Prose Header


by Philip Armstrong

Part 1 and Part 2
appear in this issue.

Mera hears one of their quarries yelp as she knocks it off its feet, but a moment later it stops struggling. Tentatively she raises one corner of the net and a tongue emerges to lick her cheek avidly. Meanwhile, Loki feels the contents of his own net bucking and writhing beneath him.

The light metal mesh is too close to see through, but under it he feels shapes like great wings unfurling, coils writhing, then a heavy taloned paw tearing in vain at the material. A moment later Mera, having released Lupe, joins Loki as he struggles with his captive, who has now taken a single form again.

With the combined weight of their bodies they hold it down while Loki bites off the stopper of the hypodermic and plunges the needle through the mesh. Then they hang on grimly, bucked by the rearing mass until at last it subsides and falls still.

“Giant Armadillo,” he says, and they both laugh.

Mera and Loki are tucked up warmly in a hollow cave while in the darkness outside the wind continues its endless tirade. Lupe is curled up between them. Every half an hour or so, one of them turns on a torch to visit the fine-mesh steel cage at the back of their shelter, opening the door a crack and peering inside. Last time, Mera discovered the writhing muscular body of a python; the time before that, Loki was confronted by a boar tearing at the cage wall with its tusks.

A little later, when Mera checks for the last time, she finds two dozen small rabbits, white and black, blinking up at her. This is the moment Loki and Mera have waited for. Quickly they install the extra separators that divide the enclosure into half-a-dozen compartments, with a few rabbits in each. This will enable them to carry the Scamels to the coast in a few installments, rather than as a single heavy mass.

* * *

Loki’s return to the Pharmakon with the Scamels causes a reaction greater than he expected. And the fuss shows no sign of dying down. He is beginning to realize that much more had been at stake than he realized.

In fact his expedition is a watershed in a struggle for prestige between Eugenia Monboddo and a faction of top scientists attempting to challenge her control of the Pharmakon. To the latter, and to most of Loki’s peers, the Scamels expedition was a fool’s errand, and they had looked forward eagerly to its failure, which would provide them with the occasion they needed to move against the Director.

To Monboddo, however, the mission was just one of a number of long-shot projects she had sponsored, each designed to cement her power once and for all. With increasing alarm, she observed these expeditions return to the capital empty-handed, one by one — or not at all. Only Loki’s has been successful.

Consequently, while Loki expected to be greeted with approval from his superiors and envy from his peers, the intensity of feeling that surrounds him during the first weeks home takes him by surprise. He can sense that power blocks and allegiances are rearranging themselves around him, some receding and some falling into place, like a wooden puzzle rapidly being solved. As this process continues, two things become crystal-clear: the acquisition of the Scamels has guaranteed both Monboddo’s pre-eminence and Loki’s position as her protégé and heir apparent.

Perhaps it is to acknowledge and celebrate this victory that Monboddo so frequently summons Loki to meet her in the observation chamber attached to the Scamels’ glassed-in enclosure. Certainly her conversation during these occasions seems to have little purpose; mainly they stand in silence, while Monboddo’s eloquent eyes are fixed on the Scamels as they flow from shape to shape.

During these first weeks, the panic of captivity brings out an astonishing range of forms in them, as they assume all manner of tusks and pincers and club-like fists to try and penetrate the walls that confine them. In time though, the changes slow. The Scamels seem to accept their confinement and revert to what seem to be their preferred figures — lagomorphs, ursidae, pachyderms — just as the institution that houses them also settles and finds its own level.

Over the months that follow Loki has little attention to spare for his prize specimens. He is too busy keeping up with the new responsibilities granted to him by Monboddo, as a result of his new status. And anyway, she seems to prefer to take direct control over the housing and care of the Pharmakon’s most celebrated inmates.

So when, after a peremptory knock at his office door, the usually robotic Moss enters with a flushed face and announces, “They’re gone!,” Loki has to think for a moment who he is referring to. And even then he can’t believe it.

“The Scamels?” he says incredulously. “How can they be?”

“You tell me,” says Moss, with poorly-concealed relish. “Or rather, tell Monboddo. She wants to see you right now.”

Loki finds Monboddo interrogating the team of keepers and security guards who work with the collection, one by one. Her customary calm has taken on an icy rigidity and coldness, and each person who leaves her seems reduced and haggard. Loki learns that the enclosure was found empty this morning, the two reinforced doors wide open, and a security guard dead on the floor inside with a single ragged gash in his the throat. Speculation centers on why he would have gone into the enclosure, as no-one has permission to do so without direct instructions from Monboddo herself in person.

As it turns out, there is little expected of Loki. Aware that the fate of the Scamels is so closely tied up with her own, Monboddo has come to trust no-one else with their care. And after so many weeks observing them intensely, she regards herself as the only person with adequate knowledge to resolve the present crisis. After a brief consultation Loki is sent to oversee one aspect of the massive search exercise Monboddo has organized.

A week goes by, and the Scamels are still missing, and the means of their escape no better understood. The Pharmakon lapses into crisis. The rumor of the security guard’s death has spread like an airborne virus, and in every department staff have reported sick, or simply not come to work, unwilling to continue their tasks until the Scamels have been recovered or destroyed. In fact, Monboddo has seconded so many of the remaining staff to the search for the miscreant creatures that virtually no other Pharmakon business can proceed anyway.

But the most debilitating effect of all seems to be on the Director herself. Day by day, the rumors grow, mutating and expanding, feeding on the combination of fear and delight emanating from the staff. Monboddo, they say, is not herself. The disappearance of her prize specimens has affected her badly: she has lost her grip on the Pharmakon. She seems no longer to be capable of the intense concentration that made her the organizing consciousness of the institution.

Researchers and security staff gather to swap stories about how oddly she is behaving. Several times she has been encountered in remote corners of the building, seemingly startled by her discovery, as though woken from a daze. When she is addressed she gives no reply, but hastens away, her eyes set in a glazed and faraway glance. At other times however she acts perfectly normally, asking for reports on the status of the search and issuing instructions as if nothing is wrong.

Loki himself experiences this inconsistent behavior one day. He finds the Director hunched behind an air-conditioning unit adjoining the outside of the Scamels’ enclosure. When he moves towards her with concern she backs away down the hall. Troubled, Loki follows, tentatively, but she disappears into the maze of corridors. He decides to return to work, and fifteen minutes later he meets her coming out of the elevator. Puzzled, he asks if she is feeling better.

“Better than what?” she replies brusquely, marching her entourage of security guards towards the laboratories to resume the search.

Loki has been staring at the report on the desk in front of him all morning, and so far has failed to read a word of it. Instead, he is wondering how long the situation at the Pharmakon can continue. He suspects that as Monboddo’s confidant it may be up to him to confront her.

Someone is talking to him. He turns to find Astin, the head of Pharmakon security, addressing him urgently. He must come at once. There is something badly wrong with the Director. They hurry to the elevator, where four other members of Monboddo’s personal security force are waiting. When the lift reaches Monboddo’s office, Astin steps out with his men first, and they scan the room. Then he beckons Loki.

It seems to be empty, but something is obviously amiss. Three heavy metal chairs and a table lie on their sides, and scratches on the sloping glass wall above suggests they have been thrown against it. Astin and Loki slowly cross the room towards the wall. As they do so they hear a scuttling noise from the far side of the room, and then a thud behind them, following by a warning cry from one of the security guards. Turning, they find themselves face to face with Monboddo. They start back.

“Director Monboddo,” says Loki, recovering from his surprise before the others. “Are you quite well? We were looking for you.”

“She was up there!” says the man who called out.

Glancing sideways, Loki sees he is pointing up to the apex where the four pyramidal walls meet. Suddenly, he begins to understand.

“I’m sorry, Madam Director, but I think for your own well-being I need to bring you with us, to the infirmary,” says Astin. He signals to two guards, who begin to approach Monboddo from behind.

“Astin, don’t — ” warns Loki, but it is too late. One of the men has grasped Monboddo’s upper arm. With her other hand she reaches across to him, with a movement that seems slow and easy, gentle even, but a split-second later he falls to the ground, blood frothing from his throat. The other guard falls back in horror, and Monboddo turns back toward Astin and Loki. She begins to approach them with a strangely sinuous gait, her bloodied fingers raised.

Frozen in horror, Loki does not see Astin raise his carbine. But he hears the report and sees the bullet hit. It rips away part of Monboddo’s cranium, producing a strange, high-pitched squealing, as though from many tiny mouths. But Monboddo remains standing. Her head, which has been jerked sideways by the force of the bullet, snaps around again to face Astin, who takes a step backwards.

The ragged wound in Monboddo’s temple has closed, although her face seems even more drawn and angular than ever. With such rapidity that Loki cannot really see how it happens, she leaps forward and deals the head of Pharmakon security a sideways blow from her fist. A second shot rings out, and the bullet cracks into the wall, producing a jagged crack in the glass.

Loki backs away, aghast, as the figure of Monboddo crouches over the recumbent Astin. Her arms are moving with inhuman speed and force, as with hands like talons she slashes her victim’s face and body. Blood splatters across the room. Straightening up, Monboddo resumes her characteristic equipoise. Without a glance in the direction of Loki or the remaining two security men, who have cowered back against the walls in horror, she marches toward the lift.

As she reaches it, however, the doors open, and another half-dozen security men leap out, followed by Eugenia Monboddo. A second Monboddo. Or rather, as Loki now understands, the real one.

The newly-arrived Monboddo, true to her characteristic aplomb and intelligence, seems immediately to grasp what is happening. She raps out instructions to her guards, forbidding them either to shoot or to approach her doppelganger. Meanwhile the latter, who had crouched still for a moment to observe the newcomers, springs into the air, somersaults backwards, and disappears behind the heavy desk at the far end of the room.

“You and you, over that side,” says the Monboddo. “You other two, go round the other way. Loki,” she adds briskly, “come with me.” She shows him the large hypodermic she holds in her hand, and he realizes that as usual, she is a step ahead. “I need you to produce a distraction while I do this.”

Gingerly, Loki moves toward the desk with her. It seems a long way to go. Silence has fallen. As they reach the desk, Monboddo gestures for Loki to go around one side, while she approaches from the other. Despite his growing reluctance he does so. As the space behind the desk comes slowly into view, his facial muscles contract further and further into a tense scowl. At last he finds he has rounded the corner of the desk. And there, although he thinks he is ready for anything, he finds the last thing he expects to see.

It is Lupe, Mera’s dog. Or at least, a version of her, but at least twice life-size. He is gazing at her from behind and can see her ears pricked, at the alert, as she waits for Monboddo to appear around the other side of the desk. Her tail is wagging slightly. Then she jumps.

The Executive Director of Pharmakon Life Incorporated is the product of four decades of training in the managerial order of Luxor, the most ascetic and intellectual of the classes that make up the city’s rigidly-stratified populace. From childhood she has been disciplined to neglect her body, to ignore its vulgar ebbs and flows, to rise above its selfish spasms. She can work all night and never notice her heavy limbs and eyelids; she can forgo food for a day without feeling the rumbling ache in her belly. She defecates, washes, eats and sleeps regularly, not because her body tells her to, but solely according to a regimen calculated to allow optimal time for work.

Now, however, the sudden appearance of a snarling dog, double life-size, provokes in Eugenia Monboddo an animal response. Before her mind can process the toothy mouth that opens in her face, the slap of the dog’s bark and the cough of her breath, Monboddo’s body responds. The Pharmakon head startles backwards and sideways, turning her face away. As she does so she twists one of her ankles behind the other, and falls flat on her back.

The massive dog-shape leaps effortlessly over her, landing halfway across the room. With one more bound it reaches the glass wall, hitting it just where the crack has opened up from Astin’s stray bullet. The glass shatters and the bounding animal disappears.

Rushing across to the jagged gap in the glass, Loki peers out, narrowing his eyes into the gusts that blow into the room. For a while he can see nothing, but then a wide-pinioned form, featherless and leather-skinned, rises in front of him and flaps away on heavy wingbeats, through the city canyons, heading for the river. Then the wind blows rain into his eyes, and by the time Loki can clear them, the flying shape is gone.

Copyright © 2007 by Philip Armstrong

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