Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning
Could be his job as a janitor at an insane asylum, could be the meaninglessness of existence, could be the unwanted cilantro on his tacos. Whatever the reason, Jim has elected to commit suicide. But before he can do the deed, a mysterious resident at work equips him with a dog and a bag of ash, and throws him into a secret game known as Cryptofauna.
Cryptofauna is played by Operators, persons of special abilities who battle one another to influence important events around the world. To become an Operator, Jim must survive being stranded in the Pacific Ocean, pass a bizarre examination by leprous French monks, and pluck the existential splinter from his troubled soul. If there’s time, he must also stop a rival player from ending all life on the planet.
Underwater Norwegian lairs, obsession with a decent pair of socks, and shapeshifting animals obsessed with AM radio all make up the strange world of Cryptofauna, which might help Jim discover a reason to live, assuming he doesn’t die in the process. Cryptofauna is a humorous, existential adventure packed with monsters, puns, and friendship. A high-speed collision of American Gods and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“How did you know to come to my room tonight? I mean you . . . knew something, right?” Jim mumbled, the berry’s sour juice strangling his taste buds. “There will be time to talk of that later. Just know that where you’re going now, I won’t be present to stay your hand. So don’t . . . I can’t loosen the noose again.” Without warning, Oz rolled up Jim’s left pant leg and gave a disapproving sigh. “We don’t have time to get you a proper pair of socks. I suppose those will do for now. What are they? Cotton blend? Whatever. There’s a conveyance under the sheet in the corner. Go to it.” Jim held a stern look on Oz. This was insane. Even for your-crazy-is-our-normal St. Militrude’s, this was insane. The janitor could defer the sprouting fractal of questions in his brain, but the longer he put it off, the worse it would ultimately be, like the time he’d put off cleaning a departed resident’s room for a month, only to find she had a habit of hiding fruitcake behind the radiator. His tongue recalled the taste memory without being asked and he gagged. Oz sensed a potential mental revolt in the young man before him. “It’s my last ask of you. We’ve come too far for you to shit the bed now, to screw the pooch—“ Jim held up a warning hand. He’d come across both referenced incidents on the job that very year, and just as with the fuzzy fruitcake memory, he preferred repression. “Last ask,” Oz repeated, raising his hand like a Boy Scout. Jim turned to the supposed conveyance. On the far side of the room a green sheet (seafoam, of course) tented a pointed object the height of any self-respecting coat rack. “What is it?” Jim asked as he approached. Mars proved immediate utility by yanking down the goofy-looking roll in Jim’s pant leg and then the green sheet, revealing a reflective, black obelisk. Fluorescent light shimmered clumsily across the glassy surface, giving the statue a soft mint glow. At the bottom of the statue three abaci had been set to 48.87, −123.39, and 2,000.00. “Oz? What is it?” Jim repeated. “Well it’s obsidian, isn’t it?” Oz said from somewhere behind. As humans are wont to do, Jim reached a hand out to touch. Mars mimed his Companion’s movement with a black paw. “I’ll be thinking of you, my boy,” Oz said. “Care for your socks. And remember, only the painter will get you back. It’s on you to discover why I’ve made the connection.” Oz’s voice resonated in Jim’s head. But it was no longer near; the words echoed from impossibly far away then drowned in a quicksand of absolute silence. All around was darkness—inside the heart of a scuba diving sinner exploring a pool of crude oil at midnight. The feeling of being spread in every direction came to Jim, as if two panes of glass were determined to pancake his body into the second dimension. Then, simply and completely, he felt himself invert. The blackness began to recede. Sound returned but was nothing more than the deafening rush of wind joined occasionally by the howls of a confused dog. The gentle pull of gravity picked a direction and Jim fell. Fast. A cloud whipped past, stinging his face with cold mist that cozied up with the root beer still lingering in his nose. A borderless expanse of blue ocean far below raced to meet man and dog. An object bobbed on the desert of water. Jim only had time to ID it as “Hey, a guy in a lifebo—” before he slammed into the water, and blue faded to black.
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