I’m standing on a beach of coarse gray sand. Two red moons in a smoky twilight sky sink down slowly toward the surface of a dark sea.
Thick leather boots on my feet and a hood of chain mail over my head, and I’m holding a heavy metal sword in both hands. What the hell?
I swing around. A black castle juts up out of a hill in the distance.
After two unsteady steps, I sink my sword into its holder. It jostles my knees as I trudge toward the castle, not sure where I’m going or why.
Suddenly the sea churns in a wide whirlpool, ten yards from the shore. Red tentacles rise up and thrash at the sky, and then a huge body erupts on four massive, bony legs and trudges toward the shore. Three wide white eyes emerge from the top of a head shaped like a blunt hatchet, and rows of jagged teeth sprout from its wide jaws.
I run. My boots sink in the sand, but I run faster than I ever have before. The monster’s footsteps thud behind me, like a bull moose on a slow rampage.
Then I’m at the gate of the castle. A bell cord hangs down, and I yank hard. Come on, come on, open up!
A narrow door slides open. A young boy, maybe 14, with hair so thin I can’t tell its color motions me forward. “In here! Hurry, man!”
I run. The kid jumps back, then throws a thick metal lock as I collapse on the ground.
“You’re okay.” He kneels down. “Aren’t you? I’m Harry. We’re safe. Sort of.”
I follow him down a short passageway and then into the dark orange sunlight of a dying day. In a narrow square food carts serve small servings of meat, potatoes, fish, vegetables, and bottles of water to throngs of thin, hungry, desperate people.
Harry leads me to a squat round building where a tall elderly woman in a short black robe stands at the top of a high stairway. Is it a temple? The woman gazes down at me as I climb the steps. Then she opens her arms and smiles.
“Hello, Tom Jurgen.” She rubs my shoulder.
“Uh, hi.” I look around. “Where am I?”
“In the city. I am Diamond Queen.” Her eyes match her name, glittering like ice. “Are you ready?”
For what? “Uhh . . .”
But Diamond swings around, and her voice booms. “Citizens!” she shouts. “Here is Tom Jurgen! The hero who will save us! Welcome him!”
Hero? No, no, not me. I’m just a reporter turned private detective, and I don’t know why I’m here. Or where here is.
The people of the city, haggard and weak, turn to look up at me. Maybe some of them really believe I’m a hero. Most just give me a skeptical glance and then go back to the business of trying to find enough food and water to keep their families alive.
Diamond pushes my shoulder. “Say something to them!”
I stumble down one step and wave an arm. “Uh, hi there! Let’s see—I’m Tom Jurgen, I’m from Chicago, and . . .”
But then the gate shudders, like cannonballs are pounding at the wall. The citizens run, screaming, toward the temple.
Hatches pop open in the base of the structure, and the citizens flood forward. Guards with tall staffs push people back, but they’re careful to let women and children through first.
Harry’s in the middle. He waves a hand at me. Then he ducks down and pushes his way through. He’s safe. But then he’s gone, and too many people are still trying to make their way to safety.
“It’s time.” Diamond plants a hand on my arm. “Look.”
I stagger back as one big white eye rises up in the air outside the wall. A long red arm reaches down onto the platform surrounding the wall from inside.
A guard screams as the creature yanks him up into the air. Archers shoot arrows and then run. The monster roars.
I look around. Diamond stares at me. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know!” I’m petrified with fear. “Who are you? What’s going on? What am I supposed to—”
Then I wake up.
So I was lying in a hospital bed. The kind with sterile white sheets and lumpy pillows and a mattress that shifted under my butt. Dim moonlight streamed in through the blinds. I lifted my head with a hoarse gasp. “H-hello?”
“Hello, dummy.” Rachel leaned over me. My girlfriend who lived upstairs. Red hair, hazelnut eyes, kind of psychic. “How are you?”
“What . . . what happened?” I scratched at my elbow. Then I stopped when I felt an IV in my arm. I rolled over and saw three of them, actually. Fluids, maybe, and what else?
I reached down under the sheets. No catheter. Thank god.
“What do you think? You didn’t answer your phone all day, even after I did my best phone sex voice. So I came downstairs and found you in your boxers in bed in the middle of the afternoon. No beer around or internet porn on your laptop. That’s when I called 911.”
Then she slugged my shoulder. “Don’t scare me like that!”
“S-sorry.” I held her hand, my shoulder aching. “God, I’m thirsty.”
Rachel pushed a straw into my face. I gulped water from a big cup, then sank back. “Thanks.”
She grabbed the phone next to my bed and punched in a few numbers. “Hello? Yeah, I’m in room 1014, and the patient here is awake. Can you . . . What? Okay.” She hung up. “You want more water? I can order food, there’s a whole menu here, it’s almost like carry out.” Then she tossed the menu on the floor. “Although you know, it’s hospital food. Maybe I should order a pizza or Thai food? Do you think they deliver to a hospital? I can ask. I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t have a beer, but I can try to—”
“I’m fine.” I hit the control to raise the bed. “Just tired. And, you know . . .” I pulled her down.
A nurse cleared her throat. Rachel jumped up, wiping a hand across her lips. “We weren’t kissing! Actually, we were kissing, and what business is it of yours anyway? I’m his girlfriend!”
“Wonderful.” The nurse, a hefty blond woman, smiled at Rachel. “I’m Andrea. Let me see . . .” She took my pulse, checked my temperature, and stabbed my middle finger for some blood sugar. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired. Hungry.” I raised the bed higher. “What happened?”
“Some kind of infection. We’re not sure yet, but they can come from anything. Bad fish, toilets, kissing . . .” She patted my arm. “Actually, kissing can help cure them too.”
“I hope so.” I rubbed my eyes. “What day is it?”
“Tuesday. Well, Wednesday, really.” Rachel sank into a chair. “I’ve been watching all the late night talk shows, and but there’s a Star Trek marathon starting at 2:00, and I’m watching every single one.”
“You can go home if you want.” I lowered the bed. “I’m going to fall asleep anyway, and I’ll be fine with Nurse Andrea on the case.”
“Maybe after the one with the Romulans.” She clicked the remote.
“Well, I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” Andrea finished checking my vitals. “You’re going to need a different mixture of antibiotics in the morning, but for right now you just need to get some rest.”
“Thanks.” I closed my eyes.
Rachel sat next to me, holding my hand as Captain Kirk argued with Spock. I wanted to tell her something important, but I was slipping away. Trying to remember what had happened.
Rachel’s eyes closed.