The Wee Hours

The Wee Hours

A Story by Ron Sanders

Things that go sploop in the night.


The Wee Hours




            K-19’s most arresting feature has always been the peculiar plasticity of its physics. The ability of its molecules to attain fluidity on the moment--both organically and inorganically--and to remain mutable indefinitely, is well documented. Everything on K-19 spontaneously morphs; erratically, as perceived by the senses, and interminably, in its restless uncharted depths. Miller knew this; had in fact written impressively on the phenomenon way back in his sophomore year. But nothing he’d read or imagined could prepare him for the eeriness of the place; for the lush mauve tendrils crawling across heaving pasturage, for the nitrogenous pips that sparkled and passed, for the solitary brooding inn that seemed to huff and dissolve in the aching night.

The driver allowed his car to find an amenable site after its sickening descent. He took his time, too, in releasing the cabin pressure. Nor did he look back, or make a move to get the door. The trip had been passed in icy silence, but Miller wasn’t surprised:  he realized Earthlings were just as unpopular on K-19 as anywhere else in the galaxy. But damn it, this was an emergency.

He stepped out and gave the driver his print. It was scanned and handed back without a look or word. “The tip,” Miller enunciated coldly, “is included.” The driver didn’t respond. Miller knew he was understood; this entire quadrant recognized Universal Tongue. He slid the print back into place. “Thanks again,” he muttered. The car, with the faintest shiver of protest, lifted off and began its ascent.

Miller shouldered his case and squinted in the gloom. A fissure snarled nearby, a distant sinkhole kicked and spat:  the first signs of real weather. One of the inn’s diaphanous curtains was pulled aside, and an odd figure stared out from within a corona of gradient light. Miller stood right where he was, watching and waiting, until the curtain was released.

The tumbledown building was the only sign of habitation around; Miller was certain the driver had deposited him here solely out of spite--on the verge of a storm during K-19’s wee hours, without a friend or a guide. He shrugged and began the uphill hike. The ground worried each footfall with a tugging, sucking action; frightening at first, but only a nuisance by the time he reached the porch. A drooping sprig twitched at his passing, a hanging shutter leaned back and groaned.

Off to his right Miller noticed four sallow steeds mailed against the weather. They were just like the animals he’d remotely studied, so long ago; fascinating then, repulsive now--fat, sprawling, disgusting slugs wallowing in their own waste.

He waited. After half a minute the door creaked open, and Miller found himself staring across a dilapidated lobby at a hunched gray innkeeper in a constant state of flux. The old male looked away as Miller casually crossed the yawing floor, leaned against the desk, and shrugged off his case. A small group was seated in the shadows against the far wall, evidently the steeds’ owners. Miller couldn’t make out their features.

“I’ll need a room for the night, at least. Our galleon was disabled in one of your inner belt’s famous drift pockets.” He feigned an appreciative once-over. “The brochures just don’t do this place justice, do they?” A piece of ceiling peeled away, shivering forward and backward with the vibrations of his voice. “Never thought I’d live to see every passenger on a spacecraft upchuck in unison, or watch a fleet of rescue craft go mad in some backwater planet’s asinine magnetic field. But I never thought I’d know the joy of signing the register in that world’s finest establishment, either.” Miller held up his cylindrical case, speaking clearly and forcefully, “I was one of the last men off. I had to retrieve some drives. They’re important drives. There was no room left. I had to hire a car down. The company’s sending a personal vessel that’ll arrive tomorrow night at the latest.”

“No rooms available,” the innkeeper mumbled. “The place is closed.”

Miller blinked. “What do you mean, ‘closed’? I just told you we got tied up in your silly drift. I’m stuck here. I’ve a graph that says all of K-19’s right on the brink of a major magnetic storm. The company will cover my print. Where’s your guest register?”

The innkeeper’s left eye rolled half out of its socket and snapped back. “No need,” he whispered. “Rooms all taken.”


The word was the crack of a whip. Miller seethed. Finally he said, icily, “I’ll sleep in the lobby then. But be absolutely clear that the company will hear all about this.”

The innkeeper shrank in his robe. From the seated group came a cold drawl:  “Lobby’s taken too.”

Miller’s face burned to the side. Two males stood. A different voice called out, “And he said the inn’s closed!”

One of K-19’s younger iridescent moons broke from behind a peak miles off, recasting the floor’s shadows. Miller stamped on two, the fleeter shadows disappearing into the woodwork with little barks of dismay. His expression twisted round. “Do you know who I am?”

“No. But we know where you’re from.”

“Then you know what you’re dealing with. The company can crush this laughingstock of a planet in a heartbeat. How long do you think you’d last on your own, without Earth’s generous guidance? Who else would employ your kind? Who else would buy your garbage? Y’know, I’ve half a mind to write this place up while I’m here . . . maybe you’d all benefit from a little discipline.” He ticked off points on his fingers. “Nonexistent valet service, a rude and restrictive welcome, refusing a man of Earth--a company man, no less--proper lodging in inclement weather--”

“Maybe it’s not us who needs the discipline,” suggested one of the seated figures, “company man.”

Miller slammed a fist on the desk and turned to the innkeeper, but he was halfway across the room, pointedly polishing a moaning carafe.

All four males were now on their feet. “And don’t you be pounding on the furniture,” said one. A luminescent streak raced round his hood’s peak and down his arm. He spread his sleeves to display a thick metal object, wickedly pronged at the crown. Outside, a rabid gust went ballistic on a tumbleweed before passing from view.

There were sounds of bickering in another room. A moment later a connecting door opened and an old female oozed into the lobby. “What’s all this racket?”

“You!” Miller demanded. “Is this your establishment? I’ve been ignored by your help and threatened by these ruffians. Due to another of your quaint magnetic storms, every human aboard our company galleon was terribly discomfited, and I myself am temporarily marooned. Now, nobody is blaming you for a physical system that’s out of your control, but really, ma’am, even the humblest Earthling will intuitively help a distressed fellow being. We should expect at least that courtesy from your kind as well. So please, just find your register and let’s get this overwith. I’ll take the room farthest from the lobby, and I do not wish to be disturbed.”

Miller could tell the old female was bristling by the sudden spikes under her cloak at the shoulders. She glanced at the group in the corner and back, then, to his astonishment, folded her arms and said, “The building is closed.”

He took two broad steps and stood pointing out the open door, fighting the urge to grab her misshapen head and turn it with force. “Do you see that world out there? There’s a real storm brewing. I’ve never heard of a rooming race--no matter how lowly--turning away a traveler in peril. What’s wrong with you people?”

Miller’s tension generated a torrent of electromagnetic sparks that crackled round the room. Outside, a lateral column of shrubs fell about, caught up in a death struggle that ended as quickly as it began. The wind moaned from the marrow. The old female said, “Come here.”

Miller froze right where he was.

Not:  “Would you follow me, please?” Not:  “Would you kindly come along, sir?”

He was peripherally aware of the four males in motion; moving quietly toward a back door now lit palely in a wreath of St. Elmo’s fire.

After a calculated pause Miller retrieved his case and followed her out. The hard truth was sinking in with each step--he should never have gone back for the drives. They were replaceable. The company wouldn’t have blamed him for being swallowed up in the offship rush.

When they were outside he said matter-of-factly, “Okay. How much?”

Her head jerked as though she’d been slapped. “You--” she tried, “you . . .”

Miller waited, listening to the steeds splashing about in their urine and ventral foam.

“There’s another inn not far from here,” she managed, “just down the road over that hill.”

“Let me guess. Also ‘full’?”

“If they say so.”

He carefully set down his case. “You know what, lady? Maybe I’ll just get comfy on your porch here. You don’t think that’ll bring down your property value too far? And--so help me . . . don’t you ever think this little travesty’s going unreported.”

She shifted closer, her face buckling and swelling. “No. You listen to me. You can’t stay outside in a storm. You won’t last.”

Miller snorted. “What do you mean, ‘won’t last’? Maybe you freaks could show humans a little respect, huh?” He blew out a lungful of stress. “And while you’re at it, why don’t you take an honest look at this queasy junkyard planet.” Again he ticked off points on his fingers. “Your propulsives are notoriously unstable. Your ‘durable’ goods have preposterously fickle shelf-lives. No one will navigate anywhere near your gravitational field without first closing his eyes and crossing his fingers.” His hot white face was eclipsed by an oscillating stream of flatulence bubbles:  something had stirred up the steeds. “Case in point:  the company’s distressed galleon and my little unrequested stopover.” He placed his hands on his hips and looked around, marveling. “Say, just when is peak tourist season, anyway?” Patches of black moles cropped up on her forehead. She made to retort, but Miller cut her off. “Why, if it weren’t for the company’s sense of progressive fair play, this whole place would’ve just shaken and shimmied into oblivion long ago.”

The old female’s facial features protruded and withdrew, and for just a second her hair caught fire in the snapdragon wind. Once she’d stabilized, her eyes became smoke-veiled embers, her voice a sandpaper hiss.

“You’re from Earth; you don’t understand. Products, capital gain, your precious company--we’re not interested in all that. We’re sincerely sorry your ship was caught in the drift. But, I beg you--please don’t start any trouble here.”

That did it. Miller brought his burning face in tight. “Look, lady, we don’t start trouble, we finish it, okay? So if any of you people have a problem with the way we run things you can always take it up with a caseworker.”

A lump throbbed along her jawline, and a supernumerary digit grew from her wrist, pointing to the east. “Start walking,” she hissed. “Over that hill.”

“With pleasure.” He looped the strap over his head and began to hike.

The old female watched him recede, her crimped body marrying the landscape molecule for molecule. The storm picked up. When Miller looked back she was gone.

He tried viewing the whole thing diplomatically:  maybe he was better off with a lesson learned well--if the grotesqueries at the next inn were anything like these last impudent horrors, a little tact might go a long way. It couldn’t hang more than a night, anyway. He’d just fall out in his room and sleep right through it.

A restless, banshee-like wailing rose back at the inn. Miller stopped, trying to put his finger on it. Haunted K-19 imagery . . . slimy flopping monstrosities, dark hooded riders . . . a miscellaneous A/V file, back in college . . . yes, the steeds had been roused; all four. The noise spiked radically as they rounded the intervening building. A pocket of air sizzled and exploded overhead. Miller turned up his collar.

It was a struggle making headway; the road had an odd disposition that made forward movement like walking in place. The steeds’ compound wail became aggressive, phasing in and out; nearing, definitely nearing. Miller pressed on with an attitude, his ears popping, his eyes bulging--was he somehow marching backward . . . no, no, it was the road:  the road itself was flowing downhill. Miller cried out as first his left ankle, then his right, submerged in grit and was freed. He fell on his palms, felt his wrists gripped by a force unseen. Only by rolling onto his back was he able to struggle free. He sprinted uphill, each sole’s contact too brief to allow a meaningful grip.

The wailing increased in intensity. He shot back a glance and saw four surreal shapes charging uphill in pairs. Miller scrambled to the road’s summit:  before him lay only bogs and gnarly banyan-like trees. The road itself descended into fog and desolation; no signs of habitation, no trace of civilization. He shook and bawled at the horror and betrayal, and in seconds received an answering howl to his rear.

As a funnel of sparks made for his hair Miller simply lost it:  he ran screaming off the road into the abutting swamp. The undergrowth strained to meet him; muck grabbed and thrashed, slipping off one leg and immediately slapping onto the other. Mustered by his cries, sulking columns of mist swept in from all sides while obscene things ran yipping through the shadows, leapt thrashing in the vapors, hopped flopping pool to pool. Racing low to the east, a broken wedge of luminous marsh fowl threw parallel shadows that passed tree to tree. Reeking fumes--sulfurous, vile, increasingly antagonistic--were stirred out of the air by his movements.

Miller’s case nipped him.

At first the notion was so unreal he could only stare at his shoulder in shock. Next thing he knew the case was convulsing down his arm, dragging his head along by the strap. Miller pulled free and the case bounced off yipping to his right. Now blood droplets were swimming in his breath, his fingernails were splitting blue. Crashing sounds broke just behind and above, accompanied by a slavering wail that built and built until it seemed right on top of him. Miller was cornered. He slammed his back against a tree and stared up at the quartet of spewing steeds, silhouetting the false dawn from a shuddering overhang. A strong pair of limbs grabbed him by the biceps.

The tree hauled him up kicking, a foot at a time. When he was eye-level with the riders a pair of branches broke from the trunk; one to impel and brace his spine, the other to hold him by the throat.

Miller gasped and hacked, clinging to the iron limbs while his body jerked to and fro. “You freaks!” he spat. “Get me down!” The riders watched impassively, their hoods cocked. He forced a savage breath. “I’ll see you burn! I’ll see your whole planet blacklisted, quarantined . . . shut down.” The upper limb lifted him forward until he dangled, suspended midway between the trunk and the stolid observers. One of Miller’s eyebrows detached, his left arm seized, and he began coughing out teeth and mouthfuls of blood. “Please . . .” he choked. “I’ll do anything. Anything.” His face purpled, the eyes bulged and raved, the ears crimped and folded. “I’m sorry . . . please . . . please . . .” His head fell forward. “Oh mercy,” he whispered. “Please.”

A stalagmite-shaped bulge, seeping out of the slime beneath his feet, strained upward through bursting pockets of gas. The tree’s uppermost branch shook Miller like an alley dog thrashing a roof rat. A long shudder ran down the branch, and the tree turned to stone.

Immediately the bulge rushed up, clasped Miller’s feet and tugged. A miasma appeared around his stretched and dangling remains. Putrefaction began at once.

Gradually a sickly radiance broke in the east, accompanied by a stinking breeze that clung to looming riders and slobbering steeds alike. The four riders, turning leisurely, surveyed their waking world.

The storm was over. On K-19’s horizon a line of mucilaginous tendrils spattered the rising mist, while a leash of swamp flappers writhed epileptically in their hurriedly resumed mating ritual. A flock of methane globules caught the new light as they popped and hissed along, leaving pluming streaks of a warm fecal brown.

It was going to be a beautiful day.



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© 2011 Ron Sanders

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K-19 is loony tunes island?
Fantastic piece, ichabod crane - meets Cutler becket. At one point I was reminded of 'naked lunch'
Great writing -

Posted 6 Years Ago

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Added on December 12, 2011
Last Updated on December 12, 2011


Ron Sanders
Ron Sanders

Marina del Rey, CA

L.A.-based novelist, illustrator, poet, short story writer. more..

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