This is the third part of a serialized giant monster story published in weekly installments on this site.
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3. The Mystery
~ July, 1966 – Twilight ~
Akiko swung frantically, but the thing seized her arms with a grip like iron.
“No!” she shrieked.
“Easy now!” said a deep, masculine voice. “Take it easy.”
Akiko looked up. It wasn’t a monster grabbing her, merely a man—a dark-eyed, thirtyish man in a well-worn tan jacket. He held both her wrists firmly, one in each hand, keeping her from hitting him.
“Take it easy, miss,” the man repeated. “What’s wrong?”
Akiko glanced back the way she’d come, heart pounding. “It’s after me!” she blurted.
“What’s after you?” the stranger asked, puzzled.
“It’s … it’s … I don’t know what it is,” Akiko admitted. “It came out of the meteor!”
“The meteorite?” the man asked. “You’ve seen it? You have to show me!”
“No!” Akiko said. “I can’t! It’s too dangerous, it’s…”
“Nonsense,” the stranger replied. “I didn’t hike all this way to see it only to turn around now.”
Akiko stared at the man. He was a very odd type of person to meet in the forest. He didn’t look like a woodsman at all. There was something … dignified about him, and he spoke like an educated man. “Who are you?” she asked, trying to shake free of his grasp.
“I’m sorry,” the man replied, letting her go and bowing slightly. “I’m Yujiro Benten, Professor of Astronomy at the Okayama Institute of Science. And you are…?”
“Akiko,” she said, trying to regain her breath. Despite her fears, she saw no signs of the monster—or whatever it had been—following her. Could she have imagined it? “Akiko Natsuke.”
“Are you all right, Miss Natsuke?” he asked. His brow furrowed with concern as he gazed at her face.
“No,” she said. “I mean … I’m fine. I just … Well, I guess I’ve made a fool of myself. I’m sorry.” She bowed a bit lower than he had, feeling like an idiot.
“It’s just…” Professor Benten continued, “…You don’t look very well.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
He pointed to her face, and ran his fingertips over his eyelids and around the tops of his cheeks.
Akiko suddenly remembered her mascara. It had been messed up by the tears she’d shed over her unfaithful boyfriend, and now she must look a complete shambles!
She felt her face redden. This was just getting worse and worse!
“Yes, I’m all right,” she assured him, taking out a handkerchief and trying to clean herself up. “I just … It was a hard climb up here. I’m afraid the perspiration … and then something strange happened at the crater … and I got scared, and … Well, I’m afraid the whole thing has just ruined my makeup.” She laughed a few times, trying to make light of the whole thing.
“Mm,” the man said, nodding, though Akiko doubted that he’d bought her story, even if most of it was true—if not the whole truth.
Not daring to meet his eyes, she looked back toward the crater. “I-I shouldn’t have run,” she said, unable to escape her mounting embarrassment. “I’m a reporter … a photographer, actually, and I was taking pictures…”
“A photographer, eh?” he said. “Where’s your camera?”
“I-I’m afraid I left it at the crater.”
“Well, then, we’ll just have to go back and find it.”
“I…” Could she make any bigger fool of herself than she already had with this man? She needed to forget her fears and brace up. Was she a newswoman or not? “Yes. I suppose so. I need it for my work.”
“Don’t worry,” he said jovially. “I’ll protect you from any … monsters.”
His patronizing chuckle hurt her worse than if he’d struck her. What an awful day this was turning out to be! First Shinobu and that woman, then the arduous hike, and now she’d left the Tribune’s camera and equipment behind.
What if it had gotten lost or ruined? It would take months to pay the newspaper back out of her salary—not to mention losing every picture she’d taken today. Plus, an incident like this would make people in the office even more skeptical of her abilities.
“Is it very far?” Professor Benten asked.
“No,” she replied, trying to keep the rising fear out of her voice. “Just over that ridge.” She forced a smile. “You can’t miss it.”
“Aren’t you coming the rest of the way?”
“Of course,” she said stubbornly. “I’m no coward. Something just gave me a fright, that’s all.”
“It was probably just an owl,” the professor suggested. “There are a lot of owls in these mountains. Some of them get pretty big, you know.”
“So I’ve heard.” It wasn’t an owl! Akiko fumed. You think I’m an idiot? You think I don’t know an owl when I see one?!
They topped the ridge, Benten in the lead with Akiko—holding her breath all the way—right behind.
“Well,” the professor said, “I don’t see your monster … but that’s one heck of a crater.”
Akiko’s mouth dropped open. “B-but…” she stuttered. “But … it’s different!”
Benten looked interested. “Different how?”
She motioned to the rough circle of the crater, drawing an imaginary line around its perimeter. Now, it was just a big, empty hole, vanishing deep into the ground, but before…
“It was all filled with the meteor,” she said. “At least I thought it was the meteor. It was black and orange … glowing, like molten rock. I suppose it might have been molten rock—the meteor could have liquefied the bedrock…”
Benten stroked his chin. “And what about this … monster?”
Akiko stamped her foot. “I’m telling you, there was something there. I took a picture of it. Look! There’s my camera.” She hiked down the slope to where her tripod lay on its side, knocked over by the wind or … something. The Pentax was still attached, and neither looked to have been badly damaged.
She brushed the equipment off, set it aright, and focused in on the crater, the way she had before. The scene looked totally different now. No lava or meteor, only the gaping hole. Even the small fires had died down.
She snapped a few pictures for comparison, varying the camera’s settings, in hope that one shot might turn out, despite the lack of light. She straightened up, shook her head and sighed. “I just can’t explain it.”
“Neither can I,” Benten said. “And it’s my job to explain things like this.” He pulled a pipe out of his pocket, lit it, and then trudged down to the edge of the crater, being careful not to fall in.
Akiko slung her camera equipment and followed. Somehow, having another person here made her feel braver. She wasn’t worried about monsters at all as she peered into the abyss of the crater.
“How deep do you think it goes?” she asked, snapping off a picture using the Pentax’s flash. The burst of light vanished into the darkness.
“No way to tell … tonight,” he replied. “I’d like to get some equipment and take a look at it tomorrow, but I’m sure by then the military will have this whole place cordoned off.”
“You think it might not have been a meteor, then, that it might have been something military—a missile or…?”
Benten shrugged. “That’s what the military will probably think. At least, that’s what they’ll want to figure out before they let any civilians near the place.” He looked at her, gazing intently into her eyes. “And you’re sure there was something in this crater when you first saw it.”
“Positive,” she said, feeling more confident in herself and her abilities than she had since leaving the publicity party in tears. More confident than since… She fought down the heartrending image and concentrated on the job at hand. “I took a picture of it.”
“Well, whatever it was, it’s not here now.”
“I can see that,” she said. “But the question is: Where did it go?”
Thanks to Christine, David, Edward, Steve, and Kiff for beta-reading!
All contents, copyright 2013 Stephen D. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.