The Tale of the What-Is-It
By RD Rivero
"Tell me again why we're doing this?" I asked Tygra. He was down in the
level beneath me. I could see him -- or parts of him anyway -- from
where I stood at the head of the metal staircase. Down below there was
surprisingly more light than I had expected but the room was cluttered
with instruments and with scientific miscellania that I could hardly
make out the form of the most important detail as far as I was
"It's imperative, Cheetara."
"You've said that for weeks."
I heard no response. Perhaps he had not heard me, perhaps he had planed
to avoid me. Never the less I was intent to get answers that time.
I walked down the metal staircase -- my footsteps echoed in sharp
timbers. I found Tygra working at the end of a long, hollow cylindrical
tube from which bright sunlight poured in from above. A black table,
topped with a thick sheet of parchment, was placed directly at the end
of the tube's opening. An image was clearly focused and distinctly
visible on the paper: he was drawing on it when he looked up and saw me.
He spoke: "Do you see that red knob by the side of your head?"
I scrambled in sheer panic to find it, I was never very good at even
those slight technical things. "This one?" I asked, I kept my
forefinger on it.
"Turn it ever so slightly to your right. I'll tell you when to stop."
The knob was very hard to turn, I needed both hands for the job but even
then I was barely able to turn it at all. Its movement, what ever
movement it underwent, was imperceptible.
"That's all right. That's enough."
"Are you sure?"
"It's a very precise machine."
Carefully I made my way closer to him and to the table over which he
labored. I could then and only then see the image with exactitude. It
was the sun and Tygra was drawing its outline and its particular
features on the parchment.
"Can't you just take a photograph?"
"It's not the same."
"So why is this ‘imperative’?" I may have playfully mocked his tone or
I may have not, I cannot remember.
He looked up at me with the most pathetic face I had ever seen him give
me. He returned to the object of his foremost attention. "The sun's
been active lately. Two months ago there was a very violent solar
"The ions that it has released has tampered with our equipment."
"I wouldn't have noticed."
"Even the Sword of Omens has been affected.” He stopped. “There.
There. This is the last one."
He stood up with the sheet of paper in one hand and the pencil in the
other and walked briskly to the back of the room. I followed right
behind. Hung along the walls in the recesses of the subterranean
chamber were about fifty of those drawings posted in an ordered series.
Each drawing was dated in red ink.
Very proudly he began to show me his picture show. "Look at what's
happened since I began." He pointed along the equator of the sun and I
had to admit that even I noticed. There were black spots, some in
groups, some all alone and then there was a huge one that appeared about
once every two days. "That large sunspot is what's responsible for all
the ill effects we've been suffering but I need more information. This
lab isn't good enough. The others are busy surveying the land for the
site of the new observatory."
I stood outside in that late afternoon hour. Overhead, the sky
everywhere was clouded in a thin and in a chaotic cover of mist. The
land was flat and dead, it was a desert after all, but every now and
then there were tall trees and dense bushes that dotted the oppressively
level scenery. A strong but a noiseless gust of wind blew in the
distance and swayed the tall, entangled trees of one of those patches of
Behind me the rest of that long cylinder stuck out of the earth at an
acute angle to level of the ground. Tygra had all but finished his
day's work and was in the process of shutting down the solar
observatory. He scrolled down the lens cap to protect that upper and
exposed opening. He climbed down a small set of steps that protruded
out of the side of the top half of that concrete bunker.
"Well, Cheetara, that's it for today."
We began to walk across the loose orange sand west toward the edge of
the land, toward the rim of a tall cliff. Exposed below was the vast
expanse of ocean. We were a thousand feet high on the plateau, so far
removed that the sounds of the waves that crashed and that broke on the
shore were inaudible. Aside from the snippets and the distorted
fragments of the crabmen that roamed and that moved out and round the
caverns of their homes, there was very little else down there of
interest outside of the nice and the tranquil-looking vegetation.
The plants were all green, all leafy green and overflowing, bending and
beating in the ocean-sprayed breeze and the sandy air that circulated
down there. The flat line of the horizon at the end of infinity, past
even the ocean itself, a large, an obscenely large and red sun, streaked
across by elongated, finger-like clouds, far and distant parallel to the
horizon, grossly distorted by what Tygra called the ‘action of the
atmosphere,’ slowly began to sink, to sink below into the waters.
The air, that had been warm up to that point, became cool and the
currents, that had been calm all day, turned more than depressingly
The makeshift cabin seemed awfully lonely amidst the surrealness, the
etherealness of those twilight hours. The observatory, by then, was no
longer visible to us but we could see the camp that the rest of the
Thundercats had made for themselves a good half mile away.
Inside I sat at the edge of the bed and began to read a little
something. Ever since we had stumbled upon that old library in the
forbidden zone, Bengali and Pumyra had been busy translating the
ancient, first-earth materials. While I was enthralled in the book --
titled ‘The Mad Tryst’ -- Tygra was busy on the radio talking to Liono
and to Panthro about his latest discovery. I paid little notice.
When the sun completely set and the whole of the world was basked in
darkness, Tygra and I ate dinner huddled closely on a small, round
table, a plastic table over which a green lamp hung from the exposed
beams of the roof of the wooden ceiling.
"Tomorrow we're going back to the others at camp."
"You found all the information you needed?"
"I got all the data I could get." He looked up at me. "I hope I
haven't bored you."
I put my hand on his arm and rubbed his fur gently, then I gave him a
little pat under the chin. "How could I be bored with you?”
He took my hand in his own and smiled.
Sometime in the middle of the night he nudged me awake.
"I have to go out," he spoke to me with those words exactly, "I'll be
"Don't take too long, Tygie" I said.
He got up from the bed, unwrapped the blankets around him. Almost
instantly I was colder than before, my body shivered uncontrollably. In
the darkness he stumbled to try to find the door without hitting or
tripping. The door of the cabin swung open and shut without a noise. I
went back to sleep, I do not remember how long I was out.
If I could only remember.
I was alarmed by the strangest sound of tapping. I sat up in bed. Next
to me on the mattress, the blankets were rolled up in a long, flat
mass. Had Tygra come back and I not notice? Had he covered himself up
completely though he was a mummy, a corpse? I was about to reach out
Tapping came from a window.
No, of course. The entangled mass of sheets on my side neither reacted
to the sudden noise nor did it move at all the way it should have moved,
up and down, rise and fall, if there was indeed someone breathing under
the dense folds. I was alone in the cabin, I could not see Tygra
There were two windows in the cabin. The one right in front of me
glowed in the light hue of the early morning. I arose and walked to it,
I could see the clear blue sky over the rippled and violent gray of the
reflective ocean. The sun was behind me and I turned around.
Yes, it came from that window, from that window right above the bed. I
could see the figure but in shadows. It was Tygra, no doubt, perhaps he
had locked himself out of the cabin, perhaps -- I approached the window.
It was Tygra but there was something wrong. His eyes were closed shut
-- though the light had hurt him -- his nose was off to the side --
though it had been broken -- and his lips. I could tell no more. When
I came right up upon the window, Tygra shot back and darted to the side
out of the way of my view. I was confused, but --
I opened the cabin door and stepped out into the coldness of that dusk.
No sun was out at all, at the least not yet. The sky was aglow in that
pre-dawn light. Only the faintest spray or mist of white clouded the
I walked around the cabin to where I had last seen Tygra.
He was not there, instead I found him walking away south. His footsteps
in the sand were deep and well preserved, though a dense wind did much
to erode their trace.
Since he was still in my sight I trailed him. I shouted his name, of
course, but he did not respond. Only every now and then did he stop to
look around to see if I was still there, to see if I was still following
It began to rain a slight mist, my breath was visible in the ambient
coolness of the environment. I shivered, too and that was when I
noticed how poorly I was dressed. I wondered if I should not have gone
back to the cabin to change into something more appropriate but by then
was too late, far too late. I would have lost him completely had I done
Without fail Tygra kept himself a good fifty feet from sight. Never at
all could I see him clearly, even in the emerging light of morning he
remained in the grasp of a somber shadows. His clothes were abnormally
loose, though for some reason they no longer fit him well -- the flaps
wavered noisily in the strong wind. For the fist time I noticed the
spray of the ocean in the air and in the depression of the scene I
thought I could almost cry.
Where was he leading me? What had he found? What had happened to him?
I kept remembering that face that I saw on the other side of the
window. How contorted, how disfigured and then the strangest idea crept
up into my head. Was it not a face at all but the mask of a face? I
shrugged it off, I could not believe it, I would not believe it.
Something had happened to Tygra in those brief moments when he was
outside -- or had it been so brief?
I kicked my self for having fallen asleep and having lost track of time.
I could not be sure of anything anymore except that I had to go to where
ever my Tygie led me. I could not resist the patheticness of that look
he had given me that haunted me -- the lips. And then there was
something about the chin, too, that was not right.
Eventually the flat land sloped gently. The ripples in the sand grew
sparse until the very earth itself was replaced by barren rocks. The
stones were not gray but a light yellow and rough and serrated by long
cracks. I had an awful hard time climbing down into the wide and open
pit the monoliths formed.
Tygra stood before an enshadowed entrance. I called to him and the
shrillness of my voice must have startled him for he took notice. He
looked up at me while I spoke: "Tygra! What happened? What's wrong?
No answer, no answer was given.
For a moment, for a brief moment I turned around to face the side of the
rock wall that I was steadily descending. When I came to look back,
when I was safely on the ground of the pit, he was gone. Once more I
called but even then I knew that would be in vain.
I crawled to the darkened spot I had seen him last. The skies then
cleared though at the distance there was a loud clasp of thunder and
there was the faintest trace of a lightning bolt that struck from one
cloud to another. The mist no longer fell and for the first time that
morning the air was warm.
I entered the shadows and before me the wall that I had expected to meet
me was replaced instead by an unusual opening. Mouth in shape, complete
with ‘teeth’ that were of course not teeth at all but stalagmites and
thin pillars of brown rock. The faintest red light glowed from within.
The floor that had been covered with that orange sand and small pebbles
had very quickly transformed under my feet. Shiny red tiles grew out of
the naturalness and at the same time that the cramped passage exploded
into a vast cavern of inconceivable proportions. Only the immediacy was
visible of the rest, to the farthest recesses, I could see the embryonic
beginnings of yet more passages, yet more tunnels, yet more caverns but
darkened in the shades of shadowy gray.
The cavern I was in was supported at odd places by what I supposed could
pass for columns. Every so often the ceiling rocks or the floor -- that
was dotted with intermittent, uncovered patches of that red tile --
would sink or rise, one to the other, one to meet the other and in that
chaotic method I would suppose that the large cavern could be
conceivably separated into various smaller chambers. Each little
chamber had a fire pit, orange and blue flames shot up to lick the air
and to cast moving, dancing shadows on the walls.
The walls were red, red like the tiles were red but it was not the
same. I approached one that was the nearest to me. A dense liquid
oozed from the surface of the rocks though the walls had pores -- and
could bleed. It was blood and it dripped down onto the ground slowly
like honey, like stringy honey.
"Tygra!" I screamed and I ran aback. That was when I noticed something
else about that cavern. Around the fires the ground was littered with
bones. Bones! Of every shape and variety. Hacked free from the
flesh. Some were chalky white, some were brown, some were burnt crisp
to a brittle black that the wind alone could have erased from existence.
In that frenzied stupor, in that utter confusion, I bumped into Tygra.
He had his back to me. I was hysterical, I screamed and yelled his
name. When I received no response yet again I grabbed his shoulder and
I turned him around.
I saw that face again, exactly the same face again. The eyes were
closed and there I noticed slight traces of blood, crusty blood under
the lids. His nose was loose and crocked. His lips were simply too far
removed from the contours of where his mouth should have been to have
been real, to have been actual. Then the chin, then the chin drooped
down and as I watched and as I looked on in horror the chin kept moving
down. Slowly at first -- was his mouth opening? No, his lips as well
as the rest of his features remained unchanged. Yet the chin continued
to fall and there, very quickly at the end, it fell.
His whole face fell to the ground where it flopped around until it came
to rest folded in on itself.
I screamed and darted back. I tripped over a pile of bones. I was
stabbed or cut by the sharp tips of broken rib cages.
I looked at the figure for I knew then that it was not Tygra. There was
a face under there, yellow green eyes deep and embedded into the skull.
The nose was missing or else it was flat against the face, reduced to
nothing more than the openings of the nostrils. But the mouth! Wide
open, the jaw moved up and down though it was chewing on the air, up and
down though it was mechanical, though it was not alive at all. The
flesh was dried, painfully dried and wrinkled to the extreme, so
wrinkled it seemed that the skin would come apart like an erase being
used up, coming apart into tiny shreds.
Then at last it took notice of me and in a swift moment turned my way.
I got up as quickly as I could and ran to the opening out of the
cavern. I knew I had to be swift, I knew my life depended on it and I
was not intent to suffer the fate, the grizzly fate that no doubt had
I cried out for help hoping that someone, anyone could have heard me.
Outside in the pit I tried to climb up the steppe walls. The walls were
so steep and the rocks were so slippery from the rain that it was
impossible to latch onto a secure hold. I did manage enough strength to
make it up half way when my left foot stepped on an outcrop of rock that
was apparently more unstable than it looked. It gave way in a great
crunch and I fell backwards fifteen feet.
On the floor of the pit I felt something on the back of my shoulders.
When I looked up I saw that the thing -- the what ever it was, the
What-Is-It -- was absolutely, completely behind me, next to me, over me.
I screamed. I got up and ran to the other side of the pit in a mad
dash. I do not know by whose will or by what strength but that time I
was able to reach the top edge, the rim of the pit. My hands felt the
orange sand of the plateau, my lower legs felt the grip of that figure.
I kicked back -- I do not know if I hit it but I broke free none the
Safely above I ran to the camp where the rest of the Thundercats were
already up and doing their morning exercises. I was out of breath and
“It’s Tygra,” I said, “Something’s happened to Tygra.”
Liono looked at me blankly.
Panthro stepped forward from behind the central fire he had been
tending. “What about the Eye of Thundera?” He asked.
Liono quickly unhilted the blade. “Sword of Omens,” he began and
continued but the sword did not respond.
“No, no, Tygra said the sword wouldn’t work.”
“That’s right, of course,” Liono slapped himself, “the solar flares.”
He looked at everyone -- Bengali had just come into the group. “I can’t
use the Sword of Omens, I don’t --”
“Where did you last see him?”
I was dumb, silent.
“Where did something happen to him?”
I shook my head, I did not know what else to tell them -- I could not
believe it myself -- but I told them everything that had happened as
fast as I could while still retaining some level of coherence.
The whole group of us, Liono, Panthro, Bengali and me, we all walked to
the pit. My footprints were still there, fresh in the sand.
We climbed down and I pointed to where the opening had been but the
entrance was gone. Once again I was hysterical. Panthro tried to blast
it open but all the instruments we had told us that the pit walls were
rocks several feet thick.
Bengali, who had remained up above on the sands of the plateau, said he
found an extra set of foot prints that led northwest, to the cabin Tygra
and I had been in since we had arrived at the site.
The footprints we followed lead to the door and backtracked to the edge
of the cliff where the trail ended and where no trace, no visible trace
“That What-Is-It must have jumped,” someone said, I could not remember
who it was exactly, I was too busy thinking about something else.
The smell of death and of decay was ripe and repugnantly fresh.
No one else would go into the cabin, no one else would accompany me so I
entered alone. The front door was wide open and I knew that I had shut
it before when I had left at the start of the whole ordeal. Inside the
first thing that I did was grab for that lamp that rested over the
surface of the small, round table. I turned it on and the entire scene
was lit, aglow in green.
The bed was not empty.
There was a form, or at the least there was the suggestion of a form on
it. Somehow I remembered it that way from before, from when I had
awoken in the early dawn. I had seen that very form on the bed next to
me but I had dismissed it because at the time it looked like nothing
more than the masses of the blanket, folded in on itself when Tygra had
left in the middle of the night. But when I stood there just then all
of a sudden there had been a shattering of paradigm -- I saw it in a
whole completely new and different way.
I approached slowly and cautiously. I grabbed the ends of the blanket
that draped on the floor lifeless and lifted it in the air. I began to
draw back the sheets, slowly, slowly then, half way done, I screamed.
The rest of the Thundercats came running into the cabin to stand in a
semicircle behind me.
Tygra was on the bed, he had been there all along, all along, he had
been there since I had awoken. His body shook and quivered and was
perversely distorted -- the face was missing but all the other features
were identical to his. The body was structureless and all the way down
his sides, from the legs to the skull, there was long, deep slit from
which all the bones had been removed, a gash from which spare organs
were not only visible but seeped through.
“Stop, Cheetara, stop it, don’t do it, don’t,” Bengali said. He stood
before me and I thought he was about to cry. He hand his hands around
Liono stood behind me: “Don’t look at any more this. Get out, let’s
all just get out.”
“Give me that blanket,” Panthro said. In fear and in terror he pushed
Bengali to the side. I looked into his face, right into his eyes. Were
those tears? Panthro tried to pry the blanket from my clenched fists.
I knew he meant well, I knew none of them wanted me to see it -- what
ever it was that was on the bed -- and though while they spoke I could
not make out the words, I could not hear them at all.
In shock I fell to the ground in a moment of lightheaded stupor and in
so doing I pulled the blankets back all the way, all the way, all the
way -- his face fell to my feet.
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