On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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“Special Administrative Area?”
The diplomatic attaché was young, as they always were when they were given this particular assignment.
“That’s what we call it,” the soldier replied, acknowledging the sign the other man had read aloud. “This isn’t the territory of any country.”
The young attaché frowned. He’d been attracted to the beyond-top-secret clearance required for this posting, and the comparatively enormous salary. He had no family whatsoever, which had seemed to be a preferred qualification, and had been part of the EU’s aligned foreign nations policy department for only two years. It was all very mysterious, especially the reason for the unusual location.
It had taken several days to reach the base on the north-eastern coastal extent of the Antarctic continent, a very long way indeed from the wood-panelled office of the frankly terrifying older woman in Brussels who had given final approval of his acceptance to the role. He didn’t relish the prospect of ever meeting with her again, and when he’d asked his South American contact if she knew anything about the other woman, he’d been told in no uncertain terms to never mention the topic again.
The helicopter landing pad was surprisingly warm, given the ice cliffs climbing skyward just behind it. There was steam rising from the surface, and someone in uniform was beckoning to him from a doorway about thirty metres away. The attaché thanked the soldier who had assisted him in disembarking from the aircraft, and then he took up his bags and hurried across towards the waving figure, in hope of avoiding the prop blast of another takeoff.
“Welcome to the facility,” the new but interchangeable soldier said. “I’ll take your belongings. Base commander is waiting to meet you.”
The attaché nodded, and a minute later found himself in a passably comfortable office with a grey-haired man wearing conspicuously anonymous military fatigues. There was a steaming cup of coffee on the large desk, and the younger man looked at it with longing, but it clearly wasn’t meant for him.
“So,” the commander said, “I expect you’ve been wondering why the hell anyone would want to give a junior diplomat higher clearance than most Generals, pay them a hundred and fifty thousand Euros a year with a bonus after twelve months, and fly them to the frozen arse end of the planet with no details of what the job is.”
“It had crossed my mind,” the young man said, feeling a blend of trepidation and excitement. Privately, he’d decided that there must be negotiations of a non-public nature that had to take place away from prying eyes, politicians, and the press, and perhaps the EU had chosen the last neutral territory on the planet as a location for those clandestine meetings.
“You’ll see shortly,” the commander said. “Just keep one thing in mind above all else: we’re guests here, and we behave accordingly. Now let’s take a walk.”
The attaché had no idea what the remark about being guests meant, but he was disinclined to question the older man, largely because he had a sudden strong sense that this was a task the commander had performed many times before, which tended to invite the question as to why.
They went in silence from the office through a maze of corridors, then descended briefly in a lift before coming upon what seemed to be a security perimeter. There were a number of guards, though none of them had any firearms. Beyond, there was what looked like the mouth of natural cavern, sealed off with an enormous blast door. The commander nodded to the other military personnel, and proceeded straight to the large metal barrier.
“You’re not expected to do anything right now except take a look,” he said to the younger man. “That’s the first test. If you get through that, you’ll be briefed fully later today, then we can start to transfer some of your predecessor’s duties to you. Again, I want you to remember that we’re guests here. Just try to… handle yourself with some dignity.”
The attaché bristled at the implicit suggestion that he might not behave decorously with whomever he was supposed to meet here, his annoyance even overcoming some of the strangeness of the whole situation, but he had no chance to respond before a klaxon sounded and the blast door split in the middle and slid out of sight.
The very first thing the attaché saw was what he thought was a matte painting on a wall a short distance away, but then he took a step forward and his perspective shifted. It was no matte painting. There was no wall. What he was seeing was actually there.
The cavern was vast beyond imagining, and they were at its very uppermost point, with a man-made descending ramp and gantry that doubled back on itself perhaps a dozen times as it wound its way down to meet a natural geological ramp below. The subterranean space was enough to hold an enormous city, and so it did.
The young man felt something in his mind slip for a moment and then catch again. He tried to process what he was seeing, but much of it was simply unacceptable to his sense of order and normality.
The gigantic structures, uniformly made of the same dark stone, devoid entirely of ice. The scale of every thoroughfare and staircase and passageway, so unsuited to the human form. The twisted geometries, tricking the eye as a second glance revealed to be concave what a moment before had seemed convex. The cyclopean enormity of it all, oppressive in its uncountable sprawl, without artificial light but illuminated all the same with a vague and disquieting iridescence coming from a hundred thousand window apertures hewn through titan blocks of the omnipresent stone.
It was like a mausoleum, of a size and to a scale which has no place in the world that the young man knew. And worst of all, he could immediately sense that he was being watched.
“People in your job usually last about three years,” the commander said. “That’s the average. But some lose their minds on day one. We’ll find out which category you’re in shortly. For now, welcome to Yrr’gha. Your counterpart from the indigenous population will be here to say hello in a moment.”
The last truly sane thought the attaché had was that he was surely seeing a trick of light and shadow. The shape that came from below on the vast ramp, appearing around the corner of the first turn, was not a thing that existed in reality without some kind of optical illusion.
There were legs, of a sort, but too many, as if belonging to an arachnid the size of a bus. The body was cylindrical in general outline, tapered towards each end, and there were appendages protruding in a ring from the uppermost point. There was no suggestion of a head or any of the usual sensory organs, but the damnable gait of the thing — so fluid, and graceful, and dignified beyond any definition that mankind had so far discovered — made it instantly clear that it was a being of profound and unutterably inhuman intelligence.
It moved as if it knew every inch of the surface from memory, and it clicked and ticked on the metal. It came quickly, and the young attaché could suddenly feel the thing in his mind too. A flash of impressions, of millions of years down here in the dark, and before that of a flight through the nauseating vastness of the cosmos to flee something even the creature itself would not clearly think about. The attaché saw it all.
The creature drew level, all limbs and feelers and blank awfulness, reeking of alien genius and horror. The commander glanced at it disinterestedly, checked his watch, and then looked at the younger man. His expression quickly became one of sadness.
As the attaché fell to the ground and curled into a foetal position while beginning to scream, the commander shook his head before giving the creature an apologetic look and then taking out a small handheld radio transceiver. He pushed a button and lifted the device to his mouth.
“Tell them to send another one,” he said.
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