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: Flumph
After failing to listen to their mother, a youngster slips outside the borders of safety and has an unforgettable encounter.
“Mom, I’m going out to play!” Troy called across the house
Troy’s mother emerged from the kitchen, a dish towel in her damp hands. “Okay, but don’t go outside the fences this time, alright honey?” She caught the look he gave her. “It could be dangerous, and no one would know where you were!”
“Promise!” She shouted after him, but he was already gone.
Early sunshine knifed through the trees but Troy’s neighbourhood was already bustling. People in what they called ‘the village’ rose with the dawn to get the most out of the daylight. They filled the road, empty of cars, pushing carts of tools or food or soil. Troy’s yard as well as the yards of every house around them and the strips of dirt down the sides of the road were given away to vegetable gardens. Chickens clucked and crowed from a nearby house that had been converted into a large coop.
At that time of morning, the playground lay empty. The park surrounding it was a community garden, filled with flowering vegetable plants, but the ground where the playground sat was made of a soft, rubbery material. The inlaid matting and the equipment had faded over the years but without a lot of options for entertainment it was popular with the village kids.
Troy tried playing by himself for a little while. The playground had a tunnel he could crawl inside where he would pretend he was a sniper, aiming at people passing by on the street. But at twelve years old, Troy knew he was too old for games of imagination and he didn’t enjoy them as much as he used to. Besides, he knew it was only a matter of time before he broke his mother’s rule and slipped outside the fences to try and find some real adventure. Troy justified to himself that although he’d heard his mom yell, he’d never actually promised. Climbing out of the tunnel, he made sure no one was watching as he snuck off toward the edge of the village.
The barricades were not patrolled religiously like they used to be, when bandits and other threats from the outside world were more common. Some sections of fence were falling into disrepair. Troy came to one spot where the road ended at the fence and thick clumps of grass and weeds grew to either side. He pulled some coils of wire back and crawled through the gap, risking tetanus. Nerves made his hands shake as he straightened up. Although the world outside the fences remained peaceful, somehow it suddenly felt a lot bigger and a little bit threatening on this side. No one had seen him, no one knew of his plans. Troy could have turned around, chickened out, and no one would be the wiser. But he had his pride, and he’d been outside the village before without problems. Troy forced himself forward, and the fear and guilt began to melt away to be replaced by excited curiosity again.
The road Troy walked remained mostly intact but patches of weeds punctured the asphalt. Cars, windows foggy or broken, sat on rotting wheels to either side. Their paint blistered and peeled, and rust scaled the exposed frames. Troy kept walking until he lost sight of the fence surrounding the village. He could still hear voices and activity in the distance though, and was still in what they used to call the same ‘suburb’. Houses to either side of the road looked identical to those back in the village, he even saw ones designed in the exact same way as his own home. But these houses hadn’t been maintained and many were damaged or falling down. Weeds and tall grass choked their yards and plants even grew inside the houses, poking through broken windows and doorways.
Scavengers would have already taken most everything of real value from the area surrounding the village. They only went out now if looking for specific mechanical parts or tools, or electronics for things like the village’s HAM radios. Troy wanted to take back something though, to prove to his friends he’d braved the world outside the fences again. There were still plenty of toys and gadgets and weird knick knacks in the abandoned houses. People of the old world used to fill their houses with the most unbelievable hordes of useless things. Troy regarded some of the house a little nervously though. Roofs had suffered years of alternating winters and summers without care and looked like they were on the verge of collapse. Wild animals nested in some houses and could be dangerous. He decided to roam a little further before exploring the inside of any buildings.
Nearby, Troy knew there was an old freeway. Three lanes of traffic on either side, thousands of dead cars that were never moving again rusting and being swallowed by plant life. He headed along the cracked road in the other direction though, and came to the beginnings of an open, grassy area lined with trees that used to be a public park.
Something snapped, a stick breaking underfoot. Troy froze, hunkering down, and looked around the surrounding park. Noise from the village was now so faint as to almost be imaginary. Birds twittered in the treeline but everything in Troy’s immediate surroundings seemed utterly still and silent.
Suddenly, a head crowned with magnificent antlers lifted from behind a tall patch of grass. A sizable male deer, almost as tall as Troy at the shoulder and covered in tawny fur. Its shiny, black eyes examined Troy with animal intelligence.
Troy and the animal simply watched one another for several long moments, and then Troy took a hesitant step forward. Like a gunshot, the deer exploded into motion. Without thinking, Troy raced after it. Grass rose as high as his hips, some weedy patches even taller. Of course, he was nowhere near fast enough to catch up to the deer. The animal raced toward the woods. Despite the deer’s obvious beauty, Troy thought about catching it and bringing it back to the village as venison. He’d look like a hero then, and surely his mom would have to forgive him for slipping outside the fence.
As he ran into the open, something caught the corner of Troy’s eye. Its colour stood out against the woodsy surroundings as unnatural but Troy was fixated on the deer and only glanced in the other direction. His eyes didn’t know what to make of what he was seeing and he almost ignored it, but then his brain hit the emergency brake. Letting out a choked cry, Troy stumbled to a stop and nearly tripped. The deer kept going, vanishing into the woods.
“Wha-, what? What?”
Some kind of creature hovered down the other end of the park, although it took Troy several beats to recognise it as a living thing. A strand of trees had blocked it from Troy’s line of sight until he decided to chase the deer. Enormous, elephantine, but hanging in the air as if weightless. Troy watched it and felt it watching him, although he couldn’t see any eyes.
Most of the creature’s body was made up of a huge sack that reminded Troy of a hot air balloon. Pale yellow, the sack was mostly translucent and filled with some kind of gas. Dark, squirmy bits of something drifted inside the sack, like intestines. The gas sack held the creature aloft and the rest of its insectile body dangled underneath. A bramble of gnarled limbs, dark blue, all ended in curved talons. At least a dozen arms. Its face was horrific, once Troy recognised that it had a kind of face. A sideways maw filled with a complicated set of interlocking fangs.
Troy had never seen an elephant in real life, which is what this thing would have been roughly the size of. Maybe he’d be just as stunned if that’s what this thing was, an elephant, especially if said elephant was floating five or so metres off the ground. He’d never seen a plane or a hot air balloon, or a penguin, or a dinosaur skeleton, except in books, all those things belonged back in the world before everything changed. It was possible this creature was something from the old world that he’d never come across before, but instinctively Troy knew that wasn’t true. The hovering thing was entirely too otherworldly. It didn’t belong on the same planet as Troy or anything in his experience. Even comparing it to an insect or a jellyfish or some deep sea creature was grasping for comparison. And what’s more, the creature wore some kind of equipment. A metal belt wrapped around the creature’s midsection, between where its limbs began and its huge, semi-translucent sack. Something like breathing equipment bordered either side of its gaping maw. It wasn’t just an animal of a type he’d never heard of. Troy knew what this was, an alien, a monster from another world, like they talked about in books and the stories that some entertainers told when cribbing from movies produced in the old world.
Both Troy and the alien froze as soon as they spotted one another. The alien bobbed there peacefully, long enough that Troy had time to recover and worry what he should do next. But then the alien raised one taloned limb and looked as if it was moving closer. It had to be a predator of some kind, with all those claws and teeth. Troy spun around and shot back the way he’d come, taking off like the deer had done.
Troy ripped his way through the grass, on the edge of tripping over but then recovering half a dozen times. He hit the street, moccasins slapping the asphalt. He wanted to look back but didn’t, not once all the way home.
Two Earth hours earlier…
Zarle looked down at the curve of the rocky, blue and green planet below. The atmosphere was strangely clear to his visual sensors. Not colourful and largely opaque like the air of his homeworld. His parents and the rest of the diplomatic research group bobbed around the massive observation deck behind him. Beyond the windows on the other side of the deck was the starry field of the rest of the galaxy, and the planet’s single grey, dusty moon.
A service droid latched itself to Zarle’s side and pumped his flotation chambers full of buoyant gas. Usually, Zarle would inhale and vent gas to float and move around as naturally as breathing. Certainly it was easy in the low gravity of the diplomatic research ship. But the air of the planet below was thinner than what he and his people were used to, hence the special gas and breathing nodules. He’d have to hold onto the gas and use his manipulators and the motors on his belt, strapped around his midsection, to move around.
“Down in four trills,” the group’s tour operator said. “Everyone aboard the dropship, folks!”
Bristling excitedly, they filed toward the dropship. Disconnecting from the droid, Zarle followed at the back of the pack a little sullenly. Limbs twitching with barely withheld anxiety, his mother drifted alongside him.
“What is that expression? You know, not everybody gets to fly halfway across the galaxy to see a primitive, unexplored world,” Zarle’s mother said.
“Yeah, sure, thanks for bringing me, I guess,” Zarle said.
“Why don’t you hang out with the other kids?”
A few of the other diplomatic researchers had been allowed to bring their families, although Zarle’s parents were leading the team. But Zarle was the only one straddling that line between childhood and puberty. The others were all at least several cycles younger.
Although the dropship was relatively luxurious, with all of them on board the quarters were tight. Floatation chambers swollen with unfamiliar gas rubbed together. The central area was windowless. Zarle felt them drop away from the mothership. Inertial dampeners kicked in as the ship plunged toward the rocky planet’s atmosphere. The ship’s outer shell heated up to over sixteen thousand degrees celsius. They came in over the open ocean, so there was less chance of anybody on the surface seeing the ship’s burning trail across the sky. Once they’d entered the atmosphere and killed most of their momentum, reaching a safe cruising altitude, the ship cloaked itself. The hologram would render the ship invisible to the planet’s inhabitants as it travelled through the sky.
“The landmass we are travelling toward now was known once as the United States of America, America, or the USA for short, by its inhabitants,” the tour operator explained. “It was the seat of the planet’s power at the time of collapse, although its influence had been in significant decline for some time.”
The deck where they were gathered became transparent. They zipped in over the ocean and the shoreline, across what remained of some kind of sprawling urban centre. Zarle watched as they passed over the ruins. Fire had ravaged large swathes of the city. On a hillside above the destruction and decay, Zarle glimpsed a series of enormous letters corresponding to the primary language of this landmass at the time of collapse. Battered and on the verge of falling down, some appeared to have broken apart already leaving the sign to read ‘H__LY__OD’. Zarle couldn’t guess at their significance. The ship picked up speed again, invisible, and the landscape below became a blur as they travelled inland.
They set down on the outskirts of another ruined city. Filtering out, Zarle, his parents and the others all used their belts rather than venting to move around. Breathing devices filtered the air. Drones whirred out of the ship and formed a circle around the group. Diplomats and researchers cooed and chattered and gestured excitedly among themselves. Zarle’s people spoke almost as much with their limbs as with sound. Zarle stayed toward the rear of the group.
Led by the tour operator, they picked their way between the planet’s large, bristly plant life, much harder and more uniform than anything back home. The tour operator led them to an open passage where long stretches of black rock were choked with boxy devices resting on rotting, rubber wheels.
“As they were only capable of slowly travelling over land, and were incapable of flight like us, this planet’s inhabitants used these vehicles known as ‘cars’ for much of their travel,” the tour operator explained. “These were unfortunately one of the key causes of their downfall. The fuel these vehicles used was one of the major contributors to the damage sustained by the planet’s atmosphere. The humans knew this, but were unable or unwilling to find other solutions for their travel needs. At the time the Council took action to keep the inhabitants from wiping themselves out entirely, there were more of these cars than adult individuals on this landmass alone.”
“Were they too selfish to find other ways when they knew they were hurting the atmosphere?” One of the children asked.
“Not selfish.” The tour operator’s limbs assumed a thoughtful posture. “Humans were quick to adapt but slow to change culturally, and highly individualistic. The car had taken a very special place in their culture, so even those most worried about the problem struggled to change. That was why the Council took the extreme measure of disabling the humans’ ability to produce power from orbit. Many, many humans died in the chaos that followed, but many now survive, which wouldn’t have happened if they were allowed to continue on their path uninterrupted.”
“And that’s why we’re here of course!” Zarle’s father interrupted. “To assess if the humans are ready to begin the process of healing relations, with an option to perhaps join the Confederation in the future!”
A typical politician’s interjection. Zarle gestured sarcastically, entwining several limbs and then releasing. He used his belt to drift away from the others as the operator resumed talking.
“Where are you going, sweet child?” Zarle’s mother turned to him.
“Okay, but don’t go outside the drones, alright? It could be dangerous.”
Zarle drifted back along the roadway, his aural receptors picking up sounds of the planet’s wildlife. Flying creatures, like him, but instead of floating and steering by venting gas like Zarle and most of the creatures back home, they flew through the physical exertion of their broad, flat, front limbs. It seemed ludicrously inefficient, but the atmosphere and gravity were very different here. Behind Zarle, everyone listened to the tour operator and no one paid him much attention.
Drones hung in the sky high above the group, surrounding them in a loose circle. Like the ship, they were almost entirely invisible. Zarle could pick up their vibration frequencies easily but it was his understanding that the intelligent inhabitants of this planet, the humans, lacked such finely attuned senses. Given this was a mission of peace, the drones were only set to warn the group and move them on if any of the planet’s sentients approached. Apparently there was a small settlement nearby they intended to observe, quietly and secretly, after having a look around the area. The drones were not intended to fence the tour group in, however, and didn’t react as Zarle slipped beyond them. Sure, his mother had called out to him to promise but he’d never actually said the words. He felt a little nervous, even fearful, but the excitement of exploring a primitive world all on his own quickly overcame all that.
Zarle found another vehicle pathway and followed it, staying below the level of the surrounding treetops. He used his belt to steer or picked his way along by reaching down and grabbing branches or the roofs of abandoned cars and propelling himself forward. In the back of his mind, Zarle imagined himself descending through clouds of vapour and picking off muttflies with his taloned manipulators like a hunter.
Zarle reached a more open area where he could drift around without feeling boxed in, still surrounded by trees on the outskirts. Everything was green, disorientingly so, not like the multicoloured floating forests of his homeworld. Spying a moving splash of brown amidst the greenery, Zarle stopped. He went totally still. An earth creature, an alien bigger than any of the birds but not a sentient. It was stuck to the ground on four legs but there was a litheness and grace to the strange creature. It was covered in fur that looked soft and slick. Rising above its head were two weird growths, Zarle didn’t know what to call them. They looked almost like his own manipulators but were stiff and unmoving.
Zarle hovered, watching the earth creature for a couple of trills. It ignored him completely but then seemed to sense something off to its right, and its head with the funny growths rose above the ground plants. After a few more moments, something triggered it and it exploded into motion. The creature ran for the trees. Seconds later, another creature followed it and Zarle almost recoiled in shock.
It was one of the planet’s sentients! A line of trees had blocked it from Zarle’s line of sight. The creature was small and looked fragile, with two skinny legs and two arms, and a round head on the top of its body instead of on the bottom. It wore pieces of shaped cloth over its torso region and legs, and had fur only on the top of its head. Its skin was uniformly pale, pinkish and smooth. Sensing Zarle, it stumbled and stopped, and made confused sounds with its mouth.
Zarle hung where he was, paralysed with terror. He’d been spotted by one of the inhabitants of this primitive world. Inhabitants which may have been small and fragile but, based on what he knew of their culture and history, had a reputation for aggression, war, and mindless destruction. Zarle’s hearts thundered so hard he felt like he might be sick. This was a research mission, they weren’t meant to be spotted. He’d been so careless going outside the coverage of the drones. His parents were going to be so angry.
With no idea what to do, Zarle started forward and raised one of his manipulators. That seemed to be enough for the human. They turned and ran, disappearing behind the trees and returning in the direction they had come. Zarle worried what they might say when they got back to others of their kind but was too frightened to go after them and wouldn’t have been able to communicate even if he did.
Troy made it all the way to the outskirts of the village without slowing down. Carelessly, he shoved his way back through the gap in the barricade and tore his shirt. Only once he was on the other side did he dare to look back. There was nothing there, the creature hadn’t followed him.
Pale and shaky, Troy made his way back to his house. He saw a few people he knew well on the way, or who at least knew his parents. A couple of them asked if he was feeling okay. Not trusting himself to speak, Troy only nodded and moved on.
Troy tried to quantify what he’d seen, and couldn’t. He wondered if he should warn someone, warn the village, but who would believe him? A monster? One he couldn’t even describe without sounding crazy? A creature from another planet, as big as an elephant but that floated like a balloon? Troy could hardly believe his own memory of the encounter let alone find the words to make it sound believable.
When Troy got home he tried to sneak in but his hands weren’t obeying his commands. Clumsily, he slammed the door too hard behind him. Unsure of what to do next, he hesitated in the entryway.
“Troy, is that you?” Troy’s mother circled into the entry and concern passed over her face. “Honey, are you okay?”
Troy confusedly made a gesture between shrugging and shaking his head. “Yeah, yeah.”
“Did you go outside the fence?”
“I-, I’m sorry, I did.”
“Troy, what happened? Did something happen?”
“No, nothing.” Troy shook his head more confidently this time. “Nothing happened.”
Zarle hurried back to the freeway, his belt puttering. His floatation chambers throbbed with tension. The tour group hadn’t noticed he was gone. As he approached, his mother turned to greet him.
“Sweet child, are you okay?”
“Yes, yes,” Zarle replied.
“Did you go outside the drones?”
“I-, I’m sorry, I did.”
“Zarle, did something happen?”
Zarle gestured in the negative. “No, nothing. Nothing happened.”
Sean: Thematically, I feel like this one has a bit of a callback to Leviathan in that both stories involve very alien-looking aliens but at the same time there’s a thread of shared humanity. Whether it’s in science fiction or in fantasy, or something else, I’m very fond of those feelings of shared moments of connection and humanity.
One of the trickiest things in these kinds of stories is describing a world or various things that emphasise the differences to a reader, but through the eyes of a character to whom these things are perfectly normal. And then having them describe something to us which we might be able to understand, but that they lack the full context for. I mean, I hope you get what I’m going for?
While editing this one, the thought did pop into my head of how much fun it might be to travel back in time with something like The Skywhale balloon – which, if you’re not aware, is a giant, whale-shaped hot air balloon with a bunch of tits hanging off it, get it up in the air, duck down in the basket, and hover it over a few tribes of primitive humans. Got to wonder how something like that might reshape the path of human religion and worship.