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Multiple bestseller Alan Dean Foster is the author of the Humanx Commonwealth, the Spellsinger series, and numerous early Star Wars books. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge. This story first appeared in Christmas Forever, published by TOR Books.

 WE THREE KINGS

by
Alan Dean Foster

It was overcast and blustery and the snow was coming down as hard as a year’s accumulation of overdue bills. Within the laboratory, Stein made the final adjustments, checked the readouts, and inspected the critical circuit breakers one last, final time. There was no going back now. The success or failure of his life’s work hinged on what happened in the next few moments.

He knew there were those who if given the chance would try to steal his success, but if everything worked he would take care of them first. Them with their primitive, futile notions and dead-end ideas! All subterfuge and smoke, behind which they doubtless intended to claim his triumph as their own. Let them scheme and plot while they could. Soon they would be out of the way, and he would be able to bask in his due glory without fear of theft or accusation.

He began throwing the switches, turning the dials. Fitful bursts of necrotic light threw the strange shapes that occupied the vast room in the old warehouse into stark relief. Outside, the snow filled up the streets, sifting into dirty gutters, softening the outlines of the city. Not many citizens out walking in his section of town, he reflected. It was as well. Though the laboratory was shuttered and soundproofed, there was no telling what unforeseen sights and sounds might result when he finally pushed his efforts of many years to a final conclusion.

The dials swung while the readings on the gauges mounted steadily higher. Nearing the threshold now. The two huge Van de Graff generators throbbed with power. Errant orbs of ball lightning burst free, to spend themselves against the insulated ceiling in showers of coruscating sparks. It was almost time.

He threw the final, critical switch.

Gradually the crackling faded and the light in the laboratory returned to normal. With the smell of ozone sharp in his nostrils, Stein approached the table. For an instant, there was nothing more than disappointment brokered by uncertainty. And then—a twitch. Slight, but unmistakable. Stein stepped back, eyes wide and alert. A second twitch, this time in the arms. Then the legs, and finally the torso itself.

With a profound grinding sound, the creature sat up, snapping the two-inch wide leather restraining straps as if they were so much cotton thread.

“It’s alive!” Stein heard himself shouting. “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive!”

He advanced cautiously until he was standing next to the now seated Monster. The bolts in its neck had been singed black from the force of the charge which had raced through it, but there were no signs of serious damage. Tentatively, Stein reached out and put a hand on the creature’s arm. The massive, blocky skull swiveled slowly to look down at him.

“Nnrrrrrrrrrgh!”

Stein was delighted. “You and I, we are destined to conquer the world. At last, the work of my great-grandfather is brought to completion.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “But there are those who would thwart us, who would stand in our way. I know who they are, and they must be—dealt with. Listen closely, and obey....”

Outside, the snow continued to fall.

*

In the dark cellar Rheinberg carefully enunciated the ancient words. Only a little light seeped through the street-level window, between the heavy bars. Seated in the center of the room, in middle of the pentagram, was the sculpture. Rheinberg was as talented as he was resourceful, and the details of his creation were remarkable for their depth and precision.

An eerie green glow began to suffuse the carefully crafted clay figure as the ancient words echoed through the studio. Rheinberg read carefully from the copy of the ancient manuscript in a steady, unvarying monotone. With each word, each sentence, the glow intensified, until softly pulsing green shadows filled every corner of the basement studio.

Almost, but not quite, he halted in the middle of the final sentence, at the point when the eyes of the figure began to open. That would have been dangerous, he knew. And so, fully committed now, he read on. Only when he’d finished did he dare allow himself to step forward for a closer look.

The eyes of the Golem were fully open now, unblinking, staring straight ahead. Then they shifted slowly to their left, taking notice of the slight, anxious man who was approaching.

“It works. It worked! The old legends were true.” Unbeknownst to Rheinberg, the parchment sheet containing the words had crumpled beneath his clenching fingers. “The world is ours, my animate friend! Ours, as soon as certain others are stopped. You’ll take care of that little matter for me, won’t you? You’ll do anything I ask. You must. That’s what the legend says.”

“Ooooyyyyyyyy!” Moaning darkly, the massive figure rose. Its gray head nearly scraped the ceiling.

*

Within the charmed circle something was rising. A pillar of smoke, black shot through with flashes of bright yellow, coiling and twisting like some giant serpent awakened from an ancient sleep. Al-Nomani recited the litany and watched, determined to maintain the steady sing-song of the nefarious quatrain no matter what happened.

The fumes began to thicken, to coalesce. Limbs appeared, emerging from the roiling hell of the tornadic spiral. The whirlwind itself began to change shape and color, growing more man-like with each verse, until a horrid humanoid figure stood where smoke had once swirled. It had two rings in its oversized left ear, a huge nose, and well-developed fangs growing upward from its lower jaw. For all that, the fiery yellow eyes that glared out at the historian from beneath the massive, low-slung brow reeked of otherworldly intelligence.

“By the beard of the Prophet!” Al-Nomani breathed tensely, “it worked!”  He put down the battered, weathered tome from which he had been reading. The giant regarded him silently, awaiting. As it was supposed to do.

Al-Nomani took a step forward. “You will do my bidding. There is much that needs be done. First and foremost there is the matter of those who would challenge my knowledge, and my supremacy. They must be shown the error of their ways. I commit you to deal with them.”

“Eeeehhhhzzzzz!” Within the circle the Afreet bowed solemnly. Its arms were as big around as tree trunks.

*

Stillman was cruising the run-down commercial area just outside the industrial park when he noticed movement up the side street. At this hour everything was closed up tight, and the weather had reduced traffic even further. He picked up the cruiser’s mike, then set it back in its holder. Might be nothing more than some poor old rhummy looking for a warm place to sleep.

Still, the vagrants and the homeless tended to congregate downtown. It was rare to encounter one this far out. Which meant that the figure might be looking to help itself to something more readily convertible than an empty park bench. Stillman flicked on the heavy flashlight and slid out of the car, drawing his service revolver as he did so. The red and yellows atop the cruiser revolved steadily, lighting up the otherwise dark street.

Cautiously, he advanced on the narrow roadway. He had no intention of entering, of course. If the figure ran, that would be indication enough something was wrong, and that’s when he’d call for backup.

“Hey!  Hey, you in there! Kinda late for a stroll, especially in this weather, ain’t it?” The only reply was a strange shuffling. The officer blinked away falling snow as something shifted in the shadows. He probed with his flashlight.

“Come on out, man. I know you’re back there. I don’t want any trouble from you and you really don’t want any from me. Don’t make me come in there after you.” He took a challenging step forward.

Something vast and monstrous loomed up with shocking suddenness, so big his light could not illuminate it all. Officer Corey Stillman gaped at the apparition. His finger contracted reflexively on the trigger of his service revolver, and a sharp crack echoed down the alley. The creature flinched, then reached for him with astounding speed.

“Nnrrrrrrrrrr!”

*

His head throbbed like his brother’s Evenrude when he finally came around. Groaning, he reached for the back of his skull as he straightened up in the snow. Memories came flooding back and he looked around wildly, but the Monster was gone, having shambled off down the street. Eleven years on the force and that was without question the ugliest dude he’d ever encountered. Quick for his size, too. Too damn quick. He was sure his single shot had hit home, but it hadn’t even slowed the big guy down. Wincing, he climbed to his feet and surveyed his surroundings. His cruiser sat where he’d left it in the street, lights still revolving patiently.

His gun lay in the snow nearby. Slowly he picked up the .38, marveling at the power which had crushed it to a metal pulp. What had he encountered, and how could he report it? Nobody’d believe him.

A figure stepped into view from behind the building. He tensed, but big as the pedestrian was, he was utterly different in outline from Stillman’s departed assailant. Seeking help, the officer took a couple of steps toward it—and pulled up short.

The enormous stranger was the color of damp clay, save for vacant black eyes that stared straight through him.

“Good God!”

Startled by the exclamation, the creature whirled and struck.

“Ooyyyyyyyyyy!”

*

This time when Stillman regained consciousness he didn’t move, just lay in the snow and considered his situation. His second attacker had been nothing like the first, yet no less terrifying in appearance. He no longer cared if everyone back at the station thought him crazy; he needed back-up.

Too much overtime, he told himself. That had to be it. Too many hours rounding up too many hookers and junkies and sneak thieves. Mary was right. He needed to use some of that vacation time he’d been accumulating.

Body aching, head still throbbing, he struggled to his feet. The cruiser beckoned, its heater pounding away persistently despite the open door on the driver’s side. Recovering his hat and clutching the flashlight, he staggered around the front, pausing at the door to lean on it for support. The heat from the interior refreshed him, made him feel better. He started to slide in behind the wheel.

The seat was already occupied by something with burning yellow eyes and a bloated, distorted face straight out of the worst nightmares of childhood. It was playing with the police radio scanner, mouthing it like a big rectangular cookie.

He’d surprised it, and of course it reacted accordingly.

“Oh no!” Stillman moaned as he staggered backward and an unnaturally long arm reached for him. “Not again!”

“Eehhhzzzzzzz!”

*

The wonderful profusion of brightly colored street and store lights slowed the Monster’s progress, mysteriously diluted its intent. The lights were festive and cheerful. Even as it kept to the shadows, it could see the faces of smiling adults and laughing children. There were the decorations, too: in the stores, above the streets, on the houses. Laughter reached him through the falling snow; childish giggles, booming affirmations of good humor, deep chuckles of pleasure. Invariably, it all had a cumulative effect.

Memories stirred: memories buried deep within the brain he’d been given. The lights, the snow, the laughter and ebullient chatter of toys and candy: it all meant something. He just wasn’t sure what. Confused, he turned and lurched off down the dark alley between two tall buildings, trying to reconcile his orders with these disturbing new thoughts.

He paused suddenly, senses alert. Someone else was coming up the alley. The figure was big, much bigger than any human he’d observed so far that night. Not that he was afraid of any human, or for that matter, any thing. Teeth and joints grinding, arms extended, he started deliberately forward.

There was just enough light for the two figures to make each other out. When they could do so with confidence, they hesitated in mutual confusion. Something strange was abroad this night, and both figures thought it most peculiar.

“Who—what—you?” the Monster declaimed in a voice like a rusty mine cart rolling down long-neglected track. Speech was still painful.

“I vaz going ask you the same qvestion.” The other figure’s black eyes scrutinized the slow-speaking shape standing opposite. “You one revolting looking schlemiel, I can tell you.”

“You not—no raving beauty yourself.”

“So tell me zumthing I don’t know.” The Golem’s massive shoulders heaved, a muscular gesture of tectonic proportions.

“What be this, pbuh?” Both massive shapes turned sharply, to espy a third figure hovering close behind them. Despite its size it had made not a sound during its approach.

“Und I thought you vaz ugly,” the Golem murmured to the Monster as it contemplated the newcomer.

“Speak not ill of others lest the wrath of Allah befall thee.” The Afreet approached, its baleful yellow eyes flicking from one shape to the next. “What manner of mischief is afoot this night?”

“Ask you—the same,” the Monster rumbled.

The Afreet bowed slightly. “I am but recently brought fresh into the world, and am abroad on a mission for my mortal master of the moment.” It glanced back toward the main street, with its twinkling lights and window-shopping pedestrians blissfully unaware of the astonishing conclave that was taking place just down the alley. “Yet I fear the atmosphere not conducive to my command, for what I see and hear troubles my mind like a prattling harim.”

“You too?” The Golem rubbed its chin. Clay flakes fell to the pavement. “I vaz thinking the same.”

“I think I know—what is wrong.” The other two eyed the Monster.

“Nu? So don’t keep it to yourself,” said the Golem.

“I have been pondering.” Eyes squinted tight with the stress of the activity. “Pondering hard. What I think is that the season,” the creature declared slowly, “is the reason.”

“Pray tell, explain thyself.” The Afreet was demanding, but polite.

The Monster’s square forehead turned slowly. “The brain I was given—remembers. This time of year—the sights I see—make me remember. The time is wrong—for the command I was given. All—wrong. Wrong to kill—at the time of Christmas.”

“Kill,” echoed the Afreet. “Strange are the ways of the Prophet, for such was the order I was given. To kill this night two men; one of art and one of learning. Felix Stein and Joseph Rheinberg.”

The Monster and the Golem started and exchanged a look. “I vaz to stamp out Stein alzo,” muttered the Golem, “as vell as a historian name of Al-Nomani. Rheinberg is my master.”

“And Stein—mine,” added the Monster.

“Fascinating it be,” confessed the Afreet. “For Al-Nomani is the one who called me forth.”

“He is one whom I was to—slay,” announced the Monster. “And this Rheinberg—too.”

The formidable, and formidably bemused, trio pondered this arresting coincidence in silence, while cheerful music and the sound of caroling drifted back to them from the street beyond. Though least verbal of the three, it was again the Monster who articulated first.

“Something—wrong—here. Wrong notion. Wrong time of—the year. Everything—wrong.”

“Go on, say it again,” growled the Golem. “Not just Christmas it is, but Chanukah also. Not a time for inimical spirits to be stirring. Not even a mouse.”

“The spirit of Ramadan moves within me,” declared the Afreet. “I know not what manner of life or believers you be, but I sense that in this I am of similar mind with you.”

“Then what—we—do?” the Monster wondered aloud.

They considered.

*

Stillman blinked snow from his eyes. By now there wasn’t much left of his cap, or his winter coat. He fumbled for the flashlight, somehow wasn’t surprised to find that the supposedly impregnable cylinder of aircraft grade aluminum had been twisted into a neat pretzel shape.

He saw the cruiser and crawled slowly towards it. Nothing inside him seemed to be broken, but every muscle in his bruised body protested at the forced movement. The rotating lights atop the car were beginning to weaken as the battery ran down.

He was a foot from the door when he sensed a presence and looked to his right.

Three immense forms stood staring down at him, each all too familiar from a previous recent encounter. It was impossible to say which of the trio was the most terrifying. A clawed hand reached for him.

“Please,” he whispered through snow-benumbed lips, “no more. Just kill me and get it over with.”

The powerful fingers clutched his jacket front and lifted him as easily as if he were a blank arrest report, setting him gently on his feet. Another huge hand, dark and even-toned as the play clay his little girl made mudpies with, helped keep him upright. Trembling in spite of himself, he looked from one fearsome face to the next.

“I don’t get it. What is this?  What are you setting me up for?”

“We need—your help,” the Monster mumbled, like a reluctant clog in a main city sewer line.

Stillman hesitated. “You need my help? That’s a switch.” He brushed dirty snow from his waist and thighs. “What kind of help? To be your punching bag?” He blinked at the Monster. “Uh, sorry about shooting you. You startled me. Heck, you still startle me.”

“I—forgive,” the Monster declaimed, sounding exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger on a bad shooting day.

“Yeah—okay then. Well—what did you—boys—have in mind?”

The Afreet’s eyes burned brightly. “In this Time, praise be, is it still among men a crime to set another to commit murder?”

Stillman stiffened slightly. “Damn straight it is. Why do you ask?”

The Afreet glanced at its companions. “We know of several who have done this thing. Should they not, by your mortal laws, be punished for this?”

“You bet they should. You know where these guys are?” All three creatures nodded. Stillman hesitated. “You have proof?”

The Golem dug a fist the size and consistency of a small boulder into its open palm. “You shouldn’t vorry, policeman. I promise each one a full confession vill sign.”

“If you’re sure....” Stillman eyed the stony figure warily. “You’re not talking about obtaining a confession under duress, are you?”

“Vhat, me?” The Golem spread tree-like arms wide. “My friends and I vill chust a little friendly visit pay them. Each of them.”

*

Stillman delivered the three badly shaken men to the station by himself. There was no need to call for backup. Not after his hefty acquaintances warned the three outraged but nonetheless compliant tamperers-with-the-laws-of-nature that if any of them so much as ventured an indecent suggestion in the officer’s direction, the improvident speaker would sooner or later find himself on the receiving end of a midnight visit from all three of the—visitants. In the face of that monumentally understated threat, the would-be masters of the world proved themselves only too eager to cooperate with the police.

Stillman presented the thoroughly disgruntled experimenters to the duty officer, together with their signed confessions attesting to their respective intentions to murder one another, a collar which was sure to gain him a commendation at the least, and possibly even a promotion. It was worth the aches and pains to see the look on the lieutenant’s face when each prisoner meekly handed over his confession. It further developed that all three men were additionally wanted on various minor charges, from theft of scientific equipment and art supplies to failing to return an overdue book from the University’s Special Collections library.

The members of the unnatural trio who had propitiated this notable sequence of events waited behind the station to congratulate Stillman when he clocked off duty. He winced as he stretched, studying each of them in turn.

“So—what’re you guys gonna do now?” he asked curiously. “If you’d like to hang around the city, I know for a fact you could probably each get a tryout with the Bears.”

“Bears?” the Monster rumbled. “I like to eat bear.”

“No, no. It’s a professional sports team. You know? Pro football? No,” he reflected quietly, “maybe you don’t know.”

“If it be His will, we shall each of us make our way to a place of solitude and contentment. For such as we be, there is a special path for doing so. But we must wait for the coming of day to find the true passageways.”

Stillman nodded. “Seems a shame after what you’ve done tonight to have to hang out here, by yourselves, in this crappy weather.”

Mary Stillman came out of the kitchen to greet her returning husband. She was drying a large serving dish with a beige towel spotted with orange flowers.

“Mary,” Stillman called out, “I’m home! And I’ve brought some friends over for a little late supper. Do we have any of that Christmas turkey left?”

“Urrrrr—Christmas!” the Monster growled like a runaway eighteen-wheeler locking up its brakes at seventy per, and his sentiment if not his words were echoed by his companions.

While the Golem skillfully caught the dish before it struck the floor, the well-mannered Afreet performed the same service for a falling Mary Stillman. When she recovered consciousness and her husband hastily explained matters to her, she nodded slowly and went to see what she could find in the kitchen, whereupon they all shared a very nice late-night snack indeed, wholly in keeping with the spirit of the Seasons.

Copyright © 1993 by Alan Dean Foster

 

THEIR MAJESTIES' BUCKETEERS
by L. Neil Smith


A classic closed-room mystery with a murder most foul....and most alien....

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
Field Defects:
Memo From a Cyborg

by Robert A. Heinlein
Shore Leave

by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
Hi, Clonic
by Harry Turtledove

Luck of the Chieftain's Arrow
by C. Stuart Hardwick
The Angst, I Kid You Not, of God
by Michael Bishop

The Dark Matters
by Sean Williams

Margin of Error
by Nancy Kress
The Restaurant at the End
of the Universe

by Anna Wu
And All Our Donkeys Were in Vain

by Tom Gerencer
We Three Kings

by Alan Dean Foster
Closing Sale (Draco Tavern)

by Larry Niven
 

INTERVIEW
David Brin
by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Melodies of the Heart (Part 3)
by Michael Flynn

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry Malzberg
Science Column
by Greg Benford

Book Reviews
by Jody Lynn Nye & Bill Fawcett

 

 


 

 

 

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Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2015. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.