Honey, I found a Penguin Outside, Part 3 of 3
“Well, you do keep a nice lawn,” Zack admitted.
“Thank you,” I said absently. “Zack,” I said, “this has got to stop. You promised.”
“I just have to test it,” he said. “I just need to… step through.”
“What?” I said. “Zack, I watch way to much SciFi Channel to let you do that. Has there ever been a movie or a television series in which that worked out okay? Don’t you dare ask me what is the worst that could happen, either.”
“But…” Zack said.
“There are no ‘buts’ about it,” I said loudly. “You go in that thing and you’ll either be lost forever in a parallel dimension, turned into a hideous partially human creature, enthroned as a demigod on some alien world people by tiny humanoid life forms, or find yourself transported to some dystopian hellscape from which you’d give anything to return, but can’t. Don’t you watch The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits? Nothing good ever comes of this kind of thing! Never trust the space aliens who say they want to help mankind, never build super-strong artificially intelligent robots, never cross harmless species A with harmless species B in an attempt to create a beneficial genetically engineered species C, and when the talking apes from the future land on he beach, slay them!”
Zack looked at me, blinking behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His round face and boyish figures were slack. I realized then that nothing I said was doing to convince him.
“I have to test it,” he said simply.
“No,” I said. “Look, we’ve been friends for years now. I am not going to let you destroy yourself with this madness. With that, I stepped forward to switch off the machine, which had a single lever connected to a bird’s nest of wiring at one end. Normally I would have ignored all of this; I would have pretended I never saw it. Usually I follow a single rule – the Glorious Path of Least Resistance, also known as Don’t Get Involved. Seeing my friend ready to become the plot line for an episode of Amazing Stories, however, I couldn’t stand by idly and let him doom himself.
It was only as I touched the handle that I realized what might happen.
You know how you feel when you’ve been sleeping on the couch or taking a nap in bed in the middle of the afternoon? You get up, but it takes a while to throw off the feeling that you should be sleeping. You spend a little while walking around like a zombie, trying to get your brain to catch up with your body.
That’s how I felt when I got where the doorway sent me.
I stood there, shivering a little in my bathrobe, pajamas, and bare feet. Strangely, I was not cold. I was standing in a few inches of snow on what would be, to all appearances, a vast frozen expanse of… tundra? Glacier? I don’t know what you’d call it. It looked cold, but it felt… grainy and dry… to the skin of my feet. For a moment I realized I had suffered frostbite or something, but my feet appeared perfectly normal and felt fine.
That’s when I saw them.
Some distance from me, in numbers so great that they stretched to the horizon in a waddling, black on white mass, they… marched. They marched in that swaying, unhurried gait for which they are so well known.
Thousands – no, tens of thousands – of penguins.
Something didn’t seem right about this display. As I watched, I realized the penguins were moving in perfect unison. From somewhere within the legion of birds, a single penguin was squawking rhythmically.
“Waahk, waahk, waahk…. WAAHK! Waahk, waahk, waahk… WAAHK!” The cadence reminded me of nothing so much as a drill instructor directing his troops in formation.
My eyes grew wide as the vast mob of penguins continued to toddle in formation. They moved with quiet, ominous determination. They moved like an army on the march.
They moved like an invading army.
Almost as one, the legion of penguins paused, flapped in consternation as they wobbled to a halt, and… turned to look at me. I watched in horror as they silently scrutinized me.
I don’t believe in mental telepathy. I never have. I’m a tax accountant, for pity’s sake. By definition I am not an imaginative man. As those penguins looked at me, however – as they looked into my very soul – I saw what they were doing. I saw what they were planning, what they wanted.
The penguins sought conquest. The soldiers in the penguin army held, within their small but perfectly adequate minds, images of marching in rolling lockstep on the major cities with which I was familiar: Washington, DC, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles… There was no mistaking the human beings who fled in terror before the might of the seemingly endless legion of penguins, squawking and pecking and waddling inexorably towards their goals. I have never before seen penguins as threatening creatures… and I will never again see them simply as cute.
I turned to run, convinced this horde of telepathic penguins would next come after me. I had not gone more than two steps when I found myself, once again, on the oil-stained concrete of Zachary’s basement floor.
“It worked!” he said exultantly. “What did you see?”
It took him some time and more than a little effort to convince me to stop choking him.
On a beautifully crisp Autumn morning a couple of months later, I went outside in my robe and slippers and fetched the paper. I carried a mug of heavily sugared, thoroughly creamed coffee in one hand and clutched the News and Chronicle in the other, examining the news of the day above the fold. As I was sipping my coffee and shaking my head over the latest nonsense from our state’s legislature, I heard the noise.
It was a squawking, rhythmic noise, its cadence like nothing so much as a drill instructor leading his men in formation.
Resolutely ignoring the squad of eight penguins toddling purposefully through the clematis, I marched back up the walk, entered my home, and closed the door behind me.