a short story by Ræl H. Bishop

for Leif

“Are you sure about this?” she asks skeptically.

“We’ll be OK, I promise.” In truth, he didn’t know if it was safe. He’d been second-guessing himself since they entered the mountain. But he had faith in where they were going. He looks down once more at the strip of paper in front of him. An address he can barely make out, with a very clear drawing of a flower taking up half the page.

The couple works their way through the district’s winding streets and alleys. Being built, quite literally, inside the mountain, the district grew darker and darker as they ventured further. Flashing neon signs and halogen lights abound, the locals too poor to afford the holographic displays seen downtown. A few storefronts are entirely candlelit. Signs outside the buildings are written in many alien scripts, a stark contrast to the Three Universals seen downtown.

This mountain, located on the outskirts of a bustling spaceport city, falls into a legal loophole which landowners took advantage of to create extremely low-rent housing. In the years since, the district has housed all manner of creature and culture from across the stars. Locals aren’t dressed in the business suits and flashy garb of the tourists. They wear their native clothes in varying states of dishevelment. They speak their native tongues, sell the wares they made on their home planets, and pray to their own gods and divinities. They go about their daily business - but not without commotion.

A catfolk vendor and a rocklike customer argue over the sale of a melon. They speak in a language neither of our couple understands, though the lady can make out a few swears here and there. Frustrated, the customer smashes the melon on the ground. The vendor screams and leaps out at the customer, claws exposed. Further down, a huge amoeba purchases groceries from a six-armed grocer, absorbing the produce in vacuoles and carrying on. A crab-like creature with a broken leg plays an erhu for tips. A ferocious sculpture is repaired by an avian outside a temple, resembling something like a cross between Jesus, an octopus, and a twelve-armed bloodthirsty warlord.

The two search the crowds and storefronts for the flower, but can’t find it anywhere. Florists, grocers, co-op gardens, even clothing stores and wallpaper prints. None of them have that exact flower. They ask any and all locals they run into for directions. Of the ones they talk to, none of them seem to recognize it - not the writing, nor the design inside.

But they didn’t let the city pass them by. The two also used the chance to explore the district’s exotic amenities, to have a little fun in-between. They stopped for beverages at a stall and watched a worm drummer’s performance (which had been going on for five days prior). They spent some credits at a dance-machine with options for up to eight limbs. They stopped by an arcade and, mesmerized, watched a molluscan play Tetris for… much longer than they should have. They skimmed the various shops of the district, even if they couldn’t make out most of the signs and prices. Small trinkets of varying toxicity and beauty here and there, books and tablets and drives of any and all knowledge, knock-off brands alongside relics - and, of course, folks peddling them at each and every corner.

“Buy some alum-venom! Fresh alum-venom!” A naga merchant peddles the couple in a raspy voice, flashing a brown vial in their faces. “Does wonders to a mammal’s skin!”

“Isn’t that stuff toxic?”, she responds.

The snake vendor hisses, and the couple hurry out of the vendor’s reach, clasping each other’s hands and running for dear life.

Now out of sight of the vendor, the two end up lost. This part of the district is dark and damp, and nobody else seems to be present. They see a series of pools, water filling them from the ceiling and draining below. The fun and joviality they experienced not too long ago now fills with a lingering sense of unease.

“Maybe we should ask someone for directions,” she says.

Reluctantly, he obliges. They keep walking until they spot a storefront with someone sleeping outside. It’s a stout figure, wearing an officer’s cap, bearing two turquoise arms and legs attached to a turtle-like shell. Underneath the cap is a single shut eye the size of a basketball.

“Entschuldigung?” He cycles through a few more languages before the figure acknowledges. “Excuse me, sir?”

The eye opens, and the figure awakes. The eye rises from the shell, revealing a mouth and a neck that slowly extend to a height nearly twice that of the lovers. A low-pitched gurgle resounds from the figure’s shell.

Our Romeo gulps, swallowing his fear.

His Juliet gasps, but stands her ground.

The figure’s eye wanders for a minute before spotting the couple. The figure gurgles once more, then speaks. “Oh! Yes. Sorry. Forgot I was on dry land. Can I help you?” Its voice is shrill and hoarse, like an out-of-tune violin.

He composes himself. “I need help finding this address. Do you know where it is?”

The figure bends its neck and reads his page. “Yes, I know where this is.” It thinks for a minute, then motions its nightstick to its left. “Go down that alley a few blocks. Take the staircase up…” it counts on its fingers “…four levels. You’ll see a store with votive candles directly to your right. Go right and continue that way until the lights turn blue.”

He takes a minute to note the directions in his head. “Thank you, sir.”

“Anytime.” The figure gets up from its seat, gurgling, and descends into a nearby pool. As it submerges, the gurgling turns into the baritone humming of a foreign tune.

After taking the (surprisingly long) staircase up and walking past the votive candle shop (made from skulls), the two end up in a small back-alley filled with rugged housing. A couple of the streetlights are out. There isn’t a single flowerbed or touch of green anywhere. “This is supposed to be the place.”

The two of them look around for any signs of the flower, but the badly lit corridor makes figures hard to discern. Dejected, they turn around to look for someone to help them. Due to the dim lighting, she trips on a loose stone in the road, and he leaps on the ground to break her fall. Tending her wound, he spots something out of the corner of his eye. It’s a sign. There’s nothing written on it, just a graphic hidden under a dead streetlight. He approaches the sign. It’s got that same drawing of the flower on it.

“This is it! This has to be the place!”

She walks over to the sign. “Are you sure this is it?”

“It has to be.”

“But are you sure this is the place?”

There’s a moment of tense silence. “No.”

A wooden door with a doorhole sits next to the sign. He knocks on it thrice. They await a response.

The doorhole opens. Two steely eyes stare from it.

“Hi, I was invited here by a friend?” He puts the paper in view of the doorhole. “This is Gabriel Lennox.”

The figure reads the paper. “Ah, yes, we’ve been expecting you. Come in.”

The door opens, revealing an ashen-skinned waiter with cobalt hair and two ram-like horns. They enter the building and find themselves directly beside a kitchen. “This is the staff entrance. I’ll take you to the host.”

The kitchen itself seems as diverse and bustling as the rest of the district. An elephantine sous-chef prowls the kitchen, keeping it running like a well-oiled machine. Actually, ‘well-oiled machine’ isn’t a bad analogy for the rest of the restaurant, either. Giant cogwheels, some moving, some stationary, line the walls and make up some of the chairs. Steam can be seen emanating from pipes in and out of the kitchen. The whole place is lit in warm colors. Unlike the rest of the district, the fact you’re inside a mountain is made very well known here. The walls proudly display their stony texture, with a few ores exposed here and there for decorative effect.

The group travels upstairs. The air seems to be easier to breathe now. More tables are visible, some already being seated. The waiter leaves them on a platform near a giant axle in the center of the place. The axle rises from a rather large hole in the ground, burning embers lying many meters below. The hole is stagnant at first. Then, a gust of hot air emerges, sparks from a newly lit fire below barely missing the couple’s feet. Seconds later, a dragon emerges. The girl is horrified; the boy grips her hand and the two take a huge step back.

“Hey, you made it!” The dragon speaks in a surprisingly soft, almost comical voice. “Welcome to Snapdragon’s. It’s great seeing you again, Gabriel.”

“You know this dragon?”, she asks Gabriel.

“We go back a bit.”

The dragon turns to her. “Ah, this must be your ladyfriend. What’s your name?”

“Ruby,” she responds hesitantly.

“Pleasure to meet you.” The dragon whips his tail around and slowly places its tip in front of her. “Don’t worry, it’s prehensile.”

She stands there, a little bewildered. Gabriel motions for Ruby to shake it like a hand. She does, and the dragon smiles.

“I’ll take you to your seats. I saved the best in the house for you two.”

The dragon walks them further through the restaurant. The place is surprisingly spacious, and the dragon isn’t too large - about the size of a minivan - so he walks ahead of them with little discomfort.

Gabriel and the dragon do a little catching up, while Ruby follows and takes in the scenery. She notices a piano played by an octopus-like creature in the distance, playing a calming and somewhat jazzy tune. A shadowy, almost fluid character stands by with a saxophone in hand. Parties made of smoke and scale, fur and feather, plasma and precious gem, sit at the other tables dressed in their best. She sees old friends re-uniting, family junctions, business dinners, and other couples out enjoying themselves.

“I got this whole place for cheap”, the dragon says. “It used to be a warehouse. The company folded a while ago and left some of their machinery behind. A dozen weeks later, I refashioned it all into Snapdragon’s.”

“Why a restaurant? In this part of the port, nonetheless?”

“Same reason as everyone else. The rent’s cheaper. The neighborhood is… variable, sure. But you can prosper here in a way you can’t downtown. You’re not under the microscope.”

“How’s it working out for you?”

“Pretty well so far. But, you know how restaurants are. Most of them close within three years of opening. Very few survive more than ten.”

“Have you tried advertising the place?”

The dragon scoffs. “I’m not the best at advertising, but we seem to do alright with the word-of-mouth we get.”

“Could you have made the invitation a little less cryptic, at least?” Gabriel laughs a little saying this.

“Yes, I suppose I could’ve. But then it wouldn’t have been as fun for you two to find.”

The dragon turns to look directly at Gabriel. Gabriel can see anguish in the dragon’s eyes, betraying the smile just below. He’s covered in a number of obscured bruises. The dragon’s voice softens further, and he moves in closer. ”I’ve lost a lot these past few years.” He looks to his side, then sighs. “A lot of things have gone wrong. Things I’d rather not think about. Things that keep me up at night. You’ve seen sides of me I’m not proud of.

“But through it all, you’ve been there. You’ve always been a shoulder to cry on, someone to look forward to talking with.

”There’s an old Earthlander saying: ‘Friends are like the stars; you can’t always see them, but they’re always there.’ I’d like to think that holds true with you. Our friendship has changed, but I’m glad to have it.

”You’ve done more for me than you can imagine. Now,” the dragon says, motioning to the balcony, “it’s time for me to repay the favor.”

The couple ascends the staircase to the balcony, and the dragon readies their table. Ruby and Gabriel take their seats, and are taken aback by the view. As it turns out, this warehouse was built close to the surface of the mountain. Our dragon friend broke through part of it and made a balcony with a view of the entire spaceport caldera. The digital and holographic displays of downtown turn into brilliant pastels on an otherworldly canvas. High-rises soar and show their lustrous designs. Even the advertisements, once a pedestrian’s eyesore, now seem like gentle brushstrokes of some greater beatific mural. Spaceships can be seen flying through the sky, reduced to the size of birds by their distance. And encapsulating it all are the other mountains of the caldera, rising like Fuji over the Tokyo horizon, painted shades of pink and purple by the setting sun’s light.

The couple is entranced by the view. Ruby reaches her hand across the table toward Gabriel’s. He notices, and reciprocates. The two’s eyes catch, and they both smile at each other in a way only lovers can. They turn once more to the landscape before them, taking it all in.

It was their landscape now. Theirs to share, theirs to enjoy.