?” Septimus asks.
“In case I got hungry.”
“Why did we have to use me to distract the bird,” Jaq starts, looking at her arm, flexing the fingers, “if you could have used a hot dog?”
“In case I got hungry.”
Steele goes to the jeep and pulls out a large black radio.
An hour later, they pull into the camp in a new jeep, brought by a driver whose name Jaq immediately forgot.
The camp is a cluster of structures that occupy the design somewhere between tents and buildings. They’re sturdy canvas, but held so rigidly that it might as well be thin walls.
Steele takes Jaq to an unmarked tent (they’re all unmarked, and almost all identical) which turns out to have a doctor in it. Steele then leaves, promising to return soon.
Before he goes, he tells them both, quietly, “I promise we’ll talk about the vodyrazum. Give me time.”
The doctor examines Jaq’s arm awhile, in silence. During this, Septimus and Jaq do the best they can of wiping mud off of their clothes.
The room is uncomfortably dry. Jaq feels her lips and skin drying out, and the temptation to scratch is almost overpowering.
Septimus looks at Jaq, starts to open his mouth, but she shakes her head slightly, enforcing the silence. After a moment, the doctor goes to get some supplies.
Once he’s gone, Septimus finally speaks.
“Why the quiet treatment?”
“I know Steele, but I haven’t met the rest of these. I trust him, but I prefer not to trust government shadow houses.”
“More words, please. Or at least more specific ones?”
“This group are Broadleaf House. Well, they work for Broadleaf anyway.”
“I understand the words you’re saying, but they don’t mean anything.”
“It’s a branch of Her Majesty’s government. Their mission is to protect England. Sometimes, when things align that way, the rest of the world, too, but that’s secondary.”
“Protect against what?”
“Against threats that the world isn’t meant to know about.”
“Like brains with tentacles.”
“Like brains with tentacles, yes.”
“Okay. How do you know Steele?”
“He came to the islands a handful of years ago with a handful of university students who were being courted by Broadleaf. A chance to let them see what the world is really like, you know? There was a sea monster called Hana-hime that they wanted to investigate.”
“You speak japanese?”
“Well. Yes. They recruited me to help them find her, since there’s a lot of water to cover. Took about six months. It was good pay, and Steele and I talked a lot. He saved me from some bad hands of poker, I saved him from some pirates with very large bullets. A rocking good time. He gave me the code we used to land here, just in case.”
“What about the monster?”
“She’s about sixty feet long, shaped sort of like an eel, but with lilies growing off of her back. Well, flowers that look not unlike lilies. She’s perfectly harmless, and feeds by going almost the surface, and photosynthesizing.”
Septimus’ brain grinds a bit. He accepted the giant sea monster, because the whole thing has been about water brains. But it is starting to sound, and I think you’ll excuse the skepticism, exceptionally odd.
“Anyway, Broadleaf came to give Hana-hime a gift, she accepted, and now the prime minister has a single Hana-hime lily in a secret vault, and Hana-hime continues to allow humans to live in her region.”
“So it was a peace treaty?”
“With a giant eel.”
Reading the look on his face, Jaq gives Septimus a smile, and settles in to tell him a story.
“Life is exceptionally weird. Are you aware of the Udumbara flower?”
“It’s a flower. Rare. Exceptionally rare. Just about nobody living has ever seen one. If we believe Buddhist legend—which I do, and so should you—it only blooms once every three thousand years. Guess when it was last seen.”
“Five years ago, on the back of a giant eel?”
“No. I’m telling you a fun story, don’t sass me. It was last seen in twenty-ten, under a Chinese nun’s washing machine.”
Septimus allows himself to smile, and realizes something odd in Jaq:
“Yes, it’s very extant, I know.”
“No, it’s weird.”
“Vous êtes trop gentil.”
She immediately stops smiling, then shrugs, then grunts in pain because she should not have shrugged with both shoulders.
Steele returns an hour later. Jaq’s arm is cast and slung.
“Bureaucratic sundries are done. Now, let’s get to the weird.”
He leads them out of the medical tent and to another jeep, this one with the top up.
“Rain coming?” Septimus asks.
“Where we’re going, yes.”
They climb into the jeep and drive. The jungle gets thicker, and the sounds of animals get louder. Bird calls and the motion of large creatures. Trees with mammoth trunks, vast flowers in a rainbow of colors. Occasionally, fungus, too. Mushrooms taller than a man, with flat tops as wide as a kiddie pool.
“This place,” Septimus says. “It’s old.”
“It is. Strange little pocket of the world where time and evolution took a different path. That’s why we’ve set up camp. Researching the plants and animals. Everything is unique here. The stone isn’t found anywhere else, the dirt is strange. Hell, even the rain is just a little bit off. The trees, too. Some of them look familiar to you, right?”
“Rubber trees, yeah.”
“Nope. They look like them from the outside, but inside it turns out they’re not trees at all. They’re fungus. But that’s not the craziest part.”
“Is it the chickens with vodyrazum stuck to their heads?”
“It is indeed. The vodyrazum show up from time to time. They run around in the forest, damned hard to find, and harder to predict. I’ve lost six men to them, and they love the local animals.”
Somewhere distant, thunder ripples, although the sky above them is perfectly blue.
“How do you know their name? What have you learned?” Jaq is getting excited, doesn’t want Steele to take his sweet time to tell his story.
“There’s a temple of some kind. An obelisk of stone poking up out of the ground. At the bottom, there’s an opening. Inside that is a door, although we haven’t managed to get the door open.”
“Just like the one in those films,” Septimus says, to Jaq. “In the arctic.”
“What about the name?”
“Came from one of the carvings. We’re translating them, slowly, but since they’re not in any previously known language, that is not exactly a fast process.”
“Why a Russian word?”
“The officer that translated that was a visitor. Russian. One of the ones that got taken by the vodyrazum. He said it wasn’t an exact translation, but it got the idea across. Means ‘water-brain’. The damn things love playing in the water.”
“That’s where I first saw them,” Jaq says. “Ripping apart a man-made island.”
“You notice how dry it was in the medical tent?”
“Helps keep them away. They hate dryness.”
“We found one in a dusty Cold War dungeon,” Septimus chimes in. “Went right for us when it saw us, but at first it didn’t even notice.”
“Moisture makes them work better. If they don’t have enough, they can’t process things as well. The more water they have, the bigger they get, too.”
“Okay but what in the name of Sam Elliott’s left big toe are they?” Jaq isn’t mad, but she’s getting more and more frustrated. The constant lack of information is driving her up the proverbial wall.
“You want the literal answer, or the practical one?”
“Literally, we don’t know. They’re not like anything Broadleaf has ever encountered, and Broadleaf has encountered a lot more bizarre things than anybody else.”
“Practically they’re a fungus.”
Steele shrugs. “That’s the closest we can get. They behave, basically, like fungus. Just like the trees, most of the plants. The dirt we’re walking on is, in essence, the leavings of a billion forms of mushrooms.”
There’s a long period without talking.
Septimus breaks it. “Every time we’re getting close, I feel like we make a hard right and go even farther away.”
Steele laughs, but Jaq turns sullen. They came here to head off everything, but they’re still behind. At least she might be able to convince Steele to give her one of those guns. Having something to actually fight the vodyrazum (read: cosmic fungus water brains) will hopefully give them some kind of advantage.
“And then, of course, there’s…” Steele starts, then trails off.
“Wait, I want to get the timing right.”
He waits a few seconds.
“And then there’s this.”
(Almost) perfectly timed, rains slams into the jeep, shaking the canopy.
“A storm. Permanent. It just stays here, a single, inexhaustible stormcloud, a mile across.”
“What in the name of Dick Van Dyke’s hairy left lung?” Jaq says, opening her window, and looking out.
She sees it: the cloudline. Inside it, the sky is gray, almost black. Outside, bright blue.
She pulls back in, runs fingers through rain-wet curls.
“And at the very center of the island, we have this.”
Ahead of them is a stone obelisk. It has a wide base and stretches high into the sky, where the cap is tipped with some reflective metal that shines in the rain.
A note! Next week's chapter will be a bit short, due to many life things occur at nearly the same time. Apologies. — E