Everything went dark. And for just a heartbeat, Frank was strangely soothed by the luxury of pretending he was just sitting in a closet above ground on a muggy day. And then the emergency lights came on and all the instruments were beeping and blaring and the commanding officer was giving orders that Frank could not hear as he took his station and stared at the dials and readings that made no sense. It was like what happened in movies when the needles of a meter flipped back and forth and computer read-outs blinked and fuzzed for dramatic effect. Only it was really happening. The instruments were going haywire. And their submarine, ominously named the Harbinger, was caught in some kind of turbulence.
Frank started the timer on his watch and wiped sweat from his brow. He was nervous about doing the wrong thing when everything was going smoothly. Now, with the sub out of control and the crew helpless, he didn’t know what to do. He was sent back to his bunk to await orders while more experienced and competent men tried to get some readings at least. When the lights came back on, Frank was called back to duty. It was almost fifteen minutes later.
He came back to his duty station. And when the instruments had been rebooted and re-calibrated as best as they could be, the crew of the Harbinger discovered that they were almost out of fuel and almost out of air. And they had no idea where in the world they were. The first order of business was to determine whether or not they were in friendly waters.
They were somewhere cold. Naturally, the radio antenna had either been damaged or broken off. They had no communications.
No other ships were around. So the captain gave the order to surface. The submarine surfaced in the middle of an ice field. It had been midday when the sub encountered the strange turbulence, but it was almost evening where they emerged. While some of the crew awaited nightfall to check their location by the stars, the captain sent a small expedition to scout the area nearby for shelter. Already, the once-humid confines of the boat were turning frigid. And there would soon be little fuel left to keep the heat on.
Frank volunteered to be a scout. And the team of seven headed out toward a small mountain range they had spotted by telescope east of their location.
Along the way, they found little but ice, snow, and more ice. No explorers or scientists who might have shelter, food, communications. It got darker and darker and colder too. But they had, for the time being, enough supplies. They were wearing cold weather gear. They had tools and even a tent for camping if they ran into snow and wind and couldn’t get back to the sub. Frank had grown up in sunny climes where it rarely rained much less snowed. He was bundled up from head to toe and still felt the chill seeping in to numb his toes and fingers and he still felt a snap of wind reading through his scarf and turtleneck and raking his cheeks.
It was a relief to reach the mountains. They gave immediate shelter from the wind and though it was still cold inside the first cave they found, the air was still and Frank’s feet never felt so grateful to step on stone and not ice.
They had brought radios with them and reported to the sub that they would explore the cave and shelter there for the night unless they found some danger.
As they ventured further in, Frank was comfortable enough to remove his scarf and outer pair of gloves. He wanted nothing more than for them to settle down in the larger inner cave opening that the wind couldn’t reach, make a fire, put down bedding, and turn in for the night. But he wasn’t in charge of the scouting mission. They all agreed to meet back in that inner cavern in two hours. Everyone was to check in every fifteen minutes, sooner if they were going into some new area or saw something unusual. There weren’t enough of them to go in teams of two, so they did the horror-movie thing and all split up separately.
Frank made marks on the walls of the caverns tunnels he walked, probably more often than he needed to. But he didn’t want to get lost. The cavern system was relatively spacious, no cramped tunnels, no need to crawl or even duck. After his time on the submarine, Frank found it comfortable. He wasn’t cold anymore, and while he was still tired, he knew when he’d be getting his next meal and his next rest, so he kept going. There was constant chatter on the radios, so he didn’t feel alone or isolated. The only thing he worried about was encountering something living, like a bear, or a roost of arctic bats, or the last living sabretooth.
He started getting drowsy and tried to slap his face to snap out of it. He needed to be able to get back to where they would camp for the night. It was ten minutes short of the time, but he reported his drowsiness and got permission to head back. Frank turned around and headed down the tunnel, looking for the last mark he’d made.
He couldn’t find it.
He frowned and turned his lantern around. He didn’t see any of the neon pink biodegradable paint he had been using anywhere. He shook his head at his sloppiness. He probably forgot to make a mark or two here considering how tired he was. But he remembered which way he’d come and he’d made a rough sketch in his notebook. All he had to do was find the last mark he’d made. He walked ahead and turned and glanced down at his notebook and glanced at the rock and stone walls. He found no marks. He reported to his team that he was going to backtrack. He was certainly wide awake now. And there was some laughter. And then nothing.
Frank checked his radio. He clicked it off and on and after a few hisses and pops of static, no sound came from it. The battery must have been dead, even though it had been fully charged and was rated to last for a week or so. And Frank began to get nervous. He forced himself to walk slowly, but now the spacious caverns seemed too spacious, like anything could come out of the darkness beyond his lantern. He spun around more than once, spooked by the scraping sound of his own footsteps. He wanted to yell out to his team, but was afraid to. And anyway, they wouldn’t hear him.
He started feeling cold again. He put his scarf on, as if afraid he’d get bitten in the neck by something. He stopped walking and kept telling himself to calm down. His team would find his marks. They’d all been given a different color. They would find him. And bring him back. And then they’d tease him mercilessly and spread the tale all around and Frank couldn’t wait to see the mocking faces of his crewmates.
But he had to get back to where he’d been. They might have to search a bit for him, but the farther away he walked, the harder it would be for them to find him. So he hugged the cavern wall and walked slowly. He made different marks on the cavern walls. And he began mapping the passage on a new sheet of his notebook.
He was only walking for a few moments when came across a sight both comforting and eerie. A ladder was set up against the dead-end wall that was just ahead. The ladder led to a landing maybe fifteen feet above and another cave opening from which there seemed to come a dim light. Feeling a twinge of both hope and fear, Frank latched the lantern to his side and slowly climbed the ladder. Despite the dim light, he couldn’t see far into the cave. He lit a flare and tossed it into the cave mouth. As nothing ventured out, he ventured in. Here at last, he saw something interesting and even more hopeful. There were pictographs and writing and paintings on the walls, some of which he recognized even if he couldn’t read them, and some of it he didn’t. He saw Eqyptian hieroglyphics, letters of the Greek alphabet, stick figures bearing spears that were pointed at giant tusked beasts, markings that look like something that might be found on the Rosetta stone.
Frank became so engrossed that his panic receded.
After what seemed like the better part of an hour (Frank didn’t know for sure as he hadn’t started his timer), he came to an opening that was not just some cave opening. It was an archway, made of wood that painted red and white. It was bright beyond the archway. He waited a while, bracing himself, taking a deep breath, and letting his eyes adjust.
Hugging the wall, he crept toward the archway and slowly emerged. He saw something he didn’t expect. A tropical rainforest. Frank blinked. The forest was still there. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. The forest was still there.
He glanced around at the trees. There didn’t seem to be anyone watching, though there could be anything hiding among the thick foliage.
Frank took a deep breath and walked past the archway. He felt a strange pressure and he had to swallow to keep his ears from popping.
Then, of a sudden, he heard the cooing of birds, the chirping of insects, the irritated scream of a monkey, purring, and trumpeting. A cacophony of sounds and a sudden warm humidity brought him to his knees.
Frank began to shed his polar gear. His parka and boots and sweater and socks. He was dripping with sweat by the time he was down to his shirt and pants. He put his boots back on after removing all his socks. His feet felt hot and steamed, but he was in a jungle and didn’t want to step on anything venomous.
He stowed his things beside the archway and slung his pack on his shoulders. He was just about to venture forth when a tree snake suddenly dropped down, inches from his head, hanging by its tail.
Frank yelled out and jerked back. He froze and watched the snake. It was brilliant blue with green speckles and its eyes were large and also blue and curious. The snake opened its mouth and seemed to speak, but the sounds were unfamiliar. He couldn’t recognize the language.
“What in the world,” Frank whispered.
The snake bobbed its head a few times as if agreeing to something. Then he spoke again. And this time, it spoke English.
“The Guard saw you coming,” the blue snake said. “They say you hatched from an egg, just like our queen.”
Frank’s heart began to beat and his stomach sank as he realized what had happened. He had fallen asleep. He’d been so drowsy. He had fallen asleep in the cold cave and was now dreaming about being warm and the warmest place he could think of was a tropical rain forest, even though he’s never been in one.
I took it all off. He had heard how people who were close to freezing would often begin to feel so hot that they took off the very clothes that might help them survive longer.
“I have to wake up,” he told himself. He slapped his cheek, hard this time. “How do I wake up?”
“I should take you to her,” the snake said. And then the snake opened its mouth wide and spit something slimy and green onto Frank’s neck.
Frank panicked again, fearing it was venom or acid. But aside from being slimy, the stuff didn’t seem to do anything. He wiped it off onto a nearby boulder.
Did I just get marked as this thing’s territory? he wondered.
“She’ll help you if she can, but we’re in the middle of our own crisis,” the snake said, dropping to the forest floor. It began to slither away from Frank.
Frank pointed to the archway. “I need to wake up. I think I need to go back this way.” He wasn’t sure why he was engaging a tree snake in conversation when he was freezing to death in the real world.
“Only the queen can help you get back. She was born from an egg, like you and your brothers. Come with me. Come!”
Frank frowned at the odd comment and then started when he realized what it meant. The “egg.” His submarine. This queen, whoever she was, maybe she’d come here in a submarine too. He was dreaming. The symbolism made sense. But he wondered what the snake was supposed to be about and the queen. Was his mind trying to save him? The dream was so vivid. Was he only half asleep? Did he have a chance to wake himself? And what served as a better chance to save himself, a dark tunnel or a lively rainforest?
Frank dashed ahead to catch up with the blue snake.
As they went along, Frank thought there was something odd and jerky about the way the snake moved. He didn’t know much about snakes. The snake commented now and then and there was a strange hollowness to its voice. But then, he didn’t know how talking snakes should sound. They passed by panthers and jaguars, perched and waiting. He was close enough to hear their rumbling and purring. One or two came close, but then shied away quickly. Others kept their distance. Frank told himself it was just a dream. But if it wasn’t a dream, he was in real danger. And his serpentine guide didn’t seem to be bothered.
When they broke through into a clearing, Frank was stunned to see people. They waved at him and shouted greetings in some language he didn’t understand. The blue snake translated. Most were wishing him a good day and when the snake told them he was going to the queen, a few nodded in approval. One man handed him a fruit that looked like a blue mango and bowed to him.
To keep his mind off the dooms of either jungle predators or freezing to death while dreaming all of this, Frank asked the snake some questions about the queen and how he should approach her to assure he did not insult her.
“The queen is not easily insulted,” the snake said. And that’s all the snake said.
When they reach what the snake called the “palace of the queen,” Frank saw it was just another cave opening, a huge one with an archway built around it, just like the one he’d come from. To either side of the archway and perched above it on the rock wall, were native men and women holding weapons, spears, axes, swords, and bows. They had on what looked like jointed metal armor, not medieval, but more like something from ancient Rome. Breastplates, greaves, and gauntlets, but nothing covering the upper arms or legs save cloth. And each of them wore, despite the heat, a helmet with curved tusks jutting from the jaw. A ribbed pattern in the center of the helmet was matched by one on the center of the breastplate. It reminded Frank of something.
“The queen comes,” the blue snake said, slithering up into a nearby tree and then hanging down beside Frank.
Frank heard thuds from beyond the archway. The forest floor vibrated with her coming. And as she emerged, Frank realized what the pattern on the guards’ helmet was, for it mimicked her own shape.
The queen was an elephant.
A beautiful and majestic elephant. She raised her great head into the air, ears flared, unbroken tusks gleaming, and she trumpeted. She lowered her head, approached him as he stood stock still, stopped before him, turned her head and peered at him.
Frank expected her to say something, but she did not speak.
She turned and walked back through the archway and vanished into the darkness beyond. Frank looked at the snake who was bobbing its head up and down and being of no help.
He looked to the archway and hesitantly walked toward it, glancing at the guards with the elephant helms. They did not move to stop him, so he continued on. The “palace” was well lit once they got past the first tunnel. There were guards everywhere and other people who seemed to live in that cavern, who were going about their business. The place was bustling and Frank felt the air of anticipation and anxiety in the people, past their friendly smiles and bows to him. Most made way for the elephant queen, though sometimes, she was the one who had to go around them. All areas of the cavern were made tall and wide enough for her to pass comfortably.
She kept walking and Frank kept following, and they went deeper and deeper into the mountain. And then Frank noticed that they had company, as the blue snake was slithering along beside him. There were fewer regular folk around and more guards, though these wore no helmets.
Finally, they arrived in an area that had, to Frank’s surprise, a door, a large metal door. A couple of guards opened it and let the odd trio of elephant, man, and snake pass through. They closed the door behind Frank.
Frank looked around and was stunned to see what looked like a workshop. There were tables with machine parts, some of which looked like they could be from a submarine, and tools, and even something that looked like a furnace for smelting.
The elephant queen turned elegantly and finally, she spoke.
“If it wasn’t for the crisis, I’d continue the ruse,” she said. “But I’ve decided to trust you, submariner.”
Then her stomach fell open and something dropped out. It wasn’t her guts. It was a woman.
She looked to be in her forties though most of her hair was still black. She had a bit of engine grease on her chin. She took off the leather gloves she’d had on and reached out.
“Emilia Belmont, the Elephant Queen, at your service.”
It’s mechanical. Frank marveled, staring at the blue snake, the queen’s little herald, who was named Maurice. He, like the Elephant Queen, was artificial, a machine, mechanical, electrical, and maybe something else.
Emilia snapped her fingers at him.
“We’re going today, so I need to get you back to where you came from.”
“I’m not dreaming.”
“No, sonny, you’re not dreaming. You’re not freezing to death. This is real. But you might die anyway if you don’t stay here in the mountain while the Guard and I go take care of this crisis. You know, the one you haven’t heard a word about because you’ve been mesmerized by Maurice.”
Frank felt himself blush. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“Well, his eyes are quite hypnotic.”
Frank had been paying attention. Emilia had come to the land in the same way that he and his men had, by submarine. Only it was a research vessel. And there was some story about escaping from the authorities that she became vague about. They were funded by some government agency or other and disagreed with how their research was going to be applied. And so they stole a few things, among them an experimental submarine, Emilia’s mechanical animals (disassembled), and some other things. Emilia had built the animals as a way of studying their living counterparts in the wild without a human presence or some artificial object like visible sensors and cameras interfering. But someone had seen the potential for spying and infiltrating. When the researchers found themselves stranded, they were welcomed and taken care of by the rainforest dwellers and settled in while trying to figure out how to get back home. And they explored and studied.
There was an ancient city in the distance. Ancient and yet, as Emilia and her colleagues discovered, advanced. Advanced and yet not alien. It was as if they’d discovered the sister city to Atlantis or something. The only part of the city that was visible from the palace and the land of rainforest dwellers were the four great towers that rose at the corners of the city. Emilia used her machines to explore as much of it as she could. Despite the warnings of their native friends, a small team of the researchers ventured toward the city to study it in person, to see what the grainy and fuzzy pictures that Emilia’s cameras transmitted back could not. There was a people living around the ancient city. A hostile and intolerant people. Luckily, they did not encroach on the lands of the rainforest dwellers, having been beaten back during some war hundreds of years prior. But there was an understanding that none should trespass on their territories either. And that included the city and the surrounding forest. This people killed the small expedition, leaving their remains outside of their territory.
Before they were killed, the expedition members were able to confirm something that they had all surmised from their study of the city and from some myths and legends among the rainforest dwellers.
There was a cataclysm coming. And it would come from the city.
The expedition members had found an inner chamber with a warning on the walls. It was not prophecy or hyperbole. It was more like the warning one might find at a nuclear reactor site. The warning indicated that there was an enormous power source within that center of the city. If no one maintained that source, the power would build and build until it would burst forth with enough force to destroy the land, and according to the researchers’ calculations, to cause destruction on a global level. Those who remained among the team grieved and then they noticed that the rainforest dwellers were already preparing for what was to come, by moving their people into the mountains. With the help of Emilia’s robots, the remaining team deposited radiation detectors and seismometers everywhere. The city was well shielded, so much so that any detectors she had outside of the city did not pick up any signals, radiation, tremors, or anything. So likewise, the outside world would not suspect anything was amiss, until the sudden accident occurred.
Emilia suspected they were somewhere in the northern polar regions, though none of them had been able to confirm it, for the constellations seemed slightly off.
There were seven researchers remaining. And six of them decided that the rainforest dwellers didn’t need their help, that the crisis might not reach the outside world, and that they should focus their efforts on getting home.
Only Emilia insisted on trying to find a way to prevent it. She tried to convince the rainforest dwellers that the mountain might not protect them. That she had to go into the city and stop or at least try to stop what would happen.
So she kept studying and studying. The others left. She never saw them again. When Frank answered her hesitant question about what year it was, she sighed, and nodded.
“Then it’s been twenty years that I’ve been here, studying and trying to figure it out.” She looked up and grinned. “You have some timing, sonny. Missed all the hard work and came for the party.”
Emilia had a plan. Her elephant was armored. It was like a tank, only it could charge through the forest. Emilia had built new armor for her Elephant Guard as well. That’s what she called the warriors and scholars among the rainforest dwellers who volunteered to go with her. They would help her fight off the other people, the city-dwellers as she called them. She needed to get to the center of the city. She had never found a way to stop the power source from erupting, but there had been a failsafe built into the device. If activated properly, the failsafe would destroy the city, causing it to fall in on itself, sink into the waters deep below, forcing the power source eruption and containing enough of it to keep it from destroying anything beyond the city itself.
“It’s kind of a foolish plan, and all kinds of things will probably go wrong, but if it works, I’ll have saved the world. And that’s even better now that you’re here, because you’ll return home and tell everyone what a hero I am.”
But Frank wasn’t about to hide in the mountain and let one brave elephant-woman and dozens of brave rainforest dwellers do the task alone. She didn’t take much convincing, especially considering his knowledge of submarine operations. She showed him the controls of the elephant. There was barely enough room to fit two. She’d been trying to train one of the rainforest dwellers, but the man was very uncomfortable and nervous in the cramped area, even though he’d proven proficient at the controls.
It took Frank all of four hours to learn the controls. Anyway, it was all the time, they had. And in that time, one of his questions was answered. For he saw that a version of the power source could be found in the caverns. It was a mineral that the rainforest dwellers used. They had shown Emilia how to harvest it. That was how she was able to keep her operations going without electricity or coal or other known power source.
It was nothing like being in a submarine. Or even a car. Or even a wagon. There were no shock absorbers, no dampeners for all the jostling and tossing and whipping back and forth that Frank felt as he sat strapped into the Elephant Queen during her charge into the ancient city. The city-dwellers attacked, as expected. They clashed with the Elephant Guard. And then tried to stop the Elephant Queen, but she was no animal and could not be brought down by arrows or spears.
When they reached the city center, far ahead of anyone else, they left the Queen hidden. One of the two Elephant Guards who’d ridden the Queen’s back was still astride and he dropped down and went inside with Emilia and Frank as they raced to the chamber. Already they were being chased. The Guard shielded them until he was full of arrows, despite Emilia’s armor. But Frank and Emilia made it to chamber and pulled the Guard’s body inside before barricading themselves in. The plan had been to try and escape after the failsafe was activated, but they all secretly knew they would never make it out.
Frank feared there would be codes and broken and rusted equipment. So many things could go wrong. But after twenty years, Emilia had done enough homework on the place, studying every inch of it using the images that Maurice and her other robots sent back to her, that she had prepared for the problems she knew they’d have to solve. In her pack, she had brought the tools she needed. She had practiced. She worked and she directed Frank to help.
Together, they activated the failsafe. Together, they started the destruction of the ancient city.
Emilia leaned back against a wall, wiping her brow. The city had begun to rumble.
“I hope some of the Guards get out,” she said.
Frank hadn’t thought of it in a while, but he now wondered if he was still asleep in that cavern as he thought, freezing to death, his mind giving him a heroic end to comfort him.
He sat down next to her as the walls began to crack. And he asked her a few questions that had been itching at his mind.
“Why did Maurice spit on me?”
Emilia chuckled. “Chemical deterrent, to keep the predators away.”
“I thought it might be something like that. What about all that writing on the wall in all the different languages?”
“In that tunnel that led to the rainforest.”
“Oh that. That’s pretty much the equivalent of ‘Frank was here.’”
“So other people have found this place, in the past.”
“Maybe we should try to get out of here,” Frank said.
Emilia sighed and then she rose. “So far our plans seem to be working. Why stop now?”
Frank took the helm and shield from the Elephant Guard. He told Emilia to stay behind him. She nodded. She had Maurice with her. As they opened the door a crack, she sent the blue snake forward to scout the way.
Even with the city falling, literally falling, around them, the city-dwellers chased them and shot arrows at them. Frank covered Emilia’s retreat into the Elephant Queen. It had been a secret from the city-dwellers, who had heard of the divine Elephant Queen who ruled the rainforest. They had been afraid, but now that they knew the trickery, they surged forward. And Frank ordered Emilia to lock herself as he fought with shield and a hammer he’d picked up from another fallen Guard. He expected the Queen to go galloping away, but she lowered herself instead. And Frank understood. He scrambled atop the Elephant Queen, kicking at an attacker. And just as he grabbed hold of her neck, she rose and charged off.
Trees came crashing down around them. The floor cracked. But even without his help, Emilia steered the great elephant through the city, through the surrounding forest. He couldn’t believe how fast they were going. He kept his shield and helm. He needed them to help keep stray rocks and branches from whipping and bruising him, though he got cut and bruised plenty anyway. He noticed there was something clinging to his right arm. A blue snake. He almost tumbled off once, when the Queen veered to avoid a chasm that just opened. He was almost thrown off when the ground bucked beneath them. They kept running and running.
And soon…the earth stopped trembling. The trees weren’t crashing. He heard the sounds of destruction, but they weren’t around him. They were behind him.
When they rode back to the Palace of the Elephant Queen, they came across members of the Guard who had survived. They cheered for their Queen. And for the champion who rode atop her, wearing their helm.
Frank, stunned, bruised, and exhilarated, raised his helm, and his shield to his comrades, his friends.
“Give this to your engineers,” Emilia said, handing him a sack full of the mineral fuel. “They’ll know what to do with it. You’ll be at full power within an hour or two, tops. And tell your captain to submerge and head east. Straight east. And he’ll be able to get out and back home.”
Frank didn’t bother asking her if she would return with him. She may not have been queen of the rainforest dwellers, but she was their hero, and she had been one of them for a long while.
Frank received the sack, blinking away the sweat that had started now that he was back in his polar gear. “You’re not afraid that we’ll come back, to harvest more of these? Even if I tell them there aren’t any more?”
“You can only come to this place if invited.”
Frank frowned. “Who invited us?”
“You…just you were invited.”
“And you invited me?”
She shook her head. “Not me. The Queen.”
Frank looked at her askance and nodded. “Sure.” Then he frowned. “I lost my way. In the caverns.”
Emilia waved a hand. “It’s like a maze. Just keep turning right, you’ll get out. And remember to tell your grandkids about me.”
Frank laughed and waved as he turned toward the archway.
Frank turned to his side. The bunk was so shallow. He felt like a box that was just a few inches longer than the shelf it had been put on. It would stay on, but just barely. It had been five days. They would reach port in less than twenty-four hours. He’d have a real bed soon enough. He still got confused every now and then. Still wondered if he’d been dreaming. He remembered being found, or did he find them? He gave them the fuel, didn’t he? That was proof. But only the captain knew about that. He hadn’t told anyone else. So he had to remind himself. He flipped over on his back and looked down near his feet.
It wasn’t a dream. For there was the helm, hung above his feet. His helm. A helm of the brave, the foolish, and the heroic.
A Helm of the Elephant Guard.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.