Chapter 6: Sighting The Loveland Frogman
At some point I realized I was resting comfortably at the bottom of some deep body of water. The rumbling of machine-driven vessels and the taste of industry in the water told me I was on an inhabited alien world. Something slipped from my shoulder and I caught it. A bit of jewelry from my youth, a dream thing somehow made real. As I examined it, I also noticed something else in my hand. A crystal ball filled with thin glittering golden branches. It looked like I was only holding this delicate tracery hovering above my hand as the crystal's refraction was the same as the water it was in. It even seemed for a moment like it was inside my hand. Having nowhere safer to put these things, I slipped them into my pouch for safekeeping. I then swam upward, taking on a coloration that would hide me from casual observation and avoiding the noisiest directions. I didn't have a water breathing sac developed on my back, so I was going to need air eventually. I must not have been living exclusively aquatically recently.
As I rose, I tried to remember how I got here. There were flashes of vaguely remembered dream, but I couldn't remember what I was doing before now or exactly how I ended up on another planet. A trans-planet gate needed a physical stabilizing structure around it, and there wasn't one where I woke up. There was no sign of a system-travel craft or wreckage thereof either.
From the pressure around me, I now was at a depth where I should be seeing more light if it was day, and when I finally surfaced I was thankfully hidden by darkness. In the distance, there was a small craft, and I could feel the thumping beat of some kind of music all the way from where I was. I approached cautiously to a generous distance that I could still observe from, and saw a group of what I assumed to be the dominant sapient of this world on a flat watercraft, a sort of platform on a pair of long pontoons partially covered by an awning. From the varying amounts of clumsiness in their movements, I'd guess their revels were being fueled by whatever they were drinking from the glass and metal containers in their hands and scattered across the craft. A few of them seemed to be mating. I doubted any of them were going to notice me this far away, but I ducked back below the surface anyway.
The beings slightly resembled images I'd seen of the ruling race that was supposed to on the third planet of our system, but these ones' ears were rounder and their body structure was in general less elegant. I didn't think they were the same. If this were that planet the stars would look similar to the view from the second, but the few patterns I recognized were warped and distorted. To see a sky like this, I'd have to be at a different place in the galaxy, or countless ages away in time. But time traversal was beyond our technology, and the world gates had all been collapsed and their housings demolished before I'd been born. I'd seen the shattered ruins. Any way I looked at it, my being in this place and seeing these things was an impossibility, but I was sure I wasn't dreaming.
I chose a likely direction to swim. The lights in the distance suggested I'd find a shore there. I could take to the air from here, but it would be loud and visibly churn the water. The race-of-hunters hadn't traveled the worlds since generations before me, but the old knowledge still told me I should minimize the chances of being observed until I knew more about my situation. I aimed for an area between the lights, the use of so much illumination suggested that night and shadow would be safer here. As I neared shore, I saw a likely wooded area, and when I reached it I watched carefully for a few moments before surfacing fully. As I moved onto the shore crouched low, I made my skin water-repellent to dry instantly and avoid losing heat to the night air.
I felt outward with my electric aura as I entered the trees, there was life around me but everything in my limited out-of-water range was smaller than me. Having found a relatively safe place for now, I felt for my people, sending out the feeling of needing help, but... there were none. My heart sank as I wondered how this could possibly be. How was I supposed to make sense out of any of this? There was no one anywhere out there. I didn't know what this world was, or how I got here. What happened to everyone? What was I supposed to do? Was I here to start a new colony, all by myself? Being the only one of us around my fertility and virility cycles would become aligned (instead of alternated as usual) to make self-impregnation easier, but I absolutely could not even consider such a thing without being certain that a settlement would be safe.
* * *
Soaring high above the land brought a sorely needed stillness of mind. I was no closer to understanding anything, but up here, in this moment, I didn't need to understand. I had indulged maybe a bit too long in self-pity down on that shore, but being stuck on a foreign planet and knowing I was the only one of my kind in all the worlds, I didn't think many would begrudge me my fair share of that.
When I had gotten a decent altitude, I'd seen that the place I came ashore was an undeveloped island. I'd followed the mainland shore, then followed a river inland. I wanted to stay close to the water. With the water, and the fish and animals that came with it, I would have all I needed to survive as I figured out what this place was like and what I should do next. I'd seen more urban development back by the river's mouth but now I saw smaller towns below me and fields plotted out in the distance, with less developed areas scattered around the river. I noticed the hint of light showing over the horizon so I dove toward a promising spot not too far from the river, my face taking on a streamlined wedge shape to cut through the air. I carefully shifted my coloration to remain unnoticed against the sky from the vantage of the vehicles that were starting to become more numerous.
Once more among trees, I noted that there were clear trails and not much undergrowth. This wasn't completely natural, a park, maybe. Still, I managed to find a good dense thicket far from any clearly traveled areas that wasn't already being used by anything as a den. I slipped inside and curled up, my prehensile surface moving branches easily around me as I passed. Not too uncomfortable, I went into the wary sleep of the wild.
* * *
I was on the deck of the dream ship, the boards pleasantly warm on the soles of my feet. Looking down at my perfectly normal pink human body felt completely wrong after dreaming of being a monster. Everything, my balance, my stance, the feeling of my hair hanging from my head and the shape of my teeth and tongue in my mouth. It all seemed... alien. So I looked up, and after a moment I realized that in this clear blue sky there was no trace of a sun. Huh. Dream world, I figured.
My clothes were not far away, right where I'd left them, but when I went to check on them they were all stiff with salt. Anyway the idea of putting them on was weirdly uncomfortable. As I tossed them aside, some change in the faint breeze gave me a suspicion that I wasn't alone, so I hazarded a guess. “So who do you play poker with?”
I was rewarded with a gritty voice replying, “Well, of the usual group you have met Walker. I doubt you have made the acquaintance of Wan-Hu, Malaclypse the Elder, Zuss the Tralfamadorian, or our illustrious host the Baron Munchausen who has a lovely palace on the moon. Occasionally the Monkey King will join us, when his attention span permits it.”
“Should I believe a word of that?”
“Take it or leave it as you please.”
I laid on the sand and cushioned my head with my hands and considered the unblemished blue sky. “What exactly is this place?”
“This sort of thing has many names, domain, realm, seat of power. Usually you'd have to be a little more... mighty, and a little less mortal to have one of these. But you seem to have inherited quite a few things from your mother, including her tendency to go about things in unconventional ways.”
* * *
While plagued by strange barely-remembered dreams, over the next few days my body adapted to life on the hunt. My diet consisted of fish and small flying and ground animals, caught and killed swiftly with a bite just behind the head and a quick fatal shock conducted through my teeth and saliva, then usually swallowed whole thanks to my split lower jaw. (The fish here tasted quite different from those of my homeworld, but the avians weren't that far off.) My digestive system became robust enough to handle what I was giving it, bones and all. Large carcasses and fire to cook food would both be evidence of my presence here. That and properly burying my waste ensured I left no revealing traces. I didn't need a tool for that, my tail fan served the purpose as well as a shovel.
It was also in those first few days that my egg cycle made itself known with an unusual bit of discomfort. That periodic event was not usually unpleasant, one would think it was the first time I'd ever passed an unfertilized egg. I examined it carefully before I buried it but I didn't see any reason it should have been painful, its dark surface was smooth enough and it wasn't uncommonly large, just a round-ended cylindrical mass about as wide as three fingers and three times as long. It certainly wasn't as big as the real thing. It was hard and sturdy as it had become dense and infertile, all resources that could be recovered pulled from it before it was ready to pass.
After the people of this world came close to places I was hiding a few times without noticing me, it was clear that they could not sense me. So I felt safe relying on the layered camouflage technique to render me mostly invisible. It wasn't flawless and only worked if I remained still, but I could observe them from the trees without much risk. Watching them more closely revealed yet another mystery, I could understand their language. Had I somehow been on this world before? The evidence seemed to be mounting that I had, however impossible it was. How else could I know these things? I could understand them as they passed in conversation. I could read the text on the occasional wrappers and containers casually discarded on the ground. It was a fact that I knew this place.
* * *
Last time I explored the ship the captain's quarters were unfurnished and empty like the rest of the ship, but now the room looked like a set from a swashbuckling movie. A velvet-upholstered chair sat behind a table with a dagger stuck in it right in the middle. Beyond the table was a huge panoramic window, a horizontal oval bowed out with a spherical curve. On the starboard side of the room was a large hammock of some expensive-looking cloth. The port side was dominated by a massive cabinet flanked by a writing desk and a barrel of apples.
I went to the table. It was covered with symbols and designs I didn't understand. I tried to pull the dagger out to get a closer look, but it tilted like a lever and the panorama window went dark. I pushed the dagger back and the ocean view returned. I thought a moment, pulled the lever again, and went to inspect the window. There was some kind of texture to the blackness beyond the glass, like a curtain was pulled over it. I went back and restored the view, then went to investigate the cabinet.
The monolithic piece of furniture was made of dark wood, the same as the chest it was allegedly part of. It had double doors above a pair of drawers. Unlike everything else in the room, it was covered in a fine layer of dust. All the other furnishings were either regularly used, or more likely recently added considering they weren't here last time I checked. But this thing, even though it appeared along with the rest, it felt like it had always been here. Opening it up there were two shelves and their contents were very familiar to me. On the top shelf there was some clothing, school uniforms, a box filled with jewelry, and various odds and ends, on top of a wealth of books. The lower shelf had wooden boxes, cloth bags, and leather pouches all containing who knew what. A cauldron. And even more books, minus the ones I had taken out. I hoped at least the yearbooks had survived whatever happened in my room.
The drawers were odd in that they had hinged lids, they could only be opened after you pulled them out far enough. Inside them were the various elements of the super-outfit my mother wore in the yearbook. A few pink sundresses folded carelessly, the material didn't hold wrinkles or creases so it didn't matter much. The hat, in a round box with the extravagant half-mask tossed in. And the various other accessories haphazardly packed in. There were also a lot of things like throwing knives, smoke grenades, wands of unknown magical purpose, implements of various sorts of destruction both familiar and unfamiliar. But it was as I closed them back up that I got the clue to the real mystery, the drawers both clicked but in different places. On a hunch, I opened the drawers to those points, the bottom one pulled out more than the upper one, and then I realized why the drawers had lids. They were steps. Now that I was looking for it, the wear on the lids didn't quite match what would come from just being pulled in and out. They were visibly worn like stairs would be, in two thin rows in the middle. Someone, my mother, had climbed these drawers often.
I tried them out, and as I put my weight on them they held securely, some design feature keeping them from sliding as I stepped up. The shelves were the only thing in front of me and I wondered what the steps were for, I could reach the upper shelf easily without them. The shelves seemed a little loose. Not just the shelves themselves, the entire housing around them wobbled a little now that I had the drawers in position. I pushed against the shelves, and they moved back. I climbed into the slightly cramped space this created, there were foothold ledges set in the stone on the narrow sides and the inside of the chest's lid was above me. I tried opening it, but it wouldn't budge. Before I could get to figuring out a way to pop the latches from inside, Gulik's voice interrupted me.
“You can't go that way as you are now. You have to be awake and in the flesh to pass through there.”
I sat down where I was with my feet on the drawers. He, of course, was sitting in the chair with his feet on the table. “Let me guess, that's dangerous too.”
“Not at all, I mean you quite literally can't. Topologically speaking, that exit doesn't exist for dreamers. Colloquially speaking, you can't get there from here.”
“Speaking of dreaming, why can't I remember being awake clearly?”
He chuckled. It barely sounded human, it had an almost insect-like edge to it. Something chittery and clicking trying to imitate a laugh. “Do you know why you look like that?”
I looked down at myself. “Isn't this what I'm supposed to look like?” Then I looked back up. He was gone.
* * *
I started ranging further to observe more. Not far from the river were fields that were mostly harvested, and roads flanked by power transmission cables on poles bristling down their length with an ultraviolet corona and a broad magnetic field that forced me to pull my electric sense in tight when near them. My conclusion that these people had the absolute worst senses was only supported by this garish affront to public peace and good taste. But... they weren't always like this, were they? Had I just seen better shielded power lines in the unknown time I was on this world before? I had a creeping feeling that wasn't the case.
Further south along the river, there was a strip of buildings with store fronts along a main street. Observing from the rooftops, I watched the people going about their business. Far too easily, I could see myself among them. I knew what sorts of things I would find in shops like these. That used bookstore, for example. I knew the smell of the books that I would find inside, bare uncoated paper that would never survive underwater and not a single metal page in sight. Not something I would commonly find at home.
Nearby, back down on the river, there was a cargo and passenger vessel that seemed to be antiquated by the current technological stage of this world. Curious, I followed it in the best blind spot available, right beneath it. I stuck the end of my tail up out of the water and spread my tailfan against the side of the vessel while camouflaging it. That, combined with what little came through the hull and through the water, was enough to make out speech. According to the guide on board, this was a historical recreation to show the passengers how their forebears traveled along this river before a more developed industry and methods of travel brought it into disuse. A relic of a dead era. I mused morbidly that maybe the same could be said of me if everyone were truly gone.
On the vessel just above me, a pair were conversing. Submerged and limited as I was, their voices were hard to tell apart.
“Quit looking around like that, you're making me paranoid. You're not going to see Bigfoot from a dumb tour boat anyway, nothing grand or rapid ever happens in Grand Rapids.”
“There were posts in the Ohio Cryptid group that said fishermen have been reporting seeing something along the Maumee River. We're on the Maumee River.” I raised my estimate of this species' observational capabilities a bit.
“So what is it this time? Mothman? Bessie? The melon heads?”
“Most people are saying it's the Loveland Frogman. And the melon heads are real, Corey Pickson's seen them.”
“Isn't Loveland down by Cincinnati? What would it be doing up here? Also, Corey's a pothead.”
“I don't know, maybe they're spreading out or migrating or something. Look at this, there's a photo on the thread.”
“All I see is a vague blob. Look, you can even kinda see through it on this side. Probably some kind of optical glitch or something. Not like that next photo down, that freaky thing is in sharp focus. What is it?”
“Somebody checked Herowatch and identified it as the work of a bio-tinkerer named Echidna. Apparently they're nicknamed squid-dogs. But that wasn't around here. It was up on the Erie shore.”
The announcer called for attention as the vessel entered a narrow lock with worn wooden gates, explaining its function to the passengers. The downstream gate was closed and the water level began slowly rising. When it matched the level on the other side of the upstream gate, that gate was opened and the poles of the drivers resumed pushing the vessel along.
“What if... what if it's Ollie?”
“Is that a sick joke? He's dead.”
“There's unmarked vans still hanging around his block. And ours. Somebody thinks he's still alive, they don't have him, and they're hoping to catch him looking for help.”
“They gave his remains to his Gram.”
“It was a bag of dust. Who knows what they actually gave her?”
The clunk of the poles against the sides of the vessel punctuated the tense pause.
“You really are making me paranoid now.”
The announcer called out that the vessel was nearing the upstream destination of this short tour, apparently between historical stops on the river. I slipped off the bottom of the boat to the river bottom, allowing the tour boat to leave me behind.
* * *
I looked listlessly at the jewelry in my hand by the light of the stars. A round web of thin silver chain, weighted by small iridescent crystals in settings dangling from the intersections around its perimeter. I knew it, and it made sense that I knew it, but it didn't make sense that it was here. In my other hand, a crystal ball with a golden bush in it. I knew it, but it didn't make sense that I knew it. Just like I knew the voices on the boat, and the name of the friend they mourned. I felt the loss of Ollie as if I knew this one. I didn't just know this world, by some strange synchronicity I knew these people specifically. I didn't have faces to go with them, but I associated them with some sort of battle robots even though I was certain this world didn't have such tech. There were memories, knowledge I should have that were tantalizingly beyond my reach.
I was sitting just above the tree canopy, supported only by my long tail stuck straight down below me to grip firmly to a sturdy upper branch. I leaned back and stretched out to balance myself and gazed outward. The night sky held no answers.
I slotted the ball into a place in my hand I knew was there but could not see, feeling as if it completed the appendage. I took it back out and willed it to return, knowing somehow that it would instantly obey. I knew this much, but there was so much more I didn't know and it would likely be a very long time before I could establish a workshop equipped to really study this thing. First-To-Choose give me guidance, I barely knew where to begin! My main necessities, to develop the tools and facilities to solve my mysteries while also remaining safe, hidden, and mobile, were directly opposed. I could not work very far toward one without defeating the other.
I hurled the thing, putting all my frustration into pitching it as far away from me as I could. I slipped into accelerated reaction time and watched it sail away in slow motion, savoring the arc that carried it tens of lengths away from me. A soft crash reached me just slightly after the ball plunged into the foliage. I knew the act was futile, that I was tied to the mysterious object, but I still felt some small satisfaction from it. I sank into the foliage of my own tree, and reclined along a good sturdy branch.
As I lay there, I gradually became aware of something strange in my sense of the creatures around me. There was a strange overlap, as if I was feeling two different sets of input. I looked around and identified which set was “here”, that had creatures I was both seeing and feeling. The other set, “there”... was coming from the ball! Of course! Not only could I feel the ground beneath it as if it were a part of me, I could feel the life around it as if I were there. And now that I was paying attention, I could also to a much lesser degree hear through it as well.
There was something near the ball that didn't feel quite like the other animals I'd felt here. There was something distinctive about the feel of its bioelectrics. Some intuition or half-memory told me this was a known threat that must be eliminated, so I slipped into motion. Stalking silently through the trees, I made my way towards where I estimated it must be based on the direction it was moving away from my newfound remote sensor. it wasn't long before I saw its tentacled face and knew I was being tracked. This thing had to be destroyed.
I was on it before it even knew I was there, my teeth sinking into its vile-tasting neck. It struggled longer than usual despite taking my full charge, it must have had a more distributed nervous system than most vertebrates I encountered here so far. It tried to bite me with the vicious little beak in the middle of those short tentacles but didn't have the leverage since I had its neck. It twisted and kicked at me from below with its hind claws but when they caught my skin I simply rolled it out of their way. I managed one by one to pin each of its limbs with my own. Soon enough, it stopped moving. I wasn't about to eat the nasty thing, so I set about digging it a nice deep hole.
I'd made significant headway when I started hearing some odd rustling near my ball in the distance. Odd because I couldn't feel a creature to go with it. It wasn't another one of these squid-faced things, I knew what they felt like now. I turned and stealthily made my way there.
Many things in this world were oddly familiar to me, including the enemy I'd just killed, but what I saw from a spot in the underbrush was completely new. Before me was a small pile of trash shaped like one of this planet's people. This oddity stood much shorter than I, and was currently investigating the ball on the ground. The little being knelt down, reached out, and touched it. And then we connected. Even though this one was not of the race-of-hunters, somehow we had the same empathic link. At least for a brief moment before they jumped back in surprise. But they cautiously picked up the ball, and the connection was back. We shared being lost, stranded, isolated, and confused. And now we shared a swell of reassurance as neither of us were quite as alone as we were just moments before. We knew we were allies.
* * *
“Dammit Gulik you little cockroach, I hated every time you showed up when Sylv was still here and I hate it now.”
“I'm only the messenger. I'm sure you have questions, if you really want me gone, I'll take any answers I might have with me.”
“Alright, why can't I find a path to River?”
“Bringing your child back this time isn't as simple as getting in a car. River isn't just in one place at the moment. But I assure you, I'm watching all those places.”