A short story written as part of the Summer Prose Competition 2011 Challenges 3 and 4
Light streamed through the irregular glass of Uncle Quentin’s office, illuminating the dust particles that danced and weaved through the air. Charlie loved this room. He loved the piles of dusty scrolls that were stacked high on every shelf, overflowing from tabletops and cluttering surfaces. He was fascinated by the numerous glass jars that brimmed with preserved animals and plants. Most of all he loved the enormous old desk, intricately carved with patterns of feasting dragons and curling flames. It smelled of beeswax and smoke. He would run his hands over the polished wood, savouring the familiar scent and the smooth feel against his scales.
He had spent many happy hours here at the institute, listening to Professor Quentin talk of science and magic. The old dragon would delight Charlie with wonderful anecdotes, often accompanied by beautiful sketches in scrolls. He would frequently diverge from the original subject, rummaging through the shelves only to find an alternate nugget of wonder that absolutely had to be shared. This might be the directions for a complex incantation, or a diagram of an exotic potato, or even a wonky jar containing a pickled cactus.
On this particular visit to the office, Charlie was greeted by Durga. The sabre tooth tigress gently butted her head against him and lovingly blinked her feline eyes. Then she reclined, her striped flanks rising and falling as she gave a contented snuffle. Charlie stroked her long body, and she rolled over to show off her perfectly white undersides.
There were voices outside the door; his parents and Uncle Quentin. There was nothing to fear and yet for no particular reason Charlie decided to hide, playfully squeezing himself into the narrow space under the desk. This dark hideaway had been untouched for years. His breath suddenly sounded extraordinarily loud, so he tried to control his lungs. He watched as three pairs of feet and their corresponding tails entered the room.
"I’m the one who should go.” Manfred’s voice filled the air.
“If you think that you’re going without me, then you’ve got another think coming,” Hazel replied.
“One of you certainly has to go,” said the Professor. “You are the only ones who have ever been, and consequently you are the only ones who can confirm whether the immunizations have worked.”
"I suppose that means we are both going, if you don’t mind looking after Charlie for us, Professor?”
“I’d be delighted. Always a pleasure to have the boy here. And besides, you won’t be gone for long.”
“How exciting,” said Hazel. “Another adventure. I can’t believe it’s been eleven years. I wonder how much it will have changed.”
“Well, we’re hoping there will be dragons this time,” said the Professor.
He leafed through the set of images they had managed to extract from the human device.
"It does look interesting ... oh, ha. This one always makes me smile," he chortled, waving the picture of Manfred caught unawares.
"If I were a younger dragon I'd be joining you. Now, come and have a look at the platform. It hasn't changed much, I'm afraid that there's still a lot of gear." The professor unlocked a door to the warehouse behind his office.
The voices of the three adults faded as the door closed behind them. Charlie wriggled out from his hiding place, past the warm body of Durga who was now dozing. The pile of images sat atop the table. He sifted through them, amazed at this strange place which his parents had once visited. He had never seen anything like it; terrace upon terrace of ruined stone buildings surrounded by majestic, green mountains.
At that moment Charlie knew that he wanted to go on this adventure. He was made for adventures. How could his parents have even considered going without him? Although the destination was a mystery, he began to formulate a plan.
Hazel enthusiastically examined the platform. A long time had passed since she had last seen it. Nevertheless, it felt like only yesterday that she and Manfred had turned up at the institute, breathlessly demanding to see Professor Quentin about a platform full of cacti. She felt lucky that Quentin had believed them, lucky that they found a way to develop a vaccine from the cacti, but most of all, lucky to have her son.
The three of them made their way back to the office, to find Charlie sitting next to Durga.
“Right,” said the Professor. “I must write to the high council. They know all about the trip, I just need to send a final confirmation. I’ll make some iced tea for us first, and put the cat out ...”
“I didn’t realise she was on fire!” Manfred beamed round the room, hopeful for acknowledgement of a joke that he thought was rather good.
“You’re not funny Dad.”
“You’re not funny Manfred. Now please help Professor Quentin put the cat out.”
Manfred grumbled something about being unappreciated as he opened the door for the drowsy sabre tooth tiger, who padded after him.
When the Professor returned with the iced tea, Charlie leapt up to help pour it, taking a glass to his mother and presenting it with his most helpful expression. This went unnoticed.
“Going somewhere, Mom?”
“Not really. Nowhere special.”
“But you are going somewhere.”
“I might be.”
“Well I know you are.”
“Mom you are so annoying.”
Hazel smiled mischievously, putting aside the scroll and engaging with her son.
“Well yes, your father and I are going on a short trip tomorrow. It will just be a quick teleportation.”
“Where are you going?”
“Oh, nowhere exciting, just some boring work for the institute.”
“You know what would be really helpful on your trip?”
“No Mom! Someone to help, you know, carry all your stuff.”
“You must have stuff, you’re going on a trip.”
“Oh really?” replied his mother, returning her attention to the scroll.
“Anyway Mom, you know who would be really good at helping you carry that stuff?”
“You do?” said Charlie eagerly.
“Yes ... your father.”
“WHAT? Mom that is so unfair. You are such a big meanie.”
“Yes. Big meanie Mom, that’s me. What with all my keeping you clothed and fed, making sure your scales are clean and your flame is strong. I am a horrible, evil dragon.”
“But Mom, I want to go. It sounds exciting. Nothing exciting ever happens to me. Please?”
“Absolutely not – this trip might be dangerous. You are forbidden.”
“No buts. I don’t see what the fuss is about. We’ll be gone a couple of hours, if that.”
“I hate my life.”
“Oh have some iced tea little one. I’m sure you’ll have found an entirely new injustice to ruin your life by tomorrow evening.”
Charlie, who was just as stubborn as his Mother, decided that a simple forbidding wasn't going to prevent him from going. He made a solemn commitment to himself to be somewhere on that platform when it lifted off, no matter what.
Professor Quentin finished his iced tea and wandered through the door at the back of the office, leaving Hazel and Manfred behind. Charlie followed the Professor with great curiosity.
“What are you doing, Uncle Quentin?”
"Oh, hello. I’m programming this platform for your parents – a flick here and a turn there, and then one ... two, that’s it, two dragons to travel. Now all I need to do is write to the high council.”
He turned and scrawled a message on a papyrus scroll.
“I wonder where I put the delivery concoction.”
“It’s on the shelves in the office.”
“Of course, of course,” replied Quentin, as he meandered through the doorway.
Charlie didn’t have much time. He raced over to the travel platform, repeating the same procedure he had just seen, this time for one ... two ... three. Next was the written message. He scanned the page, noting the two vertical lines indicating that this was a trip for two. Grasping the quill, he carefully dipped the nib in the ink and dabbed the excess on the sides of the jar. Then he meticulously scratched a third line parallel to the original two. It was done. Three dragons were confirmed for this voyage.
He stepped back as the adult dragons entered the room. Quentin rolled up the scroll and murmured an incantation while scattering the sacred liquid. Then in a puff it was gone, on its way to the high council. Charlie stood furtively behind his parents, secretly pleased at how well his plan was coming together.
The family of three left the institute that evening with a sense of excitement. Charlie looked back as they soared from the huge white cliffs on which the institute was perched. Its stone turrets and lofty walls were bathed in the orange glow of sunset. He could hardly wait to return. Then, giving a few strong flaps to keep up with his parents, they swooped towards their village in the ancient forest. The lights in the trees were glimmering in the twilight.
When they returned the next day Charlie charged ahead to meet Uncle Quentin, saying that he was going to the courtyard to catch dragonflies with Durga. However, Charlie did not go to the courtyard. As soon as the Professor went to greet his parents he darted through the door at the back of the office to the warehouse. He crouched behind the gear on the travel platform and covered himself with a blanket. It wasn’t long before his parents also climbed onto the platform.
“Charlie is in the courtyard with Durga,” said Professor Quentin, “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Best leave him there, he’ll only be frustrated if he sees us go,” Hazel commented. “He’s desperate to join us already, and he doesn’t even know that this is time travel.”
Manfred nodded in agreement. “Charlie wouldn’t understand that this trip might be dangerous. It may not be easy to maintain balance on this old machine. There's no way of knowing how it would react to any more weight. If we go off course, we could reappear inside a mountain!"
Time travel! Charlie could barely contain his excitement.
Manfred initiated the sequence and in a flash they were gone.
The platform came to rest on the terraces of Machu Picchu, causing the smell of ozone to saturate the air once again. The evening sun had already sunk behind the westerly mountains and the site appeared empty, save for a small group of humans who sat in a circle on the grass. Hazel smiled at Manfred. His scales may not have had the same youthful sparkle as they did before, but his eyes were as bright as ever. The two dragons disembarked the platform but were startled when a small package in amongst the gear drew a long breath, and sneezed.
Hazel, with a raised eyebrow, swiftly moved to lift the blanket and found a guilty looking Charlie hidden underneath.
“Are we really in the future Mom?”
“What are you doing here?” she bellowed.
“Mom, I had to come and see!”
“There’s not much we can do about it now,” said Manfred soothingly. “Stay near us at all times Charlie, this place isn’t safe. I suppose we’d better look for the Sun Temple.”
The Shaman Javier was holding a spiritual séance for a group of wealthy tourists who had guzzled enough cactus tea to lose most of their inhibitions. They were enthusiastically chanting in unison on the terraces of Machu Picchu when three shadowy figures swept overhead. Javier nearly collapsed in shock. These were unlike any hallucinations he had experienced before. His customers however, were delighted.
One particularly spaced out man nudged him, saying, "Hey man, this is some pretty good stuff you got here."
The dragons landed where the Sun Temple should have been. Except that it wasn't there. An empty patch of grass stretched out in its place.
"Are you sure this is the right spot?”
"I'm positive. It was right here. And now, nothing? This doesn't feel right, Manfred. No dragons and not even a temple. We have bad news for the Professor.”
“We should get back.”
A sudden strong smell of sulphur and ozone distracted the Professor from his notes. That pungent odour usually meant the imminent arrival of the travel platform, but this was inside his office. Something terrible was happening! The platform must be off course. It was supposed to land in the warehouse behind his office.
The floor rippled and twisted until the floorboards washed over themselves. They melted into a deep black liquid which spiralled and gurgled into a whirlpool. It smelled of brimstone and dread.
Professor Quentin watched in horror as the platform appeared directly above the whirlpool, with three figures aboard. In a split second it plummeted into the void, just as Hazel and Manfred leaped to safety. It was then that the unthinkable happened. Charlie didn't quite make it. Despite being grasped by both parents, his tail was caught in the travelling gear and it dragged him down into the coiling gloom.