Pet shop: part 1
They start out so cute...
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: London was connected to other dimensions two centuries ago. To handle the increasing number of portal-related crimes, the Metropolitan Police set up the SDC - the Specialist Dimensional Command, tasked with investigating the strangest of cases.
On duty: DC Zoltan Kaminski & DC Nisha Chakraborty
As a rule, Kaminski didn’t use the tube. Trains he had no problem with, but trains that only ran below ground, never seeing daylight? Something about that didn’t feel right, of always being in the dark and never allowed out. He was sure there was a deep rooted childhood trauma in his past that would explain it, but he’d never bothered to examine his reaction too closely.
They’d also banned smoking on the underground a couple of decades earlier. That might also have something to do with it.
When the call had come in they’d been the ones in the office. He’d actually been looking forward to a fresh case, right up until he heard where they had to go - a distance that would take all day unless they took a ride in the dark. It didn’t help that the officer on the other end had made it quite clear that their presence was needed urgently. An ‘SDC fauna incident’ he’d said, as if they were now the city zoo. Still, unusual critters had been their remit since the kengto. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last.
“Just breathe,” Chakraborty said, the smirk on her face betraying her lack of actual sympathy. “Slowly, deeply in, through the nose. Then out through the mouth. Concentrate on your chest, your lungs.”
He sat on the seat of the carriage, elbows on knees, head in his hands. “Since when have you been into hippie shit?”
“I went to meditation classes a few years ago,” she said. “It was interesting.”
“Did it help?” A tension was gripping his sides. He wanted to pull the emergency cord and run out onto the tracks.
She shrugged. “I find it’s easier just to get smashed and forget about everything.”
“Each time you get distracted or start to panic, focus back in on your breathing.”
“I’m not panicking.”
“You seem like you’re panicking.”
He tried taking a long inhale. “Telling someone that they’re panicking just makes them panic more, you know.”
“Best to get it over with.”
“Really?” He looked sideways at her. She grinned back. That smile made him feel better, if only for a second.
Finally the train pulled into their station, after forty minutes of subterranean torture. Kaminski was the first up, ready by the door. He clicked the handle and hopped onto the platform, still not feeling much better. The train made it worse, but getting off meant he was still far below the surface. At least he couldn’t get trapped on the train now, if it got stuck in the tunnel. All he had to do was climb the steps and get out of the station.
Oh. The portal station container. Being trapped in small, dark places. That made a lot of sense. He thought he’d got past that without much fallout. Maybe he’d have to think again.
It was a bright morning, unseasonably warm. Chakraborty sniffed the air as they exited the station, which tasted fresher than what she was used to closer to the Thames. The SDC offices were in the heart of the manufacturing and shipping area of the city, while her apartment was on a grubby street out east. North London was quite the contrast, the streets wide and leafy, with four-storey houses built in an extravagant, semi-Georgian style. The kind of place she couldn’t even imagine living. It was the sort of neighbourhood that her parents had always aspired to, but had never reached.
“Feeling better now?”
Zoltan nodded, shaking his shoulders and then tapping a cigarette from a packet. “I’m fine.”
He’d been in a pretty bad way. Seemed like there was more going on there than he was letting on, and it wasn’t a side of him that she was used to seeing. Normally he was the cool, calm and collected one, cigarette in hand, observing and absorbing everything around him. Nothing phased Zoltan. She’d always put that down to his Polish upbringing, though that probably said more about her ignorance than anything else.
They walked together through suburban London until they reached the house: a grand, terraced affair with steps leading up the front door. A uniformed officer stood out the front and perked up at their arrival. He didn’t look well.
“You alright, constable?” Zoltan asked. “Look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“A ghost I could handle,” the officer said, shaking hands. “This is something far worse.”
“Kaminski,” Zoltan said, then nodded towards her. “That’s Chakraborty. What are we talking about here?”
The officer shook his head. “I’m Constable Hughes. And don’t know for sure. Neighbours reported a bad smell. Council sent someone round, who found the door unlocked and went in after getting no response. They found the body, then called us in.”
“What should we be expecting?”
“Dead body on the landing, first floor. Right at the top of the stairs, can’t miss it. Lying right there on the floorboards. Blood’s seeping right through to the ground floor. Mutilated like you wouldn’t believe.”
“No. This is more like…eaten.”
Zoltan glanced over at her. Chakraborty cleared her throat. “Eaten? How so?”
“I went up to confirm the council inspector’s claims. The body is missing its legs and an arm. It’s proper grim, I’ll warn you.”
“Thanks,” Chakraborty said. “We’ve seen our share of grimness. Where’s this council man now?”
“Took him down to the station for follow-up. He could barely talk, though.”
Chakraborty looked up at the front door, an ornate affair with stained glass panels in its top half. “Why call in the SDC?”
“This fella’s been eaten, detective. And I don’t mean nibbled by a pet cat.”
“What about a dog?” Zoltan stubbed out his cigarette, lit another. “A fox? Maybe got in the window.”
“No way. You’ll know when you see it.”
She grimaced. “Any sign of whatever did it?”
“No, although I didn’t look too closely. I ran back down the stairs and shut the door behind me. Might not even be in the house.” The officer shuddered. “It’s reminding me of that dragon thing that tore through central.”
“A kengto,” Zoltan said, as if he were a Palinese anthropologist. “Yeah, we were there. Not recommended.” He looked over at her. “Shall we?”
Chakraborty led the way up the steps to the door. It opened at the turn of the handle and she swung it open wide. The hallway beyond was grand and panelled with dark, luxurious wood. The walls were lined with bookshelves and there was even a suit of armour. A crest was mounted on the staircase, which wound its way up to a first floor balcony.
“Nice place,” Zoltan noted, following her in.
“This is how the other half live, Kaminski.”
“Other half? Other tenth. Who can afford to live like this in London?”
“Guess we’re about to find out.”
Wishing she’d come armed in some way, even just with a truncheon from the locker, she started to climb the stairs. The house was quiet, the only noises coming from the street. There was a smell, bitter and rancid, that tell-tale stench of decomposing meat. It filled the entire hallway and stairs, prompting Chakraborty to cover her mouth with her scarf.
The foul odour intensified as they climbed each step, until they reached the first floor landing and discovered the remains of the house’s owner. The corpse was mangled, the legs cut off at the thighs and both arms gone at the shoulders. They weren’t clean cuts from a knife, or even the ragged tears from an animal’s teeth. The wounds had congealed, as if the limbs had been removed using a dissolving chemical.
“Looks like the limbs were burned away,” Zoltan said. “Question is, where are they?”
The body lay on a plush, green-dyed sheepskin rug. The vivid colour was at odds with the otherwise traditional furnishings. A wooden monk seat was against one wall beneath a window, and large paintings adorned the walls.
Chakraborty knelt down on the rug next to the body for a better look. She breathed shallowly, trying to ignore the stench. The face was also half gone, she realised. “Looks to me like the body had been here a while,” she said. “We’d better call Wong in to be sure. Hughes was right, this is grim. Better not move the body until it’s been examined properly.” The rug wasn’t sheepskin; the fur was coarser and felt almost wet, as if something had been spilled on it. Perhaps it was the dead man’s blood, seeped into it - in which case she’d be needing to buy herself some new jeans. She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together: there was definitely a liquid substance of some sort on the rug.
She moved to stand but found her legs oddly reluctant. It took all of her effort to push herself to her feet, her body feeling suddenly heavy and awkward, as if she’d been sat strangely and her legs had gone to sleep. The sensation was spreading, with her arms now feeling weighty and useless.
“You OK?” Zoltan took a step towards her, but not in time to prevent her from crashing to the floor. Her body was numb, her back feeling impossibly heavy. He rushed to her as she attempted to stand. “I can’t get up,” she said, unable to even lift herself onto her elbows. She lay on the floor with her face on the wooden floorboards.
Zoltan knelt and hooked his arms under her, then turned her over onto her back so that he was behind her. Lacing his fingers together, he stood and hauled her up to her feet. Even then, she knew that she’d crumble if he let her go.
That’ when the rug moved. The fur ruffled, then the rug undulated, like grass in the wind, and then it ballooned, seeming almost to inflate. The body rolled and slid off onto the floorboards as the rug increased in volume, growing taller, its green fur seeming to shiver and shimmer. It lifted itself free of the floor, supported on stick-thin black legs, articulated by several joints. The creature stood taller than either of them, faceless and without a clear form.
“Fuck me,” Zoltan shouted, dragging her backwards to the staircase. “Fuck me!”
Chakraborty couldn’t move.
The creature’s legs moved, stepping closer.
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Thank you for reading. More of a standalone chapter this week. I’ve had this story idea in the vault for a while and it’s proved particularly fun to write.
Lots of interesting behind-the-scenes stuff to get through, including my use of AI to develop this chapter, so let’s jump straight into that for paid subscribers…
I remember reading about people being killed/mauled by crazy pets in New York when I was growing up. I don’t have any specifics, just a general knowledge that people in New York (and, occasionally, LA) liked to have things like lions and tigers and crocodiles in their apartments.
Then you have the even more awful cases of dangerous pets escaping from Apartment A and attacking someone in Apartment B, who probably didn’t even know the creature was there. There was a case I distinctly remember of a snake sneaking from one floor to another and killing two young boys who were having a sleepover. Just atrocious.
To be clear, I’m not really an animal person. Cats, sure. Small, harmless dogs, OK. Anything else - no thanks.
(Properly trained, intelligent dogs like those who help blind people are an exception and are obviously amazing)
While researching this chapter, one beta reader (hi, Matt!) mentioned an incident with a chimpanzee called Travis. You can read about it here, but be warned that it’s exceedingly violent and disturbing. That served as something of a foundational element for the chapter: the notion of humans thinking they understand another species, and finding out at great cost that they in fact don’t. There’s an on-going theme of underestimating the strength of animals, and their overall lack of human-ness.
Humans can be awful as well, of course, but when pet owners are imprinting anthropomorphic behaviours onto their animals I can’t help but think “yes, but if it was bigger it would still want to eat you.”
Meanwhile, this chapter also marks the first time I worked in collaboration with an AI. Here’s a visualisation of the dopur (unnamed in the story so far):
Cute! Also, creepy. You can imagine it being a fluffy cushion of a pet when it was a baby, though, right?
I knew for this chapter that I wanted a Palinese creature that felt very alien to Earth. Something weird and unfathomable. I used MidJourney to generate some ideas, with the AI acting like a concept assistant. The combination of my prompts and the wacky nature of AI generated images I knew would result in something weird that I might not have come up with on my own.
It took several iterations and some fiddling around, until I ended up with the chosen dopur concept. The really fascinating bit for me is that this AI-generated visualisation then influenced the specifics of the chapter. I always knew I was going to have the detectives arrive on the scene to discover a body, and that the creature would still be in the house. But the specific setup of the creature disguising itself as a rug and having a paralytic agent in its fur only came about because of the MidJourney image.
There’s something wonderful and also strange about working collaboratively with an AI in that manner. I do think that this is where AI generated images are going to end up (at least in the short term), as a useful tool rather than a wholesale threat of replacement.
I’ll most likely go into some more detail on this process in a Monday newsletter sometime soon, given the general interest (and concerns) around use of AI in creativity.
Thanks again for your support. I hope you’re enjoying the story!