The Shadow of Li Po: A Fiction Archive Round-Robin

Part Three by James Dalton & John Grubber


So much for Lesk's weather predicting, thought Mary. The fog had thickened, become more substantial, slicking her coat with mist. It had gotten cooler too, she realized, even though she could see the sun's hazy glow in the sky.

As she wondered how to approach the mystery before her, sudden fatigue set in. Mary knew that she couldn’t keep going, and resigned herself to holing up in the hotel for the rest of the day, to get some rest, and then perhaps be able to focus more clearly.

The hotel was as empty as she had left it, Mary noted as she passed through. Her room was small, but cheap, an especially important fact if there was trouble at the paper. Tossing her coat on the chair and her purse on the dresser, she laid out on the bed, hands behind her head. As she reviewed in her mind what she knew of the O’Douls, Li Po, and Danielsport, she drifted off to sleep before realizing it.

****

Dr. Cal Mulheron absentmindedly stirred his mug of black coffee. It had long since become an action of the subconscious, for right now his attention was drawn to a series of pages spread chaotically across his desk. Reports, mainly from field researchers in the Pacific and South-East Asia, all detailing their latest puzzling discoveries. One in particular was grating at the edges of Cal’s mind.

Five years ago the Danielsport’s College’s Department of Oriental Studies had been given a generous grant by sources unspecified in order to work on a dig in Eastern Asia. Referred to only as Site Theta, the area of interest was a series of roughly carved caverns descending beneath the town of Pahsien, in the province of Hopeh. In his determination to please their sponsors, Cal had selected DOS’s most skilled archaeologist and field researcher, Doctor Phillip Dennings. For years DOS and Cal received nothing but general statements from Dennings, until one month ago. Maddening to say the least, this last, seven-page report would definitely raise DOS’s name to the top of all the academic lists. From what Cal had gleaned, Dennings had made quite a discovery.

Dennings’ report read like an insane fantasy that slowly descended into a deluded nightmare. No matter how many times Cal had read it, the document still tweaked at his senses. Even his rational mind, trained by years of scientific study, was occasionally assailed by minute paranoias every time he read Dennings’ words. A bitter grin grew over Cal’s lips. Imagine the state of poor Dennings’ mind right now. This thought snapped the strings of Cal’s memory. Sitting bolt upright he looked over towards the clock on the wall. Half past nine. Dennings should have arrived by now.

An insect-like buzz preluded Cal’s secretary’s voice, carrying statically over the intercom system. “Doctor Dennings has arrived sir.”

Cal made sure all of the necessary documents were in order before leaving his office. If the urgency of Dennings’ message from yesterday was anything to go by, there would be something very interesting awaiting Cal in the main laboratory.

****

The main lab was in a state of pure excitement when Cal arrived. Mixtures of anticipation, fear and interest electrified the very air. Standing amidst this all was an elderly man dressed in a business suit, slightly outdated but elegant all the same. His hair was now almost white, his eyes were rimmed in darkness and his skin was drawn, but Cal recognized his old friend and colleague.

“Phil, it’s so good to see you after so long!” Cal’s eyes dropped to the shoebox on the table. “We were worried when you sent us that telegram yesterday morning. How are they doing?”

After a brief, clinical handshake, Dennings gathered Cal and all of the onlookers, scientists and students alike, around the shoebox.

“As those of you who have read my report know, my team and I discovered quite a lot of interesting artifacts beneath Pahsien. Of those that were brought back, these were the most interesting. They were discovered within what we have termed the central temple in the Pahsien complex. This chamber was filled with thousands of these statuettes that resembled intricately carved eggs. We removed five of these eggs for study back here, leaving the remaining three thousand or so in situ. As Dr. Mulheron here knows, these statues proved to be more than anyone bargained for.” Dennings paused for a moment before continuing.

“Upon my arrival in the US two nights ago, I had taken out the box containing the egg statues so that I may study them during my journey to the lab. When I opened the box I was in for quite a shock. It seems that sometime during transit these statues had…hatched, for lack of a better word, for when I opened the box I found what appeared to be five curled up beetles, surrounded by a small layer of sand. These beetles appeared to mimic the exact shape and features of the statues, except they were brightly colored.”

This time when Dennings paused, he handed out a series of photographs to the assembled scholars. Each man gave an audible gasp at the photos’ subjects. In each photo was an insect, about four inches in length and covered in a maddening pattern of lines and swirls. They appeared to all be in a state of hibernation, wrapped tightly in their patterned wings. Once everyone had looked at the photos long enough, they turned their attention back to Dennings.

“There is one more aspect to add, one that I must admit still horrifies me when I think of it. This morning when I arrived here in Danielsport, the creatures within this box seemed to enter a new phase in their reawakening. I’m not sure if it was just a matter of time, or my return to Danielsport which set them off, but I can safely tell you that these creatures are definitely awake and in a highly excited state.”

To punctuate Dennings’ statement, the shoebox rattled wildly. Several high-pitched squeals rang out from it causing several students to leap back in fear. Cal gave Dennings a bewildered look and the old man sadly nodded.

“Gentlemen, prepare the lab for a dissection.” Cal said firmly.

****

A sharp rapping at the door jarred Mary awake. She quickly sat up, smoothing her clothes and checking her face in the dresser mirror opposite the bed. Three more sharp raps on the door, and a voice: “Deary? Are you in there?”

Mary recognized Mrs. G’s voice. She hurried to the door and opened it, realizing that she hadn't even locked it when she entered. Mary glanced at her watch and out the window. It was mid-afternoon, and the skies outside had cleared somewhat. Now, although a haze still hung in the air, the bay was visible and the blurred forms of boats gliding across the water were visible. Mary wondered if the elder O’Doul had jumped from one of them.

"Mr. Chase called," Ginny said. "I forwarded it to your room, but you didn't answer, so he wanted me to tell you he's back from Bangor and that he will be in his office until three, if you want to meet with him."

“Thank you!” Mary rushed to put on her coat. She must really have been tired if she had slept through the phone ringing, she thought, as she reached for her purse. It was on the writing desk, not the dresser, where she had left it. Startled, she crossed the room and grabbed it.

Mrs. Gotland was polishing brass doorknobs out in the hall, halfway to the stairs, when Mary walked out of the room and locked it behind her. "Mrs. Gotland," Mary asked in as casual tone as she could muster. "Is there anyone else here? That is, is there anyone else working here?"

"Oh yes dear," Ginny said, not looking at Mary. "We have a maintenance man, Claude. Claude helps me with cleaning the rooms sometimes." She paused, at the top of the stairs now, frantically polishing the banister post. "If you are going to catch Mr. Chase, you'd best hurry, it's almost three."

****

Bright lights concentrated their beams on a single metal bench in the center of the lab. All but five of the men had left the room, taking their seats in the viewing gallery above. Now only Cal, Dennings and three doctors of biology stood, focusing their attention on the plain, cream shoebox at the bench’s center.

“Analysis of unidentified life forms commencing at 2:47 p.m.,” Cal said for the benefit of the microphone hanging nearby.

Cal nodded to one of the masked doctors beside him who gently lifted the lid of the box. Exposure to the light caused the creatures within to hiss shrilly.

“My God.” Dennings gasped. “This is impossible!”

Swallowing the hard lump that had suddenly formed in his throat, Cal could hardly believe what he saw himself. Inside the box were three creatures, not five. And none of the remaining three looked like the beetles in Dennings’ photos.

“Subjects have greatly increased size since last examination. They now measure close to seven inches in length and four inches in diameter. The original wings found by Dr. Dennings have folded up to reveal another set of membranous wings covering a mottled gray-blue body. It appears as if their body is excreting some sort of lubricating oil that smells very much like…ammonia. What appears to be the creatures’ heads are located just below the origin of the first set of wings. The head itself is arachnid in appearance, with five eyes organized in a star-shaped configuration. Beneath these is a puckered opening surrounded by four barbed mandibles. Now just below the mouth is what appears to be a series of…”

Cal’s probe made contact with one of the creatures’ mandibles. Emitting a shrill shriek the enraged creature spread out its wings and took flight.

“Watch out!” Dennings cried.

The five men in the lab fell back from the bench, trying desperately to put as much distance between themselves and the flying horror. Its second set of wings beating furiously, the creature sped toward Cal who instinctively raised his left arm to protect himself. Six thin tendrils shot out from the creature’s belly with a grotesque sucking sound. Cal could only stare dumbly as they embedded themselves into his left arm. A shudder jolted Cal violently. Whistling in glee, the creature landed on Cal’s chest, its pulsating tendrils slowly darkening to crimson.

Two of the doctors grabbed the shoebox and locked it in one of the empty glass aquariums before the other two creatures could escape. Meanwhile, Dennings reached for a long, metal device on the implement tray beside the bench. Activating the electric prod he stabbed it into the creature’s back. Acrid yellow smoke rose from the creature’s back as it shrieked. Dennings gagged on the vile smoke. Finally though the creature fell to the ground writhing. With a sickly slurping sound the tendrils fell out of Cal’s arm and back into the creature’s belly.

Cal slumped to the floor, his breath coming out in wheezing gasps. Six gaping holes were roughly arranged into two rows along his left arm, oozing thick blood. By now the viewers from the above gallery were rushing into the lab, their faces painted with looks of shock and horror.

“Don’t stand gawking,” Dennings shouted at them. “Somebody call for an ambulance!”

To Be Continued...


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