|Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
The Nightmares of H83
The padded walls muffled most of the screams, but Dr. Zkhedhm would have smiled even if she could've heard them at full volume. The preliminaries on the humans were progressing well, and she anticipated the delivery of several more subjects in the next few days.
The wiry tentacles growing from her head sensed the phone call first, but she was too busy gloating to pay attention until the phone actually rang.
"Dr. Zkhedhm speaking… Senior Vgharhm, hello. They're going quite well, actually. We have three patients hooked up to the generator right now. I expect each to produce a full power pack by tomorrow morning. Excellent. Eight o'clock? We'll be expecting you." She hung up the phone and rubbed her forehead, allowing the tentacles to twist around her fingers. It was unfortunate they couldn't sense what phone calls were going to be about. She loved lab work, but like most Sthenians, she hated the politics of bureaucracy. The Seniors could be a hard bunch to please, but if the humans produced without incident throughout the night, three power packs would be a piece of Gaergon cake.
"Dr. Z! We need you downstairs. Something's gone wrong with H83." The head of her intern, Hrhna, peered around the office door, tentacles at attention.
The doctor groaned and grabbed her injection case. It wasn't often that problems with the humans couldn't be fixed by a little shot of adrenalin. She followed the intern down the stairs, noting with some pride that Hrhna had shrunk at least two inches since she signed on with them. Sthenians began large and became smaller with age, physical control and digestive efficiency compacting them as they matured. Only the most advanced ever made it below four feet. Dr. Zkhedhm had been five foot two since her thirty-eighth year.
The psychiatric hospital consisted of two floors—sterile offices and a few padded rooms on the ground floor, with the generators, test patients, and other equipment in the basement. Five cells lined each side of a short hallway; the open doors of the seven empty cells gave the doctor a start, but she quickly patted down her tentacles, remembering that only three cells were currently occupied. She focused on the last door on the right, where H83 stood, in striped pajamas, looking out through the bars. He seemed oblivious to the shrieks and cries from the other cells.
"He was fine at last check, crouching in the corner, but then the computer recorded disruptions in his heart rate and breathing, and when I came to check he was just standing there. I don't think he's afraid anymore."
"Damn it, Hrhna, that's impossible."
"Yes, doctor. But you can see for yourself. He's definitely not cowering, and the power pack is not registering any incoming."
Dr. Zkhedhm gave her injection case to Hrhna, stepped directly in front of H83, and crossed her arms. "You," she said. "Why aren't you trembling?"
H83 leaned his shoulder against one of the bars and tucked his other hand into the waistband of his pajama bottoms. "I'm not afraid."
"Nonsense. You are a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and you have been on intravenous dicyclomine for the past five months."
He scratched his elbow, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. "Maybe I'm cured."
"I severely doubt you could be cured with amygdalae lesioning and a daily injection of norepinephrine by Sergeant Hsffu. You should be insane with hallucinations."
He shrugged. "I guess you know best."
Dr. Zkhedhm stepped back, hand on chin, tapping her cheek. "I think I know what the problem is. Where is it?"
"Where is what?"
"You know what I'm talking about. The fear spawn. The hate baby. You became immune to fear. Some humans do. It is rare, but it happens. So your body rejected it, expelled it in physical form. A Nightmare. Where is it now?"
"Search me…" H83 spread his arms. "I'm just the crazy guy, remember?"
"I will and I do. You will stand there, and insert your arms through the bars. Hrhna, restrain him."
"Yes, doctor." Hrhna strapped his wrists together, tightening the bands until he grimaced. "You'll fear us again, soon enough," she whispered.
H83 smiled, but made no reply.
"We must be quick," said the doctor, punching the keypad to unlock the door. "If it is small enough it might have escaped already, but it could be hiding in the generator. Sabotage could set us back ages."
"His terror levels have been off the charts, doctor. I'd worry that any emotional offspring would be too large to fit through the bars."
"Sometimes the birthing process expends so much energy that much of their power is lost, and they are born small and weak. They can grow, however. They feed on fear, just like our machines do. Now watch him while I open the generator. Is the power off?"
"Well, it's obviously not hooked up to H83, and I doubt we could do more than startle him at this point anyway."
"You forget your place, intern."
"Yes, doctor." The intern's tentacles sagged.
Dr. Zkhedhm sighed. "The Seniors are coming tomorrow," she explained. "Full inspection, detailed reports. I promised them power packs."
Hrhna's tentacles fell limp against her neck. "Oh dear."
"Yes. Here we go." Dr. Zkhedhm lifted the lid of the generator box and peeked inside. "Oh dear, indeed."
"That bad? What does it look like?"
"That's not the problem. The problem is what they look like. And what they're chewing on." She started to put her hand into the generator box but stopped herself before a lick of flame and black smoke could reach her fingers. "Why dragons?" she asked the human.
"I've always liked dragons."
The doctor shook her head, dismayed at his every reaction. She'd never been fond of dragons. Aside from their nasty flame, she had trouble understanding their emotional weaknesses, if they even had any. "Sergeant Hsffu," she said, addressing the chameleonic bulk standing at attention against the wall, "please escort this human to Padded Block A, then report back here immediately. Hrhna and I will be containing the Nightmares."
"Yes, doctor," he barked, wrapping his body around H83 until pajama-like stripes replaced his stone-gray color, and the human became obscured. Then Sergeant Hsffu began lurching toward the stairs, made slightly off-balance by his cargo.
The dragons chirped inside the generator box, absorbing the sudden panic of the human. Dr. Zkhedhm's tentacles twisted around each other, pleased. The dragons would grow rapidly, feeding on residual fear energy from the cell, as well as stray emissions from the other humans. If H83 continued hallucinating that he was in no danger, she might not be able to acquire the third power pack, but now she had dragons. Real-life Nightmares. A long-term strategy to be sure, but Nightmares in the wild had produced irrational fears and a steady stream of psychiatric cases for centuries, even before the Sthenians had come to turn that fear into power. The Sthenians were merely the first to channel that fear for commercial uses, rather than absorbing it directly.
"Their teeth look pretty sharp, doctor."
"Haven't you learned your history, Hrhna? They won't bite. They come from terror and that's all they can digest. But they can spit fire, so go get me a metal transport case and a large pair of tongs. If they stay in the generator box any longer we'll never get them out."
While Hrhna scurried off to the storage room, Dr. Zkhedhm peeked into the generator box again. Her tentacles flinched at the growing contents, and she began to have a very bad feeling about the rest of her night.
Upstairs, the unmanned security camera monitor for Block A, Sub Room 2, showed the white mass of Sergeant Hsffu sliding away from H83, who remained curled on the floor. After several minutes of inactivity, a small red dragon emerged from H83's shirt pocket. It hopped and fluttered, stretching its wings, until it gained enough height to perch on H83's neck, where it lowered its head and began to feed.
Amanda Divine owns and operates a book, comic, and game store in Washington with her husband and fantastical dog. She has been published in Northwest Boulevard and Toasted Cheese and will someday write a story about her three pet ducks. E-mail: amanda[at]advunderground.com