It’s Fiction Friday!
Our current novel is DINOCALYPSE NOW by powerhouse author Chuck Wendig. We’ll be posting a new installment every Friday until you’ve got the whole book — but if you’re feeling impatient, use the FICTIONFRIDAY coupon code when checking out on our online store to get our fiction titles at 25% OFF.
The drums, the drums, the jungle drums. Screaming monkeys, a cacophony in the canopy above. River waters churned. Birds screeched overhead. The drums thumped and pounded faster and faster, a thunderous hoof-rumble of blood pulsing through the ape’s heart and rattling the brain inside his primate cranium—
The churning river sounds faded. The screeches of monkeys and the hammering drum-beat were suddenly cut short.
The ape blinked.
He was standing at the lectern.
A class of college-age women in gray sweaters and collared shirts stared at him from a half-moon of seats. One of the students—Maggie Gilroy—had her hand to her mouth.
It was she that spoke.
“Are you all right, Professor?”
Maggie. One of the few women comfortable speaking to him. The rest sat timid, as if he might one day pound the lectern to splinters, vault over the rail, and come at them.
“I’m… fine,” he said in crisp accented English. Each word short, but contained within the guttural growl like rocks tumbling in the deep of his throat. “What was I saying?”
“You were saying how dinosaurs could not have gone extinct and left no descendents in the world. You were noting the research of a Doctor Rudolph Ostarhyde—”
“Yes, yes. I remember now.” He adjusted his houndstooth jacket, and continued the lecture. But all the while, he felt the lectern vibrating with the heart-thudding drums.
“You’re troubled,” Edwin said.
The boy—that’s how the Professor thought of him, even though he was 19 years old, old enough to fight in wars and have a pint and sire children—tended to hover.
And right now, he was hovering. Like a skittish dragonfly over a pond’s surface.
“I’m troubled by the way you perch on my shoulder like a bird,” Khan said.
“Sorry! Sorry.” Edwin took a step to the side, quickly shuffling around to the other side of the table. All around them were shelves upon shelves of books, dusty and bound in tattered leather, some off shelves and in display beneath glass. This was Khan’s space—not an office, not really. Some derisively referred to it as his “lair.” He let that slide, though he felt the term more than a bit crass. “But something else seems to, ahh, be bothering you.”
“It isn’t. Everything is perfectly normal.” A lie.
“One of the girls, ahh, Maggie, she came to me after class and said—”
“That I stopped speaking.”
“You had another episode.”
“I was just collecting my thoughts, Master Edwin. The university and the women’s college has been good enough to let me push past the classical teachings and begin to instruct the students with a proper, more modern education. This is unfamiliar territory and so sometimes I choose to…” Choose to fugue out and become lost in the drums and the jungle sounds, sounds that appear out of nowhere and draw you in the way a honey cup draws flies. “…sometimes I choose to take time to consider my words. Your human language presents occasional difficulty.”
Another lie. Human language was all he knew. He could not communicate as an ape. He’d met gorillas before. Their chuffs and chest thumps, their grunts and snorts—it was to him just mammalian posturing, animalistic gobbledygook.
Thing was, he and Edwin shared a problem. Not that he’d ever tell the gawky tow-headed boy that, ogling at him from behind that pair of prodigious spectacles.
But Edwin was a child of privilege and shelter. He’d come from a cloistered academic family and was expected to remain in Oxford’s vaunted halls. They assigned Edwin as his assistant. The world to the boy was a place not experienced but rather read about in books.
That, too, was Professor Khan’s problem.
He was a highly intelligent ape. Not just the most intelligent ape in the world, but frankly more intelligent and better read than the majority of humans.
But all of it was theoretical. Learned, not experienced.
It was a problem Chaucer struggled with—the Canterbury Tales author reportedly warred with himself. Was it better to live a sheltered life and write of greater things, or was it wiser instead to experience things yourself?
Khan had little choice in the matter. The world didn’t trust him. They saw what he was and imagined him a beast and a brute: yes, yes, he cleaned up quite nice and was very polite and as erudite as any man, but all the same they suspected it to be a ruse.
Once in a while, heroes from the Century Club would come to him. They would consult. It was them, after all, who brought him here, who gave him a place—and in repayment, he helped plan their missions, helped offer academic support whenever called upon.
But then they always left, didn’t they? Armed with the knowledge he’d given them, they’d go back out into the world to battle whatever threat presented itself: time-traveling pirates or the spiderlings from the recently-discovered Pluto or the clanking robot-men of the Steam-Kaiser. Every time, Khan wished he were out there. Throwing fists. Roaring at the enemy.
Grunting. Chuffing. Screaming the ape language rather than the human one.
That, he felt, was what the drumbeat was trying to tell him.
And he feared what happened when he opened his heart to it.
Soon, he imagined, he might not have much choice.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Edwin said. Smiling nervously, as he was wont to do.
Again: screeching. Inside the hollow of his mind.
Professor Khan stirred, lifting his massive head from its pillow—which was, in fact, not a pillow at all but rather a book on Tibetan cryptozoology.
But the dream—and with it, the sound of screeching—did not fade.
Distant, yes. But it did not soften.
Stranger still: it did not seem to be inside his head this time.
He cleared his throat, stood up at his desk, brushed the scone crumbs from his tartan kilt (it was much easier wearing a kilt than trying to shove his gorilla body into a pair of human trousers), and took off his reading glasses.
Then: footsteps. Plodding, clumsy footsteps racing down steps to here, his “lair”—even before the door flung open and he came tumbling in like an open closet of loose broomsticks, Khan already knew the sound belonged to Edwin.
Edwin. Wearing a long gray nightshirt and sleeping cap. Carrying a small oil lamp; Khan wished the university allowed him to experiment with the “free energy” discovered by Nikola Tesla only just last year. Carrying a lamp with a proper bulb that lit up without any connection to the power source was, to some, like magic: but to Khan, it was proper science.
“Professor,” Edwin said, gulping great heaves of breath. “Professor!”
“Spit it out, lad. It’s late.”
“You must come… you must see.”
The boy’s face wore a mask of horror.
Fine. He seemed shaken—probably found a rat under his bed or a bat above it. Khan urged the boy to lead the way, and the massive gorilla trundled after.
It was a surprise then when Edwin took to the stairs but at the top did not head right toward the dormitory. Instead, he turned left.
To the exit. To the courtyard.
Outside, the springtime air of Oxford had teeth, but it didn’t bother the Professor, what with his body being covered in a heavy coat of ape-fur.
Above: a screech.
Khan tilted his head skyward, saw a shadow pass over the moon. A shadow shaped like a bird but much, much larger. Narrow head with backward skull crest. Wings more like that of a bat stretched wide.
“Oh my,” Khan said, breathless.
It was a pterosaur. But much bigger than any of the fossils that had since been discovered. Bigger than pterodactylus, to be sure.
And it was not alone. As one shadow passed, so did another, and another.
Then a dirigible drifted into view, hazy running lamps diffuse in the night.
As Khan’s eyes adjusted, he saw the shadows: dozens of them, some were pterosaurs flying, others great dirigibles drifting.
An invasion force.
Heading toward London.
“Inside boy,” Khan chuffed, grabbing the boy’s bony matchstick arm in his epic primate’s grip. “We must discover the truth of this thing. And quickly.”
In his mind, he heard the drums begin anew.
New York City
Mack tuned into the radio on his wrist, dialed to Grey Ghost’s frequency—
And heard only static whispering back: the pops and crackles of dead air.
They thought to follow him, to descend into the sewers to track his radio, but then more of those assassins turned onto the street, all dark suits and black glasses and wide razor mouths. A half-dozen here, another half-dozen marching around the other corner.
The fake-faced killers hadn’t yet spied the Centurions.
Sally pulled them into the lobby of the Empire State Building. Above their heads, the art deco gold leaf relief of the stars and planets in a long line. Beneath them, the cold terrazzo floor.
“They’re coming,” she said.
“They got Ghost?” Jet asked.
“They got Ghost,” Mack said. “What in the name of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is going on? Anybody else feel like those things got in their head?”
“They told me—” Jet began but then decided not to share the whole story. “They told me to go toward the light. I heard it but I didn’t hear it.”
Sally chimed in: “Like they were inside your head.”
Jet nodded. He felt his palms go slick.
“If Flyboy here hadn’t bonked their heads like a pair of island coconuts, those freaks would’ve had me for sure,” Mack said. “Ghost didn’t have a shot.”
“We have to get him back,” Jet said.
“Not yet, kid. We gotta regroup. Get our bearings. See what we’re up against. If they can get in our heads easy as apple pie, then we don’t stand a chance. If this attack really was on us and not on Roosevelt, then it’s time to be extra-cautious.”
Jet felt his face growing red. “Cautious? You? Selfish. That’s what you mean.”
“Hey now! Where’s this coming from, Flyboy?”
“You’re protecting your own hind end, not ours.”
Mack grabbed Jet by his suit. “You’re damn right I am. Somebody has to watch out for A-Number-One. You picking up what I’m laying down?”
“Oh, I’m picking it up,” Jet seethed.
A loud whistle cut through the lobby, echoing. Sally stood there, fingers between her lips. “Everybody listening? Good. Mack’s right, though maybe for the wrong reasons.”
“Hey—” Mack protested, but Sally cut him off with a look.
“We have no defense here. Our only hope is to get to the plane and find our way to another chapter house. Philadelphia, maybe. Regroup. Learn about—”
Outside came screams. Screams of people, yes. But something else, too.
The three of them crept toward the door. Peered out the glass.
Just as a massive winged dinosaur crashed down on a black Buick 41. Denting the car’s hood like it was made of tinfoil.
“That’s a dinosaur,” Mack said.
“It’s not the only one,” Sally said, pointing up. They tilted their heads and glimpsed what little vantage they could—across the sky drifted other winged lizards, darting between massive black dirigibles, blimps lined with strange tribal markings.
“This situation is all wet,” Jet said.
“Not only do we have a bunch of lizard-faced mooks with the ability to get in our heads standing in our way,” Mack said, “but now we got real dinosaurs in our way?”
“And dirigibles of unknown origin,” Jet added.
“Follow me,” Sally said, grabbing the both of them by the crook of their arms and pulling them toward the elevator. She stabbed a button with her wrench.
The elevator dinged.
“My jetpack is long gone,” Jet said, thumbing toward the street. “It’s still out there. We can’t go up. We go up, there’s nowhere else to go.”
“Who said we’re going up?” Sally asked.
She pushed them both inside.
Once in after them, she stabbed the down button.
Sally explained as she ushered them through the darkened Empire State Building subbasement and toward a locked door marked with a plaque: NO ENTRY.
The Federal government, in all its wisdom and autocracy, decided that it needed a rat’s warren of secret tunnels laced throughout the city’s underground. Hidden evacuation tunnels for government officials, clandestine offices, fake “steam” tunnels and the like.
Using these tunnels, she said, would take them across Manhattan and dump them out at the Hudson—where Lucy sat docked.
The tunnels were twice as dark as night. The air sat still and cold.
“Got it,” Sally said, voice echoing. She fumbled around at the back of her belt, and hanging there she pulled a micro-torch she invented for on-the-go jobs.
Or, of course, to light pitch-black tunnels.
Blue flame erupted in a crackling cone, and as a result, they once again could see.
Mack checked his compass. “We just need to head east.”
Ahead of them, the tunnel was only big enough for one of them—each elbow rubbing along a cement wall. But as they crept along, the space widened and the floor dropped while the ceiling remained the same. It went from being a bog-standard utility tunnel to looking instead like a cathedral that had been buried beneath the earth—the sudden vault of the ceiling and the deco pillars in the wall only helped to complete the illusion.
“How’d you know about these tunnels?” Jet asked.
“Remember the giant rats?” About five years ago, Sally was called to investigate a warren of super-sized rodents beneath the city. She didn’t expect they’d also be super-intelligent. But, so it went—the rats, harmless and actually quite friendly, now kept to a small island off the coast of Norway. “I had a sandhog show me the way down.”
Mack laughed. “Sandhog.”
“That’s what they’re called.”
“No, no, I know. It’s just—c’mon, doll, that’s funny. Sandhog.”
“I’m not your doll.”
He stiffened. “I know you’re not.”
“The hogs built this city,” Sally asserts through clenched teeth. “Sewers? Subway tunnels? Ever hear of something called the Brooklyn Bridge, smart guy?”
Mack chuffed. “All right, okay, everybody settle down—”
A wretched screech echoed through the tunnels. Stopping the three of them in their tracks. Mack whispered: “Don’t suppose that’s one of your rat pals?”
Sally didn’t answer. She didn’t have to.
Suddenly, the ground began to shake. Streamers of dust fell from the ceiling as the ground rumbled.
Another screech. Closer this time.
And the floor shook harder.
“Do we need to run?” Mack asked.
“We need to run,” Sally confirmed.
Jet was about to throw his own two cents into the cup—but behind them, a massive beast with pale, scaled flesh crashed through the wall. In the uncertain light of Sally’s torch they saw milky eyes, a head shaped like an iron forge, a lashing tail thick as an elephant’s leg.
Nobody needed to say it, this time:
They ran, the beast in swift pursuit.