Dei Ex Machina

Submitted into Contest #108 in response to: Write about a person or object vanishing into thin air.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Fantasy Adventure

Doctor Marcus Bliss warily worked his way down the newly excavated section of the Temple of Jupiter, careful not to soil his freshly pressed salmon-colored polyester suit. The powerful flashlight in his left hand lit the roughly hewn corridor while his right hand braced the ceiling as he crouched to ensure that he didn’t bump his head. Entering the crypt chamber, he doused his flashlight, as the space was sufficiently lit by a pair of portable halogen work lights mounted on tripods. Two fellow archaeologists were hunched over a crate containing several newly acquired artifacts. Both were dressed in stained coveralls, more appropriate for the job of unearthing buried treasure.


Looking up, Benjamin Stack adjusted his slouch hat and greeted the newcomer, “Hey it’s Blister...about time!”


Marcus had collaborated several times with Ben Stack on various projects, but not enough, in his opinion, to use nicknames. Marcus checked the time on the imitation Rolex he’d purchased from one of Rome’s many street vendors. “Doctor Hoffman said ‘noon;’ it’s eleven forty-five; I’m early,” he countered, furling his ruddy middle-aged brow.


Jill Hoffman stood up and crossed the room to shake Marcus’ hand; her long dark hair danced on her slender shoulders. “Of course I did. Thank you for coming on such short notice, Doctor Bliss. Just call me Jill.”


“Please…call me Marcus, and it’s no problem at all.” Marcus pointed at Ben and added, “Mister Stack, you can call me Marcus too, if you don’t mind. It’s a wonder why you insist on calling me Blister.”


Ben stood up, brushed the debris from his duster, and laughed, “Blisters are what show up after all the hard work is done!”


Jill cracked a smile and chortled, letting go of Doctor Bliss’ hand. He was not amused.


“I’m sorry, Marcus…but that was pretty funny. Come over here and take a look,” she apologized for Ben.


Marcus followed her over to the crate stating his low opinion of Ben’s jest, “Hilarious.”


Marcus put on a pair of gloves to examine the contents of the crate. As he rummaged through it, he commented disinterestedly, “A pitted blade of a ceremonial sickle; the head of an augur’s staff called a lituus; two petrified legs of a tripod; a simpuium, or ladle; and a cracked patera, or libation bowl.” He scooped up a handful of coins and let them fall through his fingers, “Denarii with the bust of Venus on their front sides and several of the ritual implements I mentioned depicted on their backs. I must say, I’m somewhat confused why you needed an ancient Roman culture expert to tell you this.” Noticeably disappointed, he took off the leather gloves and draped them over the side of the crate.


Jill Hoffman reached down into the box and pulled out what Marcus had called a lituus. “Wait a minute, Doctor, please…take a second look. This item is quite unique; it’s unlike any of the other staff heads that we’ve recovered.” She handed him the tarnished bronze tool.


As Marcus reexamined the piece more closely, he found himself in agreement. “You’re quite correct, Jill, the typical augur’s staff head has an ornate curvature; this one appears broken…” but after he felt the two ends he concluded, “…but it’s not; it’s complete and undamaged.”


“It looks like an old bronze flip phone,” Ben observed.


Marcus found himself as puzzled as his two colleagues, so he interjected some humor of his own that he thought Mister Stack would appreciate. He held the artifact to his ear and said, “Operator, put me through to Jupiter.”


**********


Doctor Bliss suddenly spiraled through a phantasmagorical vortex of scintillating shades of blue, orange, red, and pink. It was probably a good thing that he hadn’t eaten more than a single scone with a cup of black coffee for breakfast, or he may have lost it. The next instant, he found himself standing on a curved surface of vapor with gaseous streaks of the same colors through which he’d just travelled. As he walked on the sphere he came to a red maelstrom in the mist about the size of his foot and quickly realized where he was; he was on the planet Jupiter…and he was a giant among giants! In fact, if he was this big on earth, he’d truly be a god!”


A voice that seemed to emanate from the planet beneath him boomed, “You are not a god!”


“Jupiter?”


“Yes,” said the god of the sky.


“Am I really on the fifth planet?” Marcus stared up into the blackness of space riddled with the pinpricks of light from countless stars and galaxies. The view was astounding, as was the sight of Jupiter’s four score orbiting moons.


“Yes,” the planet replied.


“How can that be? I’m huge, but even so, there’s no air; I should be dead.”


“You are here; your spirit needs no oxygen in the astral plane. Now, since I have not spoken with a medium for many centuries. What boon do you desire from the gods?”


“Medium? Boon? Well, I really didn’t intend to speak to a god today, so I don’t really desire anything…other than to return home to my body.”


The gas giant quaked under his feet, “Very well, but next time you visit the gods, you’d better come properly prepared, or you may regret it. First of all, you should provide a suitable sacrifice prior to initiating contact, and secondly…you must humble yourself! On your knees!”


With that, the lack of atmosphere became crucially important and Marcus gasped for breath. In seconds he had collapsed to his knees, and just before losing consciousness, he plummeted back through the vortex from whence he came.


**********


“Marcus! Marcus! Can you hear me?” Jill shouted worriedly.


“Blister! It’s not funny anymore!” Ben shook Marcus by the shoulders. “Look at him, Jill…it’s like he’s fading away!


Jill shook her head in disbelief, “No, it must be the bad lighting and shadows in here.”


Marcus blinked and took a deep breath of the crypt’s stale air. “I heard you, Jill. I’m fine, I was just joking,” he lied. Ben let go of his shoulders and Marcus slipped the bronze artifact back into its crate.


“Seriously? You were unresponsive for almost two minutes! You just stood there, and you weren’t breathing. Then your face started to droop…we thought you were having a stroke! It was far from amusing.” Jill admonished.


“I’m sorry,” Marcus lied again. “It was a bad joke; forgive me. As for that bronze tool, I have no idea what it might be, so I’ll have to retreat to my library and see if I can come up with something definitive for you. Give me the weekend…I should have something for you by Monday.”


“Okay, I guess,” Doctor Hoffman yielded. “But please, Marcus, no more jokes.”


**********


Marcus spent a good part of Friday afternoon researching the communications device, which he knew from his recent projection into the astral plane, was an ancient telephone to the gods. At midnight, the sound of bleating echoed in the crypts beneath the Temple of Jupiter before a sacrificial goat was silenced by the stroke of a ceremonial iron sickle. The goat’s blood was collected into a cracked libation bowl by a man in a pink suit who supplicated himself before placing the medium’s phonetic device to his ear.


Marcus marched on Mars and spoke with the god of war about the current countless conflicts of mankind. He sat for hours and relaxed in Venus’ sauna while the goddess and her pleasure courtesans educated him in the deepest ways of carnal love. Finally, he strolled along the rings of Saturn and learned from the god of time that it was possible to not only use the potent magical item to tour astral space, but also to travel through the past, present, and future.


When he returned to his earthly shell, Marcus was shocked to find that he was nearly invisible! Over the next several minutes, he witnessed his body reappear until he could finally touch and feel his own chest. He checked his fake Rolex and this time he’d been gone for over an hour; any longer, and he just might have been lost forever. Exhausted, he slumped against the crate of archaeological finds and slept.


Marcus awoke in cold, complete darkness; the halogen lights had automatically shut down when there was no longer any movement. Pulling himself to his knees triggered the lights to turn on and he was nearly blinded. The dead animal was still there, with a larger pool of congealed blood around its head and neck. The blood in the pottery bowl had also leaked out through the crack and into a puddle on the floor. The doctor checked the time again; he’d slept for fifteen hours; it was Sunday evening; he still had some time before the workers would return on Monday, so undaunted, he readied himself for a third attempt into the void.


Using the ladle, he scooped up as much of the blood as he could and returned it to the offering bowl. Still on the knees of his pink slacks, he raised the bronze artifact to his ear once again. This time he chose to transport himself through space and time.


**********


Marcus arrived at the entrance to the Temple of Jupiter precisely on September 13th, 509 BC, at its consecration ceremony. Priests of Jupiter stood at the top of the entryway steps between several ornate columns and prayed to the god of the sky while throngs of supplicants and onlookers crowded around the threshold. Roman soldiers beat back some of the more zealous worshippers when they attempted to climb the steps to touch the priests’ robes.


Instead of a giant that would crush the multitude with a twitch of his toes, this time Marcus was no different than he’d been when he commenced his trip: he was just a man like any other man, albeit a pink-garbed stranger in a strange land.


His salmon suit however, did not go unnoticed. “You there! Halt!” one of the many centurions ordered.


Before he could move, Marcus was surrounded by several guards who grasped his arms and dragged him to their captain. The commanding centurion roughly grabbed ahold of Marcus’ chin and questioned him, “You are not a Roman citizen; your dress is bizarre.” He twisted Marcus’ wrist exposing his Rolex watch and added, “Your jewelry is queer; and what is this odd bronze object you hold? Is it a weapon of some foreign land? Answer me, or find yourself fighting in the colosseum!”


Marcus figured it would be ill-advised to lie. “I am a medium. I use this tool to commune with the gods.”


The soldiers surrounding him all laughed uproariously. “Enough!” the captain commanded. “Take him to the high priest and make him prove it. If he does not, then it’s off to the colosseum!”


Two of the men hauled Marcus up the steps to the eldest priest. “This man claims to be a medium. Give him a task to perform,” one of them instructed.


The priest considered the soldier’s order and quickly issued his challenge while pointing a crooked finger at Marcus’ nose, “If you can speak to the gods, then it should be no effort to convince Jupiter to bless us with a lightning bolt from heaven.”


Marcus swallowed the lump in his throat while looking at the cloudless summer sky. The soldiers released him and he raised the bronze communicator to his ear.


**********


Another twisting trip through the helix and he stood again on Jupiter with the great red spot at his colossal feet. Immediately Marcus knelt and beseeched the planet. “Hail Jupiter, god of the sky. I entreat you to speak to your humble medium.”


The planet rumbled, “Good…much better. Since you provided a proper sacrifice this time and have shown your place before me, I will grant you a solitary boon.”


**********


A clap of black lightning cut through the peaceful clear blue sky above the Temple of Jupiter and Doctor Bliss opened his eyes. Thunder continued to roll as everyone, the priests, the worshipers, and even the soldiers, all prostrated themselves at Jupiter’s display of supremacy. Marcus found himself standing alone at the pinnacle of the world, and he decided to stay.


**********


Jill and Ben had arrived on Monday morning to the gory scene of the slain goat. The chain on the door to the excavation site had been cut with a bolt cutter, and the odd bronze artifact was missing. They both suspected that Marcus had stolen the object and fled Italy, but neither one could explain the dead goat. The doctor’s flat had been searched by the authorities, but nothing incriminating had been found; Marcus Bliss had disappeared into the ether; he was gone, or so they thought.


Three months later, after they’d broken through a wall into another chamber in the crypt beneath the Temple of Jupiter, Jill was standing by as Ben and another worker pried loose the decorative lid of a priest’s sarcophagus. When the seal broke, the coffin released the typical stench of long decayed flesh, and the lid toppled to the floor with a thud. At the same time, both Ben and Jill gasped aloud. In addition to clutching the missing bronze artifact in one of its skeletal hands, the corpse wore a dusty faux Rolex and had been buried in a salmon polyester suit!

August 22, 2021 20:07

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5 comments

Sharon Williams
17:40 Sep 02, 2021

Hello Critique Circle here. I enjoyed your story, particularly the twist at the end. It was well researched, and the tension between Dr Bliss and Stack added extra interest. There were some good descriptive phrases. For instance, ' crush the multitude with a twitch of his toes.' and 'her long dark hair danced on her slender shoulders.' I think more description of the scene when Bliss arrived outside the Temple of Jupiter in 509BC, would have helped to create more atmosphere in the piece, but I know the word count is always an issue. Hope t...

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David Brown
17:54 Sep 02, 2021

Thanks so much for the suggestions and glad you liked it. Sometimes the word count is a negative, but it does help me to keep stories moving without getting too bogged down. It’s a balancing act.

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M. J. Riv
14:18 Aug 29, 2021

I really enjoyed the imagery you described. The story was was excellently plotted. I felt like I went on the journey.

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David Brown
22:34 Aug 29, 2021

Thanks so much! I really enjoyed writing it!

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Bruce Friedman
22:53 Aug 28, 2021

Very imaginative and clever. I am going to need to read his a few more times to better appreciate it. I found this sentence ("Is it a weapon of some foreign land? Answer me, or find yourself fighting in the colosseum!”) as little forced and the humor distracting.

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