Reading Up Next: Skip This One

 Fantasy Science Fiction posted April 20, 2021 Chapters: -Prologue- 


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Jackal, the mantis, approaches the man who stole his head.

A chapter in the book Peanut

Behind the Curtain

by R.A. Fende


The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

There should be a bustling aggravation and the distinct smell of grief-stricken losses, yet the halls of Pitil's casino are desolate. The slot machines, which seldom beg their vacant seats to be cushioned, flash their arching bulbs. They chime a jaunty tune for silent ghosts, heard by the scant remaining individuals wandering the game floor. One such individual is The Surgeon, the progenitor of this literal underground society. He called ahead and informed everyone that the game floor would shut down for the remainder of the evening.

At an astounding eight feet tall, The Surgeon takes large strides. His abnormally long cloak, stretching down to his feet, skirts out with each step. He wears a ceremonial Ifugao mask intricately carved from darkened wood to depict the face of a Deva known as Bakunawa; it was a dragon said to consume moons. The only people who remain are the guards-women standing outside a large metal door that reads 'compost' in impact font. One of the guards-women elbows the other and points to their fast-approaching boss, who is dragging the remaining individual. Clamped onto his scaly hand is one large antenna attached to the head of a giant insect man, Jackal.

"Betraying my trust, attempting to usurp my position, corrupting my son, and breaking into my office. It seems that you've shattered the record down here for 'most uncooperative citizen,'" The Surgeon mumbles with long vowels and short pauses between his cutting words.

"Haha. Bite me, Doctor- gah!" Jackal proclaims as The Surgeon's grip tightens. This conniving individual is perceived as a traitor. Sporting the head and raptorial arms of a spiny flower praying mantis, he's white to the bone with long lavender compound eyes. It always seems like he's staring at you, but that's just his pseudo pupil reflecting your gaze. Bleached spikes protrude from his back, poking through his dirt-stained shirt. He stretches for his antenna, clawing at the air when The Surgeon tugs the appendage like a rebellious dog resisting its harness.

As they approach the 'compost' chamber, the two guards-women step forward in bewilderment.

"Sir? A-are you okay?" asks one of the guards-women, struggling to keep eye contact with her towering boss. His eyes glow through the abyssal black opening of the mask's mouth.
"Work keeps me occupied, but it's manageable. Why might you two still here?"

"We thought-"

"Ah, no thought needed. Go home and take the rest of the night off. You're paid for the evening- treat yourselves." Devious smirks rise on the guard women's faces.

"You got it, boss." They exit while avoiding the elephant, or mantis, in the room.
The Surgeon opens the large metal doors, ducking his obnoxiously tall mask as he walks forward. Fortuitously, he misses the two-foot-tall pipistrelle bat that sneaks into the compost chamber, silently scaling the ceiling above them.

This curious bat is Peanut. His dark brown fur coats his skin in a peach fuzz haze. When not clinging to the rafters, his wings are wrapped around his body and cover his mouth. It gives his appearance an hourglass figure, or more appropriately, a peanut. They're an odd duo, but the bat and mantis were scheming together.

They were attempting to locate Jackal's handsome human head after The Surgeon graciously cut it clean from the base of his neck. Hearing The Surgeon's trudging footsteps, Jackal told Peanut too, "hide or run, dammit! I don't care which, but I'll take the fall." Yet, Peanut wholeheartedly disagrees and goes against Jackal's wishes. He blames himself for his friend's untimely facial reconstruction surgery.

Peanut clings to the wall of the compost chamber with his long, unclipped claws. He hides in a heavily shaded corner, surveying a possible way to help Jackal escape without alerting the masked tyrant.

As he looks upon the chamber, a sudden discomfort settles in Peanut's tiny stomach. The ceiling is abnormally high up and extends through three stories. Vertical fluorescent bulbs protrude from the walls to illuminate the main floor, instead. There's a large curtain that leads into the darkness of the ceiling and conceals the second half of the room. Leading up to this curtain is an unmistakable mountain of discarded limbs, the unused body parts of The Surgeon's previous operations.

The Surgeon heads for a stairwell that acts as a partition between the scattered arrangement of body parts. Jackal takes his sharp, raptorial arm and clamps it around his antenna. He flexes with force, effectively mutilating his appendage and granting freedom from The Surgeon's steel grip. The mantis jumps back, creating distance between the two. The Surgeon, in all his authoritative presentation, suddenly jolts forward from the released and lonely severed feeler.

"A pity, you expect me to reattach this?" The Surgeon sighs, inconvenience floating with his exhale. Jackal applies pressure to the fresh wound as it leaks fluid.

"Won't need it when you put my head back where it's supposed to be."

"Juvenile, what a weak purpose for disobeying my every command- refusing to live this new life," The Surgeon shakes the antenna in his hand. "A second chance at life, and you cast it down the garbage shoot, with gambling no less. I'd say I'm surprised, but bad habits stick like old glue."

"Some bets are worth making. I'm just trying to reclaim stolen property." Jackal pulls out a poker chip. "The eyes, nose, mouth, hair, everything you stole that made me feel manicured." He says, gesturing to each body part with the chip, then tossing said chip forward. It bounces off the unfazed doctor's cloak and clinks on the floor.

"You knew what you were digging into when you signed Pitil's contracts. Everyone abides; otherwise, chaos ensues. And yet, you still believe you're above my authority." The Surgeon drops the mantis antenna on top of the chip.

Jackal puffs his chest out and stands up tall. He keeps his head straight and glares up The Surgeon--his prideful all-seeing eyes reflecting The Surgeon's mask.

"I've spun for my own roulette wheel since birth!" Jackal proclaims with a sly face pressed into his weighted ego.

"Maybe at your previous birth, but I've given you a new form and identity. The 'Jackal' who practiced his flashy smirk in the mirror every morning is long since dead. That gamble was his choice, and I now stand as the progenitor of your existence, my oeuvre." The Surgeon states slowly and carefully with his heart thumpingly deep voice. Jackal turns around and scratches the back of his head, unperturbed by The Surgeon's reply.

"Huh, is that what you said when you stole Peanut's infant brain and put it in a bat body? Wow, I didn't know babies had the ability to make choices at that age."

The Surgeon cracks his neck and speaks through gritted teeth, saying, "Leave him out of this. Our quarrel is strictly mutual."

"No 'The Surgeon,'" Jackal says sarcastically while flashing quotation marks with his two raptorial claws, although it's more of a one-hand clap. "That's where I disagree. See, I've grown fond of this lil' bugger. I may have been selfish when I chose him as the fighter for the Pit, but even I have enough common sense to apologize for my mistakes. Seeing him in that cage-"

"Jackal..."

"Have you even apologized to him for keeping him locked in Pitil like the caged monstrosities isolated in your fighting arena? I can't imagine living here without knowing what's above my head!"

"Enough!" The Surgeon's booming voice echoes throughout the chamber, making Peanut flinch as he continues to watch from the corner. Tears swell up from his ducts. He wants to call out to them, but a slight choking sensation slowly constricts his throat and bars his voice.

"My relationship to Peanut is none of your concern," The Surgeon says while stepping forward, palms open and shoulders relaxed. "So what about you, 'Jackson Botrabergen?'" He reaches into his cloak and pulls out a manila-colored envelope. "My, what a beautiful family."
"Surgeon, I swear to god-" Jackal's singular remaining antenna twitches rapidly, a sign of aggression when prey encroaches.

"A wife-, err ex-wife, stunning. Her kids have her eyes too, hmm." He audibly claps the envelope closed. "I give my condolences to the loss of their ruggedly attractive father, missing and still not found. I wonder, have they assumed he abandoned them, is he dead in a ditch, or is he already buried underground somewhere isolated from contemporary life?"

Shaking with rage, Jackal hops into a full sprint towards The Surgeon. He jumps up and wraps his legs around The Surgeon's torso, then clamps his claws around his neck, effectively holding him in a pincer. All five of Jackal's eyes pierce through The Surgeon's mask into the maniacal doctor's yellow cat-like eyes.

"Left them? Maybe. But You speak about them like I'm the only person in this room hiding from their past."

Peanut, still up in the corner, achieves peak discomfort. He warms up his wings by vibrating them rapidly, all while hoping no one dies during his preparation for flight.

The Surgeon dislocates his arm and reaches around at impossible angles to grab Jackal by his neck. He lifts the mantis man from his torso and holds him high in the air. Reaching into his cloak with the opposite hand, he pulls out a freshly polished cleaver, the same one he uses for all his regular operations. He rewinds his hand, sliding it swiftly and effortlessly into Jackal's ankle. It slices through the tendon and bone like a knife through warm butter. Out the other end, the cleaver continues unto the second leg, cutting both off seamlessly. Jackal's feet thud upon impact with the cement floor.

"It's a shame that his wife will never see his eyes again." He drops Jackal on his back and walks towards the mountain of limbs. As The Surgeon sifts through the sea of body parts and organs, they jostle around like garbage in a junkyard on a windy day.

Many of these severed limbs were carved around certain locations like unfinished puzzle pieces. Some hearts were missing arteries, and the brains had folds intricately chopped off. Innumerable eye shapes and colors rolled around like the balls on a billiards table, knocking into dismembered spines with uneven segments sawed off. The Surgeon pulls his hand out of the pile along with a handsome human head sporting short brown hair and bright green eyes.

"She might be the only one to miss these pretty eyes. Goodness, they are a beautiful hue, I admit, but not as stunning as your current lavender ones."

There it is, the fruit of all his efforts. Jackal's antenna perks up. He flips over on his stomach and reaches for The Surgeon, struggling to get up without feet to stand on.

"Give it back. Please." Jackal whines in desperation, finally letting his guard down.
"No, Jackson. You refused to crawl before walking upright. However, I'll be gracious enough to give you a second chance at this new life." The Surgeon shakes Jackal's head then continues up the steps, walking through the large curtain in the back. "I will award your resilience by making you my first patient to endure a second operation."

Peanut plunges towards Jackal. He collects the severed feet on the ground, grabbing them for his friend.

"Peanut, did you see it!? Haha, I almost forgot how much of a looker I am." Jackal whispers with slight delight, giving a cocky smirk and nodding his head in approval. "Yeah." Peanut, on the other hand, has tears streaming down his face.

"Jack," he pauses between choking on his words, "your legs..."

"Don't worry about it! We almost got my head back."

"No, this is wrong. We shouldn't have messed with him. Let's just get out of here now. I'll find a way to put your legs back on and-" before Peanut can finish his statement, Jackal starts crawling towards the curtain. "Wait, please don't go up there." Peanut's desperate tone reaches Jackal.

"It's alright. Just a couple more steps, and this will be all over." He stops and looks over at Peanut, extending his arms to ask for the severed feet. "I'm sorry I dragged you into my scheme, lil' fella. I'll clean up my mess. Just go back to your normal life." He smiles at the bat.

Peanut plops the feet into Jackal's arms and sits down, covering his body with his wings in the shape of a tent and hiding his head inside.

"Not leaving."

"Hey, I'm not your dad, so I can't stop ya!"

Jackal continues up the steps without looking back, doing an army crawl with his feet locked in both arms. "Thanks, though. You're really the one who got me here."

Peanut's mind races a million miles per second. Never having been through immense stress of this caliber, he watches Jackal slink behind the curtain. He hears a sudden and extended gasp coming from the mantis.

"Oh, does this alarm you? Fret not. By the time I'm done, you'll be entirely obedient. That thing won't even be a worry in your mind," The Surgeon states proudly while Jackal continues to hyperventilate.

A mechanical whir cooks up from behind the curtain. Pistons gnashing and gears tumbling reverberate throughout the room. A pair of lights flicker from behind the curtain, casting a silhouette of Jackal sitting on an operating table, The Surgeon walking back from a large flipped switch, and... something else. The lights finish flickering and shift into full power, revealing the shadow of some ominously large object that scales all the way to the top of the curtain. Mortified and nearly drowning in curiosity, Peanut gets up and steps towards the curtain.

"That's it. Keep still, Jack."

Peanut hears the cleaver cut through something meaty. The silhouette presents The Surgeon holding Jackal's scalp up by his remaining antenna. He sees The Surgeon's silhouette digging around inside the exposed head, pulling out two long vein-like cords.

"Very still."

"What- I can't see! Surgeon, what are you doing!?" Jackal squeals in between shaky breaths. The Surgeon cleaves off a chunk of what looks like Jackal's human head and jams the two cords into the exposed hole.

"Nothing you didn't ask for. Let's test them, shall we?" The Surgeon says while grabbing the head from the cold, metal operating table and plopping it in Jackal's lap. He gasps suddenly.

Peanut reaches the curtain and clenches it with his claws. He pulls it back and peaks an eye through slightly, just in time to see a nightmare. Jackal is holding his missing head, which is inexplicably hooked up to the mantis head still attached to his body. The Surgeon puts two fingers in front of the severed head's eyes.

"How many fingers am I holding up?" The Surgeon says, right before Jackal releases a blood-curdling shriek. It's the kind of shriek that kills a little bit inside of everyone that hears it but completely decimates the belcher.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Isn't this what you wanted?"

"No, this isn't... I hate this. I hate it...! Put it back, please..." Jackal speaks from his mantis head, but tears stream down the eyes from his severed head as it looks at his current face. The tears drip down his claws and drop to the floor.

"Not many people get to say they've seen how they really look without a mirror flipping their own image. It's quite enlightening, no?"

"I'm sorry... Surgeon, I'm so sorry..."

"Now..." The Surgeon starts. "I'm going to ask you a particular question, and I want the right answer. Which head do you want back?" He asks in aggravation, gnawing at the space between him and his patient.

"M-my head." Jackal's voice wavers quietly. He sniffles through his mantis nose.
"And which one is that?"

Jackal reaches up with his raptorial claw and places the hooked finger on his mantis head.

"This one... Sir."

The Surgeon takes in a deep breath and exhales loudly. "Finally, your first steps. I think your legs would be a fine reward, wouldn't they be, Jackal?"

"Yes, sir."

"And does he frighten you anymore?" The Surgeon asks while pointing his thumb up at the large object behind them.

"No, sir," Jackal responds in a deadpan tone, all while still looking at his mantis head through his old eyes. However, Peanut's eyes follow The Surgeon's thumb up to the structure, which happens to be more terrifying than Jackal's predicament.

It's colossal. A chimera, larger than what should be feasible. It's stitched together like a patchwork quilt with varying skin tones and types, body parts, and organs. The arms and fingers are thrown together with other limbs from different body parts. Through an exposed opening, he sees the inside of the said arm, which uses normal forearms as pseudo veins. The face has compound eyes. Upon closer inspection, Peanut gasps. They weren't any normal compound eyes; they were a bouquet of humanoid eyes jammed into two large sockets. It looks like it spawned from a nightmare. It would take hours to count all the limbs on this grotesque monstrosity.

The Surgeon finishes locking Jackal's legs in place by pushing and turning them, key and deadbolt style.

"Dad!" Peanut yells while walking through the curtain. The Surgeon perks up.

"Peanut?" He asks worriedly, then glares at Jackal. "It seems I'm not done dealing with you." Jackal flinches and embraces his severed head. "Please, let me explain."

"Oh, okay. Explain this; did you just scar my friend into obedience?" Peanut gestures over at Jackal.

"Peanut, you're testing my patience. You weren't supposed to see this."

"Yeah? And was I not supposed to see that?" He points up at the nightmare behind The Surgeon. "What the hell, this monster... it's disgusting!"

"Watch your language. We don't call them monsters," The Surgeon says through gritted teeth in an attempt to relinquish control.

"Chimera or not, this is too much. If you've kept this from me, what else am I in the dark about?" Peanut's face furrows.

"We'll have this conversation later. Now help me put Jackal's eyes back in straight. Now."

He looks over at Jackal. Peanut has never seen the mantis man so frightened, much like an abused animal.

"Fine, but I want answers. No more secrets, dad."

The Surgeon turns around and pulls up his mask. He wipes his face without either of them seeing, sighs deeply, then puts the mask back on.

"Grab his head," The Surgeon says, instructing his nurse. The bat trots over to his friend and grabs the head from him, staring into the eyes.

"Lil' fella," Jackal says in a quiet voice, "what I did to you really was unforgivable. I won't blame you if you never find the words to excuse my behavior." Tears run down the severed head again.

"It was scummy, Jack. Fighting down there was terrifying, but I'd be lying if it didn't teach me a lesson or two. So I won't forgive you yet, but I will say thank you." Peanut says as he pulls the head back, stretching the cord connecting the two eyes.

"Surgeon, sir, you really have a bright son."

The Surgeon brandishes his cleaver high in the air. He shifts his body forward and slices the connection between heads.

"Truly, there is no other." The Surgeon grabs the cord and shoves it back in Jackal's mantis head. He places the scalp back on and traces the incision outline with his scaly thumb. The wound completely disappears, as if the operation never happened. Jackal's eyes react to the light, changing from a deep purple shade to a lavender one. He blacks out; then, The Surgeon gently lays Jackal back onto the operating table. "He should wake up in a few minutes. Gives us a bit of time."

He crosses his arms, looking down at his frail bat son. Peanut mocks his father's posture by crossing his claws over his wings. He has no fear in his pitch-black eyes, only vexation with a hint of despondence.

"Peanut, would you like to know why I have been working on this colossal Chimera?"
"Enlighten me." The bat boy says, eager to finally hear a semblance of spoken truth.
"You've felt it, that sense of entrapment, haven't you? I was trying to keep you away from that suffocating experience for as long as I could. For a while, you were the only one who didn't feel it."

"Pitil was my whole world. But yeah, now I just feel caged. It's like an itch I can't scratch, Dad."

"It's okay. I don't intend to keep you contained here forever. In the future, I plan to leave this facility and enter the world above. I will make our people, the Chimera, known to them once again. And you, the new ruler of Pitil, will usher in an age where the two can finally live in peace-"

"I mean, that doesn't sound bad at all. Why keep this from me?"

"Please, let me finish." The Surgeon gets down on his knees, lowering himself to Peanut's eye level. He places a hand on his son's shoulder. "You will follow in pursuit. Donning a new set of armor, you will see the sun the first time then become the symbol of our people that cements their place above."

"But, I'm just a bat. I don't know anything about them, and they don't know anything about me. Won't they be scared?"

"Terrified, however, to achieve peace between these people above ground through niceties, that would be foolish. It requires fear." He looks over at Jackal, who remains unconscious. "That is why you'll approach them in your new body." The Surgeon gestures up to the colossal Chimera. "This body."

He grabs Peanut and pulls him in for a hug, holding him tightly.

"You will be an insurmountable symbol of order and the most beautiful Chimera crafted from these old hands."

Peanut pushes himself away from The Surgeon, taking a few steps back.

"W-where does my opinion stand," he says, baring his fangs. "What if I don't want to become this!?"

"This is why I kept you in the dark. You just needed to be a bit older to understand-"

"Oh, I understand completely." Peanut's tone shifts from angry and confused to livid. "You tell everyone to stay in line and act accordingly, but that's all part of your selfish plot. Eventually, when these doors open, they won't have a choice to hide from their pasts. A second chance at life? No, this freedom is an illusion!"

"Peanut..."

"My first life, it's the only one I've known, and I haven't made it far enough to hide from my own awful decisions just to have you put me in a new body so I can start over. The Chimera made mistakes, but they are much happier down here. You're going to toy with them like that?"

"You're mistaken. Pitil, this hole in the ground, grants no freedom. Everyone sees it as a prison. This was never my intention. It's a womb. One day, they will be birthed from the ground and step unto the earth, refreshed and infinitely curious like hatchlings from an incubator. Watching you grow, I knew you'd be the only one who could keep order as our Chimera learned to walk on their new feet in that strange land."

"That's-"

"Living and dying in here, it would make them nothing more than stillborn to the Earth herself."

Peanut covers his face with his wings. He grumbles to himself.

"But Peanut, you're right. If you don't want to enter this Chimera, I won't force you. However, it will make our trek to the surface much more difficult. Our people could die. They could execute us on the spot, making everything we fought for be for naught. What do you say, my son?"

Peanut inspects the inner workings of the veins running through his fleshy wing. They're red and pulsing with life, the only blood he's lived with. Imagining it coming out of another body is mind-boggling.

Although, he understands where The Surgeon comes from. The Chimera are beautiful creatures; not one is like the other. As a symbol of diversity, they stand tall. Would that be enough for the bat to sacrifice himself for everyone else? He stands up and walks towards the curtain from which he entered.

"We tell all of them. Right now." Peanut says with great confidence.

"Absolutely not. No."

"What? But, why?"

"Didn't you hear me? I said no. Children don't have the choice to be born." The Surgeon slams his foot on the ground as Peanut shakes his head in disbelief.

"Dad, that's asinine," he yells through his teeth. "If you don't tell them, then I will."

"Quiet, you don't have a choice in this matter. I'll have to-" The Surgeon grips the cloak on his head with intensity. His hands vibrate rapidly. "I'll have to-"

"I do have a choice. I'm done listening to your messed-up politics, and I'm making my own decisions. You can't stop me." Peanut runs through the curtain.

Going down the steps, he preps his wings and attempts to take flight. He flaps harder than ever before but accelerates nowhere. The Surgeon grabs one of Peanut's legs before he could make it into the air. He pulls the bat back through the curtain and clutches his son closely, making sure he can't escape. Peanut struggles with all of his might.

"Say you won't tell. Say it now." The Surgeon says in a strained and upset tone. Jackal, who is coming too from his daze, alerts Peanut with small groans. The bat looks over at his friend, seeing how much he has fought for. He risked everything for a chance to feel human again. Was it for nothing? Isn't Jackal right back where he was before?

"I can't."

"Then I'm sorry, my son."

He grabs Peanut by the fur on his head and holds him high in the air, just like Jackal. He reaches for the cleaver on the operating table and almost takes it, but Peanut kicks at The Surgeon's mask.

"Dad, stop! Let me go, please!" Peanut yells as he continues to claw the mask. It shifts slightly, revealing a small portion of The Surgeon's face. It's just enough to see his eye, the skin surrounding it is scaly with a light green and turquoise hue. The Surgeon's yellow eye daggers Peanut's frightened face. He finally clasps the cleaver and swings it deep into Peanut's neck with precision, leaving it dangling halfway off. Normally this would kill someone, but The Surgeon's magical ability leaves Peanut's mind intact and in an incredulous state.

After repositioning the mask back in place, he brings the open neck closer to inspect it professionally. The cleaver draws in close, right above Peanut's larynx. The Surgeon takes the sharpened end of his cleaver and severs each vocal cord, one by one. They retract back like a spring while making a brief snapping sound.

"Dad! Da-"

Upon slicing the last cord, Peanut's voice abruptly halts, echoing the remains of his song throughout the chamber like a whisper in the wind. He pulls Peanut's head back up into its correct position then traces the incision with his thumb. As the scaly finger gently glides across the bat's neck, the cut disappears.

He places Peanut back on the ground. Mouth opened, he grunts and puffs at the air, yet no voice remains. One less connection to his humanity falters at the hands of his father figure. A strong waterfall of tears gushes from his eyes.

"Peanut," The Surgeon says, fighting back his own tears. "Have you eaten dinner yet?"

While grabbing at his throat, Peanut falls to the floor and arches his back off the ground. The Surgeon watches silently, saying nothing to his distraught son. He turns to Jackal, who is still stunned from his operation but attempting to get up. The Surgeon grabs him by the antenna and pulls him to the ground.

"No worries," The Surgeon says, dragging Jackal past Peanut and through the curtain. "Let me deal with your friend first, and I'll cook up something special, just for you and me."

Peanut attempts to call out to his friend, but all he can do is mouth the words. He scratches at the ground, leaving marks with his claws that cut lines between the droplets of tears. The footsteps of his father dwindle then disappear upon slamming the metal door. All Peanut can do is grovel on the cold, concrete floor next to the enormous body that may be his one day.




Fende here. Thank you for giving Peanut your time! These characters are like children to me. I feel like I know them like the back of my hand, so I wanted to share a snippet of the climax. Depending on the reception this receives, I will add chapters frequently!
I've just barely scratched the surface. I want to share the rest of this world with all of you. There's a lot that Peanut wants to say; he's ready.
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