Hydra

A backpack full of flashbangs, a loudspeaker, and a road flare; those are my weapons? ‘He knows best’ is not the most rational answer. But I guess I left the domain of the rational a few thousand miles ago. One more door before me. I no longer cringe at the moaning hinges.

(This story was first published in Antipodean SF issue 275. It also appeared as a podcast in the Antipodean SF Radio Show )

One more door before me. I no longer cringe at the moaning hinges. But I cringe at the sight that awaits on the other side: the people huddled against the concrete walls of their tunnel: burnt out humanity. 

It sounds like Chinese. No point in telling them there’s a way out. Even if any spoke English, they are too dazed to listen.

 I continue down that impossible corridor. Looks like a train-line tunnel; but those have beginnings and ends. These never seem to end; and they are connected to each other by doors that —  according to my GPS — straddle across hundreds or thousands of miles, even across continents. I started in Greece. A day ago I was somewhere in Central America; now China. But I’m getting closer, the green ooze at the foot of that door was proof.

I went to Greece for a conference. The last-minute bed and breakfast, next door to the remains of an ancient monument to Herakles, was just for the weekend until the conference hotel could find my reservation. But a telegram was waiting there for me. “There must be a mistake, my name’s not Iolaus.”

The owner just waved at the display case holding the few intact relics from that monument: a broken vase, an ornamented plate, and the head and shoulder of a statue… with my features! And the inscription below reads: ‘Friend ever faithful, Iolaus.’ The sender’s name completes the shock: Herakles.

GLOBAL EARTHQUAKES CONNECTED, the telegram starts. IMMORTAL HYDRA HEAD FREED. I get it: Once free, it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what followed. All it had to do was bite off the cauterised ends of the other heads to grow itself new ones. BUILDING ITS LAIR AGAIN.

Mythology doesn’t always make sense. If you knew where the Hydra lived, why let your sheep or cattle graze nearby? Why take the risk? But we never know the whole story, do we? The poisonous fumes that emanate from those nine maws don’t kill outright. They contain a hallucinogen. And under its spell, the hideous heads do not repel. They draw you in and speak with reasoned words. “What is there to live for in your miserable world? What fruit is there from your endless work? She said she loved you? That was five years ago … where is the proof today? When is it ever your turn to win?”

You’re thinking, easy lies to dispel…until you remember that the smartest man in the world wrote a book of the Bible under the weight of the same pain: vanity, all vanity. It’s a universal plight, isn’t it?

As I start to hear the lies, I put on the mask. The oxygen clears my mind; and I see. The snake heads feed on their victims’ dreams, lick up their hopes, swallow their memories of love; until the people fall, crawl away, while others take their place. The emptiness feels like comfort … for a while.

I sneak in through the shadows, set the charges against the walls behind the people, and retreat to the tunnel I came through. A flick of a button: crashing thunder, each blast 180 decibels, each flash like a thousand headlights. The Hydra should be blinded and confused. Panic breaks the spell. 

Road-flare lit, I call out through the loudspeaker, and even if they don’t understand the words, they come. Their backs were to the explosions, and human eyes can always see red light. Most animals can’t. We run, and others from adjacent tunnels join the human stampede. And then I notice the shaking of the ground. I guess the Hydra is not an ordinary animal. 

So, there I stand, red burning light held up high, just past where four tunnels meet, with stragglers still coming out. I urge them to keep running as I stare at the writhing shape bursting from the darkness toward me. But other steps, almost as booming, reach me first. 

He must be seven feet tall. In jeans and lumberjack shirt? I swear he speaks to me in a Texas drawl as he whips into life one chainsaw in each hand. “Good job, now stand by them there tunnels and keep that flare up high; get as many as you can outta here.”

The Hydra strikes; he ducks, chainsaw slicing, and off rolls a head; and then another. Eight heads in as many seconds…each one sprouting two new ones. He’s like a circus juggler, tossing a chainsaw from hand to hand, swinging it behind his back and up again, carving heads up and down. Thirty seconds: thirty-two heads … two minutes and 128 heads. Three minutes, four … no point in counting anymore. He’s up to his knees in dragon heads. Is he tiring?

No, it’s not him that’s slowing down, it’s that grotesque snarling mass … straining in vain to reach him; like a giant shivering head of broccoli; neck twined on neck, every head sandwiched between six others. There must be over a thousand of them … tired, hungry. And only one thing to feed on. The immortal head must’ve had dreams of its own.

Mask off, I’m speechless. Herakles bursts into booming laughter and almost knocks me down with a slap on the shoulders. “The Hydra may be powerful, and fearsome, but it ain’t infinite, son. Thar’s only one who is.” 

“I — I felt kind of useless.”

“Nonsense, son. Your job was to light the way. You did fine.” That booming laughter rocks the tunnel again, and I tense my shoulders in anticipation of another hearty slap. “C’mon, I hear me they’ve sighted a Kraken off the coast of Manila.”

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