“The Man in the Maria” by Daniel Hale

TWA 76 HALE-01

The astronomer reclined in his chair, staring up at the image being fed into his screen: a pencil-thin shape streaking leisurely on its course through the space between the earth and the moon.

The rocket had been traveling most of the day now, and was near to the end of its journey. Its cargo would not be too badly affected by the pressures being placed on them, at least in theory. The three astronauts had been dosed with a special cocktail of experimental relaxants that would, it was hoped, be flushed from their systems when the time was right. They needed to be in fighting form for where they were going.

They had been launched on the quiet, or as near to it as could be expected with rocketry involved. Officially, theirs was a supply ship that was on its way to the International Space Station. The ISS had no knowledge of it, nor would they recognize the make of it, had they seen it. It was sleeker and slimmer than anything any space agency was meant to have, with a mirrored surface that reflected the stars, bristling with antennae and masts that were all designed to keep it as under the radar as possible.

A lot of people were likely going to get very worried if they ever found out about it. And that, the astronomer mused, was likely going to happen soon.

The ship was named the Hati, and its benefactors were, no denying it, a cabal. Not a sinister one, nor especially shadowy. They were simply a very discrete bunch of concerned specialists who’d decided to do something rather unorthodox for little reason beyond devilry. The science of space travel was a patchwork, after all, and had been cobbled together hurriedly by just about every able-bodied mind within reach. Many of the people who’d played small but significant roles in getting it on its feet moved in strange fields. The astronomer himself had hobnobbed with authorities ranging from the extremely esoteric to the dully obscure. Fanatics, all, but none had been so passionate, nor as personable, as Macleft.

The astronomer didn’t know his first name, nor precisely what circles he’d originally orbited in. He had admitted to becoming a folklorist after realizing archaeology was rarely as exciting as Indiana Jones portrayed it. “Besides, look at me,” he’d said at a dinner once, gesturing to his impressively rotund potbelly. “What vine would hold me?”

He was pudgy, true, with a full, friendly face and curly, slightly unkempt black hair. He often wore his lab coat to social situations, with a messy polo shirt underneath. He kept sour cherry chews in his pocket, and would often pop some in his mouth in the middle of conversations. He was the very picture of the awkward, socially inept, bohemian intellectual. Once you got him talking, there was no stopping until the end.

Macleft specialized in the stories and myths of what he called “the marginalized peoples.” These were tribes and societies that were often footnotes in history, if not outright legends themselves. He’d been an adviser in the Iram debacle, when the ruins of the supposed legendary city in Saudi Arabia turned out to be nothing more than a staging post. Macleft, however, had hinted that some documents procured by NASA from the site detailed the less-than-savory practices that had made the city a more damnable place than Sodom or Gomorrah.

To the astronomer’s mind, Macleft would have been better off as a storyteller than an academic. But there was certainly something infectious about the man; he could spin a yarn that would keep even a roomful of skeptics attentive, and would set them to work on firing a rocket to the moon in absolute secrecy, on a mission steeped in abject lunacy.

—–

“Aristotle and Plutarch referred to the Proselenes, the people who lived before there was a moon in the sky. Not much is known about them beyond that fact, as it came up in a contention of who owned Arcadia,” Macleft had told his audience.

He was an affably awkward presenter, his slightly bemused smile never leaving his face as he looked from the audience to the PowerPoint and back again. You could tell he did not want to read directly from the slide, yet was also worried about losing his thread. You had to feel a bit sorry for him.

“The Proselenes have been something of an ongoing project for me for quite a while now.” He looked from the slide back to his audience. They were all some of the most anonymously powerful men and women in the fields of science and government; mathematicians and secretaries and physicists and bureaucrats and, of course, the astronomer. They all knew Macleft and his eccentricities well, and had come at his invitation largely for politeness’ sake. But they were curious as well, and this was where Macleft had proven himself to be more persuasive than he let on.

He took a handful of cherry sours from one pocket, and chewed them noisily. Then he picked up something from the desk: a large Ziplock bag containing a thin scrap of some kind of ancient looking paper, on which was drawn a large, partially intact circle surrounded by a ring of smaller rectangular shapes. He held it up, then thought better of it, and handed it to the person seated nearest to him. “Pass that around when you’re done.”

“What you’re seeing there is, I believe, the only bit of Proselene writing left in the world. I came across it at a site that was believed to have been used as a rock quarry. I, however, think that it was a Launchpad.”

“Did the Proselenes go to the moon?” asked a philosopher, to the quietly chuckling group.

But Macleft smiled a small, satisfied smile, and stuck another handful of cherry sours in his mouth. Through a mouthful of masticated candy he said, very matter-of-factly: “Nope. They built it.”

Things got somewhat confusing after that, then the archaeologists and linguists got hold of the papyrus and refused to let it go. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of whispered asides and deep-thinking stares. Markers were fought over to illustrate points on the board, to redraw the shapes on the scroll.

A giant circle emerged, made of a jigsaw jumble of shapes mashed together in a spherical shape, other pieces orbiting it, going into it, being added to it.

And Macleft, with an eye for dramatic tension that would do a stage magician proud, unveiled his finale: a gray nub of stone about the size of his thumb. It was porous, with little holes all over it. He held the lump of stone between thumb and forefinger over his desk, and then let it go.

The room of specialists watched the stone floating about an inch above the desk.

Even now, the astronomer was shaking his head. The stone had quickly disappeared after that meeting, snatched up by some physicist, or a general, or someone. It seemed to have been forgotten, as were the machines Macleft mentioned they’d found at the site. “The stuff could float, but it still had to break LEO,” he’d said. “I’m thinking the machines acted like magnets, pressing the stone up and out of the atmosphere. It must have been treated in some way to ensure it would all come together at the other end.”

All of that virtually guaranteed the expedition. What Macleft had gone into next ensured it would be secret.

—–

The astronomer had heard of lycanthropy, and sun-downing. They all knew the idea that deviant behaviors would increase during a full-moon. Lunar and lunacy, all well and good and absolute nonsense. Easily categorized as a fluke of statistics or human error, or simple apophenia.

The psychologists had shared some findings with Macleft. Got in touch with some colleagues, signed some release forms, greased some palms as surreptitiously as possible. And suddenly the cabal had been looking at a lunatic strapped to a chair. A very agitated lunatic.

With a window behind him and the full moon up in the night sky.

“The effect has watered down over time, of course,” Macleft said. “Bred out or mutated. Mongrelized. And the moon has drifted, slowly but surely, far enough to dilute the effect. Nevertheless, a potent strain may still persist.”

More calls through less reputable channels. The politicians played their part in greasing the palms a bit further. Birth records and family histories, shipped in or stolen, were pored over for hours, and all for almost nothing, that was the marvel. The astronomer could still scarcely believe it. It was enough for these people to know that something was on the verge of rising. That would be enough to get them to the point where they found out what.

They’d found three in the end. Two women and a man. Thirty-seven, twenty-one, and forty, respectively. Each of them with histories that could only be described as colorful.

The man had been found living rough in the Fens, following reports of higher-than-normal poaching rates. A couple of hikers had stumbled across him lying naked in a nest of greasy black hair. Analysis had found that it was his own, apparently shed from his body.

Of the three, he was the most feral; he spoke little, and made sounds of mewling distress if he felt threatened. His only possession was a dangling emerald earring, such as might be worn by an old gypsy woman. He’d been found clutching it in his hand as he slept.

They called him Fido.

The girl, Anne Marie, lived scarcely better. She’d been found in a tenement in Columbus, Ohio, in a room cluttered with stolen prescription bottles. The local druggies claimed no knowledge of her, but there had been talk of high-pitched screaming on certain nights of the month.

Anne Marie told them she was born in Kansas City, and had started ‘changing’ when she was eight. “My parents got in trouble cause of me,” she’d said. “The police came, and the church. Some kids went missing.” And that was all she would tell them.

The older woman was called Clarice. She was the only one of them who’d known any kind of luxury. She’d been employed by a high-class brothel in Sydney, Australia, for clients who preferred what she called “excitement.” “I did house calls,” she said. “People would book me for the full moon. I had a waiting list like you wouldn’t believe. The boys would bring me up in a lorry, let me out at the door. I never really lost control, you know. Just enough to act wild. A little snarling at the door, a little scratching and biting to get their dander up.”

The three were observed for three months. Their blood was drawn, their brains were scanned, their dreams were logged. The change was different for each. Fido grew thick, coarse hair all over his body, and had to be restrained as he would howl and writhe and rage all through the night. Anne Marie acted more like a wounded animal, huddled in the furthest corner from the door and whining like a dog. Clarice padded about on all fours, moving more like a large feline, lounging regal and proud until feeding time, when a sheep was pushed into her cell and she pounced on it in fury.

All of this was recorded and collated. The pharmacists mixed a cocktail of suppressants to keep them, if not pacified, then at least restrained. There could be no guessing what would happen once they reached the moon.

—–

Why hadn’t they asked more questions? Macleft had worked the cabal into pockets, offering tailor-made justifications for each discipline, dangling the carrot that would get them to agree to everything. The plunder of an advanced civilization. A genetic anomaly that induced increased agility and stamina, ebbing and flowing like the tides to the lunar phases. Pharmaceuticals. Defense. Psychology. Engineering. History. A chance to change the world. A chance to save everyone.

The astronomer watched the maria on the lunar surface, imagining shapes from the deep pits of shadow. Bunny. Chariot. Girl. Man.

There were fewer than fifty people in the cabal, and they all thought they knew the whole picture. They’d each pegged Macleft as a harmless, if lucky, eccentric. An undisciplined dreamer who’d stumbled onto something big. Only the astronomer knew what he was really capable of.

Macleft told him all of it, he supposed, because he’d had the least to do. He monitored the moon’s trajectory, calculated when and where to land to draw the least attention from the ISS and earthbound stargazers. He watched the moon to see what changed.

It had been written on the other parchment; the piece that Macleft had torn from the original. The man was a shameless fanatic, happy to flaunt the impossible, but he wasn’t an idiot. He knew that sharing this finding would be a step too far, would be too absurd even for Indiana Jones. But he’d needed the astronomer. He needed a confidant.

It showed an earlier stage of the moon’s construction. At the core was what seemed to be a spherical chamber the size of a quarter. At its center was a figure drawn with five lines. It was little more than a stick figure, except for the roughest of features that could be made out through a magnifying glass over its pin-sized head.

“It’s been floating about for years that the moon rings like a bell whenever something lands on it,” Macleft told the astronomer. “Christianity talks about a man caught for some crime and sentenced to the moon. Some medieval thinkers inferred it was Cain. It wasn’t just some child’s nursery rhyme. The Norse talked of Mani, the man who was the moon, and rode across the sky in a horse-drawn carriage as he was chased by the Great Wolf Hati.”

This was the real reason, although even the astronomer couldn’t be sure why. It made sense that the Proselenes wouldn’t build the moon unless they had a use for it. A desolate satellite with a face of craters was hanging in the sky because somebody stuck it there, as reminder. As an example.

“The moon is the most potent symbol of evil we have,” said Macleft. “It’s the backlight for witches flying by broomstick. It’s the thing that wolves howl to. It’s what makes women bleed for their sins, and fills heads with rage and hunger that sprouts into fur. If it was made here, and sent up there, why shouldn’t we be afraid of it? Why shouldn’t we remember, at some level, that it’s the absolute worst place in creation because the devil was locked away inside of it?”

—–

A mad ghost story, unsupported by anything more than poetic fancies. It satisfied Macleft to think he’d found a dragon to slay, and it spurned him into playing some of the brightest on the planet into going along with his game.

The astronomer was in too deep to pull away, and he couldn’t stop proceedings even if he wanted to. They’d all been too eager, so the reasons didn’t matter. They were sending a rocket full of werewolves to the moon just to see what would happen.

There were several maria that looked like human faces, but none that really looked like wolves. The astronomer let his focus slip, tried to surprise himself with new shapes from the basaltic seas. A bundle of sticks. A kneeling girl. A smirking maiden. A slinking shape like a tale or a serpent. A withered fruit. An eye.

Eyes. One pool shrinking and the other expanding until the two were level. Two great orbs of shadow that rippled like mercury pools, turning to face the telescope. Turning to face the earth.

The astronomer pulled back the perspective, catching sight of the Hati as it neared the surface. A great dark slash scarred the underside of the moon, curving up under the eyes and gaping wide.

The astronomer kept his eyes on the rocket as the moon grinned in welcome.

 

 

 

 


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Daniel Hale is an amateur storyteller living in Massillon, Ohio. An ardent bibliophile an aspiring anglophile, when not writing he spends his time acquiring books faster than he can read them and perfecting his British accent. He has been published in Beorh Quarterly, Revolt Daily, “All Hallow’s Evil” by Mystery and Horror, LLC, “What Has Two Heads, Ten Eyes, and Terrifying Table Manners,” by Mega Thump Publishing, and the upcoming “The Last Diner” by Knightwatch Press. Find him at danielhale42.wordpress.com.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Well that was awesome. Al and I actually had the conversation once of “What would happen to a werewolf on the moon?” While we figured they would probably die of asphyxiation there could be a lot of cool possibilities.

    I think the only thing I didn’t like about this is not getting to see what happened next. Did they set the devil free? What did the werewolves do on the moon? I just want to know!

  2. Good lord this is a great read. I found myself stepping back a number of times while going through this and sort of scratching my head, trying to figure out how Daniel pulled this off. This is, by and large, just one long bit of exposition. Those aren’t supposed to be very engaging. But this pulled me and and had me trying to guess what was coming and enjoying every bit of it. I think it’s Mister Hale’s excellent use of detail. The Macleft character is so well drawn, both sides of him: the bumbling front he uses to win confidence and the batshit crazy side that pulls strings to send three werewolves to the moon. Plus there’s the character of the astrologer, who is somehow the narrator to all of this, another great choice for reasons I don’t understand but having this quiet weird dude sitting there watching the rocket just…well it works. This all works.

    My only complaint is that I wanted the ending to drive home a little deeper. I enjoyed this so much I wanted to know what happened! However the fleeting weirdness we’re left with definitely fits the overall tone and I suppose I can’t be greedy.

  3. I love the execution of this story. It starts off with a cool sense of mystery and drives us slowly forward by revealing new pieces of the solution as we go, all the way till the final line. The details here are incredible, and you can tell the author researched a lot of lore and legends about the moon.

    My only hangup is that underneath all the wonderful surface work I don’t feel like there’s very much there. I like for a story to say something about who we are as humans, to shine a light on some part of our existence, and I don’t get that here.

  4. Pingback: TWA #76 – Satellite Coverage – JUDGEMENT! – The Writer's Arena

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