Hijack: Part 7


It was just after lunch that OPD’s forensics rep appeared in the garage. Contrary to Gail’s expectation, it wasn’t a guy like Thacker with even thicker coke-bottle glasses. In fact, it wasn’t a guy at all. Her name was Nora Roselle, an English-born Oakton Crime Forensics officer who’d retained a slight accent from her youth. Darian was instantly smitten by it, however well he hid it. Gail sensed it in his over-accommodation and slight, dreamy-eyes. She eye-rolled internally, externally remained unchanged; Nora was good-looking, if slightly plain, but her accent and diction had enthralled the untraveled and intellectual Darian. They might’ve been an excellent match were it not for the circumstances surrounding them. Before long, the trio stood at the damaged rig, now in more pieces than it had arrived in.

Nora’s well-shaped brows and full lips inflected learned charisma on her speech. “I understand you have documented the process of disassembly.”

“Quite well, in fact,” Darian said, still somewhat dreamy.

Gail cleared her throat to snap him out of it. He shook off his entrancement and called over one of his crew– curiously, Gerald Rush, the married and less attractive of his two, currently unoccupied employees. He introduced Rush and set him about gathering their camera footage and inspection notes for Nora’s review.

“Thank you, Mr. Foster. It will help immensely to integrate me into things,” Nora said, the pout on her full-lips now evidenced as permanent.

“Please, Darian,” he corrected somewhat uncharacteristically.

If Gail hadn’t been standing slightly behind Nora, she’d have seen the world-tilting eye-roll that once more put Darian back in his own shoes. He said something Gail didn’t need to hear to know was flirtatious fluff-speak, and she cleared her throat again.

“Miss Roselle, if you don’t mind, I have a business to run. Is there anything you need form me?”

She reached into a leather briefcase, “This is a standard non-disclosure agreement stating that you may overhear privileged information during my time here. Often times, it is not regarding my work on the premises, but elsewhere. It is merely a safety protocol to ensure against information leaks.”

Gail nodded, “Fine. But I have over twenty other employees, I can’t sign for them.”

“They will be asked to sign separate disclosures,” Nora assured her.

“And if they don’t?”

Nora winced, “Then they may not be present during my time here. I’m sorry, I know it is an intrusion, but it is required.”

She took the packet, led the pair to the couches and table, and sat down to flip through it and scrawl her name on the last page. She handed it back, “Anything else?”

“No, thank you.”

Darian gestured Nora along, “Well, Ms. Roselle– may I call you Nora?”

“You may.”

“I’d be happy to review our information with you. I’m certain Rush has it compiled by now.”

“Very well,” Nora said, rising with him. She looked at Gail, “Thank you again for your cooperation, Miss Wolfe. I’ll do my best not to be a bother.”

Gail finally stood, “Clear things up. That’s all I care about. Good luck.”

Nora gave a courtly forward-tilt of her head and Darian led her to the far corner of the garage where his desk was sequestered. They disappeared around an edge of the damaged rig, and Gail blew a breath through her lips. At least someone’s day was looking up. Hers, on the other hand, was only looking to get more complicated. Almost immediately preceding Nora’s arrival, dispatch had received alarm codes on one of the short-haul rigs. Felicia Euwart, the driver, immediately confirmed the issue, but it had put everyone on-edge. ABS warning-codes had gone up, and Felicia lost pressure in her primary brake-lines, it wasn’t earth-shattering, and even Darian confirmed the rig had needed new brake-lines. With the state of things, he’d let it out on the road with the mind of replacing them on its next return, expecting they’d make it one last haul.

However understandably wrong he was, the extra time required to bring the rig back, exchange it for another, then haul its load to its destination would now put Felicia behind schedule. It was just enough, that she’d never make the next haul, assigned to her from Ferrero’s schedule. With most of their long-haulers on the road, and only Carl on his mandated time off left at the garage, Gail was forced to pick up the slack. In other words, after greeting Nora, she had enough time to go home, sleep off the day’s bullshit, then head for Northern Indiana.

Afternoon writhed and wriggled into night, passing only for Gail to rise more tired than usual. She chugged her latest mug of black-sludge coffee and made for the garage. The morning’s wee-hours found the office door spitting light across the garage’s outer-sanctum. The night-shift dispatchers were slumped at their desks, imbibing caffeine and barely visible from the angle, but Gail’s attention was drawn to low-lights glowing from Darian’s desk-area. She had more than enough time to dally before getting on the road, figured she’d scold Darian for skimping on sleep. She rounded the corner of Ferrero’s damaged rig, and found Nora poised over Darian’s desk with loads of paper-work atop it.

“Nora?” Gail asked approaching. “Why’re you still here?”

She didn’t respond. Gail eyed her oddly, then stepped up and laid a hand on her shoulder. She snapped ’round with a start. Gail lurched back, panted terror.

Nora yanked ear-bud headphones from her ears with a breathy, “Cry-st!”

Gail gasped, “Sonuvabitch! I think I need to change my pants.”

“I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

Gail recomposed herself, pushed onward, “What’re you still doing here?”

“I’m accustomed to long nights,” she admitted, finally catching her breath. “In my profession, it is a useful skill. I work a thirty-six hour days, sleep eight hours, then repeat.”

Gail sympathized, however apprehensively, “I know the feeling.”

She smiled, “I imagine I’d have been an excellent driver in another life.”

Gail nodded to the papers, “Quite a commitment to the job.”

“It is important I examine as much of the vehicle’s history as possible, however mundane. A faulty, third-party part could be as much to blame something factory-spec that never required replacement. In either case, the vehicle’s history will allow me to narrow it down as Darian has attempted.”

Gail leaned against a wall at the desk’s edge, “Any ideas yet?”

“No.” She picked up a sheet of paper, skimmed it, then met Gail’s eyes again. “But I have seen the video footage.”

“Off the record, what’s your assessment? Driver error?”

Nora seemed to consider if her opinion could be professionally damning, then relented, “Off the record, there is no way to be certain. Ever. Driver-error is always a possibility, but given the driver’s history, it’s too far of a stretch for my liking. Unfortunately, I can’t rule it out entirely without proper evidence. As far as the vehicle goes, nothing adds up.”

“How do you mean?” Gail asked with genuine intrigued.

Nora shuffled some pages, “These are all of the work orders on the vehicle’s maneuvering systems and suspension. All post-work diagnostics indicate perfect functioning, as far as the tests can tell. From what I can personally see, the vehicle was expertly maintained. Some evidence of this is only days old.”

Gail skimmed the pages with a look, “What’s it tell you?”

“Simply? That there was no earthly reason for that vehicle to act as it did.”

Gail’s skeptical look urged her to explain. She dug a laptop from beneath the mounds of papers, and flipped it open. Gail braced herself on the desk and chair from beside Nora. On-screen was a crude, wire-frame model of a T680. She keyed in a command and the wire-frame began to move as if traveling at highway speeds. All of a sudden, the rig jolted left, then right, left again. The model tipped and ground its side until it struck a guard-rail. Simulated debris rained behind it, smacked away like particles. The wedged rail caught the road, took the rest of the engine with as it broke free, and crude flames sparked on the overturned rig as it came to a stop.

Gail was suddenly aware of her white-knuckled grip on the desk and chair before her. Nora seemed to notice it too, tactfully ignored it. Gail eased from the tense poise and cleared her throat; it had been like watching the accident all over again, except every bit of the first-person dash-cam played over in her head atop the third-person render. It was horrifying, enough that even Gail’s hardened heart felt sympathy for Buddy’s last moments to have been in such fear.

Nora allowed Gail a moment to recollect herself, then explained, “As near as I can tell, the vehicle was traveling in a straight-line, at safe-speeds, in preferable road conditions. Nothing short of a driver error or an electrical failure could have caused the first swerve.”

“But you disagree it was driver error?”

She was careful, evasive for the sake of her job more than anything, “Personally, I do not believe that to be an issue. This was a deliberate motion, too instant and sudden for the drifting of a fatigued or inebriated driver. More-over, none of the preceding video shows any indication of driver distraction.”

“So, it was the electrical system?” Gail asked outright.

“Logic would suggest as much, given the video evidence. As I’ve said though, there is no mechanical reason for it to have happened.”

Gail went quiet for a long time, wondering how the findings might fit her M-T theory. For someone to sabotage the vehicle, as she suspected, they’d need access to it. Overlooking the obvious fact that it was damn-near impossible to get to, Gail wondered what they could have done to cause the accident. She’d been driving rigs long enough to know this wasn’t a frayed wire snowballing into a colossal fuck-up. If it had been, the rig would’ve shown signs before-hand, and it would’ve been caught during one of the vehicle’s inspections Darian and his crew had done.

But without clear evidence of tampering, Gail couldn’t point a finger at M-T without bringing a serious shit-storm upon herself. She suspected something would be found though. Even Nora seemed to be leaning toward that– in as much as her suspicions did not involve neglect by either driver nor mechanic. While Gail didn’t know much about the woman, her high-intelligence was obvious in her methods and demeanor. If others respected her as Gail expected, especially given the Chief of Police personally assigning her the case, her word might be enough to back up Gail’s suspicions if necessary.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Nora said finally, breaking the silence. “What do you believe happened? You must have suspicions yourself, right?”

“Off the record?” Nora blinked once. “I think someone fucked with that rig, someone from M-T Inc.”

“Mechanized Transports?” She asked, accent drawing out certain syllables.

“Yes. The assholes have been trying to buy me out and I’m not interested. I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this then hide behind their lawyers.”

Nora looked away to think. Then, with a resigned grimace, she met Gail’s eyes. “If that is the truth, it is all the more imperative we discover how they’ve done it. Otherwise, many more innocent people may die.”

Bonus Short Story: Never the Same Again

The world shuddered in fear when it appeared. It was a ghostly apparition sent from the heavens that no one refused to accept. It was like the shadow that flits at the edge of the eye, but when one turns to look with a start, they find nothing. Except it has never left. It didn’t then, most certainly. Now, I’, not sure we could imagine our lives without it– for good or ill.

I was working a main-line water-repair when it appeared. A few hours before the main had burst in front of a local middle school. We were lucky the summer-time was on us and school was out. If it hadn’t been, people would’ve hated us all the more for blocking the main thorough-fare between ends of the city.

I’d been cracking asphalt with a jackhammer when I looked up. I was wiping sweat from my forehead. For a moment, I thought my eyes were playing tricks. Even in the dead of night, the heat was ungodly. If it had been day my boots would’ve melted to the asphalt. I guess there’s some silver lining there, however minute.

There it was though. Hanging overhead twice the size of the largest the moon could become, and clearly man-made– or rather, made by something other than nature. It had settled into an orbit that allowed it to be viewed world-wide at appropriate times of day.

Humanity breathed together. We were like one organism, together in terror. I remember dropping the jackhammer and almost causing an accident when someone was about to trip over it. He and the other guy carrying equipment between them stopped. They caught my gaze. Five hundred pounds of concrete and other gear toppled sideways like over-stacked books. The ruckus made the job site stop and gaze over at us. They all saw us frozen, staring skyward, then stared themselves.

From what I’ve heard, that was how it went all over. One man or woman was wiping away sweat, or daydreaming with eyes on the sky, or blowing smoke from pursed lips, and caught sight of the massive object. From there everyone followed to look in similar fashion. I can’t imagine how many car accidents, or accidental deaths there were from that event. It was like the world came to an utter and complete stop. From 60-0, and there was no time nor braking. It stopped, and that was that.

People panicked. World-wide, global panic. The stock markets nose-dived. The stores were emptied by doomsday preppers. Martial law was declared in many places. Others were almost completely abandoned by law-enforcement and military, giving rise to local militias of crazy assholes with more guns then brains. At least the more intelligent folks among them prevailed. Some sort of order was necessary, of course, but it was a long time before anything resembling it reappeared.

I remember that first night. It was like we were on the cusp of a precipice. Behind us was this sort of imperfect peace. Ahead, lay a chasm of total anarchy and violence. The job was called off pending this appearance– and more “officially” the loss and damage of the dropped materials. That last part was the excuse, but I doubt anyone would’ve argued about it. I’m not even sure that information was ever received.

We were sent home around midnight. My wife was awake. She’d received a call from a friend working the late shift somewhere. I don’t know where. We never got along, and I didn’t ask questions about her. Point is, my wife was awake, and our little girl was still sound asleep in her bed. What I wouldn’t have given to see her dreams go on forever, so that she might never wake up into the nightmare that was sure to come.

We sat at the kitchen table, across from one another. We’d been friends our whole lives. We’d dated in junior-high, explored each other, broke up, explored others, then started over again Senior year of High-School. Somehow we came out of it with a beautiful daughter, a nice house, toys and luxuries, and an otherwise wonderful life. I wasn’t greedy. Never have been. She’s like me in that way. I guess we jut got lucky, rewarded for our general, positive way of living.

But that night…

It was like we were kids again. We trembled and held each other like inexperienced children. We cried in anger and sorrow like petulant children. Hell, we even laughed and joked the same as we once had, long, long ago. It was all a response to fear. We knew it then, as surely as I know it now.

It’s not something one experiences everyday. This was a complete and total shift of everything we thought we knew. Us as a people I mean, Humanity. Everything from social issues to physics was now challenged. So far as I know, scores of people vastly more intelligent than myself rose to it, and all of them came away stumped. Even that great physicist and sometimes philosopher Hawking only knew what he could deduce from observations, measurements, and readings taken with every known instrument.

I guess they tried communicating with it for a while. All the while the anarchy and chaos were worsening. The faithful said it was the apocalypse. The scientists said it was a baffling mystery. Law men and politicians flocked to one side or the other, adding whether they thought violence was the answer. Personally, I just said “holy shit.”

That was all that would come out. Every time I looked up, I thought about the millions of years of evolution that our species had gone through. I thought about the last few hundred years of technological development, the last few millennia of civilization. All of that had to pale in comparison to whoever– or whatever– had brought this thing here. I still can’t imagine what they’re like, or were.

Billions of years have passed since the Big Bang. The Universe is still expanding. It will, for the foreseeable Eons forward. Even our tiny knowledge base had deciphered that much. We had speculated countless ways of alternate evolution, from the most learned astrobiologists to the most overconfident sci-fi writers, but we’d never had any proof, any indication of where to look.

We suddenly had it then, and we still didn’t know what to do with it. When communication attempts failed, and our instruments had found all they could, an expedition was outfitted. A team of astronauts with a mathematician, linguist, psychologist, and school-teacher in tow, launched for the ISS. They made their rendezvous to procure supplies sent up before them on an automated rocket, then made for the moon-like vehicle orbiting nearby.

We still haven’t heard back much, but we know its empty. There’s a lot to be deciphered and scoured, but there is supposedly a distinct lack of any life aboard. I hope that proves true. I hope those crazy conspiracy theorists are wrong, that there isn’t a cover-up about aliens aboard. I hope, but I’m not holding my breath. There’s something about disappearances these days. They’re too numerous, too obvious. I can’t imagine what the point would be.

We live in fear now. It’s kept us in check thus far, but the way things have turned, it isn’t a stretch to believe it could all fall to chaos again. The governments don’t have control anymore. The militias are more armed and populated than ever, and the water main is still unfixed. I don’t know if things will ever be the same again, but I’m not certain if that’s good or bad. All I know is that my wife and I, and our daughter, won’t be taken without a fight, no matter who comes knocking.

The Nexus Project: Part 12 (Conclusion)


Niala’s plan wasn’t revealed until they were already inside the factory. Simon and Snow were left in suspense until they slipped down the roof’s stairwell. They crept along a pair of flights to a small corridor as Niala explained with a whisper. She went quiet when the upper-catwalk floor appeared. The trio huddled just beyond it at a doorway, surveyed the mechanized frenzy below.

Niala’s pistol was out. Snow mirrored the motion. Simon was less confident, but prepared himself. A cacophony of robotic arms and spitting plasma welders made for perfect cover as they slipped out and along the catwalk. The Zelphod had taken up a position at the rear of the factory floor to watch the machines with a reverent complacency.

The ship grew, piece-by-piece, across the far-side of the large building. Simon paused. He couldn’t help but recall time-lapse vids of old-era construction as machines grew in stop-motion animation. The constructors were eerily similar, but more fluid, their progress unending. At a motion from Snow, he crept along the catwalk. From their vantage point, large hydraulic pathways were now visible in the ceiling. When the time was right, the roof would part for the ship to ease itself up and out. Blackened scorch marks along walls and machines said this wasn’t the first ship built nor launched. It would be the last.

Niala led the way to the cat-walk’s rear-edge. They stood just above and behind the Zelphod, close enough now to make out the markings on its suit without need to squint. Its compatriots, the Cobra and Hog, suddenly appeared. They approached the Zelphod, oblivious to their infiltration.

“Ssssir,” The Cobra hissed. “We’ve found a sshhhuttle and there isss a sshhhip in orbit.”

A series of buzzes and zips replied. The Hog gave a snort, “At once, sir.”

They turned for the far-end of the factory floor. Niala whispered a command and threw herself over the catwalk. The Zelphod screeched. The two animals turned. Snow hurled himself over the railing, gunned down the Cobra in mid-air. He landed on all fours and charged the Hog. Simon was left helplessly to watch.

The Zelphod’s suited-limbs flurried with razor-sharp blades. Niala hissed, swatted through the field of knives. She yelped from a sliced a paw, roared with fury. Snow’s quadrupedal tackle caught the Hog as it turned. Its pistol was knocked free with a squeal. A random shot sparked concrete.

The Wolf and Hog rolled across the floor with excess momentum. Snow’s teeth latched onto throat-skin. Sounds of animal slaughter infected the hogs flailing. It fought to buck him, landed a few, good hooves into his ribs. Snow flew backward. Flesh tore and ripped with a screaming squeal.

Snow landed, hog-throat hanging from his jaws. Buckets of blood poured from its throat. It scrambled across the factory floor, zig-zagged, and fell dead at the end of a long blood-trail. Snow spit the Hog’s skin out, rounded to see Niala recoil as the Zelphod gashed her paw.

He dropped to all fours, sprinted forward, “Now, Human!”

Simon shouted into a communicator, “Rearden!”

Niala struggled beneath the Zelphod, fought to avoid the blades. She growled, felt her strength waning. Forearm blades pressed down at her throat. She fought their wrists, muscles aching. Snow tackled the Zelphod from the side, tumbled with it in flashes of fur and glinting alloy. Niala recovered. Snow gripped a limb in his jaws. He wrenched it backward to a resounding crunch of metal, and an unearthly screech. The limb disgorged from the Zelphod’s body as the factory’s edge exploded in a fireball.

The flaming crater was shrouded by a second explosion before they could react. The factory’s lights went out. Flames threw shadows over its rear. Simon broke into a sprint, slammed into a fire-exit. The Zelphod screeched, flailed. Niala jammed a syringe through its missing suit. She and Snow shouldered its stilled husk for a service door.

They were outside, sprinting, a hundred meters between them and the factory. Two more blasts struck side-by-side. Molten flames eradicated the last of the pre-built ship. Simon radioed Rearden as the trio scrambled for anywhere not in the path of the ship’s cannons. They fell to a stop just out the blast-range, watched the factory become swallowed by fiery plasma bursts.

Flames flickered, revealed only craters remaining beneath them. Their shuttle’s auto-pilot navigated it through the flame. Fire blew sideways as the shuttle angled downward, landed beside them. They threw the Zelphod in and rocketed toward the ship.


Less than a day later, they stood in the ISC Hospital’s acute-care wing. Josie had only been awake a collective hour. Her hair was still missing in places, but she was freshly cleaned, no longer blood mottled. Bandages were draped around various places where she’d been injured by her captors. All the same, she was relieved, comfortable and safe. Her eyes were alert despite a slight droop from IVs administering steady painkillers and fluids.

Simon and Niala sat to one side of Josie’s bed, Gnarl and Snow at its opposite side and foot respectively. The poor hound was exhausted from near-on a week of various, critical security situations caused by the theft and network attack yet his spirits remained high.

“That’s when we found you,” Niala said. She made quick work of retelling their discoveries and the destruction of the factory, then finished with, “You’re safe now. They won’t bother you ever again.”

Josie lapped up a large drink of water from a bowl-cup, then asked, “What about the others?”

Gnarl suddenly spoke up, “Officially, the Zelphod diplomats are denying any involvement. They have, however, named the Zelphod in custody. I… can’t pronounce his name, but he was an Admiral in the War. Both the Federation and the Zelphod believe his actions were retribution for a lost fleet. So far, he appears to have acted alone and without sanction.” Gnarl rolled his eyes, spoke casually, “Yeah, right, and my balls are made of kibble.” He sighed with a near whimper, “Officially, there’s nothing we can do, or say, to indicate we believe them responsible. Unofficially, no-one’s surprised. I doubt they’d have put the blame on the Admiral so easily had he not been caught.”

Niala summarized, “Meaning it may not have been sanctioned, but it also wasn’t prevented.”

“Precisely,” Gnarl said. He cleared his tired throat, tapped a paw on Josie’s, “Nonetheless, we know he was working with extremist, anti-human mercenaries. The MeLon’s being interrogated now and all security’s being bolstered against further intrusion. We’re also re-screening our personnel, present company excluded, of course.”

Simon’s throat was well enough to speak without hindrance, “And the Nexus Project?”

Niala replied with authority, “Formally, the project’s going ahead as planned. We’re to continue our research to maximize engine and system efficiency.”

“And the ship?”

Snow gave a mischievous grin, “Is currently docked on Ganymede, under my name, and will not be accessible to anyone but my people. A spoil of war, if you will.” He glanced at Niala, “I trust my debt is repaid.”

Niala rolled frustrated eyes, then nodded with affirmation. With that the Wolf swiveled for the door. Simon and Niala exchanged a look as Josie purred from minor pain. Niala patted her paw, applied a fresh dose of meds from an IV’s control panel, “Get some rest. We’ll be by to see you later.”

She gave a “mew” then closed her eyes. Gnarl excused himself at the doorway, parted with the others as Rearden drifted up with a few beeps.

Simon replied, “She’s fine. Sleeping.”

“We’ll leave her be,” Niala said to the little bot. She started forward, “C’mon, I’ll buy lunch.”

Simon followed her in-step. Whatever the future might hold, he knew one thing; at the very least, one day the ISC would finish the Nexus Project, and the next day, the Human-Animal Alliance would breach Deep-space with the aid of the Human Federation. Together, they would then begin colonization of the nearest, inhabitable systems.

The anti-humanists could say and do whatever they wanted. For, even if so ill-fitted to the job as Simon, there would always be someone to protect progress from them. At that, Simon would fight again, if need be. After all, he may have been “unevolved” to them, but to him, they were all the same; descendants of a little blue marble called Earth.

Short Story: Fabulous Honeymoon

The expedition of Vladimir Von Kaufer had been planned for months. It was widely known in Vladimir’s Hungarian hometown– a place notorious for spreading small news in big ways. The little village, as it was more apt to call it, consisted of about thirty homes. Each of them was situated in two circles of fifteen that expanded outward from the town-square in its center. The square, in turn, was a circle of a dozen buildings of varying sizes and uses.

The aforementioned represented the entirety of the village. It had a most peculiar name that, though known to residents, rolled so harshly off the tongue they merely called it “The Village” or “Home.” When abroad, and asked where the residents came from, most merely answered “Hungary.” Others parroted “the country,” as if their rural dwelling were the only in existence. For many of them, it might well have been.

The Village was such a melding of old-time living with new-world ways that on first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking it a town of Luddites. Anyone venturing in to visit its shops, or pass by at night would quickly recognize their error. Though the people kept the quaint, homely appearance for their own pleasure, it was as much civilized as any other place. Indeed, in some ways, more-so.

Thus, Von Kaufer’s expedition was bound to attract some measure of renown as soon as it escaped his lips. He made preparations for days, planning the best route to and through the cavern he would traverse. He hired on neighbors and friends to follow him in, promised a share of credit and loot if found.

Legend had it that long ago a gypsy caravan had run off with an entire estate after its owners had disappeared. Before the estate of the wealthy couple could be auctioned off, or passed to kin, the gypsies had raided it. So the legend went that all they left behind were the brick-walls and cobwebs. The caravan fled authorities, fearing discovery, and hid their boon for later recovery in the cavern.

It was said however, that the gypsy caravan had never been able to return. Over a decade, all manner of ills befell them until only one family-member remained. The old man, even more ancient than he’d been when liberating the possessions, could find no-one to follow him. He was said to have died a vagrant’s death steps from the mouth of the cavern where his boon lay hidden. The unmarked grave in The Village’s churchyard lent credence to at least some of these facts.

It was with this in mind that Vladimir Von Kaufer set about his planning. The cave had claimed many through its treacherous obstacles. No matter how far similar expeditions had made it inside, the cavern’s end seemed ever beyond reach. Some expeditions, ill-provisioned for the trek, had even returned unharmed and utterly dismayed. Most of their leaders lived in despair of their failure afterward. With their places as laughing-stock in folk-lore, they could never again convince others to follow them to that grisly place.

Von Kaufer however, had the upstanding confidence of all the Village’s people. As soon as the utterance came from his lips, men and women lined up to follow. It was as if his very reputation guaranteed he not return empty-handed. His own determination ensured it.

A week before the expedition was set to begin however, Vladimir fell ill. He was deathly pale, his hands cold and clammy, and his eyes sunken. He looked as though he had lost all the blood from his body. Indeed, his doctors concluded an anemic attack of unknown cause had thinned his blood to dangerous levels. That whole week passed with him in varying states of decay.

Then, for two whole days, Vladimir teetered on the brink of death. With him, the Village held their breath in hopes of his recovery so that he might complete his expedition. It would undoubtedly be the ultimate triumph, especially after so deathly an illness.

He rose from his bed on the second night, once more strong and colorful. Though the coldness of his skin had yet to abate, he assured everyone he would continue the expedition at once. Having already been past schedule by two days, he rounded up his team from their nearby homes, and set forth at-once for the cavern.

He rallied them at the mouth of the cavern before dawn, and plunged for its depths. Aided by head lamps, climbing ropes, harnesses and other miscellanea, they descended with their own weight in rations and water. Vladimir was certain they could not turn back lest they fail and never return. Each person in their own right agreed and loaded themselves amply.

For the first day, there was nothing ominous. They crossed chasms and scaled precipices in single file. When it came time to rest, it was past noon on the surface. The mile of rock between them and the sun cast them in darkness all the same.

The group collectively set down to eat and sleep, doing both with vigor. They awoke hours later with to find their number one less than they’d been before. Vladimir was disappointed. The man must have left, gone in the night so as to not be deterred by his leader or companions. The leader himself seemed to pity him, but rallied the group again and set forth.

Again, more climbing of plateaus, reverse-scaling of precipices and crossing of chasms all with a downward attitude. They neared the furthest point ever traversed, the cavern’s sometimes jagged, claustrophobic passages confirmed the fact. After one, particularly harrowing passage, the cavern opened up, and they took rest for the night.

Nine became seven. Two more had left. A man and a woman. They had previously been enamored with one another, smitten to the point that they must have convinced one another to flee. Nonetheless, the expedition would continue, the shares more robustly divided.

Vladimir led them forward at once, passed scattered skeletons from a lost expedition. The dusty bones and tattered rags of clothing from a past age infected the air with a lingering dread. It lasted until they bedded down again several hours later.

Again they awoke to fewer numbers. Seven became four. Vladimir seemed to halfheartedly dismiss the attitudes of the departed compatriots. All the same, they searched about, finding but one small trace of blood. A drip, only partially dried to brown, was muddled by the dust and dirt-laced floor.

A shudder went among the remaining expedition. Vladimir himself seemed unaffected. Perhaps it was by his cunning or confidence that he inspected the area. He felt around with his finger-less-gloved hands on the walls. Near the drip on a wall he found yet another fleck, evidently at hand height. It seemed someone had leaned against the rather sharp bit of rock too hard before fleeing.

No matter, Vladimir told the others, it was as rational an explanation as any. The other three, remaining comrades felt that so-present dread. Still they packed their sleeping equipment, and ventured forth, led as always by Von Kaufer’s vigor and tenacity.

It was during one of their short breaks that another comrade seemed to make off for nowhere. She had left her pack near the others and gone off to relieve herself. Much like Von Kaufer, she’d isolated herself for a moment, but unlike him, she never returned.

Vladimir spirits finally felt the blow. He had but two comrades left; one male and one female, whom both seemed as determined as he to go forward. Again they started forth, that awful dread afflicting even Vladimir’s seemingly unassailable vitality. When at last they bedded down for the night, Vladimir sank into a kind of depression. Even if by some means the treasure existed, he’d never offset the cost of the expedition by retrieving only one-fifth of the share. That was to say nothing of the lost hope of becoming wealthier off it.

He lie down to rest only to awake and find the last man gone. He, alone with the woman, would continue forward. There was equally as much dread between them now. Some phantom force, it felt, had cursed their expedition and would forever hound them. Still they climbed, descended, leapt and crawled. They knew not when the end of the cavern might come, but forewent sleep to ensure they see it as soon as possible.

It was nearly forty-eight hours after that last man had left Vladimir and the woman alone that they descended into a pit. From the wall they’d started down, they trudged forward. Their limbs and eyes were heavy, but their eyes wide, alert, peeled for anything signaling their boon.

Their headlamps swept the ceiling and walls for ways out of the pit. They found none. It was then that their lights flitted along the floors. Gold sparkles froze them. Their minds were stuck, stunned by what lay before them.

The far-wall was piled with gold and silver. Rubies and Sapphires gleamed in golden cups. Emeralds shined from inlaid fittings in silver cutlery and other tableware. Mounds of coins of gold, silver, even bronze, were scattered in a marvelous painting of riches. Priceless artworks in dusty, wooden frames seemed untouched by the ages. With them were equally earthen-hued trunks and cases which later revealed infinitely more jewelry.

Von Kaufer and the woman, Anika, embraced in excitement and triumph. They even kissed deeply, as though possessed by animal carnation at their success. It was then that Vladimir parted from Anika and stepped back a few paces.

“I must confess,” he said formally. “Five of those eight whom fled are not in the Village.”

Anika’s brow furrowed. She looked about to question him. His face flashed. All of his features became squared and pointed, including his carnivorous teeth. His eyes glowed yellow with fearsome slits and his back became arched as if poised to pounce. He expected Anika to recoil in terror.

Instead, she laughed heartily, “Three of those eight too, are neither home nor yet live.”

Her face took on a similar disposition. Anika’s blue eyes turned ice-cold white. Her back arched too, and her arms and legs became sinuous, her teeth long.

Vladimir laughed too. Their faces reverted, he stepped over and placed a hand in the small of her back, directing her to stand beside him as if his bride. They stared at the pile of riches together, chuckling for a long while.

There and then, Vladimir looked into Anika’s eyes and smiled, “We shall return to the village with as much as we can carry, then come back for the rest, no matter how many trips it takes.”

Anika flashed a deranged, predatory smile, “Then we will take the whole village, and add it to the pile in our home.”

Together they laughed with malice. They parted to begin stuffing their pockets. Vladimir had to admit it wasn’t what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t for the worse. His homecoming would only be but an extension of his good fortune. Together, he and Anika would reign, King and Queen, over the Village, as it drowned in blood.

She caught his eye over a mound of gold she sifted, “It will be a fabulous honeymoon.”