Hi again. Sending Max on another adventure. This time I experimented with prologues, epilogues, and I wanted to see if I could squeeze in a POV that wasn’t Max’s. I can see why people mostly think pro/epilogues are useless but I think the ones for this story are kinda goofy and hopefully fun. Let me know what you think.
For anyone counting, I came in at 2,061 out of 2,000. Enjoy!
The Savage Penguins
James Vanguard Beak pretended to preen his black, downy feathers while standing atop a jagged and quite slippery rock. There was a spot just behind his wing which never quite – well it wasn’t really important. What was important was his assignment from the commander, Charles King Beak.
Vanguard Beak – for they weren’t to use the names provided by their captors any longer – was to scout and report all interactions of the monstrous bipeds which were draped in brown cloth and seemed to patrol the area. Two such creatures leaned against a wooden railing barking and squawking to each other just beyond the nearly transparent barrier which held Vanguard Beak and his people captive.
He just knew they must be scheming something, but as usual, the strange vocalizations made no sense to him. The one with curly brownish fur on the top, raised a sickly shaped wing at the newer creature that Vanguard Beak hadn’t seen before.
“Are you coming on the trip tomorrow?“ Brown-Top yapped.
“No.” The new one barked. Its top-fur was jet black like Vanguard Beak’s own – ah yes there it was – finally straightened feathers. “I’m gonna work. I figure with everyone gone, I can work with some of the other animals I haven’t before.”
“You’ll be up against the penguins all alone.” responded Brown-Top.
Black-Top sort of half raised its wings. Whatever kind of display this was, it did not seem to please Brown-Top for she expelled some air from her flesh-beak and walked away shaking her head from side to side.
What could it mean?
Black-Top retreated as well, and Vanguard Beak could return to the pebble stack to report his findings to King Beak. The commander would know what to do. He had an uncanny ability to foresee the creatures’ movements and, if not thwart their machinations, at least slow them. If they came for the pebble stack tomorrow, King Beak would have something in store for them . . .
# # #
Max lay on the wet tile floor, his parka bunched up under his arms allowing the frigid air of the Savage Penguin Den to numb the skin of his back. His feet were sore and bloody from the needle-sized cuts made by the creatures’ whetted beaks. With each wheezing breath Max inhaled the stench of rotting fish, flung at him with tiny trebuchets and miniature siege engines. His vision seemed to be spotting but it could also be that nearly all of his surroundings were a near blinding shade of white.
He was only five minutes into his shift.
“You’re doing great buddy!”
That was from Lisa up on the second floor. He hadn’t known she was here. She wasn’t supposed to be. She was supposed to be on that trip with the rest of the Port Monster Aquarium employees. His boss Jerry had said he should go too if he wanted. They’d close for the day and he could join the rest at Wharf Town or wherever.
Max tried not to think about the way her brown curls had fluttered as she’d shook her head and walked away from him yesterday. She’d tried to warn him.
“Remember Max you only need to get up one more time than you fall down!”
Jerry was here too? No one else was could spout off clichéd maxims like he could. Were all of the employees up there watching? Probably. Max rolled his eyes realizing this was the employee’s trip.
Since starting two weeks ago, he’d done great with the animals, even winning the trust of a Sand Seal after saving its life. He hadn’t gotten a big head about it or anything, but it must have stirred up some feelings of inferiority among other employees. He’d done what they couldn’t. They were trying to take him down a peg.
Whatever. They were right. He didn’t need them.
But Max wasn’t going to finish ‘moving the pebble stack’ while lying on the tile floor, so perhaps Jerry wasn’t too off-base after all. But Max would not give him – any of them – the satisfaction of having inspired him.
Max pushed up with his arms and tried to steady himself, feet shimmying back and forth on the half-frozen tiles. A rotted fish fell from his shoulder and hit the floor with a splat. Disgusting.
The Savage Penguins exhibit used to be the Plenty of Fish exhibit before the renovation. Max remembered coming here as a kid and seeing more sea life than his brain could comprehend. From the bottom floor, people could walk up and look through the floor to ceiling glass – the fish bowl is what Jerry called it because well of course he did – and see triggerfish, eels, porcupine fish, and a bunch more that Max would never remember. And then on the second floor, the glass only came up to the waist of an average adult. Up there, manta rays and some of the other crowd favorites would swim near the surface of the water and people could pet them and feel their slimy skin up close.
The whole thing was one large tank though and so from the second floor you could peer in and see everything you’d seen below from a bird’s eye view.
That’s where everyone was watching from.
They must have seen the birds attack him immediately upon his entrance into the fish bowl but they’d just watched.
The penguin’s attack didn’t feel like mere savagery as their name would suggest, but a defense of their most prized accomplishment, the pebble stack. Tyler, one of the other employees, had said that the little creatures where always in some state of construction on the stack. Lisa thought it was proto-religious and Jerry felt that it was a physical representation of the animal’s journey towards fulfillment as a species but Max had to agree with Tyler’s assessment: the stack was a means of escape.
The stack was piled past Max’s shoulder, built from any little thing the birds could get their beaks around. The lowest levels appeared to be actual pebbles which had been placed in the habitat for them deliberately for use in their elaborate courtship rituals. But it seemed that purpose had been abandoned completely.
With the pebbles as a foundation, the pile rose ever higher. Max could see a variety of other materials present in the build. Pieces of chipped tile supported an assortment of fish bones and clumps of down feathers which had been shellacked and then dried into pebble shaped pieces. Max tried not to think about what the shellac had been made from.
Max’s job was to remove the bones and feathers thereby removing the stack which was increasingly looking more and more like a ramp to freedom for the penguins. It seemed a simple enough task, but he hadn’t expected the birds to try to stop him.
“I think he’s working it out.” Max heard from up above. Sounded like Tyler. “I give him five more minutes.”
“No bet. At least another ten. They still haven’t done the thing.” said Lisa.
As if on cue, one especially plump looking penguin stepped forward staring at Max.
It squawked a challenge, and the other penguins began to squawk in response, like the crowd at a wrestler’s match. Max looked incredulously at the bird, then up at where he could see his coworkers leaning over the glass barrier. They were grinning down at him.
Before Max’s eyes, the bird began to grow, quickly transforming from a manageable foot tall to three feet, and then four. Suddenly the bird was six feet tall – taller than Max – and beating its flipper-like wings against its ample belly.
Then it charged.
Max tried to dart to his left and out of the bird’s way but his feet did not find purchase on the tiles. He slipped, throwing out his arms for balance, managing something akin to a turkey vulture spreading its wings, before coming down hard on his knee. It was enough movement to get Max’s head away from the animal’s striking beak, but it meant that when the bird literally gut checked Max, it was his face that bore the brunt of the blow. Apparently, blubber can feel as hard as cement.
The force sent Max spiraling away on the slick tile.
The bird seemed somewhat bewildered that its opponent did not lay slain before it, but quickly recovered, swiveling its head left than right before locating Max. It charged again.
Max reflexively stood back up before thinking that perhaps a lower center of gravity might be advantageous. Just before the bird was on top of him, Max manage to both crouch and push the shovel out in front of him.
The two collided and Max’s shovel was able to keep the penguin far enough away that its beak did not get him. Its repeated attempts pushed Max sliding backward however, his shoes refusing to grip the slick tile. Eventually Max felt his back foot come up against the glass wall of the fish bowl. It steadied him, but also trapped him. Max could feel his strength starting to wane and the distance between him and the beast was beginning to disappear.
In a last, desperate move, Max braced both feet against the wall, tread to glass, completely horizontal, and used his legs to push with everything he had.
The bird went backward, landing on its back while Max managed flop his belly on the tile. He slid a little on the icy floor, but the six foot horror he’d been battling positively shot across it. With so much weight and momentum, the animal crossed the length of the bowl in an instant, crashing into its beloved pebble stack, and collapsing one side.
Everything was still.
Max stood up and brushed some of the ice off his clothes. Not even a chirp came from the other penguins in the bowl, each clearly trying hard to process what had happened. Max looked up at his coworkers. They looked as shocked as the birds.
Good. Let them see he didn’t –
That chorus of squawking began again. Max looked back at his opponent, expecting to see the animal still lying wounded on the tiles. He was surprised to see that it was on its feet and squawking at the other birds as in the same manner it had challenged Max.
To Max’s horror the other birds began to change as well, each calling out its rage as it grew.
Ok. Maybe he did need them. The ladder that served as both entrance and exit to the bowl was too far away, blocked by the raging birds. But Lisa was pointing towards the pebble stack He sprinted across the bowl, only slipping a little at the start. Up the side of the pebble stack he climbed, leaping for the rim of the bowl.
It was too far. He’d missed the edge. As he descended back into the bowl and the giant angry penguins, he felt something grab hold of his arm.
It was Lisa. She barely held him, threatening to be pulled in herself. But soon Tyler was their pulling him up as well. And Jerry Quixotic. And the rest of the Port Monster Aquarium employees.
They dragged him over the lip of the bowl and collapsed, gasping on the second floor. Tyler was the first to recover, standing up and then over Max with a grin on his face.
“Next time, come with us on the trip. We’re a team you know. Everyone works together.“ Max nodded and closed his eyes feeling Tyler step over him.
At least it was over . . .
# # #
James Vandgaurd Beak stood watch again upon his slippery perch. Black-Top – or as King Beak would say, the one who’d got away – stood chatting with Brown-Top as before.
“Another trip coming up,” she said. “You in?”
“I think I’d better. I would have died without y’all here last time. I guess I still have a lot to learn.”
Brown-Top flashed the white pebbles on the inside of her flesh-beak. “Yea you do. See you tomorrow.” She left him to ponder their scheme as before. Sharks! Their code was still indecipherable. Vanguard did not wait for Black-Top to leave, he went directly to King Beak. Perhaps he could make more out of it. Next time they would be ready.
Hey again, I hope you enjoyed The Savage Penguins. If you’re at all interested in reading more of my writing, or what goes into these stories, I’ve started a newsletter (which is hopefully released quarterly) so people can get a more “behind the scenes” look of what I’m doing and what’s going on in my world. Please consider subscribing. Just for signing up, I’ll email you the first story I ever wrote, about a Warlock Doctor. Fun times. Thanks again!
See you next time!