For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Aboleth
“Here at Abolife, we believe the key to humanity’s future lies in the past. The Earth’s distant, ancient past. This planet has existed for eons before the first human being stood upright on the plains of Africa, it would be arrogance to think of ourselves as its true owners…”
Cold spray frothed over the nose of the ship and speckled the side of Samar’s face, smelling strongly of salt. The ferry had set off just after dawn but both sea and sky were slate grey, to the point it was hard to distinguish where one ended and the other began. Apart from a handful of what Samar assumed were tourists, or maybe clients of the same institution where he was headed, and a captain up in the pilothouse, Samar had the ferry to himself.
Letch Island rose out of the ocean like a fortress. The cliffs reminded Samar of castle ramparts. Dark, windswept pines covered the hills. What there was of the town, probably fifty houses and buildings total, clustered around the cove that the ferry pulled into. A couple dozen fishing boats moored in the cove as well.
Samar went inside and collected his bags. He had one relatively small rolling suitcase and an overstuffed gym bag. Not much but between them, along with a bank account far outweighed by student loans and some cheap, flatpack furniture he’d left in a storage locker on the mainland, they represented the sum total of his worldly possessions. Other passengers piled off the boat first. Samar wrestled his suitcase down the ramp and then along the wharf, taking in his surroundings with genuine interest as he did. About a dozen locals waited to get on the ferry for its return trip. It only made the journey between Letch Island and the mainland twice a day, in the mornings and evenings.
At the foot of the pier was a big man in a white uniform. Although Samar would have been pretty easy to spot, the man held a piece of paper with ‘Samar Varadkar’ printed on it like those drivers waiting for people at the airport.
“You’re from the Wellness Institute?” Samar asked, shouldering his bag.
The question was pretty obviously answered. On the breast of his uniform was the name of the institute and a nametag, ‘Shane’. The man didn’t offer anything more.
“Well, I’m-, that’s me.” Samar nodded to the sign. “After you?”
Shane led Samar to a passenger van parked nearby. Only a few vehicles seemed to live on the island as there was little need for them. Samar piled his bags in the back and Shane drove them across the island’s small township.
Most of the island’s inhabitants had a singular look about them Samar realised as he watched from the van’s windows. He’d noticed it among the locals lined up for the ferry but could see now how widespread it was. Grey skinned, with bulbous eyes and wide, fishy mouths. Too little genetic diversity in too small a place for too long. They almost seemed to make a point of ignoring the van as it rolled by.
A poorly paved road led out of Letch Island township and into the hills. The institute sat near some clifftops overlooking the ocean, surrounded by pines. ‘Abolife Wellness Lifestyle Institute’ read the sign over the iron gate, just above the mantra, ‘Living Longer, Living Better’. Built as some kind of hospital in the 1920s, the intimidating building had been abandoned for decades and then bought and renovated by its current owner and Samar’s new boss, Joseph Davis.
Shane parked outside of the institute and gestured Samar out of the van. “This way.”
Samar collected his bags and followed Shane up the steps to the slightly grand stone arch of the front entrance. Inside was much more modern than the outside. White and brightly lit, with lots of steel and glass. The reception desk sat empty for the time being.
“Wait here, Mr Davis will want to meet with you first,” Shane said.
Samar set his bags down and waited as Shane disappeared. The walls of the institute were strangely quiet. Samar had been up for hours in order to catch the ferry but for a lot of people it was still relatively early. He wasn’t waiting long anyway before Joseph Davis, creator of Abolife, appeared.
“Samar! So pleased to see you made it, no problems with the ferry or finding Shane?”
“Mr Davis, no, thanks, everything was fine.”
Davis took Samar’s hand and shook vigorously. “Please, call me Joseph, we’re all informal here. Except in front of the clients, never in front of the clients. But you won’t be having much face time with clientele, will you?”
Samar had met Joseph Davis twice already but only through fairly shaky video calls. In person, he was struck by just how electric Joseph’s presence was. Tall, athletic and with a thick head of dark hair, he was in his late forties but gave off an impression of exceptional health. Samar, in his early twenties, felt like Joseph could have run literal rings around him.
“You’ve arrived not a moment too soon, we really need to get a new website up and running if we’re going to expand,” Joseph said. “And these constant tech issues and outages don’t reflect well on the institute.”
Samar’s main education was in website design, which he could have done for Abolife remotely. But Joseph wanted an all-round IT person to come and live on the island and deal with all of the institute’s technical needs. Samar knew enough to get by and could Google anything he didn’t know how to do off the top of his head. He’d been between apartments, lacking direction, and a job out on an island in the middle of nowhere sounded like an adventure.
“We really need to stop these wifi and communication problems, for the clients,” Joseph said. “You know, we’ve had several major sports people here at the institute. And do you know the rap star, Li’l Loada?”
“Uh, I might have heard the name,” Samar lied. “I don’t really know any of his-,”
Joseph interrupted, holding his thumb and finger only a hair apart. “We are this close to having a Kardashian come visit us.”
“Wow,” Samar said drily, for a lack of anything else to say.
“But for the staff, even senior members of Abolife, it’s the opposite. We need to block out distraction, stop them accessing certain websites.”
“Porn,” Samar blurted automatically.
“Yes, well, yes, but other distractions as well. Social media, I understand it has some uses in spreading our message but it’s so pointless, so ephemeral. It’s so human in that way, isn’t it? A short, temporary distraction from our short, temporary lives, like a rat pressing a button to light up its pleasure centres.”
“And there have been some websites critical of Abolife itself, I’m sure you’re aware. But people can’t access those, at least not on our time. They’re free to do it on their own time.”
“We have so much more to discuss, let me give you the nickel tour first.”
Joseph had Samar leave his bags behind the reception desk and took him on a walk around the facilities. Some of the staff, in white uniforms like the ones Shane and Joseph wore, scurried around getting ready for the day. They were quietly deferential to Joseph. The head of Abolife first showed Samar the opulent dining hall used by clients, with huge windows looking out on the pine forest behind the institution. Exercise equipment filled a gym for the clientele and there were several rooms for smaller classes. In a structure fashioned like a greenhouse, attached to the main building, was a heated pool and sauna. Various rooms existed for spa treatments and different forms of meditation.
Joseph led Samar into another long and dimly lit room, sparsely furnished except for several large, metal pods. They looked like refrigerators laid on their backs, or oversized coffins. Their interiors were half-filled with water. Isolation tanks, Joseph explained, for sensory deprivation. Clients would be closed inside where they would float in the water, cut off from external stimuli for meditative purposes.
“Of course, I insist you take advantage of all these facilities at least once so you can properly capture them on our new website!” Joseph said.
“Oh, no, no thank you.”
Samar cringed, realising he’d just blurted out a blunt refusal to his new boss. Joseph looked confused. Just looking at the open chambers of the isolation tanks, however, was giving Samar a heightened anxiety that he struggled to tamp down.
“Sorry, I just mean, I’ve got a bit of claustrophobia. I really don’t like enclosed spaces,” Samar said. “I really don’t think I could handle being inside one of those.”
“Fears like that hold us back, Samar. Here at Abolife we’re all about living longer and living better, there’s a world of possibility out there beyond the veil of your fears.”
“I’ll, keep that in mind, thanks.”
Joseph led Samar back to the reception desk and then showed him to his room in the staff accommodation wing, on the top level toward the back of the institute. Samar’s actual room looked like a converted closet but at least he had it to himself. A single bed, a desk and chair, and a lamp. The bathroom and shower facilities were shared. Samar’s window offered a decent view of the nearby cliffs. Joseph let him unpack, telling him to head to the staff cafeteria and they would talk more after breakfast.
Samar’s first day was uneventful. His office was tucked away along with the server room beneath some stairs on the lower level. It wasn’t glamorous, it didn’t even have a window, but it was private. Samar spent some time getting to learn what systems were already in place and setting things up the way he liked them.
Meals were in the staff cafeteria. It was dingy and nowhere near as nice as the renovated dining hall used by clients. Samar ate his meals alone. The other staff seemed wary about getting to know him, even after Joseph introduced him to the group. Given what Joseph had said about shutting off access to social media and other websites, Samar couldn’t blame them. They must have felt like Samar was there to keep an eye on them and whatever they were looking at online, not that he was about to narc on anyone as long as he could avoid it.
Lights out came at ten pm. Everyone had to be in their rooms, no reading, no electronic devices. Samar figured as the new IT guy though, he was an exception to that rule. Sitting in his darkened room the glow of his phone, connected to the institute’s wifi, reflected back on his face. In the quiet, the old building groaned and whispered from time to time. He opened up a chat with one of his friends and former roommates back on the mainland.
Alvin: How’s the cult?
Samar: It’s not a cult, and it’s fine so far. Dude who runs it seems a little intense. Room’s okay, pretty small
Alvin: Aren’t you worried about him seeing your messages talking about him like that?
Samar: I’m the IT Guy. If anyone’s going to check messages it’s me
Too wired to sleep, Samar sat at his desk and kept scrolling on his phone for almost an hour after lights out. The sound of waves crashing against the cliffs outside his window lulled him into an almost meditative state. Glancing toward the view though, he spotted movement.
Someone, actually half a dozen someones, walked toward the cliffs with flashlights. Samar shut off his phone and eased toward the window. The six flashlights headed away from the institution. Looking closer, Samar was pretty sure the person at the front of the line was Joseph Davis.
“Where are they going? It’s the middle of the night,” Samar said.
Samar watched the half a dozen people move along the cliffs. There must have been some kind of stairway that led down the cliffs because eventually the flashlights disappeared over the lip of the clifftop. Samar kept watching until eventually he felt too tired to stay awake but he never saw Joseph and the others come back up.
Samar’s first couple of weeks creating a new website for Abolife and doing general IT work were uneventful. Joseph Davis was one of the best and worst kinds of bosses a computer tech could have. Despite only being in his forties, Joseph had absolutely no idea how technology and the internet worked. It meant Samar could spend most of his time skimming Reddit or reading stuff online then explain away a whole day of work by throwing out a couple of bits of technical jargon. Joseph considered restarting a router or identifying an IP address in the realm of technical wizardry. And while Joseph wanted certain websites behind a firewall for employees, Samar had no risk of such a thing happening to him.
On the other hand, Joseph had impossible hopes for the new website and for increasing their social media engagement. For one, he insisted Samar place their new website on the front page of ‘The Google’ whenever anybody searched things like ‘wellness’, ‘health’, or similar related terms. He also insisted Samar explain at length why that wasn’t possible then still left the conversation seemingly dissatisfied.
Most of Abolife’s surface level stuff and services were basic healthy living. Exercise classes, meditation, massage, all with some kind of special caveats to justify the high price tags. Samar had to learn a lot more about it in putting the website together, he wasn’t given a lot of copy to work with. He could see why some people, like his friend Alvin, thought it was a cult though. Joseph had that manic energy and a lot of his staff were slavishly devoted to the lifestyle lessons he imparted. Some parts of the old website had a lot of loopy stuff trying to draw a line between the institute’s teachings and the long geological history of the earth. Accepting that human history was a mere speck compared to the long, long lifetime of the earth itself, and infinitesimal against the scale of universal time. To Samar, it just seemed like a clumsy attempt at putting a new spin on a ‘Time is short! Seize the day!’ type of messaging.
Joseph was obsessed, more than anything, with getting celebrity endorsements and media interviews, and taking Abolife mainstream. Whether Samar could control ‘The Google’ or not, Joseph insisted the website meet his vision. And he was exacting about his staff’s professionalism.
Many of the other members of staff were still standoffish with Samar. A lot of the senior staff only ever talked about Joseph’s teachings, and were just as obsessive about the institute’s success. With blocked websites and talk of web traffic being monitored, a certain paranoia ran through the less senior staff. Many were polite but kept Samar at arm’s length. He did become fast friends with a few people though who, like him, had signed on to specialty roles for the pay and sense of adventure. Kym, a masseuse and specialist in sports injuries. Tom, the institute’s accountant, and some of the kitchen staff.
Samar tried to make the most of his free time. He went for hikes around the island’s cliff tops and interior, but there were only so many dense forests of creepy pines or weatherbeaten cliffs that he could take. On one of his first outings, he found the stairs that must have been used by Joseph and the others when he’d seen them vanish on the first night he arrived. Cut into the side of the cliff, they were protected by a gate and a series of warnings not to use them due to the dangers involved. Samar considered ignoring the sign but the stairs were worn smooth as if by generations, uneven, and slick with damp, with no railing and a dizzying fall to jagged rocks beneath them. He couldn’t imagine using them in the middle of the night using only flashlights to navigate. Samar also visited the township of Letch Island but there was little to do there too. There was a general store, a small library and a bar, but Samar got the feeling he was unwelcome in all of them. He didn’t think it was a race thing, maybe they just didn’t like people from the institute or that all outsiders were met with the same dull eyed hostility.
Samar never went far from his windowless office when he was meant to be working though, regardless of what he was actually doing. Joseph was always popping in with little thought bubbles hovering over his head. Some brilliant new suggestion that Samar would either have to implement or try to talk him down from wasting time on. Two weeks after Samar arrived, Joseph turned up holding a notepad covered in drawn symbols.
“Samar, I want you to write some kind of-, translation software,” Joseph said.
“Translation? For what?”
“For this.” Joseph slapped the notepad onto the corner of Samar’s desk.
The notepad, or at least the first few pages, were covered in a variety of strange symbols. They had the order of writing but weren’t in any language that Samar had ever seen. It reminded him of Japanese or Chinese, maybe, but was full of spirals and many more sinuous shapes. Samar flicked through the pages in complete bewilderment then looked back at Joseph.
“You want to, what? Translate this from, whatever it is, into English?”
“That’s right, your computers can do that, can’t they? They scan things, recognise patterns, and translate what they mean?”
Samar was sure this was another example of Joseph’s belief that computers were really nothing more than magic boxes. Possibly it was something he’d seen in a TV show or a movie, or read about, and he’d been hit with a burst of inspiration.
“I don’t really know about that,” Samar said. “Computers actually have a hard time reading symbols or photos and recognising shapes to begin with. And then, to translate anything, I would have to know what this is?”
“It’s a language, a very, very ancient one,” Joseph said.
“Where did you get it from?”
“I copied it down myself.”
Joseph looked annoyed and didn’t answer. “Can your computers do it or not?”
Samar shrugged and gave his standard answer for when he didn’t really know what else to tell his boss. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“I’ll be back at the end of the day to see how you’re progressing. Do not show that to anyone, I’m only showing you because I thought your computers might help.”
“It might make it difficult to get any answers if I can’t show anyone.”
“Just, not yet, I don’t think the world is ready for what’s on those pages yet.”
Samar did his best to follow up on Joseph’s request by doing what he always did and Googling it. But while there was plenty of information out there about translation software, nothing worked as Joseph suggested. Samar tried looking for translators of ancient languages, and for characters that matched what was scrawled across the pages. He couldn’t find anything but it wasn’t his area of expertise by a long shot.
As promised, Joseph stopped by at the end of the day to check on Samar’s progress. Samar explained as best he could that he couldn’t do what Joseph expected. That he’d need an expert in ancient languages, not a computer geek. Samar made sure to toss in a few pieces of technical jargon just to make sure Joseph didn’t think he was avoiding the work.
“That’s disappointing,” Joseph said.
“Sir, if you told me what the language is or where you got it from, I could at least try to come up with some recommendations.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.” Joseph’s eyes shone with something almost like mischief. “Samar, you’ve read all the information on the old website regarding Abolife’s philosophies, haven’t you?
“Of course,” Samar said, although he’d mostly skimmed based on what Joseph wanted copied across.
“Human lives are infinitesimally small compared to the life of our planet. And I say our planet, but human history is a blip when weighed against geological ages. The movement of continents.”
“Sure, it’s-, a lot to think about.”
“What if I told you that buried in that timescale, Abolife philosophy believes there may have been other civilisations? Other intelligent beings that built upon this planet before human beings ever existed?”
“Does this have something to do with where you and the other senior staff go at night?”
Samar blurted the question out without thinking. It had been playing on his mind. Joseph said he’d copied the symbols down from somewhere. Maybe below the cliffs was some kind of cave system. Maybe it didn’t necessarily contain evidence of an ancient, pre-human civilisation, but it could have some evidence of early human inhabitation of the island. Joseph looked shocked at the question.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, nothing, sorry. Well, I’ve seen you and some of the other senior staff from my window, heading to the cliffs at night. I wondered if it might be something to do with that.”
“That’s after lights out, you’re not meant to see that.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to-,”
Joseph grabbed the notepad and took a step back. “I like you, Samar, I think you’re a good worker with an open mind. But don’t try to advance too quickly, have a little bit more faith and you’ll learn more when you’re ready.”
“Uh, okay, thank you.”
Samar sat with Kym and Tom at dinner but didn’t mention his conversation with Joseph. He also held off messaging Alvin or any of his friends on the mainland about it. That night, Samar stayed up and watched the window but he didn’t see anybody heading along the cliffs.
Joseph didn’t bring the topic up again with Samar so the next couple of days were tense but filled with normal tasks. Most of Joseph’s attention was diverted to the arrival of yet another of his ‘celebrity’ guests, a newsreader Samar had never heard of. In the drive to make everything perfect, Joseph seemed to forget Samar entirely as long as the wifi worked smoothly. But Samar kept watching the cliffs after lights out. He hadn’t braved going down there during the daytime but curiosity was eating him alive. And maybe Alvin was right all along, maybe Samar had gotten himself involved in a cult. If it was dangerous, then he’d be better off knowing now rather than too late.
Then, on the fourth night after his conversation with Joseph, Samar saw them. Sitting in his chair and scrolling on his phone, he spotted half a dozen lights making their way to the cliffs. Samar quickly turned his phone off so the glow wouldn’t give him away and moved closer to the window. Just in time, as he saw the flashlight at the front of the line pause and swing around, looking back at the institute. Samar could almost feel Joseph’s eyes scanning the windows, looking to see if they were watched. After a few seconds he seemed satisfied and moved on.
Samar jumped up and rushed to the foot of his bed. He was still wearing the white uniform he and the other staff wore to work but he exchanged the pants for some dark jeans and threw a jacket over his shirt. His feet slipped into some boots he wore when hiking around the island. Hurrying out of the room, Samar only took his staff keycard and his phone.
There was no security to keep people in their rooms at night, only the honour system and the fact a record of whose keycards were used where and when. Samar had access to the spreadsheet that tracked card movements so he could easily delete his record tomorrow. He hurried downstairs uninterrupted, corridors lit only by the dim nighttime cycle, seen by no one. His keycard beeped him through every door in his way and then through the rear exit of the institute.
Cool night air settled damply on Samar’s exposed skin. The rolling waves he heard all night in his room were louder. Joseph and the others must have already disappeared down the path and Samar jogged through the dark to follow them. He couldn’t be sure what they were doing. Uncovering or maybe manufacturing evidence of the island’s ancient inhabitants perhaps. Or maybe holding some kind of cultish ceremony. Samar decided to find out. He reached the gate and looked down. He saw flashlights bobbing along down the bottom of the path where the waves boiled and foamed over jagged rocks. Samar waited until they were fully out of sight before switching on the flashlight on his phone.
As Samar had already seen, the steps were worn and uneven, potentially treacherous with a sheer drop to one side. Samar wasn’t going to let that stop him now though, although he wished he’d given the path a trial run at least once during daylight. Pressing himself close to the rock wall, Samar eased down step by step and made sure to keep the flashlight pointed where he was going. It was a good thing he had a fear of enclosed spaces and not of heights.
The stairway doubled back. The stones were even more weathered and slick with seawater but also flatter and wider. Samar kept his light low as he looked ahead. Glimmers of flashlight beams showed through a cave opening at the end of the path. Once he was sure of his footing, Samar turned off his light. He let his eyes adjust to the moon, which was almost full. The glow turned the rocks into a chiaroscuro and glimmered on the waves. Following the flashlights, Samar crept inside the cave and followed a short, twisty passage. What he saw as he peered over a rock ledge almost caused him to shout in surprise.
Flashlights had been placed at strategic points around the cave to light it. Joseph Davis and five other people knelt at the lip of a pool flowing in from the wide mouth of the cave. Several shapes, three of them, wallowed in the sea pool. Huge, living beings, totally alien.
“What is this?” Samar whispered.
The three creatures were roughly the size of hippos, although it was hard to say as a lot of their bulk must have been hidden beneath the water. One of the three was slightly smaller and a different shade from the other two. Their skin was slick and grey, water running off of it. While thick and heavy, their bodies were almost serpentine. Tentacles grew from where their ‘shoulders’ would be. Small black eyes were buried in the folds of their faces, below the big humps of their heads. And their mouths, they reminded Samar of lampreys or giant leeches. Massive, sucking holes, big enough that someone like Samar could have curled up in a ball inside them, ringed with dozens and dozens, hundreds, of teeth like daggers.
Only Joseph raised his head, all the other cultists pressed their foreheads against the cave’s rocky floor. They were a cult after all, Samar saw now. And this was who or what they worshipped. Joseph said something but spoke too low for Samar to understand, or to even know if he was speaking english. To Samar’s shock, one of the creatures replied. It certainly wasn’t English, a lot of chuffing, rumbling, and shrill inhales, but it had an unmistakable pattern to it. Language, not random animal sounds.
“Holy shit,” Samar said.
Joseph’s talk of ancient, antediluvian civilisations wasn’t just wild imagination. He knew these creatures existed, maybe before humans or maybe not but certainly now alongside them in secret. Samar watched as the lead creature chuffed and lifted a tentacle out of the water. With some kind of natural ink, it sketched something on a nearby rock. A symbol, like the symbols Joseph had shown Samar. In fact, Samar saw Joseph had the yellow notepad in front of him and was hurriedly copying the symbols onto a fresh page as the watery ink blurred and ran.
No one would believe him without proof, Samar thought to himself. He retrieved his phone and raised it over the rocks. Shakily, he opened the camera app and trained it on the gathering so as to get a full picture of the creatures with Joseph and the cultists for scale.
Samar clicked the photo button, and the flash from his phone bounced across the cave. The creatures, their eyes used to the dark of the ocean depths, blinked and recoiled. Their leader made a shrieking wail and huffed. Joseph and the other cultists looked up.
“Shit!” Samar said.
Samar ducked and ran, struggling back through the rock passage. A tumult came from the cultists behind him. Samar couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to turn off the flash, of all the stupid rookie mistakes to make.
Waves crashed against the rocks. Samar sprinted up the stairs as fast as he dared. At the point where the steps doubled back, he had to switch his phone’s flashlight back on. Heart racing, he glanced back down and saw the cultists’ flashlights coming for him.
“Come on, come on,” Samar said.
Once he was on solid ground, Samar tried to use his phone. He had no reception though and had to wait until he was back on the institute’s wifi. As he ran, he opened his messenger app and hit on Alvin as his most recent contact.
Samar: You were right it’s a cult found them talking to things don’t know what’s going to happen
Samar uploaded the pic he’d taken in the cave. It was slightly out of focus but he was sure it showed what he needed. Tiny circles spun next to both the message and the photo. Samar shoved the phone back in his pocket and grabbed his keycard. Over his shoulder, the first of the flashlights reappeared at the top of the cliffside path.
Where should he go, Samar wondered. A ferry left the island first thing in the morning. With what he’d just uncovered, Samar felt strongly he should be on it. But there were hours until dawn. He couldn’t just run off into the woods. Nor would he find shelter in town, among the standoffish locals.
“They don’t know it was me, not for sure,” Samar said. “I’ll go back to my room and pack. First thing in the morning, I’ll make an excuse and run for it. They don’t know it was me.”
Samar slammed through the back door. He slipped through the corridors again, breathing hard. His keycard beeped his way up through the building, back to his room. Samar crossed to the window. He couldn’t see any more flashlights outside. They didn’t know it was him, not for sure. Samar tried to even out his breathing and thought about his next move. Should he pack? Should he strip and climb into bed, and play innocent if they came to his room?
Collecting himself, Samar stripped off his jacket and kicked off his boots. He retrieved the phone from his pocket and checked it again, thinking of who to call. But the wifi was down, he was offline. He couldn’t tell if his messages to Alvin had gone through. Letch Island only had cell reception down in town, in the institute they relied on wifi. Samar had shown Joseph and the others how to restart the wifi in case he wasn’t around when it went down. He didn’t think they’d paid attention, especially Joseph, but at least one of them knew enough to shut it off now.
Suddenly, the door to Samar’s room jumped. Samar jumped as well. Someone was outside, hammering on it despite the late hour.
“Samar, it’s me, let me in,” Joseph said.
Samar calmed his breathing and wondered about his response, making his voice sound sleepy. “What? What is it? It’s the middle of the night.”
“We know it was you, Samar, come on. Your boots tracked in a whole bunch of dirt.”
Samar hesitated, and looked down at his boots. If he started screaming, Samar figured he could wake up the rest of the staff who slept on that floor. But most of the staff loved, and partially feared, Joseph, or at least respected him, while Samar could only sound crazy.
“All I want to do is talk, Samar, you know me. Just because you found out some new information, do you think that really changes our relationship?
Samar slowly moved toward the door. He couldn’t barricade himself in there all night. So he knew their secret, that didn’t mean it was a secret to kill for.
“Okay, okay, I’m opening the door,” Samar said.
“We just want to talk,” Joseph repeated.
The hallway was dimly lit. Joseph stood outside, giving Samar an almost parental look. Behind him was Shane, the big man who’d fetched Samar from the pier on the day he’d arrived on the island. Shane still carried his flashlight, a big, black, heavy one shaped like a club.
“Oh, Samar,” Joseph said, smiling sadly.
Shane brought his flashlight up and around, connecting with Samar’s temple. A lance of pain went through Samar’s skull. He was vaguely aware of a falling sensation and then nothing.
When Samar woke up he found himself in total blackness. He was wet, and water sloshed around him as he was thrown from side to side. He felt like a sock in a washing machine. Dazed, Samar’s hands shot out and met hard resistance on both sides and directly above him. His head throbbed with pain like a terrible hangover.
“Hey, hey!” Samar yelled.
Samar realised he was in an enclosed space. Totally black, lightless, and capped at either end. There was a lid but it was sealed shut and only shifted half a centimetre, maybe a little more, maybe less, when Samar hit it. A metal coffin. With the size and the water sloshing around inside it, Samar realised he was inside one of the isolation tanks. One of those Joseph had shown him on the day he arrived and wanted him to try.
“Who’s out there? Let me out!” Samar started to panic.
They were moving. The sensory deprivation tank was being rolled and judging by how violently he was being thrown around they were moving across uneven ground, not through the institute’s long, smooth corridors. Someone banged on the lid.
“I’m sorry, Samar! You were a good worker, a good listener, but you weren’t ready.” Joseph’s voice came from outside, slightly muffled.
“Let me out! Let me out!”
“You’ve probably figured some of it out, based on our chat. They’re ancient, Samar. They’re older than man and all his gods. Their kind ruled this planet’s oceans from end to end during the age of the dinosaurs. War devastated their species before the first creature to even resemble humankind walked upright on the plains of Africa.”
“Let me out!” Samar slammed his fists against the lid, the sound of his own voice making his head hurt.
“They’re biologically immortal, Samar! Apart from violence or accident, they cannot die! And they’ll share the knowledge of how we can be like them but only if we show them absolute loyalty. This island is one of their remaining kingdoms. Below the surface, it’s riddled with caves and tunnels where they live. This island and everything for a hundred miles around it, we have to keep them safe!”
The chamber continued to be pushed across rough ground. Samar searched his pockets and found his phone. Even though it was wet, it still worked. Doing his best to control his terror, he searched the confines of his prison but found no way out.
“Please! Please, I’m sorry! Let me out!” Samar said. “I won’t tell anyone!”
“I’m sorry, Samar, but you’re not ready. The world isn’t ready to live longer, live better, and we must make mankind ready before we reveal them and their secrets!”
The tank was tilted, and Samar fell backward. He listened past Joseph’s muffled voice. He could hear waves slamming against the coast. They’d been getting louder. They were pushing him toward the cliffs.
“Please! I’ll do anything! I won’t say anything!” Samar said.
“You frightened and offended them. I’m sorry, Samar, there’s no other way.”
Samar’s metal coffin tilted violently forward and back. He was being lifted. Begging and pleading, he tried to stop them but no one replied.
Suddenly, Samar was in freefall. The water in the tank rose around him as if in zero gravity. Instinctively, Samar shot his arms and legs out to brace himself. He fell for several seconds before hitting the water with a bone jarring thud. Thrown around the chamber, he barely avoided being knocked out for a second time.
“Oh, fuck! No! No!”
Samar’s metal coffin sank rapidly. He felt pressure on his ears and sinuses, and sobbed for breath. Slamming his hands against the lid, he felt water leaking around the edges. His phone’s light continued to work but seemed dimmer by the second.
“Help me! Someone!”
Something slammed against the tank, but it wasn’t help. Through the skin of the metal chamber, Samar felt powerful limbs wrapping around his coffin. He screamed, but only for a second as the lid was ripped away and the ocean exploded inward. In the dying light of his phone, Samar saw an enormous shape surrounded by tentacles, and rows and rows of teeth.
Sean: Going for something modern but Lovecraftian in this one! Had a nice little existential crisis and got up at 4am to type it out so I hope you enjoyed and found my sleeplessness worthwhile.
Before I conceived of doing All There in the (Monster) Manual as a series of short stories, I’d still gone looking for inspiration in the Monster Manual and this was inspired by the Aboleth then. I originally conceived the idea as a full novel but I think it works better as a short story, although you can still see a couple of spaces it could flesh out. The locals, Samar’s friendship with some of the other employees, stuff like that. Fans of Lovecraft will no doubt spot a resemblance between the locals of Letch Island and inhabitants of another little place called Innsmouth although what exactly that means for their relationship with the island’s other inhabitants I couldn’t say.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes, there is a secret message lurking in the transparent text in the banner / cover I created for this story. And yes, that secret message is just the lyrics to ‘Absolutely (Story of a Girl)’ by Nine Days which I copied and pasted in a Lovecraftian font.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Ettercap