THE FORBIDDEN FORTRESS: this is a strange little story where everything is off-kilter: seems reality is collapsing, and no one knows why. Even the gods aren’t sure.
Here are two short excerpts.
The gods, many years ago, took it upon themselves to create the Fortress, something so stunning and expansive and exquisitely complex that when they were finished they locked themselves and all of civilization inside and misplaced the key. It was a hefty piece of business — divided into 472 sectors, ranging from 40 to 1642 floors in height, housing 98 intelligent species — and included 675 elevator-trains, 287 schools, 29 universities, 82 lakes, 60 flea-markets, and 350 casinos. No one had ever stepped outside the walls of the Fortress. Indeed, there was no outside.
When Ivan hears a voice telling him it’s time to leave the Fortress, he knows it’s time to visit the gods for answers. But visiting the gods isn’t the easiest of tasks. And the gods aren’t always that forthcoming.
The “sit here if you want to see a god” chair
“I’m having second thoughts about whatever it is I’ve agreed to do,” Linok said.
Ivan examined the chair. “Crapping gods, I hate this.”
“It’s probably not a good idea to offend the gods, you know, especially just before you meet them.”
“I’m scared! It’s not my fault if I sound offensive. Now don’t go anywhere. And shut up. I need to concentrate.”
Linok watched as Ivan slipped into the chair. It responded promptly by twisting into coils and encircling Ivan’s body. Gears clicked into place, and then it happened: the chair fell 12,000 feet, leaving Linok far, far away.
Ivan’s head seemed to explode, the G-forces of the fall incomprehensible. Painful, too. The human found himself immersed in a lake of hot fluid. Before him writhed a dark creature, a thousand times darker than the darkness of night, and it leaned forward and blinked a massive eye as it examined the human.
Ivan. I’d expected you sooner. The voice was fierce. It rang in his head, louder than his own thoughts. Noisy. Too noisy. You must leave the Fortress at once.
“Is that even possible?”
We don’t know.
“Then why you forcing me to leave? And why does it have to be me? You can send anyone you want to, so can’t you just tell…”
It has to be you.
“What kind of answer is that?” Ivan’s fear made him angry. “How can you tell me I have to leave everything and everyone I know, like that, without an explanation?”
The god didn’t answer.
“And up until now, you’ve made it illegal to try to leave. What’s that about?”
You would not understand.
“Friggin crud, of course I wouldn’t! Are there any questions you can answer?”
Have some respect, human.
“Or what? You’ll kill me? I’m dead one way or the other. And… hey, stop that!”
The god had drifted forward and was busy enveloping him, as the universe would envelope a speck of dust. I wish you strength, human.
“This ain’t fair.”
I will help you. You may call me Zeus.
“Zeus, really? Is that supposed to be funny?”
Time is running out. You must go.
“There has to be someone better fitted for…”
That was it. The god disappeared. The interview was over.
“Hey, but…” Ivan didn’t have time to finish: the chair bolted upward suddenly, 12,000 feet, leaving him where he started.
Linok was waiting for him. “You splat of a filthy rug, I never would have agreed to let you do this, and you’re covered in goo and you know I don’t like sticky surfaces, and…” Linok stopped in mid-sentence. “Ivan, your hands. What happened to your hands?”
“Never mind. Let’s get out of here. Now.”
Movement was painful, but Ivan was happy to leave the god’s chair behind.
They camped in a deserted elevator car that night. Ivan was weak. He couldn’t do much but talk and smoke cigarettes. Linok grumbled and searched his bags thoroughly without success: no pipe. But he found a potato, which the friends roasted over a campfire.
“He calls himself Zeus?”
“Yes,” Ivan said, scratching his nose. “Narcissistic son of a bitch.”
Ivan’s sidekick, Sebastian the Rat Man
Sebastian was a short squat of a man. Even at full height he reached little over three feet.
His race (called “Rat Men”) were allergic to air: in the presence of carbon dioxide, their skin welted into green bubbles, and, when the bubbles popped, the odor was very embarrassing.
Despite the technical and biological genius inherent in his species, Sebastian’s people had never found a way to overcome this allergy. They’d settled for second best. They wore “anti-carbon-dioxide” suits. Two canisters pumped nitrous oxide into the ensemble, causing the suit to balloon into unsettling proportions, and with the long exhaust pipe that trailed behind, their aspect coincided with that of a rodent. Hence, the unfortunate name, Rat People.
Alex Natalian is a penname for psychiatrist KRR.