Out of the Depths: A Sidehill Adventure – Part 1
by Joshua D. Taylor
Henry ‘Sidehill’ Hodag never cared for the sea. To him, it was too much like looking into the abyss. He was very familiar with the dangers that came with that pastime. He had not come to the sea for pleasure but to acquire something of value. He had rented a villa on the isolated shoreline, and had it retrofitted to meet his needs.
He had half of something that desperately wanted to reunite with its other half. So he positioned himself where he would be easy to find, and waited. This evening, he stood on the veranda, and felt the warm ocean breeze blow through his hair as the evening cooled. He sipped an inexpensive red wine from a glass that cost more than its contents. He could have afforded a far more expensive vintage but he could not tell the difference, so he saw no reason to bother. He looked out over the sea, not for the joy of it but because that was where his guest would make its entrance.
He had paid a small fortune for an infrared satellite to sweep the area every hour, and send the results to his team. The property had buried pressure sensors and motion-tracking cameras. Nothing could approach the house without him knowing. But there was no fence, and the doors were unlocked. His guest was welcome but Henry hated surprises.
After he grew tired of the sound of crashing waves that reminded him too much of the distant whispering he heard in his dreams, he went back inside. He sat his empty glass down on a side table, then turned to look at the artifacts that surrounded him.
Henry was often filled with conflicting compulsions: to keep his collection safe and locked away but also to have it near him at all times. So when he traveled, as he often did to obtain new artifacts, he brought several of the safer, easier-to-transport pieces with him. On this trip, he had brought five artifacts with him.
Clockwise on his left was a glass case containing schematics hand-drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci for a mechanical man, with updates and annotations made by Benjamin Franklin. It featured an appendix by Nikola Tesla on how to power it with an electrical battery and arm it with a death ray. The only surviving piece of the automaton after it cast itself into a vat of molten iron at a refinery to prevent the world from acquiring its advanced technology was its right arm, which was with Henry’s collection at his home.
In the next case was a fossilized human skull from 75,000 years ago that was unearthed in southern Spain. It was normal for a thirty-three year old male Homo sapiens. The only significant difference between it and other skulls from that time period was that it had dental filling made from modern ceramic composites. Once the technology to detect chronitons was invented, Henry was confident he could prove that the skull belonged to a time-traveler. Currently, the dental records did not match any known persons.
Next to a lamp was a liter glass jar filled with murky alcohol containing the preserved body of a humanoid mushroom. The bottom half of its stalk was white and bifurcated, creating two legs for ambulatory movement. The upper half of the stalk was blue, and had two arm-like growths that were used for balance when walking. A white cap sat at the top of the stalk. The purpose of the mobile fruiting body was to be able to spread its pores over a larger, more suitable habitat.
Henry had dozens of dried specimens but he was especially fond of this one because it was the only one preserved in liquid. They had been frequently found in Belgium up until the industrial revolution when they went extinct from loss of habitat. Henry had repeatedly tried to germinate the spores but with no success.
School children had collected most of his mushroom men specimens, and carved faces into them at the top of the stalk, giving them the appearance of tiny blue people wearing white hats and pants. It was erroneously believed that older specimens would develop a red cap with white threads growing from the gills that resemble a tiny white beard. In truth, this was a rarer, separate species of mobile mushroom.
Framed between two large windows that looked out onto the tops of the palms was a heavily soiled emerald green flag with a two-headed lion, holding a snake in one mouth and a rose in another, from the sovereign crypto-nation of Lemuria which was discovered in the ’90s in a WWII-era bomb shelter beneath a London department store.
The presence of these items brought Henry comfort. He had acquired them as he would surely acquire the second half of the idol that sat in the middle of the room atop a steel pedestal that was bolted to the floor, topped with a shatterproof glass dome. Henry’s guest would be bringing the other half of the idol with it. Whoever wanted it more would leave with it. The other would not leave at all.
Its features were difficult to distinguish in the soft lamplight. It was carved from black jade. It was all strange angled limbs, and implied movement with no coherent center for the eye to fall on. It had an unsettling effect. The complete piece was said to depict dozens of limbs radiating from a triangular thorax.
The idol was said to have belonged to an order of mountaintop monks who followed a pagan pre-Christian tradition. They built their temple on the very peak of the highest mountain to worship a celestial ecology that they believed lived in the sky. The idol depicted the supreme lifeform of the sky, the top of the aerial food chain.
Conquistadors had raided the temple and stolen the idol but bad luck and terrible weather followed it wherever it went. On route back to Spain, it was taken from a Galleon by pirates. As sickness, leaks, and storms continued to plague the pirates, some of the crew were driven mad. To free them of the idol’s curse, the quartermaster had broken it in half, and tried to cast it into the sea. He had only managed to rid them of the top before he was shot dead by the captain.
Henry had purchased the bottom half of the idol at an auction, and bemoaned that it would be forever incomplete. His right-hand man, Alfred Azif, was not so easily dissuaded. While going over the extensive history of the idol that accompanied the purchase to help ensure authenticity, he noticed that whenever the idol was near water, a sea monster attacked it. Al reported this to Henry, who thought it was another collector trying to steal the bottom of the idol but then he remembered that the top had been thrown into the sea. Knowing that objects of great power often had a will of their own and desired unity, Henry had begun to wonder what would happen to a shark if it swallowed the top half of the idol.
Henry thought it was going to be another wasted evening when Al entered the room. While most people found Al to be stoic and utterly unreadable, Henry had learned to detect the nearly microscopic changes in his demeanor. After entering the room, Al stood silently, hands clasped behind his back. Something was very wrong.
Henry raised an eyebrow that Al pretended not to notice but Henry knew that he took in everything. “Is our guest on its way?”
“We’ve lost contact with one of the boats, sir.”
Henry’s eyes went wide. He had been hoping to avoid something like this. “Which one?”
“The Quinn, sir.”
“Alright. Have the Hooper and the Brody break off their patrols, and go look for the Quinn’s crew.”
“Yes, sir,” Al said but remained in the room, knowing that Henry was not finished.
“Get Huxley, and tell the rest of the staff to fall back to safe positions.”
“You don’t think this is a job for Ms. Lizard?”
“Amanda is head of security. It’s Huxley’s job to fight the monsters.”
Al nodded, then turned, and left the room.
Henry looked out over the dark ocean, unable to tell the sea from the sky. “So it begins.”
After a few moments, Huxley, a mountain of a man with clean-shaven brown skin and black hair, wearing a spotless white tank top, ambled into the room. “Is it here?”
“Soon,” Henry said, not taking his eyes off the sea.
“I’ll get ready then.” Huxley turned to leave.
“I thought you were born ready?” Henry asked, the slightest taunt in his voice.
“Born?” Huxley chuckled. “I was. What I meant was I’ll go get all your crap ready.”
“That’s what I thought you meant.”
Huxley left the room with all the bravado of a knight going off to battle a dragon.
Henry stared into the darkness. He swore he could feel the thing getting closer, like a strange gravity pulling at his every fiber. Then the stadium lights he had installed on the outside of the villa went on, illuminating the adjacent sea. In the murky shallows, where small waves crested with white tips, was a monstrous shark fin. Henry looked down the beach, and could see a small amount of the movement in the distance where Huxley prepared to confront what approached. He sensed a presence behind him, and knew Al had returned.
“Do you think this will go easy or hard?” Al asked. He had stood by Henry’s side at many such undertakings, and knew things rarely went as planned.
“There’s no way to calculate what effect half of an enchanted idol of an arcane sky god might do to a shark, nature’s most perfect killing machine, after sitting in its gut for several hundred years.”
“I assume you tried though,” Al said.
“Yes but it wasn’t as simple as solving for x.”
Al nodded. The radio at his side crackled. He handed it forward to Henry.
“Alright, I can see it. Want me to try the first measure?” Huxley asked from the shore.
“No, wait for it to get closer.”
“Closer? It’s six or seven meters long in a couple of feet of water. It can’t get any closer. It’s too shallow.”
“Never underestimate your quarry, Huxley. That is how people die,” Henry said into the radio, thinking of the Quinn’s crew.
“I wish you had gotten Dakuwaqa’s consent on this,” Al said.
“Me too. We’ll just have to apologize afterward, if he’s sore about it.”
The shark, still obscured by the surf, except for its scarred and notched dorsal fin, wiggled back and forth, working its way a little closer to the shore.
“Now?” Huxley crackled over the radio.
“I could walk over, and hit it with a bat.”
Henry did not reply. He knew Huxley might bitch and moan but he wouldn’t make a move without orders to do so. Then the movement from the beast stopped. Henry held his breath, every muscle in his body strung with tension. The shark could burst into action at any moment. He hated going into an endeavor with so many unknowns but there was no precedent for this type of situation. That was probably why he was so fascinated by it. It was always impossible things that drew him in the most. That was the nature of his curse.
Then the shark lifted its head out of the water. The first thing Henry noticed was the shark’s eyes. Normally black and emotionless, they were white and blind. Studded all around its two sightless eyes were countless mismatched eyes, looking in every direction, resembling boils about to pop. Gouged boney plates like fish from the prehistoric seas before the dinosaurs covered its head. In between the bony plates, cancerous masses sprouted like weeds growing from cracks in the sidewalk. The creature exuded raw power and misery.
“Jesus Christ,” came across the radio.
“Still want to hit it with a bat?” Henry asked while the corner of Al’s lips twitched.
The shark turned its head from side to side as if trying to sniff something out. Then it pointed itself straight at the veranda’s glass door that Henry and his half of the idol stood inside of. Henry’s breath caught in his chest. He’d had shatterproof glass installed when he purchased the villa but that was hardly comforting now.
Then there was a swirling of water at the shark’s sides as something moved beneath the surface but the shark did not move forward. Suddenly, its body lurched upward as it rose out of the water. Below its fins were multiple pairs of crustacean legs that lifted it out of the surf. The multi-jointed limbs gleamed in the bright lighting, covered in spines and webbing. A single leg took a tentative step forward as if it were unsure the ground would support it. Then another leg moved. The shark moved slowly at first, its enormous weight sinking into the wet sand but its steps gained confidence as it passed the water’s edge.
Henry pushed the button on the radio. “Now Huxley! Do it now!” Huxley, being a man of action, was immediately in motion. He had lit a flare, and was now waving it in the air. The shark swung its malformed head in his direction, gills flaring. Saliva sprung from its mouth, and dripped from hundreds of jutting teeth. The shark paused in its forward progress. In Huxley’s other hand, he held a mummified hand that had once belonged to a hanged man that had undergone a slew of magic and alchemical treats to become a hand of glory.
Henry had a dozen hands of glory in his collection. He often thought that if there was a mystical object starter kit, it would come with a hand of glory, a dried mandrake, and a fake Edison Spirit Phone. Each hand of glory had different properties, depending on who it came from, and how it was preserved. All of them came from hanged men. They were activated when a lit candle was placed inside the palm. Some did simple things like open a lock, while others could bend time. The one that Huxley held had a mundane but useful effect. It put its target into a deep slumber that only ended when the flame was extinguished or the candle removed.
To Be Continued …
Joshua D. Taylor is an author who started writing when he realized he was too old to play make-believe. He lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with his wife and a one-eared cat. He enjoys gardening, comic books, ska-punk music, Disney World, and traveling with his wife. Raised during the weirdness that was the late 20th century, Josh’s eclectic interests produce eclectic works. He loves to mix-n-match things from different genres and story elements to achieve a madcap hodgepodge of the truly unexpected.