In the Lost City of Leng
by Paul Di Filippo & Randy Rucker
I was a kid full of dreams, looking for bigger ones. My job? Covering the crime beat for the Boston Globe. It was the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1933.
I had the newsroom to myself. My feckless coworkers had decamped en masse for early festivities, leaving me in charge. I had my dog Baxter for company. He was asleep on the floor by my desk.
My phone rang. Baxter stood up and stretched. Flapped his ears. Gave a conversational bark and wagged his feathery tail. A noble hound—half collie and half spaniel—with white legs and a brown map of some unknown island on his back. I patted him and picked up the receiver.
“Doug Patchen?” said the caller’s blunt voice. “Stan Gorski here.”
I remembered this guy. An ex-pilot with a big mouth. “You got a fresh story for me?” I asked. “A second act? Something in the aviation line to wow the rubes?”
“I appreciated how you wrote up my trial, Doug. Didn’t make me look too—you know.”
“I was mixing with the hard guys. I was drunk all the time.”
“Who wouldn’t have been?” I said. “You were using a Coast Guard rescue plane to smuggle in cases of VSOP cognac.”
“And now all of a sudden booze is legal,” said Gorski. “But do I get my commission back? My chance to fly? Not on your life. Not in this burg. Never mind that I’m supporting a wife and three kids.”
“I remember them,” I said. “Human interest. Where are you working?”
“I’m a mechanic for Colonial Air out at Jeffrey Field. I can fix any plane ever made, Dougie. Better believe it. Not that I need the job anymore. I’m in the chips.”
“I’m sure you are,” I said, doubting him. “You’re—still drinking?”
“I went dry the day they repealed Prohibition,” said Gorski, cackling as if proud of his reverse. “So, no, I’m not phoning you whacked outta my skull. I’ve got a straight-up business proposition for you. The biggest story since the Starkweather-Moore fiasco.”
The Starkweather-Moore Antarctic expedition of 1931. Every member of the party had met a lurid and horrific end. The scouts who’d ventured into the lost city of Leng—consumed by a foul slug the size of a railway train. The men in the base camp—incinerated by the purposeful zaps of a malignant storm. The crews of the expedition’s ships—lost in the depths of an anomalous maelstrom.
A series of live radio broadcasts, relayed from one ground station to the next, had etched the ghastly chain of events deep into the public’s mind. First came the anguished screams of the scouts being smothered in slimy flesh. Then the desperate shrieks of the men in the base camp as the slyly purposeful lightning strokes picked them off. Then came the sailors’ cries amid the snapping of ship timbers and the maelstrom’s whistling roar. And then—silence.
The explorers had been warned in advance. A survivor of the Pabodie party of 1930 had published a passionate screed in the Arkham Advertiser, inveighing passionately against any further expeditions to Leng. But within a year, the thirst for glory had drawn Starkweather and Moore to their destruction.
Two years had elapsed since then. As yet, so far as I knew, nobody had been mad enough to propose a third expedition. But now . . .
I felt a sickly sweet hollowness in my stomach. “You’re going to Leng,” I said to Gorski, my voice flat. “You want me to come.” And, god help me, I knew I was going to say yes.
“Quick on the uptake,” said Gorski. “I like that. A secret mission. You quit your job at the Globe, you write up our trip, and we sell our story when we get back. Hunky dory.”
“We?” I said, stepping into the abyss. “Who’s we?”
“You and me and Leon Bagger and Vivi Nordström. Leon’s an assistant professor at Harvard. Looking to get a permanent job. Vivi’s a double-dome too. Plus we’ll have this, uh, friend of Vivi’s, name of Urxula. The trip is Vivi and Urxula’s idea. We’d like to get going tonight on account of it’s New Year’s Eve, and the guards will be blotto. We’ve been loading stuff onto the plane all week. We’ll fly to Leng in three big hops. Boston, Lima, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica. You’ll be a copilot. Piece of cake, Dougie. And Vivi pilots too. The weather’s great in Antarctica this time of year. Sunny all night long. Be a nice vacation for all of us.”
I had picked up a pilot’s license while doing a feature on the Flying Falangas, a family of barnstormers. But I’d never flown more than a hundred miles at any one go. Not that the problems I might encounter up in the air could hold a candle to those we’d face in the lost wastes of the South Pole.
“What about the man-eating slugs? And the intelligent lightning? And those—those hibernating sea cucumber things?” I’d seen the Pabodie expedition photos of seven-foot-tall creatures with starfish heads and snaky arms.
“Leon teaches an introductory marine biology course at Harvard, Doug. He can handle those cukes. And Vivi’s a visiting intern. Lives with Leon. Not his wife. She knows science, too. Something about ultrasonics. Claims she has an angle on those giant slugs. Plus that, we’ve got our native guide. I’m talking about that Urxula. She’s—well, you’ll see.” Gorski broke off with a raspy chuckle. “Come on downstairs to the street. I’m parked right by the phone booth. Driving a red Duesenberg, my man. Twenty feet long. The ride of your life.”
“Can we stop by my apartment? I need to pack a bag. And my dog’s coming too.”
“Copacetic, Doug. The Gorski-Patchen expedition of 1934! What they should call it.”
Trying not to let myself think about what I was doing, I typed a resignation note—in which I told my boss editor what I thought of him—and stole the typewriter, a Hermes Featherweight that was eminently luggable. Stealing didn’t matter. I was leaving in a Duesenberg. And then—either I’d die, or I’d get rich. Everything would be fine.
* * *
I fell in love with Vivi Nordström at first sight. She cast some kind of Scandinavian spell. Said she was from Norway, and she had the accent and the long reddish-blonde hair, not to mention a tomboy attitude that laid me out flat. Sure she was sexy—but she was careless and forthright as a man. Didn’t give a damn what you thought of her. I’d never known exactly what kind of woman I was looking for. Now I knew.
Vivi was wearing pilot’s overalls of a moderne yellow and aqua design, with soft fleece inside. She had a silvery silk scarf with images of eyes, and triangular buttons on her cuffs.
“You’re scared?” she said, rolling her eyes toward me in a devastating up-from-under look. Tricky to manage, considering she was taller than me. We were in the hall of an Art Deco house she shared with Leon Bagger. He’d been at Harvard for five years, making slow progress in the groves of academe. She’d arrived last year to work with him. They were studying what was known of the odd creatures in Antarctica. This expedition plainly could constitute Leon’s ticket to the top.
“The plateau at the Mountains of Madness?” I said, by way of answering Vivi’s question. “The lost city of Leng. Intimidating. But I’m eager to hear your plan. Calm down, would you, Baxter?” The dog was furiously barking, while staring up the front hall staircase. An odd scent was wafting down, like ammonia and crabs and violets.
“That’s Urxula up there,” said Vivi. “Dogs and cuke people—a mixed match. It’s like pairing a knockabout scientist-aviatrix with a cub reporter, hmm?” She winked at me and laughed, showing a fine white set of teeth. I tried to judge how high or low I stood in her estimation.
“Come on already,” yelled Gorski. “Come look at Leon’s maps.”
“So you want to join our team?” said Leon Bagger as I entered the sitting room. He had a narrow head and a goatee. Sandy hair, an elegantly draped tweed suit, medium height. A zealous gleam in his eye tempered by a courtly smile.
“Gorski here talked me into quitting my job,” I told Leon, not any too sure of myself. “I hope your plan is legit.” It was hard to believe I’d left the Globe. Why? Oh, right, so I could go to the South Pole and fight monsters with a bootlegger, a junior prof, and the woman of my dreams.
A cleanly designed elliptical table was at the center of the sitting room. Around the sides were streamlined chairs and couches, chromium with leather cushions in pastels. The ceiling was pale gray above off-white walls and bleached maple wainscoting. Spirals and sharps bedecked the rug. A spheroid-based tea set gleamed on the sideboard. To top it off, three sparsely elegant Mondrian paintings were on display, each of them easily the price of Gorski’s fancy car. Me, I’d grown up with six sibs in a bare tenement in Southie.
Noticing my expression, Leon shrugged. “It was only this fall that Vivi and I came into money. Diamonds from the deeps. Given to us by Urxula. She was grateful because we fetched her from the sea, fifty miles out, offshore from Innsmouth. Vivi had a vision of where to find her. I like to say that Vivi has a trace of Sami shaman heritage.”
“Don’t be so silly,” said Vivi. “You know my heritage is no such thing.”
“I got some dough for the pickup, too,” said Gorski. “I’m the one who borrowed the Coast Guard rescue plane one night to fly these two lovebirds out there to fetch Urxula.”
Baxter’s barking was increasingly savage and frantic. He kept starting up the stairs, then backing off with a volley of wild yelps. “Sorry about my dog,” I said again.
“The Pabodie party’s sled-dogs had the same reaction,” said Leon. “Can you calm him, Vivi?”
Vivi cocked her head and made a funny face—as if she were about to whistle or sing. But instead she growled, or hummed, or both at once. A curious sound that captured Baxter’s full attention. Bashfully, inquisitively, he nosed into the sitting room, then sat at Vivi’s feet.
“Urxula is your friend,” Vivi crooned to the dog, leaning down ever so gracefully—like a willow, like a naiad, like the silver sprite on the hood of a Rolls Royce. She unleashed a final burst of musical droning, and Baxter wet the rug.
“Vivi has that effect on her captives,” said Leon Bagger with an indulgent laugh. “Abject surrender. We’ll clean it up later.”
“Urxula can do it,” said Vivi. “I’ll call her down. She wants to meet Doug.” Vivi tilted back her head and made another sound, a haunting, aeolian whistle—like a high wind across the mouth of a cave.
Now came a bumping and slithering on the stairs. By this point I had a pretty good idea of what Urxula was. But actually meeting her was something else.
Undulant and supple, she slithered into the room prone, then tootled a greeting and rocked onto her bottom end, standing a foot taller than me. Baxter lunged at her, meaning to bite. With a swift movement of one branching arm, Urxula caught hold of the dog and muzzled his snout. The alien creature was what people called a cuke, except people from Arkham, who called them Elder Ones. Urxula was just as the Pabodie and Starkweather-Moore reports had described.
Urxula’s body was like a six-foot squash, thicker on the bottom, and with ridges along the sides. Her hide was greenish brown, flexible and leathery, patterned with warts and bumps, gently pulsing like a bellows. Her head resembled a five-armed starfish, resting flat atop the narrow end of her body. The starfish-head had a gleaming blue eye at each of its five tips, with a wobbly mouth-tube between each pair of tips. Her five feet splayed out from her wide bottom end. Her branching arms were very like the feeding organs of a sea cucumber I’d once seen in an aquarium at Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Five arms, five feet, five mouths, five eyes. Later, in conversation, Leon would describe Urxula as a radially symmetric echinodermoid.
Words go only so far. The main thing about the cukes is that they’re telepaths. That is, as soon as Urxula noticed me, my thoughts changed. It wasn’t anything so banal as me hearing a weirdly accented voice in my head. No, it was subtler than that. You’ve always got a low-level stream of images and memories and phrases burbling through your mind, right? And once in a while a particularly weird or catchy nugget pops to the surface. That was the communication channel the cukes used. As soon as Urxula trained her five blue eyes on me I saw—
A giant slug chasing some cukes and blind penguins. Ice all around. Low sun. An ice-bound city of fanciful towers. An odd pontoon plane angling in and sliding to a stop on the deep snow. Baxter romping out, happily barking.
The captivated Baxter had obviously gotten the transmission too, and he liked the last image enough to stop growling. Urxula loosened her nest of branching fingers and let him free. He stared at her, tongue lolling, thinking things over, adjusting to the big cuke’s smell. Not really so bad. Sort of like a fresh fish market next to a flower stand next to a filling station.
Urxula swept her frondy fingers across the rug and disappeared the puddle that Baxter had made. And then once again she focused on me. I saw myself at the controls of a plane with Vivi Nordström in the other pilot’s seat. Vivi smiling at me. Touching my face with her hand. Yes.
“Urxula likes you,” said Vivi. “I can see you’re picking up her images. Leon and I call it teep. If she’s teeping you, that means you’ll work out fine.”
“So it’s decided!” said Leon, handing me a cup of tea. “A temperate toast!” The four of us grinned and clinked our tea cups. With Gorski maybe a little wistful for the days when his cup would’ve been heavily spiked
“I’ll get paid too?” I asked.
With one smooth motion, Urxula unfolded a snaky arm and set a rough crystal into my hand. Each of her arms had what you might call five fingers, with five fingerlets on each finger, and another level of branching below that. I held the crystal to the light. Could it really be an uncut diamond? So large! In my mind’s eye I saw my gem gleaming on a tiny silk pillow in the window of Tiffany’s. Urxula was my pal, you bet. Her people needed our help. I saw images of a giant slug in flames. While Vivi Nordström, swathed in a flying-fur blanket, held out her arms and sang.
“We’re going to save the cuke people,” said Leon. “And we’re leaving tonight.”
“It’s almost dark,” said Stan Gorski. “My car has room for all of you. Let’s hit the bricks.”
“What about supplies?” I asked. “It’s a long trip.”
“Our plane’s loaded,” said Gorski.
* * *
As it turned out, our plane belonged to someone else.
“A fire-and-brimstone fanatic named Ransome Tierney,” explained Stan Gorski as he pulled his sleek, low Duesenberg into the shadows beside a seaplane hangar at Jeffrey Field. “Reminds me of Aleister Crowley lumped together with Cotton Mather. From Arkham. He says the cukes—I mean Elder Ones—are demons from hell. He wants to close off Leng. Says he can seal off the entrance with a cannon shot and some hand grenades. Raised fifty grand from his congregation.”
“Typical Arkham,” said Leon Bagger, shaking his head. “They completely misunderstand the nature of Leng.”
“Wait,” I said. “We burst into this hangar and steal a flying boat? That’s your big plan?”
“Maybe you shoulda brought a Chicago typewriter,” said the hardened Gorski, laughing and pretending to shoot a machine gun. We were all wearing aviation togs—boots, fur-lined overalls, leather jackets, and caps with side flaps.
“Don’t be silly,” said Vivi. “Stan got himself on Tierney’s payroll. He’s been helping to outfit the plane. And Stan, I hope you remembered to give the guards that case of cognac this morning?”
Stan didn’t need to answer. We could hear the guards singing. Blurry voices, blended in bonhomie. And it was barely eight p.m.
“Come on,” hissed Leon, heading out of the shadows. He was laden down with two heavy bags. Vivi had a bag too, but I carried it for her, juggling it with my own suitcase and my Globe typewriter. The wind off the bay was icy. Snowflakes were beginning to fall.
“You’re sweet,” said Vivi, raising the flap of my aviator hat to plant a kiss on my cheek. It didn’t seem to matter to her if Leon saw. Her features were vivid in the gloom. She was wearing dark red lipstick that set off her togs. Baxter was close at her heels. To fully win over my dog, Vivi had somehow fashioned him a little fleece vest.
In the rear, Stan Gorski led Urxula along. Our cuke friend was cloaked in a blanket-like flying fur. A bright eye showed in the shadow of a fold at the top, as if peering out from a monk’s cowl. A seven-foot monk.
“Who goes there!” called one of the guards as we approached. And then he guffawed. The fix was in. Leon handed over a bonus sheaf of bills. And Stan gave the guards the keys to his Duesenberg. That little gesture, more than the weightier ones, made me realize we were fully into the venture now, and would either return rich and famous and covered in glory, or not at all.
Beefy, heartfelt song from the inebriates. And now we were inside the long shed, with the waters lapping at the shore. Stan and Vivi played the beams of their electric torches over the all-metal plane.
It was a wonder, the largest plane I’d ever seen, with a single high wing above the fuselage, and a row of three massive engines set into the wing.
“It’s a prototype from Dornier in Holland,” Stan told me. “Seventy feet long, with a ninety-foot wingspan. A custom model of what they’ll probably call the Do 24. A flying boat. Perfect for landing in deep snow. Tierney had them double-up the size of her tanks, they’re those fin things sticking out on the sides. She has a range of 3,500 miles this way, if you can frikkin believe that. And she’ll rise to 26,000 feet.”
“The altitude of the Leng plateau,” put in Leon. “Five miles, give or take.”
I could tell that Urxula was aware of our conversation. Once again my mind formed an expected image: our Do 24 droning through a toothy pass, approaching a fantastic city of steeples and arches and vaults and impossibly large blocks of stone—everything half buried by millennia of ice. At the controls? Me and Vivi again. Urxula had my number.
Half an hour later, we were airborne, with three Wright radial engines roaring above our heads. Thank god the plane had electric starters. I was in the copilot’s seat beside Stan. He was teaching me the controls. We’d fought our way upward through a buffeting snowstorm, with the flakes hypnotically streaming at us. And now we’d reached a zone of wonder and peace. A full moon rising, pinprick stars above, and, far below us, bank upon bank of silvered clouds. Have I mentioned that this was the first time that I’d ever ridden so high in a plane?
“This compass here,” I said to Stan. “It says we’re heading southeast. Shouldn’t we go south? You said we want to make Peru. A seventeen-hour run.”
“We’re dropping off Urxula first,” said Stan. “At the edge of the continental shelf. She doesn’t want to spend three days in a plane. She’d rather swim.”
“She swims fast,” said Stan with a shrug. “Down in the abyss—where nobody notices. Not sure how she hits those high speeds. She doesn’t always show you everything she knows. Bottom line, she’ll meet us in Tierra del Fuego. Swim down along South America, and turn right.”
The Urxula drop was unnerving. The cuke had put the image of a target into our heads. Stan was seeing it, and so was I. A target overlaid upon the clouds below us, in glowing red lines. As Stan approached the center, Leon and Vivi undogged a small hatch in the rear of the fuselage. Insanely cold air rushed in.
Moving nimbly on her pointed, flexing feet, Urxula made her way past our crated supplies to the rear. And then—a fresh surprise—she unfurled a pair of filmy bat-like wings. By no means did they look sturdy enough for sustained flight. Urxula weighed well over two hundred pounds. Nothing daunted, she flung herself through the open hatch.
Watching her in the moonlight, I felt there was more to her wings than I’d realized. They were emitting pale repellor rays that slowed Urxula’s descent. The wings also played the role of rudders or sails, fashioning her moderated fall into a graceful glide, steering herself along the path of a capacious helix that disappeared into the upmost layer of clouds.
“Adios, amiga,” said Stan. He heeled our three-engine plane to the right, heading south for Lima.
* * *
Our flying boat splashed into the Lima harbor, throwing up a rooster tail of spray, then gliding to a stop. Stan feathered the propellers, bringing us to rest at a freighter pier where we could refuel. Vivi was ecstatic. You’d have thought she won the Irish Sweepstakes. “Boston to Lima without refueling! Thirty-five hundred miles! Practically a record, no? Stan milked this bird like a horn-handed farmer with his prize cow!” Something of a mixed metaphor.
Stan was too weary to appreciate her enthusiasm. The trip had been grueling, even with Vivi and me spelling him, amid frequent infusions of hot java from a vacuum bottle and with canned and preserved food from our well-stocked plane’s supplies. Gorski looked like a man who could use a stiff drink or three, and this did not reassure me, given his ongoing battle to remain sober. Our entire safety and success rested in large part on Stan’s quickness and wit.
For neither the first nor the last time, I contemplated the wisdom—the folly—of having embarked on this impulsive dash to the Antarctic. The potential payback was counterbalanced by the horrible fate that had befallen the Starkweather-Moore expedition.
Leon, who talked normally most of the time, flipped over to bombastic professor mode for expressing an awe similar to Vivi’s. “The dawn of a new age, with our planet united by an aerial web of commerce and recreation. I foresee a time when our globe’s mysterious backwaters will be fully charted and explored. No more hidden plateaus, lost tribes, bizarre creatures, and inexplicable ruins—such as those we go to seek today. Global air power will be a triumph for science and trade—if a loss for romance and adventure.”
Half a dozen locals were tying our plane to the dock. It was late afternoon on January 1, 1934, with the sun gilding the water. Stan toggled off our engines, which were, I suspected, ready to cough to cessation anyhow. We’d cut the mileage of our hop very fine.
“All the more reason why we have to get to Leng soon,” said Stan, expanding on Leon’s remarks. “We’ll save Urxula and her cuke race while there’s time. They’re definitely the underdogs on this card. We’ll even things up. Kill off the cukes’ enemies. The shoggoths, right? Those slugs the size of subway trains.”
“Just one slug now, as I understand it,” put in Leon.
“The great shoggoth,” said Vivi. “A formidable foe. But there’s a third party as well. The ones that the man in the Pabodie party talked about. The man who went crazy from what he saw.”
“Or didn’t see,” put in Stan. “He saw weather, and that’s it. Like maybe a scrap of rainbow. Or maybe he was seeing the world through a piece of Iceland spar. And those so-called smart lightning bolts that wiped out the Starkweather-Moore base camp? Weather again.”
“And if the cukes control the weather?” said Vivi with a cryptic smile. “Tierney says the cukes have their own set of gods.”
“Those Arkham locals—they’ve got rats in their heads,” blustered Stan. “That bible-thumper Tierney who wants to kill every cuke he can find. We’re a force for the good, and we’re gonna get rich, right?”
“I’m going ashore.” I said, looking at the rope ladder that the wharf workers had lowered for us. “Any plan?”
Stan took a deep breath, calming himself. “We tank up for the next leg—that’s the flight to Tierra del Fuego. And then comes the third hop. Into the polar wastes. But for now? Captain Gorski decrees steak, healthful juices, papas a la huanciana, dancing, and Zs.”
“Also there’s the matter of the supplemental scientific instrument that Vivi and I want to obtain,” put in the assistant professor. “To deploy against the great shoggoth.”
“This plane’s got some arms,” said Stan. “They’re under the canvas in the back of the plane. Like I said, I’ve been helping Tierney stock up.”
“Frightened little men,” sneered Vivi. “Do you really think that firecrackers and peashooters will be of use? Against the omnivorous gelatinous juggernaut that is the grand shoggoth?”
“I’m thinking that flammenwerfer might slow it down,” said Stan.
“A German flamethrower?” exclaimed Leon.
“Got it in one, my man. Plus a crate of grenades. And I guess you civilians didn’t notice our plane has a Hispano-Suiza cannon and a Maxim machine gun? Not a huge amount of ammo for them, but enough to make a dent. During my smuggling days, I made contacts with the arms trade, you understand. And the Germans are looking for business, what with the ruckus that Chancellor Hitler is kicking up. Pastor Tierney had me do some off-shore shopping.”
“We’ll be like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral,” I said, my fanciful love of the old Wild West on display.
“You Americans and your cowboys,” clucked Vivi. “The medium of sound will be the more useful weapon against the great shoggoth. It will be as if ensorcelled and destroyed by a lovely siren.”
“As if,” echoed Gorski, very dubious.
“This brings us to the scientific instrument I mentioned,” said Leon. “An industrial ultrasound generator. The gem miners out of Lima here use these gadgets for mapping crystal inclusions and detecting invisible seams. Vivi and I brought along a lab model from Harvard, but the gents at Andes Gem supplies—they sell equipment for finding emeralds. They have a line of big Russian ultrasound generators and we’re buying one. Vivi made the deal by mail.”
Baxter was leaning out our plane’s now-open door, barking. He was ready to get back on land—both to relieve himself, and to find some decent food. During the long flight, he’d been doing his business on a stack of old newspapers—the good old Boston Globe. And eating nothing but water-soaked oatmeal. He was plainly impatient to smell, and to pee upon, the soil of Peru. And, who knew, maybe he’d hook up with a Peruvian dog. I took off his little fleece flying jacket.
“Baxter has the right idea,” said Vivi. “Let’s exit this stinky metal cigar. Hot food and hot jazz!” She shucked off her heavy flying jacket, and twirled a hotcha finger in the air.
We made our way up the rope ladder to the great pier, where half a dozen locals had gathered to study our metal Dornier seaplane—with its great hull and its high wing boasting three engines. I noticed that, as Stan had mentioned, the plane had a cannon on one side and a machine gun on the other. Freight ships were hawsered nearby. At the land end were small official adobe buildings. Cranes, rickety trucks, and ambling workers were loading, unloading, and refueling the ships—and a few small local seaplanes as well.
We relished the heat of January in Peru, soaking it up against the long deep cold that lay ahead. Stan broke out a sheaf of dollars and arranged for the maintenance and refueling of the plane—which Stan had named Cuke Air Force One. Leon engaged a local in conversation and paid him to watch over our plane. And then an ancient jitney carried us into the blocks-long entertainment district of bustling Lima. It was a much larger city than I’d realized. Tongue lolling, Baxter lay sprawled across my lap.
We ended up at a café named La Llama Borracha: smoky interior, low ceiling, straw artifacts on the walls as decorations. Leon said the place was known for jazz—he was quite an aficionado. As we entered, a trio of musicians wielding cajón, charango, and pan-pipes began somehow to swing out a recognizable version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Welcoming the North American jazzbos. The guests and waitresses were a polyglot gamut of European ex-pats, local Indians, black sailors, and mixtures thereof. Some dressed in tatters, others in fancy suits, still others in bright native garb with oddly shaded bowler hats. Laughter, arguments, life in its raw essence.
The four of us—Baxter placidly camping out at our feet—commandeered a round table, which was soon decked with raw fish ceviche, grilled octopus, steaks that hung over the edges of the plates, pork stew, fava beans, and even grilled guinea pig. Plenty of scraps found their way Baxter-ward. Vivi and I knocked back a few powerful pisco sours. But Stan, I was relieved to see, settled for a gourd of the yerba maté, repeatedly refilled. Leon stretched a single beer over a couple of hours, with each sip causing him to retreat deeper into some meditative state, grooving very deeply on the jazz. Leon was as much an anything-goes bohemian as he was a stuffed-shirt professor.
I hoped he was also pondering all the angles of the terrors and challenges awaiting us, like how to avoid getting killed—or worse—by monster slugs, alien telepathy, or supernatural lightning. All I could contribute to our enterprise, aside from my modest copiloting skills, were enthusiasm and a strong right arm. Oh, and I was a decent shot with handgun or rifle, having picked up some tips from the local cops when I did an article on their new firing range in Dedham. Not that a bullet would mean much to a shoggoth. I guessed I could handle that new-fangled flame gun as well. And maybe Vivi’s ultrasound waves would close the deal.
By the time midnight rolled around, we were well sated. I’d taken a few spins around the tiny wooden-planked dance floor with the spicy, warm, sensual Vivi. Very fetching in her yellow and aqua flying overalls, with little or nothing underneath. Truly she was the woman for me. Leon didn’t seem to mind my attentions to her. I was beginning to think—or to hope—that the young prof wasn’t interested in Vivi that way. Perhaps they were roommates and science buddies, and that was all. So much the better for me, freelance reporter Douglas Patchen!
To top off the evening, Stan performed a wild solo tarantella atop a table, delighting the crowd. Seemed like he’d learned the art of casting off normal restraint even while sober. Unless he’d been sneaking drinks. On our way out, the placid, smiling Leon solicited, using his elegant Spanish, a recommendation for a local hotel, just a few blocks away.
So we exited La Llama Borracha in tranquil spirits—a condition that of course left us utterly unprepared for the assault by three toughs. They came at us, smelling of mushrooms and the sewers and strange musks, emerging from a proverbial dark alley, in a tenebrous block empty of passersby. One minute I was sauntering and whistling and holding Vivi by the elbow, and the next I was fighting for my life against a small and wiry opponent whose bare arms seemed to be covered in—slime?
The ruffians were lithe and silent, but luckily unarmed, as were we. For reasons that now seemed pathetically naïve, Leon and I had convinced Stan Gorski that it would be rude and uncivil to bring pistols to dinner. Vivi had kept her own counsel on this matter. Not that she needed weaponry. She was, it would seem, a master of Nordic martial arts. Sami self-defense. Balancing on one leg, she plied her other like a kick-boxer, dealing knockout blows to two of our assailants. And Stan felled the third.
All very well and good, but then—a strange creature came at us from above. A deathly pale man with shining skin—or no, not a man. A flying slug? He had a sad gash of a mouth, and his eyes were two soft stalks atop his head. Although wingless, he was in flight. Something he did with his hands kept him aloft, an uncanny twitching of his fingers. If you could call those fingers. They were rampantly emanating pale repellor rays that kept him aloft.
No time to think! The larval slug man wrapped a spare arm around Vivi and they rose six feet off the ground, heading for the dark sky, with Vivi yelling curses. The pale flying slug gave no spoken response.
I felt a rush of anguish and despair. Baxter was snarling and yelping and leaping as high as he could, to no avail. When Vivi and her captor were ten feet off the ground, the abductor gave out a pained, unearthly screech, like the sounds of glaciers calving, mixed with an elephant being torn in half by a typhoon. At that moment Vivi began to plummet.
I raced forward and caught her in my arms—like a true action hero. I was proud. Above us, the slug-man writhed his fingers and arced away.
Grinning irrepressibly, yet with some hint of her shaken state, Vivi displayed an immense Bowie knife. She’d had it in a sheath on her leg. The darkness of the night caused its smeared blade to appear green—or was that the natural color of the slug man’s ichor?
“I stabbed that slimy thing right in its armpit! Hoped to get his heart!”
I set Vivi on her feet. Baxter put his forepaws up onto her so as to lick her hands. Leon wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. Meanwhile Stan was idly nudging one of the downed cutpurses with his foot. But now the man and his companions began melting like hot wax, losing their contours, with even their clothes subsuming into the pale masses of their flesh. Eyestalks and branching tentacles appeared—it would be erroneous to call them arms and hands. The tips of the tentacles twitched and the shapeshifting slugs sailed up into the sky like the other one had.
“I wonder if Tierney somehow put out the word on us,” said Stan. “Like he sent a telegram? He’s quite the weasel, that guy.”
“Or the great shoggoth read our minds,” suggested Vivi. “It’s very tight with those flying slugs.”
“I thought all we’d see down here was the shoggoths and cukes,” said Stan. “Not morphodite larvae.”
With what proved to be supreme overconfidence, I said, “Hell, Stan, we just proved we can handle anything they throw at us!”
* * *
When we got back to our plane in the morning, our watchman told us he’d had to chase off a pair of those flying slugs—probably two of the ones who’d tried to ambush us.
“Con gusto,” said the guard, holding up his stained machete. He glanced down off the edge of the wharf. “Los peces pequeños comen.”
“The little fishes eat, he says,” inserted Leon. “Am I the only one noticing that the bloodstains on his machete are a deep chartreuse green? Quite a nasty color in daylight.”
“Let’s get your new squawk box the hell on board and crank the props outta here,” said Stan. He and I were lugging the sixty-pound ultrasound device that Vivi and Leon had scored this morning from Andes Gem Supplies. Plus three car batteries to run it.
It was an enjoyable flight down the coast of South America to its southernmost tip, a fine, clear day. Leon and Vivi had thought to bring two hampers of fresh food from Lima. The wrinkled sea and contoured coast looked like a classroom map, with the Andes behind them, their piled-up peaks topped with snow. The sinuous deep-cut valleys held rivers edged by emerald green jungle. Glints danced from the waters of jewel-like lakes. Here and there a tiny settlement appeared. How wild this country still was. We snuggled into our flying furs, snacking and enjoying the view
Along the way we met one of those airborne slugs, twiddling its ray-emitting fingers as it kept abreast of us, flying just off the tip of our wing, perhaps hoping to disrupt our engines. I could see crusted green blood staining his side—he was the same one Vivi had stabbed. Pilot Stan got the better of him by dipping, then arcing back up and letting me machine-gun the nasty thing with our on-board Maxim. Great fun.
“Sounds like it’s saying haw-haw, dontcha think?” said Stan, admiring the sound.
“What does the cannon sound like?” I asked. “I saw the trigger for it in the hold.”
“Save the cannon for later. We only brought three shells. Heavy mofos. Just about broke my back lugging them aboard. We’ll use them on the grand emperor of the subterranean slugs.” Not a pleasant thought, the shoggoths of Leng.
It was two in the morning by the time we spotted the village of Ushuaia, in its harbor amid the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. The sky was still light—we were so far south that, rather than setting, the summer sun simply rolled along the horizon. A dreamy pearlescent glow filled the little harbor. A few score fishing boats were at anchor. The buildings were shabby constructs of concrete and tin. A dispiriting prison hulked at the far end of the town. Nobody was on the streets.
As the Dornier sluiced across the mirrored waters, a flock of startled flamingos lifted off, their legs like moving hieroglyphs. We coasted to a stop beside a dock where Stan had spotted a pair of small seaplanes. A yawning, grizzled man appeared from a shed and stumped over to help us tie up. Seaweed and dead penguins lay on the gray beach.
As before, we were stiff, exhausted, and half-deaf from the seventeen-hour drone of our Do 24’s three big engines. With a minimum of talk, we made our way to a waterfront inn with a dormitory room above. We fell into our beds and slept like the dead, with Baxter lying protectively across my feet.
When I awoke, it was bright day, the sky a shade of magnesium blue. I was alone in our dorm above the inn. I could hear my companions downstairs, laughing, chatting, feasting on a huge breakfast. A pale slug-man was facing me from the head of the stairs. His tapering, legless lower half was flat upon the floor, and his upper half was raised. He was resting upon his two many-fingered, flexible arms—if you could call them arms—dragging himself toward me, with the dead black orbits of his stalk-eyes fixed upon me. A soft chant came from the dreary slit of his mouth.
“Tekelili,” he crooned over and over. “Tekelili.”
He stretched a drooping tendril my way. The tip of it pinched off and came rapidly humping across the floor, up the leg of my bed, and into my covers—a mini-slug that was meant, no doubt, to burrow into my flesh and tunnel through my veins to find a home inside my head—
My scream awakened me for real. Yes, the others were downstairs, but, no, there wasn’t a slug man in the room with me. But maybe, terrible thought, he’d left that slug bud in my head, and he’d flown away? The slugs’ revenge for my happy, chattering moment with that Maxim machine-gun! Crazy mission, crazy thoughts. I splashed brackish water onto my face from the basin, pulled my clothes on, checked that my diamond was still in my pocket, and went downstairs. Baxter galumphed eagerly behind me.
“Bad dream, Doug?” said Vivi. Hardened adventurer that she was, she looked a bit amused. Very fresh and tasty in her yellow and aqua flying togs.
“I always scream in the morning,” I said, by way of shrugging it off. “The only rational response.” I didn’t feel like telling her the details.
“Weather’s turning foul,” said Leon. “But we’re going to press on.”
“Esmeralda is saying that once a storm hits the Strait of Magellan it lasts a week,” said Vivi, indicating the innkeeper, a leathery lady with a prominent jaw.
Esmeralda waved me to a spot at the table and slapped down a bowl with a pozole and lamb stew. Baxter, with fickle affections, had chosen to lie placidly on the floor next to Vivi’s chair.
“I’ve got them gassing up our plane,” said Stan, handing me the gourd of morning mate that was passing around the table. He was wearing a heavy red and white serape that he must have gotten from the landlady. “The fueling might take another hour. They had to truck in extra drums of gas. We definitely want to be full to the brim. Don’t want to run dry before we hit Leng.”
Something about Stan’s expression triggered an epiphany I really should have had earlier. “When we get there, we’ll—we’ll be out of gas?”
Vivi glanced at Leon and laughed. “Reporter Doug is alert.”
“You think it’s funny?” I cried. “You guys are frikkin crazy!”
“The radioed logs indicate that the Starkweather-Moore group left a large fuel dump beside Leng,” said the imperturbable Leon. “Don’t sweat it.”
“What if those drums leaked?” I jabbered. “Or what if the shoggoths—I don’t know—what if they drank the gas?”
“Urxula swears the fuel is still there,” said Stan. “I just met with her and we teeped about the situation. She’s back on our plane.”
Obviously I’d missed a lot today. I’d meant to start typing some notes this morning, but by now it was too late. “How long have you guys been awake?”
“Couple of hours,” said Stan. “Hell, Doug, it’s almost ten o’clock. I’m going again to check on the gas. Got my juice, Esmeralda?” The landlady fetched a cloth sack from the kitchen and handed it to Stan as he strode out the door. Her expression was sly and crafty. Not a good sign.
I looked at Leon, trying to fit things together. “First of all, how did Urxula—” I began.
“She popped up out of the ocean and hauled herself into our plane,” said Leon. “I told you she swims fast. I got a teep signal from her this morning—that’s what woke me up. It was a dream, but it wasn’t. I went to the plane to warn her to lie low. I’d rather not have the locals see her. I gather they’ve had some troubles with the shoggoths and the cukes. The landlady here, when I told her we’re on a mission to the lost city of Leng, she didn’t look at all pleased.”
With exaggerated care Esmeralda refilled the mate gourd. “Vuelo largo a la Antártica,” she said, as if urging us on our way. I didn’t have the nerve to ask her what she’d given Stan in that cloth bag.
“Long flight to Antarctica,” said Vivi. Her smile was wild. Very amped up. “Our big day.”
Antarctica. The word is like a death knell. In Japanese culture, the color of mourning is white. Our tiny silver plane would be a lonely splinter above a continent of doom. At least we’d have Urxula on our team.
I had a sudden vision of the cuke looking—sexy? That dear, beloved, sea cucumber alien. With her Delft blue eyes bright, and full red lips at the tips of her oral tubes, and her arms swaying in a graceful hula. A sinuous curve to the ridges of her barrel-shaped body, and her five pointed feet demure below. And a bouffant brunette hair do? Oh, right, this was a teep image that Urxula was beaming to me. Impressive that she could transmit all the way from the harbor.
“Hot stuff,” said Vivi dryly. She was picking up the cuke teep too. “We’re in for strange times, Doug. It’s vital that we stick together.” She stood, utterly lovely, and walked to my side of the table. Like some reckless, slumming angel, she leaned down and gave me a long, very long kiss. Her tongue in my mouth, her hand tousling my hair, our breaths conjoined, my heart hammering.
Leon glanced over, as blank as a sunning turtle, then turned back to some notes he was making in his trip journal. Reminding me yet again that I hadn’t typed a word. So what. So far as I understood Leon’s situation with Vivi, they weren’t lovers. But maybe I was wrong. Upon looking closer, I faintly saw a mixture of shame and lust on his face. Which meant—what? Esmeralda brought our refilled food hampers from the kitchen, and the moment passed.
Silently we gathered our possessions and made our way to our massive, trusty Dornier, with its three powerful engines aligned upon its high wing. One by one, the great propellers roared into life. Once again a flock of birds lifted from the harbor—this time it was cormorants, long-necked and awkward. Each of them had to run a few steps across the surface before rising into the air.
Suddenly Urxula began teeping images of—something bad. Mouths and eyes. Heading our way?
“Hurry!” Stan Gorski cried from the plane’s open door. And then we were in the cabin, with me in back with Leon, Vivi in the copilot’s seat, and Baxter in my lap. Stan gunned the engines to a savage scream, slewed away from the dock, and sent our Do 24 wallowing across the harbor, slowly lifting into the air. And that’s when the shoggoth appeared.
A few years ago, in 1927 to be exact, a new island was born off the coast of Indonesia: Anak Krakatau. It rose impossibly, unpredictably, over the course of several days, fueled by an undersea lava eruption, hot, steaming, alien: something never seen before by humans. The Globe had a big write-up, with pictures.
That’s what the appearance of the shoggoth was like: except in super-speeded-up time, and with quivering streamlined protoplasmic bulk rather than craggy mineral solidity. A pinkish-green bulk dotted with—eyes and toothy mouths?
The behemoth bulked huge in our path. An immemorial being whose kind had originated from somewhere beyond the stars. Rising a thousand feet into the air, it was shedding sea water like a sumo wrestler dumps sweat. I was wondering if we could even clear its summit.
Stan pulled hard on the control yoke, and I flailed my way across the plane’s passenger compartment toward the wing cannon’s controls. There was a shell in the breech, that much was in our favor. The plane was rising steeply, and the cannon had a limited range of movement on its swivel. I canted it downward as far as I could, hoping to hit the shoggoth’s main mass, and I got off my shot without really aiming. Even if I missed, an explosion in the water might daunt the blancmange beast.
The recoil bucked the plane, sending Vivi, Leon, Urxula, Baxter, and me all a-tumble, as if in an interspecies orgiastic heap. A moment later, the sound of the exploding shell overcame even the noise of the straining engines. Gobbets of shoggoth flesh slapped our windshield, some of them with eyeballs within. And now I felt the shudder of our landing pontoons skiing unevenly across the monster’s damaged crest, a sensation like feeling the rungs of your Flexible Flyer cut through clean snow into the remains of a manure pile. Staring, biting tendrils thudded against our metal fuselage. But then we were safely out of reach.
My fellow explorers got to their feet—two legs, four legs, five stalks. We salved bruises and hunkered down for the final leg of the flight. Yes, I was wrung out with panic and worry, but we were well launched, with no damages, and rising ever higher into the sky. Looking back at the shoggoth I noted a dark, thick plume of smoke pouring from its ragged tip. Had we set it alight? But then it dipped back beneath the sea, returning to its lair, mayhap beneath the lost city of Leng.
The last thing I spotted before we entered the clouds was an island with a hundred thousand penguins on it, each of them staring up at us, making us the target of a hundred thousand beaks.
* * *
A storm in the Straits of Magellan—sailors know nothing worse. Our ascent through the clouds was harrowing. A screaming gale, cracks of thunder above and below, and frantic flashes of lightning. The wildly branching zigzags came perilously close to our craft, etching fearful patterns into my retinas. Naturally I thought of the sinister bolts that killed off so many of the Starkweather-Moore crew.
As if that weren’t enough, a flying river of rain choked our rightmost engine into silence. The plane began to wobble and yaw. Stan knuckled down over the control yoke, every bit the seasoned aviator, trying this, trying that—and, all praise Gorski, the stalled engine stuttered back to life.
We rose to the Do 24’s maximum altitude, about five miles above sea level, into a zone of preternatural calm, a clear azure space of sun. The air was so thin that I repeatedly had the sensation that I’d stopped breathing. I hung out my tongue and panted like Baxter. And the cold—the cold was astonishing. We mounded blanket upon blanket over ourselves, like parasitic larvae within bulging flesh. We ate almost constantly, stoking our bodies’ glow. The hours flowed by amid the steady, hypnotic roar of the three engines, with Vivi back in the copilot’s seat at Stan’s side.
Leon wasn’t speaking to me, at least for now. I assumed I had totally misread their relationship, and now I was utterly conflicted about what to do. Strangle Leon and throw his body from the plane? The lack of oxygen was making me giddy. For the moment, Leon’s attentions were focused upon Urxula, perched on the plane’s deck between the two of us. Like an alien idol, quite chatty now—in a teep kind of way—filling our minds with a stream of disquieting images. Hard to tell how much time went by as I watched Urxula’s mind-show.
An explosion and a fire. Tunnels with surreal pictures on the walls. Over and over the shoggoth, seething with teeth and eyes and feelers. The harsh and lonely caws of birds. The milky waters of a subterranean lake, pulsing with menace. The five-sided outline of a vast—gate? Flexing forms wielding swords of light. A tunnel to inner space.
“Feeling dreamy?” It was Vivi at my side. She’d left Stan alone in the cockpit. Once again she glued her mouth to mine in a passionate kiss. She pushed me onto my back and lay on me, kissing me over and over. Not three feet away from us, Leon stared, his mouth a crooked line, his eyes burning. Urxula laid a tendril across the side of my head, as if taking the measure of human mating rites. Even so, I was tugging at my wrappings, wanting to strip myself bare for Vivi, who was tugging at the zipper of her blue and yellow overalls, but the cold, oh the cold, it was like liquid in my veins—
The blow of Leon’s fist against the side of my head jolted me to my senses. Perhaps it was merely a cruel-to-be-kind suggestion to quit screwing around and tend to business, rather than a jealous remonstrance. Vivi rolled to one side and hunkered there, giggling amid her wrappings. Leon was smiling too. How did I fit into these strange people’s plans?
“Go spell Stan,” said Vivi. “He’ll need a nap before we land. You can fly solo for awhile. It’s simple at this altitude. Nothing in the way.”
Embarrassed and with a throb in my head, I rose to my feet and checked my watch. It had stopped, its gears frozen in place. The sun had moved far around the horizon. Looking out the side window, I saw distant, pinprick peaks of insane height, peeping through the roiling layer of clouds. The Mountains of Madness. Amid them we’d find the Plateau of Leng.
I slid into the cockpit and found Stan Gorski—dead drunk. Lolling back in his seat with an all but empty flask of Argentinean brandy in his hand.
“Esmeralda’s adios,” said Stan, gulping the cloudy dregs of the bottle before I could interfere. “Whooh. Raw stuff. And what an aftertaste.”
“How are you going to land this plane in your condition?” I demanded.
“If pontooning across a shoggoth doesn’t earn a man a snort, what does?” Stan turned a spiteful look upon me, then shoved forward on the control yoke, sending our Dornier into a steeply angled dive. “Take over the controls, kid. Earn your wings.” At this point Stan’s final slug of brandy hit him like a depth charge. He reeled sideways out of his chair, banged his forehead rather hard on the dash, and settled to the floor in a heap. I didn’t feel particularly sorry for him. Not with our plane plowing down into the clouds.
“Vivi,” I cried. “Help me.”
She yelled back her answer. “Pull back on the yoke, you fool!” Leon remained silent, as if gloating to have his woman to himself. Urxula added some kind of verbal comment—a high thin piping.
I wrestled with the controls, but in my panic I pushed the stiff control yoke the wrong way, only steepening our descent. Even worse, I threw us into a barrel roll and then into a tailspin. We were corkscrewing down, the crates thudding around in the rear of the plane, and the engines redlining at their physical limits. The besotted Stan Gorski remained utterly inert, but now Vivi came tumbling willy-nilly to my aid, all knees and elbows and tousled hair, and with her overalls open down to her navel. Angrily she yanked at the steering yoke, and then at the knobs to feather the engines’ fuel feeds, all the while sitting on my lap, her scent making me dizzy. We were out of the dive; better than that, we were arcing upward, and then we were restored to the serenity of the sunny kingdom above the clouds.
I aimed us toward the highest of the pinpoint summits ahead. “Thanks, Vivi.”
“I’m tired, Doug.” To be heard over the engines, she spoke as loudly as if I were deaf. “Leon and I are all bundled up. We’re dallying. Leave us alone.” She disappeared again.
Onward we droned, with the chief pilot passed out, an alien aboard, and the woman I loved in a heap of blankets with a man who seemed to hate me. At least, in this land of midnight sun, there was no prospect of it growing dark. And slowly the clouds below began to clear.
Copyright © 2017. In the Lost City of Leng by Paul Di Filippo & Rudy Rucker