It’s been a while since I posted a short story, and it’s October, the perfect time for an unusual story like “City of the Dead”. This story was originally published in March, 2018 in Gathering Storm Magazine. The theme was “The Customer Is Always Right”. Enjoy!
City of the Dead
by Anne Marie Lutz
The obelisks were twice as tall as Arly, lined up in canted rows to either side of her. She stared down the earthen corridor between the memorials. Could you even call it “earthen”, when it wasn’t even on Earth at all?
One step, two steps, and the gray obelisks seemed to shiver in front of her as if shifting between dimensions, as if in a dream from which she was about to wake.
They’d said the stones weren’t graves. They looked sort of like gravestones. Especially when you saw the inscriptions, some so old they had nearly worn off. The visitor’s brochure said there were no bodies buried here. Yet, the place was inhabited.
This is the only place in the galaxy where you can walk among alien ghosts! Orient yourself on the provided map first. Always stay on the paths; it’s easy to get lost in the City of the Dead!
Footsteps receded behind her as Dad wandered down one of the paths that extended from the central clearing like spokes from the center of a wheel. Arly felt very grown-up, standing here almost alone offworld. Dad said she was old enough to have a little more freedom. As long as she trusted her instincts, and was responsible.
No personal communication devices are permitted in the City of the Dead! You can reach the office at any time by pressing one of the blue call buttons located at each entrance and in the safe zone in the middle of each section. Don’t forget to sign out when you leave! If we don’t hear from you by dusk, you’ll be charged the full cost of the search.
Something moved in the corner of Arly’s vision. She spun, but whatever it was had vanished.
“Dad?” The sound of Arly’s voice was muffled. She could barely hear it herself. “Dad?”
Mrae ghosts can move through ordinary matter! We know they move about the memorials, and we know they communicate amongst themselves. There are no living Mrae to tell us what they are saying or what they are doing! Disturbing the ghosts in any way is forbidden.
Something dark and shiny appeared on the side of the obelisk closest to Arly. It emerged from the stone, looking like an oil spill pooling gradually larger. It slid over the uneven surface and vanished, materializing in an instant on the next obelisk. It left no trace behind.
Stay away from the ghosts! Keep a respectful distance. The Mrae ghosts are indifferent to corporeal life of any species! The City of the Dead has been open to respectful tourists of all species for 30 terrestrial years, and never have we had a single fatality!
The Mrae began to sink into the surface of the next obelisk. Slow and inexorable, like a creature from a nightmare.
Fear gripped Arly. The brochure had lied. It wasn’t safe here at all. The Mrae were dangerous. She stepped back fast. Her heel caught on some imperfection in the ground and she sprawled terrified between the looming stones.
The Mrae, half-submerged in the ancient stone, paused.
It knew she was there. It wasn’t “indifferent” to her. Arly knew.
“Dad!” Arly screamed.
Footsteps scrambled. “Punkin?”
Dad appeared in the open space at the end of the corridor. He seemed very far away. Arly’s heartbeat hammered against her ribs.
The Mrae pulled itself back out of the obelisk. It dripped down the side of the stone and massed into an expanding pool. It moved fast, nothing like the dreamy viscous drift Arly had seen in the videos they’d been shown. It was only two feet away, then close enough to touch–
The Mrae ghost wound between her feet. It had a pull, like an emotional sink. Arly’s scream fell in and she stood frozen. The world around her whited out with her terror.
“Get outta there, you freakin’ alien!” Dad grabbed Arly under her arms and lifted.
Arly pulled her knees up high. Her feet came off the ground and the Mrae ghost slipped away. She clung to Dad, gasping with fear.
Dad hoisted her over a few feet of ground, grunting with the effort. He set her down, grabbed her arm and half-dragged her the few yards toward the central clearing.
Arly looked back, but the Mrae was gone.
They ran across the edge of the safe zone. The blue call button glowed on its pedestal. Dad slammed his hand down on it, and a moment later the transport arrived to take them back to safety.
Dad was red in the face. “What kind of outfit are you people running here?”
The woman behind the counter had brought them water. That was the extent of her sympathy. Her face was long and thin, not an ounce of extra softness in it. Her name tag read: “Manager”, with no personal name at all.
Arly was still shaking.
“There was full disclosure before you entered the City of the Dead,” Manager said. “Disturbing the Mrae in any way is forbidden.”
“You said they didn’t know we were here. You said there was no danger!”
“You must maintain a respectful distance at all times,” Manager said. “There is a fine for disobeying the rules. We’ve debited your account.”
Dad’s face got even redder.
“It came to me,” Arly quavered. “I didn’t disturb it.”
“Look.” Dad took a deep breath. “You have a Mrae here that threatened my daughter. I don’t care what you say about ghosts, that thing is alive and it tried to do something to my daughter!”
Manager shrugged. “What do you expect us to do?”
“Close the place down!” roared Dad.
Contempt flashed across Manager’s face. “Because your daughter imagined something, you want us to close down the City of the Dead? You’re just like the rest of the humans I’ve met. You think because you spend money here, you’re always right. This place is for the Mrae, not for you. The fact that you were even allowed in is a privilege.”
“It’s just another lousy tourist attraction!”
“Nevertheless. The Mrae do not interact with humans.”
“Then that one is dangerous. It could do anything! You should get rid of it.”
“How do you suggest we do that?”
“I don’t know! Back home, if there’s a hazardous animal somewhere it shouldn’t be — ”
Arly flinched. “Dad? I don’t think it’s an — ”
“Catch and release!” Dad said. “Catch it! Release it somewhere else in this travesty of a tourist attraction! Haven’t you ever heard of catch and release?”
A look of cold enjoyment entered Manager’s eyes. “Sir. If you absolutely insist.”
“Well hell, of course I do! That thing is a hazard. Tourists should come first here!”
Arly knew that was wrong, knew the Mrae belonged here more than she did. Even though the fear of her encounter still gripped her. “Dad! We can just leave!”
But it was too late. A tube of blue energy descended from the ceiling and dropped around Dad, cutting him off from the rest of the room. Arly shrank back, but the Manager didn’t even look in her direction.
The energy field surrounded Dad, enclosing him in a blue capsule. His face reddened even more and his mouth moved, but his shouts never made it through the field to the rest of the room.
“You want catch-and-release?” Manager said. “You shall have it.”
She blinked twice, undoubtedly activating her net connection. Arly looked away for a split second and when she looked back, Dad was gone.
Arly’s breath seemed stuck in the back of her throat. She spoke in a small voice. “Where is he?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the Manager said. “We released him. No doubt he’ll contact you if he’s in condition to do so. We’ll make sure you’re safely relocated back home, and a responsible adult is notified.”
Arly should have felt shocked, but she didn’t. She remembered the cold feel of the Mrae ghost as it twined through her legs, remembered her fear sinking into it like liquid into a sponge. Humans didn’t belong here at all.
“Here.” Manager handed Arly a printed paper slip. “Take this. You can get a free ice cream as you leave the site. And a Mrae jelly cake. Don’t forget to get your free Mrae jelly cake!”
The City of the Dead is a Wonder of the Galaxy! Tourists and scientists are permitted in on the understanding that nothing be done to disturb the ghosts. We do not understand them, and none of them has ever acknowledged that we are here.
Human infringements of the rules will be met with the strictest punishment.
Entry into the grounds means you understand and have agreed to these terms.
The admission fee is 10 credits at the main entrance.
Rest rooms, water and treats are available at the exits. Save some room for ice cream!