Excerpt from Land of Nod, The Artifact




Chapter 9:



Jeff ran his finger along the labels on the stacks of boxes:  Christmas decorations, old toys, Halloween...

Here!

He yanked the box and nearly toppled the whole stack.  He steadied the other boxes, and was then able to carefully slide the one he wanted out from under them.  He let it drop to the floor in front of him and then, after making sure the rest of the stack wasn’t going to topple, lifted the lid.

It was as he remembered - filled with rock climbing supplies that Jeff had used many times when he had gone climbing with his father.  There were ropes, pulleys, harnesses, carabiners etc. 

Jeff grabbed a long rope and several carabiners.

He half ran, half stumbled back down the attic ladder, folded it back up, pushed the door and let the springs pull it the rest of the way until it slammed loudly.

Jeff cringed.  For a very brief moment he expected to hear his father scold him to be more careful.

He made his way back toward the office and suddenly became aware of each footfall.  Once he had decided this was what he wanted to do, he couldn’t move fast enough, but he also had a fear that something would happen to stop him.

When he was back to the device, he dropped the large coil of rope, which fell with a thud beside the device. He examined the bar he had used to secure himself previously.

Seems solid enough, he thought as he tugged on it and visually examine the size, shape and apparent sturdiness.  He attached a large carabiner to the ‘handle’ and then yanked on that to verify the strength of the system.  He looped the rope through it and was nearly ready to descend into the portal...

He paused.

I’m going into some strange... zone... that I know nothing about.  There is no way to know what to expect.  He had been running on adrenaline, but now he felt like he needed... something.

A weapon or something to protect himself.

Jeff’s father didn’t have any guns.

Then Jeff had an idea.

He made his way back out of the office and down the hallway to the bedroom and from there to his closet.  He pushed and threw things aside – not at all concerned or even conscious of the mess he was making – until...

Here!

He lifted his aluminum baseball bat. He held it firmly in his right hand and slapped at it with his left hand – trying to feel the solidness and strength of it.

That should give me some protection.... against anyone or anything that isn’t too much bigger or stronger than me, he thought to himself.

He went back to the office and stood in the doorway trying to think if there was anything else he needed.  He looked at the door.  Should I leave it open?  No... if I leave it open, Mom might come strolling in. 

He closed and locked the door, dropped the keys in his pocket and then turned off the light.

It seemed pitch black for a moment, but his eyes quickly re-adjusted.  He stumbled toward the portal, feeling his way as he went.

Jeff paused as he reached the edge of the device and exhaled forcefully.

Should I really do this?  Am I being an idiot?  What am I getting myself into?

He had more questions than answers.  Part of him realized this wasn’t a very good idea, but that was countered by the fact that... he had more questions than answers.  Curiosity can be a strong motivator.

What kind of world would this be if we always let our minds get in the way of our hearts?

One with a lot less discovery, innovation and achievement.

And one with a lot fewer drunk, naked Facebook and Twitter photos.

Oh, hell... If I keep thinking about it, I’ll never do this.

Jeff dipped a toe into the portal which hummed to life.  The blue light lit his face.  He pulled on the rope, made sure it was secure, tucked the bat under his arm, wrapped the rope around him, threw the end into the opening and watched it twist and wave in the blackness.

He stepped into the opening, this time going feet first rather than head first.

He glanced down and could see his body twisting and stretching below him.  That visual was quite disconcerting, so he looked back up, focused on the solid feel of the rope and continued lowering himself.

Lights flashed by his head, and within a few moments, he was hanging over the forest.  Above him, he could see the rope dangling through a black circle that seemed suspended in the sky. 

Jeff looked down and saw the trees below him.  He lowered himself through the branches which scratched painfully as he dropped through them.  He went slowly, slowly, keeping a good hold on the rope, but it was getting difficult to maintain his concentration as the branches scratched and whipped at him. 

When he was about ten feet from the ground, his right foot got caught on a branch and upended him.  He desperately tried to keep a hold on the rope, but he was twisted and tangled in a way that made it very difficult to right himself. 

The bat slipped and the thick end hit Jeff in the head with a resounding ‘bonk’.

That was enough to throw off the intense concentration he had been using to prevent a fall to the forest ground below.

Jeff had just enough time to think: This is going to hurt, before his back made hard, bone jarring, teeth rattling contact with the ground.

He had the very unpleasant, but relatively familiar feeling of having the wind knocked out of himself.  He was on the ground, and he clutched his stomach instinctively as he desperately gasped and tried to get air into his lungs.

While he had a familiarity with the sensation, he still couldn’t prevent panicking.  Colors flashed in his eyes and he could hear himself making sickening sounds as he struggled to get some air.

His lungs slowly filled and he began to regain normal breathing.  He tried to remain still and calm as he rested on the forest floor.   He willed his head to clear and his body to get back to a regularly functioning rhythm.

... But before he actually had much time to regain his composure, Jeff saw something moving out of the corner of his eye and tilted his head to get a better look. 

About 15 feet away there was an odd... animal.  It was about the size of a rabbit and looked generally like one but with small ears, a long, naked tail, long hind-legs combined with very short fore-legs and a bi-pedal stance that gave it the general shape of a very small, furry, rodent Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Jeff reached for his bat which was about a foot away from his right hand.  As his hand fumbled and then closed around the bat, the rodent saw him and froze. 

The two stared at each other, motionless, for a few moments.  Jeff heard a sound, looked up and saw something falling from a tree-branch above the rodent.

It looked like a jellyfish - about 18 inches in diameter - but less regularly shaped than a jellyfish and without tentacles... almost like a huge amoeba.  It fell onto the rodent and enveloped it.  Jeff could see the frightened animal through the semi-transparent body of the bizarre creature.  The rodent was struggling violently to try to escape, but it was completely trapped and didn’t seem to be making any progress. 

After about 30 seconds, its struggling stopped, and Jeff could see the ghastly look of death on the rodent’s face.

Jeff pulled his bat tightly to his chest, raised himself shakily to his feet and then slowly backed away.






Chapter 10:



Now what?

Jeff was surrounded by tall trees.  Even though the sun was nearly directly overhead, the shade from the trees made it almost dark where Jeff stood.  The non-tree plant-life was minimal.  Jeff assumed that the lack of light prevented lush growth. 

He could see what appeared to be a clearing a few hundred yards away, and he thought it might be a good idea to head that way.  The strange creatures he had seen had creeped him out and he wanted the comfort of bright day-light.

Maybe that will give me a hint of where to go from here.

He hadn’t really thought it all through.  He didn’t really think that his father would be standing there waving when he arrived... but he didn’t really think that he wouldn’t be there either.

He didn’t really think about anything.

In the back of his mind, he had realized that if he had stopped to think about it too much, he likely wouldn’t have done anything.  And his heart had been lobbying, VERY HARD, for him to charge ahead.  It was as if his heart had kicked open the door to his brain and dropped a satchel filled with bundled hundred dollar bills on the desk:  ‘I’m sure we can come to some kind of understanding on this.’

When he was about 50 feet from the clearing, he froze.  He saw some movement at the base of a nearby tree.  He clenched his bat tightly and tried to get a better look.  From a hollow in the tree, emerged a HUGE beetle - about 2 feet in diameter with sharp, six-inch mandibles.  The beetle climbed out of the tree and headed away from him into the clearing.

Then another beetle emerged and followed the first... then another and another...

Soon there were 20 or 30 very big beetles all marching in formation into the clearing. 

Jeff watched silently hoping they would get well out in front of him.  He wanted to keep an eye on them.  He was a good bit larger than them, but those pinchers looked like they could do some damage, and if they ganged up on him...

Jeff had seen nature shows in which ants had taken down grasshoppers many times their size with some well coordinated teamwork.  He shuddered at the thought.

When the lead beetle was about 100 feet into the clearing, Jeff saw a large shadow pass over the line, then another.

Jeff looked up to see what was causing the shadow, but the trees were blocking his view.  He cautiously edged closer to the clearing.

Holy...

Circling the line of beetles were three huge... birds?  They had wingspans of about 9 feet.

There also seemed to be something unusual about their heads.  Jeff squinted into the sun and saw that their heads didn’t look like bird heads, but looked more like badger or weasel heads.

The birds swooped and snatched beetles from the line.  The formation scattered and some of the beetles headed back toward Jeff. 

Jeff began to panic.

The beetles were running fast and erratically.  They were going in all directions. 

Jeff started backing quickly away, but tried to keep a watch on as many of the beetles and birds as possible.  Within seconds though, he had beetles in front of him, behind him and on all sides. 

Jeff saw one of the birds swoop down and snatch a beetle just at the tree line, but the birds didn’t seem to pursue the beetles beyond that line.

After a few more minutes, the beetles that hadn’t been eaten found hiding places.   The birds went off and out of sight, and the forest was calm again.

Jeff stood for a few moments weighing his options and began to think this might be an example of discretion being the better part of valor. 

He wasn’t sure what wetting his pants and crying like a little girl would have been the better part of.

I think it’s time to go back and re-think this whole thing.

He began re-tracing his steps to where he had dropped.  He had paid close attention to the path he had taken and he had a good sense of direction.

Crap!

He thought he was headed in the right direction, but everything started to look the same.

He began to panic.

He was tempted to begin running, but he realized that would be very foolish.  Instead, he continued slowly and methodically and tried to tell himself he had a clue where he was going.

After about 5 minutes – that felt more like 20 – he could see the spot where he had landed.

There it is!

The rope was dangling down the side of the tree.  Jeff followed the rope with his eyes and he could see it was hanging through a black circle in the sky.

I wish I had thought this through a little better.

He could climb most of the way by finding footholds on branches and using the rope to balance and guide himself.  But there was a gap of at least ten feet from the top of the tree to the portal, and that would be a hard climb.

Jeff was a good climber, but the rope was thin and not knotted.

It would be tough.

Just relax, take your time, Jeff told himself.  I can lock off and take a break if I need to.  I can just inch my way up if it’s too hard to do it all at once.

His stomach turned over as he thought about himself hanging there... in the sky, far above the ground with nothing but rope.  He felt sweat bead on his forehead even though the temperature was cool.

He decided that the longer he thought about it, the harder it would be, so he grabbed the rope and began to make his way up the tree. 

He had the bat tucked under one arm, but quickly realized he couldn’t hold the bat and climb easily at the same time.  He dropped the bat and watched it fall with some trepidation.  The bat had given him some sense of comfort, but it was holding him back now.

For a moment, he thought about his mom and how she wouldn’t be happy about replacing the bat, but then he wondered why his brain occupied itself with such mundane details when his very life might be in danger.

He climbed quickly and within a relatively short time, he was nearing the top of the tree.  He paused a moment to catch his breath.  He had a good view of the portal now, and, as he looked at it, he saw something that made his face go white.

The black circle seemed to be getting... smaller!   Jeff squinted and tried to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him, but the longer he looked, the surer he became that the portal seemed to be closing and tightening around the rope.

The black circle was basically gone now and the rope seemed to just be hanging in the air. 

Jeff stared.

He wasn’t sure what this meant, but he was getting very nervous.  He hoped that, when he got to the end of the rope, he could coax the portal to open again... as he had opened it on the other end by breaking the plane.

But he couldn’t be sure that would work.

He continued to stare at the end of the rope – just hanging there.

As he watched, he saw the end of the rope begin to... glow.

Then it began to spark.

Jeff had an idea where this was headed, and he got a firm footing on a strong branch.  No sooner had he done that than the rope fell and hung limply from his hand.

He pulled the rope up and examined the end.  It looked like it had been burned through.

“Idiot!” Jeff said out loud.

He hadn’t even thought about what would happen when the machine turned off.  It had turned itself off before when he had left the office and then came back.  It must only stay open for a limited time.  Probably uses a lot of power so it has an automatic shut-off, Jeff thought.

He dropped down and sat on the branch on which he had been standing.

For a while, he just sat there and stared.

But after a few minutes, he was shaken out of his daze by a long, eerie, moaning howl coming from somewhere in the forest.






Chapter 11:



Jeff paused about five feet from the ground.  He scanned the ground for anything that might be moving.  His stomach twisted as he remembered the ‘jellyfish’, and he twisted his head back to squint upward through the branches.

Nothing...

At least nothing that he could recognize as dangerous.

But what might be dangerous here?

Were there plants that would come to life?  Or maybe they just kill more mundanely by exuding toxins...

He pulled his hand off of the branch and looked at it.

He shivered and thought about the time his father told him:  “There are very few things as frightening as the unknown.”

I’ll go crazy if I imagine everything that could happen.

He hopped onto the ground and snatched up his bat as quickly as he could manage.  At least it gave him some sense of security... Hey, if I can imagine all types of irrational danger, I’ve got a right to put some irrational trust in a piece of aluminum, he reasoned.

He scanned the forest.  He couldn’t see anything other than trees and underbrush, but he could hear sounds.  Insects?  Birds?  They didn’t quite sound like anything he had ever heard... but they didn’t sound particularly unusual either.

Like the sounds he’d expect in a forest, just a little... off.

He began walking slowly, scanning everything around him obsessively. 

Where do I go from here?

He didn’t have many choices.  It was basically:  a) Head into the forest to face God-knows-what.

Or...

b)  Head into the clearing to face God-knows-what.

He decided on the clearing.  He wasn’t sure if that was the wisest thing.  After all, he’d be more exposed out there.  He hoped he was too big for the ‘birds’ to make a meal out of him... but he wasn’t sure.

There were times, back home, when he had ‘hoped’ Alicia Keys would show up in his room - naked, bearing Ho-Ho’s and Vanilla coke - and offer to give him a back rub while she sang gently in his ear.

That had never happened.

But he knew he’d feel more comfortable in the clearing than in the forest.  He might have less cover in which to hide... but so would predators.

It was a very strange and very uncomfortable feeling to have no idea where he fell on the food chain.

Jeff stopped.

There was a large hole, about 6 feet in diameter 10 feet ahead.  He had the uncomfortable feeling it was a burrow of an... extremely large... animal of some sort.

He considered moving away as quickly as possible, but his curiosity got the better of him.  He kept his distance but stretched up on his toes to see if he could see anything in it.

There was a flash of movement... And the next thing Jeff knew, an ENORMOUS snake was emerging from the hole.  Its head was over 3 feet in diameter.

Jeff jumped back and adrenaline shot into his system.   He took off at a run - faster than he ever knew he was capable.

Over his shoulder, he saw the snake completely clear the hole.  It was shorter than he would have imagined with its body about a third the length he would have expected from the size of its head.

Also - and this was a detail that Jeff was too distracted to notice at that particular moment - it had three pairs of short, stubby, lizard-like legs.  It moved like a snake, but the legs helped propel and steady it at certain points.  Other times they tucked up and out of the way - like an alligator’s legs did when it swam.

Jeff realized that it was gaining fast and he didn’t have a chance of out-running it.  He had no choice but to try to fight and decided the quicker and more forcefully he acted, the better.

He turned to face it, raised his bat - the snake was nearly on him.  His arm tensed and he brought the bat down with all the force he could manage on the snake’s nose.

The bat made contact with a satisfyingly powerful impact.  The snake shook, lurched and backed off several feet, taken by surprise and, seemingly, slightly dazed.

The two looked at each other.

Jeff was trying to stay focused.  He was breathing hard, and the exertion and adrenaline were giving him a feeling of light-headedness.  Time seemed to slow down as each of them considered the other - both nearly motionless.  Jeff was right at the edge of the clearing now, and he could see shadows of birds, but he tried not to let that distract him.

Then the snake began to move.  It moved its head to Jeff’s left, keeping a good distance this time.  Jeff had the bat raised over his right shoulder in a batting stance, ready to swing, but not wanting to swing until the snake was in range.  He kept his left shoulder pointed at the snake’s head focused intently on every move.

The snake could move fast, but Jeff took some comfort in the idea that a baseball could also move pretty fast... and presented a much smaller target.

Though most baseballs lacked enormous fangs.

The snake pulled back and then moved slowly around on Jeff’s right side.  Jeff followed its movements keeping his left shoulder pointed at his target.

The snake’s mouth was open slightly, and Jeff could see rows of hundreds of 6 inch long teeth.  He grimaced as he imagined for a moment what would happen if those teeth sunk into his flesh.

The snake moved back to the left...

Then the right.

Then left again.

Then it LURCHED!

Jeff acted instinctively as the snake came at him - extremely fast with mouth open.

Jeff smashed him as hard as he could in the mouth and several teeth cracked as the bat struck them.  Again the snake retreated... but only enough to get safely out of range.

Jeff didn’t know how long he could keep this up.  He already felt exhausted.  It didn’t seem like he was doing much, but the adrenaline and hyper-focus really seemed to be wearing him out.

He backed into the clearing, hoping that the snake might prefer the cover of the trees and not follow.   Jeff tried not to get distracted with thoughts of what might be out in the clearing that would frighten the snake...

The snake followed him into the field.  It was holding back a little - apparently still feeling some pain from their last encounter - but it held within about 10 feet of Jeff.

The dance started again.

The snake moved slowly from one side to the other and Jeff matched each of his moves.

Jeff began to try to steal quick glances to get a read of his options.  He was afraid that if this became a marathon, the snake could easily outlast him.  Jeff was on the verge of exhaustion, but the snake, while maybe in some pain, wasn’t exerting much energy at all.

Jeff noted a few trees with low hanging branches that he thought he might be able to scale if he could knock the snake out or distract it.

Can snakes climb trees?

Can lizards climb trees?

Could this... thing climb trees?

I’d assume ‘yes’ on all three counts.

Jeff felt a wave of shear panic wash over him then quickly disappear as his mind stopped drifting and focused back on the urgent, immediate concern.

The snake seemed to be more stationary than it had been.  Jeff wondered if it realized time was on its side and there was no rush.

Jeff felt his muscles start to relax for a moment, and he forced himself to snap back into focus.

Fatigue and a sense of hopelessness were beginning to crowd out his sense of urgency.

The snake reared back and prepared for another attack.

But the snake held.

Jeff got a sudden sick feeling that the snake was afraid of something.

Something behind Jeff.

A shadow fell over him, and before he could react, something grabbed him and jerked him violently backward.