Here’s a little two-chapter sneak peek from Elana Gomel’s The Cryptids.
The Cryptids: synopsis
An invasion like no other is threatening the Silicon Valley. A cutting-edge quantum communication technology has unleashed a flood of cryptid sightings. From headless Mothmen to dog-faced cats, strange beasts are prowling the streets and emerging from the woods, spreading a deadly epidemic of mind-blindness. Children mutate into protean monsters; people are carried away by thunderbirds; and those who survive fail to recognize themselves in the mirror.
Cryptozoologist Sharon Manley, a stranger in a strange land, thinks she knows what is going on. But who is going to believe her if her information comes to her in dreams? Torn between two countries and two men, she finally embarks on a one-way odyssey into the heart of the cryptid Earth to uncover its shocking secrets. Her quest takes her to the forest of flayed bears, to the beach colonized by Mothmen, and finally to the golden city of Hell. There she has to confront the enigmatic cryptid masters and to make the choice that will determine the fate of more worlds than one.
The Cryptids: Chapters 1-2
In the dawn light the beach looked like an alien terrain: whorls and spirals of corrugated sand pierced by bones of driftwood. The gunmetal surface of tidal pools was wrinkled by the brisk wind.
Maureen scrambled down the eroded slope. He followed slowly, hanging back, seeing her diminishing figure as if through an inverted telescope.
“Look!” she exclaimed, pointing.
An off-shore rock came alive. A flock of gulls, cormorants, sandpipers, and pelicans rose into the pale air, obscuring the pewter-colored sun. Shadows of their wings dappled the wet sand.
He pulled out his phone and it dropped from his shaking fingers into the slimy weeds at his feet. He had a moment of pure terror. After all these months of trial-and-error to be thwarted by a slippery phone-case! He groped in the weeds and breathed out his accumulated tension when his fingers closed around the plastic rectangle.
A wave of sharp acrid stench rolled over them, overpowering the briny smell of the ocean.
Part One. The Golden State
She was staying in a wooden chalet incongruously perched above the lion-colored stubbly hills. There were other travelers in the chalet, all strangers, except for a girl who looked like Julie. There was also a child who hid in dark corners.
A man in a bespoke suit came in, carrying a folder. His face was a blank expanse of sallow skin without a single feature. Swimming under its surface like a darting shadow was another face: thin and feathery, with a predatory beak and side-facing round eyes.
The man gave each traveler a voucher with a date on it.
“This is a free voucher for your flight back home,” the man said. “The date is the date of your death”.
Sharon Manley woke up, her heart hammering. She pulled the Petersens’ thick quilt over her head, curling up into the warmth. Mark’s absence lay like an icy hollow under her breastbone.
She had recognized the eyes and the beak. Argentavis magnificens, the giant teratorn, an extinct Miocene predatory bird with the wingspan of 26 feet.
She flashed back to the last night’s conversation at the dinner table. Carl and Rhoda were finishing their wine. Carl had his iPad out and was swiping it in search of postprandial news while Rhoda was watching Sharon with a fretful expression on her lined face.
“How did it go today?” Rhoda asked.
“Just look at this nonsense!” Carl exclaimed.
Sharon pretended she did not hear Rhoda’s question. She still cringed, remembering the glassy look in the chairman’s eyes as he had pushed her resume across the table. They did not need adjunct professors for the next academic year, the biology department was downsizing, budget cuts, and Ms. Manley was of course aware…
Dr. Manley, actually, but at this point his voice had faded into a drone and all she wanted was to be out of that stuffy little office in that third-rate community college. She got up rudely and walked out. Outside the familiar smell of academic life hit her like cigarette smoke tickling the nostrils of a recent quitter: a heady aroma composed of disinfectant, students’ sweaty bodies, and stink of caged lab animals. She caught the hem of her new skirt in the door and tugged. The skirt slid out with a ripping sound and she spat out “Kurwa!” She had no idea what it meant. It was Mark’s word.
A male student turned around and stared at her tight black top. She could see his mind shifting through his stock of clichés, trying to place her: too old for a student, too tarted-up for a professor, too exotic for a faculty wife…She glowered at him and the student hurried away.
She turned to Carl with a forced smile.
“What is it, Carl?”
He swiveled his iPad around, showing her the front page of the online edition of the San Jose Mercury News. All she could see was an editorial on the latest proposition to increase property taxes.
“I agree they are already high but…”
“Not that!” Carl barked and stabbed at a smaller headline.
Sighting of a giant eagle on Pescadero beach.
She rolled her eyes. A Californian eagle was a big bird but giant?
“Four times as big as a Californian eagle,” Carl read out as if responding to her thought. “Who comes up with this stuff?”
Sharon’s lethargy dissipated:
“A thunderbird sighting?”
“A thunderbird?” Carl Petersen repeated, frowning. “No, they say it was an eagle. What’s a thunderbird?”
Rhoda leaned over his shoulder.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed. “It’s that man whose wife disappeared. Now he claims to have seen a giant bird too?”
Carl peered at the screen.
“He says his wife was taken by a giant bird,” he chuckled. “The Merc is in the toilet if they need this kind of clickbait. It used to be a real newspaper, now it’s an online rag.”
She had checked the story afterwards when the Petersens retired and she was free to escape into the guest quarters. She had a hot bath but even the smell of lavender and the green-and-gold Californian twilight failed to salve the sting of yet another failure. Sharon knew herself all too well: left alone, her mind would go over her accumulated defeats, worrying at them like a dog with a bone. So as a diversion she logged onto the San Jose Mercury website and read the description of the incident. She was not much wiser afterwards. Yes, the man in question had probably been drunk or delusional. Yes, he had probably seen a Californian golden eagle. Yes, his wife…well, whatever had happened to her, she had not been not carried away by an eagle who would be hard pressed to lift even a small dog, let alone a person.
On the other hand…
The witness’ name was Lester Choy, a resident of Mountain View. He claimed to have encountered a giant bird of an unknown species early on the morning of July 21 at Pescadero Beach, about forty miles south of San Francisco. Pescadero State Beach is a popular hiking and recreational destination but the day in question being Tuesday and the hour ungodly 5.30 AM, there had been no other witnesses. It was not clear what Mr. Choy and his wife had been doing on the beach so early in the morning. The article said that Mrs. Maureen Choy had been declared missing and a search for her was underway.
“The bird had the wingspan of about 25 feet or seven and a half meters,” Mr. Choy had said. “In the general shape it resembled a condor but its beak was long, powerful and hooked, like an eagle’s beak, not stubby like a condor’s. Its head was not bald either and there was no flap of skin above its eyes. It had very powerful long legs with giant grasping talons, covered in a sort of down. It was dark-colored, maybe black or even navy. Its eyes were flashing red. It was a real predator.”
Teratorns were relatives of condors but their beaks resembled those of eagles, indicating an actively predatory rather than scavenging lifestyle. And yes, a teratorn could have carried away a human being. There were precedents: in Switzerland where an eight-year-old girl was reportedly snatched away by something that looked like an eagle on steroids and in 1977 in Lawndale, Illinois, where a hefty ten-year-old was dragged by a huge bird across his backyard.
Teratorns had been extinct for over 5 million years.
Sharon had a perfect answer to this but in a strange house in this alien country she was beginning to doubt it made sense. Or that it was important. She was thirty-four. Her career was going nowhere. The most important relationship of her life was over.
She still had dreams, though, and they were becoming increasingly vivid as her life was bleeding away. Lying in bed, she clung to the dissipating remnant of the thunderbird dream. Even nightmares were preferable to emptiness.
The woman slowed down on the uphill slope, lifting her face toward the redwood boughs tracing intricate hieroglyphs in the cloudless sky. She was a good runner, had done the Seattle marathon several times, but age was beginning to tell. She whistled and her dog, a frisky black Lab, came out of the manzanita bushes, his tail wagging energetically. She patted his head and drew air into her lungs, ready for another spurt, when the dog suddenly froze, his lips pulling back from his teeth, a growl beginning deep in his throat.
“Come on, Buddy, it’s just a deer!” she called out impatiently.
The growl rose a fever pitch and the Lab dove into a dense patch of undergrowth. The crunch of breaking wood was as loud as a shot. The woman yelled but the dog did not reappear. She started after him but stopped when she saw the scarlet gleam of poison oak. Just perfect! Now Buddy would need a bath; her afternoon exercise was ruined; Steve had messaged that he would be home late; and…
The scarlet gleam was wet. She stared, unwilling to let her brain acknowledge what her eyes were seeing. There was no sound from the undergrowth. The silence was as absolute as it always was in the redwoods, wrapping her up in layers of what used to be peace but was now paralysis.
There were rumors of mountain lions…
She backed off, slipped on dry bark and fell, raising a cloud of leaves and needles. The manzanita bushes whipped around as something pushed through.
Sharon’s diary was pristinely blank for the week ahead: no more job interviews. There were two community colleges that had not yet responded to her resume, and she milked the delay of rejection for every drop of hope. But she had a job of sorts, gotten through Rhoda’s extensive network of friends and relatives. A techie who lived in a multi-million house in the Santa Cruz Mountains amused himself by keeping a collection of rare amphibians and reptiles at home. He needed somebody to baby-sit his pets. He had instantly taken to Sharon when she had correctly identified his current favorite as a Hochstetter frog from New Zealand. Like all of Frank’s animals, Hochstetter frogs were a protected species and forbidden to import.
Sharon needed the money but just the drive up the mountain to Frank’s house was enough of a reward for helping him break the law. Once she cleared Alice’s Restaurant where aged bikers shyly ogled her through their bulging helmets, she was alone on the mountain road dappled with gold and green and shaded by the feathery branches of redwoods and Douglas firs. Occasionally the bright strawberry-colored trunk of a madrone would flash by like a ruby set in jade. And even on a summer day there were thick undulating bands of fog lying across the tarmac, ghosts of twilight unafraid of the mild sun of Northern California.
She passed her favorite curve where the woods fell away on both sides and revealed the bark-littered slopes of ocher and pink dotted with cushions of emerald moss. And then she pulled into the driveway of Frank’s rustic cabin on steroids.
The frogs were ailing. The big male (about 5 centimeters long, huge by the standards of his species, and christened John Henry) seemed sluggish as he emitted a thin squeak perched on Sharon’s finger. New Zealand frogs don’t croak but it seemed to her he was deliberately complaining.
“I know how you feel,” she said.
By the time Frank got home, she had fed John Henry and his mates, cleaned their enclosure and removed the rose-colored Madagascar chameleon named Pinky from the mantelshelf where he liked to imitate an ornament. Frank muttered a greeting, which was the pinnacle of his social skills. He could, however, talk for hours, animatedly and fluently, about frogs, rare plants, and deep learning software. Sharon considered him the closest thing to a friend she had in California. The fact that he had an autism spectrum condition and could never tell what she was thinking or feeling was a huge relief. Nowadays she did not want anybody peering into the curdled jumble of her emotions.
“Hey, Frank,” she asked, “did you see that thing in the San Jose rag about a replay of the Birds in Pescadero?”
He stared at her blankly and she had to explain. It turned out that he had heard of the case but did not know Hitchcock’s movie.
“What do you think happened?” she asked. “Was the guy drunk?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It certainly sounds like he was. The largest bird here is the Californian condor and it’s very rare, even though a couple has been observed in Big Sur, and in any case, its wingspan is only…”
“9 feet, I know,” Sharon said impatiently. “So it’s hard to imagine somebody claiming a wingspan three times that unless he was under the influence”.
“Especially Les Choy,” said Frank.
“You know him?”
“Met him a couple of times.”
“What does he do?”
“He has a start-up.”
“Could you give me his number?”
It was stupid, she told herself. She was done with cryptozoology. It had come between her and Mark even before Julie. It had destroyed her career.
No, she was not going to call him.
Mark Kaminski was driving on M1 toward Heathrow. Clammy fog fastened upon his windshield like a clinging lover. Swept aside by the wipers, it always came back, embracing the car with its tenuous arms.
His cellphone played the opening bars of “Carmina Burana”. He pressed the Reject button and turned on the radio. BBC1 news bulletin was on but he caught only the tail end: something about long queues at Heathrow. A burst of static, and a voice said, loud and clear: “…the alleged sighting of a giant bird in Half-Moon Bay, California, continues to draw attention of Nessie and Bigfoot fans on both sides of the Atlantic. And now for our 24-hour weather forecast…”
The static cut in again. The forecast was unnecessary. Mark could provide one himself: visibility very poor; cold rain; probably an accident ahead; and time wasted at the airport as the sullen security personnel palpated his shoes and sniffed his aftershave. This was his next 24 hours.
Afterwards…who knows? The future lay ahead as blank as the fog. He had never been to the States before and the only mental image he could summon of Columbus, Ohio, was, incongruously, the white colonnaded front of the Columbus Hotel in Sussex Gardens. He knew the reason it popped up only too well. The first time with Julie, the first lie to Sharon.
He glanced at his silenced cellphone and imagined Julie staring at her own device, a pouting smile and a tear-swollen rebuke superimposed upon each, flickering like a Schrödinger cat in its sealed box.
He forced the image out of his mind and concentrated on driving. A lorry loomed ahead and he braked sharply. This way he’d never make it to the airport. It’d be a pity to die at the age of thirty-five, leaving behind only a couple of broken hearts and a half-written book on evolutionary contingency.
The traffic eased and Mark touched the familiar number in Krakow and let the phone ring. Mama would not answer, he knew, but what if… And the “what if” of Julie. He imagined the cellular network of possibilities wrapping up the Earth, signals bouncing through its intangible fibers, branching and propagating like seaweed. But at some point it had to stop. There was one number he would never call; one “what if” that was never going to become “maybe” again. He had his chance and he blew it.
Back to the conference paper. “The evolution of alternative phenotypes: the case of planarian flatworms”. A solid, well-researched paper to be presented as part of the seminar series at Ohio State University’s Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology. A line to add to his CV, a step toward promotion to Senior Lecturer, a solid anchor in the post-Brexit UK. Perhaps even a financial opportunity. Flatworms, after all, had amazing regenerative capacities and some pharmaceutical company might be interested. Now that Sharon’s misplaced idealism was no longer in the way…
He sternly forbade himself to pursue this train of thoughts, marveling at the infinite hall of mirrors that the mind was: thinking about himself thinking about his own thinking. The miracle of self-awareness. Occasionally it became too much. Like now.
Love had died before he met Julie. They just had both pretended it was still alive, while carrying around its corpse like pallbearers at some invisible funeral. He could blame himself for many things but not for refusing to be dragged into a dead-end pseudoscience, as ridiculous as the Victorian table-turning. They would both end up poor and outcast, so-called “independent scholars”, the academic equivalents of bums and tube buskers. He was a scientist. Cryptozoology was woo.
But Sharon did not agree. According to her, their project was going to do for biology what quantum theory had done for physics.
Mark put his foot down on the accelerator.
The day had started badly and steadily gotten worse. First was the dream.
She trudged wearily through the streets of a maze-like city. At least she assumed it was a city, even though there were no pedestrians, no cars, and no houses – just blank walls rising up above her head, and narrow passages that doubled in upon themselves. The pavement and the walls were of the same color: bright yellow. The sky above her head was dull white and a lick of fire was creeping up to the zenith, setting the air aflame.
Like all of her recent nightmares, there was nothing particularly frightening about the images but the entire thing was so steeped in thick menace that Sharon woke up choking. And then there was a call from Frank Roberts. There had been a break-in on his property. When Sharon, still muzzy, drove up into the mountains, she found Frank and his girlfriend, a young woman named Noni, wading through the bushes at the back of the house. It still amazed Sharon that Frank, despite his social impairment, was quite successful in the dating game. She attributed it to his sweet nature or less charitably, to his money.
Sharon rather liked Noni whose random piercings seemed to draw a mysterious map on her body. Seeing her, Noni gave a delighted squeak, kissed her on both cheeks, and promptly disappeared, leaving the two of them comb through the backyard. “Backyard” was a loose definition: Frank’s land stretched down the mountain slope into a tangle of tanoaks and blackberry, and even Frank himself was not sure where it ended. Its cultivated portion was choked with reptile cages, amphibian enclosures, and a vegetable garden where Frank grew fifteen experimental varieties of eggplant that hitherto failed to tempt even the local raccoons. Nevertheless, somebody – or something – had rampaged through the garden, uprooted and tore plants, broke several cages, and absconded with a couple of frogs.
“John Henry!” wailed Frank.
“Perhaps we should call the police,” suggested Sharon.
“They won’t come,” Frank objected. “We’re an unincorporated area. The county sheriff thinks we belong in the valley and in the valley they don’t know where we belong. A woman died here ten years ago and they only came after a week”.
Sharon sighed. She was endlessly grateful to Rhoda Petersen whose kindness to the British niece whom she hardly knew had enabled this Californian escape. Apart from Christmas cards and an occasional Facebook post, Sharon had had almost no contact with her mother’s estranged sister in the Silicon Valley until sheer desperation made her buy a one-way ticket. And now she had fallen in love with the Golden State. But as with any passion, there was a downside. Local law-enforcement was part of it.
“Anyway,” continued Frank, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to advertise my specimens. Pinky’s still here. No, the thing to do is to rig up some defenses. I can put motion-sensitive sensors and cameras around here. There’ll be a ruckus if the perimeter is breached.”
“And what’ll you do?” Sharon asked skeptically. “Call the police? They’ll come in a week.”
“Shoot the bastard,” Frank responded enthusiastically.
Sharon rolled her eyes. She hated firearms.
“And what if you’re not home?”
“You can be here. I’ll pay for your time.”
“I’m not going to shoot anybody!”
“Well, maybe you can just scare them away.”
“Fat chance!” Sharon muttered.
The sun was coming down. The sky grew pearly-white, while the woods acquired the bright patina of the recently polished old bronze. In the gaps between the trees she could see the sea of clouds lapping at the mountains below her. The clouds were dense and solid, the color of whipped cream.
“I really liked John Henry,” said Frank despondently.
Sharon was picking burrs off her jeans preparatory to getting into her beat-up Subaru when she felt her cellphone intimately vibrate against her thigh. This was surprising because normally there was no signal on the mountain. But the screen showed nothing.
“How come there is such spotty cell coverage here?” she asked, irritated. “I’d think in the Silicon Valley, of all places, you’d have instant communication.”
“Bandwidth,” he replied cryptically.
“Whatever. But why didn’t one of your start-ups try something new?”
“Les did. Lester Choy.”
“Yeah. His start-up, UniCom, filed a patent for quantum communication. But the last I heard it wasn’t doing too well.”
As she was driving down, the phone, thrown on the passenger seat, vibrated again. She never bothered to get a hands-free set because so few people called her now. Who could that be? The Petersens? One of her Californian acquaintances? Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was a call from England…
The screen went blank; whoever called – if anybody called at all – was swallowed up by the vagaries of the local network.
When she flicked her eyes back to the road, there was an animal standing on the verge, looking at her.
The brakes screeched as she fought to stop the car from skidding. All the while, unfazed by the noise, the animal kept staring. And when the car was finally under control it turned majestically and disappeared into the roadside bushes cemented into a dense mass by the encroaching darkness.
Sharon pulled over, killed the engine and rested her head on the steering wheel. She could see the creature vividly with her eyes closed as if it had imprinted itself on her retina.
It had been large, the size of a buck. Its general outline and the fluid grace with which it slithered into the bushes were feline. Sharon knew there were bobcats in the Santa Cruz Mountains and an occasional mountain lion. But the animal had been neither.
As her headlight had raked the road, the animal, uncharacteristically for a wild creature, had stood still and turned its head as if deliberately allowing her a full view of its face.
It was not a cat’s face. Mostly it resembled the face of a large pug-nosed dog, such as a boxer or a bulldog: flat, with heavy hanging jowls, slit eyes and loose lips. But it was of dead-white color, hairless, and its narrowed eyes sparkled ruby-red as it lowered its heavy head and padded back into the forest.
Elana Gomel – bio
Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She has published six non-fiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism, science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. Her fantasy, horror and science fiction stories appeared in Apex Magazine, New Horizons, Mythic, and many other magazines and were also featured in several award-winning anthologies, including Zion’s Fiction, Apex Book of World Science Fiction, and People of the Book. She is the author of three novels: A Tale of Three Cities (2013), The Hungry Ones (2018) and The Cryptids (2019). Her stories won several awards, including the of Gravity Award for the best science fiction story in 2020. She is a member of HWA.
She can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram