Fiction Friday: Dinocalypse Forever – Chapter 18

Dinocalypse Forever

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Aeron felt the familiar weight of responsibility settle onto his shoulders as the group drew ever closer to the domed city of Atlantis. At least the progress was slow, giving him plenty of time to readjust his thinking. To remind himself that the elation of battle had been but a treat and was not his destiny. To remind himself what was really important—the safety of his people.

Gorilla Khan’s men had sorely used his kin at the fungal fields. Kaithon, who belonged by the hearth instructing the young ones as befitted his advanced age, gritted his teeth and stumped on without complaint despite what was certainly a broken ankle. Swollen and black, it hurt Aeron’s heart to look at it.

And that was a problem: the sorrow and the anger that grew from its fertile soil. From a young age, he’d been taught to greet violence with firm logic. To bring his mind to bear rather than his heart in the presence of evil. To choose based on what was right and not what was wanted.

What Aeron wanted to do was wade in, fists flying. To bring the fight to Gorilla Khan. To cease the interminable waiting and do something. He loved and revered Zebulon and Marelon. Of course he did. Their family had ruled Atlantis since before time itself. They’d ruled from the first memories of the ancestors, speaking from deep, dark history. Aeron didn’t dispute that, didn’t want to wrest the reins of power from their hands. But how could they sit back, knowing that Gorilla Khan was even now trying to influence them? Sitting safe behind the walls was cowardice. And with proof that the dome no longer fully protected them, it was stupid. Even now, the apes might be sowing more of the populace with their fungal jewelry. Looking for a way inside the dome.

But Aeron son of Aethon could not allow this to happen. He was an outside-caste, alone in the world. He’d left his home and his family back in the great libraries of Atlantis. At this moment, they were probably taking their afternoon walk around the perimeter of the building, stretching the legs and stimulating the circulation in preparation for another long stretch of quiet research. Father was likely still working on poetic scansion. His sister Aesha had a more martial bent and was focused on improving the design of the static whips carried by the city guard. As for his mother…

He’d been unable to keep from looking for her among the slaves, even though he knew her fate with a sickening certainty. Mother was one of the first ones taken, off on a day excursion to explore some cuneiform writings found in a chamber deep in the mines. Her expertise was languages, and he’d tried so hard to follow in her footsteps despite not having the knack for it. When the party failed to return, they’d mounted rescue parties at once, fearing a cave-in at the mine. But when the rescue party disappeared too, they’d wondered.

It became clear all too quickly.

And Aeron felt their empathic connection snap when his mother passed on to live with the ancestors for the rest of eternity. He’d left the libraries that day, feeling something burning within him. He couldn’t sit by and think about the solution without seeing it through. He had to do. He had to act.

Otherwise, the city of Atlantis would fall. He knew it in his bones.

But that didn’t mean he could prove it. And so he’d stood guard. Passive. Waiting and hating himself for it, until the humans came.

They were so strange. Hurried, driven by an immediate need so different from the long view of the Atlanteans. The woman, Amelia, hot-tempered and ready for action. The man, Benjamin, such an impeccable balance of thought and action. Jet, somehow young despite the lines crinkling the corners of his eyes, who carried hope like a shield. Aeron felt like he could learn something from them, so he tagged along on their mission despite knowing that it would probably cost him his hard-won position in the guard. As paranoid as Marelon and Zebulon were these days, they probably wouldn’t take his desertion lightly.

Even if it wasn’t actually desertion.

But as he reached out to support Kaithon’s stumbling steps with a firm grip on the old man’s shoulder, he reflected that perhaps they might see him as a hero? He’d returned with twenty-two captured Atlanteans, as many sacks of glowing green fungal matter as they could collectively carry, and a traitor to Gorilla Khan’s cause.

Chirrang. Aeron eyed the massive ape with trepidation. He had some kind of axe to grind, a need for vengeance that Aeron—who carried a similar weight—could easily spot. It was worrisome. Aeron didn’t trust the ape any further than he could throw him, although maybe that was farther than he thought.

“How much longer until we get there?” asked a puffing figure to his right. “That dome is some kind of optical illusion. I keep thinking we’re almost there, and then we’re not.”

Aeron looked down at the slight figure of Jet Black. They’d pulled him from the river, waterlogged and nearly dead, only hours ago. But he’d joined the fight with a gritty determination that impressed the Atlantean. Boyish as he might look, this human had the heart of a warrior, and that was enough for Aeron.

He smiled to himself. English was getting easier the more he used it. Actually, he was beginning to rather enjoy it. Beginning to think that he was more his mother’s son than he’d realized. But that train of thought hurt too much to pursue.

“Annoying…yes?” he said. “It used to be…taking longer? The city was…up.” He gestured. “Up in the dome.”

“It used to hover?” Jet’s brows went up, and a broad grin split his face. “Neat-o!”

Aeron nodded, unable to resist the urge to return that grin. “Yes. But then…we located viridium mines. The city came down. The dome came down to the mines. We made many…things. With the viridium. But the city would not…”

Jet waited as the tall Atlantean fumbled for words.

“Would not go up,” said Aeron, shamefaced.

Jet stared at him blankly for a moment, and then understanding dawned over his face. “The dome got stuck,” he said.

“Yes.”

Jet snickered. “Well, that’s embarrassing.”

“Very embarrassing. Our people cannot make the dome go up. Then Gorilla Khan came…”

Aeron trailed off, shaking his head sadly.

“I understand,” said Jet. “And I know what it is to be grounded when all you want to do is fly. Maybe there’s something we can do to help.”

“You helped already,” said Aeron gravely.

Jet threw back his head and laughed. “My friend, we’re just getting started. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

* * *

Aeron was unsurprised to see his fellow guardsmen still standing sentry at the edge of the flickering force field. They barely seemed to have moved—stillness being a hallmark of the Atlantean people. They could connect on a deep spiritual level without moving a single muscle, so what need did they have to fidget or pace? It was peaceful in comparison to traveling with these humans, who were always moving about and making a ruckus.

But Aeron found himself liking the ruckus. It gave him a headache, but he felt alive in a way that he never had before.

It was much different than working with the city guard, that was for sure. The guardsmen were a polite bunch, and certainly dedicated to their tasks, but it was a distant camaraderie at best. He knew very little about them beyond the facts. Not much beyond what was necessary. And so they greeted his return with nods of acknowledgement and nothing more.

That is, until they saw the ape supporting the arm of one of the former slaves.

The guardsmen leapt through the flickering light of the dome with an electric crackle, bringing static whips and shock sticks to the ready. The squad leader shouted commands in Atlantean, and the group moved as one unit, united by their common purpose. Aeron heard the orders too—Bring the ape down! Protect our kinsmen! Beliron and Gaetor, flank left. Aeron and Fonroy to the right. All others to the middle!

But he did not obey, despite a deeply ingrained urge to do so.

Chirrang removed his hand from the Atlantean woman’s arm, and she stumbled, out of balance and weak from hunger and exhaustion. The ape ignored her, his eyes scanning for threats. Teeth bared. Arms raised and ready for the attack that must come.

“Wait!” shouted Benjamin Hu, holding up his hands in an attempt at pacifism. “He helped us free the slaves! Chirrang is here to help us!”

But Amelia Stone wasted no breath. Instead she stepped next to Chirrang, falling into an easy defensive stance, hand on the pistol at her hip. She looked ready—no, eager—to fight.

As for Jet Black, he just looked sad. Shot a pleading glance at Aeron. Gestured for him to speak.

Aeron sighed. Cleared his throat. His fellow guardsmen looked at him like he’d just shot a laser pistol.

“Stand down,” he said in formal, quiet tones, trying not to put them further on edge. “He is with me, and under my protection until such time as he engages in an aggressive act.”

“Does he know that?” asked one of the other guardsmen.

“I will make certain. Please translate for Captain Chirrang, Benjamin. No harm will be done to you until such time as you attempt to harm any of my kinsmen. If that happens, no mercy will be shown to you.”

Benjamin repeated, word for word, what the Atlantean had said.

Chirrang considered this, throat bladder deflating. Nodded.

“That is fair,” he said. “I would expect no other welcome given our people’s pasts. Perhaps you are not as weak as we have been led to believe.”

Aeron gave a slight smile. “Not all of us.” Then he turned to the captain of the guard. “Let us pass. Escort our group to Marelon and Zebulon, but if you please, first take these poor people to the healers for tending. They have been sorely used.”

The captain’s eyes narrowed as he took in the appearance of their ragtag group, and then he nodded. Communicated his instructions. Took the refugees through the force field and helped them making their limping, staggering, exhausted way through the streets and, finally, to rest and comfort.

“They’re leaving us out here!” exclaimed Jet, hurt on his face. “They can’t just abandon us like that.”

“They aren’t,” said Aeron—with Benjamin’s help—patting him on the shoulder. “But they won’t allow us to pass unescorted through the streets, especially with Captain Chirrang in our party. And the needs of my kinsmen are much too urgent to wait. Hold tight, and they’ll be back soon.”

“Whew.” Jet grinned. “I’m looking forward to something to eat.” Then he surreptitiously sniffed his underarm. “And maybe a bath. You do have baths, don’t you?”

Aeron snickered. “Yes. We will get you a bath.”

“My hero,” said the boyish adventurer.

* * *

And baths did come, along with food and clean clothing and rather more comfort and care than the adventurers were shown the first time they arrived in Atlantis. Before long, they were all comfortably ensconced in a lush sitting room full of floor pillows and delicate tables heaped with all manner of delicacies. Soon Zebulon and Marelon appeared at the doorway, bowing deep.

“Thank you, revered friends, for saving our countrymen,” said Zebulon, his face grave. “We owe you a great debt, and we are proud to call you friend.”

“Please excuse our earlier caution,” added Marelon. “We are under siege as you know, and reluctant to trust strangers.”

“We understand,” replied Benjamin. “But we hope our actions have proven our good intent so we may work together from this moment forward?”

The twins exchanged a moment of wordless communication, and despite his every effort, Aeron couldn’t catch a hint of their feelings. The leaders of Atlantis had psychic shields the likes of which he’d never seen before. Perhaps that was why they’d been so trusting of the strange necklace delivered by Khan’s lackeys: they never once considered that they might be vulnerable to mind control.

“Yes,” said Zebulon. “We would be happy to share our knowledge with you in the hopes that we might defeat Gorilla Khan or at the least send him back to your time where he belongs.”

Benjamin rubbed his chin. Scritch scritch scritch.

“That’s part of the problem,” he said. And he proceeded to tell what sounded to Aeron like a fantastical tale, full of time travel portals, psychosaurs, and heroes scattered to the corners of time. And when you live in a domed city that used to float, calling something fantastical says a lot.

“So you see,” said Benjamin, “we are happy to send Gorilla Khan back to our home time, and in fact that is his plan. But we are also eager to protect our home, as you are. I think our best hope of success is to weaken his dinosaur troops as much as possible so that we are able to defeat them on the other side, protecting both our peoples.”

Marelon grinned, exposing pointed, vampiric bicuspids. “I would be pleased to take the fight to them,” she said. “But how? And when?”

Benjamin once again opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a word, a gravelly voice intervened, surprising them all.

“I might have some suggestions there,” said Captain Chirrang from his forgotten place in the corner.

The Siamang pushed himself up to stand, stretched massively, and then began to pace with the assurance of a leader used to commanding a room. His wizened, wrinkled face took on an air of scholarly intelligence, eyes keen as he scanned each of them in turn.

“I am not surprised,” he said, “to find that you know so much of our plans. To hear that they are doomed to fail through the shortcomings of my leader is not a surprise to me. It was his neglect that drove me to you in the first place. I think you stand a fair chance of changing the flow of time. But there are a few things you do not know.”

The Centurions and Atlanteans exchanged worried glances. Things already seemed bad enough. Were they about to get even worse?

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” said Jet. “What don’t we know?”

The ape favored the young man with a flash of teeth before knuckling back down the length of the room. “It is not much. Merely that I have had my concerns about the Great Khan for some time. He has been meeting often with an adventurer from your time, a man named Gerald Spears.”

Benjamin’s mouth tightened almost imperceptibly, but the keen eyes of the ape missed nothing.

“I see you know of him,” said Chirrang.

“We’ve crossed paths from time to time,” replied Benjamin. “Never left on good terms either.”

“Ah.” Chirrang nodded. “I don’t like how he smells. Something isn’t right. And Mighty Khan seems agitated each time he visits.”

“I imagine so,” murmured Jet, exchanging a glance with Benjamin. “The guy gives me the heebie jeebies from halfway across the planet. I wonder if he knows who Spears really is?”

“Valuable information,” agreed Benjamin. “What else is there?”

“I can give you a map of our operations. The fungal harvest is a vital part of the operation. Without it, Khan will be limited to the troops that he can directly dominate. Much of his air capability will be lost. Taking out the remaining fields should be your next course of action.”

“Good,” said Zebulon. “We shall reconvene here tomorrow and plan. Perhaps with some time, our town guards might be trained so that they can accompany you on this expedition. It would be wrong to place all the onus of this task solely on you when we have so much at stake.”

“Thank you,” said Amelia, but then Chirrang busted in again.

“No good,” he said. “Something’s going to happen, something big. Gorilla Khan made it very clear that if we’re not out of here by tomorrow, we’re going to die. And he expects the domed city to fall as a result of this mystery event.”

The whole room erupted into worried conversation, and Aeron had to clap his hands over his ears. It was much too noisy. How did humans stay sane with all this ruckus? At least when Atlanteans had an argument, they had the courtesy to shield their emotions from others. And what good would talking do anyway? With such a short time frame, they had to take action, and quick.

He stood. Cleared his throat. Waved his arms to get the room’s attention. Spoke with a minimum of stumbling over unfamiliar words. This English thing was getting easier the more he practiced. His mother would have been proud.

“I will volunteer to lead another raid on the fungal fields today. Anyone who wishes to join me can do so. Perhaps the more academically minded among us could turn their minds toward this cataclysmic event and determine how to stop it while we deal with the more immediate threat?”

“If I can have access to the library, I might be able to dig something up,” said Benjamin. “I imagine it must be some kind of natural phenomenon. There are a few likely possibilities given the time period and the weather…” He trailed off, thoughtfully drumming his fingers on the table.

“I’ll join you, Aeron,” said Amelia Stone, smiling. “You coming too, Jet?”

“I’d only be in Benjamin’s way if I stayed,” he replied with a grin. “Sure.”

“And I,” added Chirrang. “You will need me to locate the field and extract the prisoners. Perhaps we could fashion a litter of sorts to transport the fungus? That would leave our hands free to fight if needed.”

“We can provide whatever supplies you need,” said Zebulon. “That is the least we can do.”

“On the contrary,” said Benjamin. “Put your best minds on this. We need all hands on deck if we’re going to make it.”

With this ominous proclamation, the group split up and went to work.


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