"Hatchling" - 1/21/09



"Hatchling" is a 6.8k words short story mixing horror with sci-fi elements. My original intention was to write a dark thriller in a setting I've never used before, and which you don't often see in mainstream fiction. And I've always been fascinated with Papua New Guinea for some reason, so I figured why not combine the two? Even though I've never been there, I've read enough literature and travel accounts of PNG and its neighbor, West Papua, to feel fairly comfortable writing about the island nation and province. I would still like to visit someday, but barring that I've decided to write about Papua instead . . . and dream.

I've submitted this short to quite a few semi-pro and even token markets over the past year, but with no success. Normally I would have trunked the story, but I honestly believe this one is still a winner even if no one buys it. So I'm leaving it out there for any passersby to read and possibly enjoy, even if I never make a cent off the tale.

If you would like to comment on this piece, however, please click on the original announcement link here and kindly leave any feedback at the bottom of the page. Any tips or suggestions on how to improve the work will be received warmly, if not always followed.

And now, on to the story!

--David Batista
May 20, 2011
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"Hatchling"

Written by David J. Batista.





“And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years.”


                                                                               --Revelation 20:2.




Vuk Cravic felt it stir within him, the fear.

Icy tendrils of sweat cascaded down his back despite the persistent massage of the pub’s AC.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the polite concierge back in Queensland repeated. “But there is no record of a Mr. Sidabutar staying with us at the Quay West Suites. Would you like me to connect you to another hotel in Brisbane?”

Vuk killed the line and shoved the ancient push-dial phone back across the bar. He was too late. If they’d gotten to Adhi, they’d surely be after him next.

Vuk thought back to the Air Niugini flight out of Cairns and the doctored passport which had managed to take him only as far across the Torres Straight as Port Moresby, PNG. From there he’d hopped a chartered flight across the shrouded primordial wilderness of this strange and ugly land, crossing the Indonesian border under the cloak of darkness less than a week ago.

Had it been enough?

He was running out of hiding places fast, and aliases even quicker. It was only a matter of time before the company men caught up to him.

He shuddered. Backed into a corner, only Vuk knew what would happen next.

“You all right, mate? You look as if you’d seen a ghost.” The bartender watched him closely, an elderly Aussie expat with bushy white eyebrows and a square jaw that jutted outwards like a craggy promontory. His modest establishment, The Drowned Pony, served as watering hole to the local English speakers of Jayapura City, a tidy spot that might have proven charming to Vuk under better circumstances.

But he knew the long distance call would be traced. He’d spent too much time in this town as it was.

“Nothing serious, Jack,” Vuk said to the barman. “Just checking up on an old friend.”

The pub owner nodded, but didn’t appear too convinced. He leaned forward across the counter between them as if divulging a secret. Behind him the flatvid on the wall displayed a mute news broadcast live out of Sydney.

“Look, son. I know you’re in a bit of a jam—no, no,” he held up his hand to stall Vuk’s protestation. “I don’t care what it is. Just want you to be careful, you hear? This is a nice enough town away from all the craziness, if you mind your ‘Ps’ and ‘Qs’. But you step out there into the bush, and all bets are off mate, y’hear?”

Vuk nodded absently, eyes intent on the images flying past the vid screen: Glasgow, San Fran, Tianjin, JoBurg. The scene was the same all over. Angry mobs swaying across dozens of broken streets, heavily armored riot police beating them back with shields and sticks—harpooning smoking canisters into living human tides.

The whole world’s turned insane since we got back, Vuk thought.

“I’ll be all right, Jack,” he lied. “Just wanted to soak in some of the local culture, s’all. See some real live cannibals before Disney takes over the place.”

The older man snatched Vuk’s half-empty mug gone stale and tossed the contents into a bucket beneath the counter. “Yeah, well, can’t guarantee you’ll find any o’ that where you going, mate. Bygone era and all. But there’s still some hopped-up crazies wandering the hills roundabouts.

“This man I’m setting you up with, he’s a good Joey. Name’s Kutube. Knows his way around the bends ‘n’ eddies of this godforsaken land as well as the best of ‘em. Swears he knows just the khakhua you’re looking for. Doesn’t mean you can’t still be too cautious, okay?”

“Sure thing, Jack. Thanks for all the help, you know? You’re a good friend.”

The old expat leaned forward on both hands. “Christ, mate, why you go and say something like that? Makes it sound like you’re never coming back. It’s just a good thirty kiloms out back there, yeah? Nothing to fret about.”

Vuk only smiled and nodded, revealing nothing of the foreboding in his gut. He quickly paid his tab and stepped out into the humid hell of downtown Jayapura, where Jack’s man was already waiting in his cab.

A damp afternoon drizzle misted his face and neck as he crossed the street. In the distance, the verdant rise of the Cyclops Mountains hid amorphously behind a shifting curtain of fog and rain.

The beast stirred at the sight.

Rigidly, Vuk averted his gaze. But he could not shake the premonition of something dreadful waiting for him up in those hills.



#



. . . string of unrelated murders since the astronauts’ return, nor does it explain the sharp increase in civil unrest being waged across major cities around the globe.


In related news, investigators combing through the debris of last week’s Paris café firebombing have yet to determine the source of the accelerant used in the blaze which claimed the life of MarsTech pioneer and Luna IV mission commander, Dr. Karina Lebrun. A corporate spokesperson for the private space development firm refused to comment on the ongoing investigation, but assured Sky News they were looking into leads in the disappearance of the mission’s chief technician, Dr. Adhi Sidabutar, and exo-archaeologist Dr. Vukasin Cravic. Both men are being sought for questioning.


In financial news: global extranet provider, Soldarin, has reported steady decline in corporate shares following last month’s network outage which left millions of customers without service for nearly seventy-two hours. The financial devastation wrought by the disruption now totals in the billions, despite all efforts to revamp the infrastructure and promises to . . .


“Bah, nobody cares,” the cheerful Papuan—Kutube, Jack had called him—said as he quickly changed the station. An upbeat melody accompanied by lyrics in rapid fire Bahasa piped through the old-fashioned speakers, replacing the news brief to Vuk’s relief.

The cab, retro’d from an old ‘09 Kijang Avanza, sped swiftly past the last of the squat wooden houses on the outskirts of town and up the rough-hewn mountain road. Vuk gripped the torn rattan cushion beneath him and gritted his teeth as Kutube swerved away from a blue moped cutting into their lane.

“This more like it, eh?” the driver beamed at him through the cab’s rearview mirror without missing a beat. “Good music. No talkie-talkie all dey time.”

Vuk forced a grin back, but quickly shifted his eyes out the window in an attempt to forestall any small talk from the Papuan.

“You no worry,” Kutube kept up in his broken English. “You go powerful khakhua. Him name Moto. Kutube know Moto many life, I do.”

The Kijang took a sharp turn around a narrow shoulder as they continued up the mountain. Kutube seemed in amiable command of the mobile junk-on-wheels, yet Vuk found himself wishing he had not drunk that half pint of Carbine Stout back at Jack’s pub. His head swam as he tried to take in the vista beyond the window.

Past the single guardrail on the left side, Jayapura spread out below in a disorderly confusion of reds and browns from the foot of the Cyclops to the shores of Yos Sudarso Bay in the northeast. The misty rain ceased before they’d started the climb, and even now the fog had begun to dissipate. Pretty soon the sun would make its appearance and usher in even more humidity. The thought did nothing to calm Vuk’s stomach, and he quickly leaned away from the window.

“We almost there, missuh Jonas,” Kutube said with a laugh, somehow watching him through the mirror while keeping a steady hand on the wheel at the same time. “Old Moto live in Jari forest, not far Yongsu Dosoyo village. We stop soon, have to kekka rest of way in foots. Okie?”

Vuk nodded weakly, actually welcoming the thought of hiking his way through the muck rather than spending another five minutes in this reckless deathtrap. Jack had warned him about these tribal shamans being the “fair dinkum” of true aboriginal witchcraft. Moto, the barman had mentioned, was rumored to be living in exile from a Neolithic highlands tribe called the Korowai who, if knowledge of his whereabouts were known to them, would hack the sorcerer to pieces and consume him from “nape to nads.”

“So long as you know where we’re going,” Vuk said. “I’m sure I’m in safe hands.”

“Yus suh, missuh Jonas,” the driver nodded emphatically. “Kutube good man to bring in bush. Me take cares of you now that world go crazy-crazy.” He winked knowingly in the mirror, eliciting a smile from the astronaut.

Will you kill him next? a sinister voice whispered in his thoughts.

Vuk startled, banging his head on the cab’s low ceiling as the old Kijang soared across a nasty pothole in the road. He felt the familiar pressure stir from behind his ribcage. Vuk fought back the fear, his eyes settling wildly on the driver.

Kutube watched him closely. Slowly, the cab pulled over to the side of the road and came to a full stop. No other vehicles were in sight.

“What are you doing?” Vuk asked anxiously. “A-are we there already?”

“We there,” Kutube agreed, all trace of mirth gone from his eyes as he turned around in his seat. Something long and tubular rested in his hands, its tapered opening aimed at Vuk’s chest. “Or as you laleo like to say: end o’ dey road.”

The pressure beneath his ribs tightened.

“Uh, what the hell?” Vuk blanched, edging backwards along the laterally positioned seat cushion.

Kutube smiled, exposing crooked teeth. “You Americans think you so clever, yeah? Think we Papuans be fools. Dumb Americans.”

“I’m not American,” Vuk said, his mind racing to find an escape while at the same time trying to keep his heart rate steady. “I-I’m Serbian.”

The slightly-built Melanesian continued to smile, but his eyes were cold and deadly. “I know who you be…missuh Cravic. Doctor Vukasin Cravic. Foolish laleo, we get sat-vid in New Guinea, too. You big bukus. Make Kutube and Jack rich men.”

An icy claw gripped his heart. Vuk sat back in the seat, dejected. Did he come all this way only to wander straight into a common shakedown? He dug into his knapsack.

“How much do you want, then? You want it all?” He pulled out a thick wad of multicolored bills. “Here, take it all!”

The cabbie laughed, a nasty feral sound. He lifted one hand away from the slender stick and stretched it towards the scientist, palm upward. “New Pacific dollars, yeah? None of dem rupiah garbage, not worth much. Be handing dem over slowly, okie?”

Vuk did so, keeping his eyes on the wooden object, which he guessed to be some sort of blow dart.

Kutube caught the direction of his gaze. “You no think nothing fresh now, hey? Kutube won’t make it hurt, promise.” In one quick motion the man lifted the tube to his lips and puffed hard.

Vuk leapt for the weapon, but before he could even reach the divider, he felt the barb bite into his neck. He fell to one knee in the space between the cab’s rear lounges, vision already going blurry.

“There’s… really no one named… Moto, is there?” Vuk slurred.

“Moto nearby, yeah,” Kutube said, sounding far away. “But you no see him. Big men coming. Big, very dangerous khen-mengga-abül after you. Want very badly.”

His heart beat like a trip hammer in his chest, loud and painful. The tightness inside him uncoiled. Vuk’s senses abandoned him as the effects of the dart dragged him into the darkness. Distantly he could feel his body shake as the presence within came fully awake.

You are not strong enough, the dangerous voice told him.

Then Vuk heard and felt no more.



#



Lunar Base camp, Hadley Rille. Foot of the Apennine Mountains.

He hurried across the eerily still basalt lake of Mare Imbrium, bouncing in the low lunar gravity towards the bubbled enclosure surrounding the cave’s entrance. Once inside the inner airlock and divested of his bulky suit and breathing apparatus, Vuk mentally prepared himself to make history and stepped into the dig chamber. The whole world was watching.

Tunneling equipment and several sorting machines crowded the small enclosure, along with various recorders and cameras turned inward at the recently excavated depression. His colleagues looked up in unison at his appearance, relief written across their features. The extraction could now begin.

Adhi waved at him, but kept his eyes focused on the screen. “Smile, Dr. Cravic. You’re live!” The slender African had designated himself their resident cameraman for the momentous occasion. 2.8 billion souls on planet Earth were now jacked in to the extranet, watching history unfold with bated breath.

Vuk quieted his internal melodrama. It’s just a dig, he told himself. Nothing more. Pretend they’re not there. It’s just you, the regolith beneath your feet . . . and it.

And what a magnificent it indeed! Recovered from the baked volcanic slag of a billion years, according to the preliminaries. The artifact stood proudly before the MarsTech Luna division team, dusted and shining bright for its world premiere.

All right, Mr. Demille, Vuk heard the famous Gloria Swanson line play out. I’m ready for my close up.

Next to him, Karina Lebrun cleared her throat politely. From the corner of his eye, Vuk saw Barry Henderson nod encouragement at him like a proud parent at his child’s graduation.

Removing his finger gloves, Vuk knelt before the ovoid artifact, admiring not for the first time its geometric exactitude and the intricately detailed patterns adorning the frontispiece. It was a hasty appraisal, of course, but no human hand could have possibly shaped its measure. And the object was simply too mathematically precise to have formed naturally.

The possibilities were endless. Scientists and Evangelicals alike had debated furiously for months over the significance of the initial low-spectrum scans. But all seemed to agree on the one truth: someone out there had put it here. On the moon, backdoor to Earth itself. Whether that someone was God or Mr. Spock was still a matter for debate, but no one doubted its future impact on the course of human destiny.

And his would be the first hands to touch it.

Vuk’s mouth went dry at the thought, his fingertips cold. He realized he’d been building up his entire career to this single achievement. Vukasin Cravic would be remembered in the annals of space exploration history from this moment onward!

His bare hands grasped either side of the artifact as if sucked to the surface.

Something lurched painfully in his gut.

Lebrun gasped behind him, a nearby camera literally imploding on its tripod in a shock of sparks. The lights hanging from the strung-up rigging shone steady, but their intensity seemed to change wavelengths—blue-shifting into one end of the spectrum, then the red, and finally back to white again.

A dull hum filled Vuk’s ears as his colleagues took a collective step backward. The hum intensified to a shrill scream, like the voices of a thousand souls yelling in unison to be set free.

Up to the orbital platform the hundred gigahertz shout went out, beamed back across four-hundred thousand kilometers to the Soldarin geosynch satellites in under one and a half seconds. On Earth, millions of extranet subscribers were greeted with a snowy disturbance field lasting three tenths of a second, before the network crashed in an abrupt cascade of darkness. Micronets went offline one by one as the signal bounced around the globe in zigzag fashion, frying whole server rooms along the way like so much dry wood.

A day before the astronauts’ return, reports of bizarre murders and rampant civil disobedience started to spread. Two weeks later, the mass suicides began. It didn’t take long for someone at the home office to make the connection, and in private order a quiet investigation to mitigate the repercussions of this discovery.



#



The jungle swallowed Vuk whole, stamping out the acrid smell of burning flesh and metal behind him.

He ran blindly along the faint path, until eventually dirt gave way to mud, and mud surrendered to swamp. Thick-bole sago palms formed an impenetrable wall around him, looming large like gathering giants passing judgment on his horrible deeds.

The beast nestled deep within him, sleepy and satiated.

Vuk could not remember anything after blacking out in the cab. He awoke screaming, running like a madman across the road and into the welcoming embrace of the jungle on the other side. Blood was on his hands, in his clothes and hair. His mouth had a foul aftertaste, like alkaline batteries mixed with bleach.

Farther into the swamp he pressed, losing his left boot somewhere in the muck and gasping as the cool, slimy mud squeezed between his toes.

His thoughts raced, strobing across his consciousness like a roll of film through an old-fashion projector. Grizzly images he tried to forget, but could not turn away from. The police patrol outside Austin; the insistent homeless man in a Sydney alleyway; the shady border agent northwest of Vanimo. And now: a crooked cabbie on a lonely mountain road. Blood was the artist’s primary hue for these scenes, using grim, sharp brush strokes like knife slashes across a fleshy canvas.

Vuk felt his mind begin to shut down, unable to reconcile what it was being fed, and stumbled face first into the murky still water of the swamp. His hands grasped wildly for purchase, until they brushed against something unyielding. It was slender and long—a branch or tree root! He grabbed and pulled along its length, breaking the surface and gasping for air with an explosive desire to continue living.

“You have come at last, Dr. Cravic,” a quiet voice spoke above him, eerily calm.

Vuk lay on a slick embankment at the edge of the swamp. Beyond, he could make out torchlight despite it only being mid-afternoon.

Or had he been running so long?

A thin, dark-skinned old man watched him intently from the crest of the muddy hillock, holding the other end of a large walking stick which he now tugged loose from Vuk’s hands.

“How do you know my name?” he asked the man, incredulous.

The elderly Papuan smiled and stood up. It was then that Vuk realized the man was stark naked save for a waist-skirt made of rattan strips and a little roll of leaf covering his genitals.

“You have come to see me, have you not?”

Vuk propped himself on one knee and gave the man a confused look.

“I am Moto,” the old man continued. “I believe fate has decided we should meet on this day. I have been waiting all afternoon for your arrival.”

“I-I don’t understand,” Vuk mumbled, rising shakily to his feet.

The man calling himself Moto nodded silently, then motioned to the path where the torchlight originated. “Come, Dr. Cravic. We have not much time.”

Strangely, Vuk felt himself trusting this little man despite his better judgment. He scrambled up the embankment and followed him deeper into the jungle.

In the pit of his stomach, an icy tendril flexed and fluttered restlessly.



#



Rick Lariat crossed the pavement and knelt to study the path leading into the overgrowth. Behind him, oily smoke drifted across the guardrail and away from the mountain side, blocking out sight of Jayapura below. He heard footsteps crunch on the gravel shoulder to his right.

“This Cravic fellow is a real piece of work,” Benny Sjambali announced, sounding genuinely surprised. “I hope you’re prepared, Mr. Lariat.”

Rick smiled and stood up, dusting his trousers. He turned to face the squat, balding executive who had felt the need to chaperone him all the way out from MarsTech’s Jakarta office.

“He’s leaving a trail a child could follow,” Rick said, nodding at the clearly defined boot prints pressed into the path’s soft, reddish soil. “They look fresh, and the fire certainly proves as much. He’s got perhaps a ten, maybe fifteen minute head start. He’ll be ours before nightfall.”

Sjambali shifted his eyes dubiously to the green wall of brush through which the path disappeared. The Sentani tribesmen they had hired out that morning—“Rambos,” as they’d laughingly described themselves—milled around the entrance, clearly agitated. Rick realized they were spooked by something other than the burning wreck nearby or the charred, mangled remains of the driver hanging halfway out of the cab.

“You mean we have to go in there?” Sjambali asked.

Rick nodded. “We do if you want this man, Benny. It’s what you’re paying me for, isn’t it?”

Rick didn’t regret his tone. He hadn’t come out all this way to the land time had forgotten just to hold hands with some pudgy pencil pusher.

“What’s their problem, anyway?” he asked, indicating the three tribesmen.

Each Rambo wore a variation of the same woeful ensemble: torn muscle shirt and knee-length shorts, but no footwear. The hatchets hanging from their hips were dull and well-used, though; the blades rusted and dark-colored. Probably stained with pig’s blood, Rick suspected yet didn’t quite believe.

Sjambali shot off a string of syllables in Bahasa. One of the men—the tallest—stepped back from the path and glared at the executive. He snarled something quick and unintelligible in a tongue Rick did not recognize, stabbed his left thumb twice in the direction of the brush, and jabbered some more before turning back to join his compatriots.

Rick raised an eyebrow as the rotund Indonesian man turned to face him.

“That one’s named Yako,” Sjambali said, pointing a thumb at the tallest tribesman. “He’s their clan’s ‘fierce man,’ or best fighter. Says an old Korowai wizard lives somewhere beyond the swamp in there. Says they’re not setting foot inside, especially not to go after some crazy laleo who killed Kutube. They think the two will combine forces and unleash unspeakable demons on them.”

In the distance, beyond the crackle and sizzle of melting auto parts, sirens echoed up the mountain face.

Calvary’s coming, Rick mused.

He rolled up his trouser leg and pulled out the snub-nosed S&W .45ACP from his left ankle holster. The one named Yako caught sight of the movement and said something to the others. The Rambos froze as they noticed the weapon, their chatter dropping to silence.

Sjambali’s eyes grew to the size of saucer plates. “What the hell you think you’re doing, man? No one said anything about guns! If the police—”

“Don’t be naïve, Benny,” Rick snarled. “I have all the proper paperwork to carry this beauty legally. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a deranged homicidal maniac running around in there. The same maniac your superiors want brought in. Now I don’t know what your memo read, but I was impressed to treat this man like Jack the fuckin’ Ripper come back for a second round, doctorate or not.”

Sjambali’s eyes narrowed as if appraising his charge anew, but he didn’t say another word. The sirens grew louder as they came around the last curve of the mountain road.

“Now if you want to stay behind, be my guest. You can deal with the authorities. But you, you and you,” he shouted, pointing his sidearm at each Sentani in turn, trusting them to understand his intent. “Move your asses, or else this particular laleo will make you wish you’d never left your home village.”

The “fierce man,” Yako, regarded him in silence. Rick got the impression he was getting his measure taken, which only seemed reasonable.

Finally the Melanesian grimaced in what Rick supposed was a smile, and nodded his head.

Hu jokho reye,” the tribesman said, before turning and heading straight through the wall of trees. The others followed warily behind him.

“What was that, Benny?”

Sjambali wiped his sweating forehead with the back of his arm. “He said: ‘God sees everything.’ Supposed to be a warning, I think.”

Rick grunted admiringly. “S’that so? At least we both know where we stand now.”



#



Vuk stared up the fifteen-meter notched pole leading to the wooden tree house perched precariously atop several tall posts. From the top platform the old man motioned for him to climb, laughing at the scientist’s trepidation.

“You must ascend to heaven, Dr. Cravic, if you wish to escape from demons.”

Vuk glanced around the clearing eerily lit from the torches lining its grassy circumference. Beyond their light, the darkness of the swamp pushed in close like a living, breathing entity waiting for the right moment to pounce. Vuk shivered and immediately leapt up to the first notch in the pole ladder, aping the Korowai shaman’s movements from moments ago.

When he managed to shimmy his way to the top, Moto was nowhere to be found.

“This way, Dr. Cravic,” the old man’s voice beckoned from inside the house. Vuk was impressed by the sheer size of the structure, and marveled at its simple construction which nonetheless appeared sturdy despite the dizzying height of its perch. He quickly stepped into the softly-lit interior expecting to find a gathering of the man’s clansmen inside, but instead found only the shaman. The tiny man gestured at him to take a seat on an empty pallet near the door.

A simple hearth made of rattan strips dipped and dried in clay hung suspended from the rafters over a small hole in the floor. Moto held an English tea kettle by a stick over the open flames of the hearth, chanting in a soothing whisper the whole time. Vuk sat down opposite the man.

“Is that supposed to be some kind of potion?” he asked.

The old man smiled. “It’s supposed to be bush tea. Do you think Moto is a rude host?”

“Oh. My apologies. I guess . . . well, I guess I just didn’t know what to expect.”

“You mean magic spells and hocus pocus, Dr. Cravic? I assure you, I’m not that kind of witch doctor.”

“No, no. Not at all. My colleague, Adhi—Dr. Adhi Sidabutar—spoke very highly of you. He said you might be the one who could help me. Help us, I mean.”

Moto nodded. “I remember Adhi. Very nice man, full of laughter. How is he?”

Vuk stiffened. “I’m sure not good. We’re being hunted down. All of us. The Luna IV team, I mean.” He thought back to how frightened Adhi had sounded over the phone during Vuk’s stopover in Sydney. They’d gotten to Barry just sixteen hours before. The news claimed it to be a suicide—blew his brains out from his Nairobi hotel balcony. But if you knew Barry, you’d know he’d never do such a thing. The big bear of a physicist had loved life too much.

“Ah, yes,” the shaman said, removing the kettle from the flames and using a patch of raw sago fibers to grasp the handle. “I’ve been to town, Dr. Cravic. I’ve seen the sat-vids. Your Luna team returned as heroes, but brought something back with you from the great father Moon, yes?” He poured the tea into two wooden cups which were more alike in size to small bowls. The kettle was placed on a rattan mat near the hearth. He offered a cup to the scientist.

“I don’t know what it is,” Vuk explained, taking the tea but eyeing the hot contents dubiously. “We all passed quarantine with no apparent problems. But even before we landed we knew something was wrong.”

Moto rocked on his heels, studying him intently. “Yes, I can feel the hatred of the beast in you. It is fierce and older than time. Older even than this world. I fear it is the great spirit, Ginol, come to destroy us as promised.”

Vuk raised an eyebrow. “Ginol?”

The shaman motioned for him to drink, lifting his own cup to his lips and making slurping noises. Vuk took a more delicate sip, and was surprised by the pleasing taste. He took another sip, then a gulp.

Moto drank the last of his tea and stood up. “Ginol, Dr. Cravic, is the great creator spirit of the land. My people believe that a ‘ghost-skin’—a laleo such as yourself—will one day come and usher in the destruction of this, the fifth world, by fire and thunder through his hands. I can sense the power that is hidden deep inside you. It is not from within this world, but from without. I’m afraid my meager skills may not be enough to combat this great force.”

The tea inside Vuk’s stomach started to burn. The pressure behind his ribcage stirred violently, as if reacting to the drink. The fire spread outwards, attacking the icy grip around his heart. Something terrible was warring inside him. Vuk glanced up at the shaman.

“What did you put in this?” he demanded, trying to get to his feet. But even though he put all his effort into the simple task, he found himself still seated and unable to move. His vision began to blur. “What’ve you done?”

But suddenly Moto was no longer standing before him. A strange creature with red bird feathers and a terrible, menacing scowl stared back at him. “Relax, Dr. Cravic,” the creature spoke with Moto’s voice, wavering in and out of Vuk’s field of sight. The flames of the hearth seemed to leap up around them, throwing garish, undulating shadows on the walls.

“Let the medicine flow through you.”

Vuk felt his world spinning out of control. He closed his eyes for just a moment, but the moment stretched into the deep, dropping sensation of eternity.

For the second time that day, he felt the darkness embrace him.



#



Rick Lariat came to an inevitable conclusion: he hated the swamp!

He stood on the muddy bank soaked all the way through, wondering what the commotion up ahead was all about now. Two of the Sentani tribesmen had not ceased jabbering since entering the jungle. When Cravic’s tracks disappeared into the murky waters, it had taken a second brandishing of the ole Smith & Wesson to convince them to keep moving. Even then the two Rambos seemed reluctant to press on. Only at the insistence of their leader, Yako, did they obey Rick’s command.

The fierce-man had eyed him dangerously as he shouted his native gibberish at the others and got them jumping into the knee high muck. Rick had followed close behind, keeping his revolver primed and well above the waterline in case the trio tried something funny. When he went stumbling to his knees in the brackish filth, not one of them laughed. Save for the man Yako, who smirked briefly before extending his hand. Rick had refused the help and motioned the Papuan away with a wave of his gun.

And now the tribesmen had stopped once more, arguing wildly and refusing to budge at Rick’s repeated threats.

“Come on,” he yelled, inwardly cursing the language barrier. “We’ve got the bastard’s trail!”

Yako shook his head and sliced his hand flat through the air in refusal. “No,” he said, thickly. “Bad.”

Rick cocked the gun and pointed it straight at the tribesman’s chest.

“I’m badder,” he said, and stepped forward.

All three men moved backward as one, nervously eyeing the first of the torches to appear along the new path. When they came to the clearing, one of the men turned around and started babbling excitedly. Even Rick had to pause when he saw the large house rise up on stilts out of the creeping darkness. The clinging wetness of his clothes sent shivers through his limbs.

Something was not right with this scene. The air was far too still, even chilled for an early New Guinean evening. And inside the house perched impossibly high on long tree trunks, a strange light flickered through the wood slats, preternatural in its intensity.

Yet instead of fear, a strange sense of distrust rose up within Rick. The feeling quickly fired into a low-boiled rage. Ahead of him, one of the Rambos took out his hatchet and abruptly slashed his tribesman across the back. The other man snarled and turned, a fire lit behind his eyes. He howled and rushed his attacker, hands raised as claws. The two men were quick at each other’s throats, screaming and hooting like wild animals.

The sight only made Rick angrier. He felt the madness take over him, the hunger for blood overriding all rationale. The man, Yako, shouted something at his brethren, but paused and slowly turned to face the new threat. His eyes narrowed in the torchlight when he saw Rick approaching.

Yako said a single word in a rising lilt, head cocked to one side as if confused. But slowly the fierce-man unslung his own hatchet and took a step forward.

Rick smiled and raised the snub-nosed beauty in his hand.



#



Vuk screamed in the darkness and heard it echo back to him a half dozen times. The wrenching pain inside him was beyond bearable.

Surely this was what it felt like to die.

You may live yet, insignificant creature, the voice said from all around him. The same voice Vuk had grown to fear ever since touching the artifact. It had lived within him for weeks, small at first; inconsequential. An errant thought, a forbidden desire. But the presence had increased over time until the urges could no longer be denied. It grew outward from the core being of his soul, nourished by his fears and nightmares. Incubating.

The voice laughed.

Vuk’s blood ran cold. Something tugged at his mind, a strong yanking motion through the darkness. He resisted at first, but gradually he surrendered his resolve. Perhaps it was good to give up, to die? His friends were all dead. Why should he usurp the privilege of living?

Vuk gave in to the pull, and suddenly a light appeared in the distance. A pinprick in a sea of ink, it quickly grew larger until he was engulfed in a baptismal of flame. A steady thrumming filled the void, rhythmic and continual like a giant heartbeat. The sound soothed his fears.

Now it was the voice’s turn to scream. It howled a thousand tiny deaths, a lament so mournful and tragic that it blotted out the light and drowned the beating sound at once.

But there it was again!

Was he hearing things? No, that tapping: Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. Louder and louder it grew, bringing the light back with it.

Vuk emerged into a blazing sunset, and gasped in the joining of rebirth.



#



The little old man hopped around the room, chanting and beating a stone drum. His headdress of brilliant crimson plumage was aflame in the reflected light of the hearth, bestowing upon the shaman an eldritch air. When Moto’s eyes caught onto his, the chanting became louder, the drumming more insistent.

Vuk felt another presence in the room. It loomed large over them both, otherworldly and full of malevolence. The shadows on the tree house walls stretched and rolled wildly in an amalgam of twisted shapes, becoming a single mass of darkness which grew larger and larger. The shadow reached out to him. Vuk shut his eyes as his thoughts threatened to tear apart into madness.

Through all the pain he heard an old man scream, and heard no more. The chanting abruptly died, and with it the heartbeat thrumming.

This time, the laughter was not in his mind.

Vuk’s consciousness spread. He felt himself rise up into the air, his arms stretched wide and proud, keeping him aloft. He opened his new eyes and saw the world for what it was: a maze given over to madness.

Delight welled deep within him, forcing its way up from his bowels until Vuk could keep it down no longer. He threw back his head and unleashed a piercing screech like some terrible bird-of-prey—like the mythic phoenix itself, rising from the ashes and broadcasting its freedom for all to hear.

The wooden tree house burst into flames around him. With a flex of his leathery wings, the structure disintegrated like so much kindling. The ashen husk tilted on its stilts, then tumbled to the clearing below his hovering form in a crash of splintered timbers.

In the distance the ocean spread out like a molten basaltic sea beyond the rocky promontory of Moto’s clearing, heavy and leaden beneath the setting sun. And from beyond the horizon, kindred voices called for reunion.

But a sound drew his gaze back to the swamp.

Below, Vuk could make out the bloody remains of two corpses. Another pair fought nearby, one man using the butt-end of a pistol to smash repeatedly into the face of the other. Neither man paused to stare up at the wonder appearing in the sky above them.

Vuk recognized the violence. Something deep inside him recoiled at the naked fury on display. He had seen the scene replay in countless other lands around the world. From city to town, village to neighborhood, the madness had spread. A billion tiny crucibles of rage, forging the seeds of destruction that would usher in a new age.

And on the throne atop this fiery world sat a king . . .

Vuk screamed, this time hearing his own voice in his ears. He struggled with the creature that had taken hold of his body. The winds off the ocean flowed over the mountain, spinning him around in a dangerous spiral over the treetops.

Do you wish so much to leave me? the voice that was not his asked. Do you yearn so much for your mortality?

Vuk tried to scream, to tell the beast that his soul would not be corrupted. But the ground rose up to meet him. He felt a wrenching tear deep within his being, and the fury of betrayal washed over all his senses until it consumed him whole.



#



He opened his eyes, cautious to believe he was still alive.

Had it been just a dream? A horrible, lengthy nightmare only now releasing him from its grasp? Above him the sky was a ruddy, healthy orange, like the dawn of a new day. Vuk frowned at the sound of terrible thunder on the air. Something hard and cold pressed against his back. He sat up.

And discovered a world in flames.

Stumbling to his feet, he saw that he stood mere inches from the lip of a precipitous drop. Hundreds of meters below, the sea raged against a bare cliff face. Winds whipped furiously through his sheer clothing, but it was the sight directly ahead of him that chilled his heart.

Jayapura lay engulfed in ruin.

Streaks of angry reds and yellows licked around towering plumes of dark smoke trailing up, up, up into the night sky. The entire slope on which the city lay was painted in the macabre death throes of internecine violence gone rampant. Buildings toppled whole to the ground, burying huge cross-sections of streets and alleys under mountainous rubble. The faraway, though unmistakable, report of gunfire could be heard, followed by answering volleys from various spots.

And above it all, gliding majestically over the burning waters of Yos Sudarso Bay, flew a magnificent beast bedecked in all the shifting colors of the rainbow. It dipped and banked among the gentle hills of the ruined districts, snapping at crowds of fleeing citizens with huge, fanged jaws. Its wings were leathery like a giant bat’s, but rather than skin the creature sported fluffy plumage along its flanks which glowed as if lit from an internal source.

Vuk stood rooted to the spot, his mind gone numb from the sheer impossibility of the sight.

Again, that terrible thunder. But the sound did not come from the city. He turned slowly, afraid of what he would find. The downdraft nearly washed him over the cliff as another beast swooped down to meet him. This one was larger than its kin, but had an air of familiarity for Vuk.

With a start he realized why.

“It’s you! You did this!”

His screams railed ineffectual against the monstrous beast. Born from his inner turmoil, the creature reared back in mid-air and flapped its enormous wings twice. It breathed a sound like an ancient steamer ship struggling against the tide, seeming to acknowledge Vuk’s accusation with a dip of its horrendous snout. Then it quickly swept past him and flew out to sea. In its wake, a loud screech called to its brother. The other beast answered with a shriek of its own and turned swiftly in mid-air to join it. Together they flew northwestward, spiraling in playful arcs toward their next target.

In the distance, Vuk thought he heard the answering cries of more of their brethren. To the north, the horizon was awash in an amber glow. Flashes of lightning rolled through the haze, running from west to east. All was madness.

The fifth world had come to an end.



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