(A/N: This story is actually the result of the Prompt Challenge I did a few weeks back! I wrote “The First Marker” around the prompt “Planet/Delight” given by DURI ROLVSSON. Thank you, Duri! It ended up becoming Story #2 in the Dennis & Bruce Adventures, a series of short stories I am working on surrounding my characters Dennis and Bruce (I need a better series title). This story doesn’t include Bruce much, but he’ll be back. You can read Story #1 over HERE.)
“You really need to learn how to relax, Dennis,” Patricia said, standing knee-deep in a swamp full of killer plantlife.
I scowled at her, staying on the dry bank. Partly because I didn’t want to be covered in muck until absolutely necessary, but mostly so I could see and react to the threats that were sure to pounce at any given moment. Why I had let the crazy woman wrangle me into this little day trip, I couldn’t fathom. I felt like a thousand alien monsters were just waiting to leap out of the trees.
Patricia waded further into the bog, her waist firmly tied to a lumpy orange tree trunk on the bank in case she hit quicksand. She leaned down and gently cradled the petals of a phosphorescent flower, its yellow blossoms rippling like seaweed. “Look at this! We thought Suns’ Sonata only grew in the more temperate regions of this continent, but it seems to be thriving in the heat and humidity of these jungles! This will give us an excellent fuel source for the bio-lamps Georgette created if we can find a larger patch.” She snapped several pictures on her datapad, mumbling notes to herself.
She startled out of her reverie when I fired a shot over her head, taking out an enormous toothy dragonfly/frog thing that had been buzzing towards her. “You’re way too careless, Doc,” I said for the tenth time that morning.
Patricia rolled her eyes as she bagged the plant specimen. “Thank you for the warning, Captain Paranoia. By the way, that species is harmless to humans.”
I stiffened. “How are you so sure? This is an alien world; everything here considers us the outsiders, and could probably kill us if we step wrong. I’ve seen it try enough times. You’ve seen it try enough times. Remember the thunder lizards?” I gestured at the flower. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the glowy stuff on that thing makes you break out in a rash. Isn’t that what happened to Kennedy last week?”
Patricia rolled her eyes. “Kennedy mistook a Moonglow for a harmless Tender Heart and tried to make tea out of it. If he’d simply checked the datapad, he wouldn’t have eaten something that would make him blow up like a balloon.”
“You guys really have fun naming these things, don’t you?”
“One of the many perks of being interplanetary explorers far from the strictures of Earth’s stuffy academia,” Patricia replied with a sly grin. She rested one hand on her hip and turned to me, as at ease as if she weren’t knee-deep in swamp muck. “Look, I understand where you’re coming from. But we knew at least a little of what we were getting into when we came here, and it’s really not much more dangerous than an Earth rainforest. Add to that the surprise blessing of our obtaining your and Bruce’s help developing defensive measures against the larger wildlife, and I think we’ll be alright.” I felt momentarily disgruntled at her praise of Bruce, but didn’t let it show; it would be the height of stupid pride to deny the big alien’s usefulness. Patricia flashed me a grin that made my insides churn. “So if you could tone down the doom-and-gloom a bit, I daresay you might actually enjoy yourself. Just a little.”
Curse her sparkling eyes. I snorted and looked down to check my gun. “If you didn’t want my particular brand of positivity, you shouldn’t have kidnapped me.”
Patricia laughed out loud. “You may have a point there! But, there are probably worse punishments.” Before I could properly dissect that statement, she turned back to her work and nodded further into the swamp, holding up her beeping datapad. “Time to get dirty, soldier boy. If my locator is correct, the landmark we’re looking for is at least a hundred yards deeper in this mess.” Without waiting for my reply, she walked further into the bog, her safety cord extending out behind her. I muffled a groan and followed, nearly slipping on the steep bank and landing on my butt. Stupid alien swamps. Stupid swamps in general.
Everything became gloomier the further we went into the bog, the oppressive heat and humidity Patricia had been so excited about pressing in on us like a smothering blanket. A smell like sauerkraut and pig manure shoved its fingers up my nose, adding to the joy of the experience. I distracted myself by focusing on my eyes and ears and waiting tensely for something to attack.
Supposedly, this was a quick trip to verify that Patricia’s mysterious “landmark” existed before bringing in the rest of the team; that was why she’d only brought me, so not everyone’s time would be wasted if this didn’t pan out. As we wriggled through a deep patch surrounded by twisted black-and-orange trunks, I could see why she’d asked me and not Bruce to accompany her; the big four-legged alien might be stronger physically, but he would have had trouble navigating the tightly-packed trees. Not to mention what the mud would do to his fur. That thought made me smirk, but a heavy splash nearby jerked me back into high alert. Patricia glanced back at me, shook her head, and continued walking into the bowels of potential alien death.
Patricia was naïve; she’d never been on an alien world before this one, didn’t fully comprehend just how dangerous it could be. To be fair, I hadn’t either. There lay the source of my naiveté, in thinking I could start a new life on the independent colony. What I found when I stepped off the rusty transport was a war-torn orb full of monsters. Giant man-eating plants worthy of Earth’s 1960’s monster flicks competed with huge carnivores that didn’t mind mixing up their diet with a few non-native delicacies.
Sometimes I wondered if we shouldn’t just let Bruce’s people have it and go home.
“Ooooh, Dennis, look at this!” Patricia called, pointing at a skittering squirrel-lizard-like creature on a nearby tree. Its jeweled hide glimmered red and gold as it stared at us with moonstone eyes. I nodded tersely but kept an eye on it until it disappeared into the foliage. Probably poisonous as a dart frog.
I’d tried to make it work, I really had. The wildlife wasn’t quite as crazy around the settlement as it was in this jungle, but there were plenty of other problems to make up the deficit. Three years of blood and violence were more than enough; if I hadn’t been dragged into this situation with Patricia’s unit, I’d have been on the next transport off-planet. The bitter thought only served to further sour my mood as I slogged through nasty mud and decaying foliage after a woman for whom life-threatening situations were a mild inconvenience against the pursuit of knowledge.
“We have to be getting close,” Patricia murmured, holding her datapad higher. A softly blipping dot on the map marked where we were trying to go. She passed momentarily out of my sight behind a grove of short trees, and I slogged faster to catch up, my neck hairs prickling.
When I rounded the trunks, she was nowhere in sight.
“Patricia?” I called her name softly, dropping into a defensive crouch. It wasn’t that dark here, I knew I should be able to see her, but the way stood blocked by a heaping mound of those blasted yellow glow-flowers. These were much larger than the one she had just bagged – that could have drawn her to them. But the thick stems and fat leaves grew too tightly for anyone to enter easily, and they stretched to either side, firmly blocking the way. It might have been beautiful, if I wasn’t busy panicking.
What if something was in there? What if she had approached the growth out of excitement, heedless of the danger, and… My heart pounded a thunderous beat in my ears. “God, don’t let anything be eating her right now…” It had been a long time since I’d purposefully asked God for anything. I found myself doing it on this trip with distressing frequency.
I needed to search. But when I tried to move again, the oppressive cloud of alien sights, sounds, and smells pressed in, locking me in place. I could feel the eyes of monsters on me, alien beasts ready to carve my hide from my bones, or liquidate my insides, or slowly digest me alive… or shoot me dead with their energy weapons. It was almost enough to make the nightmares come to life before my eyes – the blood, the screams, the terror. Part of me begged to run screaming, to not stop running until I was free of this nightmare place and safely back on Earth soil—
But the image of myself in danger changed to one of Patricia, and I flattened the panicked thoughts with a mental fist. Nobody else is dying on my watch!
More hesitantly, with little hope, I muttered, “Well, if you’re out there, I could use some strength.” The sound of my own voice seemed to break the fog, and I could breathe again. I steeled myself, and stepped forward towards the plants. I would find her, whatever it took—
My foot didn’t land on wet mud, but dry stone, and the world changed.
It was as if a bubble popped. One moment, I stood surrounded by swamp and glowing flowers. The next, I was stumbling over the threshold of a massive door, some of the flowers spilling in with me. The misty light of outdoors was replaced by cool darkness, the fresh stink with the dry mustiness of ancient solitude. Patricia stood a few feet in front of me, dripping muck from her waders onto a smooth, pale floor of intricately-arranged stone blocks. I caught my balance and reached for her. “Patricia, are you al—?”
“Dennis.” Her voice was a whisper, but it echoed in the massive space. She stared up and ahead at a distant point of flickering light, her eyes round with wonder. “Dennis, look.”
I looked. My eyes were still adjusting to the change in light, so it took me a moment to understand what I was seeing. Then the flickering point near the high ceiling flared brightly, and my jaw joined Patricia’s eyes.
It was a dragon.
My heart tripped and my gun hand jerked, convinced for the briefest of moments that the three-story-tall beast rearing up on its haunches was alive. But the way the light glinted on its smooth hide made my practical mind realize that this was a statue, made of flawlessly smooth metal. The beast itself couldn’t be an actual dragon, because this was an alien world, and the very atmosphere in this room declared it and the towering figure of white and gold and cerulean to be centuries old. Yet it bore a striking resemblance to the creatures from my childhood stories: a long, serpentine body. Two sets of powerful legs tipped with blade-like claws. A great crest burst from its skull and cheekbones, sloping backwards over its neck. Two pairs of wings flared from the shoulders and hips, small and large like a butterfly, and the second set’s wing membrane extended over its haunches, thinning halfway down the tail only to flare out again in a beautiful wave. This was a creature meant to fly, and fly with stunning power and grace. Both pairs of eyes, one set above the other, were shining, lifeless black orbs that nevertheless seemed to stare down at us with calm intelligence. Shining points of light flared at its joints, and along its torso and legs were gleaming attachments like armor, as if the creature had been a massive alien warhorse. I marveled that an object of such obviously advanced technology could look so ancient and regal.
As I absorbed what I was seeing, more of the room came into focus. The dragon (for lack of a more technical term) crouched on a raised platform, a rectangular pedestal made of translucent crystalline material resting at its feet. The walls of the round room were covered in chunks of crystal, maybe even diamond, reflecting the lights from the statue until the whole room glowed white. Soft, intricate patterns glimmered briefly in and out along the walls in pinks and blues and yellows. For just a moment, I forgot about the gun in my hand and simply soaked in the sight.
It was beautiful. Absolutely, stunningly beautiful.
Patricia recovered first. “We found it,” she whispered, then clapped her hands together like a little girl. “We actually found it! The first marker!” She jogged to the platform and started up, struggling a bit to get over the high lip. When she reached the crystalline pedestal at the dragon’s feet, its insides glowing opaquely, it turned out to be higher than her head. She stood with arms akimbo and called back to me. “Dennis, get up here, I need a lift!”
I obeyed, still a little stunned. Maybe it was more of a shock because of the stark contrast to my last few years (and particularly these recent months) surrounded by untamed wilderness, shoddy buildings, dirt and grime and hunger and war wounds. But I had a feeling that even if I had walked in here fresh off a 1st Class World Conveyor, I still would have been humbled by the clean beauty of this strange room. Hupping myself up onto the platform, I walked over and knelt down, giving Patricia a knee. She stepped up onto it immediately and looked at the top of the pedestal.
“Just as I thought,” she murmured, more to herself than me. “This must be the interface.”
“So,” I asked conversationally as she poked around. “When were you going to let me in on the fact that your mystery alien city was populated by giant space dragons?!”
Patricia half-smiled, flapping a hand dismissively. “They were certainly tall, and we don’t know for sure what they looked like, but I believe these ‘dragons” were a creature they either worshiped or worked with. They’re portrayed quite frequently in the few relics we’ve managed to uncover.” Her voice took on a breathless quality as she paused to gaze up at the towering edifice. “But for this marker to be so well preserved…! We didn’t dare hope for something this intact. It really makes me wonder why they didn’t shield all of their civilization like this.” She sighed regretfully. “What a loss.”
I shrugged. We were well outside my wheelhouse at this point. A smart remark crossed my mind regarding the possibility that the aliens had simply up and moved off this crazy planet, but I wisely bit it back.
After a moment’s hesitation, Patricia placed her hands flat on the pedestal, her datapad under one. The pedestal instantly glowed in response. It occurred to me suddenly that this might be dangerous, and I opened my mouth to warn her, but that was when the dragon moved.
Patricia fell off my knee with a scream that might have had a masculine echo, and the two of us fell in a tangle on the floor, staring up and up and up in amazement and terror as the great dragon head twisted with the slightest of metallic scrapes. What had seemed a flawless statue now revealed itself to be a flawless machine, as the creature’s head and shoulders tilted on joints that flickered with points of light. I forgot everything else – gun, Earth, Patricia – as the massive creature loomed overhead, its raised front claws descending until they came to rest on either side of us. The massive wings flared in and out as if stretching as it lowered its head and looked at us. Four black eyes, as large as soccer balls, burned with an inner blue glow that seemed almost alive.
When it opened its mouth, a wordless rumble issued from its throat. I could feel the tremble of it down to the marrow of my bones, and a peculiar sensation came over me, as if something big and soft and forceful were being slowly driven through my skull and into my brain. Patricia and I, clutching at each other, had a second to stare at one another before whatever it was reached its goal, and my head was filled with the dragon’s message.
There were no words that I could hear; it was all impressions, sensations, emotions, images. And yet I understood the core of what the machine – it was just a machine, I now knew, but one as old as centuries and powerful as a starship – was saying. A sense of deep despair touched my mind, but this was washed away by feelings of determination, communion, and hope. Come here. There is sanctuary from the destruction.
Locations I had never seen flashed by with the clarity of being there myself, a map drawn in my head with color photographs and sounds and smells. The path to the next marker. The next step in the journey to a city of refuge, long since lost to time.
It was done within seconds, but the two of us continued to lay there, floored (literally and figuratively) by the experience. The thought flicked through my head that I would normally be mad about being brainjacked by an alien calculator, but I was too overwhelmed to entertain it. After studying us for a moment longer, the giant dragon robot slowly rose back up into its standing position, its wings flaring back to their original positions, its head finding the exact tilt it had left. With the faintest of sighs, the machine went still, and the light faded from its eyes to wait for the next minds to come and hear its centuries-old message.
I stayed on my back, staring at it, before finally turning my head to look at Patricia. “I suppose we can go back and tell your team we just discovered the universe’s most excessively complicated GPS system.”
Patricia burst out laughing, harder than was probably warranted, but I couldn’t fault her for it after the deluge of foreign sensations we’d just experienced. When she kept laughing so hard that she couldn’t stand up, I tried to get up myself, only to slip and land back on the floor. Her infectious laughter and my own crumbling defenses seemed to be working against me, because before long we were both laughing, her high and my low ringing musically off of the crystal walls of the ancient alien bastion.
It felt good. Better than I’d felt in a long time.
“Well,” Patricia said finally, getting a hold of herself enough to roll over and grin my way. “I guess we know where to go next!” Together we managed to climb back to our feet and walk towards the door, Patricia babbling all the way about the billions of tests and mapping and theories she and her fellow eggheads would have fun with over the next week. I realized with mixed emotions that we were probably going to be in this one spot for a while. In the middle of a swamp, a thousand miles from any sign of human civilization.
But, as I glanced back at the carefully cloaked building covered in fluorescent alien flowers, and over at Patricia’s face glowing with sheer delight, I felt the last of my bad mood slip away.
Maybe there were interesting things to be seen on this planet yet.
More of Bruce, Dennis, and Patricia to come…
(If you see any typos, please let me know! You can read all of my posted short stories by clicking “Writing Shorts” in the top Menu. Thanks for reading! – Jenn H.)