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The Manticore Incident

by Mark W. Johnson

 

A man as thin and wiry as the rims of his glasses pointed through the window at a mechanical device that resembled the cap on an oil well, "And that," he told his companions, "is the prototype of our geothermal generator. It will supply enough power for this facility when it comes on line next month, and, after a successful evaluation period, we expect to install a major generating base right here. Right now it is powering the lights and air-conditioning, but we don't plan to run everything on it until construction is completed."

A man with greenish skin who resembled a lizard answered, "Yess, I ssee. But how will you humanss function sso far underground?"

"A good question, Actually, we anticipate building a much larger access tunnel before full-scale operations begin. We need access that will allow people to come in, work a shift and go home, and these," he said, pointing to the fluorescent lights overhead, "provide light that resembles artificial sunlight. No sunburn, but they should be enough to help the staff accept the underground environment."

Snark flicked out a long, forked tongue, then looked confused, asking, "What iss that?"

"I don't hear anything, What is what?"

"You hear nothing?"

"No. What is it?"

"A grinding noisse, asss though ssomething iss ssliding." Suddenly the ground shifted, throwing all four people to the floor, and someone screamed, "Earthquake." Everyone held on for dear life as the earth shook all around them. Doors flew open, the lights flickered, and cracks appeared along some of the walls. A terrific roar drowned any cries for help or pleas for heavenly intervention. When the dust cleared, no one was hurt. Dr. Lewis Carter adjusted his glasses.

"That was one of our California earthquakes. Don't worry; this facility was designed to withstand a seven-point-seven quake." He looked around. "And this may have been higher. Let's make sure everything is okay, then get out of here."

Doctor Vanderberry, an attractive woman in a white lab coat, checked the generator and then reported, "Okay here."

"Thanks, Gina."

The other occupant of the facility, Roger Smith, went to the exit door "We've got a problem over here." Doctors Carter and Vanderberry, along with their guest, Snark, looked at a wall of rock where there should have been a tunnel.

"Look, Mr. Snark, they'll dig us out soon enough, just you see. There's nothing to be afraid of."

"I fear nothing. Will thiss sstop your project?"

"No, only delay it a bit."

"Good, asss my people are very interessted in thiss, and itss applicability to our home world."

* * *

"Where iss Ssnark?" The lizard man hissed at the young blonde woman in her pin striped navy suit.

"Mr. Histin, my company is doing everything it can to free your Mr. Snark and our staff. Your irritation will not help."

"Sssss. Your wayss are sstrange to me. You build a hole you cannot reopen."

"Must I remind you that the Manticore Project runs more than two miles underground? It took months to drill it in the first place; we hope to open it within a few weeks."

The Chief Executive Officer of Global Power, Inc., Caroline Mertz, was tired of dealing with these lizards. Although they made themselves known to the only world six months earlier, she had spent almost the entire time selling the Manticore Project to them as a new power supply for their world. Their mannerisms and appearance unnerved her at first, but quickly became tiresome.

"Maybe you would like to go on-site to supervise the drilling."

"Yess."

"Good. I'll put you on our corporate jet within the hour." She picked up the phone. "Jack, get the Lear ready. Mr. Histin is heading for California right away."

"Yes, ma'am."

After ushering Histin out of her office, she called California. "Thomas? Caroline Mertz. I hate to push off my problem off on you, but you have a visitor on the way...."

* * *

A burly man with graying black hair rubbed his eyes after hanging up the receiver. "Just what I need. A lizard to watch me work."

Thomas Thorp, the project manager, looked at the above-ground portion of the Manticore Project, a geodesic dome some thirty feet in diameter that housed equipment and the elevator's machinery. Primarily constructed of lightweight material to showcase the Project for their visitors, it was being moved so that they could excavate the elevator shaft, although he could not expect to reach the people below in time. Thorp soon sent someone to meet their guest at the runway they had built on one of the dry lake beds, not looking forward to this visit. He did not like the Centons, and did not want one looking over his shoulder every day while they struggled to dig their people out of this tunnel. If the entire tunnel collapsed it might take weeks to dig them out, and they could not expect any help, since most rescue organizations were busy elsewhere. The earthquake was a strong one, an eight-point-four, and San Bernardino and Bakersfield were hard hit. No help, and possibly not enough time.

* * *

The people looked in the kitchen. "At least we have a kitchen facility," Doctor Carter said, as he opened cabinets, "which, unfortunately, appears to be empty. We have a few pots and pans and miscellaneous utensils, but no food." He turned the water faucet and nothing happened, then looked under the cabinet at unconnected pipes. "It appears that the bottled water will have to do, since this one hasn't been connected yet. We'll have to ration it."

"I only require food and drink weekly," Snark said.

"Good, because we don't know how long we'll be here."

"I will rest. I will awaken when I require ssusstenance."

The humans watched as Snark sat in a corner, curled up and fell asleep, then looked at each other. "Well, what do you think he'll do when he wakes up and there's no food?"

"Who knows? Does anybody even know what the Centons eat?"

Doctor Smith looked around. "That's assuming, Lew, that we have enough oxygen to last until we get hungry."

"Shouldn't be a problem. We've got oxygen tanks for the workmen, just in case the air ducts are all closed, and I doubt that all six would have been blocked."

The three rested quietly and prayed.

Doctor Smith found a deck of cards the next day, so they had a way to pass part of the time. Stomachs growled, and thinking about the lack of food only made things worse. Nearly a week passed before Snark awoke, and he was hungry.

"I require food. Where iss food?"

"Mr. Snark, we are still buried, and there is still no food. I'm sorry."

"Not good enough. I require food."

"What do you want to eat? The furniture?"

"I conssume meat." He looked at all of the humans, licking his lips. "Raw meat iss the primary food of my people."

"Sorry, there's no raw meat down here."

"I ssee plenty." He advanced on Doctor Vanderberry, who cringed and backed away. Then Snark stopped and looked at the men. "No, the male appearss to have more meat on hiss boness." He reached for Doctor Smith.

Carter stepped between them. "No one is eating anyone. Can't you try to sleep again, maybe with some water in your system? We're all hungry -- you'll just have to get by as we do."

Snark hissed, then drank nearly a gallon of water. "Perhapss I can ssleep, but I will require food when I arisse, and no one will sstop me then." He curled up in his same spot and quickly fell asleep, but seemed to toss and turn, obviously not resting well.

* * *

Thorp was talking on the telephone with Caroline Mertz when Histin walked into his trailer. "No, ma'am, it's blocked all the way. It looks like another couple of weeks before we'll reach them." He saw the lizard man and shook his head. "Gotta go, boss. Our favorite lizard is here. I know, I know. I'm not supposed to say things like that." He hung up the phone and looked to his visitor. "What can I do for you now, Histin?"

"Do I undersstand correctly that it will require two or more of your weekss to retrieve Ssnark and the humanss?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. The Project's access hole seems to have collapsed along most of the pipe."

"Ssnark musst feed."

"I know. They'll all be hungry, but we're doing the best we can."

"No, Ssnark musst feed. Iss there any meat down there?"

"Nope. The kitchen wasn't going to be stocked until the construction was finished and we went on line."

"I am ssorry." Histin walked out of the trailer. "Ssnark musst feed."

Thorp let out a heavy sigh. After working closely with Histin for the past ten days, he still understood very little about the Centons, and still disliked them intensely.

* * *

Another week passed, and Snark awoke again, growling almost immediately upon stirring.

"I musst feed."

"Sorry, Mr. Snark, but there's still no food. We may be weak from hunger, but I think we can hold out."

"I sshall not 'hold out.' I require food, and I sshall feed." Snark approached Doctor Carter, arms outstretched and claws extended. "I sshall feed." As Carter backed up against the wall, Snark's claws were almost within reach of his neck, and Snark was drooling. "I musst feed."

Doctor Vanderberry rushed to the kitchen for the knife she had found, but stopped and turned to look as a loud clang accompanied Snark's drop to the floor. Roger Smith stood over the lizard man, holding a fire extinguisher.

"That stopped him."

"But for how long? Do we tie him up, and hope we all survive? He was going to eat me."

Gina Vanderberry rubbed her chin, then looked at the knife and the kitchen. "I have an idea."

* * *

Two more weeks passed, and Thorp heard a shout from the Project hole. One of the workmen rushed to the trailer and exclaimed, "They've reached them!"

He hurried to the site, along with Histin.

"They have been freed?"

"If they're still alive, then they'll be coming up any time now."

An elevator that had been rigged as the digging progressed slowly rose to the top of the shaft, then opened. The three humans emerged, tired, dirty and thirsty, but still alive and healthy.

"Where iss Ssnark?"

The humans ignored the lizard and went to the trailer with Thorp, Histin right behind, where the project manager called the main office.

"Miss Mertz, I have someone here I think you'd like to hear from." He handed the phone to Carter.

"Hello, Miss Mertz? Yes, it's Lewis Carter. We're all right here, just glad to be outside."

Histin tried again. "Where iss Ssnark?"

"Yes, ma'am, we learned a lot about the Centons during our time buried together. The most important thing we learned is that they taste just like chicken ...."*

 

*   *   *

 

Story copyright 1998-99 by Mark W. Johnson <MJohnson38@aol.com>

Artwork "Coming Out" copyright 1998-99 by Billy Tackett <arcadi@aol.com>


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